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Women short-changed as citizens

Sunday, July 1, 2012

This is the first of a new series of commentaries on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality in Trinidad and Tobago. It draws on a report I wrote recently with Linnette Vassell of Jamaica on women’s citizenship and democracy in the Caribbean.


The promise of national independence
In Trinidad and Tobago’s struggle for independence, it joined the growing community of nations that were challenging British colonial rule. The achievement of independence in 1962 signalled the possibility of internal self-government, the accumulation of national wealth to serve the needs of its population instead of the economic interests of Britain, a more equitable sharing of the country’s economic pie between the different socio-economic and ethnic groups, and the opening up of education, health, employment and decision-making to social groups that had previously been denied access.


Independence represented the promise of nationhood, of full and equal citizenship for men and women who had been disenfranchised by systems of slavery, indentureship and other kinds of forced migration and labour exploitation. Women, in addition to facing discrimination and oppression on the basis of their race and class, had also been treated unequally on the basis of their gender. Are women full, equal citizens?


Four focus groups of women’s rights activists met in St Augustine, San Fernando and Kingston to discuss whether women saw themselves as full and equal citizens. The St Augustine group said ordinary women and men had exercised citizenship in earlier periods by taking the initiative to form organisations, to build their communities, and to bring their voices to bear on issues of national development.


Middle-class women in Kingston said citizenship meant “the right and opportunity to participate,” “helping to define and shape the place where one lives,” and “contributing to the life of one’s community and country.” They also saw citizenship as “a sense of belonging,” “an entitlement to space,” and “being comfortable in that space.” Democracy represented their right as a citizen to choose, the opportunity to participate, and the responsibility to exert agency.


One participant reported on research among street vendors in San Fernando who occupied the roadside illegally after regular market hours. The vendors saw their right as citizens as the responsibility to survive—“everybody have to eat.” The persistent clash between the rule of law and people’s impulse to eke out a living was seen as an example of the State’s lack of responsiveness to its poor citizens.


Working-class women in Kingston stressed their “legal status,” “the right to an equal share,” “the ability to vote,” “the right to speak out for your rights at any time,” “having respect, the opportunity for education, and the ability to ensure change.”


‘Rights stop at Cross Roads’
One Jamaican activist said, “Rights stop at Cross Roads”—a geographical boundary between uptown and downtown Kingston, between privilege and underprivilege. One of the focus groups comprised working-class women activists who lived below Cross Roads. They spoke of their daily experiences of discrimination and being treated as second-class citizens—as consumers seeking to buy household goods in the supermarket, as parents in the school system, as workers on the job market—all of which represented a short-changing of their access to equal rights and justice.


They explained that these experiences “bring down your self-esteem, undermine your hope, your sense of rights, and you feel that you are not wanted.” They saw education as the only accessible stepping stone to securing their rights as equal citizens in society, and feared that their children’s prospects could be blighted if they spoke out or protested.


Trinidad and Tobago has its own inner-city communities, so-called hot spots, where poor women and men have similar experiences. Rural women also feel a sense of alienation and lack of belonging. The Caribbean independence project has not properly addressed the internalised oppressions reflected in these experiences. These and the other painful experiences of daily life reveal how patterns of discrimination and exclusion normalised by the State are perpetuated in women’s day-to-day interactions in their communities, and the process of silencing experienced by poor women.


The subordination of women
Citizenship as a concept emerged from the philosophy of liberalism that underpins the liberal democratic systems of the English-speaking Caribbean. Habermas, a contemporary philosopher, argued that men were viewed as citizens with rights, responsibilities, freedoms and privileges in the public sphere, while women occupied the private sphere of the home and family.


Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser has argued that the public sphere discriminated against women and the lower social strata of society. “It was the arena, the training ground and eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeoisie men who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’ and preparing to assert their fitness to govern.”


Thus, she argues that the split between the public and private spheres has given men and women different access to rights and responsibilities, and perpetuated the subordination of women. Tracy Robinson, Jamaican legal expert, makes the point that Caribbean women’s-rights activists “have tended to view the question of women’s citizenship as uncontroversial…, as having been resolved by the independence enfranchisement of women and by independence and post-independence constitutional provisions.”


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