Your Story Women’s Writing Workshop at Bocas Lit Fest 2017

The WomenSpeak Project conducted its first writing workshop on April 30th, 2017 in partnership with Bocas Lit Fest.

Twenty women participated in the event. Some were already writers and activists but many were just women who wanted the opportunity to tell their stories and learn some of the strategies to getting what was buried in their minds and bodies onto the page.

The 3-hour workshop was led by author and teacher Monique Roffey who took the women through meditative and free writing exercises to get them to unlock their stories and put them down on the page.

This was a closed event where women were free to express themselves and talk about their lives. Additionally, Akilah Riley – a clinical social worker – was also on hand to provide some words on self-care.

Comments from participants:

Enjoyed it tremendously!”
“It is one of my most memorable moments to date.”
“It was over all very informative and touching. It was good to meet so many like minded women.”
“Very therapeutic. Was much needed for me.”
This workshop was very valuable for me. I came away with more questions than answer but for the first time, I feel they are the right questions, the ones that will result in real changes for me going forward. I particularly liked how Monique took the comments from the participants, drilled down further into those issues and translated them into actionable steps and further questions to work on.”
 —
Simone Leid – Curator of The WomenSpeak Project in conversation with Monique Roffey and Akilah Riley

 

 

Lorna Goodison

The Womenspeak Project will be hosting a writing workshop for women entitled “Your Story” at @bocaslitfest on 30th April 2017 10am to 1 pm at National Library, Port of Spain. Register at womenspeakproject@gmail.com to reserve your spot. Cost $100.00. Spread the word! It’s going to be a transformative event.

 

Disruption vs. Organisation

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On January 6th 2017 several Trinidad and Tobago NGOs gathered at the Hyatt Waterfront Plaza at Parliament headquarters for the “Side by Side We Stand” rally against crime. The event was organised and initiated by a group of concerned citizens who came together in response to a call from Sunity Maharaj – a well known journalist and political commentator- to plan an action in response to the murder of Shannon Banfield and the spiraling crime problem in the country.  Over the course of approximately 3 weeks the group met with other NGOs to stage the event carded for the January 6th, 2017 – the day of the first sitting of parliament for the year.  

I did not attend the event but managed to pass by and take a quick look. I also followed the videos and comments on Facebook and various media coverage. Several questions emerged for me as someone interested in building knowledge around civil society and governance issues.

1. Message and Branding

The impetus for the action stemmed directly from the recent murder of yet another woman – Shannon Banfield. Yet the January 6th protest/rally/solidarity event seemed to lack a specific focus. Instead many civil society groups came together to protest? crime. But there were talks of procurement bills, posters calling for banning fireworks and getting help for the mentally ill. It seems that the various civil society groups came together to show support for addressing crime but there did not seem to be a clear message or policy action as the basis for the action.

Unlike the protests in Feburary 2016 re the Asami Nagakiya murder, there was no specific action or ‘ask’ as the basis. The protesters at the Feb 2016 event wanted something specific – for the Mayor to be fired.  And the reason was clearly articulated – because his comments promoted rape culture and blaming the woman for crimes committed against her. It was not just a vengeance action but one that identified the importance of the state’s responsibility in communicating messages that unequivocally denounce violence against women as a key policy premise.

At the Jan 06 event there wasn’t a specific rallying cry behind which all civil society groups could get behind. Yes, there are million problems wrong with the policing and criminal justice system in Trinidad and Tobago, but a protest should have a specific purpose, if not for  sake of creating a really good chant. A good chant is important for so many reasons – It conveys a clear message about what you want, it unifies people, and it brands the event. Which brings me to my second question

2. Disruption vs. Organization

What exactly was the civil society event? Was it a protest? Or was it as reported in the media “a kick off” of a larger series of activities to be initiated by civil society to fight crime. If it was the latter, I think an opportunity was lost.

What brought people together in the first place was Shannon’s murder. And it is less useful  to try and figure out why this murder and not the many others was a catalyzing force than to seize the opportunity to galvanize people to action. The newspaper reports (sadly) that the plan is for civil society to come up with a DOCUMENT (insert womp womp music here).

Listen, organization is good and necessary to be able to implement well thought out plans. But there are hundreds of very good documents all over Trinidad with some of the very same recommendations that this group will also come up with. What we need is a shift in the policy space. And that doesn’t often come from nice orderly negotiation. It comes from disruption. Governments are unmoved by emotional pleas but if something gets in the way of them conducting business as usual, they will be forced to listen.

I note that the Minister of National Security was invited to attend and made a nice little speech where he told those gathered that it was the community who were best placed to fight crime, totally absolving himself and the state of responsibility. He came, had his say and proceeded to make his way out when he was confronted by a few persons who asked him directly what was he doing to stop crime. This for me was actually the most important thing that happened because it put the focus back on the state and its accountability. However, in the interest of moving things along smoothly, those shouting at the Minister were told to quiet themselves so the next speaker could come up and give a prepared speech. Don’t get me wrong, what civil society leaders have to say is very important but I question whether that was the time to do it. My understanding was that this event took place in front of parliament to ‘disrupt’ their proceedings and make them answer to the people. But that didn’t happen. Every Minister came and went cool as cucumber. Nobody asked them for anything and the Minister of National Security came, blamed the people, grinned, shook hands with folks and coast out. Meh.

3. Data and Monitoring

I think there should have been a specific policy ‘ask’. You eat a whole cow piece by piece but there needed to be at least one immediate action that civil society should have asked government to put in place. Perhaps something to do with police accountability.

I think one really good way that civil society can impact the policy space is by monitoring and data collection. Evidence based policy is most effective in addressing the root causes of societal problems. I note the introduction of the CSAFE App – a collaboration between the NGO Powerful Ladies of Trinidad and Tobago (PLOTT) and the Ministry of National Security. This app seeks to map crime and involve citizens in identifying where crime occurs. I wonder though, if for civil society it may not be more important to map police response to crime. One of the biggest issues citizens have with crime is that the police do not respond, do not take effective action in a timely manner to stop crime or resolve investigations. Wouldn’t it be great if we had an app where citizens could document when they reported a crime, type of crime, police station, response from police and whether or not they got justice? Wouldn’t this tell us so much more about the challenges experienced in policing? Wouldn’t it make police stations/ districts more accountable?

4. Civil Society and Partnerships

As civil society moves through the process of collaborating with state agencies and the private sector, I would like to caution that it can be so easy to get co-opted and lose sight of your purpose and the interests you serve. We can’t get very far without collaborating with the state but very often offers to sit on various boards and advisory committees find civil society representatives assuming the values and objectives of the state while losing sight of the interests of their constituents.

Similarly, branding your civil society action with that of a private sector partner could be misconstrued as partisan and elite. While the private sector should contribute to civil society actions, they should ‘add’ their own voice to the policy space rather than speaking in the voice of civil society.

Finally, hindsight is 20/20 and every action we take is an opportunity to learn and advance our cause. I applaud the action by civil society and especially find the amount of collaboration and networking to have been a formidable achievement. I think it’s a great start to a new phase in our collective consciousness as a society where the continuous work of civil society over the years will bear fruition.

Anatomy of a Protest

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On Friday 12th February 2016, over 100 women and men gathered at Woodford Square to protest the statements made by the Port of Spain Mayor – Raymond Tim Kee – that suggested that women are  responsible for protecting themselves against violence by ensuring that their behaviour and dress are not vulgar. He made these statements while discussing the murder of a Japenese woman – Asami Nagakiya – whose body was found clad in a carnival costume in the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Many people do not understand why the protest was called, nor see it as a legitimate issue or think it will change anything. I was there and I thought it was extremely successful. Here’s why.

1. There was a clear message, constituency and policy action as the basis.

Many people belabour the fact that there have been many murders of women, men and children and that no protests were held. Why this one?

Protests are used as a means to highlight an issue that might not otherwise receive widespread attention. This is particularly important when dealing with issues that fall outside the mainstream discourse. The protest organisers clearly articulated the issue – that women should not be blamed for the violence perpetrated against them, regardless of their behaviour and dress. And this message hit a nerve with people in the country. Daily we are bombarded with stories of women who are killed in domestic violence situations, raped, trafficked. It seems that nothing can stem the tide. People understand that the core of this type of violence is a gendered one. One in which women’s autonomy over their bodies is not recognised and where femaleness is devalued and held to unreasonable standards of decorum.

The people ‘got it’. As evidenced in the 10, 000 signatures on the Change.org petition circulated by Womantra, people clearly understood and accepted that the messages that the Mayor espoused were wrong, dangerous and unacceptable. Not only did they sign on to the petition but left comments which further iterated that they would not tolerate victim-blaming and attacks to women’s autonomy over their own bodies. 10,000 people were willing to sign their names. When was the last time such a large constituency of persons in Trinidad and Tobago were willing to take a stand on an issue in such a public way? And another 700+ people indicated an interest to support a protest on the issue. Finally 150 braved the Friday traffic and midday sun  at Woodford Square in addition to several media and passers-by who even if they did not support the message, heard the message.

And there was a clear policy action and strategy attached to the protest. The organisers read the letter that was delivered to the Mayor identifying what they were protesting and what they wanted to happen as a consequence of the protest. So that people participating not only got a chance to express their outrage and pain, they also felt that they were part of an action that could result in a policy change – specifically a change in the way public officials and the whole of the public service respond to issues regarding violence against women and more generally how gender can be mainstreamed into work of all Ministries and public institutions.

2. There was real ‘participation’.

What I admired most about the organisers of the protest is that they made sure that all present had a chance to not only express their feelings but share their ideas on developing solutions to the problem of  victim-blaming and the society’s lack of awareness about gender issues. The organisers, after delivering the letter to the Mayor’s Office (who of course didn’t even have the decency to show up for his constituents), asked everyone if they were still in agreement with the call for the Mayor’s resignation. Yes. People then came forward and offered their solutions which included –

  • Development and distribution of a gender- training toolkit that could be used in all manner of civil society groups, communities, clubs, churches.
  • Lobbying schools to include gender-sensitivity training in their curriculum
  • Using drama and the arts to promote messages about gender-equality
  • Making continued calls, sending letters, emails etc to public officials including the POS Councillors regarding the issue.
  • Getting the media to devote more attention to sharing information about gender and equality issues.

The discussion reached its most poignant when a little girl, no older than nine years old, came forward to express her view on girls, self-esteem and standing up for their rights. If nothing else was accomplished on Friday, I am satisfied that that little girl is building a future where she knows she has rights and is brave enough to stand up for them, even if she feels scared.

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3. There is a plan for Next Steps

The organisers of the protest and other partners are making plans to ensure that action on this issue is sustained and expanded. We are well aware that even if the Mayor does demit office, the problem is one that will require long term intervention. At the protest I was able to identify people from various women’s groups, artists, people working in Ministries, environmentalists and the media. This is a great moment to be able mobilise  and created linkages and networks to advance the work.  We know that change doesn’t happen in a day, but we also know that we need to have a critical mass of persons across civil society – not just women’s organisations – that buy-in to the cause and are willing to not only lend their support but their labor and resources to help ‘action’ these next steps.

What will be critical now is devising a series of actions at different levels and scales that will keep the issue on the table. Strategies will be needed to periodically revitalize the message while at the same time having consistent lower profile actions that work at the institutional level – (development of internal policies, monitoring of actions and compliance, education and training). Already, one of the superintendents who provided crowd control at the protest has agreed to have gender-sensitivity training for his officers once the proposed toolkit is developed. Yay! Already another great outcome.

Finally, I applaud Atillah Springer, Stephanie Leitch and Angelique Nixon for their leadership on this issue. Now it’s time for the rest of us to do our part.

What is the big deal about Gender Affairs

On Friday 11th September, 2015 when the new Ministers of Government of Trinidad and Tobago were announced, there was a noticeable absence of the Gender Affairs Ministry. Later it was revealed that Gender Affairs will now fall under Ministry of Social Development and Family Services.

“What is the big deal about having a Gender Affairs Ministry anyway?”

Since 1993, the portfolio for Women’s Affairs was recognised and prioritized in the naming of the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Women’s Affairs. Then in 1998 Women’s Affairs was changed to Gender Affairs in recognition that many of the issues affecting the status of women were structural, and based on the institutionalization of societal and cultural norms that impact the way men and women are valued and treated. It was recognised that in order to change the position of women in society that gender perspectives needed to be mainstreamed in all sectors so that we could analyse and examine the ways in which women and men were treated differently and impacted differently by various policies, programmes and development strategies. There also needed to be an examination of the ways in which men and women related to each other in the public and private sphere and how the exercise of power and prescribed roles impacted individual freedoms, rights and responsibilities.

The Gender Affairs Division is a focal point for this work. It is charged with influencing, monitoring and developing the mechanisms necessary to ensure that a gender perspective is present in the work of ALL Ministries. It is an arduous process, as all transformative type interventions are. We are asking people to change the way they view the world and their place in it. We are asking people to dig deeper and recognise that actions are not neutral – they do not occur in a vacuum. They are the result of centuries of messages about how we view and value men and women as well as masculine and feminine attributes, roles and behaviours.

“Gender Affairs never do nothing. Just give them Women NGOs a set a money to eat ah food.”

Social transformation is a complex process that involves not just legislative change but change in the minds and hearts of people. Much of the work of the Gender Affairs Division is accomplished by partnering with NGOs who work at the local level to highlight what is taking place in homes, villages and communities. Through the hard work of Women’s NGOs, which for the most part operate based on volunteer work, several gains have been made.

  • Establishment of Women’s Domestic Violence Shelters, Counselling and other services for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and poverty.
  • Legislative reform and expansion of laws relating to domestic violence, rape, rape within marriage, age of consent, property and citizenship rights, rights of workers, maternity leave, cohabitation recognition and child maintenance.
  • Provided data and insight for reporting to international conventions to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory including CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). Trinidad and Tobago’s development status and ratings on the international level are augmented based on our ratification of such agreements as gender justice is seen as a key indicator of national development.

“We have one set of women in Ministerial positions. That will take care of gender.”

Women in positions of political power have the platform to put forward issues that affect women and encourage the Cabinet to reflect such in its strategies. However, the mere presence of women doesn’t mean that they will choose to take on an advocacy role on issues of gender or that they will gain the support of the Cabinet if they do.

What ensures that gender issues receive priority is the explicit promotion and implementation of policy regarding gender as well as the required and adequate, technical and financial resources allocated for programmes and strategies across ALL Ministries and the strengthening of the Gender Focal Point – The Gender Affairs Division – to lead and monitor the process. It also requires that the NGO sector, who bear the burden for much of the service delivery functions related to women’s social and financial needs, is also prioritized and resourced so that they can more effectively do their work.

“Gender means both men and women. Gender Affairs only interested in helping women and not men in society.”

Since 2000, the Gender Affairs Division has run programmes for men including:

  • Gender Sensitisation Workshops for Males in First Form schools
  • A Male Issues Forum which addressed issues of men’s health, drug abuse and domestic violence
  • Training of male counsellors for Drop- In Centers to help male perpetrators of domestic violence
  • Defining Masculine Excellence Programme
  • Food Preparation and Home Management for Men and Boys

Many of the issues dealt with still focus a great deal on women, because women are still disproportionally affected by poverty, child care burdens, domestic and sexual violence, unemployment, wage discrimination and reproductive issues.

There is also a recognition that issues affecting men impact on women and vice versa. It’s not a competition. The end goal is a better quality of life for men AND women and this means redressing some of the structural and social issues that cause an imbalance in the ways in which men and women are treated.

“Gender Affairs just want to promote homosexuality and abortion.”

In the past the Gender Affairs Division has not dealt with issues related to sexuality and abortion. While these issues were highlighted in a draft Gender and Development Policy, several reiterations of the document have excluded addressing the matter.

You can put your head in the sand but the issues will not go away.

Several women’s and LGBTQ interest groups have voiced their desire to have these issues addressed. While we may all have our own personal or religious views on the matter, these are issues that are present and real and impact the health and well-being and freedom of many of our citizens. As our society evolves, so must our institutions.

Persons in the LGBTQ community are part of YOUR community. They are your neighbours, your children, your doctors, your garbage men, your grocery cashiers, your Bank managers. They are not going anywhere and they need to be protected from discrimination in jobs, health care and must be able to avail themselves to the protections that all members of this society are entitled to.

Women have abortions. You may not agree with it but they do. Rich women, poor women, educated women, young girls, older women, married women, mothers, victims of rape. Women who do not have access to integrated sexual and reproductive health care and education are at risk of having more unwanted pregnancies. And those who are able to afford proper healthcare will pay for it here or go abroad. And those who have no resources, options, or support will have abortions done by unlicensed persons and some will end up in hospital with life-threatening infections.

It’s something we need to address. And we do not have to have all the answers today, but we need to start talking about it. We need to explore what are the policy options.

“Yes, well if these Women NGOs want the Government to do something about the Gender Affairs situation, why don’t they get off their butts and say something.”

Women’s NGOs have always taken the lead in pushing forward for changes in the position of women in society – issues that invariably also relate to children and families, health-care, care giving for the elderly, environment and food security.

These are issues that affect us ALL. The status of women and gender considerations do not only affect women. Whether a mother can work and care for her children affects the health, well-being and academic performance of our future generations. When men in rural communities cannot find work because of a lack of industry and infrastructure, they leave the family, make new families in other communities leaving wives and children destitute. When boys are seduced by images of masculinity that promote aggression and lack of empathy, we have young men engaging in violence and crime. When we have no comprehensive sex and reproductive education and services, we find young girls and boys becoming parents, having unwanted pregnancies, risking sexually transmitted diseases, and establishing dysfunctional relationships.

So everyone in civil society needs to make Gender Affairs their business. And they need to support Women’s NGOs, who work tirelessly, with little resources, to advance a better quality of life for all citizens. Make Gender a priority in Trinidad and Tobago.

Simone Leid

The WomenSpeak Project

A look back at 2011

We’ve accomplished a lot in the past year and we couldn’t have done it without your support and contributions. A sincere thank you to everyone who visited the blog, shared their stories, commented on posts, retweeted, reblogged, shared and used your voice to raise awareness about discrimination against women. You are fantastic! Full speed ahead in 2012!