Tonya Haynes is a founding member of CODE RED for Gender Justice and CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network.
By Tonya Haynes
Editor’s Note: Already for the first two weeks of 2014, Carlissa Matthews, Marcia Adams, Judith Singh and Raveena Cozier lost their lives at the hands of their partners or ex-partners in Guyana (where 23 women were killed in 2013). Already for the first two weeks in Trinidad & Tobago, Dian Paladee and Amanda Persad were murdered by partners who then committed suicide. In Barbados Cheryl Bourne-Reifer was murdered in February, and just a few weeks ago the battered body 23 year old Guyanese Onicka Gulliver, who had been reported missing, was found. This week’s column, which comes to us from Barbados, expresses the outrage that so many of us feel, that we should all feel, at the inadequate, dismissive and misogynistic responses to the ongoing violence that is claiming the lives of too many women across the Caribbean. What is especially outrageous, and a tragic but sure sign of just what we are up against, is that some of these responses come from those who have been appointed – or have appointed themselves – to organizations and even state institutions that claim to be on the same side as those who are speaking out against the epidemic of domestic violence across the Caribbean. Today’s column takes on two such responses, one from Ralph Boyce, President of the Barbadian Men’s Educational Support Association (whose motto, tellingly, is ‘Stronger Men, Stronger Family, Stronger Nation’), and the other from Minister of Social Care, Constituency Empowerment and Community Develop-ment Steve Blackett, under whose portfolio falls the Bureau of Gender Affairs.
A longstanding feminist activist in Barbados walked out of a panel discussion in protest of what she felt were misogynist comments from one of the speakers. Said speaker is the recipient of the Gold Crown of Merit and has been on a near 15-year tirade of misogyny masquerading as support for men’s interests. His usual line is that women who are murdered by their intimate partners have provoked such violence against them by failing to act appropriately after men have “invested” in the relationship.
The Barbados Nation Newspaper, in its March 22 edition, reported his comments as being about how “some men reacted badly when they felt mistreated by women after “investing” in relationships”.
Murder. A bad reaction.
According to the news report, “Boyce said also that some men felt intimidated by their partners and that some women held more power in relationships than they let on, to the point where it seemed like ‘witchcraft’.”
The activist (and private citizen) who walked out was not the only one who felt the comments were objectionable. As another attendee commented,
“I was there. I witnessed it all. The entire mood in the room was completely unsupportive of the sexist rhetoric and people took the mic to object one by one. Men, one particularly passionate and vocal one, rose to publicly disassociate himself from the comments that were made, saying that he felt moved to do so on behalf of all the men in Barbados who do not support such. Enter the reporting. This was not captured in the article. None of this was portrayed or shared with the public. The event was painted as an unreasonable hysterical woman walking out of a reasonable presentation. The public was led to see the event in those terms. But those of us that were there knew better and demanded better in that space.”
The media reported her walk out in a manner that suggested that she was partisan, unreasonable and immature for doing so. Local media in Barbados have been consistent in their attacks against the National Organisation of Women (NOW) and in their ridiculous editorial assertions that NOW should work with the consistently sexist Men’s Educational Support Association (MESA). For the record, at a minimum MESA must respect the humanity of women if they expect women’s organisations to view them as partners for gender equality.
But the story does not end there. Speaking from the floor of parliament, Minister of Social Care, Consti-tuency Empowerment and Community Development Steve Blackett, under whose portfolio the Bureau of Gender Affairs falls, is quoted in Nation News of March 19th:
“Though you are an advocate, and publicly display a bias for one gender over the other, at the end of the day the bureau for which you work has to be as impartial and as even-handed as possible…If this is not perceived or acted out in reality, the credibility of the agency is seriously compromised and its interventions can be questionable.”
Many interpreted the Minister’s words to be tantamount to a threat and educator and activist Margaret Gill published a letter to the editor stating such: “I read with dismay the words from the Minister responsible for Gender Affairs which threatens Bureau of Gender Affairs staff. His warning of “a word to the wise is enough” is directed from the floor of parliament at Bureau staff who take their personal activism on behalf of women seriously enough to recall that they are not only staff of anywhere but are private citizens first and foremost…When Bureau of Gender Affairs staff defend women by laying their lives and jobs on the line, they defend me. As a female Barbadian and voting citizen, I do not want to hear them threatened from the floor of Parliament. This is the foolishness to which length MESA and Ralph Boyce has brought this country. I strongly protest it and ask for an apology from the Minister responsible for Gender Affairs on behalf of his staff.”
What makes the Chairman of MESA’s comments, the media reporting and the subsequent “word to the wise” even more crass is that at this same time a 23-year-old woman who was missing was found mutilated, sexually assaulted and murdered. Her ex-boyfriend is charged with the murder. Last year all the persons killed in Barba-dos by former or present intimate partners were women.
Women are losing their lives. And we are discussing whether or not a woman has the right to walk out of a meeting. Women are losing their lives. And activists are being told that they should work with groups whose public statements suggest they see women as less human than they are. Women are losing their lives. And we are being offered justifications for the violence against them. Women are losing their lives. And Bureau of Gender Affairs staff are being publicly “warned” for refusing to support sexist rhetoric.
I know for a fact that the Bureau of Gender Affairs is concerned about the issues affecting both women and men. In particular, issues of men’s health, men’s educational participation, and the disability and rehabilitation of young men who have been victims of violence are on their agenda. Incidentally, it was a woman who brought to the table the data and information to insist that these questions of health, disability and recovery after physical violence were issues facing young men and in need of the attention of the state. Activists and professionals working toward gender equality are concerned about both women’s and men’s lives.
The Bureau of Gender Affairs has a mandate for ensuring gender equality. It is precisely because of that mandate that Bureau staff should publicly distance themselves from statements that are sexist, deliberately inflammatory and unsubstantiated. There are no sides. It is reductionist and dishonest to suggest that if not for MESA, men’s issues would go unaddressed.
At this point I have no expectation that my views won’t be misconstrued and rejected as one-sided. Public discussion on gender relations in Barbados has degenerated to such levels that you are judged not by your ideas and actions but by stereotypes. But the truth is there are no sides. Some of the most well-developed critiques of how gender norms are harmful to men have come from feminists. Telling men that there are conditions under which it is justified to kill women is in no one’s interest. It certainly does not represent the interests of men, many of whom reject violence in all its forms. There are no sides. Barbadian women and men are concerned about the future of their country especially in these trying economic times and about the leadership that will take us forward, we are concerned when our rights as private citizens are threatened by those in positions of power, we are concerned when young men lose their lives to violence and women are beaten and killed by their partners. There are no sides.