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Culture Clash: Time to Face the Reality of Mental Health

Last weekend, I spent several hours at a book club meeting. We chose Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman as our February read, and it gave us more to think and talk about than we expected. Half of us did not even expect to like the book, but quickly realised it was a reflection of some of our own experiences, far-fetched as it seemed at first glance. Mental health was a dominant theme and it was easy to talk, at length, about the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the urgent need to address the inadequacies of health services, family support and often debilitating stigma.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the level of emotional, psychological and social well-being and our ability to manage stress. Like physical health, it can change over time, and conditions can be transient or chronic. They are sometimes biological, but can also be triggered by life experiences or trauma.

Two conditions resulting from life experience or trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression. Many people heavily and personally impacted by recent hurricanes now deal with PTSD, some of them triggered by the sounds of rain or wind. Experiences of postpartum depression are not often shared, but in recent years, celebrities have shared their experiences to help women going through it and to sensitise family members and community members to the experiences of new mothers who must also contend with a condition they cannot control on their own.

Crazy talk

We are quick to call people “crazy,” and make assumptions about their lives, particularly when their mental health conditions do not allow them to fully function, or they are homeless or under-housed. Maybe worse, some of us use neuroatypical people as a source of entertainment, recording videos of them and sharing them on social media.

People’s everyday lives become a joke, and we ignore their humanity. We forget they are people with histories, families and daily challenges to overcome. To us, they are just “crazy” and we assume their situations are their own fault.

In our careless commentary and self-serving entertainment, we can unknowingly alienate and offend people who may be high-functioning while dealing with mental health challenges. Even worse, when made aware of the offensive nature of our language — and interpretation of what have become common words and phrases — our reaction, far too often, is to become defensive, or reject the idea that we could ever unintentionally harm someone.

It’s difficult to change the way we speak, but becomes easier when we work on one thing at a time. With a few years of practice, I’ve taken “crazy” out of my vocabulary. It was not easy, but it was important to me, especially as a human rights supporter, a family member and friend of people with mental health challenges and a person who is not vaccinated against mental health challenges.

Support loved ones

Videos have been circulating of a man named Jeremy. Members of his family have said his life changed as a result of a laced joint. He walks the streets and, every now and then, they are able to get him to return home, but never for a long time. He has tried to get professional help, but like many patients, he does not like the way the medication makes him feel.

Medication for mental health conditions alter the chemistry of the brain. It can sometimes cause people to feel numb, or like they are losing parts of themselves. It is rare for a person to be prescribed the best possible medication the first time around. It can take a few tries to find the medication that helps a person to function without making them feel less than human, or even making their condition worse.

There is little support available for people facing mental health challenges, especially if they do not have the money to pay for care. Imagine having a health challenge, saving enough money to see a doctor, then saving enough money to purchase medication only to find that it is not the right one for you. You have to go back to the doctor, pay for the visit and purchase another medication. It is already not easy to get well. Think about how much harder is it to navigate all of this without support, or while seeing and hearing discriminatory remarks that aren’t even meant to hurt you, but they do anyway.

We all know people with mental health challenges. We may not know it, or know exactly what those challenges are, but they exist. The stigma around mental illness is more than inconvenient or sad. It can keep us from seeking the help we know and feel we need.

Because it so difficult for people to admit to struggles with mental health, seeking professional help and asking for support from family members and friends, it is important for us to pay attention to our loved ones. We often notice changes in people or the way they interact with us, but find easy answers to our own questions. “She got problems,” or “He got a bad attitude,” become our diagnoses. “Something wrong with them.” Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a health issue, but assume people have made conscious decisions to behave differently.

Seeing the signs

We need to learn to see the signs of mental health challenges and how to address them. Pay attention to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, energy levels and interest in hobbies. Listen to the ways loved ones describe how they are feeling. If they feel numb, hopeless, helpless, like nothing matters, or think about harming themselves or others, do not ignore or conclude that they are being dramatic. It’s time to listen. It’s time to find the necessary resources to help your loved one to get well.

Seeing a general practitioner is a good start as they are able to make referrals and, if you have a relationship with your GP, they may have a better idea of your personality and which psychologists and psychiatrists would be able to work best with you.

Mental hygiene

Mental health, like physical health, is not static. It does not stay the same over the course of your life. Just as important as recognising and addressing mental health challenges is practicing good mental hygiene. Take time to take care of yourself. Conduct regular mental scans. How are you feeling? Are you tired? Unmotivated? Wanting to be alone more than usual? Diving into work to avoid thinking or feeling? Pay attention to your coping mechanisms.

A lot of us find ways to take care of our mental health, whether through unscheduled days off, exercise, or regular practices like yoga or meditation. Some of us, however, need help with maintaining our mental health – and it does not mean we are “crazy.” It means we are self-aware and willing to commit to improving our lives.

Whether weekly therapy sessions or medication, there are options available to us, but mostly to those who can afford it. If you’re interested in group therapy, reach out to The Family – People Helping People which offers free sessions in communities all over New Providence. While we work to combat the stigma around mental health challenges, we also need to raise our voices to ensure it is included in national health initiatives. The mind is no less important than the body, and it needs care too.

Published by The Tribune on February 27, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Black Lives Matter in The Bahamas Too

It’s open season, but don’t worry. They’ll only kill the people they recognize, and only if they’re afraid. The Royal Bahamas Police Force is on a mission, and no one cares to intervene.

Many in The Bahamas have looked on and formed strong opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement and the actions it has taken in response to state-sanctioned killings by police officers. We often feel far-removed from events in the U.S., especially where issues of race are concerned. Black Lives Matter is necessary because black people were — and continue to be — specifically targeted by police.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th gave context to the issues of race, policing, and prisons experienced today, linking them to the historical oppression of black people from slavery to the prison industrial complex. Again, we have mentally distanced ourselves from what we read as a U.S.-issue. For most of us, the majority of the people we encounter on a daily basis are black. Our police officers are black. Surely that means we cannot experience racism. That has to mean black people will be treated fairly, and we are free of the oppression African-Americans suffer. Right?

If you hold those opinions, you are definitely wrong. There are two things we need to be aware of — internalized racism and institutional racism.

Internalized racism is learned. As we experience racism, we begin to develop ideas and behaviors that uphold racism. It is systemic, structural, and cross-cultural, so it can pit members of oppressed communities against each other. Think, for example, of how women can internalize misogyny, and begin to support the idea that we would all be better off if we dress and behave in particular ways, finding it easy to look down on a woman of different socioeconomic status, age, or marital status. Internalized racism functions in a similar way. He wouldn’t be pulled over if he would just cut his hair. Stop driving that Honda. Move with less people in his crew. Stay out of that area. We find excuses for people to be violated by those who hold power.

Institutional racism is enforced. It is a pattern of treating a group of people poorly because of their race. Examples include students being sent home from school because their natural hair does not meet the Eurocentric beauty standards. As in this example, the action seems to fit a rule or standard of the institution; not because it is valid, but because the institution was built for the benefit and service of white people. We don’t have to know it is happening to participate in it. Just two years ago, I heard police officers brag about chasing young black men out of the downtown area, sending them “back Ova Da Hill.” Hearing this, I asked them who The Bahamas is for, and why they think they can restrict people’s movement based on race, age, and gender. They could not respond, and were forced to acknowledge, among other issues, institutional bias coupled with internalized racism.

The rhetoric around police killing civilians is ludicrous. People would more readily excuse homicide than interrogate the practices of police officers on the street. The assumption is always that the person must have done something wrong for the police to be engaged, and if they have done something wrong — whatever it is — they deserve death. The entire justice system goes out of the window because we find it more expedient for the police to operate like vigilantes. We do not believe people are innocent until proven guilty. Location, appearance, association, and proximity to a weapon are all valid reasons to meet your demise. Did we believe that Trayvon Martin should have been shot for walking through a neighborhood with a bag of Skittles?

The Royal Bahamas Police Force’s press team has learned to use “in fear for their lives” to convince us that there was a good reason to shoot and kill a citizen. There is a popular opinion that fear is a reasonable excuse for firing a weapon to kill another person. In a social media post, Erin Greene said, “the constant response of ‘in fear’ suggests an emotional response, and not a determination made with critical reasoning skills.” This should terrify rather than assuage us. Are police officers not taught to think critically and consider all options? Even if the decision is to shoot, why shoot to kill rather than incapacitate?

Sure, police officers need to make quick decisions. It is also a reasonable expectation that they are sufficiently trained and able to police themselves. Police officers are not the judge or the jury. They should not be the executioner, especially given the ruling of the Privy Council on the death penalty. Wait.

Perhaps this is the RBPF’s way of carrying out the death penalty. It is entirely possibly that they, as has been rumored, are fed up with the justice system. They are tired of making arrests, putting their lives in danger, and waiting for verdicts. Maybe they are tired of seeing the people they arrested out on bail for extended periods of time, or being found innocent. Is this an informal strategy?

Do not be tricked into believing in a false dichotomy. A commenter on social media said, “We are at a junction in our development where we have to decide on whose side we are on; the police or the heartless criminal.” We must first understand that every person police officers encounter is not a criminal. Even if they are suspects, they have the right to a fair trial. Fighting on the side of criminals is not the same as demanding due process for all. It is not the same as acknowledging the value of a life. A text message to a radio talk show read (in part), “police have to get royal,” meaning they need to take extreme action to send a clear message. This is how the people around us are thinking.

There have been five killings by police in 2018, and 10 since November 2017. Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said, “the focus on counts shouldn’t be the issue.” Just last month, he reminded the PLP that there were 33 homicides in the first two months of 2017, and in September 2017, he noted that crime was down 19 per cent along with other statistics. Numbers are obviously important, and we need to pay attention to trends.

Dames, less than one year into the job, is shirking responsibility. He said of police officers, “[if] he or she feels threatened, I can’t make that decision for them. They have to make that for themselves.” So much for accountability. Zero tolerance only applies to civilians, and police officers can do as they please, so long as they feel fearful or threatened. What a license to have. Is any one else scared out there?

Dames would also have us believe it is excusable that most people killed by police this year were “known to police.” We all know people in this category, for various reasons, who do not have a criminal record. They may wear their pants low or have dreadlocks, and may have spent nights in the police station, but they are not criminals. That’s just too bad. They are known to the police, and it’s open season. What number must we reach, who must be killed, or which scripture do we need to read and understand to intervene in state violence and affirm the humanity of the black Bahamian people we know, do not know, and are “known” to the police?

Published by The Tribune on February 14, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Christian Nation

The Bahamas is a Christian nation. That’s what we like to say. It is the proclamation that sets us apart from other countries. It is the reason for every good thing that has ever happened to us. Being a Christian nation protects us from natural disasters. It wins elections. It provides the perfect excuse and opportunity for marginalizing vulnerable people, and with the backing of scripture, largely misquoted and misinterpreted, to which we do not all ascribe.

Where did we get this idea?

Aside from declarations by leaders of the Christian church and the rhetoric of laypeople, the preamble of the constitution is the main source of the belief that The Bahamas is a Christian nation. The constitution does not explicitly state The Bahamas is a Christian nation, and it does not commit the country to Christianity. It says the people recognize that “the preservation of their freedom will be guaranteed by,” among other things, “an abiding respect for Christian values.” It establishes The Bahamas as a “free and democratic sovereign nation founded on spiritual values.”

No one ever seems to mention the other elements — self-discipline, unity, or respect for rule of law — required for the preservation of freedom. They aren’t nearly as convenient for exclusion and alienation of others, or easily manipulated and redefined according to specific circumstances. A supposed commitment to Christianity is the answer to almost any question we don’t want to answer. “Christian nation” as a response seems to result in an automatic bye, and it is not being used to our advantage as a country, but to deny, deter, and delay. It automatically brings processes and conversations to a halt, because we can’t risk angering a vengeful god, or defying the words of the preamble to a bible-like text that must always, by nature of its existence, be right.

We are more tied to the preamble of the constitution than most of its articles. The referendum exercise of 2016 evidenced the lack of knowledge about, not only what is in the constitution, but its purpose and importance as supreme law. That is clearly stated in Article 1. If people haven’t made it past Article 1, how much weight can we put on their understanding of the constitution and the purpose of the preamble?

Stifling democracy

The “Christian nation” cry is a well-practiced, dangerous, self-centered move to divide and defeat. Citizens, presenting themselves as practicing Christians, find Bible verses to justify their points of view, and argue against any law, policy, or person they deem to be unchristian. This type of argument is seen as king. It is holy and untouchable because its words came straight directly from The Bible. While Christianity — one of many religions — is relatable and sets the bar for a subset of Bahamian society, democracy is for everyone. The democratic system has to work for everyone, and to the same extent. There is not supposed to be special treatment, allowances, or power granted to any subset, religious or otherwise. The constitution of a democratic country, then, cannot limit the rights of some subsets.

The same constitution that makes reference to “Christian values” includes in its chapter on the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual the right to “freedom of thought and of religion,” to opt out of religious instruction and ceremonies in places of education, and to practice their religion. How, then, can The Bahamas specifically be a Christian nation?

One of the core functions of democracy is rule of law. This is referenced in the preamble, immediately after “Christian values.” Rule of law says all citizens are equal under the law, regardless of demographics including religion, gender, and race. The law is to be fair and impartial. Another core function of democracy is the protection of the human rights of all citizens. For this to be true, there cannot be laws that serve on group of people to the detriment of others. The Sexual Offenses Act is a timely and relevant example. In its definition of rape, it excludes perpetrators when they are married to the victims. This is clearly a violation of fundamental human rights, and the issue has finally been raised again. In the name of Christianity, many have argued that rape cannot exist within a marriage because, according to The Bible, the two become one and certain agreements are implied and perpetual. Even if this was anywhere near acceptable as an argument — and it absolutely is not — what of the people who are not Christians? What about married people of other faiths, and those of no religious affiliation at all? Should the law of this country not grant them recourse? A Sexual Offenses Act that does not limit the definition of rape to occurring outside of the context of marriage would not force Christians to bring rape charges against their spouses, but would protect those who want to use it.

While the preamble to the constitution — not the constitution itself — suggests respect for both Christian values and the rule of law will aid in the preservation of our freedom, it is incumbent upon us to respect one another. We need to put as much emphasis on and effort into self-discipline, industry, loyalty, and unity as recommended by the same preamble. Christian or not, we live in a democratic country with people of different beliefs and practices, and the constitutional right to them. Christian or not, we are all entitled to the same protections, rights, and freedoms. Whether or not we are a truly Christian nation, the state has an obligation to its citizens. If we take the preamble as gospel, we must also believe we have an obligation to each other. It tells us what we ought to know and choose to ignore: our freedom is bound up in one another’s. As long as we choose to hold others down, or separate and apart, regardless of the reason or the way we use texts we believe are irrefutable — like The Bible and the constitution —  to validate them, the fight to preserve our freedom will continue without positive result. This nation is more than the preamble to its constitution, and if we, today, are truly a Christian nation, we should be aiming higher.

Published in The Tribune on February 7, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Consent

I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.

Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.

What is consent?

It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.

Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.

What isn’t consent?

Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.

It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.

Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.

Law Enforcement Says

In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.

Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”

The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.

A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”

One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.

Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Resistance to Outside Influence

The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.

Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”

Who’s Afraid of the UN?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.

Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.

Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit?  It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?

Bullied by Big Brother

The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”

The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?

We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.

This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.

Neighborhood Watch

On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.

That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.

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Culture Clash: When Leaders Fail To Lead

We often talk about leadership. It is a hot topic on the radio, at church, within civic groups, in politics, in schools and at conferences and training sessions. Everyone has wisdom to impart on the subject. We are not likely to ever come to a consensus on whether leaders are born or made, but can all see there are skills every leader needs to have and hone.

In many cases, leaders lack the skills to effectively move toward the vision and this can happen for many reasons. Sometimes they overstay and either don’t realise the environment has changed and the culture has shifted, or they don’t care. At times, leaders have been thrust into their positions out of convenience or because there was no one better at the time, so they were never quite ideal or ready for the job. In other cases, leaders don’t share the vision, don’t have buy-in, or fail to communicate effectively.

We see these issues in organisations throughout the country and it eventually plays out publicly, prompting pressing questions. In recent weeks, three leaders have shown themselves lacking in leadership skills, largely because they failed to fully review an issue, consider impact on communities and take an appropriate position. Their missteps and inactions highlight the need for conviction, consultation, delegation and apology.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and the non-position

When the Prime Minister is asked a question, he is expected to have a response. When he is asked a question about heavily debated issue, related to legislation, we ought to demand he takes a position.

Unfortunately and embarrassingly, Minnis lacks at least one of the following: decisiveness, confidence and honesty.

There is no other reason for him not to say exactly where he stands on issues of national importance. When he refused to make public his position on the four constitutional amendment bills that went to referendum in 2016, Bahamians should have paid attention and understood what it meant. Political parties declared their positions, as did individual Members of Parliament and all present were required to vote before the bills could go to referendum. He participated in the referendum. Why did he choose not to state his position?

Even given his refusal to say how he voted in the referendum, Minnis was elected Prime Minister in May 2017. We can’t feign shock now that he has refused to take a position on the marital rape issue. Instead, he said, “As prime minister I don’t have personal views anymore.” Has he ceased to be a human being? This would explain quite a bit, but doesn’t seem likely. Oddly, he didn’t see fit to share a prime ministerial or national view on the issue.

As Bahamians, it would be helpful to know whether or not the Prime Minister of this country believes consent is mandatory, sexual intercourse without consent is rape and married women retain rights over their own bodies.

The same is true of all Members of Parliament. We deserve to know. It doesn’t seem enough to say Minnis’ response was a cop-out.

He said the issue, along with any other new legislative issues, would be taken to the public first, allowing the people to speak. Does this mean a referendum? Will there be wide public consultation? What would constitute, in his mind, fair representation of the Bahamian people?

If Minnis is decisive, he is certainly not confident. He is afraid of sharing his opinion with the public and, if he is afraid of us, we certainly have cause for concern. When a man who campaigned on accountability and transparency claims he doesn’t have a personal view, something isn’t right. He is not prepared to be honest. Equally troubling, he does not see fit to defer to experts on his team. He did not even point to someone who conducted research, had professional experience, or was even in the early stages of public consultation.

The entire nation was talking about the very specific issue of marital rape and legislation, and the Prime Minister had no personal view. No conviction.

Rolle and the “private matter”

Minister of Social Services and Urban Development Lanisha Rolle took the position that marital rape is a “private matter”. She also said she does not support any form of violence against women.

Cognitive dissonance is evident here, as well as failure to consult with experts and consultants within her own Ministry. Leaders must be able to self-assess, take regular inventory of resources and determine who is best-suited to do what.

Rolle, however, fails to recognise her own deficiencies and does not lean on the knowledgeable staff within the Ministry who have been there long before her appointment.

When asked for her position on marital rape, she could have easily referenced CEDAW, the Gender-based Task Force Report, or any of the projects in the pipeline for the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, formerly known as the Bureau of Women’s Affairs.

Has she taken the time to learn about the departments within the Ministry? Can she identify key personnel? Does she have a working knowledge of conventions like CEDAW?

Leaders become liabilities when they do not do the work, have values in conflict with the vision, or refuse to admit lack of information and defer to a more appropriate person. Consultation and delegation are not optional; they are necessary.

Palacious and the non-apology

Last week, we saw the Royal Bahamas Police Force expose its own misogyny and institutional rape culture and the RBPF got the backlash it deserved.

Archdeacon James Palacious saw fit to defend the RBPF, and show his own cognitive dissonance. He tried to say no one deserves to be raped while saying women and girls need to dress differently to avoid sexual assault.

Palacious faced fierce rebuke for his irresponsible comments and issued a non-apology. Leaders make mistakes and must learn to make proper apologies. An apology does not include “I am prepared to stand by what I did say.” That is the opposite of an apology. To apologise, one must be sorry, recognising a wrong and acknowledging it to those affected and privy to it.

Further, an apology is not a resume and should not include all of the great things about the person who has done wrong. Admit to the wrong, make amends with those harmed and commit to doing and being better. When a leader is able to make a proper apology, it shows emotional intelligence, capacity to learn, and growth.

When they can’t apologise, ego is ahead of vision and care for community.

Leaders are not irreplaceable. If you are in a position of leadership now, a better person is being trained and will be ready to take over in month. They’ve been able to observe you and people like you and they’ve paired your practice with the theory they’re learning. If you want to stay where you are, you already have the wrong idea, but you won’t comfortably maintain your position without conviction and a proper leadership toolkit.

Consultation, delegation, and apology have to be in that toolkit, fit easily in your hand, and be ready to get to work.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on January 3, 2018

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An Aspirational Look to 2018

Coming out of a year of sitting around, watching and questioning, 2018 has to be a year of collective action.

From early on, we will not only pay attention to what is being said by whom, but scrutinise those words and hold them up against behaviour and supposed values.

We will find inconsistencies, wherever they are, and call on relevant organisations and individuals to address them.

In 2018, Bahamians will finally move beyond conversation and not just to participate in political stunts. We will be thoughtful in our contributions to national discussions, cautious in our commitments and unrelenting in our pursuit of the common good.

The people have been duped enough times to now recognise the tell-tale signs of liars, opportunists and manipulators and our experience will be put to the test.

Politicians, wannabe politicians, career criminals and those seeking celebrity will continue to use pressing issues to push their own agendas, tying up Bahamians thirsty for change in their webs of deceit. We will do our best to see these people miles away, ask the hard questions and listen to what they don’t say. We won’t have the time to warm seats or fill streets for anything other than a better Bahamas for all of us – and we know this. We’ll be more discriminating in the causes we take up, who we allow to lead us and how far we go without seeing a long-term plan.

This is the year of the sceptic. Conspiracy theorists will continue to buzz in our ears about other eras, curses and outlandish outcomes unnamed people are working toward. Those aren’t the sceptics, or the people the sceptics question. Most of us will become — if we haven’t already — untrusting. Leaders in all arenas will find it more difficult to gain support because we are determined to avoid all forms of trickery. We won’t be easily convinced and we will refuse to get on board without near-absolute certainty of the outcome.

It’s going to be a tough one. While we want to move from talk to action, there isn’t much we can accomplish alone. Unfortunately, we don’t know who to trust. We may be facing the toughest year yet, for politicians, yes, but it isn’t an election year. It’s going to be most difficult for the activists, advocates and civil society organisations that need buy-in.

So many have disappointed Bahamians over the past year it should not be surprising that we’re made to work much harder to gain trust, mobilise and take the kind of collective action that forces change.

Published by The Tribune on January 2, 2018

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Culture Clash: Time To Ask Ourselves – What Do We Truly Believe In?

At this time of year, before looking forward and making plans for a better, more productive and successful year, it is wise to review the previous 12 months.

This year has been particularly interesting given it was an election year and we saw a record number of independent candidates, several political parties and a landslide victory for the Free National Movement. The May 2017 change of administration filled some with hope while satisfying others that the Progressive Liberal Party was rejected without question and left with four seats in Parliament. Some of us were concerned about what the imbalance in Parliament would mean for the country. Now it seems more are beginning to understand our line of thinking.

It had been said before, but this year’s general election was a clear demonstration and evidence of the inadequacy of the two-party system and our election practices. We are now at a point where we want to be able to choose our Members of Parliament without endorsing the party leader. We want to be able to vote for an independent candidate and still help choose the Prime Minister. We want to be able to participate in advance polls as needed, to vote from abroad when The Bahamas is still our home, know our constituencies and participate in an organised, drama-free process.

We need to know candidate and party positions on critical issues like taxation, immigration, gender equality and the death penalty. We need to know how much political parties are prepared to acquiesce to non-essential entities like the Bahamas Christian Council and whether or not they will extend the same courtesy to other religious groups.

We need evidence of their willingness to enter discussions with advocacy groups and organisations representing underserved communities. We need to know their plans for governance; not just a bulleted to-do list, but comprehensive plans that speak to execution, necessary partnerships and requisite processes, policy changes, legislation and constitutional amendments to meet their goals.

We may now have less party loyalty than ever before. We also have four years to make this clear to current Members of Parliament and prospective candidates in the 2022 general election. The FNM is still on its high horse, the PLP is still licking its wounds, the DNA has disappeared along with all other parties and independent candidates are, for the most part, back to their regularly scheduled programmes.

Who is still doing the work they claimed was of the utmost importance to them? Who has kept the promises they made a few months ago? How are they living their mandates and how are they not? Who have we allowed to use us for our numbers and power, all for their own gain?

This is the time to assess parties and candidates — outside of the election season. This is also the time to get clear and be clear about what we need as a country. Starting now would give us a significant advantage. We could spend the next few years holding the FNM accountable and making demands of the administration and calling on the Opposition to stand with us while creating our own agenda for 2022.

We often think of ourselves as a nation in its infancy, but we have significant talent, skill, intelligence and expertise in The Bahamas and the diaspora to bring collective vision to fruition. It requires an exercise of national reflection, visioning and community-driven action. We know we have the numbers; we need to understand how that translates to power and use it with vigour and certainty.

Before we can mobilise ourselves, get buy-in from other community members and carry out our own agenda, we need to be honest with ourselves. What do we truly believe in, without reservation? How do we identify, as individuals and how do we see ourselves fitting into the whole? In what areas are we likely to discriminate, or excuse discrimination by others?

If you believe women should have the right to vote, but not to say no to sex within marriage, you need to ask yourself some questions about the way you view women and their rights.

If you believe murder is wrong, but the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, you need to ask yourself some questions about your views on the value of human life, rights versus wrong, and, if relevant, which segments of religious text are more important, relevant, or correct than others.

We talk about thin lines all the time, and we need to know where ours are, and why. Only then can we ask the most critical questions of current and prospective representatives and determine whether or not they deserve our support and will appropriate reflect our views on the national, regional, and international stages.

In holding government administrations to account, we sometimes forget or wilfully shirk our personal responsibilities as citizens of The Bahamas. It is not good enough to realise there is poor representation of women in Parliament after the election results when the winning party only put forward four women — the least of the major parties.

It is not good enough to rebuke the Minister of Social Services and Urban Development’s stance on marital rape while tithing in a church whose leadership does not believe married women have bodily autonomy.

It is not good enough to use hashtags and link to articles about Jean Rony when you pay migrant workers below minimum wage and complain about their children attending the same school as yours. Are you all in, or not in at all?

As 2017 comes to a close and we stare down the start of 2018, perhaps we should take some time to study the Bahamas Christian Council. What other group has been able to penetrate successive government administrations? Who has been able to pause, halt, or force more than the BCC? This group infringes on the rights of Bahamian people, but because of its name and membership, it is able to scare political parties and leadership into acting in its interests which are seldom the interests of its membership.

The BCC has recognised its power, and it is not afraid to use it. It is not worried about offending anyone outside of its constituency. It is single-minded in its approach and action. It is unmoved by our calls for it to respond to issues like incest, child abuse and domestic violence, continuing on its path to preserve what it deems to be Christian institutions like marriage.

Perhaps what is needed is for the rest of us to be as dogged, unrelenting and consistent in our advocacy. We need to refuse to be moved or silenced. We need to be unapologetic in our exercise of full citizenship and in the fight for the expansion of the rights of all human beings living, visiting, studying and working here.

Maybe we can figure out how to do it before the first day of a new year. Again, we have four years to make our voices heard and presence felt, marching together to a common loftier goal (not to be confused with individual goals on one march).

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 27, 2017

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Culture Clash: Eight Years On The Same Debate With The Same Answer – Rape Is Rape

We need to talk about consent. Most of us understand it to mean permission. Parents and guardians signing forms to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities probably comes to mind. We don’t think about consent as a way of controlling and protecting our own bodies. Instead, we view the bodies of women and girls as public property.

When we force children to show affection to family members and friends without prejudice, we teach them they do not own their bodies. When we tell teenaged girls, “Dress the way you want to be addressed”, we are telling them other people’s perceptions of them are the most important thing. We have many ways of making each other less than human, stripping away rights and dignity. We find ways to blame one another for any violation experienced, conditioned by and continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape culture is prevalent in our environment and allows people to believe there is something women and girls can do to prevent sexual assault. We can dress differently, travel in groups, ensure we are always accompanied by men, refrain from consuming alcohol, get home before dark and ignore our own sexuality. Even further, we can purchase a number of products like special underwear that only we can remove and nail polish that detects date rape drugs in our drinks. The onus is continuously put on us, women and girls to protect ourselves by being less visible and investing in products specifically designed for us. As if this is not enough to bear, our law does not recognise us as full people after we marry.

According to the Sexual Offences Act, once married, women are no longer entitled to (not) give consent to their husbands and are expected to engage in sexual activity whether we would like to or not. The Act says we cannot be raped and, by marrying us, men have unlimited rights to access our bodies.

What if this were the case for murder? If a man owns his wife’s body to the extent he can penetrate her vagina without her consent, what is to keep him from thinking he can kill her without consequence? If we stick to the “two become one” argument, we set ourselves down a slippery slope. Married women can vote, but not say “no” to sex and have the right to press charges if her husband rapes her. Married women are human beings in some ways, but property in others.

There is no reason for women to be denied the right to choose what to do with their bodies, in marriage or otherwise. The narrative of false accusations is completely baseless at best and foolish at worst. If we create legislation and policies based on potential for misuse, we would likely be forced to go without. Anarchy, anyone?

People talk about the great fear of the lying woman. Won’t married women lie on their husbands, just because?

People sometimes lie — not women; people. Cases sometimes go to court and the defendants are innocent. Sometimes it is difficult to prove the crime. We see this happen every day. This is the reason for courts, judges and juries. It is the reason evidence is required. The justice system has its issues, but so do society, the church and the institution of marriage. Are we really satisfied to doom married women to live as the property of their husbands, able to be lawfully violated? Are we happy to have even ten women suffer in silence, with no legal recourse, because one might lie on her husband? Do we really believe men are entitled to sex on demand when they marry a woman?

To be clear, rape is not sex. Sex can only occur with clear, continuous consent from all parties involved. When anyone is forced to participate in sexual activity, it is assault — a violation. If a person is underage, they are not able to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to give consent. If a person is unconscious or asleep, they are not able to give consent. Consent must exist for a sexual act to be lawful. It must be explicit and cannot be coerced. There is no such thing as sex without consent; that is rape. It does not matter whether or not the people involved are married. Consent is not granted in perpetuity, regardless of licences and vows. We have the right to say yes or no.

In July 2009, then MP for Long Island Loretta Butler-Turner tabled the marital rape bill which would have amended the Sexual Offences Act to omit “who is not his spouse” so that marital status does not enter the definition of rape or impede access to justice. Eight years later, we are having the same conversation on the same level, seemingly with no better understanding of or appreciation for women’s rights as human rights. We listen to political and religious leaders and allow them to guide our thoughts on opinions far too often. We forget Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers work for us and should be acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people. Laws and policies should be made to protect the most vulnerable among us; not putting them at higher risk or further marginalizing them from the rest of society. Religious leaders should not be interfering in governance of the country, or imposing themselves and their views on the citizenry. They should be rebuking the consistent, dangerous misuse of biblical text to support misogyny.

Those who support men who rape their wives often use biblical text, mostly in fragments, to compel others to do the same. A favourite is Ephesians 5:22 which implores women to submit themselves to their husbands. Those quoting this scripture conveniently neglect to mention verses 23 and 28 which call on men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “as their own bodies”. A true, practising Christian would surely look at the full scripture and, upon seeing “love,” refer to I Corinthians 13 for its definition and characteristics. According to Paul, love is patient, kind and protective and is not self-seeking. If a man loves his wife, would he not be patient, kind and protective, and willing to put his own desires aside instead of being self-seeking? If a man loves his wife as Christ loved the church — for which He gave His life — what limit would there be to what he would give up for her? Why aren’t we holding men to the same standards we demand women meet?

A married woman is still a woman, and a human being. Married women, like unmarried women, have human rights. These include being equal in dignity and rights, the right to security of person, freedom from slavery or servitude and recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In addition to being protected from sexual assault and understood to be human beings, women deserve to have access to justice. We need to look at the Sexual Offences Act and its definition of rape. We need to look at the way we view marriage and, in particular, the privileges of men within the institution. We need to understand that rape is rape, no matter who is involved. Perhaps more than that, we need to look at the positions we take and the arguments we use and ask ourselves who we are trying to protect – and why?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 20, 2017

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Culture Clash: Let’s Admit It – Jean-Charles’ Problem Is We See Him As Just Another Haitian

The story of Jean Rony Jean-Charles has been flooding social media, raising questions, highlighting glaring issues and exposing the flawed value systems of many among us over the past week.

Trying to get accurate information on what transpired with Jean-Charles is like trying to catch a chickcharnee. Who should we expect to have information on his whereabouts when the Detention Centre and Department of Immigration are both incapable of providing proof of their actions and the Haitian Embassy has no record of his supposed deportation? Further, how do we justify repatriation when a person is not sent to the country of their birth?

Jean-Charles was born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents and is said to have never travelled outside of the country. He was detained for three months and is now effectively missing. We do not know where he is and his family is concerned. Really, we should all be concerned. When people are taken into custody and disappear without a trace, there is a serious problem. This should be obvious. It isn’t. Why not? Because, to far too many Bahamians, Jean-Charles is not a human being. He is not deserving of dignity and respect and full access to human rights. He is not a person with a family. He is a Haitian.

We, Bahamians, think we are special. We see Bahamian citizenship as an exclusive good. We are happy to access and give our children access to other nationalities and nations, but believe Bahamian citizenship and The Bahamas must be kept for ourselves. We want it all. We want to take what we are not willing to give. We even pride ourselves on this attitude, leaning on the law to support our narrow points of view. We belabour the definition of Bahamian and how citizenship can be gained according to the The Constitution of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the Bahamas Nationality Act. This is what makes us better than the other — the non-Bahamian.

We have a complicated relationship with the foreigner. We strive to be as good as the European and the North American foreigner and we look down on the Caribbean foreigner.

We have bought into the myth that Gross Domestic Product is an appropriately comprehensive measurement of value and stability.

We are proud of the extent to which we have been Americanised and constantly try to divorce ourselves from the history and continued struggle we share with Caribbean countries.

We set ourselves apart, calling everyone else “other”, failing to see we are the other.

We are caught up in our false Christianity as a nation, refusing to be our brothers’ keepers in favour of amassing wealth that cannot possibly be the loftier goal we are meant to march toward.

We do not see that in leaving our brothers and sisters behind, we betray our ancestors, spit on history that should guide our steps and contribute to a negative narrative of nationhood that will not help us when we become climate refugees.

Yes, our time will come. By then, our borders may be too tight and death and disappearance toll too high to engender empathy or kindness from any nation that might otherwise be inclined to offer assistance.

The Bahamas has the right to protect its borders. Few people would disagree. It does not, however, have the right to endanger or cause harm to people of any country. It cannot be excused for violating human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its 30 articles that state and protect the rights and freedoms of all human beings. It includes the right to a nationality, to seek asylum in another country, recognition as a person under the law, a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing and protection from arbitrary arrest or detention.

The Bahamas has signed the declaration and must abide by international law. Unfortunately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not govern individuals. It is not part of our curriculum, so many are unaware of it, or do not understand the commitment.

That aside, we are not doing enough to sensitise the Bahamian people to the plight of migrants from Haiti or other countries, or the obligation we have as signatories and, let’s not forget, a Christian nation.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the world is well aware of its political and economic instability, economic inequality and vulnerability to natural disasters. According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line of $2.41 per day. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew damages were almost one-third of GDP.

The Bahamas, in comparison, is the land of plenty. To hear many Bahamians tell it, this country is populated by Christian people who love their neighbours as themselves and find ways to share five loaves and two fish with thousands. Sadly, we do not live up to this reputation. We, on the contrary, fail to see certain foreigners as people. If they do not come by plane with credit cards and US dollars to gamble in casinos, get their hair braided and buy mass-produced non-Bahamian souvenirs, they are of no use to us.

If they are looking for a better life and intend to work, we see them as thieves, coming for what is ours, even if we are not willing to do the same work to access it. We had probably convinced ourselves that we only have the problem with Haitians because of their large numbers and illegal entry, but the national response to the government’s assistance to Dominica proved otherwise. We have a problem with helping. We are willing to put our hands out, but not interested in giving a hand up.

We, who go to Florida to give birth so our children can have American citizenship, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who think ourselves too good to weed, cut the grass, shape hedges and wash windows, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who raise and educate our children to live a better life in a better place, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who were stolen and loaded on to boats, dropped off and made slaves across a chain of islands, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who don’t know where we are really from because we left many decades, generations, languages and plantations ago, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who pride ourselves on the bit of colour or soft hair or whatever other sign of mixed identity we can find, have a problem with migrant people.

We forget that we are migrant people. We forget that the Haitian Revolution was the beginning of our freedom, or maybe we just don’t know. Maybe we don’t know about Saint-Domingue in the late 1700s. Maybe we don’t know we might not actually belong here either, or that everyone deserves to be treated like human beings, or that no human being is illegal and there is a difference between a person and their actions, or that we are going to need somewhere to go before the end of this century.

Maybe we don’t understand English. We may need to get the message in French.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 13, 2017

Photo: Attorney Fred Smith with Clotilde Jean-Charles, sister of Jeanrony Jean-Charles, who is said to be missing from the Detention Centre. Photo: Shawn Hanna/Tribune Staff