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 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 338.

In 2019, the issues that have long faced women continue to be part of sustained struggle. The hope in this struggle are the many women, especially young women, fearlessly pursuing gender, sexual and reproductive justice around the region.

I’m meeting some of these women for the first time, feeling hope from their potential. I’m introducing you to them because the names of Caribbean women activists often disappear along with recognition of their labour.

I was at an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) event recently, featuring companies and banks with progressive policies regarding women’s employment and leadership, sexual harassment, and work-family balance. Someone in the audience asked what led to these policies. The private sector speakers answered that society has changed, customers are choosing socially (and environmentally) progressive profits, and a younger generation is looking for jobs in companies that align with their ideals.

Society didn’t just change. Feminists labored for decades, despite being stereotyped and maligned, to mainstream the transformations that appear to have just happened over time and that, ultimately, benefit us all.

Societies don’t just change. Women, and feminist men who are allies, labour to make those changes to women’s rights, LBGTI human rights, rights to safe and legal terminations, rights of sex workers, and rights of girls and women to live free of male harassment and violence. They labour to make the changes to parenting policies, including extended paternity leave, that we take to be common sense today.

Such labour takes whole lives, is often voluntary, and can be exhausting, impoverishing and invisible. The private sector takes up this work when the social shifts have already happened, but rely on feminists’ everyday investment to take the risks and resist persistent social support for male domination, heterosexual privilege, traditional gender roles, and women’s unequal burden of care.

So, let me introduce you to Ifasina Efunyemi, a Garifuna woman, who co-founded Petal, Promoting Empowerment through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual Women, a Belizean organization that creates safe spaces, promotes healthy relations, and provides training that supports economic empowerment. Every year they hold a forum on International Women’s Day with different themes from gender-based violence to social security and the age of consent.

Meet Robyn Charlery White, co-founder and Director of Herstoire Collective, which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, works through digital advocacy, creates safe spaces for women and girls to access information and services, and teaches St. Lucian school age girls about menstrual health. You wouldn’t believe how little secondary school girls are informed about their bodies, fertility and sexuality, mostly because of parents’ silence, and the impact of such disempowerment.

Patrice Daniel, from Barbados, co-founded Walking into Walls in 2012. It’s an on-line space (which you can Like on Facebook) that documents gender-based violence against women and girls, their own narratives and stories of violence, and feminist activism to end such violence. In its own way, this crucial record of the most gutting of women and girls’ realities aims to highlight and challenge the norms that make male violence so normal in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, Shantae Porteous works with Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE Change). Focusing on empowering lesbian, bisexual and transwomen, their work includes using culture and arts to heal from abuse. She’s also part of I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which has been lobbying to provide sexual and reproductive health services and information to girls thirteen to seventeen. Ironically, the age of consent is sixteen, but such services cannot be legally accessed without parental consent before eighteen. For almost ten years, the Foundation has also organised a feminist-led camp for girls that includes conversations on puberty, self-confidence and financial management. Boss mix, right?

You may think that the big issues are migration and trafficking, climate-related disasters, and poverty, but these are unequally suffered by the most vulnerable or stigmatised groups in our societies; teenage girls, persons living with HIV/AIDS, trans women, poor women, and survivors of insecurity and violence.

What do these and other young women need to continue creating hope? Funding, capacity-building, meaningful partnerships, volunteers, allies, political will and state collaboration, spaces to gather, succession planning, and opportunities to become financially sustainable.

It may not be visible, but another generation is labouring to protect and advance women’s human rights, and free women, girls, men and boys from patriarchal authority. In the spirit of regional solidarity, I’m billboarding their courage because the story shouldn’t be that societies just somehow change.

If anyone tells you the future is feminist. Now, you know their names.

 

 

Post 302.

Keep me company while I remember Anuradha Rekha, known to all as Baby. Baby was an ordinary Indian woman, secondary school educated, one of fifteen siblings, married for thirty-three years, with three grown, good-looking sons of whom she was very proud, and a six-year-old grandson, with whom she would bake on Sundays.

She drew the loyalty of all, including parrots, goats, dogs and ducks, who loved her like children. If you asked Baby, she’d tell you the cow, Gayatri, would call her ‘ma’ when it saw her coming, and you’d have no doubt it was true.

Everyone knew Baby, from San Juan market through Santa Cruz to Avocat waterfall. Almost anywhere you could turn, there would be one degree of separation between you and some unexpected member of her dizzyingly vast family. You’d probably get better treatment across El Socorro and Aranguez if you said you knew Baby than if you were related to the MP.

Even though she was also daughter, sister, in-law, niece, and neighbor, she was matriarch to many. She commanded respect the way that women do, without wielding authority or domination. You could be her age, with more degrees, and feel you were in front of a woman full of sharp smarts you hadn’t yet earned and far more resourcefulness than you.

I was boss, but ten years younger and knew my place. My job was to go out there, do well and earn enough for us both. At home, my role was to do whatever she advised me to do.

She had the rarest of qualities; a capacity to instantly win you over with her kindness and genuine care, mixed with an immense amount of affectionate banter, scandalous laughter and natural zest for life.

Few people could have financial challenges, times of ill-health, and daily ups and downs, and still stand out as the person most likely to bring joy, life and light to others in a room. Few people could request duty-free Scotch, when I passed through the airport, with Baby’s brand of expectant charm.

Baby worked in my house for more than ten years. She was already working there when we arrived and began our family. She didn’t just look after it, she walked in like she was entrusted with it, the way we are entrusted with responsibility of the nation for another generation.

Baby was there when Ziya was born, at home, and immediately decided that she was her first grandchild. Whether cough, fever or unsettled crying, Baby was ready to jharay it away. She’d carry her home, and Zi would emerge plump, powdered and looking proud, with her hair curled in rings like a doll. Baby’s dhalpuri and curry mango was legendary, and she had begun to teach Zi to make aloo pie and roti like a proper dougla beti.

She wasn’t just a ‘domestic employee’, the official name for women who contribute their invaluable labour to others’ households. She was CEO of all that went on in my house, and her thorough system of sorting, folding, packing and more is in every cupboard. Almost as in her own home, her conscientious, mothering spirit is in every room, just as I am sure it touched all the children along her street.

Domestic workers are a category of women workers whose value we underestimate. We highlight stories of those considered successful, such as heroes, national medal winners and business people, as if such women were not the backbone to their lives, and they often go nameless in public recognition and thanks.

I’ve never attended an awards ceremony where the women who cook food, look after children, clean, and hold your greatest reserve of trust, are acknowledged. These women are not just workers relied on to create the conditions for others’ success, they are women without wealth, fame or power, who are also often hidden in history.

My professional advancement relied on her. The labour of such women, and the importance of their friendship, is hardly cited in print and in public, but gratitude for the difference Baby made and the example she set makes me do so today.

She was avid about Play Whe, which was convenient given the regular appearance of snakes and centipedes in our house, and some part of me now feels duty-bound to play a mark for Baby.

If you open a bottle, pour a drop in her name and join me to wish her beloved spirit rest in peace.

Post 231.

Global emphasis on women’s economic empowerment has taken centre stage. The UN is talking about it as are Commonwealth countries and top women execs. Headlines on this goal are set to become more common. What do they signal?

Feminist goals regarding economic power build on a century of analysis regarding women and work around the world. ‘Economic empowerment’ is an idea with long history: from the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual, reproductive and labour exploitation for colonial plantation profits to contemporary women’s subsistence agriculture or informal economic activities and housework hours remaining uncounted and unvalued. The idea has filtered into decades of focus on micro-finance, small-scale saving, sustainable income opportunities, fair trade, and public policies to support work-family balance.

Caribbean women have deep knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of economic empowerment. Our grandmothers were raising families, theirs and sometimes others, while also taking in sewing work, selling cakes and pastelles or marketing their garden produce. Many Caribbean women labour in the informal economy, manage small savings through sou sou systems, and take risks to start their medium-scale businesses. Yet, it’s only been in the last decades that women have shattered glass ceilings in middle management. They have yet to do so among top CEOs and in areas like finance.

Caribbean feminists have added an important dimension. For them, economic empowerment should not be reduced to women’s entrepreneurial survival and success. In other words, empowerment isn’t only how well you do at business nor is business logic the best way to ensure equity, rights, freedoms and a good life.

Rather, economic empowerment is when women, including the poorest among us, can collectively and powerfully influence states’ macro-economic policy, and push through legislation and protocols that effectively stop waste and corruption, which ultimately emaciate social sector spending. Have women secured such influence in Trinidad and Tobago today? If more women became successful business leaders, would they be more likely to take on these issues?

Economic empowerment is when women’s experience of labouring in both the public sphere and private businesses occurs within the context of all the policies that they need. It is when market vendors can shape agricultural trade policy or when domestic workers can get the government to ratify International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which enshrines their right to decent work.

Women’s economic empowerment isn’t just about jobs, financial services, property ownership and legal rights, though those are important. It’s more than increasing the numbers of individually wealthy women. It’s certainly about more than their charity and greater ability to help others. It’s about more than increasing the numbers of women in the workplace, for many of those jobs may be dead-end, like hotel cleaners at a Tobago Sandals resort.

Strong, women-led, social movements, which successfully hold the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, are the best example of women’s economic empowerment. These movements recognize the unequal burdens and intersecting sources of subordination as well as the forms of dignity and value that characterize women’s labour. They collectively challenge ideologies and institutions that sustain existing inequities in power and patterns of control over economic, natural and intellectual resources. They compel investment in public infrastructure, for example in drinkable water and safe transportation, that affect women’s home-based and waged-based work.

Will the current focus on women’s entrepreneurship advance such movement-building? Will it sustain commitment to cross-class solidarities among women, or a trickle-down form of feminism?

Indian feminist, Srilatha Batliwala, writes, “in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual – from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signaling individual power, achievement, status” (OpenDemocracy 2007).

Yes, there should be more equal numbers of wealthy women to wealthy men. But, there should also be less extreme economic inequality between wealthy and poor. There should be access to justice for all regardless of their place in the economy.  Such justice must include the legitimacy and influence of movements to end gender inequalities.

Given all that women’s economic empowerment thus means, we wait to see what emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship actually achieves.

Post 230.

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Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

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Post 213.

Is your child’s homework sparking greater creativity? Is it igniting her imagination? Is it encouraging her to ask and follow her own questions about the world? Is it teaching fearlessness as well as compassion and cooperativeness? Will it make her more passionate about learning? Is her homework fun?

I reflected on these questions while on a boat to Nelson Island this Saturday, thinking about how much learning should happen outside of classrooms, promising myself to create my own curriculum of subjects like math, geography, history, science and languages by roaming as much of the country as I can with Zi.

For example, she learned about her indentured Indian ancestors’ confinement on the island, Butler’s six year incarceration, the words “workers’ rights” and “capitalism”, and saw the prison cells where the grandfather of a boy she knows was held in the 1970s. She counted islands and observed ocean garbage. I know many parents who value just this approach, involving their children in cooking, growing food, stargazing, and know-your-country-trips to highlight the relevance of knowledge and skills to their lives.

I know fewer parents as opposed as I am to early induction into stress-producing test preparation, free-time-eliminating extra lessons, and strictness as the key to academic success. I also don’t believe that children, especially five year olds, should get homework. Nor do I think children’s other activities should be determined by how much homework they have.

With test culture and standardization, teachers are doing their best, and schools can’t do or be everything. I’m not against revision, but feel that homework should either include or leave evenings and weekends free for other possibilities for dreaming, making-believe, and making unique and unexpected meanings. Mostly it does neither, and is more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than inspire delight and curiosity.

I have my own philosophy about the purpose of education, and my own take on schooling’s approach to learning as well as its weight on how learning is experienced in and out of school. I’m open to the benefits of school, and the genuine love and efforts of teachers, but after the bell rings, other ways and kinds of learning should be given fair chance. When can that happen when children spend so much time on homework so many evenings each week, even on weekends? Is more time spent sitting still, being stressed by pressuring parents, and being taught to complete work to avoid trouble the best lessons we can provide?

Other activities, like music or gymnastics, where the body moves as part of learning, even if it’s just hands beating pan or fingers tapping piano keys, are necessary for growing minds to map themselves and for different learning styles to find their space in ways that P.E. classes cannot substitute. After-school play helps children’s brains to develop capacities and connections which schools may be able to give neither time nor priority. Self-directed time is crucial for cognitive and emotional development, which are inseparable. For me, adventure, beyond habitual routes and routines, is key for continually opening those boxes that my university students eventually think from within, without even noticing their passivity to the status quo.

Imagine asking children to do whatever makes them super-excited about the subject for homework. What would they choose? And, if we tried that, what might we discover about how children wish to learn and actually do? Perhaps then, there might be less quarreling about not staying focused or taking responsibility, not wanting to do well or taking an interest in school work, and not trying hard enough at an almost everyday activity which, let’s be real, isn’t meant to be interesting or likable. We would instead ask ourselves about our own responsibility, as adults, for reproducing a national system where a good portion of students opt out of learning or forget it’s something that they were hard-wired to pursue and enjoy.

Wise parents warn me about homework burdens in years just ahead, the pleasures it infrequently offers, and its narrowing rather than expanding of independent reasoning. I’m not sure how I’m going to negotiate it then, but there’s a good chance I’ll decide while Zi and I are somewhere on land or sea, dreevaying.