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The global campaign ‘16 days of activism to end violence against women and girls’ is a call for societal commitment and effective actions to protect, prevent and punish violence against women. The campaign recognizes that there can never be social peace so long as gender inequality defines the relationships between women and men.

The Coalition against Domestic Violence (CADV) is a non-governmental network committed to ensuring that children, women and men in Trinidad and Tobago live in an environment free from gender discrimination and violence. Our network members include shelters, children’s homes, women’s rights/feminist organisations and individuals working to end all forms of domestic violence, including child abuse and elderly abuse.

This year in the commemoration of the 16 Days, CADV is collaborating with the media, with faith-based institutions, with the legal profession and with men to carry the message of empathy and equality in our homes, schools and communities as fundamental to prevention of violence.

So many people experience violence and insecurity in Trinidad and Tobago and the family is not insulated from that violence. Indeed public and private violence are closely correlated. Violence and inequality are accepted as normal where the culture tolerates physical abuse of women and children and where the notion that men should “control” women prevails.

The use and experience of violence in the home makes it very unlikely that we can have peace, equality and respect. The figures are staggering really. In 2016, the Children’s Authority received 5522 reports of child abuse. Of those, reports of neglect accounted for 26.5 per cent; sexual abuse, 24.7% and physical abuse, 16%. Of those sexually abused 85% were girls, while physical abuse was roughly equally reported for girls and boys.

A recent IADB survey reveals that one in three women in unions have experienced abuse. So the family, where we should be loved and nurtured, where we are shaped, where our sense of self takes form, is a place of insecurity and danger for too many.

For all that we know about the sociology and psychology of domestic violence, we also know that we don’t know enough. Domestic violence in all its forms is under-reported and we can imagine that the under-reporting is even more acute for children and the elderly who must depend on others to be alert and to defend them. Many women who are abused tell no one.

Most victims avoid the police.

Silence or limited disclosure is a therefore a feature of intimate partner violence and it is this silence which protects perpetrators from accounting for their conduct- whether in the family, community or justice system. One consequence of this silence is abused women and children do not get assistance and may not be able to break free for peace for themselves and family members.

We also have a good sense of why so many women remain silent and do not seek interventions. These reasons include a sense that violence is normal. I met a survivor recently who told me that it was only when she saw Diana Mahabir on television that she knew there was a term for what she had been living.

Many women stay silent also they fear the consequences of disclosure, including the anticipation of further shame or fear of humiliation; a belief that they would be blamed or not believed. And then there is the emotional connection, what the author Leslie Morgan Steiner calls ‘crazy love’, a belief in the perpetrator’s love and the ‘frantic delusion’ that the abuser will change.

Silence can be a survival strategy as many women know that the time of disclosure is also a time fraught with danger. The abuser’s impulse to control is triggered, as is ego and rage.

Yet many women and children do break the silence but when they do, too many receive what amounts to silence as the response. At the Coalition against Domestic Violence we continue to get reports from women who gather their courage and go to Police stations only to be met with ineffective responses. Women tell of police not taking note of their reports, instead sending them to the hospital for a medical report, even when what they are reporting is threat of serious violence, as was the case of Abigail Chapman who was killed along with three others in the La Brea massacre.

This ineffective response is also shared by the courts. The Domestic Violence Act was intended to give timely and effective protection. Yet the court system is overwhelmed by the number of applications. Earlier this year, at a panel discussion, a magistrate estimated that 70% of applications do not result in protection orders. We need to understand why.

The other silence which we must speak of is the silence around and of perpetrators. In a country where masculinity is still expressed through aggression or the expectation of aggression, do we provide the space for perpetrators to reflect, account, speak out and change? We keep asking of victims, why did you stay which can be code for victim blaming. But do we demand from abusers a reckoning of their behaviour?

It is for these reasons that the Coalition against Domestic Violence has called upon the government to reinstitute the court-mandated batterer intervention programme. Through this programme, perpetrators accept that domestic violence is an avoidable choice. They are called upon to replace violent and controlling behaviour with preferences for respect, open communication and equitable relationships.

We also urge the government to share with the public the draft national strategy to end gender-based violence as a matter of priority. This strategy should ensure that the Domestic Violence Act, Children Act and the Sexual Offences Act are effectively enforced; social services and health care are extended to support and protect women and their families leaving situations of harm; psycho-educational programmes for perpetrators should be available; and importantly we need to transform attitudes and values through the education sector for zero perpetration and tolerance to violence.

On the occasion of the global campaign, ‘16 days to end violence against women and girls’, let us all commit to doing more to create a culture of gender equality and non-violence in the home and in our communities.

This article was published in the Trinidad Express on 27 November 2018

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Today Ingrid turns 60. Having first met in 1979 at Cave Hill, we share a group friendship. Group friendships are curious ecosystems and IMG_9612perhaps inherently volatile. One buss up between any two can lead to all kinds of complications as the other friends try to stay non-aligned, or indeed, have points of view. And even when there is no buss up, depending on what else is happening in our lives, we can become less attentive to each other and generally let life get in the way of seeing the heart, the essence of the other person.

Douglas thinks that when someone is in your life for a long time, well that’s it. You accept people just as you hope they  accept you, making allowances for your contradictions.  I am not sure. There are deal breakers even with longtime friends. I think the failure to acknowledge  causing hurt  is hard. And friendships can flounder on discordant politics and values.   I can hardly imagine a friendship with a revealed racist, though I maintain some level of relations with a multitude of sexists. They are much harder to escape and can be more subtle.

1510947_10151800907742407_1204450346_nAll of that to get back to Ingrid. Our group has had its dynamics but the shared memories of who we were and who we have become keep us connected. Across the years, Ingrid has contained parts of herself to herself. She is a bit of an enigma; has had a very diverse working life, all requiring arcane technical knowledge. But she never talks about that. Ingrid says she is not a joiner, preferring to roam and meander.  And so she has friends all over the place.

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Carrying herself with a certain innate extravagance, Ingrid  sweeps into a room. ingrid.jpgYou have to stop and look. She has undeniably great aesthetic taste. Her home is an oasis of restful beauty. You wonder how she thought to put that and that together. She is an artist, simply.

Today, I was included in another of her friendship circles. (Thanks Sandra). And it reminded me how beneficial to emotional well-being to remain open to people and to the possibility of new connections.

We had a chance to question Ingrid and as you will see, she was revealed and yet  remained elusive. She thinks that after 60 you have about 15 good years to deal with the things you have to do and the things you don’t want to do. It is a time for self-reconciliation with great possibilities for growth and love. That’s wisdom.

When was the last time….: I last fell in love 15 years ago.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years: Healthy, laughing, doing good work, being creative, being in love with life and perhaps with one person more than others.

Any regrets: No point in that.

Most intriguing experience: I think an intriguing experience is one that is moving, shaping and ultimately accepted. (By that definition) my most intriguing experience was when I first saw the Himalayas in North India. Driving up the hills, I felt my whole chest open and I had a feeling that I had come home.  I did not want to stay, but I knew I belonged.

What’s next on your to do list: I do not have a list. I am open to the next steps. I am ready to run, jump and fly.

Is there anything which you have dreaded which turned out to be a positive? No. I have had little dread. Horrible things have happened and I had to go through them. Maybe I have been successful at avoiding what I did not want to do.

What was your most gratifying working experience? In all my jobs there were interesting elements, elements of learning. But I was not completely absorbed by any of them. Gratification, in the fullness of the word, is yet to come

If you could invite three people to dinner: Nelson Mandela because he was a warrior and a bodhisattva  (a buddhist description of “a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others’). Dalai Lama because he epitomizes strength, humour, political savvy and integrity. Angela-CropperAngela Cropper. I am sorry that I did not know her long enough. I have abiding respect for her integrity and pristine intellect. She remains a beacon.

 

What does the artist in you see: To see beyond seeing is what the artist in all of us wants- to go beyond the surface, to see the essence of everything. You can only be an artist of life if you stay in the stillness.

Happy birthday Ingrid. Here is Grover Washington with Patti Labelle. The best is yet to come!!

 

Is it hot, or is it me?

I understand that today, 18 October is World Menopause Day. I doubt it is a UN day though. Probably something that some interesting sisters devised, to make menopause part of the political conversation of life. This year the theme is sexual wellbeing after menopause. It seems that sexual dysfunction, by which I take to mean a decrease in libido, can cause mental problems. My first thought- for whom?

Not for Alice Walker who has interpreted menopause to mean ”Men! Oh pause.”

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I have been full out menopausing for at least three years or let us say, about 1000 nights. It’s symptoms are everything the bad press says. Hot flashing, itchy, dry skin, hair in the wrong places, flabby arms, insomnia.. (Add your items).

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Estrogen depletion is real. The worst part though is the short term memory loss or distractability. I leave the kitchen for the bedroom to collect my bag. En route I remember that I should check if I have unplugged the stove – I mean iron. (See what happened there?) But why again, was I going to the bedroom?

 

Every single night, some short minutes after deep sleep retracts my secartoonnses, I am roused by a hot flash. And it is not a gentle awakening. It feels like something inside has turned an impish traitor, adjusting the thermostat for kicks. You want to sleep? Let’s see how you do it through this gathering heat storm. And they keep on coming, all night long. Studies show that women in menopause experience hot flashes in sleep once an hour.

Douglas is wondering. “Every night, Roberta. Every night do you have to say – ‘why is it as soon as I fall asleep, I get a hot flash?’ He is flummoxed by my lack of acceptance, by the amnesiacal repetition of the question. Let him try living and reliving the actual experience on an endless loop.

One thing though. Maybe our mothers’ generation did not speak about menopause. But now, wherever two or more women in their 50’s are gathered, within half hour, the topic of menopause will come up. How can it not? Somebody is bound to be flush, sweaty and fanning away.

And this is as it should be. Half the world’s population will go through this specific ‘change of life’. Why do we call it change of life anyway? Mostly it’s change of body functioning. Yet in website after website, the narrative of emergent inner goddess and wise woman is championed. Are we over-compensating? Do women need to pluck out special status from the end of periods? I mean we are, in our normal distribution, wise with periods as well. And why wait until the last third of life to proclaim oneself as a goddess, if that is important to you?

For all the mystery that is menopause- the why, the biological purpose, the triggers of symptoms- I have decided that it must be beneficial; it must in some way be linked to longevity. After all, everywhere, women live longer than men,

So while I do not feel celebratory about all aspects of menopause, we should acknowledge that something physiologically profound is happening to at least one third of the female population at any point in time.

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Thanks Mom!

So we are in the last quarter of 2018 already. And so much has changed for many of us and will continue in directions promising, challenging, fun, depressing, frustrating, exciting. Life after all.

siblings.pngA few years ago,  my mother went through a serious not-good-health moment. She came through it well and with equanimity. And it caused me pause for any number of reasons. I do not know what the psychologists have to say about it, but as her last child I felt (feel) that I had an extra claim on my mother. Step aside siblings!

In my feverish worst case scenario imagination, what anguished me the  most as a child was the thought of losing my mother. And so it was interesting to see how she managed that moment of shaky health and her adult children, steering us to a place of relative calm, even  acceptance in the face of the possibilities.

More recently she again had things to see about but she is fine (if only for the odd aches and natural pains). The siblings do a bang up job of looking out and taking care. But no doubt we are at that stage of life where mortality does not merely lurk in the shadows, but comes a little too  regularly to meet and greet.

It must be the biggest cliché – we do not know what time will bring. Thinking of that, I was asked recently if I had said everything I want to my mother. I thought so but maybe not. She is well adored by five children, in laws, and 12 grandchildren. She knows and feels all that love.

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Missing Warren. Pic by Ed Inniss

So beyond love, I would say thank you Mom for the humour, the honest sharing of your life’s trials, the fun appreciation of absurdity, the sacrifices, the wise non-intrusion, the dignity, the example of reading, curiosity, the constancy and care, the connection to your parents, the converting of hurts into happiness, the love of Nat King Cole, pepperpot, coubouillon, innate respect for all, the gentle attention to the grandchildren, the post-mortem ole talk, getting vex, forgetting being vexed and not holding grudges (mostly). So  much more!

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She says that she is the happiest that she has ever been. I think she means her eyebrows are in place, she is carefree, well loving and beloved.

 

 

 

 

No place for shame

Female eunuchEarlier this year, Germaine Greer, feminist author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ and now some would say contrarian intellectual, allowed herself to say out loud about rape that “society should not see it as a “spectacularly violent crime” but instead view it more as “lazy, careless and insensitive”.

In this category of “lazy, careless and insensitive” was a conflation of circumstances in which rape occurs, including marital rape. “Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights he is raping her. It will never end up in a court of law.”

In trying to make sense of Greer, who herself was a victim of a violent rape at 18 years old, the reference to court and law holds the clue. She considers that one of the reasons for the low conviction rates for rape is that juries and judges are loath to sentence men to long prison terms. And so, to increase the likelihood of justice, she is suggesting that we lower the tariffs for rapists. But to do so, one would presumably have to find a way to reduce the sense of violation that is associated with rape.

Greer thinks that this is a realistic approach to improving access to justice. But it is  misplaced and inaccurate. The most serious offence is murder. Yet juries routinely find people guilty even when life imprisonment or the death penalty is the sanction. Jury reluctance to convict for rape is not a reaction to stiff sentences, but more often the result of the devaluing of women’s testimonies, the trivialization of rape and a systemic failure to hold men accountable for violence against women.

Just a few years ago, a Japanese tourist was raped and murdered in Trinidad at carnival time. The then Mayor’s response was a caricature of victim blaming and rape myths – “You know before Carnival I did make a comment about vulgarity and lewdness… The woman has the responsibility to ensure that [she is] not abused.” … “You have to let your imagination roll a bit and figure out was there any evidence of resistance or did alcohol control?”

not-asking-for-it.jpgMen are predators and so a woman’s security is her own responsibility. Postscript: women let their outrage be known and the mayor was  forced to resign.

 

The other aspect of Greer’s perspective seems to be that scaling down the psychological meaning of rape by those who have been violated is better for resilience. “Society wanted women to believe that rape destroyed them, she said. “We haven’t been destroyed, we’ve been bloody annoyed is what we’ve been.”

IMG_9410This trend of thought was raised on Saturday night at a public lecture in Kathmandu by Indian feminist, Kamla Basin. As an aside to a lecture on how patriarchy is also bad for men, she called on women not to ‘mystify’ the vagina. (I think I heard that correctly). For those raped, get medical care, she urged, and seek justice. Like Greer, Basin is suggesting that we think of rape in the same way that we think of any other physical assault – traumatic but not life defining.  At my most generous, I take Basin to be advocating that women  not cede their stability and personal power to rapists.

Of course it is better to contain the pain of violation so that one’s whole life is not tainted. But the idea that girls and women can ‘move on’, I find simplistic and reductive, especially where there is impunity and rampant injustice.

Diminishing the meaning of rape is in fact the status quo.  What’s new here? Ending rape culture will come with an improved justice response but more so, through a rejection of victim blaming and a transformation of gender relations. We need more, not less, outrage.

But both Greer and Basin allude to another issue. Why is the experience of rape so shaming for victims and survivors?

The literature largely explains this by reference to the unrelenting questioning of women’s judgment, common sense and behaviour- before, during and after the rape. The English law applied in the Caribbean was full of harmful stereotypes. The corroboration rule required judges to warn juries that it was unsafe to convict for rape on the basis of the evidence of a woman only. Rape was the only criminal offence to attract this warning. Defense lawyers were allowed to cross-exam victims on their entire sexual history as an active sexual life somehow reduced the credibility of the victim’s testimony of non-consent. And women were required to report immediately as delayed complaints signified fabrication of rape tales.

For the most part, these sexist conceptions have been eliminated from the law in the Caribbean and in many parts of the world. We know a whole lot more now about the relationship between a certain kind of masculinity and rape culture and we have a better understanding of the range of responses of rape victims.

But rape shame and stigmatization endures. So few men face police and courts for rape, yet the self-serving myth that women lie pervades culture.

Beyond victim blaming, I wonder whether the stigmatization associated with rape is another feature of wide spectrum sexism. Rape may also be understood subconsciously  like defilement and a devaluation of womanhood in a world where women are expected to be sexually moderate, if not chaste. Rape, amongst physical violations, is singular. Society can blame women for being raped and then judge us as deficient consequentially.

Enough. There must be justice for victims and survivors in the court of culture and law.

In this regard only, I agree with Greer and Basin. Let us reject rape shame unless it is that which attaches to perpetrators. We must address  the system of patriarchy that makes rape a shameful and dehumanising choice for too many boys and men.

In the foreword to the 21st anniversary edition of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer reflected that women want freedom:

“.. freedom from rape, whether it is by being undressed verbally by the men on the building site, spied on as we go about our daily business, stopped, propositioned or followed on the street, greasily teased by our male workmates, pawed by the boss, used sadistically or against our will by the men we love, or violently terrorized and beaten by a stranger, or a gang of strangers.

…The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with the dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

I would say she got all of that right, back then.

 

One of the many things that I did not know about Cape Town is that between 17th and the 19th century, persons from other parts of the African continent, Madgascar, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia were enslaved by the Dutch and British for the purposes of forced agricultural labour. The emancipation proclamation of 1834 was followed by another four years of ‘apprenticeship’ in Cape Town whilst the planter class,  delayed what limited freedom would come for those enslaved.

Like the Caribbean, the language of ‘pioneering’ and ‘founding’ is part of the Dutch and British historical narrative. But in what is now known as Cape Town, the indigenous people, the ’Khoikhoi’, had been settled in the region for at least a thousand years before the Dutch arrived. They were pastoral people and dispossessed of their land and way of life by the Dutch East Indies enterprise.

Overlaid on this history, is the experience of apartheid, the legalization of land theft and the directly consequential poverty of the majority of Africans in the Cape and South Africa as a whole.

This week we spent a few days in Cape Town. It was an experience in sensory dissonance. The vistas are stunning. They inspire awe, as in a feeling of reverence for the natural world. The coast lines are gently undulating and the backdrop of Table Mountain,  a solid reminder of the effects of time and climate. The land is fertile even though it is a region that experiences drought. The coastline is a Mediterranean blue with powdery white sands.

IMG_9334It is a wealthy city full of posh residences and office buildings. Many would say, it has a European feel. By which they may mean, that the signs of poverty which may be expected in a developing country are not evident. They may also mean that one sees few African people in the malls, restaurants, wineries, scenic sites or public spaces. Those you see are mostly in the service sector.

After a while, it is hard to purely enjoy the natural and built up beauty. The politics of ethnic presence and absence are so intruding.

Through a mutual friend, Arlene, we met up with Lucelle Campbell and Melissa, both who self-describe as indigenous people. Lucelle, who advocates for ‘ethical tourism’,  spoke of the phenomenon of invisibility in Cape Town not only of indigenous Africans but also the invisibility of the history of slavery in the Cape region. Indeed, in our tour of wineries, with all the talk of the people who started wineries that go back to the 18th century, no mention was made of slavery. But if you looked closely enough, the past ideology of racism lurks. Ambling through one  winery, we came upon these books on a shelf.

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I wonder whether this avoidance of history of slavery, of the meanings of emancipation shapes the defensiveness of the former oppressors as well as a fragile self-appreciation of the former oppressed. That it seems to me is also part of the story of the Caribbean. How can we have a genuine integration where economic structures maintain  the privileges of a few and inequality persists? How can we have reconciliation without, as Lucelle promotes, remembering and revisioning?

Driving home from our meeting with Lucelle, our Uber driver, of European descent, spoke knowledgeably of many things. I asked him about race relations in South Africa. He said things are getting worse.  How so? I expected him to speak of the failed expectations of the post-apartheid period, the continued poverty of Africans, the corruption of the politics and governance. Rather, his frame of reference was the proposed plans for land reform.

It was another sobering moment, a reminder of the deep challenge of redefining power relations and the struggle that lies ahead to get to social justice for Africans who already have had so much taken away from them.

 

Riding the rough route

Early this year, my brother in law, Roger invited me to join him and Denise on a hike in Brasso Seco, Trinidad. He said, “Sock eye. You fit”, sock eye being his most used and cavalier phrase to encourage others into physical activities.  I should let you all know that Roger is an extreme athlete. He leaps up mountains almost in a single bound, cycles the tour de france route and has done triathlons. He is a lean, but not mean, machine.

Anyways, I almost lost my life on that hike- 11 hours of trekking up, along and down the side of a mountain, precipice within every eye full.  I managed it but with a slightly battered ego and fully sore body.  Most everyone on the hike was over 50 – people in their late 50s. 60’s and even 70s. But they were mountain goats, the lot of them. Throughout the climb but especially the descent,  that old Sesame Street song taunted me- three of these things belong together…

People who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And this is how Douglas and I found ourselves on a cycling trip with Roger, Denise, Bertha and Andrew in Swaziland.

To be fair, Roger did his best to prepare us. He even located two bikes and brought them to the house, months in advance. (Thanks Jenny!). I placed the bike out of eye sight and was complacent. After all I run! How unfit could I be? Full confession – I did not read the trip notes though I should have been more clued in when my niece Asia sent pictures of her sojourn in Swaziland.

You see Swaziland is  hilly, very hilly. Mountainous one may even say.  And so beautiful

Eight days later, the riding is over. I started off tentative and weak, with little ability to manoeuvre the bike up and down very rough, big stoned terrain. Otherwise described euphemistically as ‘off track’. And there is nothing that brings broken bones to mind like  hurtling down a ‘single track’, rooted and rutty on spinning wheels. For mountain bike beginners, I would advise against talking to cyclists. All of them, without fail, have an injury story – serious injury.

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My hero Roger himself has experienced  the odd ‘shattered’ scapula- left and right- and cracked four ribs! But they are a hardy lot and relish the mental and physical challenge of cheeky climbs and break neck descents.

I completed the riding. Most days I filled the time and distance quota on the saddle and felt  more sure and slightly more daring by the end.  But there is no getting away from the under preparation.

 

Still, in the moments between the clenched teeth cursing, there is exhilaration which comes from the heightened awareness of the unity of mind and body. You see, this kind of cycling requires the discipline of attention. Look away, let your mind wander and roam, well, that way lies danger.

I had lots of good coaching along the route and improved some for it. The best advice is to look to where you want to go. That was counter-intuitive to me. After all should I not be paying attention to that big hole just beneath the wheel?  It turns out that when one is so closely focused on the here and now, the mind freezes, you pull brakes and the bike wobbles. It is in these moments that you teeter and lose momentum.

If you look to where you want to go, trust your body and the bike, you will more likely get to the destination in one piece and at a faster rate.

That is advice of general life application.  Do practice first though! Confidence comes not only from the belief in one’s abilities but also from the experience in using those abilities.

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