According to a UNDP and UN Women’s report which was unveiled in Panama in November of 2017, the Caribbean and Latin America is the most violent region in the world for women outside of a conflict context. Violence against women undermines their safety, security, peace, and autonomy, and violent expressions of conflict significantly contribute to violence within the family, community and countries. If violence is being perpetrated against women, one would think that women ought to be included in discussions when it comes to their own safety, security and peace.
Yet, with impenitent boldness, most men in the world are sitting around family, local, regional and international decision-making tables and on public forums to discuss women’s safety and security while excluding women’s voices, narratives and visions for better lives, and a just and sustainable world. This is a blatant disregard for women’s participation and there is something disastrously wrong with such a process, as it enables the global brutalization of women and girls.
These discussions are often guided by male assumptions, attitudes and behaviours, enabled by cultural ideologies of patriarchy, and blinded by gender-bias, which says women have no right to sit around decision-making tables. Participating in such discussions is not only the duty of women, it’s also their innate right to be actively engaged and present taking ownership of their seats around decision-making tables.
Inviting women to decision-making spaces and offering them a seat around the table is not only disrespectful, it is vexatious and insulting. Women cannot be invited because it’s their innate right to be there; a right which is being taken away by oppressing and subjugating women, using force, coercion, laws, public policy and traditional and cultural patriarchal ideologies, which undermines the very presence of women in the earth.
Do men invite other men to sit around decision-making tables? No, they don’t! Because men are socially conditioned to believe those tables belong to them and they are entitled to them. The mere thought of using the word ‘invitation’ when it comes to women taking their rightful places and seats around those tables irks me. Any invitation which needs a reason automatically comes with explicit or implicit conditions attached; conditions are palatably sautéed with expectations and in most instances ‘conformity’. The thing is, wherever there is an expectation, there is disappointment. When the male oligarchy is disappointed, women feel it.
Would I encourage women to accept those egotistical invitations? Most definitely! Accept them with strategic purposes and goals in mind, use what influence and authority you have in those spaces to perform exceptionally well, begin conversations which lead to actions for greater parity, create entry points for other women, work with men to create new masculinities and change their views of women, fight for women’s rights, support women’s voices and advancement and push for progress leaving no woman behind.
Do this with the knowledge that with every seat you have, every decision-making table you sit around, every forum you speak at, every leadership position you hold, it’s your innate right. While being mindful of the world in which we live, a world where institutionalised systems are governed by men, and these systems enable systemic gender inequality, the violation of human rights and the discrimination and oppression of women in every aspect of their lives, we must work to dismantle them reorganizing and creating new systems.
The Shaping of my Definitions of Security
I grew up in the Caribbean. Yes, it’s beautiful beyond comprehension. In the Small Island Developing State (SIDS) known as Trinidad and Tobago, international leaders, economists, and technocrats would see no need to invest in women’s peace, safety and security in my country, because the country is considered ‘oil-rich’.
It is indeed ‘oil-rich’, and I hasten to tell you how rich. It’s rich with oil-rich poverty, oil-rich violence against women and girls, oil-rich with family, community and national insecurity and certainly oil-rich with human rights violations, and the oil-rich money circulates among the minority who is the majority. If you believe the Caribbean and my country is a paradise where women run around happily, singing calypso, soca and reggae, dancing to steel pan music all day, bare-breasted with skirts made from coconut leaves, then you need to take a glimpse inside paradise.
I was conceived out of wedlock and fathered by a married man. In the seventies, this was shunned upon. Being a girl child of African Descent, with darker melatonin did not help much. Before my birth, I was legally labelled a ‘Bastard Child’ under the country’s Colonial Bastard’s Law. Such children were considered born to fail and in ways, many did. Institutionalised discrimination can sting like a viper with unseen fangs and its consequences can sometimes last a lifetime, transforming itself in every generation, because the ideology is still very much alive guided by hidden powers among us.
Growing up I experienced severe childhood and adolescent abuse. (read part of my story in this speech) Safety was that imaginary place in my mind which took me away from the reality of being sexually molested and abused. I was not protected from threats, external or internal harm and self-injury. As a young adult and married woman, I endured sexual assault and marital rape. Security was lying about the pain which I felt and being silent because breaking the secret code was not encouraged by society and exposing abusers would mean societal isolation, victimization and further abuse. Mentally I was imprisoned, physically controlled and my agency and autonomy undermined. All these experiences shaped my definition of safety, security and peace.
Peace, though relative, was something I never knew because my silence masked turmoil and wars. Turmoil between life and death and seeing suicide as the only arms which understood my pain and shame concerning the adolescent sexual urges which would rear their ugly head and wars of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Let’s get it straight. Conflict and dysfunction can create colossal damage as they have so many dimensions. The absence of war, bloodshed, political and civil unrest does not mean peace, safety and security is present or realised. ‘Apparent’ peace has taken as many lives as active wars, and maybe more.
While a peaceful world is an idealistic dream and we all should strive for it, men must never declare peace because the invisible is not seen and because the visible is gone. Let women be the ones to declare their own state and moments of peace, safety and security. It is an affront to women for men to declare peace when women and girls endure insecurity, threats and violence, visible and invisible.
My story is not an isolated one. Across my country and within the Caribbean, many women share their stories of pain. Media houses publish headlines of women being murdered, raped and violated and individual stories are commonly told in secret. Some victims courageously speak out in public domains while the names of women who have been killed continue to increase. Women’s stories and reports of violence continue to reside within the pages of police diaries and sit on the desks of magistrates and judges. Sadly some stories will never be told.
In 2011, I officially registered a non-profit organisation called O.A.B.I.: Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals to engage in public education, advocate for public policy changes, support survivors, work with women and girls, men and boys and actively advocate for social, economic, political and gender justice, the prevention and elimination of gender-based violence, violence against women and girls and the promotion of peacebuilding, conflict transformation and women leadership. Did I choose this path? Hell no! On the contrary, this path has chosen me and if by using the debris of my life I can touch one life, save one life and influence public policy and participate in social change, then what happened to me was not in vain.
Time and space limit me from detailing my work, and the human horrors which I see, hear and experience. Every day I see the detrimental effects of violence against women, the results of unmanaged conflict and dysfunction and the violent expressions of conflict which contribute to socio-economic challenges undermining the safety, security and peace of women and girls in the Caribbean. This overflowing pervasiveness of violence against women is a cause for not only grave concern but calls for sustainable, consistent, collaborative, innovative and structured action.
Working to bring about a more secure Caribbean and World.
The escalation of violence and violence against women challenged me to conceptualize “The Caribbean Communities Initiative” (CCI). This initiative consists of a series of training workshops, consciousness-raising circles and schools of participation and group support using peacebuilding, conflict transformation and mediation processes, leadership capacity building and promoting accountable democracies to combat and prevent violence and discrimination against women, build women’s leadership capacity equipping them with the relevant skills, tools and knowledge to be active citizens, work with men and boys to find innovative ways to manage and address conflict, creating new masculinities and advocate for public policy for the creation and adoption of national peacebuilding and conflict transformation models. Ultimately, the initiative will reduce violence and crime, increase safety and security and create a better Caribbean where peaceful coexistence is realised.
What Do I need to make my Vision a Reality?
This initiative is an innovative idea with tangible outcomes which fills a gap and fosters the enrichment, enhancement and advancement of women in the Caribbean, while providing them with a platform to be actively engaged in the governance of their families, communities and local government, preparing women to take their rightful places at those decision-making tables. With the right support, the Caribbean Communities Initiative can be successfully implemented, thus pioneering a new path when it comes to combatting and preventing gender-based violence, violence against women and girls, family and community conflicts and organisational challenges and the preparation of future women leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
This initiative calls for the support of global sisters, their positive energies and encouraging words, human and physical resources and support with resource mobilisation, linkages to strong network connections and the international amplification of this initiative and the challenges of women in the Caribbean.
Whether we are ready for it or not, transformative, technology-driven social change is intensifying with each passing year, often morphing unpredictably, destabilizing and fracturing the foundations of our families, communities and cultures. It is therefore imperative that we work collaboratively with the widest possible array of present and future leaders in addressing, adapting to and preparing for the rapidly evolving challenges of the 21st Century because women’s lives are at stake.
The intersectionality of family, community and organization conflicts undermine the safety, security, and inclusion of women, especially marginalized women. It fosters volatile environments, enable breeding grounds for crime, criminal acts and violent expressions of conflict, and institutionalises ladders of oppression and retards social, economic, political and gender justice and development. Unmanaged conflict, violent expressions of conflict and conflict intersections, all act as barriers to the realisation of sustainable development.
For many women, personal safety, security and freedom is an elusive dream, regardless of how free their country may be. In the Caribbean, many women are exposed to social and economic challenges of various forms every day, and experience severe difficulties in finding and expressing their voice, agency, autonomy, and identity. Violent expressions of conflict are far too commonplace, and constantly undermine the social and sustainable development of families, communities, and organizations.
If individuals in these contexts lack the skills, abilities, tools and knowledge to make informed decisions, successfully navigating through these challenges can be extremely difficult, and those who might otherwise become productive and beneficial members of society are too often tangled up within these communities and cultures of violence, destroying their quality of life, harming those close to them, and wasting their human potential. Conflict can be incredibly fertile soil for social change, but only for those with the knowledge and skills to transform it. The Caribbean Communities Initiative will bridge the gap by working towards a safe, inclusive and just Caribbean and world for all women.