Entry 356.

Christmas is such an important cultural ritual. Daniel Miller, my old PhD supervisor, describes Christmas as the most global and local of festivals at the same time. It’s materialistic, but also unapologetically about family and kinship. It enables us to keep up with the newest and latest in modern products on the internet and TV and, yet, is celebrated for its distinctly historical customs.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is also an unapologetically nationalistic moment for affirming that, despite corruption, inefficiency and inequality, “Trini Christmas is the best”.

If you’ve had a hard year, struggle to figure out your next step each morning and sometimes wonder at the point of life, there’s a sense of belonging that this season can provide across ethnicity, religion and geography. But, can we also see the effects of economic tightening on changing social practices of tradition, home and family?

There were probably 15 000 workers retrenched in the last four years, and it doesn’t seem possible that they have been fully reabsorbed into the legal labour market. Many were factory and refinery workers. Others were public servants and even tertiary educators.

In addition, there’s an entire tier in the public service on short-term contracts of a month or three months, with no wage security. There is also a broad informal economy affected by these lay-offs, such as those in catering or hair dressing. Only so many of these could be surviving as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Yet, the malls and grocery stores were full of shoppers. Where is all the money coming from? How are so women and men managing a time of year that relies on having money to spend?

Would these under-employed or unemployed women and men be looked after by family with more stable income, and invited to their homes this Christmas as costs for food and drink are absorbed by those with more, as part of the spirit of giving?

Would those with more time and less money help out more with preparations such as cooking and cleaning of the house, putting in greater labour as their contribution to collective sharing? Do neighbours still expect to be able to drop by for drink, and has this become more important as human connection bridges hardship at these times?

Giving toys to poor children has long been an act of generosity by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Have the numbers of these children increased? What are the shifts felt by our youngest, whose parents may be working more jobs or longer hours to earn the same income, and for whom this has become a time of anxiety and management of their self-presentation for when they return to school in January?

As social as Christmas is, it’s also deeply economic, and can tell us much about families’ adjustment to new realities. Still, keep in mind that these realities are cyclical, and another generation will remember us being here before.

Miller’s research on Christmas was conducted in the 1980s, and presents a curious mirror to now, given the downturn that characterized the early part of that decade. The Trinidad Mirror of December 13, 1988 begins, “Do you remember the time when you couldn’t get that Christmas feeling unless your home was well stocked with Europe’s best whisky, cognac, brandy and wines, not forgetting the apples and grapes that lent some colour to the joyous occasion?” The Christmas Day Sunday Guardian supplement contrasted the year to an earlier boom period when, ““It was a straight case of who could outdo who . . . who could have the bigger staff party; who could buy the more expensive gifts.”

As nostalgic as Christmas is, we are unlikely to return to our elders’ coping strategies with greater poverty.  Miller quotes Angela Pidduck,  in the Trinidad Express, 19 Dec. 1990, describing how her “grandmother pulled out the old hand sewing-machine, she cut the curtains and Morris chair cushion covers, we the children (boys and girls) took turns turning the handle . …But there was warmth, sharing and love.

Warmth, sharing and love will carry us through the day and its demands, just as it has carried the country through the financial struggles of our energy-dependent economy.

As you eat, drink, unwrap gifts and admire new curtains, painted walls and polished floors, know that many had to make difficult and creative decisions to connect to a tradition that excludes as much as it creates belonging, and is expressed by care as much as by money in a recession year.

 

Post 355.

Vincentian feminist Peggy Antrobus once told me that women can have it all, just not at the same time. There are life stages, she cautioned, and knowing your stage grounds your choices.

The thing about elder wisdom is that you don’t necessarily agree until you reach the life stage where you do. In the meantime, you debate the advice you get and, as they say, hold a meditation about its relevance and worth.

Over the last year, I’ve been wondering if indeed Peggy’s right. I’ve discovered that, not only is it not possible to have it all, but that the choices you make determine the next stage, foreclosing options, and that widespread expectations of womanhood and motherhood are not incidental to these choices. The ‘all’ isn’t about having money, luxury and leisure, it’s about basics that women have a right to, such as both family and a career.

As I’ve become more responsible for Ziya as a working mother, I’ve become more aware of the job sacrifices I’m making, my lower expectations for my abilities, and reduced capacity for leadership.

This is common for professional women in their forties, who are primary carers of their children at the same time that they are in their most important years for professional advancement. Every ambition has its costs and you start aiming for what’s merely realistic as if schoolgirls’ aspirations are just a modern fairy tale.

In making these choices, I’ve become more attentive to the older women around me; the ones who delayed achieving their degrees until after their children grew up, the ones who took less demanding jobs so that they could get home earlier, the ones who start their work day at 4am so that they can do school pick up at 2.30, the ones who took on three jobs despite the extra exhaustion so that they could pay for extra-curricular activities, and the ones who reliably go to pediatricians, parent-teacher meetings and counseling sessions with their children knowing that their best chances for development and emotional resilience have to be planned, communicated, managed and honestly reflected upon.

The very women who can’t have it all are simultaneously at the center of making so much happen, like magicians coordinating a whirlwind, at risk to their sanity, self-care and self-definition. I’m not saying that dads are not important. I’m just saying that the unequal burden of care is real and it’s at the heart of a life stage many women reach.

Working mothers, whether on their own or not, often have to be on top of all the details, from Diwali and Christmas concert contributions to knowing where the uniforms are for each week, and the mental room this takes up is taken for granted whether they work in KFC or have PhDs.

Looking on, we often say to ourselves, I don’t know how she does it.

I’ve listened more for the everyday sacrifices; in health, in self-confidence, in savings, in sleep, in dreams. I deepened appreciation for the crucial role of women’s sisters, mothers, neighbours, children’s friends’ mothers, long-lasting friends, and compassionate co-workers.

Working mothers depend on understanding, encouragement, help, patience and time from a widespread network just to get their family through each day. Women everywhere could barely achieve what they do without the other women who invest in enabling them to.

I always saw these women around me, fitting the common character of the strong Caribbean mother, without really seeing their inner lives, difficult decisions, necessary relationships or wearying stories. Now that I live it, who feels it knows.

In a sense, I have had to decide what I want to excel at, what I am prepared to do my best at, however badly, and what I simply won’t accomplish this month or year or the next. The consequences are ones that will settle into experiences of acceptance and regret that accumulate with age.

In having to spend more time with my daughter this year because that’s the life stage she is in, I have come to recognize that motherhood means her needs determine my life stage for me. All further decisions follow, however this sets other achievements back.

It’s not a complaint, it’s an adjustment to embrace, like a soucouyant who would forever soar the night skies in fire if only daylight didn’t compel her into the confines of her skin. Daybreak has brought knowing what it means to sacrifice for your child as a life stage and as more than a line women so often say.

Post 354.

Yesterday was December 10th, Human Rights Day, and the final day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. I’ve used these weeks to share statistics, but also emphasize that real women’s lives are at stake. I’ve highlighted youthful student activism so that we acknowledge that violence, such as sexual harassment, persists in the lives of another generation, including in the educational spaces where girls have supposedly taken over.

In this final column marking 16 days of advocacy, I want to amplify the call, made by domestic violence shelters, for sufficient state support.

Within these sixteen days of activism alone, a woman battered by her former partner could find no room at any shelter. She and her children were traumatized and had nowhere to go on the night they fled. Following this, Conflict Women and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence organized a forum to assess the state of shelters.

The forum confirmed that Trinidad and Tobago currently has seven shelters. The oldest shelter is closed for renovations, and is still fundraising in order to open again. Right now, it receives a government subvention enabling it to offer counseling and other services, but no crisis refuge.

Two shelters closed over this year due to lack to financial capacity. One of these closed its doors for the first time in twenty years because it too has to fund raise for renovations as well as daily costs of running both services and a shelter. In these 20 years, it received a government subvention twice, both more than five years ago. It too now provides reduced counseling, medical, legal, transportation, educational and other support, but no shelter.

Among the four shelters still open, one has scaled down to 50% of its intake of survivors, from 25 women to 12, because of financial constraints. It receives no government subvention and is entirely community-supported. This is not a celebration of entrepreneurial spirit, it’s a sign of its perpetual state of crisis.

Even with subventions, over 90% of operational costs to run a shelter (building maintenance, security, food, counseling, legal aid, and transportation) must be raised through continual fundraising efforts. By contrast, 1 million dollars would cover all operational costs for the 3 shelters for 1 year.

To put this in perspective, 1 million dollars is only five times more than Minister Colm Imbert spent on confetti to open the Uriah Butler/Churchill Roosevelt Highway Interchange. Just 5 times the cost of Colm’s confetti, which was immediately blown away, would enable three shelters to provide emergency accommodation for more than forty women survivors and their families for an entire year.

And, even that isn’t enough. Roberta Clarke, President of the CADV, has pointed out that, by some international standards of one family space per 10 000 persons, Trinidad and Tobago should have at least 130 family spaces provided by shelters. The proposed government-run shelters, promised but not yet operational, can accommodate up to 18 women and their families. One is targeted toward men.

Even with these shelters opened in Trinidad, they would not meet these standards or women’s needs for emergency safe housing or subsidized transitional housing. They may not adequately meet disabled women’s needs, and will still not enable enough women to keep their families together when fleeing with boy children over 12 years old.

Finally, though a single shelter in Tobago is finally being planned in conjunction with the state and the NGO, Women of Substance, even that will not be enough. Across the country, more than 10 000 DV protection orders are sought each year, 11 000 women are estimated to be living with violent partners, and 1 in 10 women cite “nowhere to go” as a reason they stay. It’s also a reason they return.

Shelters are absolutely essential for women and their children fleeing for their safety and lives. They protect against immediate homelessness. They provide traumatized women and children with safety for up to six months, and continued care long after.

Just 1 million dollars and more coordinated formal arrangements with state ministries that provide essential services could save women from repeated violence, and improve children’s life chances for generations. Understanding this reality, shelters are urgently calling for adequate and consistent state resourcing as we move into another year in which we can expect there will be male partners who batter and kill women.

As shelters close their doors or open their doors to fewer women, women could die for lack of options to escape. Political will can change this fate.

Post 351.

Monday 25 November was International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It begins what is globally known as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. The 16 Days Campaign ends on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day.

On Monday night itself, I got a late call about a woman, 30 years old and mother to two boys who are five and six. On Sunday, her boys’ father severely beat her and stabbed her in the head, violating a protection order, and almost killing her. His premeditated goal was to leave her dead. She’s now critical, in hospital, and will struggle with brain injury, physical injury and psychological injury for a very long time.

The call was to ask me for help. Was there subsidized housing available for this hard-working mother? Did I know anyone that could donate enough to pay her rent for the months of rehabilitation when she cannot work? Would anyone donate toward family therapy, or her single-handed financial responsibility for her boys? Was any system in place that could meet her needs in a timely, just, sufficient and realistic way?

I said I would see what I could do. Looking after her $3000 of monthly rent for a year isn’t an inconceivable donation and it could make the difference for generations. Please contact me if you are willing to help.

The problem of men killing women and mothers is real, with a face, a family and a cost. This horrific story is repeated again and again across the country. We can put a number to women murdered by their partners this year, but how many women have barely lived? To understand the relevance of this question, here are the facts.

One in three women in Trinidad and Tobago report experiencing physical or sexual violence from their partner in their lifetime. The majority of these women report experiencing violence “many times”.

In the 15 to 64 age bracket, over 100,000 women in Trinidad and Tobago are estimated to have experienced one or more acts of physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by male partners. Approximately 11,000 are likely to still be in abusive relationships.

Understand that women are most vulnerable after they end a relationship, are no longer so easily controlled or threatened, have turned to the state for protection, and have tried to move on with their lives. Keep in mind that women take as long to leave as they do for many reasons. For example, 39% of women who stayed in violent relationships did not want to leave their children, 12% could not support themselves, and 11% had nowhere to go.

Women survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) are more likely to have problems: 40% report poor general health (vs. 28% for non-survivors), 24% report chronic body pain (vs. 11% for non-survivors), and 13% report difficulty performing usual activities (vs. 7% for non-survivors). Also among survivors, 31% are unable to concentrate, 9% need sick leave, and 10% lose self-confidence.

Survivors of intimate partner violence report greater trauma among their children. Signs of this include: 18% poor school performance i.e. having to repeat school years (vs. 9% for non-survivors), 14% incidence of bed-wetting (vs. 8% for non-survivors), and social behavior such as aggression among 10% (vs. 3% for non-survivors).

Young women and mothers are more vulnerable. Women whose partners are unemployed or have only primary school education are more vulnerable. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable. Shockingly, seven percent of women who have been pregnant experienced physical partner violence during a pregnancy. More than half reported being punched or kicked in the abdomen. Two in five experienced worse violence during that time than otherwise.

If you are a radio host, religious leader, politician, union leader or head of the maxi-taxi association, use these facts to call for accountability instead of impunity.

Your message is that perpetration of such violence must stop. Men have a role in ending the societal problem of male violence against girls and women. The government must immediately approve a comprehensive national prevention strategy. Each of us can change social norms that reproduce violence, and demand state systems that address harm and trauma in ways that bring justice and healing. Most of all, men must stop murdering women.

This message is urgent and necessary. Helping even this one woman is urgent and necessary. If you have a platform, use it. If you can, contact me to donate. Over these 16 days, commit to whatever individual and collective difference you can make.

Post 350.

As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.

Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.

This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.

There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.

There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls. Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.

The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die”, and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking, women-only wining and queer potential in a safe space created by women themselves.

Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. Only four brands are visible in the video. It’s almost blatantly an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense. Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.

The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more.

In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels.

Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out. It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma. One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.

Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 349.

The Darryl Smith fiasco seems like a model example of cover up after cover up. The fact that there’s still no commitment on behalf of state officials or political leadership to provide the truth of the matter, leaving more questions than answers, signals lack of commitment to ensuring that sexual harassment is a form of injustice that will not be tolerated or excused.

This is not surprising, if this was an issue taken seriously, political parties would all have their own sexual harassment policies, but the fact that these are as far away as legislation glaringly shows exactly how much impunity is an accepted reality.

We’ve heard about faults in the process of producing the report, but not that we can rely on the government and ministry to ensure that the public knows what really happened. It’s like the apparent faultiness of the report, which is based on the argument that Mr. Smith wasn’t given fair hearing, is more important than whether an employee of the ministry experienced sexual violence, which is what sexual harassment is, at the hands of a still-sitting Member of Parliament.

It’s like the lack of clarity about whether Michael Quamina was advising Mr. Smith or the ministry is as excusable as the $150 000 of public funds spent without accountability for the correctness of the process or its outcome. Who will ensure that the public knows the truth?

At this point, the hope seems to be that the whole thing will blow over and no answers will ever have to be provided. Sexual harassment legislation, if it ever comes, will not address this present injustice so the call should be for immediate answers as much as for longer term solutions. Those solutions include legislation, but require much more.

As the Equal Opportunity Commission, in its Guidelines on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, has rightly stated, “It should be noted that criminalising sexual harassment does not address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace as it does not speak clearly to employers, does not advise them of their duties, nor does it provide recourse to the victims.The criminal law does not achieve these goals”.

The public service now has a sexual harassment policy which requires the state to embark on widespread effort to create buy-in so that state agencies understand their responsibility, not only to victims, but also for creating workplace cultures that prevent such sexual violence in the first place. The key to preventing sexual harassment is for employers and managers to adopt a zero-tolerance position. This position is represented by having trained harassment response teams, inclusion of sexual harassment protections in collective labour agreements, informal and formal grievance procedures, and counselling support.

All these are necessary, but still not sufficient. While sexual harassment may be committed by an individual of any sex, largely it is a form of gender-based violence perpetrated by men, whether in workplaces or on the street. Primarily, it’s what Jackson Katz would refer to as male violence against women, often younger or more vulnerable or with fewer economic options. Ultimately tackling this issue requires change in men’s engagement with gender-based violence – whether as perpetrators or as allies in creating change.

The Prime Minister should have used this moment to explicitly state that sexual harassment is a form of labour exploitation that his government is committed to preventing, and can be held accountable for in terms of its leadership on this issue. The AG should have committed to legislation that doesn’t leave women mired in the limitations of a whistle-blower process.

I was surprised at accusations of women’s complicity in this injustice, and would like to instead take a break from demanding women’s responsibility for fixing everything and welcome men’s role in speaking out and taking action on these issues in a way that sees real, measurable change.

Post 347.

For a long time, I wasn’t into school work. Ziya was barely seven or eight years old. My own expectations didn’t fit the overly academic approach of Caribbean education. I disagreed with the teaching philosophy and psychology that gave children homework at ages five and six, required revising for tests, and substituted chalk and talk for learning through play.

I disagreed for many reasons. Primary schooling undervalues emotional development and social skills. It often leaves children bored and stressed, and emphasizes competition and hierarchy, rather than compassion and collectivity. A fear of making mistakes or doing anything other than what you are told sets in, leaving children less inclined to ask questions than to reproduce established answers. Children are being trained for a single, ultimate survival of the fittest that could determine their life chances. Dreaminess has no real place and certainly no rewards. There’s a formula they must learn to fit in.

I also disagreed because I teach bright university students who are worried and intimidated by everything: getting in ‘trouble’, what others will say, being seen as ‘weird’, and the risks of challenging power, injustice and hierarchy of all kinds. What’s the point of being smart, but passive or high achieving, but individualistic or imaginative, but afraid?

Finally, I disagreed because I remember being good enough in primary and secondary school, but not particularly high-achieving. I remember feeling less smart and less of a success because of it. None of that was necessary. I began to love my classes and naturally excelled at university. I was determined not to reproduce pressure, that at best is pointless and at worst causes harm, from a failure to recognize that children don’t have to always do well to do well eventually.

So, Zi and I would trek to coasts and rivers, and spend hours adventuring on weekends. I didn’t pay attention to her school marks because she’s a child and, frankly, they do not matter. I admired homeschooling, but as a working mother and breadwinner, couldn’t manage. Our compromise was a brief, blissful period of being in the school system, without being bullied by its demands. Providing a bohemian break from regimented reality during our time together was my personal priority.

You have to know your child in a way that no one else will, and commit to her developmental needs, her need for free time and outdoor openness, her obliviousness to scores and rank, and her dreaminess in a way no one else may value.

Then, last week, after her school’s achievement day commemoration, she came home with her certificates, and said she wanted to do well enough for a trophy. I wondered if all this time I had prevented her from being as proud of herself as she could be, but knew it was best that I waited for her to be motivated on her own and ready.

So, this weekend we began. We by-passed the beach and spent the day on math and grammar. It was long, but she had a goal, and my role was not to push, but to support her. On Monday, when tests began, I could see her greater confidence and certainty. She had grown up a little while I wasn’t quite looking, in her time and in her own way.

She came home, proud of her test results and prepared for more revision. I started to think about what it would mean for my time, my career and my sacrifices to be with her every step of the way, not because marks matter, but because feeling good about the results of aspiration and hard work lights a spark which lasts a lifetime.

How remarkable to catch when your child enters a new stage, requiring reflection on how you must grow too. My dream is to enable her to avoid the pitfalls of subordination to school, to empower her to excel but also to know how to escape, to emerge with fearlessness, kindness and dreaminess intact, and to nurture her instinct to learn from Orisha festivals, feminist marches, waterfalls, museums, and groups as diverse as market vendors, Jab masters, URP workers, and LBGT activists.

While Trinidad and Tobago stumbles through its myriad inequalities and failures, there’s one small person that most needs what I can uniquely contribute. This seems unimportant to write about in the face of national headlines. Yet it matters, for so many mothers like me lie awake at night thinking about what we can get right one child at a time.

Post 346.

Finance Minister Imbert caught my attention at the words “gender issues” in the 2020 Budget Speech.

Over the last three years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI has been amplifying the women’s movement’s call for gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). We’ve been collaborating with state agencies, and hoped that the Ministry of Finance would step up to lead this process. Leading from the top is absolutely essential for nothing happens in fiscal policy-making, good idea or not, unless the Finance Minister says so.

So, Mr. Imbert got me excited. Thus far, he didn’t seem to understand gender or its relevance to budgeting, throwing responsibility over to Planning, and making fiscal decisions about cuts to tertiary education or spending on construction as if these wouldn’t differently affect women and men’s access to income and opportunity, or at least as if he didn’t care to know what their impact was.

A turn to gender responsive budgeting could put Trinidad and Tobago on the map with countries such as India, Austria, Canada, and the Ukraine. I was almost ready to congratulate the Minister as much as he congratulates himself.

Alas, not a word about GRB.

Rather, what followed in the speech is a good example of superficial take up of “gender issues”, which reduces gender to women and women to welfare, and provokes both backlash to feminism and misrecognition of valid women’s needs.

Following his speech, commentators felt compelled to champion the fact that “single fathers” and men need access to daycare facilities too. Implicit in this is the assumption that men need champions of “men’s rights” the way that the women’s movement appears to have successfully fought for recognition of women’s issues. Implicit in the public emphasis on exclusion of men’s issues is the assumption that the vast range of women’s issues were wholly solved in two meagre proposals.

In contrast, the fact is that Caribbean feminists have always argued that safe and affordable daycare facilities need to be available for poor families and “single” parents. They have also, always, followed data on experience on the ground when making recommendations regarding the different needs of girls, boys, women and men.

If you jump up clutching straws without knowing this, however, you’ll get headlines for appearing to right a wrong against men, rather than wrongful take up of what the women’s movement has instead been advocating all along.

It’s so ironic, even the invisibility of women’s issues and advocacy remains invisible. The role of male allies in highlighting this – rather than a separatist male-centred politics – remains as urgent and necessary as ever.

However, hastiness to give primacy to “discrimination” against men means that the much sought after “male voice” is unlikely to use his widening platform as an opportunity to insist on solidarity with and greater visibility for women’s historical call to count and value the work of raising families, to support low-income homes with accessible day cares and after-school centres, to think about the economy in terms of work-family balance, and to find solutions that encourage men and women to more equally share the labour of family and community care.

“Single mothers” carry an unequal burden of time, care, educational, emotional and financial responsibility for children, and are the poorest and most vulnerable category of families in the region. Providing free or affordable daycare would profoundly impact their lives by enabling them to earn a living or pursue additional education knowing that their children are safe. It would profoundly protect children too, as children’s risk to child sexual abuse and neglect is made worse by being left in the wrong hands when better options are unavailable.

However, such day care should be available to all low-income families. Low-income couples may also need such support, particularly if they have elderly or ill parents they are also looking after. Even poor women in partnerships may stay home with their children, partly because child care is so risky and unaffordable, ultimately undermining their own earning power in the future. Fathers with primary responsibility also face challenges to their ability to work while securing reliable child-care.

This has been the women’s movement’s position all along. Men may feel they are excluded in the budget, but the reality is that women’s issues have never received sufficient recognition in state policy and budgets and still do not today. A gender responsive budgeting approach would solve this problem and build solidarity. Truth is, when it came to gender, disappointment soon replaced excitement as I listened to the Finance Minister’s budget speech.

 

 

 

Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.

 

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.