Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Open Letter to the Strict Guardians of Male Privilege and craftsMen of Women’s fate

Before the sun could set on the Sixteen Days of Activism Campaign 2014, yet another young Barbadian mother was savagely attacked in a case of Gender Based Violence (GBV).  It serves as a chilling reminder if we ever needed one that domestic violence continues to be a very serious scourge on our society.

At the forefront of the campaign continues to be women’s organisations as the issue disproportionately impacts females. Should it be that only women’s organisations are in the forefront of this effort? Indeed one social commentator reviewing the sixteen days noted that new voices needed to be added to the fight. Another questioned the extent to which the Barbadian public had become desensitised, in the same way that we are no longer shocked by the killing of unarmed black men by police in the USA. The danger of being desensitised is something we must fervently guard against. Failure to do so means that we become unmoved by the plight of the victims and provide a level of legitimacy to would be perpetrators to undertake their heinous acts.

What is to be done is always the question confronting any organisation or social movement attempting to bring about change. Seeking to modify behaviour, raise consciousness and change entrenched mindsets is never an easy task. For this reason the struggle waged by the women’s movement must be lauded since the positive gains are not only beneficial to women but to children and also to men.

As much as these voices continue to be in the forefront of the fight against Gender Based Violence, it is imperative that new voices be added to the struggle. Not as a means of drowning out those in the vanguard of protecting women’s rights but instead to magnify the call for an end to domestic violence and gender inequality in all of its manifestations.

Gender Based Violence is not solely a women’s issue it has to be a male issue too since our sons are negatively impacted and as the statistics irrefutably show men are the main perpetrators. It is for this reason that the silence by leading male organisations in our country needs to be broken. Indeed they do speak but seldom is it in condemning the heinous acts such as occurred on the morning of December 10, 2014. More often the speeches seem calculated to provide excuses or to detract from the real issues.  

For example on the heels of legislation to guard against sexual harassment, we hear a strong call from a leading men’s group that women who falsely accuse men of harassment should receive hefty fines. The real issue here is that harassment in the workplace and elsewhere is persistent, pervasive and petrifying for many women. It is the lived reality of thousands of Barbadian females and far surpasses any consideration of false claims. If an organisation is truly serious about empowering men then it needs to stand behind our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, nieces, daughters and friends to raise the conscious of all men in ending the acts which cause our women significant pain and discomfort.

It baffles me that in the 21st century some male headed organisations still hold on to archaic notions of females being less than equal. That these organisations openly resent the gains women have made and seemingly wish to turn back the hands of time is tragic if not laughable. Such was the case in a recent panel discussion on GBV which I was honoured to be part of.

Sentiments such as women are taking over, women are forcing men out and women were being disobedient and not taking their rightful are the philosophical underpinnings of key figures in one male organisation. In my response to these neanderthal beliefs I stated that the influential figures in my life (mainly women) taught me to stand up on the side of fairness and justice no matter the class, colour, belief system or sex of those being oppressed. For that response I was chastised for ‘siding with women’ to which I showed no remorse.    

One of the major flaws of our Independence project was that while it sought to fix several issues and to improve the standard of living, it did not pay enough attention to gender inequality. This could be seen by the limited subject choices for girls in the early school system, the glaring absence of females in our parliament and even in the selection of a lone heroine in the pantheon of national heroes despite Barbados’ claim to being a matrifocal society.  

Just as white privilege in the USA has resulted in the death of innocent black males; male privilege in Barbados in all sectors including the pulpit, parliament and press has been complicit in the deaths of women by gender based violence. The complicity has come through our failure to condemn domestic violence, our sluggish approach to legal and institutional reforms, unwillingness to raise our consciousness and to understand the plight of Barbadian women and our failure to teach our sons to respect, appreciate and value the lives of our daughters.     

We inherited a system of inequality which attempted to break the body, soul and mind of black women and men for profit. It is time that we disabuse ourselves of that old colonial, patriarchal system which has provided our men with a sense of false entitlement and false superiority. It is time that we throw away the signet of oppression, inequality and violence shamelessly worn by our former colonisers, take responsibility for our actions and emphatically denounce all forms of violence and inequality against this country’s women. GBV is not characteristic of a modern, progressive or enlightened society and will only destroy our social fabric if our males refuse to join the fight. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

When freedom of Expression is taken offline

Issues of freedom of speech online are not solely "rights issues" or "Internet issues"; they are located somewhere in the middle and will need to be addressed by all stakeholders.”
The Internet Society, 2014

The internet has brought with it a plethora of new possibilities. From online shopping to crowd funding for projects, it has been transformational to the lives of ordinary people around the world.
In the last five years or so the ability to interact with friends and even strangers has become a major feature of this technological innovation. With the advent of Web 2.0 tools more commonly known as social media, people from every corner of the earth have been able to connect with each other sharing ideas and information. In so doing they are able to go beyond the limitations of traditional media. 
Previously radio call-in programmes provided the most significant avenue for ordinary people to express their opinions of social, political and economic issues. However there are limitations as a radio station can easily face a law suit for potentially defamatory remarks made by callers.

The internet has not totally displaced the radio call-in programmes or even the newspaper. However it provides citizens with greater freedom to express themselves in comparison to traditional media. In so doing it has become an important tool for raising awareness and amplifying the voice of the common man. However this free speech has become an increasingly contentious issue.

In recent times many debates have been raised at all levels over issues of privacy, security and free speech on the internet. Freedom of speech particularly in the face of repressive political regimes has emerged as one of the most significant issues.  A 2011 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) highlighted social media platforms as being invaluable in countries which lack independent media. These platforms provide individuals with a significant opportunity to share critical views, to network and research important information to advance their cause.

The UNHRC further goes on to cite article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These documents outline the right of individuals to hold opinions without political interference and to freedom of expression. However the UNHRC states that these rights come with certain conditions. It cautions that freedom of speech should be exercised with respect for the reputation of others and should not pose a threat to national security or public order.

Herein lies a very ambiguous issue. Any citizen can claim his right to freedom of speech. On the other hand a state can arbitrarily create or interpret legislation which claims that a citizen has compromised public order, national security or the reputation of others. In the majority of cases ‘others’ really mean the privileged few who hold public office and who have the power and financial backing to zealously protect their reputation.

The Arab Spring was a clear example of ordinary people using the internet to circumvent state owned and private media. In so doing they mobilised grassroots support and protested against oppressive conditions in their countries. Of course several individuals were routinely targeted for expressing their views and attempts were even made to disrupt the internet in some countries. The Caribbean has come a long way from such extremes with respect to our system of governance, however the voice of the citizen is still limited with most electronic media entities being state controlled.

Recently in Trinidad, well known comedian Rachel Price used her Facebook page to criticise the attire of the head of state’s wife. President Carmona’s wife was attending a side event at the United Nations in which she wore a midriff outfit. Price staying true to character, made light of the first lady’s fashion sense. This drew the ire of President Carmona who responded by issuing a cease and desist order preventing Price from making any future public remarks concerning his wife.

As expected the President’s reaction created a stir in the twin island republic which is never devoid of political intrigue. It also led to the question of whether the state official had abused his power in curtailing free speech. This was taken to heart by many Caribbean people as for years ordinary citizens have been verbally abused by the political class on platforms and using the veil of parliamentary privilege.  

The internet and the advent of Web 2.0 tools has now placed some of the power back in the citizens’ hands. However with states’ ability to make and interpret laws, the increased resources to conduct mass surveillance, monitoring and identifying activists and criminalising legitimate expression it is difficult to see how freedom of expression online will be maintained.

Citizens must be cognisant of their responsibility not to engage in character assassination and other malicious conduct online.  Where they fall short of this appropriate legal action should be taken. However a government which truly respects the right of its people to free speech will work hard to find a balance and involve its people in policy formulation of this nature.

Outdated ambiguous legislation will not cut it in the 21st century. A caring and fair government will also set the example by establishing and enforcing a code of conduct which protects citizens from the arbitrary and menacing verbal abuse by some of its members. Failure to do such creates a double standard which privileges the unfettered speech of the powerful and punishes those who dare to speak out.