The ‘Marlene Affair’ raises important issues about the fate of our women. Progress, as measured by the number of women in leadership, does not tell the whole story. Last week, three women—Marlene McDonald, Christine ‘Twiggy’ Livia and Joan Yuille-Williams—were in the courthouse precincts, a place where many mothers frequent because of their children’s deeds.
The usual cohort in the Port of Spain courts is black males who are in the prime years of their lives. It is to these courts that Marlene McDonald, once an incumbent deputy political leader of the governing party, was brought. Marlene is a tragic figure brought low by hubris.
Christine ‘Twiggy’ Livia represents the raw, earthy presence of modern women unafraid and focused. She is the flagbearer of what used to be the engine room of the PNM—their Women’s League.
Mrs Yuille-Williams, the cultured, well-connected deputy political leader, passed by to inquire of the media: “What you doing here?” She is the only person in the PNM who appears to have read the book written by CLR James about party governance. CLR foretold that the party would, if not careful, find itself divorced from the people.
Marilyn Gordon affirmed that “Williams’ establishment and maintenance of the link with the ‘grassroots’ women was the main source of the party’s strength and … the secret of its survival”. These women are the ones who were platform speakers, organisers of motorcades and chief cooks and bottle washers for every election.
It is reported that one night after a lecture, Dr Williams was enveloped by a big, sturdy black woman. She wrapped him in her ample bosom and said: “I love you bad”. When he emerged, Rogers, his man of business. asked how he had felt. Williams allegedly replied: “Mind your business” (St. Pierre, 2015). It is through this lens one must understand the current plight of Laventille women.
But it is the same story for the UNC women from the lower socio-economic class, who routinely turn up at parliament to man the protests. It is poor women, the beasts of burdens in our country, whether African or East Indian, who are not well served.
These poor women faithfully support, campaign, get the vote out and yet are exploited by those, male and female, who ride their backs. The political leadership of both parties has fallen into the ‘CLR trap’; they are divorced from the people and their sorrows.
But it is the Laventillian woman who bears the brunt of abuse from others because of perceived deficiencies in her child-rearing practices. She is the one that is blamed for the crime rate and the murders. The narrative says if she was a good parent everything will be fine.
Poverty is a fact of life affecting 24% of our population (the yet unpublished 2015 Survey of Living Conditions Report). Women are disproportionately affected: they are over-represented in lower-income brackets even as a third of all households are headed by them.
Poverty depletes resources, drains one’s coping skills and exhausts social support networks. It is not just a lack of goods; it is a powerlessness to bargain with others and to defend yourself. It is expressed as ‘learned helplessness’ because you begin to believe that nothing you can do makes a difference.
Exposed to high-risk situations (substandard housing, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence), these women are expected to raise perfect children. How could they? They work long hours for subsistence wages. They have neither time nor money to provide maternal supervision. Their children are either left cooped up in the house or running wild with the youths on the streets because the mothers cannot do better.
The mothers run the risk of workplace sexual abuse to get money to feed their children who attend substandard schools. Remember Singing Sandra’s defiance she sang: “Keep my honey and die with my dignity”? It is painfully true. It is not just a song.
In 2013, the powerful did nothing about the ugly truth that revealed through testing that 56% and 78% of our pre-school and primary school students were unable to process information adequately. Callously, the powerful did nothing to alleviate it since they were too busy building early childhood centres.
Poverty makes you invisible yet responsible for society’s ills. These women’s wages can neither pay for extra lessons nor medical help. Yet we expect their children to compete with those who have all the resources at their disposal. How does this even begin to happen? Where do they get the funds to invest in their children?
Neighbourhoods matter. In west Trinidad, there are libraries and many present, visible role models for the children. The social connections in those areas ensure that the schools are well run. In Laventille, the women have to shield their traumatized children from gun violence, for which there is no closure.
The frustration of economic hardships causes them to be less warm to their children and to use harsher disciplinary methods. They sadly die earlier or suffer debilitating illnesses, again reducing their ability to parent. Hopelessness becomes ingrained.
The cycle of poverty brings teen pregnancy and causes boys to drop out of school to earn income for the home. But the low pay may then cause these boys to fall into the hands of the gang and the drug trade or turn to alcoholism.
On the streets, violent retribution is prescribed for interpersonal attacks or shows of disrespect. Yet the fruits of illegality are obvious. This is why the dead are celebrated. They have beaten the system. How is a mother to compete with this?
We need more like Twiggy and Joan—plain-speaking and well connected—to save Laventille and our country. We need to level the economic playing field through better schools and hospitals. We need community groups to provide support for these mothers, not police with barking guns and erratic application of laws. ‘Reality leaves a lot to imagination’ (John Lennon).