Post 330.

There are women in every neighbourhood in Trinidad and Tobago who have terminated a pregnancy at least once. From here, our support to current efforts to decriminalize abortion in Jamaica should be clear.

In T and T, women can risk jail and pay for a private medical procedure. If they cannot pay or because poverty, age, lack of information and partner violence prevented them from being supported enough in this life decision, they could end up in hospital with various harms caused from unsafe options, as more than two thousand woman do here every year.

Illegal terminations can also result in long-term risks to reproductive health. They can be so unsafe that they result in women’s death.

The World Health Organisation estimates that twenty-two thousand abortions are performed in Jamaica every year. Additionally, the Partnership for Women’s Health and Well-being highlights that, “Complications arising from unsafe abortion are among the top 10 causes of maternal mortality in Jamaica, especially among teenagers”.

Banning abortion has never stopped the practice. However, it endangers women. It is a human rights violation which mothers negotiate without recourse to a public health policy that meets their needs.

Illegality also discriminates against poor women, whose right to equal medical treatment, privacy, integrity of the person, and access to sexual and reproductive health services is threatened by a combination of economic and social injustice, and arbitrary and archaic law.

Although women across religion, race, class, educational level and relationship status seek terminations by the tens of thousands under conditions not of their own choosing, poor and young women remain most vulnerable. In the Caribbean. 70% of all unsafe abortions are carried out on women below 30 years old and women 15-49 years old have the highest rate of unsafe abortions globally.

Prevalence of partner and non-partner violence in women’s lives is high, and pregnant women and mothers are at highest risk. Women do not always ‘choose’ to get pregnant when surviving conditions of physical and sexual violence, including forced sex, and such violence may leave them further unable to cope with children.

We fail to provide effective, national sex education. We let women ketch with employers who won’t hire them in case they get pregnant. We turn our heads at self-employed women who have no access to paid maternity leave. We blame poor women for having children they cannot cope with and for terminating pregnancies because they cannot cope. Is this an approach grounded in care, justice and respect?

Women often know they are making the best decision they can at the time, yet criminalization keeps them in fear, shame and silence when they most our need compassion, support and courage. In Jamaica, a woman can be sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to terminate a pregnancy, and accomplices or facilitators up to three years.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Offences Against the Person Act similarly makes abortion illegal except in cases of risk to the health and life of a woman. In both countries, many doctors are unwilling to take the risk of interpreting the law, also leaving women vulnerable to doctors’ personal biases.

Jamaican Member of Parliament Juliet Cuthbert Flynn has bravely presented a Motion to the Parliament proposing de-criminalisation of abortion and its replacement by a civil law setting out conditions under which women would be able to access legal and safe termination of pregnancies. The call is to create a Woman’s Right to Pregnancy Act that allows a woman, after appropriate counselling, the right of termination within the first three months of pregnancy and thereafter, if necessary, to preserve her life.

This is necessary because it is just. At 12 weeks, a foetus is four inches long and weighs one ounce. It has all its organs, but none are functioning. It is not able to function fully independently outside the womb until 23 weeks. Aborting an embryo up to 12 weeks is not murdering a baby. In Jamaica, committed Christians have been speaking out in recognition of this call to recognize a mother as a human being with an inalienable right to decide what happens to her body.

This amendment could follow Barbados and Guyana where abortion was decriminalized in 1983 and 1995. Belize, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have also expanded exceptions that allow for abortion. Jamaican parliamentarians and social justice advocates are to be congratulated for putting this issue on the legislative agenda.

Trinidad and Tobago can show solidarity with such leadership on behalf of women and families. Meanwhile, we watch Jamaica, expectantly.

 

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Post 328.

What if?

What if women, so tired of seeing other women and girls threatened, controlled, harassed, abused and killed, took vigilante justice into their own hands? Every man who harmed and killed their partner was now at risk of being violently injured by a gang of ordinary, angry women with pipes, poui, batons, broomsticks, bilnas and more.

Women who couldn’t stop the partners of their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends would find this gang of women and they would enact the kind of punishment which sends a message to all that women will no longer be passive in the face of such impunity. What if the gang of women began to grow as more joined and any violent man became vulnerable to being beaten by masked women secretly connected across the country in defense of those so failed by our justice system?

Any man abusing his partner or any other woman could be found out and dealt with immediately, violently and collectively. Would those men begin to feel afraid? Would violence against women decrease as such punishment acts as prevention? Would women across communities begin to feel as if they were empowered to make such violence end?

What if women began to do this, would it really be so bad? How would they be judged in the court of public opinion, amongst those who resist violence of any kind as a solution, amongst those for whom morality is defined by law, amongst those who have dreamed of just this scenario many times, amongst those inspired by these women to pick up a pot spoon or an iron pan to stop the next lash? And, when it comes to this gang’s judgment to kill perpetrators of violence against women, what decision would you support?

What if? This is the provocative question put to the audience at UWI’s Department of Creative and Festival Arts play, Baddesse, directed by Brendon La Caille, and featuring a powerful cast of young actors.

There were many things I appreciated about the play. The cast of young women played assertive and complex characters, showing themselves as both experiencing violence and refusing passivity to it, yet conflicted by its many contradictions. Indeed, the relationships and negotiations amongst the young and badass women, of different ethnicities, were some of the play’s richest material.

Yet, the production was much more, creating several settings in which violence is discussed, enacted and resisted. We are taken into the bedroom of a politician and his wife, herself an women’s rights advocate, psychologist and battered woman. We are taken on set where the glamourous host, who represents the character of a flamboyant gay man in a way stereotypical of Caribbean theatre, addresses this issue, bringing the audience into the conversation.

We are shown commercials, created for the production, that show how violence becomes normalized as part of consumption of popular culture. We are taken into the safe house of the women’s gang, whose leader is called ‘Black Widow’, and where we get intimate insight into the difficulty of embarking on this dangerous path – out of trauma, frustration and anger, despite the fact that she is a police officer.

The play constantly draws in the audience through use of the theatre space and through direct engagement with audience members. You don’t know if to cry, sometimes despite yourself you want to laugh and mostly you watch the production heart-broken that this is where male violence has led women – to desperate self-defense when there seems to be nowhere else to turn.

In Trinidad and Tobago, 30% of women reported physical and/or sexual IPV in their lifetime and 6% in the last 12 months, 19% reported lifetime non-partner sexual violence, 11% reported economic partner violence, and 35% reported emotional violence in their lifetime with 12% reporting emotional violence in the last twelve months. The 2018 Women’s Health Survey also found that approximately 11,000 women are likely to still be in abusive relationships. Conviction rates following reports is grossly low.

Where is justice in such a society? Indeed, this is what stands out in the play’s well-researched script. Black Widow herself grew up witnessing and experiencing violence. The final scene, played using Arts in Action’s long-established ‘hot seat’ facilitation approach, features an abuser confessing to the trauma of his own father’s violence. Where so many abusers were once victims, their killing cautions even the most angry about vigilantism.

Go see the play. Strong women. Serious questions. It runs April 12-14 at Cheesman Bldg on Gordon Street, St. Augustine.

Post 325.

YOUNG PEOPLE were the most joyous part of Saturday’s International Women’s Day march. Many were university students bringing their friends, their homemade posters, their radiant energy, and their sense of participating in their moment in history.

The goal was always to provide a space in our nation for younger generations to experience the safety and inclusiveness, yet fearless politics, of a global feminist movement long challenging violence, gendered divisions of labour, homophobia, and domination of women and nature. It was to carry a legacy, begun in San Fernando in 1958, just long enough and lovingly enough to hand it on.

It was to provide an example of wide public representation, creative expression, diverse concerns, and intimacy with the dreams and labour of home-grown Caribbean feminisms. It was to bring young women and men together at a time when we already know men can be feminist. Finally, it was to remind about the humbling lessons of cross-class solidarity, for we march without registration, without ropes, and always mindful of women workers’ realities. Just bring your message and come.

Riffling through our visual archives, young people’s posters show them far ahead of the ruling generation of obsolete men and complicit women, together holding back on their promise of equal and inclusive citizenship, and holding onto an old order that upcoming ages have already transcended.

In the decades of the IWD march, the issues have expanded from a focus on girls and women’s rights to include those of transgender persons – those who dis-identify with the dominant expectations of masculinity and femininity or the identities of male and female or the category of heterosexual.

Sounds like they just want to be human, observed my eight-year-old, something a parliament of representatives isn’t brave enough to see. Meanwhile, we too must keep learning to challenge our privileges in our leadership, improving our accountability to people with disabilities, First Nations’ Peoples and refugees.

Caribbean feminism was always the region’s most radical struggle to recognise us as human beings, however we choose to live and love as families, neighbours and citizens consenting and contributing to a greater good. And, some moments, it seems like that message rings clear.

Though today only a few hundred, in a decade there may be thousands marching. Just enough to open the corridors of power in our homes, schools, corporate boardrooms and Cabinet.

Nurtured amongst those who have come of age in TT’s most progressive big tent where Soroptomists march with ASJA Ladies who march with the National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Women’s Executive Council who march with Womantra who march with CAISO who march with the Breastfeeding Association of TT who march with the UWI Guild of Students who march with the Silver Lining Foundation who march with the Single Mothers’ Association of TT who march with TTUTA, all carrying flags that call for gender justice.

The full list of organisations is much longer, showing a feminist movement that endures despite the precariousness of NGO survival. The Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, Women Working for Social Progress, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conflict Women, Mamatoto, the CEDAW Committee of TT, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, the Family Planning Association of TT, the Association of Female Executives of TT, and more were all there.

These long-established women’s organisations held on through the decades to see another generation, that doesn’t even know their history or their name, spring fresh, certain and strong.

Women’s inter-generational mentoring of civic challenge to all the harms of patriarchal power, and radical impatience for a world already possible can be seen in those youthful posters.

There are many reasons to march. To protest or to add public power to public outcry. To build a movement. To inspire those who didn’t know they were imaginable and their dreams realisable.

To make our numbers a source of strength for when we return to everyday struggle. To simply take up public space. To find that woven into the labour, despair, risk, exhaustion and hard lessons are also community, hope, successes and joy.

When students come, on their own, it is a sign of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. They marched for better for themselves and each other, for better without violence or silence, fear or favour. The struggle continues. Next year, we will be here so they grow stronger.

 

 

Post 322.

Sunday’s semi-finals provided annual bliss of sweet pan. As night fell, I rolled up on the dusty asphalt of the track, loving the tradition of rich and poor rubbing shoulders.

This is always my favorite place to be. As the bands move toward the savannah, all and sundry stand up close and in between the pans, holding on and swaying in suspension of tensions of sex, race, class and creed just for those minutes of high mas, and watching the players practice like anointed spirits that descend back into ordinary life once the last note is played.

You could close your eyes and safely get lost right there, for around you others also seem lifted by sounds of iron and steel dissecting and combining and jumping up into the air.

Wandering toward the stage, I meandered through children and babies playing amidst families and friends drinking, eating, talking and leaning back against muted sounds of soca from food vendors, for this wasn’t a fete in here, with its distorted bass and its bawling DJs, this was social space for communities of pan players and lovers to congregate over finer points of music.

To see the police walk through, maybe twenty strong and parting the crowd the way Two Face Crew once – a long time ago – used to, showed an approach at odds with its own cultural context.

People are happy for policing that makes society safe, but that effort doesn’t always have to appear more badjohn than the bandits. There’s an embeddedness in the local rather than a separation from people, that if conveyed, would make police presence more welcomed, and more respected.

I thought about how much more accepted police would appear if they walked through dispersed in smaller groups, acknowledging those around them, rather than seeming at odds with or distrustful of informal cultures of togetherness.

Seeing them, these blue-uniformed women and men who are indeed our own, I didn’t feel safer, I felt criminalized and infantilized, like the relaxed intergenerational joy I had been experiencing was sternly told to keep within bounds of good behavior. I felt like when old school teachers walk into a classroom of talkative students and hush descends as they menacingly take out a hard ruler, and you get frighten even if you haven’t done anything wrong.

Threats are everywhere and police have their job to do, but policing isn’t just swagger, it’s engagement with multiple representations and strategies. It requires an assessment of the present and an understanding of the past.

During Carnival, there are tensions around policing itself for completely valid historical reasons. It was police, in keeping order, who kept oppression in place, and Carnival revitalizes significant memory about why such force should be resisted. At the same time, levels of gun crimes, murders and feelings of insecurity also provide valid reasons for police visibility. Still, the whole country doesn’t need to be intimidated as if it is a criminal gang.

We’d all have felt their presence, and all have appreciated that could mean deterrence of crime and quick response when required, but we would have felt this way even without such a mass show of strong-arm force. There’s skill in asserting the professional authority that connects to what publics expect and what makes people feel reassured without overkill.

In my decades on the track, I’ve seen how spaces of public safety and artistic connection, and family feeling and national togetherness do exist. These are a resource for policing which should be embraced, rather than dismissed.

Part of pan bliss is the collective energy of people pushing steel bands on stage in a powerful metaphor for the idea of taking care of our own, and putting a hand in with beloved and stranger alike to press ahead, in pace with sweetness, ambitious camaraderie, and excitedly beating hearts.

As I crossed with All Stars, the phalanx of police appeared again, burly with stern faces, set jaws, helmets and big guns, to hurry us off stage, for such togetherness has to be kept on time and in order by the threat of a lil rough up for not listening quick enough.

I would have exited just as quickly if such anti-riot assemblage was replaced by nice ladies in bright t-shirts, without guns in competition for power with all that steel. As the band began, I looked on thinking about what Carnival taught us long ago. There’s fear and there’s love, and no power can govern legitimately through the first alone.

 

 

 

 

Post 319.

The Break the Silence Campaign, familiar to most because of its blue teddy bear symbol, enters its tenth year in 2019. Focusing on raising awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse and incest, providing training about these as issues of gender-based violence, and building communities around empowerment of children as part of prevention, the campaign has indeed seen silences broken.

There’s more reporting now than before, confusing our understanding about whether the rates have risen, or just the reporting, but confirming our position that too many children continue to be harmed.

There have been 11, 787 reports of children in need of care and protection since proclamation of the Children’s Authority. Over 2016-2017, there were 4, 232 reports of child abuse and maltreatment, averaging 353 reports per month. In relation into sexual abuse, girls are harmed at four times the rates of boys, but the rates of neglect and physical abuse are nearly the same, and in fact slightly higher for boys than girls.

At the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) meeting yesterday, researchers highlighted childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, as a significant denominator among perpetrators.

Perpetrators also spoke about lacking healthy, involved and connected father figures. This doesn’t mean blaming women-headed households, which are managing the balance of both being freed from toxic masculinities while being burdened with unequal responsibilities.

It also doesn’t mean that it takes fathers to be fatherly figures or influential role models. It takes men in boys’ lives who care, enable them to feel accepted, and loved “like a son” so that boys don’t get used to “always walking around with hurt feelings as a young boy”.

CAFRA’s data is part of larger project to shift  cultural norms in order to end gender-based violence as it affects men, women, boys, girls, and especially those from marginalized groups defined by disability or sexual/gender orientation. This makes sense once you understand how striking the data is, and how complex explanations for it and solutions to it have to be.

In 2016, 3, 312 reports were made to the national domestic violence hotline, 150 to Rape Crisis Society, and 1, 141 to the TTPS. Why do hurt people feel safer to seek comfort from a stranger on the end of a phone than to reach out to the relevant authorities?

How were those lives lived after that call? Did the violence in that caller’s life end, and did it end with a perpetrator’s conviction for the crime of violence or with counseling as a path to accountability? Was there healing? Was there greater safety in our islands with as much as 1, 240 breaches of protection orders between 2009 and 2017? What happened to the children?

In the eighteen months between January 2016 and September 2017, ninety-nine women were murdered, but 857 men. As we think about the rates of boys and men murdering other boys and men in our society, who connects such killing to what we describe as domestic violence, or the ways that power is wielded in families that lead to experiences of trauma, harm and a will to hurt.

Even more significant, who has made the connection between child sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse in boys’ lives, and their later actions that cause trauma, harm and death?

Currently, there is no national, state-led approach to prevention, prosecution and healing – including something as simple and necessary as age-appropriate curricula for primary schools that aim to change a culture that normalizes gender-based violence and forms of family abuse.

The Break the Silence Campaign is one example of a national focus on ending child sexual abuse and incest – which is so horrendous that it’s unbelievable we tolerate it enough as a society for it to exist. Any society that values family life above all else should have zero cases to report . What we have is a society that prioritizes fear, respectability, religiosity, discipline and silencing above children’s rights while children live amidst threat and vulnerability.

A decade on, the BTS campaign needs private sector and community infusion of support and investment so that it can continue to press against such silencing and violence for another ten years.

If we make the connections between child sexual abuse and incest, later domestic violence, and wider male violence and killing, we may prevent crimes before criminals are created. For the TTPS and its allies, this should be a priority, for it’s the more humane solution to the desperation of a shoot to kill policy.

 

 

 

Post 315.


A new year brings renewed hope. Maybe we will talk to each other about these hopes, find ones we share and support each other in achieving them
.

Maybe you woke up on the first day of the year hoping that your layoff will turn into stable and sufficient income. Maybe you thanked God for your health, and that of your children, in the hope that your lives are spared for one more day. Maybe you woke up as a refugee, hoping against both odds and national policy that you will get the papers to allow you to pursue a better life, anywhere but where you left. 

Maybe you’re hoping for the relationship you always wanted to have or to finally leave the partner you shouldn’t be with. Maybe it’s instead to get justice you deserve from the court system, and the compensation you’ve been waiting on. Maybe it’s just the hope that you’ll find a way out of your debts with dignity.

However ambitious, and hinged to a new business or a promotion or a big scholarship or a new baby or becoming free from addiction, or however meager, your hopes are there, breathing strength of purpose into you like air.  

I came across fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference. I’ve quoted it here because it was her last line, “change is coming, whether you like it or not”, that gave me hope, reminding me to aim higher than my own goals, and connect to the idea that we could be each other’s hope. 

This is especially important when such optimism is low, when the planet is under attack by capitalism and consumerism, and when this generation faces crises we’ve long nurtured, but never thought would come of age.

In her words:

“I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few…

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself. We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

I sat quietly on the last day of last year wondering what my hopes were. I realised I have to think about hope differently than I was doing, not as aspirations we define from within, but something we look to in others, something we are for others, something our decisions bring for each other.

If there is one thing that connects us, it is hope. I know you have a list, but imagine something greater, maybe it’s you that are the hope which gives us strength of purpose to change the way things are. Requiring nothing but solidarity and love, connecting to this in each other could be our real power.

 

Post 308.

The story goes like this. On November 22, 1948, at the mosque on Prince Albert Street in San Fernando, a nineteen-year-old young lady, Sister Zarina Yusuf Mohammed, suggested to her aunt, Mrs. Ameena Rahamut, that they form a women’s association. At the time, electricity bills needed to be paid for the masjid, and the women were asked to respond with a financial solution.

From that moment until now, seventy years later, the San Fernando Muslim Women’s Association (SMWA) has been active on just about every front imaginable; from outings to fundraisers, charity, bazaars, iftar dinners, religious education, primary schooling, fashion shows and improvements to the masjid itself.  And, Sister Zarina is still an Association member.

I was humbled to be in the room with these honorable and humble ladies who have nurtured a women’s group for three generations, created a social space through which women could exercise leadership and form strong networks, and had an impact both within and outside the Muslim community through their support to students and children, care for the ill and poor, and much more.

I have a special love for Caribbean Muslim women’s organisations. You meet these women, who run battered women’s shelters or quietly support feminist struggles or work in children’s rights, and come face to face with some of the most hands-on community organisers in the country.

Sometimes, I’m intimidated. These women are proper in a way I’m not. They seem indefatigable, raising whole families of children and running their community like a dynasty, when I’m exhausted just trying to get through the day. They’re effective in a way I dream to be, making an impact, year after year for decades, that crosses class differences.

I was at the SMWA’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, wondering why they invited me as a speaker, for surely my public activism hasn’t put me in the movement for respectability as much as it has for respect for women’s rights. The two are not the same, and may at times be at odds.

I found myself thinking about our probable political differences in relation to reproductive rights and justice, sexual and gender diversity, and gender roles and responsibilities. More importantly, I found myself thinking that despite these likely differences in our feminisms, there was far more than I ever realized I could learn from these women.

Muslim women’s organisations in Trinidad have a long and resilient history. They should. Aisha, third wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), born at the turn of the seventh century, delivered public speeches, became directly involved in war and even battles, and was considered a stateswoman, scholar, mufti, and judge.

In Trinidad, from the 1930s, Muslim women were delivering lectures to mixed audiences, becoming members of elected mosque boards and councils, holding meetings to develop women’s groups, and participating in debates regarding women’s equality.

From the 1950s, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association also began to be established. Muslim women in both the TML and Nur-E-Islam mosques also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and ASJA women have challenged their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club”.

An “understated stridency” (to use Patricia Mohammed’s words) is at work here, despite stereotypes of Muslim Indian women as more passive, and even more oppressed. As I was reminded on Sunday, these women are formidable and fierce, they are generous and giving, and deeply committed to correct ways of living that create greater common good.

As I listened to their awards for earliest membership, longest service, and contribution after contribution, including by several women who are national award winners, I found myself dreaming that if I could help build and sustain a Caribbean feminist movement for seventy years, as they have for the SMWA, patriarchy and its harms might just be run out of town.

These are women from whom we can learn about the last half century of Muslim Indian women’s associational history. There’s capacity, connection, wisdom and will of steel to observe up close. Brother Kalamazad Mohammed is also an encouragingly progressive imam.

“It was essential to motivate women…into empowering themselves”, says Sister Zarina in an interview, “We were born to help the less fortunate. We were certainly not created to only dwell within the walls of our homes…”.

Sign me up, I thought. Alhamdulillah. I want to be a part.