Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.

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Post 187.

Universities are special. So too are university students, often the young, poised to choose from between the old and new.

Because intellectual freedom as the basis for political engagement remains a core philosophy, students can claim campus space in a way much harder to negotiate when they are younger and in schools where rules, discipline and adult authority are more valued.

Here, students have greater freedom to decide what knowledge and power they want to exercise, to practice strategizing about everything from marches to teach-ins, and to publish their own newspapers, speak out through their own radio stations or manage a budget to finance their own social movements.

It was at university that I was first inspired by a global mix of young people who ran a radical campus women’s centre, gave radio waves to lesbian and gay performers’ poetry and music, and were astoundingly well informed about injustices against Palestinians, small farmers’ challenges to corporate control of agriculture or UN conventions on human rights.

Later, at UWI, I’d just decide to set up a tent in the quadrangle and facilitate workshops, for example on masculinities, media, or the global political economy. Gender studies undergrads were there with me then and later on when they led their own consciousness raising workshops and marches on campus, freely and without fear.

Over the past decade of my students’ engagement in creative advocacy, many have used chalk graffiti to write messages, raise questions and create game boards on UWI’s concrete walls and passageways, for where else would they be able to do that legitimately? They’d lie on the ground in enough numbers to represent women killed by their partners or shout out against patriarchal debasement of female bodies, without anybody ever writing to administration or police for permission. University life gives many a first, rare chance to safely practice a politics of public engagement.

Even with assignments and faculty to maneuver, nothing stops students from also pursuing an education in defending rights, justice and peace, and for cultivating leadership in ways that draw on universities’ long history of internationalism.

With such spirit in mind, from today, Thursday 9th April, UWI students and the public are invited to show their solidarity with Kenyan Garissa University students.

Exactly one week ago, from dawn, 148 students were killed by al-Shabab, a Somali militant group, which attacked their campus.

So, from 5.30am, we will have placed a small, simple memorial next to the North gate. The public and students are asked to stop for a few moments anytime over the next week to mourn, and to attach a pen to the fence as a symbol of solidarity

Pens are not just for defending cartoonists, but are a symbol of learning that crosses geographical, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries. Pens are a symbol of budding students’ self-expression and self-empowerment. Mightier than any sword, they allow personal articulation as well as universal representation of outrage. Pens symbolize a wish to prevent erasure.

We can’t but stop to remember a massacre of university students so like our own. We can’t but think about why states’ wars over power, borders and resources, and the inflammatory mix of religion, masculinity and militarism, must be challenged.

Universities exist amidst killings in the name of nation, wealth or God, and amidst pervasive violence that strikes the most vulnerable. Yet, it is not everyday that 148 university students are amongst the world’s fallen, starkly reminding us that injustice can include attacks on schools anywhere, threatening both justice and education everywhere.

Our losses and struggles are connected. Add your pen. Make our memorial and solidarity collective.

For more info see the FB event page: Memorial and Solidarity: For Kenyan Garissa University Students #147notjustanumber.

Post 128.

You are a teenager. Your dad tells you he wants to look at your body. He touches your genitals. After, he says he’s sorry. He doesn’t want you to tell anyone. You do tell, your mother, your aunts and the police. He says you are lying. Your mother believes you. Who will others believe?

You’ve now lost a dad and must mourn a man still walking around town, one who was supposed to protect you but who now casts you as the threat. You have no idea what rules actually matter anymore, given that the ones you thought most mattered have now been violated. Why not self-harm? Why obey anyone when adults have failed to obey the rules that they should?

Maybe you act out because it’s a way to let others know you are going to do whatever you want because, regardless of the support you have, this hell is and will be your own. Maybe you act out because you are angry, maybe to forget, maybe to test those around you to see if they really are on your side, maybe to push back at the boundaries of their love.

Maybe when you know what it means to be vulnerable, you reach in many directions for safety, even directions not right for you. Hurt, betrayal and loss are confusing. You live them emotionally, understanding your rationales and reactions only long after.

You don’t know it yet, but you will deal with this for decades. It may affect your future relationships with others, even with yourself. It may crush your ability to trust. It may lead you to take risks. It may leave you less able to negotiate control over your body and sexuality than you need to be. It may lead you to search out future abusers in one form or another. You don’t wake up one morning and find the whole experience was a dream.  You wake up on mornings carrying the experience, sometimes awake, sometimes sleeping, inside of you.

You also don’t yet know how many other girls this happens to. The women who come to hear about your abuse, who remember their own, also begin to discover how many of them were affected. They revisit their pain. If only there were less silence and less shame. If only women didn’t carry feelings of blame or hadn’t decided to forget, the stories of survivors of child sexual abuse and incest could fill every newspaper page.

These women and their stories can reduce girls’ vulnerability. Maybe, hopefully, women survivors will find a way to heal and protect where others have failed. Maybe, men who have also survived sexual abuse will also come together, not just to support each other, not just to run perpetrators, but to dismantle the kind of masculine power that makes men more likely to be sexually and physically violent to those they love.

National statistics suggest that child sexual abuse happens everyday. This teenager is real. She isn’t me, but that doesn’t matter. She is ours. So are all the others.

There is action to be taken everywhere. Like my sistren, Nadella Oya, you can make a statement on the walls of communities, you can teach children about their rights. NGOs across the country need volunteers and ideas. There is the regional Break the Silence Campaign, started by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, whose blue teddy symbol is becoming more visible. Find out what you can do.

We need to end hushed family conversations, cycles of violence and tolerance of perpetrators. Tomorrow should not add another story.

Feature speech at Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award Ceremony held at Crown Plaza, Trinidad.

Good evening Everyone and especially the Young Women nominated for the Young Woman of the Year 2012 Award. You are such an inspiration!

Thank you Hazel Brown for asking me to be here with you all today.

The biographies of these young women show immense individual ambition, self-confidence, initiative and creativity, as well as clear commitment to community, country and the environment. These are all the qualities that every parent, and especially every mother, would be proud to see in their daughters.

To these qualities and commitments, I want to add the idea of solidarity – and particularly solidarity with other young women across differences of class, ethnicity, geography, religion and sexual orientation. What kinds of solidarities do I mean? Why do they remain important?

Young women are doing well, you are doing well, but many young women still need us to lift as we climb.

Violence in our homes remains prevalent. In my classes with only about 80 students, the majority have either experienced violence against women or know someone who has. Violence stops so many girls and young women from imagining and reaching their potential and it remains a reality that a new generation must unapologetically confront on your own terms and in your own ways, but confront it you must. We know that violence and control get reproduced in within teen relationships, making it hard for girls to have boyfriends and also full decision-making about their movements, friends and freedom, and making it hard to negotiate condom and contraception use. If there is one thing that young women can do, its provide non-judgmental peer spaces for young women to be able to share their experiences of family and sexual violence from family, seek strength and sisterhood, and make choices that are healthy and right for them rather than for others, whether those others are parents or religious leaders or partners.

Part of this violence is the issue of child sexual abuse and incest, which like domestic violence, continues to predominantly affect girls in our society, reproducing silences that run throughout families and communities, silences that will not protect us, silences that leave us no less afraid. The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the UWI, where I work, has embarked on a national campaign to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and incest, using the symbol of the blue teddy, and I want to encourage young women in the different kinds of work that you do – in dance, sports, arts and community organizing, to use your creativity and networks to help break the silence about sexual violence in our homes, as an act of solidarity with other young women who have grown used to a reality of shame and repression rather than transformation and freedom from anger, betrayal and fear.

In my classes, the majority of students – though thankfully not all – also know someone who has had an abortion. This is the reality within which young women are coming of age, and as a new generation, you need to continue the struggle for safe rather than unsafe options for termination of pregnancies as well as for wide, national access to contraception, education and counseling. Trinidad and Tobago has a high teenage birthrate, and I imagine, also a high teenage rate of abortion. I myself know a handful of young women in their twenties who have terminated pregnancies and each time I have wished that they had access to safe, legal medical options, to patient rights, to responsible doctors. Is your politics one that seeks to secure these options or not? While the decision is yours, the implications reach out to other young women who you may never meet, or perhaps may one day come to know and care about.

There are two other issues that I want to touch on before I move on. The first relates to proposed changes to the Marriage Acts of Trinidad and Tobago, and efforts to increase the age of marriage from 12 and 14 to, at minimum, 16 or even 18 years old. Young women have not been at the forefront of the national debate on this issue and it affects you. There are issues of religion, respectability and so on that shape how the marriage of young girls is understood, but most important are the views of young women and questions of the power inequalities in such relationships, girls’ ability to make such long-term choices at such a young age, and the impact that early marriage makes on girls’ ability to experience adolescence as a time when they come to decide who they are and want to be for themselves.

Finally, I must speak tonight about the recently passed but not yet proclaimed Children’s Act of Trinidad and Tobago. This extremely progressive and much needed Act decriminalizes sexual activity amongst minors, as it should – for there are other responses and solutions rather than the heavy hand of the law, but it also explicitly criminalises sexual activity against minors, children under 18 years old, when those activities take place between minors of the same sex. This denial of equal rights to young people – and young women – must not be allowed. It is absolutely discriminatory, it divides youth against each other, it leaves some children protected and makes others punished, it prevents open discussion about healthy, safe and authentic sexual desires and choices, and it reproduces a nation where some young women experience the privileges of full citizenship and others, from as young as twelve years old, do not. Young women, we need your voices to join with those who cannot safely and openly speak for or be themselves. That is what solidarity is about.

Solidarity is based on the vision that you hold for the world and I know you are all young women of vision. Is your vision that all young women grow up in families without physical or sexual violence, is your vision that they grow up in communities that don’t respond with silencing and shame, is it that young women grow up in a world where despite sex being everywhere, they nonetheless cannot speak openly about it to parents, teachers, religious leaders and other adults without following a script that says they must be chaste…because where does that leave them if they are not? Is your vision that no medical practice – especially those only performed on girls and women, will ever take place in unsafe conditions? Is your vision for a generation not divided by race, politics, class, religion or sexual orientation, but able to find those few precious spaces of common ground – despite our differences, on the basis of our equal human rights, our commitment to making sure that all in our society have the protections and freedoms that still only some benefit from? What is your vision for the young women least able to speak about their realities, those most judged, those most left to fend for themselves without the powerful, visible solidarity of their young sisters?

There are many groups of young women to speak about. I chose these groups today because we need to break silences about them, and we need amazing young women like you to be unafraid of doing so on behalf of your generation. Every generation of young women must challenge the generation of women and men before them to secure expanded forms of justice, peace, equity, freedom and solidarity, because our silences will not protect us in the ways that our solidarities will. So, while you young women are involved in such a diverse array of fields – agriculture, music, dance, jewelry, entrepreneurship, arts, sports, conservation, charity and community-building, I also want to push you to think about how your own work can transform the lives of those young women we speak about least and hear from least.

That’s why I speak about young women struggling through child sexual abuse and incest who need to no longer protect their families, young women who have terminated pregnancies and whose stories we need to hear rather than condemn, those lesbian young women who we pretend, in all our righteousness and even hypocrisy, do not exist, when all of them like you are simply young people who need to be given the chance to make the life for themselves that feels right and is based on self-confidence, self-love and the warm embrace of family and community belonging. A generation before me could sit uncomfortably in their chairs, but these young women will be no less afraid and I certainly am not afraid to speak with – and when necessary for – them…and in so doing for me, my vision, my nation and the world in which I want to live.

Solidarity is grounded in being unafraid, knowing that speaking with and for your sisters may not make you popular but it will make your politics thorough and true. And you are the generation of young women in the history of this post-slavery, post-indentureship and post-colonial society most able to do so. You all are educated, you are powerful, you are creative, you are driven and you are brave. You best know how to bring your bredren in to support your work because the work to right the world for young women is not women’s work, it is the work of a generation with the power, smarts and opportunities to make change. It’s not your job to get young men involved, it’s your job to demand they represent, standing next to and in solidarity with you. Nothing is stopping them and, don’t let anyone fool you, boys and men still have power they need to share and power they can contribute to the struggle to end violence, to recognise girls’ right to make decisions regarding their bodies and to end homophobia.

You best know how to reach out to those younger than you and you are already doing so. You are linked in with rural, religious, cultural, musical, agricultural, environmental, entrepreneurial communities that the Network of NGOs wouldn’t know where to begin to find. Those spaces that are yours are the same ones where these issues are lived and where the needs and rights of young women can be taken on.

Your time is not in the future, frankly it is now. It is for these reasons that we recognise and acknowledge the work of the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, and in the spirit of the work of still to be done, recognize and celebrate you. Congratulations to all of you amazing young women and good luck with the work that you do.

Thank you.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
November 23, 2012.