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