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Gender Policy into Non-Discrimination, Equality and Social Justice

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Today I conclude the five-part series of commentaries on the national gender policy. Why do we need a national gender policy? A policy is the government’s response to a critical issue affecting the society. Economic, social and environmental policies are among some of the key areas of policy-making. In this series of commentaries, I’ve made the link between gender equality and economic growth, social development, agriculture and the environment, and governance and security, among others.


The national gender policy would enable the country to address these in a thoughtful and systematic way, based on evidence from the social, natural and political sciences. Rather than the current ad hoc, piecemeal approach driven by powerful interest groups, which would like to maintain the status quo. In a secular, multicultural society where the state and church/faith are separate, the government needs to make policy based on the best evidence, analysis and practice available.


As Trinidad and Tobago celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence, I would argue that the personal and private issues in our gender system are among the key social, economic and political crises that are undermining the achievement of developed country status.


A crisis of manhood, masculinity
In T&T, male gender gaps have begun to emerge, as is happening across the Caribbean and globally. Since the 1990s, there has been evidence of boys dropping out of secondary school at higher rates than girls and at present, young women represent 65 per cent of university graduates.


A significant number of young men and boys, too many for such a small population, are engaging in drug use and trafficking, theft, illegal firearms, gang violence, rape, kidnapping, murder and other forms of criminal activity. Many young men die on the roads due to speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. Large numbers of adult men are experiencing lifestyle-related diseases, alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness and depression. And men have a high rate of suicide.


These social problems are all linked to male gender norms or the social expectations, attitudes, behaviours, roles and responsibilities of being a man that are prevalent in the society. These have not changed significantly in the 50 years since independence, and at the same time, women have been challenging female gender norms in areas of political, economic, social and cultural life. Women as individuals and a social group now have a better quality of life due to the profound changes that have occurred. I would argue that men and boys are worse off for not embracing the social transformations taking place globally.  


A crisis of violence, insecurity
In addition to the wider violence and insecurity in the society, the statistics of women’s and girls’ experience of domestic violence, incest, rape and other forms of sexual violence are staggering. In Trinidad and Tobago, homicides due to domestic violence are second only to gang murders. The high incidence of rape is horrifying, including gang rape.


Growing numbers of men and boys are also experiencing domestic and other forms of gender-based violence, as evident in the newspaper stories of boys being sexually abused in families and communities, and bullied in school as a result of (perceptions of) their sexual orientation.


Men are beginning to report to domestic violence hotlines of being physically and mentally abused by spouses and partners, as reflected in the Rape Crisis Society’s 2011 annual report. Men are often ashamed to talk about domestic and sexual violence or report it to the police, which reminds us of earlier decades when it was a shame for women to discuss being beaten or raped.


A crisis of reproductive care
Despite the fact that women in Trinidad and Tobago are increasingly well educated and employed in the labour force, they are still expected to be the primary caregivers. They do the lion’s share of the housework, bear and raise children, take care of the sick, elderly and disabled, and manage community-based organisations.


Women need daycare centres, and private spaces at the workplace to breastfeed babies, if they are expected to be effective employees. In a society with an increasing life expectancy and higher numbers of women in the workforce, the government needs to put systems in place to support the care of the young, sick, disabled and elderly.


In addition, men and boys need to share in the housework and the care of children, extended family and community. The experience globally is that male participation in care is a social good, since it improves their quality of life as individuals, and enhances the well-being of the family (in all its forms) and the wider society.


A crisis of sexuality
Our popular culture paints a picture of a highly sexual society, as evidenced in music, dance, Carnival and chutney festivals, etc. Children are exposed daily to liberal attitudes and behaviours about sex in family and cultural life and on TV. Despite this, a UWI study on gender, sexuality and HIV/Aids has pointed to the low understanding of sexual and reproductive health in the education system, including among university students! Our young adults are expected to simply know about sexual health, contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.


We need to put in place sex education in schools and address sexuality in our health services, in order to solve high levels of teenage pregnancy, girls dropping out of school and thus damaging their life chances, the 3,000 to 4,000 poor women and girls who end up in public hospitals annually as a result of botched backstreet abortions, and the high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/Aids.


In addition, we are ashamed of family members who are gay. And we actively discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation in schools, the healthcare system, the public service, the private sector and the wider public sphere. Could we name a single Member of Parliament or Cabinet who identifies as being gay?


This public/private dichotomy is most evident in the government’s lack of responsiveness to sexuality as a normal aspect of contemporary life. It’s impossible to wish these social phenomena away. In fact, the situation is only getting worse with denial. It’s critical for us to embrace 21st century living and create a healthier society.


A crisis of leadership and governance
The low level of women’s representation in politics and decision-making is evident. In addition, we are seeing some of the most dysfunctional forms of leadership in the government, the opposition, the private sector and the labour movement, which are intrinsically related to the crises in our gender system discussed above.


As we approach our 50th anniversary of independence, we need a gender policy in order to transform our society into one based on the human rights principles of non-discrimination, equality and social justice. These are linked to our values of democracy, good governance, and rule of law.


These principles and values form the bedrock of the developed country status to which we aspire, and would enable us to achieve our political, economic, environmental, social and cultural goals over the next 50 years. Together (as our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers) we aspire, together we achieve!


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