Can feminism catch a fire in the Caribbean?
By Tonya Haynes
Tonya Haynes is the co-ordinator of CODE RED for gender justice, which organized the CatchAFyah New Generation Caribbean Feminist Grounding with funding support from Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN).
Attending the CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Grounding last month took Sherlina Nageer away from the picket line where she had been demanding justice for 18-year-old Karen Badal. Badal had died five months earlier after a botched abortion in Guyana, a country whose laws on termination of pregnancy are the most progressive in the region. With the main public hospital not providing abortion services, her preventable death served as a reminder that legality does not determine access, that women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are inextricably linked to their economic empowerment and the economic and social context. We would be reminded of this again during the CatchAFyah gathering when the participant from Haiti, a medical doctor, insisted that even as more and more NGOs operate in Haiti (estimated to have the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world), conditions continue to worsen. Funding for work on women’s health at the clinics she manages comes from religious charities that stipulate that neither contraception nor condoms could be offered to women. This linking of women’s bodily integrity with economic justice and the larger geopolitical political context would influence our orientation toward the issues tabled at the grounding.
CatchAFyah brought together 24 young Caribbean feminists from women’s, feminist, youth and LGBT organisations across the English-speaking Caribbean and Haiti. Among us were farmers, social workers, artists, social entrepreneurs, counsellors, researchers, engineers, teachers, students and mothers. The purpose of our gathering was to strengthen regional feminist collaboration on the issues facing the Caribbean.
Among those of us who gathered in Barbados, some felt conflicted that there were many urgent issues that they were neglecting at home in order to be a part of this historic meeting. Some even wondered whether the money it took to bring us together would not have been better spent on the social justice work so urgently needed in their communities. Others expressed concern about the source of funding for the meeting and how that influenced our agenda. While there was no doubt about the importance of feminist activism, the question of just how we should proceed remained up for debate.
We had before us several decades of feminist organizing in the region. In assessing the experiences and impact of feminist organizing, Caribbean feminists themselves have called attention to their lack of sufficient consideration to questions of class, race/ethnicity and sexuality. In addition, they have highlighted how the pressures of responding to donors and working at the global and policy level may take away much needed attention from work on the ground. Some have also been very critical of the ways in which feminists organize regionally, lamenting that conferences and workshops are what seem to pass for regional feminist mobilization. Sistren (Jamaica) and Red Thread (Guyana) stand out among Caribbean feminist organisations for their longevity, political consciousness, commitment to bringing together women across class and race/ethnicity and their groundedness within the community.
At the public forum that preceded the CatchAFyah grounding, Nalita Gajadhar, whose name is synonymous with women’s organizing in Barbados, charged that feminism had become too academic and disconnected from the majority of women’s lives. She argued that the energy and excitement that had been there in the past is no more. Many felt that her cynicism was ill-timed considering that young feminists would be meeting the following day to strategize around regional movement-building. However, her insistence that we must make sure our work is relevant to Caribbean people’s lives, served as one of the fundamental principles of our organising.
At the grounding, we recognized that we were a privileged group which had reaped the benefits of post-independence investments in education and health. Yet for too many Caribbean people these remain inaccessible privileges and as a result, they are made to feel as though their lives are expendable.
“We have to find a sustainable solution to the chronic problem of unemployed young men. As the poor get poorer, more and more youths will find themselves on the streets hustling to survive. Shooting them in the head is not an option in a supposedly civilised society,” Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper wrote recently. She was commenting on the recent killing of a windshield cleaner who was shot on a busy thoroughfare while working, in what she described as an act of “rank class prejudice.”
If we are asked to define a single issue as central to our agenda it must be to advocate for the humanity of all Caribbean people and to work against the multiple and cross-cutting ways in which oppression and discrimination are manifested. That includes disrupting closely held beliefs about gender relations and sexuality.
Writing about Jamaica over 15 years ago and reflecting on Caribbean feminist organizing since the 1970s, Honor Ford-Smith argued that, “women’s material conditions are getting worse, not better. Not only has the daily scuffle for survival become tougher, but the prevalence of violence in daily life has strengthened women’s reliance on male ‘backative.’ In the context of the reorganization of international capital and the division of labour and production worldwide, countries like Jamaica have been crippled by a staggering economic decline.” This analysis still rings true for many Caribbean countries today. We live in an era characterized by economic crisis, widening global inequalities as well as inequities within and between Caricom countries. The same concerns about sexual and intimate partner violence that spurred women toward political action decades ago persist. New media have brought some of us closer together but it has also been a vehicle for a new understanding of humanity. Participation in globalized consumer culture is presented as the only way of being in the world. The overall effect is to cheapen life and erode collective action.
Against this background we felt that it was important to get together as Caribbean women born in the ’90s, ’80s and late ’70s to ground. We felt we needed a space to learn, share, strategize and act. We were joined for part of the grounding by Peggy Antrobus and Andaiye, connecting us to a history of feminist activism in the region that we must claim and learn from. Andaiye asserted that Caribbean feminists had gotten the balance wrong in terms of working at local, national, regional and global levels. She reminded us that we had to be accountable to a community of people and that our work had to remain grounded. As one of the Caribbean’s most critical feminist activist voices, her presence there was a challenge in and of itself. It was a challenge to think critically about just how we understand feminism, what our plan of action should be, what exactly it means to work regionally, and what our vision for the Caribbean should look like. The task ahead of us was not only to avoid the mistakes of the past but to re-think strategies for activism and social change. During our visioning session Belizean, Ifasina Efunyemi, co-founder of UNAIDS Red Ribbon award-winning Productive Organisation for Women in Action (POWA), posed a question to us that we must constantly reflect on, “How we go mek dis movement move?”
This question has no easy answer. Movements are not NGOs. Feminism hardly has a mass base and has struggled to capture one in part due to unfortunate misconceptions. However, if our small initial meeting is anything to go by we are on our way to generating the kinds of ideas and action needed for transformative social change. While funding for feminist activism is scarce we recognise that money is not our only resource and there are multiple ways in which we can support each other and the organizations we represent. What is most successful about the grounding is the space we were able to create. We consciously sought not to just do things as they are usually done but to use our collective imaginations to create new ways of doing things more effectively. We also wanted to distance ourselves from individualized understandings of leadership. “This gathering was not a meeting, it was not a conference, it was a truly collective action in and of itself. We were the grounding, we facilitated, documented and shared knowledge. The whole gathering was non-hierarchical and full of love,” one participant reflected.
CatchAFyah Guyana is scheduled to take place this August and is organized by Sherlina Nageer of Red Thread and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination. “I want to strengthen connections between women in the Caribbean, to learn from and connect all the bits of work that are going on in order to have a greater impact, and to really change the quality of life and conditions of women ‘on the ground,” Nageer said.
Ultimately, the work needed to improve Caribbean societies is the responsibility of all of us. The passionate and committed activists of CatchAFyah have pledged not only to be a part of that work, but to inspire others to action in their communities. We want to catch a fyah the Caribbean with ideas and action for social change. Can feminist mobilization provide sufficient flame?
To contact the CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network, email us at email@example.com. Visit CODE RED online at www.redforgender.wordpress.com.