Probing the Limits of the Gender Equality

by Hyacinth Skervin

The last three years have seen a tremendous surge to the gender inequality discursive in Grenada, and more specifically, where it applies to women’s rights against male perpetrated violence. To the extent the focus on violence against women has lent itself to foregrounding the abuse of women’s rights accompanied by the spectre of victim narratives and parlay of the many forms of resistance to it, there is a palpable sense that this discursive has somehow captured the sum total of the gender inequality realities that exist. By extension, and not without good reason, this sense of resistance is now strongly equated with notions of achievement of gender equality and women empowerment.

Arguably, the national state response implementation programme to end violence against women might have the most to do with this perception since it has been the vehicle used to corral the broadest swathe of partners in the resistance effort. Although belated, the programme is intended to fulfil part of the state’s obligations under the International Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1995) and other regional supportive convention such as the Belem do Para (1996) and CARICOM’s Civil Society Charter (1999). The state response programme may also be credited with raising public consciousness on other issues of these Conventions.

For example, the ongoing Constitutional Reform Committee has also caught on to the need to clarify the gender equality implications of the new recommendations for constitutional reform. Although still a process in development, it is hoped the final outcome will not be one still needing to portend meaningful, tangible fruit beyond prohibitions against gender discrimination or explicit use of sexism in written law. No least of the reasons for the solicitation is the notion that women represents that fifty percent critical mass with enough grievances, naturally endowed kinetic energy and passion that, if properly mobilized, can impact a referendum towards its desired ends. It has certainly happened before.

But three years on there is no record yet of any programme impact in reducing the number of incidences of domestic violence. In fact, those domestic violence figures from the Criminal Record Office continue to trend upwards ever since the records have being kept, and more so, over the last three years. Whether the higher numbers of reported case are due to an increase in the level of reporting or simply to an increase in incidences of violence against women is unclear. But they do point to the need to give due consideration to other possible factors that may be contributing to the increase.

This is not in any way to discount any impactful change being made by these agents of resistance, among them, the many state and non-state actors and perhaps as many individual and corporate enterprises. On the contrary, their more lasting impact, without doubt, has to be those progressive changes that have been done to the perception and reconstruction of gender at the level of culture and politics especially. After all, this is decidedly what the Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Protocol (2011) and Domestic Violence Act (2010) would have done. For the new constraints and sanctions on behaviour and action of the protagonists in the scenarios that these instruments compose must ultimately influence, however creeping, some change in any individual’s thought patterns about the unequal relations between man and woman. Needless to say, men are resisting this new influence on their own thinking. It is a thought that will be developed later in this article.

 

Of Women

But changing the culture and politics with respect to violence against women represents only one component of the broader process of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Nor is violence against women the most poignant form of abuse of women’s rights in Grenada, if one were to look carefully. To any keen observer, building agency and power in all women would seem to be the most important salient of empowerment in a society where too many women continue to live lives of economic desperation and dependency. While the statistics of violence against women is alarming, entrenched and invidious sexist structures of wealth and poverty distribution condemn even more women to lives of continuous poverty and need.

Let us compare. According to the UN Women’s report for International Women’s Day 2015, between 15–71% victimhood of women between 14–44 years across countries of the globe. Not only does this period indicate the most fertile and attractive period of women’s lives but it is also the period when incalculable harm is being done to the income productive capacities and potentialities of women already vested with child-bearing and often other care giving responsibilities, curtailment of their careers or sacrifice of careers in many instances. In the meantime, women worldwide own only about one percent of the world’s wealth resource. Is it any wonder then that most of the strides that have been made in advancing income and employment equity have singularly benefitted married women first before other categories of women? Think of this in terms of the slew of inheritance rights, reproductive rights including maternity and paternity leave, child maintenance rights and the order of divorce settlements to get a sense of the scale of benefits attributed to women with legal spouses. Yet all of these benefits are supposedly intended to mitigate the impoverishment of all women in some way. Yet at the same time they intuitively highlight every woman’s habit of dependency, marginalization and attempts to correct their dispossession in the ownership of wealth, there are still some categories of women who are exempt or among the least of the beneficiaries.

What, for example, is left for those women without such entitlements? This is also where it becomes problematic for just too many women in Grenada, the greater number of whom, it is reported, assume responsibilities for single-headed households and contend with greater deficits in their capacities and potential to advance economically. Regardless of our legendary resourcefulness and resilience as Caribbean women, no honest appraisal of women economic independence can claim this ability to make-do or turn wi hand and make fashion, has ever been enough to redress the income and employment imbalances that continues to define our hybrid double-tiered form of Caribbean economies. So our social traditions continue, such it is that our single women have more children or choose to become guardians of children, to, as is customary, ensure their path to economic survival, and means by which to pay into their own old age insurance. Just as much the growing numbers of single women without children continues to blather through with no categorical class of provisions for them on account of their gender. To be exempt, of course, are those most fortunate to have some claim to family legacies.

This seemingly social dissonance is indeed the lived experience of our women and is certainly not unique to Grenada. But alas, we might have become too settled on our lees in our acceptance of it: as if nothing really better can be done or that there is hardly an incentive to do so. For in our striving for parity with older and better resourced economies, we had endeavoured to make sure that we compare well on important human development indices — appearing among the middle and higher middle categories of countries on income, health, education and other social indicators nominally used to measure gender equality. Our small and over populated environments notwithstanding, these are indeed tremendous achievements for which to be proud. That the indices do not reflect the wide disparities between the income levels is a not a moot point, however. For what they do account for, we can be sure, are the discrepantly higher income categories of the most educated and competitive classes of women and men, which group members are the ones most likely to be married and enjoy spousal benefits. Such categories quite naturally will pull the indices upwards. So contrary to what UN Women about the overall lack of progress on gender equality in lights of its theme for International Women’s Day, there will be still but few countries that are in fact approximating gender equality, if such social disparities are negligible, other factors considered.

On the other hand, the vast majority of social welfare recipients on the islands are from single-headed households. As useful and entrenched as this service is, it reflecting a culture clearly defined by its extensive and deeply connected style of family relations and community supportive structures — social assistance creates its own dependency syndrome. First, it is more likely to provide assistance to women already concentrated in insecure jobs, perhaps in the informal sector and more vulnerable to unemployment or to women who have never al all been employed. Second, it easily befits the category of woman most subject to physical violence and other forms of abuses.

An examination of domestic violence data from the RGPF in Grenada from 2009–2014, for instance, indicates that the vast majority of perpetrators and victims of violence are poorly situated and in informal relationships of boyfriend-girlfriend, or mother to child’s father or the more formal wife to husband, which last two are placed at a distant second and third. In year 2013 in particular, of the four hundred and four reported cases of domestic violence, just shy of fifty percent or 202 were victims of physical abuse. Of the 152 female victims in this physical abuse category, ninety of them were unemployed, another 38 were semi-skilled or non-skilled, of whom eleven of the latter were students, and only 19 could be classified as skilled. Again, of the physical violent offenses against females of the same year, ninety were committed by boyfriends or ex-boyfriends. Another 31 were committed by husbands or ex-husbands. This puts the ratio of boyfriend-husband perpetrators at 3:1. In fact in a subsequent study on physical violence against women in Grenada, which was completed in 2014, this author had this to say in the conclusions:

“The predominantly male perpetrators indicated more than fifty percent unemployed ranging from youth to mature adults. Higher frequencies among low or semi-skilled groups young to middle age groups were also characteristic of this population over the period [2009–2014]. Given the social characteristics of the perpetrators, the groups’ cultural predilections are constituted in the combination and dynamic conditioning of the rural environment with its less access to social, civil and public support and security, and lower income and education levels.”

 

And Men

However, such a mix of outcomes only obfuscate the true reason men continue to perpetrate violence, with the explanation being proffered therewith, is that poor, economically dependent, single women and women in common law and ex officio relationships are the biggest targets, albeit of equally poor, economically depressed men. Even while this appears to be so, it certainly does not explain other currencies that increasing numbers of men are availing themselves of the provisions for equality in the Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Protocol and Domestic Violence Act, aforementioned. It likewise does not bear out why both men of lower and higher means are doing so. In fact, the offending cross current to which this is attributed, arises from, in some way, the concomitant and new effort to more comprehensively implement the Child Maintenance Act (of 1973) under the obligations of the also new Child Protection and Adoption Act (2010). That is, increasing use of the provisions in the former attest to efficacy in the many sector-wise approach, thus far, to influence change to gender culture and gender relations in the country. It is also a testament to the effectiveness of these instruments, in that, they have now been proven and have been found to be constitutively relevant to and important considerations in the implementation of other Acts.

More importantly, as if we could not have known this, these seemingly successful attempts to buttress the insecurities in women’s lives over the history of the gender discursive in this country are now appearing to expose, or worse, create new kinds of insecurities in men’s lives. For the record, it has now acknowledged in local courts and the relevant agencies that violence against women is on the upswing particularly against women in possession of restraining orders or child maintenance rulings in respect of their estranged [ex] partners. It is also being experienced by men seeking dependency benefits from their estranged partners. One of the explanations that have been put forth is that there is a feeling that men are increasingly seeing themselves being bested in these scenarios of maintenance, child rights and gender equality. Another is that the male population is becoming increasingly aware of their own gender equality rights and especially is becoming cynical in their embrace of these rights. The primary assumption in this case, is that the men are being mindful of the backdrop in the improving employment situation for women and their increasing income capacities to take care of their children. Still another purport that men are charting their own new course on gender equality, not least of the reasons being to reverse some of the collective rights that women have gained.

Whatever the reason, this layered increase of type of gender-based violence is a totally unanticipated result, and should bring attention to the reality that the deeper social rights issues of men are being implicated and not insufficiently or not at all addressed in these new processes of the law. This is particularly pertinent, given the fact that the women rights discursive has had a much longer history, its canon of knowledge, legislations, and systematization that their male protagonists are unable to match.  In comparison, the male gender discursive is still relatively rudimentary, if it is still giving focus to raising awareness about what the real male grouses are in men’s relationship to women. In fact, many recent studies on men have corroborated this argument that the ranges of male gender issues are yet to be clearly articulated and properly contextualized as the case may be. Among the most common of these male rights issues are the negative stereotypes, changing gender roles, school or home education of boys, gender neutral programmes, reproductive rights to offspring, companionship and sex, anti-male double standard and father’s rights.

Be that as it may, a paradigm shift in the male gender discursive in Grenada is beginning to show up in broad outlines. No doubt, as it comes into relief, it will eventually validate the context, structure and power relations within which men’s lives are lived in this clearly dual country-climate of assertive and pliant women. Ultimately, and for better or worse, it will also soon bring about quite visibly like its counterpart, its own change to gender norms and culture, to women’s conditions, men’s consciousness of other men and to our social institutions.

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