This week the Prime Minister lamenting violent crime in Trinidad and in particular homicides, reflected that fully one third of the people killed in the country were killed in domestic settings. He associated himself with the anger of everyone at this all-enveloping insecurity and then, went on to reflect that women had a responsibility to choose their partners wisely.

As anyone could have expected, a furor has ensued. The PM was called out for victim blaming. Many acknowledged that we all have a personal responsibility to make wise choices.  But if we better understood that both the use and experience of violence are symptomatic of deeply embedded gender attitudes and biases, we would also understand that personal decision making is just one component of effective prevention.  (See here for example).

How we experience agency, what choices we make, these are determined by the culture of the collective, which, yes is constantly being renegotiated and re-shaped. And just as still too many men are socialized through school, religious practice, peers and popular culture into demanding control over and access to women’s bodies, many women are socialized into submission. (Just think of the range of soca music in any year where women are being done something to).

It is this gender socialization that partly informs how governments develop and secure implementation of certain policies. So if male entitlement to women’s bodies is deeply rooted in culture, it will be hard, for example, to criminalize all rape within marriage, as in the case in several countries in the region. Those Trinidadians who led the failed battle to do just that in the 80’s will recall the infamous statement “if you can’t rape your wife…”

It is also this patriarchal socialization which undermines effective policing. Too many women, whether in domestic violence situations or as victims of sexual offences will not go to the police. They fear judgment, they fear indifference, they dread the consequences of ineffective and deficient protection that leave them more vulnerable to worst violence. They fear that some person will say, ‘well what were you doing there at that time?’ ‘Why didn’t you scream?’ ‘ What were you wearing?’ In other words, ‘why did you not make another, more wise decision?’ And this patriarchal socialization explains why some judicial practitioners still seek to reconcile a woman to her violent partner as a first response. And, not to flog a dead horse, it is this socialization that explains how families can shame women into staying in bad marriages. “You made your bed, now lie in it”.

Beyond the socialization, there is the paralyzing dread of further violence that can keep women pinned into submission. I recall a client whose husband threatened to kill all the children if she left. And we also know that many women, for the sake of their children, stay for economic reasons.

So, yes, individual empowerment to self-protect is important. But let us not be unthoughtful of the many ways in which agency is undermined by culture, by weak policy, by inadequate protection frameworks and by absent social services.

We know all of this, don’t we? Yet how dismaying to see so many agreeing with the proposition that women need to choose the right man and to agree without any caveats or thoughts on the differentiated responsibility of the state to protect and prevent violence against women. And not enough  discussion either on the role of men to not engage in violence.

We have to admit, those of us who have been doing this work, that our efforts have not been enough and also that the public space is coarser, more intimidating, more predatory, harder I believe on young women. We live in times where individualism has overtaken social solidarity. Where VIPness is the strangely accepted face of inequality; and where corruption frustrates our expectations of the state. All of this must be contributing to the noxious mix of anomie (the turning away from collective norms of care, solidarity, empathy) with masculinist resistance to equality. And this resistance spreads virally through all kinds of new media (video games as well).

And so the state, through its various institutions, has to ensure the environment within which people’s enlightened agency can be exercised, especially not to engage in violence. The state must protect the vulnerable and must equalize power relations- whether of age (as in child protection) whether in employment (regulating employers for decent work) or whether in punishing and protecting from all forms of violence. After all, is that not the bargain between the state and citizens in our social democracies?

Is it that we have lost faith in the authority and power of the state to arrest the galloping violence and insecurity and so have turned on victims? Help yourself because the state cannot help you?

youth-action-screenshot-2 Yesterday, in the Senate of Trinidad and Tobago, a bill was introduced to standardize the age of marriage to 18. Hard to believe, but still now, girls can marry (supposedly at their own volition and without the consent of their parents)   at 12, 14 and 16 under the relevant civil/Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Orisa laws. Under these same laws, boys can marry without parental consent at 14 (civil/Christian), 16 (Muslim) and 18  (Hindu and Orisa).

These laws are not relics, not artefacts, metaphorically rusty from disuse.  Between 2006 and 2016, 548 such child marriages took place in Trinidad; 51% under the Hindu law, 34% under civil/Christian law and 15% under Muslim law. This is a cross-religious phenomenon.

Child marriage disproportionately affects girls and is part of the undergirding of patriarchy which we have been collectively dismantling. It uniquely secures legal access by men to the bodies of girls at a time in their lives when they do not have the capacity to give informed consent as is acknowledged in sexual offence legislation all over the world.

In this country, between 1996 and the present, 97% of child marriages were of girls. These girls can be as young as 12 as was the case in 2008. And if that is not enough chilling news, the available data shared by the AG shows that the men who ‘married’ these girls were as old as 52.  Marriage of girl children is a sheer perversion. It legitimizes conduct that would otherwise be child sexual abuse. How can it be otherwise?

With all that we know about power differentials of age and gender and the vulnerability of girls to rape and sexual predation, you would think that reforming this law would be non-contentious; quickly enacted with a minimum of argumentation. It is evidently the decent, moral, ethical, right and rights thing to do to protect girls from exploitation and assault and from interrupted social, emotional and psychological development.

But after a straight forward and compelling presentation by the AG, we listened to the mortifying assertion that girls are ready for  marriage, meaning it would seem, ready for sex, as soon as they experience puberty. One of the real impediments to social justice everywhere is the deployment of tradition, culture or religious dogma as a shield to justify discrimination (especially sex and gender) and as a sword to silence others.

The majority of people in this country already know that child marriage is plain wrong. We cannot stay silent now. This opposition by a few to greater child protection and gender equality is an outrage. Let us make sure the right thing is done.

It is another painful, sharp shock, another wake up call even though we are not sleeping,  even while we go about with our advocacy, calling attention to  the outrage that is daily violence against women. But our communities of leaders fail to pay enough attention and fail to make the connections between the systematic under-valuing of womanhood, gender inequality and abuse. And we, feminist activists, probably also fail, fail to be insistent about the relationships of governance necessary for social justice and women’s safety.

Yesterday, 8th December, towards the end of the annual global 16 days of activism to end violence against women, Shireen Huq, who runs Naripokkho (a NGO) shared on Facebook  that in Bangladesh, a student visiting her mother in hospital was abducted by 4 men and gang raped. Here in Trinidad, Shannon Banfield left work at the bank, sun still shining down  and went downtown Port of Spain, presumably shopping.  She was found dead in a warehouse.

Women and especially young women going about their lives, doing the routine things, cannot feel secure, cannot trust their communities to keep them safe. I remind my girls as they leave the house to go out at night, like a mantra, like an amulet against the dark side,  “the rules…get your own drink every time, go the bathroom in the company of others, do not wander away by yourself, if you feel uncomfortable, do not be embarrassed to shout loudly, capture the attention of others”. We all do, those of us with young women in our lives. Indeed, we give ourselves these daily cautions.

But these two young women were in public places, in the light of day, surrounded by people. My advice would have been useless.

I keep thinking about the oranging of buildings and bodies which has become part of November 25th, the International Day to End Violence against Women. It was initiated by a group of young people back in 2012, and now adopted globally. Iconic structures here and there over the world are illuminated in orange to metaphorically shine a light on the gloom that is violence against women. With the understanding that this advocacy brings, we hope action follows. That menu of needed actions to change social norms,  a UN Women Asia Pacific publication reminds us include:

  • effective community mobilization
  • prioritizing education and youth
  • strategically engaging men and boys in prevention; and
  • utilizing policy and legal reform to address structural inequality.

But these approaches seem to presuppose that others things are working. However, societies where violence against women is most normalized (this is about degree as violence against women is a global scourge)  are societies fragmented and in crisis. These are societies where corruption and social injustice are also a norm. States where too many are left behind in school systems that are intended to cater to and throw up an IQ elite. States where child protection is still just a phrase and not a reality of practice and accountability, either by responsible institutions or communities. States where people in authority abuse others, wielding positional power to demean and humiliate, at worst, or ignore problems they are meant to solve. States where a privileged few capture  national resources and divvy them up, leaving too many communities isolated in economic and social misery.

I keep thinking about the reach  of our advocacy. I wonder who knows what is Orange Day? Who is paying attention to 16 days of activism? Who goes to these candlelight vigils? I do not mean to diminish these efforts. Indeed when we see the Egyptian Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the India Gate, Pakistan Monument all lit bright orange, we know that feminist activists have penetrated the national and international body politic, at least to the extent that national leaders consider they have some obligation to make public statements.

But the scale of the challenge is well beyond the kinds of community mobilization which we are doing.

We need the transformation of politics- the politics of the personal, the politics of state and the deep politics of culture. The problem is that as the complex dimensions of the challenge become clear, rather than being galvanized, we can be enervated. We withdraw into our own safe cloisters, shaking our heads at Facebook and newspapers. We distract ourselves, a short term mental  well-being tactic.

But that is not good enough. And so we come back to those who run shelters, give practical support to women victims of violence, seek to influence policy and laws, confront police and courts on the unresponsive  justice response.  And we note and appreciate that there is a growing movement of men who refuse to stay silent, who understand the privileges of their masculinity  and are holding themselves to account for making change in the world.

So do something today people. Resist despair.

Donate to a shelter or women’s organization.

Hold a community meeting with your parliamentarian

Join an organization or volunteer some time

Be in solidarity actively.

Starting Over

Some of you may know that after 4 expanding years in Thailand and Asia and the Pacific, I am back in Trinidad. Back in Trinidad as a resident after being away for 12 years. Of course I was never truly away, but living is not quite the same as wonderful, carefree, disconnected stretches of holidaying. As the Trinis would say, ‘see me and come live with me is different’.

For these four years, I wrote episodically in this blog and finally not at all. I am not sure why. In the beginning I felt that I did not know enough to write about what I was observing. That my observations in any event were too superficial  and I was leery about the voyeur thing. And then the work overtook me, or at least that is the excuse I gave mysef. But all a  mistake. Writing helps  organize thought, helps one think through and think deeper. So my  loss.

Anyways, I start anew now. And to say, yes superficially for sure, that Asia is a mind blow with its diversity, dynamism, difficulties, sheer scale of population, land mass, antiquities, hustling modernity, consumption, reverence, human efforts and nature. Over the next months, I hope to be able to explore some of this.



Family, friends and folks, I have fallen well off the blogging wagon and looking for a way to get back the discipline. This one is a bit of a cheat, but here goes as I turn 55. These are some lessons living with and learning from others:

  1. Joy is the best emotion
  2. Giving and receiving love and gratitude is the stuff of joy
  3. One person can influence the whole trajectory of your life. Choose carefully.
  4. Do unto others really is the golden rule
  5. There is grace in forgiving
  6. There is happiness in releasing and indeed, forgetting some things
  7. Connected family, good friendships and good works equal the good life
  8. Everyone feels better receiving and giving affirmations
  9. It could be so much worse. Perspective generates optimism and vice versa
  10. Sometimes it IS the answer that brings the row
  11. Smiling with strangers is a good habit
  12. Talking to strangers in the airport is curiously relaxing
  13. There comes a time in friendships when you just accept your friends as they accept you. Troubles, flaws and all. Old friendships should be treasured and new friendships always a possibility
  14. Interdependence is an existential fact of life. Embrace it.
  15. Bitterness is like bile, your insides are the only things being eaten up
  16. Cooking together can feel like love
  17. There is no chore that does not build some skill and understanding of life
  18. Clutter is just that but neatness can be over-rated.
  19. Make the decision and the details will take care of themselves
  20. Grandparents can make so much difference to children experiencing turbulence
  21. Nature is definitely a thing but nurture can reinforce, break or improve
  22. Your children should know exactly who you are
  23. Naturally wise parents are few. Most of us have to work hard at the discipline of self-management
  24. Children do not learn life values only through osmosis, words must be used.
  25. You have to stop judging your adult children’s choices (unless you are affected)
  26. Knowing when you are affected by your adult children’s choices sufficient to intervene requires wisdom
  27. There is luck in geography
  28. The Caribbean really, truly is beautiful
  29. The outdoors should be enjoyed. Fresh air, blue skies, greenery, rain…
  30. Caribbean people at their joyful, argumentative best are such fun
  31. People are as corrupting of politicians as politicians are of people
  32. Human beings seem hard wired to find and amplify small differences amongst ourselves
  33. Identity politics untethered from principles of equality, justice and integrity is the ultimate rabbit hole
  34. Volunteerism is the main ingredient in sustaining social movements
  35. Curiosity is the other side of open-mindedness
  36. Yet understanding is not the same as acceptance
  37. Discrimination, bigotry, ignorance, domination ought not to be accepted or tolerated
  38. There are too many ways to know the world now to remain ignorant.
  39. Sisterhood is powerful and powerfully comforting
  40. Patriarchy may be resilient, but it is an endangered ideology
  41. Do not judge your insides against the outsides of others (especially for the social media generation)
  42. We can always be our better selves. Trying is important for the community.
  43. You are in the sweet spot if you like and are good at what you work at and your community needs it
  44. Taking care of the environment is the most important thing that we can do now. It is also the hardest as it means giving up on lots of immediate comforts and delights!
  45. Balance is a thing to be measured over the lifetime. Not every day. No, no one can have it all every day. Choices must be made and things given up, for a time
  46. There is time
  47. There may not be time. Somethings ought not to be deferred. Like love, like care, for self and others.
  48. Work life can be as rewarding as family life. Just in a different way.
  49. Those who say, ‘Me! I speak my mind’, are usually giving themselves permission to be offensive. Try to get away quickly
  50. I do not need to express an opinion on everything. Hard!
  51. Somethings should be said.
  52. Exercise is a discipline, you have to form the habit
  53. Everything has meaning though not everything is meaningful
  54. You cannot help everyone. But everyone can help someone.
  55. It is like they tell you on the plane, put on your oxygen mask before you do the same for others. You can help others better, when you are well and healthy.

This weekend gone, the women’s movement in Trinidad and Tobago, led by IGDS, held a conference honouring the activism of Hazel Brown, about whom I have written here. Here is my reflection on Hazel and the significance of her work:

There are some who wake up every day to make change. Those persons, driven by a vision of a different world, keep focus, even when the rest of us pull away, distracted by the dimensions of our daily lives. Hazel Brown is one such person. Utterly compelled to be engaged with her communities, forcing action by her unrelenting attention to injustice. I say communities because over the time I have known her, Hazel has focused my attention variously on cancer support, on consumer rights, on solar cookers, on politics and mostly on gender equality.

What connects all of that is her conviction that we must be better and do better. That Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean must live up to its historical obligation of ending discriminations and inequalities- whether gender, colour, race, sexual orientation, disability.

Hazel asks us that we live sustainably and engage politically to ensure democracy, equitable development, rule of law, access to information and social integration.

Over time, some have been discomforted by her singular focus on increasing the numbers of women in parliament and local government, arguing that numbers are not enough and that what we need as much or even more is women’s transformative leadership, a leadership that would both model and demand greater equality and accountability.

And Hazel does not disagree though she holds fast to the view that without critical mass in parliament, patriarchy triumphs every time.

And so we have all come to take for granted that she will be there, holding the placard, making press statements, and seeking meetings with the decision makers to push our common agenda. And when troubles erupt, when misogyny outs, people will say “What Hazel Brown have to say about that?” As if she is carrying the whole side. But simply, her voice matters to the body politic.

Hazel will be the first to say that she does all of this with the sisterhood and indeed the brothers working on social justice and rights. This Conference with its title Fearless Politics asks us to stop taking for granted the voices and actions of those who speak to our conscience. To stop making invisible the courage and leadership of women, like Hazel, like Asha Kambon, like Rhoda Reddock, like Brenda Gopeesingh, like Merle Hodge, like Andaiye to name just a few.

Let us celebrate them all by joining in social movements.

Say Enough

What else is there to be said about domestic violence that has not been said over and over? So much advocacy, yearly campaigns, law reform and yet, I understand in Trinidad in January  4 women were killed by partners or former partners. Most women murdered in the Caribbean are killed by men with whom they have had an intimate relationship. Every day on Facebook, a page titled Walking into Walls shares the horror story from the region. This is a deeply dispiriting reality.

When I was a lawyer, I had the opportunity to speak to many men who had been accused of domestic violence. There would have been a variety of circumstances but without exception, the men all confirmed that they had indeed perpetrated violence. That was never in dispute though there was always a ‘but’ as men articulated their inherent right to violate women. But she went liming. But she laughed at me. But she was nagging me. But she have a next man. And then the lawyer would add other buts in defence. But he was drunk. But he was stressed, under pressure. But yes, she have a next man and you know how man can’t take horn.

Years later, working with a fabulous group of psychologists, social workers and lawyers, a psycho-educational batterer intervention programme was adapted for the Caribbean. Partnership for Peace seeks to assure the safety of women but also to hold the mirror up for men to self-reflect on the social meaning of their behavior as a pathway to behavioural change. For there is no doubt that we cannot eradicate domestic and sexual violence as long as men view control over women as central to their sense of being a man. As long as men and yes women, continue to think of women’s difference from men as not just biological but also social, of different and lesser value.

There is so much in our culture that reinforces this. From man-as-head of household demands reiterated every day in faith-based institutions to rejection by state institutions that women are autonomous, self-determining beings, as in hospitals which (unconstitutionally it must be said) refuse to do tubal ligations without a male partner’s consent. The private sector pays men more than women and most especially, because its influence is so pervasive, so much of our music advances a crude and sexualised version of femininity and indeed of masculinity.

We will not reach widespread safety for women and girls in the home or streets so long as most men stay distant from the advocacy for gender equality. We will not get there unless our socializing institutions (the schools especially) consistently contribute to civic values of respect, equality and peace. We will not get there so long as so many women, themselves also breathing in patriarchal monoxide, keep sending the mixed messages, opting in and out of the obligation for self-determination.

And we not get there so long as individuals, communities and institutions fail women when they say they are afraid.

Let us keep talking and talking out.