A few days ago a young mother, pregnant with her second child, filed a report with the police. Her estranged husband had turned up at her parents’ home and threatened to “blow” them up.
Roughly twelve hours later, in the dead of night, the house where she lived with her little daughter and parents was fire-bombed. As flames licked across the roof and down the walls, eating through the ceiling and reducing their car to scrap iron, the neighbourhood rushed to their rescue. Just in time.
All four got out, the half-asleep child being the first to be heaved over a wall.
For anyone confused by the concept of a gender policy and its practical application in daily life, incidents like this one provide a vivid flesh-and-bone example of why it is needed and precisely what is involved.
Whether or not a country adopts the device of a Ministry of Gender Affairs is not, by itself, the most important thing although it might be indicative. What matters is the existence of policies and strategies based on the clear recognition that gender is one of the key variables that affect the citizen’s enjoyment of the rights to which all are entitled. Further, that such recognition is anchored through the full expression of the state and its agencies all the way from the top down, and back.
It is what is called gender mainstreaming and, in Trinidad and Tobago, this goes against the grain of a national culture that still sees woman as the property of man.
Last week, when this young mother needed help, it was once again clear that the gender agenda has fallen far short of implementation.
A kindly officer had taken the report, but there was no protocol in place to protect the police service against its instinctive hesitation about getting involved in “man-woman business.”
Perhaps, if a businessman had reported an employee’s threat to “blow up” his business, a jeep-load of officers would have been immediately deployed to haul in that employee. But not when it involves a woman.
Whether or not the assailant was the estranged husband, the fact is that no police action followed her report. No jeep-load of officers was deployed to find the alleged aggressor, nor was she given police protection pending investigation.
Instead, having filed her report, she went home to the danger lying in wait completely undisturbed by the police service of T&T. For the little girl who had endured the trauma of the family scene and subsequent fire, the system had no response to offer.
Once again, there was no protocol in place to connect the police report to the psychological resources of the Children’s Authority.
Whatever our claims to modernity, many women and children still dwell in the culture of the oppressed. In the case of children, the cultural attitudes that see them as the property of parents and assorted adults, and not as individuals with their own bill of rights, subverts every layer of legislative protection with which we guard them.
Indeed, the more enlightened the legislation, the more enraged the response of violence. For the old power system that sees women and children as property, enlightened legislation is an act of provocation to be fought, to the deadly end in some cases.
This, as we know, has been the tragic experience of some women who sought orders of protection only to be taught a fatal lesson by men who felt their power and right to “enjoyment” of their property was being challenged by the law.
We are treading dangerous waters when we approach law as a culture-free domain. In blinding ourselves to the potential for cultural convulsion, progressive legislation could end up destroying lives.
The recently-proclaimed Children’s Act is a case in point. In asserting and protecting the rights of children, the Act is nothing short of revolutionary. But we must not close our eyes to the fact that it is in conflict with deeply-ingrained cultural attitudes to children based on notions of children as parental property.
We cannot just wait to see how this conflict will express itself. That might be too late for children whose parents or associated adults decide to teach them a lesson about where power really resides.
In anticipation of this contestation, there is a serious responsibility on policymakers and everyone involved in implementation to ensure that the public is fully informed about the laws, their rights and their responsibility; that everyone knows how the system works for them and where the resources for help reside.
So many years after the introduction of domestic violence legislation, many women still have no idea how it works, where to turn to for help and how to protect themselves.
Every day of terror finds them casting in the wind for help. Too often, it just never comes, even when it is lying somewhere there.
This is the point where the future of Government Information Services and state-owned media must be put in the mix. As they currently stand, both are sadly miscast.
CNMG serves no strategic purpose and, in today’s age of media, quite likely never will. The train of big state media has left the station.
What we need is not Government information—which invariably translates into propaganda—but public information built into government, every step of the way. Centralising information is a step in the wrong direction. The times demand decentralised information, close to people and responsive to individual need.
But that is a column for another day.