Post 371.

“I’m feeling suicidal,” he said, as I inched down the window. Ziya and I looked at him, and I began to wonder about what I was exposing her to. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t wearing a mask, it was that I didn’t expect the social and economic costs of this time to appear so close so soon.

We were locked in the car on Easter Monday, waiting for my shattered phone to be fixed – the day before, I was talking with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence while hastily sweeping the house in an ill-fated example of tired working mother multi-tasking – and he now stood on the pavement signalling to me.

He had been employed in construction. There was an accident. He raised his shirt to show us, but I looked away for it was intrusive and degrading. He found out his employer had not been making his national insurance payments, and this affected his compensation.

He had come to Port of Spain, but had not been able to access any help. The police treated him like a vagrant as he walked the streets, but he wasn’t one (and, here, his voice broke by oncoming tears). He lived in Cumuto, and had no money for his four girls, all under 12 years old, and not enough money to get home. The school-feeding programme used to help, but now he didn’t know what to do. He was hungry.

He insisted he was not a vagrant, he just was unemployed. He thanked me for listening to him and for not looking down on him. He accepted money and promised to buy me a doubles when “this is all over,” when we meet again and share a meal. I thanked him for his offer, told him to speak to his local church for help to access a food card.

As he walked away, I said to Zi that his story could be true or not, but what was clear is that we should all give from whatever extra we have, especially in these weeks and months when widespread insecurity peaks. He could be an addict, but his hunger was real. We didn’t know his story, but what should stay with her is that every person has dignity, and wants that recognised as equally as everyone else.

I had been reading much about the economic and social impact of covid19 over the next year, including the effects on depression and suicide ideation, but this brief encounter made it immediate and human, and showed the inequality at its heart, to us both.

Inequality marks the boundary between those mainly worried about their health and those worried most about hunger, who think they will begin to starve before they get sick. Such inequality similarly sets apart those able to transition to online schooling and those children who will be left behind next term even more than they already are.

Inequality now divides those secure workers who retain benefits from those still fighting for them, despite being essential. Think of domestic workers still caring for the elderly despite the lockdown, and who have been struggling for decades for state commitment to ILO Convention 189, on decent work for domestic workers, even while labour leaders in Cabinet from each governing party ignored them completely.

Sanitation workers, who are among the lockdown’s heroes, have been waiting for backpay and wage increases, are managing higher risks of respiratory problems, remain exposed to hazardous waste, and over 2019 repeatedly protested decades of total disrespect. Rather than simply clapping, valuing their contribution requires our public support of their demands for workers’ rights.

We should refuse to return to business as usual when we have been given the opportunity to reset, to see each other as essential, to stop the waste of our time and money. If the machine that was running our lives can be reimagined, our society can choose solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.

We know now that anything is possible. We can work from home and decrease traffic. We can do state business online. We can increase our investment in agriculture. We can celebrate workers. We can pivot governance around preventing unnecessary loss of even one life.

The long-term crisis is a social and economic one to be fought just as much as we are fighting for our collective health. Those who were already just making ends meet may now be on the verge of vagrancy, and are deathly afraid of the fall.

Post 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.

Post 368.

Name any number of stresses and you would find most of us are now dodging several of them daily. What are the implications of such higher stress when we are locked inside together? On the other hand, what are the implications for so many people who are living alone, and now without options for human contact?

Having rightly closed down bars and other public recreation spaces, mostly frequented by men, how will they cope? Men dominate public spaces, whether playfields, streets or rum shops, which are also spaces for establishing masculine identity and camraderie, and setting boundaries on the spheres of men’s lives within women’s control.

What happens to men, women and families when such spatial distinctions collapse and men are locked indoors? What new conflicts over time, power and decision-making are emerging, which we should publicly talk about and protect ourselves from inside our homes?

In a region where men, particularly older men, may also be among the higher numbers of those living alone, do we understand the realities of our different needs, coping strategies and levels of risk?

Behind our closed doors has become more complex than ever in a world where home may already have been lonely or unsafe, or a rest stop between places where one would rather be. Some may have already begun to lose income and are tense, with nowhere to turn.

Some are beginning to feel trapped or out of control. In response, they may turn to threatening and controlling behaviours as part of expressing frustration. Cases of abuse and the severity of violence in families might increase while options for running to family or friends are closed. For those victims, physical distancing can occur even while those around them help prevent the greater dangers of social isolation.

As with any crisis, women remain particularly vulnerable, whether because they dominate the service and retail industry as workers, and are at risk of losing those jobs, or because they predominate as nurses, and are taking risks that leave them distanced from their families, or because there is deepening isolation for those already being separated from friends and family by abusive partners, or who have been isolating themselves because of shame.

Girls’ risk of sexual abuse is especially high now that uncles, step-fathers, cousins and other men are more present and difficult to escape. The vulnerability we are all feeling right now can make victims feel even less able to report or leave, particularly if they are also women and girls with mental or physical disabilities. Many women in the Caribbean are also primary breadwinners and single parents, and the impossibility of balancing parenting and their profession will fall on them unequally.

Ziya’s school has shown a model response this past week – ‘live’ online sessions every day, three a day over the next two weeks on both mornings and afternoons, and assignments every day, but there’s no chance that, as a working mother and primary breadwinner, I could match their expectations and also accomplish my job.

It’s felt like going insane. The assignments come through a non-child friendly system where they must be downloaded, completed as word files or printed as PDFs, and then photos taken and uploaded. All week, I’ve wondered why primary schools don’t adopt a more empathic approach to learning, think about the child friendliness of the software, consider the realities of the learning environment children are in, send a package of material that could simply be done in the afternoons when office work is completed and two hours can be found to do assignments, and encourage home schooling approaches that don’t require a stay-at-home parent attentive to curriculum throughout the day.

While my mother is concerned about surviving, my friends reach out across their feelings of disconnection and my family panics about declining income, I worry about the implications of opting out of Zi’s school’s zealous teaching strategy or the implications of barely doing my job, when the days seem to demand one or the other.

Many people are protecting their health, but are deeply affected by the psychological and familial challenges of this time. Addressing them is as important as the health and financial responses.

Schools should remain closed after April 20th or we risk an infection spike that could particularly put the elderly at risk, for many of us can only work because grandparents provide after-school care. In the meantime, we need to rethink our assumptions about parents and homes, and our educational philosophy. We need to emerge, not only alive, but intact emotionally.

Post 367.

I’m intrigued by efforts to keep life going as normal. Recognizing the real limitations that people are facing, what’s wrong with slowing down?

Ziya’s school, like many, has done an amazing job of leaping into on-line teaching so that there are due dates for assignments and live stream sessions. It’s a twenty-first century tech-saavy response that should draw big respect.

However, while observing assignments and live streams targeted to students within typical school hours, I couldn’t help thinking of parents already struggling to work from home, inefficiently, and who now have to simultaneously manage on-line primary education.

I thought of the single parents with only one laptop or computer who would have to juggle their on-line meetings and deliverables, and those of their children. I thought of the parents who were still required at their workplaces or were beginning to worry about making ends meet, and wondered at the additional strain of such demands.

In striving to do our best to maintain content, are we working in silos without realizing? How might it be different if we understood our assumptions, as employers and educators, and targeted our efforts and expectations less toward the ideal and more toward the realistic circumstances of those we engage? If students can’t meet those expectations, are these failures theirs or even their parents, or a result of expectations that create more stress in order to be met?

I thought too of how economic inequality sifts our opportunities at this time. For there are parents and schools, from Toco to Cedros to Chagaramas, where children don’t have access to the connectivity, data or computers that could meet the standards of wealthier school communities. For those children already depending on school-feeding programmes, is this a moment that will deepen the class and educational divide?

As a university educator, I thought about my own students. Some are parents who wouldn’t be able to produce school assignments with the same efficiency. Some have moved back home and are left with poor internet capability. Some are anxious about their own health or their family. Some have a partner worried about a cliff-drop in income or one who is at risk for increased alcohol and substance abuse.

Being isolated at home, possibly losing income, caring for sick relatives, disagreement over roles and resources, and having fewer outlets for relieving boredom and anger will increase family conflict. Our social services and call lines are incapable of meeting public need. Some, and their children, are at far greater risk of violence.

There are also students who may not be ready for a fast move to a new on-line normal nor students for whom my classes are their highest priority. Organising group presentations on-line is far more stress and effort than doing so in person on campus. All these things are possible in this day and age, but to expect immediate adjustment is an option, not a necessity.

So, why don’t we opt out of trying to achieve as normal? What if we used this time instead to achieve, but a little less, observing that the world will not end, but that there may be some improvements.

Maybe, we spend less time rushing through the day, without traffic and exhaustion. Maybe, we do more talking now that we are home together. Maybe, children run about in the backyard, and get time without everyday extra lessons for SEA. Maybe, we spent more time with elders, who might be scared and feeling alone. Maybe, we call each other more, across the country and the world. Maybe, we question our old normal and ask if it was really our best. Could we be better about how we use our time, knowing why and how we pursue knowledge, in this moment?

I cut some lectures which didn’t risk my learning objectives. I cut down exam content. I reduced the number of final assignments. Maintaining last month’s rules would simply test survival under increased pressure and show lack of empathy.

I’m not only asking us to consider the balance between keeping up and slowing down. I’m saying that it is possible to enable new opportunities and give breathing space to better priorities. These weeks, and likely months, should be planned as if families, homes and economies are feeling, and soon experiencing, crisis.

Our educational institutions have an opportunity to respond to that in our approach to teaching and learning, in the interest of students, parents and teachers, as if inequalities and their implications persist amidst these weeks’ new realities.

 

Post 364.

Carnival is interwoven with our lives, but representations of it tend to focus on the public and performative. Our narratives also emphasize the big Carnival bands and big musical names. However, as we close this season, I’d like to reflect instead on the little stories we don’t see, particularly in relation to children and family.

On Carnival Friday, Ziya won her school Calypso Monarch competition with her entry, ‘Send Parents Back to School’.

The song was produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, who is a long time DJ and producer. Born into Trinidad and Tobago’s spoken word movement through Rapso in 1998, but having moved away from both poetry and performing as work and motherhood took over, I get a connection to the past through writing calypsos for Zi.

Though our marriage has moved on since the days when he would produce for me, when a DJ and a poet have a daughter, we get to nurture an intergenerational love and engagement with local culture. We also get to be better people and parents from having to come together each year to cooperate for her. Through the growing pains of creating new relationships and definitions of ourselves, it’s no small truth to say that calypso has helped to keep our sense of family together.

For a long time, we looked at our shy, cautious and hesitant child, and wondered if she would grow into her confidence. Now in her fifth year of a little school competition, and her second win, I was amazed to see a blossoming nine-year-old command her school stage; her stance powerful, her delivery strong and her performance bold.

She wanted the prize money, to buy Lego and mint gum, she had developed a sense of ambition and competition, and she was increasingly willing to take risks publicly. Other parents may have similar stories of Carnival’s opportunities for confidence-building, and may be able to say this about drama and sports, but it was calypso that did it for Zi.

There may be much to debate about the value and legacy of these last weeks, but this is one quiet and small story that Carnival has left with me. It’s like this around the country, in pan sides filled with youth, in family mas camps where children learn about the spiritedness of masquerade while still at the breast, in musical homes where young bards begin to follow in elders’ footsteps.

In each of these, there are not simply stories of fete and wine and rum. There are also real moments of separated parents sharing common commitment and joy; of little children learning about Carnival as hard work, shared effort and a labour of love; and the awkwardness of self-doubt blooming into new-found capacity to aspire and achieve.

As so many want for their children, we wanted Ziya to learn about what it means to speak up for her generation and to connect to others so that they can see their reality in what she advocates. We wanted her to see that a hook is a clear message which can signify an historical moment. We wanted her to know that the more she knew about her country is the more resonant her voice could be across time. We wanted her to know that social commentary had to be more than a lament, it had to capture imagination while being accessible to anyone willing to listen.

So, we kept the lyrics simple:

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

Like adults forget all their learned. Set bad example with no concern. We fed up, fed up not being safe. Parents must learn how to behave.

So put on your uniform, shine your shoes. We giving tests and homework too. First class is basic civics, and revision until the country fix.

Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Too much adults misbehaving. Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Back to school every morning!

Tell Gary Griffith, we have a plan to fight criminals across the land, teach about the country we should have, put the future in parents’ school bag!

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

As critics cross swords over what was wasted and gained, this is a story of Carnival’s possibilities for togetherness and growth.  As a grateful mother of a little girl, this is therefore also a small ode to kaiso.

Post 360.

In the wake of the murder of Naiee Singh, Gabriella Du Barry, Pollyann Khan (and her family) and Jezelle Phillip, it’s important to counter misinformation.

First, men’s rights representatives have been spreading misguided analyses that create public confusion. Postings on their Facebook page repeatedly highlight videos of women physically beating men and loudly quarrelling with them to emphasise “the drama, the trauma, the stress, the pressure, the abuse, the patience exercised, the humility applied” by men, which – the argument goes – no one sees when focus is on femicide.

Amidst poverty and depression, men’s rights representatives’ position is that men turn to murder because “when they getting home is stress again”. Media portrays the man as the “bad guy” and the woman the victim, but, according to them, it’s really the opposite – men’s killing of women is merely a “reaction” to the wrongs which broke their stability. Thus, men’s rights advocates’ essential message is that women are toxic and men behave as they do because they suffered silently and invisibly while women destroy them through abuse, infidelity and the courts.

Their key recommendation is that “better behaviour” by both wives and husbands needs to be created to stop the lethal stabbing, shooting and beating of women by their partners and ex-partners. This language echoes the AG’s statement a few weeks earlier that, “it’s true to say that both sexes have trouble with rejection”. It also reflects state agencies’ apolitical attention to “family violence”, an apparently gender-neutral problem perpetrated by both women and men with equivalent frequency and severity.

All these create resounding lack of clarity. The murders of women this year alone show us why. In contrast to the argument of provocation being spuriously promoted, none of these women was having an argument, being violent or abusing the men who killed them. They were only attempting to get up in the morning, go to work and move on.

Posting videos of women being violent to their partners when women are being slain for the crime of merely wanting to live their lives not only shows disturbing lack of compassion, it also dangerously misleads. It excuses homicide by men on the basis of supposed relationship conflict between women and men. It fails to concede that women have no responsibility for a partner capable of premeditated killing in cold blood.

Second, it is statistically untrue to say that both sexes respond to “rejection” with deadly violence , so why erase the fact that homicidal responses are deeply connected to widely shared ideals of masculine authority, control and power? These very ideals fuel men’s killing of other men by the hundreds per year. Indeed, male suicide, male partner violence, and violence among men form a well-established “triad of violence” grounded in these ideals.

Therefore, men’s killing of women is not a response to relationship rejection. These women endured and escaped chronic threat and abuse, in forms which are criminal offences. They didn’t “jilt” a lover. They rejected terror and harm. They left a crime scene. Call it for what it is.

Women can be violent and both partners in relationships must choose to resolve conflict and communicate in non-violent ways, particularly if there are children who will suffer the inter-generational trauma of witnessing abuse between adults.

However, the killing of women, just like rape and sexual assault by male non-partners (affecting one in ten women) and like male sexual abuse of girls (affecting one in five women) will not end because of women’s improved behaviour. Express’ Tuesday headline, “She was the perfect wife” should convince us of that. It should also remind us of the risks of public confusion such that, even in death, the media reckoned with the extent to which Naiee Singh was or was not at fault.

We need men in a broad national effort to stop men’s killing of women. We don’t need men to enter a well-informed, global movement to oppose, simplify or sound clever in ways which, somehow, women never thought of all this time. There’s a reason for the focus on perpetration rather than mainly telling victims to leave. There’s a reason for attention on transforming masculinity and power and not only addressing emotions and mental health. Poverty, depression and suicidal feelings are all triggers of men’s violence against women, but they are not the cause. There’s a reason martial arts isn’t a national solution. Such murder has no excuse. The AG, like all men, must simply, unreservedly amplify women’s right to live and leave in peace.

 

 

 

Post 359.

A gender-based violence (GBV) unit is being established by the TTPS. Expectations are high and likely beyond what police response can provide, because real solutions require that policing be integrated with legal amendments, social services, NGO partnerships, data-driven strategies, community buy-in, and cultural change.

Hope is that the unit can coordinate TTPS approaches to intimate partner violence, domestic violence and sexual violence in order to, among other goals, reduce the number of women killed.

Only about 7% of women report intimate partner violence (IPV) to the police. Of those that report experiencing partner violence in their lifetime, about 25% do not report. If the TTPS implements measures to make reporting easier, kinder and safer, such as through taking reports from victims at their homes rather than at a station, those numbers could increase. What happens then?

The whole system, from hotlines to victim and witness support services to shelters to the magistrate and family courts, will have to be prepared for a surge in demand when women believe that reporting could lead to real protection and conviction. We won’t be sure if increased numbers reflect a rise in violence or a decrease in fear and silence, but forecasting these scenarios by the GBV unit is necessary.

It’s the same with orders of protection. If around 10 000 are sought every year, what happens when better policing means they become easier to secure and more likely to be enforced through better record keeping of women’s reports, timely serving of summons, lethality assessments, and other follow up?

There were 579 breaches of protection orders in five years, 174 breaches in 2019 alone. If these men are going to end up in jail, and they should – for breaching a protection order is a deliberate crime, are we prepared to provide mandatory counselling for perpetrators, to implement a restorative approach, and to find ways of making these repeat offenders less likely to get back out of jail and kill? Women report fear for their lives when perpetrators are released, particularly when women are not informed by the prison system. Better policing is also going to require forecasting implications in relation to perpetrators.

The GBV Unit can do a number of things: continue to clarify the law for all police officers, not just those with oversight of GBV or DV crimes; continue to educate all police about established protocols with regard to domestic violence reports; recognize that police may be friendly with perpetrators, may be perpetrators and may discourage reporting; and include outreach to migrant women so they know that they can safely report GBV crimes, which are a violation of their human rights, without fear of deportation or greater vulnerability to traffickers.

The unit can also establish a case study approach to better understand how to reduce men’s killing of women who have applied for orders of protection, and make sure the Domestic Violence Register is being actively engaged. It should work closely with the Child Protection Unit, Victim and Witness Support Unit, and Family Court to share rather than duplicate data. It’s also possible that DV reports can anticipate child sexual abuse reports, and the Unit will need to understand the intersection of different forms of GBV in this way.

CAPA doesn’t currently make perpetrator data easily accessible. As we continue to emphasise understanding and ending perpetration, and not only telling women to recognize “red flags”, sex-disaggregated data that supports this advocacy is also necessary.

The Unit should not start from scratch. The Coalition Against Domestic Violence has already been working with TTUTA to develop and implement the school programme, “Education for Empathy and Equality”. The Sexual Culture of Justice project is producing a toolkit for the Police Academy with protocols for training new police officers on issues of LGBTI bias and gender based violence. It also highlights the particular vulnerability of transgender persons, which is part of the problem of under-reporting.

Caricom recently published procedures for collecting data on domestic violence which may eliminate some obstacles to filling out report forms. CAFRA has been undertaking gender sensitization with police for decades, and the Network of Rural Women Producers has been working with youth and police in the police youth clubs, using the UN He For She Campaign and the Foundations Programme, to promote gender equality.

A civil society advisory committee to provide guidance and ensure accountability is key. The Unit has the opportunity to get things right before getting them wrong. Women’s lives are at stake. Fear and outrage demand urgency.