Congratulations are in order for the Minister of Labour, Senator Jennifer Baptiste-Primus, on becoming the first Trinbagonian woman to stand up and be counted in the #MeToo epidemic! The good Minister took the brave step of announcing in a Sunday Express article that she too had been a victim of sexual harassment. That took courage, Madam Minister, and I applaud you for it.
However, I have to ask: Why have you and your Cabinet colleagues allowed a government-appointed Chairman to remain in office while there was an investigation going on into sexual harassment accusations against him? And then, Madam Minister, as if that was not bad enough, why was it deemed acceptable for $3.5m dollars of taxpayers’ money to be used to defend him against these charges?
Have I somehow missed the newspaper interview where you, Madam Minister, raised an objection to the hypocrisy inherent in his subsequently presiding over the disciplining of a supervisor who had lunged at the CEO? Have I missed the media interview where you revealed your demand that your government initiate independent, transparent investigations into the three high-profile cases involving sexual harassment charges which remain at the moment incomplete? Were you in fact present at the International Women’s Day march and it was entirely my fault that I missed you?
Madam Minister, have you asked why the response to the sexual harassment campaign has so far been no better than muted? I now know that you know the extent of the problem and understand its traumatic impact and hence the urgency for it to be dealt with. The Mother’s Day Sunday Express article quoted you as saying the following:
‘I have attended over the years to many such complaints of women suffering from harassment on the job. It affects the performance of that worker. If you are working in such an environment you cannot produce at the level you are accustomed because you are on edge.’
“Over the years.” What, may I ask, have you done to solve the problem, in your own words, over the years. Maybe you have had a quiet talk with the Attorney General but the last time I checked the legislative agenda, I could find no proposal for sexual harassment legislation anywhere in there. So while you and your government go round and round the administrative mulberry bush, engaging in albeit necessary stakeholder consultations, women in ministries, State corporations and the protective services over which your government has control continue not to “produce at the level (they) are accustomed” to because of ongoing sexual harassment or because of the threat of it.
“Women have to assert themselves,” you add in the interview, “by being very firm.”
I hope I have not misunderstood the message we are supposed to take away from those nine words. I hope you are calling on the sisterhood to continue to raise their voices in protest against the lack of governmental action. I imagine that you are as aware as I am of the typical harasser’s modus operandi.
How many of them are likely to make the error of judgement inherent in an approach to some strong woman? How many of them are likely to risk a response that can be a kick in the pants—taking in front, you might say, before in front takes them—or some other kind of public shaming as a reward for their misconduct?
So, yes, Madam Minister, raising your voice to say #MeToo is a necessary step. But it is but one step in what is bound to be a long journey.
You see, this is not a woman issue, it’s a people issue. It is an issue which needs to be openly discussed because, left alone, it will not go away, no more than the discussion about sex and sexuality will one day go away.
Trinidad and Tobago continues to talk sex and sexuality either behind the shield of our hands or behind closed doors; in fact, many of us cannot even bring ourselves to call a penis a penis and a vagina a vagina.
But we owe it to ourselves and to our children to open up the discussion, unabashedly calling a spade a spade. And now that you too have put yourself out there, Madam Minister, I submit that you have to be in the vanguard of those forces pushing the population to open up and sustain the conversation.
And the government to put their money and their legal machinery where their mouths are.