Miles away from the red zone, surrounded by the vibrant green of Ortinola, Maracas, women from 17 countries hosted a regional conference of their own last week. During the two days preceding the Fifth Summit of the Americas, the Women's Institute for Alternative Development (Winad), in conjunction with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), hosted "Women Talking with Women: Crime and Violence in the Caribbean". Participants came up with a regional policy framework for getting women involved in decision-making about violence prevention and exchanged ideas on the role women could play in reducing violence in their households, communities and countries. Winad's Nadine Lewis Agard discussed how Trinidadian women experience gun violence, took us to task on our collective apathy and aired a long laundry list of things to do.
Q: We hear about boys and their guns all the time. How did the question of women and the gun culture come up?
A: Winad was working on an intergenerational programme that addressed violence affecting women, and we realised that it wasn't just domestic violence that came up but also gun violence: what it's like living in communities that are stigmatised, how that affects access to goods, services and jobs and how it affects women and girls, not just as victims but as intimate partners, mothers and children. So, we really became interested in how this surge in gun violence affects women and girls, which is something we don't talk about. Last year, we got funding from UNICEF to go to communities and have conversations with women and girls about violence. We selected the hot spots throughout the country, not just in Morvant and Laventille but also in the West, Central, East and South.
Did the women say anything we don't already know?
We knew we were going to hear a couple things like how much of a fall-out there is when someone dies or goes to jail and what that does to a family and community. What was surprising was the way the issue of domestic violence has really resurged. You have women across the board, female executives for example, living in fear in their own homes. Guns have changed the face of domestic violence. It's no longer a question of women being injured but of them being murdered, and they are scared. We also had conversations with girls who had been through the court system and had been involved in gangs and violent acts.
We don't hear from them often.
We don't. They opened up about the impact of violence on their lives. They spoke about a ranking system and what you had to do to get highly ranked. At first, it sounded foreign but when you think about it, women in my generation are involved in ranking. It's not violent, but you achieve status by being married to a man with a certain kind of job or car. It's the same with them: a lot of it hinges on their attachment to a man and what kind of man he is. Is he a drug lord? How much money does he have? How much turf does he control? So these women are ranked based either on their connection to a man or their participation in organised, violent acts towards other women.
How optimistic are you that women who benefit from men's criminal activity materially, keep their secrets, hide their guns or are fearful, can mobilise into a force that would reduce gun violence?
I don't think that the women will be transformed suddenly. It won't happen overnight, but it's good to start having the discussions and not see it as an "us and them" kind of thing.
Many people will point to "those" women in the same way we talk about "those" men.
We always act as if the situation germinated itself. We have to begin asking what we have done and how we have impacted on it. What are the policies of this country and the systems that contribute to violence? We have systems that really do allow people to fall through the cracks. Our education system is not perfect. It's about analysing the curriculums and our children. The same programme can't work for everybody. So, how do we tweak our system?
Several things have gone wrong. There's corruption. The guns are not manufactured in Trinidad. They probably originated legally in the US and came through a stream to T&T, but who is bringing them in? We know it's not the grassroots man who doesn't have the money. The country is a small country. We are supposed to be able to monitor our borders and capture people. But the downside of having a small country is that people know people...that kind of corruption is pervasive.
The other thing is that there is a type of fallacy that it's all gang violence. When we don't know the nature of the crime, we label it gang violence, and alot of the population is very comfortable hearing that because it means it's not going to reach them: I am not in a gang, we are not in that lifestyle. That feeling permeates law enforcement, the political regime and the public.
I've spoken to a support group for women from Laventille who have lost partners and sons to violence, and they complain that whether or not their loved ones had anything to do with drugs or gangs, their deaths were labelled that way. These women don't expect any arrestsor convictions. They're resigned to injustice.
There is almost a comfort in the rest of the country. This violence has not shaken us as yet because we do not see the boys, lying there in blood, as ours. Somehow, we have not connected that and it has worked against us. We talk about crime and gun violence in this country and see it in terms of poor, young, black youth. When we start to have a holistic look at crime, we begin to understand how crime on a higher level impacts this gun violence we have now. We need to track that and stop that trickle-down. We have to address crimes of the pen. We have to weed out corruption on all levels.
How do we drum up the political will and call the authorities to account?
It is hard, but first we have to understand our responsibility as citizens. How can I call out the politicians and police if as a citizen, I want to fast-track everything, from a driver's licence to passport for my little life?
What are the next steps?
We have to put out some statements on what is happening, and how as a region we have not looked at crime and violence. We really have not admitted that this is an overwhelming problem or looked at how it's impacting women and communities...how we are losing opportunities, whether we are part of the violence or not. We have to come up with strategies to get women engaged in crime-stopping and peacemaking and policy-making. That's very much a man's league. We have to ask how we can get women involved in the policy-making to make sure there is a gender perspective and not just one man dead, one man goes to jail, build more jails.
There are things we have never addressed. Up to now, we have not had healthy conversations as a nation about slavery, indentureship and the violence of that. We have never spoken collectively about these things, what it meant for us and how it impacted on us. It's reached a stage where we say we don't know how we got here, but ours has always been a violent culture. The way we were spoken to as children was violent. It is just a mishmash of pain and hurt and anger that we have never addressed. We have to start discussions. Let's start talking about our historical pain.
That's a vast assignment. How exactly are the groups represented here going to proceed?
We're having regional sessions looking at United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the gender perspective of peacemaking and having women more included in policy-making when we talk about security. I think it is important for us to look at regional programming because from what I'm hearing, we have very similar issues. It might be even better for us to do things collectively. But the community conversations are very important too. Every woman has to understand that there are things we can do as women to change not only our families and communities but policies.