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Schools Are Closed, Now What?

COVID-19 is forcing us to change the way we live. It demands that we change our behaviour in order to stop the spread of the virus. We are not yet taking it as seriously as we should. We should not have waited for a confirmed case before taking action, especially when we have thousands of people moving in and out of the country, directly engaging with a large proportion of our population through the tourism industry. We are behind and rushing to make decisions when we could have been far ahead, learning from the experiences of China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. Finally, we are making adjustments, but it is coming slowly. We are not being given much time for transition. We have to be ready for sudden changes. It should not, however, fall completely on us.

The government has a responsibility to ensure everyone has a reasonable chance to get through this, and that means introducing feminist policy rather than making sweeping changes that leave gaps that increase the vulnerability of people who were already vulnerable. They need to give us the tools to survive their decisions. As an example, we can look at the decision to close schools. The closure of all schools was a good call. That said, it should have come with a comprehensive plan to manage all of the components that are missing as a result of the closure. It needed to consider the safety of children, the income of parents, food security and education.

This is no village

We have created a culture of selfishness. We do not care as much about our neighbours as we like to pretend. We do not live in little proverbial villages. We expect people to take care of themselves or suffer the consequences of their inability to do so. We also expect them to do it quietly. This was made clear by the comments on one of the livestreams of the prime minister’s address on Sunday night.

The prime minister made the announcement at eight o’clock on Sunday night that schools would be closed for one month starting the next day. This gave parents and guardians less than 12 hours to make other arrangements. People, obviously unprepared and unsure of what to do, commented on the video to ask what they were supposed to do with their children. Others responded that those children were their problem to deal with, the prime minister need not figure out their lives for them and they should let the same person who watches the children while the parents party watch them – no one.

The responses were rude, callous and evidence of the erosion of the moral fabric we pretend to have in this society. People are uncaring. Not only that, but we have a limited understanding of the responsibility of governments, and we have gone for such a long time without the government properly providing the services and resources it should, depending heavily on non-governmental organizations, that we are ready to accept it and ridicule others for daring to even question it.

Schools meet more than educational needs

Schools are primarily the site of education, but they are also providers of supervision, safety, lunches and routines. School closure does not just mean children will not be at school, potentially spreading the virus. It means many children will be without adult supervision. Parents and guardians have to be at work. Working from home is not a common option here and, even at this time, employers refuse to consider it. The foolish idea that people are only working if you can see them working prevails. This makes it impossible for people to ensure their children are safe when out of school. Add to this low wages and high cost of living and it is not difficult to see how many cannot afford to pay a sitter.

Children are, no doubt, currently at home alone with instructions to be quiet and not let anyone know they are there, or given responsibilities like taking care of the younger children and walking to a neighbourhood store to purchase food. Parents and guardians are forced to trust family members and friends to drop by and check on their children, hoping they do not, instead, cause them harm. We cannot close schools without making commensurate adjustments to worklife.

There are children on lunch programmes. The number is limited and the criteria strict, so it is obvious these children need to be provided with free lunches. What will they eat when they are at home? They receive free lunches at school because their families cannot afford to feed them otherwise. This does not change when they must now be at home. How can we close schools without thinking about the nutrition of the children who will be behind closed doors?

The disruption in children’s education must also be considered. We all know what happens after a school break when children have not reviewed their work. When they return to school, teachers have to go over old material with them. We cannot have them at home with no curricula to follow and expect them to return in a month and prepare for exams in a few weeks.

What will be done to ensure their education continues? Every child does not have internet access, so virtual school will not work for everyone. Will teachers prepare packages with review material and schedules for them to follow? Who will assist them if they need help? Will there be radio programming to occupy, educate and entertain them while they are at home, and guide them through their days?

These are only three consequences – changes in safety, nutrition, and education – of the closure of school in isolation. The government has not put any measures in place to support families through this change. There has been no announcement of assistance for families that have no one available to stay with their children free of charge and no money to pay someone to do it.

There have been no arrangements made for people to pick up or receive deliveries of the lunches that would have been provided at school. The government is making decisions and leaving gaps. These gaps are huge, and they are directly linked to poverty, hunger and child safety.

If this is an indication of the actions the government intends to take in the face of COVID-19, we are in trouble. We have to speak up now. We have to pay attention to the gaps, point them out, recommend solutions. If we fail to do this, we fail ourselves and our communities. We do not want to be left wondering why there are so many reports of sexual violence or cases of malnutrition in the weeks to come.

How do we make feminist policy?

Have you ever been in a running club? Or a cycling club? One of the strongest runners or cyclists is always at the back. They could go faster, they could be in the front and they could finish first. Clubs, however, are not about that. They are about building community through the enjoyment of an activity, and part of being in community is making sure everyone is safe and no one gets left behind. Someone is always at the back, making sure the slowest, least skilled, or newest person is in their sight.

Feminist policies leave no one behind. They consider the most vulnerable people, put them to the front and design policies that will work for them. This is different from typical policymaking which focuses on the majority and sees vulnerable people as outliers. If the policy will not work for the people with the greatest need and who are the most marginalised, it will not work. It will create greater gaps, and we do not need that.

We need to close the schools. Okay, let’s think it through. Who are the students with the greatest need? We will need to consider those from families with low incomes, those with specific learning needs, those with no one to care for them during school hours, those with disabilities, those with medical needs, etc.

We still need to close schools, but what programmes and services can we implement to ensure they are not left more vulnerable? These could include stipends for caregiving, lunch drop-offs, modified lesson material and scheduled visits from a medical professional. Beyond this, we need to look at other household needs like the ability to work from home and increased food stamps or stipends. Feminist policy identifies existing needs, anticipates the needs that would arise from the proposed change, and directly addresses those needs.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Unit shared an assessment of potential challenges and solutions arising from the COVID-19 crisis, from food (in)security to economic (in)equality, and the necessary response on through its social media channels.

It is important for everyone – government actors, non-governmental organizations, advocates, employers and citizens – to review, consider and act upon the recommendations made in the chart the SDG Unit produced. It is designed to help us to move forward without leaving anyone behind, and we should all be committed to that.

We, the Bahamian community, have to do this together to survive.

Published by The Tribune on March 18, 2020.

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A Little Disappointment Shouldn’t Kill the Dream

Last week was quite busy as I worked with the all-volunteer team of Equality Bahamas to plan and execute our annual International Women’s Day events. Every year, this process leads me to think about a range of issues, circumstances, gaps and solutions. From people – primarily young women – adding to their regular workloads as volunteers with non-governmental organisations to the response of the public to initiatives designed for and by women, there is no shortage of necessary discussions.

After the march and expo, I came across a Facebook post by someone I’ve known since elementary school. This is not a person I spend time with nor have intimate knowledge of, but I know basic facts such as her name, profession, close friends and other bits and pieces anyone can glean from shares on social media. I did not know anything about her position on political or social issues. Then I saw a days-old post about the (then) upcoming march I organised with a team of dedicated, enthusiastic young women. The post basically said she would definitely not be marching after being duped by We March which proved to be something other than the organiser had suggested.

There were three main commenters, two of whom completely agreed with the post. One person noted it was an unreasonable position to take, unfair to paint women organisers with the brush of a reckless person, and important to properly use non-violent forms of protest.

I struggle to find a word for the way I felt when I read this thread. “Disappointed” is not quite it. I know better than to expect everyone – or even most people – to get on board. I have come to expect naysayers and finger-pointers. I know people find it easy to call other people’s work garbage – and this is a euphemism for the word used – than to do the work themselves. Still, it is almost as though I expected more from this particular person. Why? Because I “know” her? Because she has never shown any signs of being against the expansion of women’s rights? Because she is a young woman and business owner who has surely experienced misogyny and sexism, and has definitely been disadvantaged by the systemic issues we have yet to properly address? Because I think she should care?

In reflecting on this experience, I have been reminded of two important lessons I have learned over the past few years. The first is that it is important to take conversations about rights, justice and feminism outside of the comfortable spaces. The Equality Bahamas team can talk about national issues and what needs to be done to tackle them all day, every day, but it would not change anything. We have to take our critique, our ideas and our plans of action outside of our own space, engage others in the conversation and convince them to take action with us.

To be clear, we do this regularly, but the reminder helps push us to think more about where we have not gone yet and what we need to do to get there. The second is that our greatest opponents in the fight for equality are systems and social constructs – not people. People – including some we know – embody those systems and constructs and they act in the ways that are dictated by those systems and constructs. For many, those systems and constructs are all there is. They have not had the chance to think about a world without them.

The day-to-day hustle to get to and from work, figure out how to pay the bills and keep groceries in the house and take care of the unexpected does not leave us much room for imagination. All some of us have is the memory of what has already taken place and the heaviness of the current situation. Reality does not encourage us to dream. If we never take the time to think beyond what we have, to envision what we do not yet see, we are doomed to a future that looks exactly like the present. To get beyond this point, we have to identify and deconstruct the systems that find homes within people and we have to create opportunities for people to imagine, create and realise more.

Leaders of organisations, movements and people have a responsibility to the people under the sound of their voices. They have to be more than charismatic. They have to be honest. Loyal. Communicative. Accessible. They have to be able to answer questions about where they want us to go, why and how we will get there. They have to be willing to go the distance, to train, mentor and elevate others to take the position they must eventually vacate. They have to do what they said they would do. They have to prove themselves worthy of the trust and support they receive. When they fail to be and do all of this, and without apology, we end up where we are now. We find ourselves surrounded by people who are disappointed, hurt and unwilling to act.

No one fighting for a cause can hope for another’s downfall. The failures, missteps, compromises and disappointments of one can negatively impact others, even when they seem completely unrelated. How can we reactivate imaginations that have been dormant for so long? This may be the challenge of this generation of changemakers – to reactive imaginations so we can see something better, then believe we can make it happen.

Why whistles don’t get to the root of the issue

When Philip “Brave” Davis suggested the government provide women and children with whistles, there was no way to keep it out of the headlines. Yes, he made other recommendations, but this one deserved a response. The knee-jerk reaction grazed the surface, but did not quite go deep enough to explain what is really wrong with the suggestion.

The whistle is not a new idea. Many of us are familiar with the “rape whistle”. We are expected to be equipped with these whistles and, should we feel unsafe, we are to blow the whistle.

The first issue is that the answer to an issue is not in the response of the person on the receiving end. Gender-based violence is a systemic issue. Gender is a social construct that prescribes ways of being for people based on the social and cultural expectations of each gender. Gender-based violence is the name for harm caused that is directly related to understandings of gender and how it controls us.

The man who attempts to harm a woman because she is seen as weaker and meant to be submissive is not likely to be scared off by the sound of whistle for various reasons. The whistle has to be accessible enough for the woman to blow it. If is it around her neck, it can become a weapon for strangulation. If it is loose, held in her hand, it can be knocked out. If she gets it to her mouth, she risks more physical injury because she could be caused to choke, or she may be struck. If she manages to use the whistle to make noise, this could aggravate the man and lead to further harm.

The second issue is the uncertainty about its effectiveness. Do we know what to do when we hear a whistle being blown in a parking lot? Is a Junkanoo group on the way? Is someone practising for sports day? Did a child get a new toy? What are we, as citizens, supposed to do when we hear a whistle. Do we know when it is a distress signal as opposed to something else, and do we know how to intervene if we determine it is a distress signal? On Saturday, we distributed whistles and one of the women decided to blow it in a public space when approached by a man she knew. Luckily, she was in no danger, but she noted no one paid any attention at all.

Women and girls are always told what to do and what not to do in order to prevent acts of violence against us, especially rape. Nowhere near as much effort is put into teaching consent, making a distinction between sex and rape and engaging men and boys in conversations about gender-based violence prevention. We need to get to the root of the issue. The problem is not that women and girls are not scared enough, vigilant enough, or bombarded with enough products – like mobile apps to indicate to friends that we’re in distress, pepper spray, and date rape drug-detecting nail polish – to prevent violence against us. The problem is that all the focus is on us and ways we can make sure the less prepared women or girl is the victim instead of us. We do not want to make someone else the statistic. We want to change the statistics. To do that, we need to start at the root, and not create another path to stress and further harm.

Published by The Tribune on March 11, 2020.