We are the 51%

There is great buzz about St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ first ever Women’s Congress to take place in March.  SVG made international headlines last year for its high levels of intimate partner violence, violence against women and femicides–the highest in the OECS.  The launch of the Women’s Congress was much needed good news.

The Women’s Congress is convened under the theme “Women Rising, Crisis and Response-Women as Agents of Change.”  The theme suggests that women are coming together to find solutions to the problems they face as women but also to the issues faced by their communities and country. And why shouldn’t they? After all they make up the majority of the population!  The Women’s Congress also expressly set out to be inclusive, naming rural women, people with disabilities, indigenous women and Rastafari women and young people among their key constituents and change-agents.

The Women’s Congress planners held a recent press conference where they were forced to defend their focus on women before a room full of journalists who were all male. They were asked to explain why rather than focus on broad gender issues, they were focusing on worn-out women’s issues. For about the last 20 years or so in the Caribbean “gender” has been used to invalidate a focus on women.  It is pointless to clarify how feminists use the term since this is not a semantic battle at all.  It is a simple belief held by many that women ought to know their place.  And that place is definitely not organising congresses to discuss women’s issues.  It is not parliament either where women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are a mere 3 of 22 representatives.

The organisers defended  themselves by saying that there could be a men’s congress if men demanded it, that they recognise that they have to work with men in order to achieve gender equality, that there is a project in the works to create a resource centre for men and boys.

The OAS representative at the launch stated that:

the Caribbean lacks a critical mass of women political leaders committed to promoting gender equality in areas such as women’s economic empowerment and security, ending gender-based violence, advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, equal pay for work of equal value and shared family responsibilities.

Beyond women as political leaders, she failed to mention women as a political constituency.  The fact that we’re not one.  States respond to men. Often in very, very problematic ways, but respond they do with a range  of institutions and policies.  But they do not respond to women as women. (They respond to women as mothers, again in problematic ways.)  If the Women’s Congress can move towards the creating women as a political constituency they will have achieved tremendous success.

The other point to be  addressed is the assumption that addressing women’s issues means negative outcomes for men. The Women in the Caribbean Project was the longest ever regional research project on Caribbean women.  It took place from 1979-1983.  One of the objectives of the project was to influence policy in ways that would improve women’s lives.  One of the guidelines the researchers set for themselves was that any policy recommendation should benefit both women and men.  Recognising the human rights of women and the specific gendered harms which many women face does not mean that men’s issues are ignored or men’s human rights are denied.

Men as partners for gender equality cannot be invoked to invalidate a focus on women.  That is not only absurd but goes contrary to any feminist notion of gender equality.

Wishing the women of St. Vincent and the Grenadines a successful Women’s Congress!

Guyana Launches Men’s Affairs Bureau to Tackle Homosexuality, Address Domestic Violence

Guyana launched its Men’s Affairs Bureau last month.  To my knowledge, it is the only Caribbean country to have one.  If the trend by which Caribbean Women’s Bureau quickly became Gender Bureaux in the 1990s and 2000s is any indication, more Caribbean countries may be following the lead of Guyana.  Even in the absence of a men’s affairs bureau other Caribbean countries have used their Bureaux of Gender Affairs to address what they deemed to be important issues for men.  For example, “in Trinidad & Tobago on March 8 2001, a female minister and former Minister of Culture and Gender Affairs, announced that the state would establish an anti-horning unit to create jobs for men so that women would not have to horn them” (Barriteau 2003).

From the media reports of the launch, attended by no less than the President himself, it appears that the Men’s Affairs Bureau is intended to address at least the three following things:

1)      Domestic Violence

The establishment of this bureau was born of the recognition that in this whole effort to address violence against women, we were perhaps failing to address a necessary component, the men – who are in most cases, the abusers – thus making our efforts less than holistic.” (Minister of Human Services)

2)      Prevent Male Homosexuality

“We don’t want every young male child to start thinking that that is ok; I am not going to say the word. If we don’t want them to think that, then we need to start providing a community of men where they can get together and discuss male problems in a strong masculine environment. (President of Guyana)

3)      Restore Men to their rightful place

Caribbean sociology scholar Linden Lewis who has done work in the area of Men and Masculinities Studies outlined his concerns with the Men’s Affairs Bureau:

Quite apart from distancing themselves from such backward thinking, regrettably speakers at the launch of MAB seemed to embrace the idea of restoring a particular kind of gender order.  One speaker talked about honouring men and giving them their place in society.  These are not words of reassurance of gender collaboration.  Rather the expression of such an intent is more in sync with the notion of returning men to a place of dominance.  Furthermore, the remarks about some unspecified process that leads to effeminacy could only be regarded as ill informed and unhelpful.  These remarks are also at odds with the expressed idea of respecting people’s sexual orientation and not persecuting them for the same.

The anti-homosexual rhetoric goes hand in hand with the need for men to be restored to their rightful place.  It is the re-inscription of heteropatriarchy.  The need to address domestic violence also dovetails with this agenda which seeks to preserve male dominance but rid it of it pathological excesses.  What is expected to emerge is a gentler, kinder patriarchy.  But a patriarchy nonetheless.

There are many issues facing Caribbean men which need to be addressed.    However, it seems that Caribbean governments are unable to address men’s issues outside of a framework of re-inscribing male dominance.  For example, if the intention is to ensure men’s right to a good life why is men’s violence toward each other not on the agenda?  Is there anything else which claims more young Caribbean men’s lives?

The Men’s Affairs Bureau intends to foster small discussion groups of men across the country.  Is it wishful thinking to expect that these groups will move beyond the ill-informed anti-woman, anti-homosexual, misogynistic rhetoric of the launch ceremony and focus on how men can and do contribute towards a more equitable and just society?

At CODE RED we have been able to foster dialogue among and between Caribbean women and men who are committed to everyone’s right to a good life.  We hope that our state mechanisms for ensuring gender equality will arrive at some ability to do the same.

It is worth noting, however, that Women’s Affairs Bureaux in the Caribbean (perhaps with only the exception of Barbados) came out of the tireless hard work of women/feminist activists who insisted that the state respond to the needs of women.  These bureaux have traditionally been under-staffed, under-funded, its employees grossly over-worked and underpaid, “institutionalised to fail” and construed as “illegal”.   So while we hope that the MAB will prove to be a progressive institution we are not for a moment ignorant of the gender politics of its establishment!

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