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Let’s Do Things Better

Over the past few days I have been having conversations with people about the COVID crisis, the responses of different governments and the reactions of the public. I have been interested in the thoughts of artists, activists, educators, students and members of the press. There is one question I keep asking – what is your hope for when things change? Some answers are personal and some are broader and more inclusive. Every answer, however, focuses on learning. Everyone has been saying, in one way or another, that they hope we learn. Even deeper than that, they hope we use our newly acquired knowledge to do things, not just differently, but better.

We are being forced to listen, learn and adjust every day. We are learning some things the hard way. Some lessons seem a bit too late and many have been trying to reveal themselves to us for a long time.

It is good, however, to see that some people are already trying to shift. Food is an excellent example. While grocery shopping is still quite a task and certain items remain hard to come by, people are becoming more open to growing their own food. I have seen scores of posts on Facebook from people who suddenly and desperately want to grow fruit and vegetables in their gardens. People in apartments and without yard space are asking what they can grow inside with limited sunlight. There is more interest in food security.

Advocates like Erin Greene of Seasonal Sunshine Bahamas have been freely sharing information, ideas and contact information for experts – including Tsekani Nash, Whitlyn Miller, Liann Keigh, Phil Davis Jr. – in the field. Erin has, for years, been telling people to use the food they buy to grow more food, emphasising the ease of growing lettuce and carrots from the parts we usually throw way and encouraging people to save gallon-size water bottles to make them into hanging baskets. These ideas are perfectly simple, giving many people the ability to grow food.

The rush to buy seeds and seedlings shows we are beginning to understand that depending on other sources for all of our food is not a good idea. The mindset is shifting, we are less averse to touching soil, more willing to learn about farming and recognising the expertise of people we hardly considered before. We may be just months away from being just as proud of our tomatoes, sweet potatoes and lettuce as we are of our rose bushes, ficus hedges and bromeliads.

Reminders regarding assistance for those in need

  1. Agencies need to create a line management system. When there are many people on a line, especially in a limited space, it is difficult to maintain the appropriate distance. Make it easier for everyone. Offer drive-thru service and where that is not possible, have people in place to manage the line.
  2. This is one of the most difficult times in people’s lives. This does not define them. They deserve their dignity. Do not photograph people who are seeking assistance and do not share these images and offer demeaning commentary. It is cruel and unhelpful.
  3. Money is the best assistance. People need food, but the non-perishables provided are often high in sodium, lack nutrients and quickly become over-consumed. Allow people to prioritise their needs. Even if their focus is on food, they should have the opportunity to purchase fresh items. They may also need to purchase medication, phone credit, gas and other commodities. Help to make it possible by putting money in their hands.
  4. Some households have babies and elderly people. They have completely different needs including diapers and nutritional supplements.
  5. People will go to multiple sources for assistance. This does not mean they are greedy. It means they are getting information and doing their best to meet their needs. No single source is giving enough for people to go home and not worry for the rest of the month or even the week. They are trying to survive, and this does not deserve ridicule or rebuke.

Free entertainment abounds

During this time of lockdowns, curfews and quarantines, we are not short on entertainment. Celebrities are coming together to give free online concerts and, making it even more exciting, live battles.

Last Saturday, Babyface and Teddy Riley attempted a highly anticipated battle – part of the Verzuz digital battle by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz – on Instagram which had to be postponed to Monday night. Even the failure was entertainment with over 400,000 people watching in awe as Teddy Riley struggled to get his elaborate concert set-up to work. Babyface was relaxed in his studio, prepared with the only necessary equipment – his phone, speakers and a microphone. No one understood why Teddy Riley had so many people in his place – especially without masks and not practicing social distancing – but it was funny to see them all try to make things work. He had a standup microphone, a large screen running a design sequence behind him, a DJ in the corner, a dancer and it was all too much. There were a lot of sound issues that could not be rectified.

Babyface eventually left the live, saying he would return later. Everyone joked that he was gone to bed and would not be back. They were at least partly correct. Babyface later announced they would try again on Monday night. It was especially funny to see the response of other celebrities who were tuned in and hoping for an epic battle. Toni Braxton tweeted that it was “like watching old folks use Jitterbug phones”.

I decided to check it out late on Monday night, tuning in just in time to see Teddy Riley leave. Waiting for him to return and wanting the battle to be fair, Babyface tried to figure out what to do. Should he play a song? Should he just wait? Teddy Riley was taking a long time, so he eventually played a Toni Braxton song. He also attempted to play a song on guitar, but Teddy Riley was trying to get back into the live, so he had to stop and try to let Riley in. It did not work, and they decided to try it in the reverse order, with Teddy Riley hosting Babyface. After a few minutes of shenanigans and them not being able to connect, I gave up and tuned in to DJ D-Nice who has been running virtual parties for the past month. The rescheduled Verzuz battle, unfortunately, conflicted with D-Nice’s scheduled event with Michelle Obama. It was a live set by the DJ designed as an online voter registration drive.

There is enough happening for everyone with internet access to pick, choose, and refuse. Museums are offering free virtual tours, DJs – including The Bahamas’ DJ Ovadose – are hosting live parties, comedians are doing live sets, and many others are using their talent to bring people together while we are physically apart. There is no shortage of things to do, but let’s all remember to take some time to take care of ourselves and each other too.

Recommendations

Are you running out of shows to watch? I have three television show recommendations for you this week.

Little Fires Everywhere is a compelling television show on Hulu based on Celeste Ng’s novel by the same name. It depicts the connection between the white, seemingly perfect Richardson family and Black single mother and daughter Mia and Pearl Warren. While the book does not specify the Warrens’ race, the television show is intentional in exploring the race dynamic in a predominantly white community.

Other themes include class, mother-daughter relationships, and friendship. I highly recommend reading the book first, then diving into this series. The final episode of the first season airs this week.

In Sex Education, awkward high school student Otis decides to give sex and relationship advice to his classmates with the help of Maeve who takes the lead in setting up a sex therapy clinic. Otis gets his “expertise” from his mother is a sex therapist who does not shy away from the topic in their daily lives, but is not aware of his new business endeavour. Even as he helps his classmates navigate the teenage struggles of life and love, he is not particularly adept at keeping his own relationships intact. This British comedy-drama series is easy to watch, fun to talk about, and oddly educational.

People born in the 80s will clearly remember Living Single as one of the only television shows that aired on ZNS. Starring Queen Latifah, it followed the lives of six young black people living in the same building. Khadijah ran an cool magazine, Kim wanted to be an actress, Max was a lawyer who didn’t live in the building, but was there often enough, Regine was the chatty one, Synclaire was always full of joy, Overton was the handyman (and dated Synclaire), and Kyle was a stockbroker and general annoyance. They were a fun bunch.

Living Single ran for five seasons and it is often said that popular television show Friends was based on Living Single though the creators never gave credit where it was due. In a time of remakes, some of us hope it will make a return, but we can always go way back and start from the beginning.

Published by The Tribune on April 22, 2020.

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Minister of Social Services Doesn’t Understand Domestic Violence

Minister of Social Services Frankie Campbell spoke in Parliament about the work being done by the Department of Social Services. He noted, without call it by name, that the issue of domestic and intimate partner violence had been raised numerous times. I waited, with the tiniest bit of optimism, for him to announce systems and services to address this pervasive issue that is only exacerbated by current conditions. Instead, he said: “This is a time when [abusers] should reflect on the errors of their past and try to make amends[…] repent of their ways and seek to build those bridges that they would have broken down.”

First, not many people watch Parliament. This was made clear by the comments on the livestream which indicated that viewers had no understanding of processes (which, admittedly, are often time-consuming and make little difference). Second, abusers do not tend to take instruction from Ministers of Social Services through a screen. Third, abusers are not short on “apologies”. They do not, however, relish taking responsibility for their actions, being remorseful, or taking the necessary step to reform. This is why there is a cycle of abuse and there are many PSAs that show the stage where the abuser brings the survivor flowers, convinces them to stay – then repeats the abuse.

Campbell did not offer a solution. He did not even offer support for survivors. He noted the issue was raised and did exactly what everyone thus far, including the Prime Minister has done. He said words that meant nothing.

We need a hotline specifically for domestic violence. We need police officers trained on domestic violence intervention to answer those calls. We need more safe housing for survivors. We need a residential programme for people going through withdrawal from alcohol and putting their households at risk. Systems and services, not apologies. The Department of Gender and Family Affairs should be leading on this. It, apparently, has a gender-based violence coordinator. What, exactly, is the department doing? It is definitely not responding to requests for meetings to discuss issues of gender in the country, so the least it could do is use whatever expertise it has in its own staff to anticipate, identify, strategise and respond to issues and give advice to the minister who is clearly out of his depth.

Government Caused Panic

Following the weekend lockdown on short notice, introduction of a grocery shopping schedule and the announcement of a complete shutdown from Wednesday night to Tuesday morning was no great surprise.

Grocery store lines have been wrapped around buildings all week. Some stores chose to ignore the shopping schedule. Even worse, senior citizens and people with disabilities – given Tuesday mornings to shop and the option to shop on the day assigned by last name – were turned away from several stores on Monday. When challenged, store staff told them they could use “discretion”. This is disgusting and unacceptable. Community members and advocates have been pushing for policies that consider and respond to specific vulnerabilities.

It is cruel and reprehensible that anyone wielded power, claimed “discretion” and denied entry to senior citizens and people with disabilities who made their way to the store at the appropriate time. Those people need to be dealt with and the government needs to make clear its orders are not open to interpretation or discretion. They are to be followed and the dignity of people doing their best to navigate this crisis must be kept intact.

Dr Minnis and his team need to reassess their tactics and realise they are creating the panic they are trying to avoid. They, unfortunately, promised not to close grocery stores and have not honoured that. No one knows what to expect. The uncertainty, lack of trust and loss of control will not serve us; nor will incremental, ever-changing measures that result in large crowds assembling in order to meet their most basic needs.

Why are some people shopping so often? Why did some people wait so late?

Some people had no idea their households would consume so much food in one week. Some people are using it as an excuse to be on the road. Some people usually just eat takeout. Some people stocked up for a week or two and now need to replenish. Some people are not very good at planning? Some people were waiting for cheques to clear, to get prepayments for services or to collect benefits. Some people have no other choice.

There have been many criticisms as a new world is shaped by COVID-19. Our lives are changing based on the decisions made by governments and residents. Our government is far from perfect. It has made many mistakes that are fairly easy to pinpoint now. We, however, are not blameless. We have also made mistakes and we continue to err. We make bad judgments, posture as experts after very little study and believe ourselves better than everyone else. We are frequently unable to see beyond on our experiences and cannot be convinced to even try to look a little further. This is one of the reasons so many people, however close they may be to it, do not understand poverty.

Poverty is not a choice. It is not a series of decisions. It is not the consequence of a personal failing. It is a both a system and the failure of systems. It linked to race and gender, thrives on the inequal distribution of wealth and other resources and depends on us to blame it on the people living through it. Poverty steals decision-making power. It is a beast, looming every day, taunting the people trying to get around it.

Poverty is not just a minimum wage cheque. It is no cheque at all. It is five dollars here and eight dollars there for hair-braiding or coconut water. It is only having enough to get two of the five ingredients you need to make a meal. It is almost daily visits to the grocery store because there isn’t enough money to get food for the week. Minnis has memory of this and painted the picture in Parliament on Monday, but offered no relief to the people who know it best today. The grocery shopping schedule gives people three opportunities to shop every week except this week. What is going to happen, over the next five days, to the people who do not have more than five or eight dollars to shop at a time?

Tips to get through

For those who are not accustomed to spending this much time at home, this is a difficult situation. It is also challenging for those who enjoy being at home, but also appreciate the freedom of being able to go out to eat, sit by the beach, or visit family members and friends. Being restricted, in and of itself, feels like a punishment. In addition to thinking positively about this exercise and the lives we are saving, it is important to figure out how we function best and create the environment we need.

  1. If you are working from home, give yourself an office space. This could be a desk or a chair at the kitchen table. Try to separate work life from home life. Keep rest and work separate and allow yourself to have more restful sleep at night.

  2. Get active. Even if you did not exercise before, find ways to move your body for physical and mental health benefits. There are thousands of free videos and apps to get you into yoga, jumping rope, pilates, running, Zumba and many other physical activities.

  3. Introduce friendly, virtual competition. Do some of those puzzles making the rounds on Whatsapp. Start a game of Chopped on Lockdown by choosing three ingredients and challenging others to make a meal with them that their household would enjoy.

  4. Discover new music. YouTube makes it easy for you to find music you might like with its recommendations in the sidebar. Check out Bahamian DJ Ampero’s Mixcloud for great mixes with artists you already love and others you will want to know better.

  5. Read more. The are books that will take you on journeys to parts of the world you have never seen, introduce you to entirely different worlds, and help you to understand or rethink the way you live in this one. Ebook and audiobook versions are widely available.

  6. Learn something new. Have you always wanted to learn French? Do you need to finally learn the Electric Slide? Do you still need that website for your new business? Would you like to finally be able to twist your own hair? There is a how-to video for everything. Seriously, my friend showed me one for grating carrots.

  7. Schedule virtual dates. The friend you were going to visit next month, the person you partied with in college, the former coworker now working in another country, and the cousin you never see any more are just a Whatsapp, Skype, Zoom, or Hangout away. Have a catch-up session.

We do not know how long this will last, but let’s prepare ourselves as best we can. Let’s do our best to help others. Let’s follow the guidelines and flatten the curve. Maybe we can find joy in the little things for a little while.

Published by The Tribune on April 8, 2020.

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Choose Life, Play by the Rules

We are almost two weeks into our new and temporary way of living. It has been extended, as many of us expected, and it is in our best interest to follow the guidelines provided.

It became clear from very early that there are people determined to be defiant. It is not clear whether those people are just ignorant or have other issues. Many of us were concerned about the emergency orders and the power it put in the hands of a few from the very beginning. Most of us, however, have been able to reconcile that it is critical for us to take guidance from medical professionals, practice being “together alone,” and do our part to flatten the curve.

This is not a conspiracy. This is a matter of life and death. By staying in our homes, except for essential tasks, we choose life not only for ourselves, but for each other. We know the healthcare system does not have large capacity and COVID-19 could complete overwhelm it. It is currently within our power to prevent that from happening and protect the elderly and immuno-compromised.

I remain concerned about the most vulnerable among us and more people and organisations should be talking about and advocating for them. At one of the first press conferences, a journalist asked: “What about homeless people?” It was distressing to see and hear officials in the room laugh in response, as though the unhoused are not people, they do not deserve consideration and it is not required of officials to intentionally make provisions for them. Days later, we saw that unhoused people were arrested for breaking the curfew.

Let’s be clear. This is not funny, and this is not the fault of the unhoused. This is an embarrassment. It is evidence of the need to consider vulnerable groups. What are people without homes expected to do? Did anyone check the hotspots and attempt to provide housing for those without it? Well, they could not even be bothered to give serious thought to the simple question posed at the press conference.

Little has been said about women experiencing domestic violence. We can expect their situations to worsen as they are effectively trapped in their homes with abusers. Abused children are in the same situation. There were no messages directed at them. They were not even given a phone number to call if they felt unsafe and wanted to be rehoused for safety reasons.

There was no promotion of domestic violence hotlines or ways to reach police officer trained to respond to domestic violence reports. Again, a journalist asked about domestic violence and the expected surge, and all the prime minister said was they could call the police. In case you have never had to call the police to report domestic violence, let me tell you that it is not always helpful. It is often difficult to get officers to take it seriously under regular circumstances. How much worse would it be now, with a curfew?

We must hold this government accountable for the effects of its decisions and its refusal to put safeguards in place for vulnerable people. Unhoused people and those experiencing domestic violence are just two groups. Who else is being left out, and what are we, as citizens of privilege, prepared to do about it?

More questions please

A group of people, always on the job and keeping us informed, is one we do not always remember or thank. We see them on television screens and livestreams of the news and read their stories, but a lot of the work they do is invisible. They are members of the press. They tell us when Members of Parliament have failed to disclose their assets and liabilities. They report election results. They attend Parliament and let us know what took place. They find the right people and ask the right questions in order to keep us informed.

These days, they are focused on COVID-19 and the way the government is handling it. They are keeping abreast of the numbers, watching as things unfold in other countries, researching the virus and the varying national responses to it, and asking questions that help to give us a better understanding of the virus itself, what is being done to contain it and how effective our efforts will be over time.

It is important to note many of the journalists attending press conferences and covering the COVID-19 crisis are young people. They are researching, monitoring social media, thinking critically and asking questions we all want answered. The answers do not always come easily, or at all, but they are persevering. It must also be noted they remain professional in difficult circumstances, including in the face of outright rudeness.

The question and answer portion of the press conferences are quite limited. It seems each journalist is allowed a maximum of two questions and there is little room for follow-ups. It lacks flow, completely impeded by an unnecessary moderator. There is no need for anyone to interrupt the question and answer portion. Questions should be asked and then answered by the person best equipped to give accurate information.

It is also unhelpful for the journalists, already in the room so presumably checked and approved, to be badgered about where they work and how many people present are from that particular media house. Those issues need to be sorted at the point of entry. With less time spent on micromanaging journalists and offering largely useless commentary, it would be possible for them to ask more than two questions, or at least be permitted to follow up as needed.

A cursory look at the comments on the live feeds and social media commentary makes it clear many are frustrated by this “moderation” and would appreciate the facilitation of the media doing its job – getting pertinent information to us.

Focus on what matters

There is no denying this is a difficult time. We are practicing social distancing, losing income, trying to find credible information, being duped or trying to help others not to be duped by false information, unsure about how long this crisis will last, tired of the people in our households, upset that we cannot walk or run our usual strip and worrying about people in other households. It is amazing that so much is going on when we are not even moving. We have to do what we can to improve our mental health.

We need to limit news consumption, especially if it is a source of stress. There is no need to be online all day, every day, taking in reports from all over the world, anticipating the challenges we will face and getting riled up by radio talk shows. Take breaks. Decide how much news you can consume in a healthy way. This may be the morning news and evening news, it may be one or the other and it could be 15 minutes on social media. Decide what works for you, set the limit, and stick with it.

A lot is out of our control. This can stressful. Some of us want to stop our neighbours from going out. Some of us wish we could cook for our grandparents who live somewhere else. Some of us have no idea how we will pay the next bill. While these are valid concerns, we need to focus on what we can control. We cannot visit other homes, but we can call daily to check on people. We cannot make money appear in our bank accounts, but we can work on our resumes and cover letters, and we can work on passion projects. Let’s so what we can, and think less about what we cannot change.

One of the things we can do to restore some normalcy and bring joy to our days is connecting with loved ones. Check on those aunts, uncles, godparents and long distance friends. Set up video chats. Have virtual lunch dates, watch TV shows together and show off your gardens. I have had at least one video chat per day since Saturday and it has been great to catch up with friends I have not seen in a long time.

Admittedly, we talked a lot about the situations in our countries, but we also got into more pleasant conversation about favourite TV shows, best books we read so far this year, new relationships and what we are cooking. Talking to friends about ordinary matters is a reminder that we are people, there is good in the world and human connection feels good.

Let’s do our best to connect, find and spread joy and put our attention on the things we can control. Whatever energy we have, let it be put to good use, produce what we need and help people whose needs are greater than our own. While tourism is paused, let us be more hospitable to one another.

Published by The Tribune on April 1, 2020.

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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.

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Culture Clash: We Need to Prepare for a Plastic-Free Bahamas

The commitment has been made to ban single-use plastic in The Bahamas by next year. There have been a few mentions in the media since 2018, but I have not seen much happening to prepare the public for the changes to come.

Earlier this year, I read that single-use plastic bags would be banned in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the end of this year. I was surprised because plastic bags were being phased out for years. When I attended university there, it was a norm to separate waste. When I came back to Nassau on breaks, I’d walk around with cans or bottles for a long time before realising I would not come across the appropriate bin since we do not sort waste. In addition, while I was there, grocery stores started charging for plastic bags. The options were simple — pay ten cents for each plastic bag, buy a reusable bag from the grocery store, or bring your own reusable bag. Everyone there, including students from other countries, got with the programme. Eventually, plastic bags were not even an option in some of the stores.

On a recent trip to Antigua, I quickly realised there were no plastic bags. Some stores offered paper bags, some sold reusable tote bags and others encouraged customers to bring their own. I kept a canvas tote bag hanging on my door to remind myself to take it with me when I went to any store. Here, we fuss about certain items not being double-bagged and I have never seen anyone take their own bags to the grocery store. I rarely see anyone refuse a bag when they could put their small purchase in a bag they already have. How will we adjust when the ban is in place?

Major grocery stores should be taking the lead in preparing the public for the changes. They could start selling reusable bags at a reasonable price. Takeout restaurants and coffee shops could encourage customers to bring their own cups by offering discounts on beverages and promoting the option. It is time for a small business to make reusable utensils and lunch kits available for sale. We may even have the raw material to make them. Find out how the Small Business Development Centre can assist in getting that kind of business off the ground. Individuals can start buying the necessities, if only one item per month, to avoid a heavier burden at the end of the year. We don’t all want to get bamboo forks, spoons and straws for Christmas, nor do we want to see significant increases takeout prices in 2020. Let’s start talking about the options that exist, and those we can create. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

It is also important to note the ban on plastic straws is not as simple as it may seem. If it is not already, the Ministry of Environmental Health Services needs to specifically engage the disabilities community as bendable plastic straws are necessary – and not substitutable – for some people living with disabilities. The ban on single-use plastic will affect some of us more than others.

If this is the tunnel, where is the light?

While many celebrate the arrival of summer, this has to be the most difficult time to be in Nassau. It is hot with seemingly no relief unless you have the luxury of air conditioning. It is infuriating that something so basic – and increasingly necessary over the years as temperatures rise – is so cost-prohibitive. Many forgo the use of air conditioning because electricity bills are already too high. Even some who are willing to make the sacrifice are made to suffer as Bahamas Power and Light fails to properly manage its equipment. Even the free relief — dipping in the ocean — has been halted due to reports of sea lice or thimbles that bite and leave people itching for days. In this kind of heat, that is a risk many of us are not willing to take.

The outages come without warning, and there are two types of people — those who charge every device when they get below 80 percent and have a battery-operated fan, and those who are caught off guard every time and have come to almost enjoy posting angry comments on social media.

The bar for Bahamas Power and Light is so low that some of us were impressed when a load-shedding schedule was shared last week Monday. Unfortunately, it did not include every area, and the practice did not continue. We were, the very next day, back to being completely in the dark. We are all upset. We all say we’ve had enough. How many of us are prepared to stop paying the bill? How many are prepared to be without electricity? How many are willing to take action to compel BPL and the government to clean up the mess and provide one of the most basic needs for the residents of this country?

We are often stuck in cycles of recognising an issue, complaining about it, getting temporary relief (often knowing it will not last) and descending to the previous condition. The ongoing issue with BPL is one example. We are at the place where we do not care about the transformer problems and illegal dumping excuses. We want the problem resolved, but we keep getting bandaids. As we continue to pay electricity bills, however high the climb, sweat it out in our corners, purchase generators and keep them fuelled – and drive around for hours just to be in air conditioning – we ease the pressure. We signal that, even in our frustration, we are only prepared to whine about it for a few minutes.

BPL cannot even be bothered to give us schedule. It does not believe that we, as customers, deserve to know when the service we pay for will be disrupted. They are making decisions about who will be turned off and when, and choosing not to advise the public. Is this not enough to fire us up? To stop all payments? To get comfortable in the air conditioning on Tucker Road for a few hours? Maybe that is too extreme, requires too much planning and convincing, or would inconvenience us too much. Maybe there is another way to demonstrate our displeasure and apply pressure to the people who can do something about it for more than a few hours at a time. Are we ready to imagine, discuss and act on it yet?

The battery-operated fans, generators, air conditioned cars and mobile data are making us more comfortable and, yes, helping us to function, but let’s not get complacent. The problem still exists and it’s getting worse. We, the affected, may have to be the ones to inspire the resolution.

Published by The Tribune on July 17, 2019.

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The Bahamas — Not a Real Place?

Following the shooting of 15 people at a party in Montel Heights where the intended target ran into the crowd, the Commissioner of Police said: “I feel safe and I think you feel safe.” This is a puzzling statement, particularly given the incident being discussed.

How did he arrive at the conclusion that we feel safe? We have been expected to believe that criminals are killing each other, and as long as the rest of us keep our hands clean and away from bad company, we will be fine. Unfortunately, that is not the way crime works. Sometimes innocent people are hurt, whether or not it is intentional. What are we going to do about that?

The Commissioner of Police and the Minister of National Security said the shooters did not plan to shoot multiple people. This suggests the other 14 people were simply collateral damage, so we should all feel safe, right?

We have been further warned by the Commissioner to watch the company we keep, all while being encouraged to go about our “normal daily business”. The intended target ran into a crowd, resulting in multiple people being shot, but watching the company we keep will protect us? How can we read about people enjoying themselves at a party in one moment, and being on the ground with gunshot wounds in the next, yet believe that we are safe?

None of us are safe from a stray bullet if we ever dare to step outside.

We do not want to create a society in which people are unable to go anywhere or do anything because they fear an untimely death by a semi-automatic weapon, whether because someone wants the contents of their bags and pockets, or because they are in the vicinity of a target. We like to believe we are immune because we are good people, our family members and friends are good people, we live in good areas or in close-knit communities and we imagine we know exactly what to do if approached by a criminal. That is what we think until we hear about people at a party being shot, unable to make sense of it.

The truth is we are particularly vulnerable in certain settings. We cannot predict what will happen. We tend to assume, in many cases, we will be safe. We go about our daily business – and for some of us that includes particular precautions – without expecting harm to come to us. Even as we go on as usual, we remember what happened on the weekend. The victims were are at a party, and we go parties without knowing everyone present all the time.

What does it mean to carry on as usual and to watch the company we keep? What does it mean to feel safe, especially in a place with so few degrees of separation between people, inability to reach emergency services when one phone company’s system goes down, and too many guns (coming from somewhere, because we do not manufacture them here) in the hands of people who use them to solve problems?

The Ministry of National Security needs to focus on getting guns off the street and stopping them from entering the country. Figure out what it is happens at ports of entry and deal with it. Spare us the positive spins on statistics and illusions of safety. Deal with the gun problem.

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The Bahamas is in a real place and we have work to do if we want it to work for us

Hashtags that say a particular country “is not a real place” have become quite popular. It usually accompanies the story, photo or video of a ridiculous experience. It is often used to bring humour to an otherwise sad state of affairs, but is sometimes a sign of frustration or disappointment. There is very little to connect the broad range of experiences the hashtag connects except for the sentiment that the people participating in its use are not impressed. Whether it is a joke or a protest, it reduces the place to a particular deficiency and does not directly challenge systems or the people within them to do better, nor does it offer solutions. We can all think of situations that made us wonder where we are and why whatever was happening seemed to be acceptable. Take a minute to think of your own recent example.

As I write this, the electricity is off for the second time in a 15-hour period. I know there are people in Nassau who have been having a worse experience, suffering through outages for long periods of time and with greater frequency. Does anything rile us up more than this? It is hot and there is very little breeze. Households with babies and elderly people become especially miserable when everyone is hot, no one can do what they want to do and essential functions are more difficult to access. Traffic is a disaster near certain intersections. Many businesses cannot operate, or the cost increases because they have to run on generators. Other utilities are affected. We do not just lose the lights, but the ability to function. Feeling the heat becomes even more frustrating because its source, the sun, laughs at us and our refusal to acknowledge its ability to give us power. It just doesn’t make sense. Is The Bahamas a real place?

Days ago, I observed as people went back and forth, arguing about the announcement that scholarships would be made available for students with GPAs of 2.0 or higher to attend University of The Bahamas. Some said the standard was too low, and would ultimately lead to the devaluation of the degree. Some said students with less than a 3.0 GPA did not deserve scholarships. These were the two main arguments and they are terribly flawed.

Education is not just for the individual, but for the society we form together. It does not lose its value. The real issue is that some people derive their own value from the resources they are able to access that others cannot. They build a sense of self on the privilege — nothing they have earned — to access, use and control resources like information and services. Mobile devices do not lose their value when more people have them, but it sure feels great to have the latest model while everyone else is “behind”.

It is strange to see people argue against wider access to education, particularly for those who would otherwise be locked out due to financial need. We want stronger leadership, better customer service, deeper public dialogue and improvements all-around, but oppose access to tertiary education for a student with a 2.5?

It is important to note our school system is imperfect, does not adequately respond to student needs and misses opportunities to recognise learning differences and mental health issues, and does not account for this in curricula or examination design. We look at examination results and GPAs as if they are separate from other systems, practices, and circumstance. We do not agree that financial difficulty should not keep anyone from pursuing tertiary education. Is The Bahamas a real place?

A man convicted of rape had his sentence reduced because he is a first-time rapist. Is The Bahamas a real place? We are paying $9000 for the Governor General’s housing rental. Is The Bahamas a real place? BTC systems were down and it was impossible to reach emergency services. Is The Bahamas a real place?

The Bahamas is a real place when Shaunae Miller wins a medal or breaks a record. The Bahamas is a real place when Sir Sidney Poitier is on the big screen. The Bahamas is a real place when anyone outside of it says the wrong thing about it and faces the online abuse many Bahamians unleash. It has produced people who make Bahamians proud. It drew over a half million people to its shores just in the month of May. It may have a certain magic, blessing, or favour, but it cannot be great in the ways we want if we do not turn our lamentations into demands. If we do not turn our demands into actions. If we do not act collectively. If our collective actions does not have vision. If our vision is not stated, understood, shared and consistently used to drive us forward.

The Bahamas is a real place and Bahamians are real people. We have the opportunity to not only identify the challenges we are facing, but to create and implement solutions. Where is the hashtag for that? Before climate change takes us seriously and makes The Bahamas history, let’s understand we are in a real place and have work to do if we want it to work for us.

Published by The Tribune on July 3, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Lights Out All Around

We know it happens and with greater frequency during the summer months, but we are frustrated by the disruption and inconvenience of electricity outages. No one wants to be left in the dark, least of all to sweat and wonder when we will see the light again. When the electricity unexpectedly went off for hours on Sunday, multiple times in some places, we were not asking for much. We wanted to know what caused the outage, how long it would be and when each area could expect an outage.

It was a simple ask, but seemed to be too much for Bahamas Power and Light to handle. It would not give us a schedule of the electricity outage it was obviously controlling. It used its Facebook page to share the details of what led to the outage and how the issue would eventually be resolved, but it did not answer what many clearly stated was the most important question. We want reliable electricity, but since that does not seem immediately possible, we would like to know when it will be available so we can iron, do laundry, have hot showers and charge our devices.

We are not in control of the electricity provided by BPL. If it would provide a schedule, at least we would be able to plan accordingly. We do not only need electricity for what many consider to be frivolous activities such as watching television and powering other electronic devices. Electricity impacts sanitation, storage of food, entertainment, business operations and medical devices among other functions. In fact, a parent commented on the BPL Facebook page about reliance on electricity to administer medication to a child. This was a reminder of the essential nature of electricity and being able to plan around outages.

There is no discernible reason for the failure of BPL to provide a schedule. We should be able to visit its social media pages and website to see when our areas will be off. We should be able to call and find out – whether through an automated system or agent – what we can expect for the next 24 hours at the very least. We have good reason to complain about the failure of BPL to do its one job and its refusal to properly devise and share a schedule when it fails at that one task.

Some have attempted to shame the people making valid complaints, directing them to buy generators, as though they can be picked up from the side of the road. Generators are expensive, not only to purchase, but to maintain and fuel. The assumption that everyone can afford a generator demonstrates a lack of understanding of issues of class. The suggestion that it is an individual’s or household’s responsibility to provide its own electricity when paying for the provision of service and facing barriers to alternatives reeks of privilege and a lack of understanding of the provision and and maintenance of infrastructure.

For many, purchase of a generator is out of reach. For others, it is an unattractive option because it signals resignation to dealing with a system that does not work and becoming part of the growing number of people who are willing to buy their way out of discomfort while leaving others to suffer and complain on their own. Buying a generator may feel necessary, but it can also be a political decision. Either way, loud generators and burning more fuel is not the answer to the energy crisis we are experiencing in a supposed paradise of sun and sea, both of which are waiting to be part of the solution.

Let’s wake up and teach youngsters about sex – they’re doing it anyway

Deputy Leader of the Progressive Liberal Party Chester Cooper, in an address to the Women’s Branch, spoke of initiatives related to family planning and equality that his party is considering. Among them is an increase in the age of consent from 16 to 18. Similarly, an increase from 18 to 21 was suggested by someone else last week. There are numerous issues with these suggestions and those issues are connected to the intent and the most likely outcome.

An increase in the age of consent is often suggested to deter young people from having sex and to make the age of consent the same as the “age of maturity” at which we can access health care — and, by extension, contraceptives — on our own.

It is an undeniable challenge that young people can legally give consent for sexual activity for two years before they can access sexual and reproductive health care. The answer to this problem is not to increase the age of consent. That will not discourage young people from having sex. They will continue to have the same desires. We desperately need to ensure — through comprehensive sexual education and access to sexual and reproductive health services — that young people are prepared to appropriately respond to those desires. To effectively do this, we have to first recognize that abstinence is not the only way, nor is it realistic for everyone. It is possible to promote abstinence while providing information on the other options.

Comprehensive sexual education is needed in schools and it would be helpful for parents to play a role in providing accurate information, answering questions, quelling anxiety and providing resources for young people in sex-positive ways, whether or not they are sexually active.

Understand there is no harm in providing information. The danger is in lack of information, resources and access to the same. Comprehensive sexual education does not encourage people to have sex, but ensures they are equipped with the information and tools that enable them to make the best possible decisions for themselves and their sexual partner(s).

If the PLP is interested in initiatives that contribute to gender equality and improve family planning, it should engage with organizations working in these areas. Organizations including Equality Bahamas would encourage the party to push for the marital rape bill to see the light of day and work on its positive response (through action) to the recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee on numerous issues including women’s conferral of citizenship, sex-based discrimination, access to abortion, and elimination of discrimination against vulnerable people including migrant women and LGBT+ people. The PLP could pledge to institute a living wage, support domestic workers and create systems that enable women to safely report gender-based violence and easily gain access to the range of services they need.

Raising the age of consent does nothing for women, girls, or family planning. It is not a good idea, will not reduce the number of young people having sex and will not change their sexual practices. We need to change the way we talk about sex and include both consent and pleasure in our conversations. We need to ensure young people are able to access the resources we mention and know how to properly use them.

Have you ever opened a condom with your teeth? Started to put it on the wrong way, then turned it around and used it anyway? Put two on for extra protection? Stored it in your wallet? Have you engaged in sexual activities without protection because you thought they were safe? How old were you when you did those things, and when did you learn you were wrong? People of all ages are making these mistakes every day and this does not have to be the case.

We need to change the way we respond to challenges. No electricity? Get a generator. Young people are having unprotected sex, experiencing teen pregnancy, being preyed upon by older men? Raise the age of consent. If only we were ready to face reality and implement solutions that address the problem. If only.

Published by The Tribune on June 26, 2019.

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Religious Leaders Need to Work to End Sexual Violence

Bishop Simeon Hall recently called on the church to take a stance against sexual violence, specifically including acts within families and marriage. He made a distinction between the desire for sex and the attempt to gain power which leads to sexual violence. Hall also correctly made the connection between the dehumanisation of women and failure to see us as valuable people, noting society must value women in order for sexual violence rates to go down.

We need more leaders of the church to not only “boldly decry” sexual violence, but to implement programmes and policies that address the issue and support survivors. Hall encouraged women to report to the police, seek medical care, and take their time to heal. These are all important to hear, particularly for women who have been taught their wellbeing is worth less than the reputation of male relatives.

Many churches have men’s groups and women’s groups. Are they talking about sexual violence, making a distinction between sex and rape, making members aware of available resources, and advising of the support they can expect from the church and its leadership? They need to do all of this, but also to sensitise members to the issue and encourage them to support survivors and refrain from trying to silence them for any reason, biblical or otherwise.

A troubling part of Hall’s statement, however, was his comment about Bahamian women accepting and promoting “a low self-image of themselves and other women”. It is not clear exactly what he meant, but it appears to be a form of victim-blaming — pointing to women’s own behaviour or beliefs as contributing factors.

It is important to understand that nothing women do outside of perpetrating acts of sexual violence is a cause of sexual violence. Self-image could mean appearance in which case I emphatically state that nothing about a woman’s appearance is a cause of rape, whether she looks a certain age, wears a particular outfit, is visibly differently-abled, or seems to earn a low income. There is no such thing as asking for sexual violence.

Self-image could also refer to sense of self including abilities and value. Again, this is not a cause of sexual violence. It is, however, important to separate perceptions of women (including our perceptions of ourselves) from the value of women as human beings and as contributors to family, society, and economy in a system rigged to extract our labour in excessive amounts without appropriate compensation or consideration to the need for change.

Men do not just need to learn to take rejection. They need to respect women and recognise us as human beings. They need to be taught about consent and agency which is our ability to make decisions on our own. It is critical we all understand consent where agreement to participate in a specific activity is given freely and enthusiastically without coaxing and can be withdrawn at any time, whether or not the activity has started.

Some structures function to limit us and force non-consensual activities such as the belief that men are entitled to the bodies of their wives and wives are biblically bound by a one-time consent rule. These cause harm on multiple levels and are contributing factors in the high rate of sexual violence in The Bahamas. People look to the church for direction, and the leadership needs to stand up and provide it in ways that create change.

Published by The Tribune on May 1, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Super Value President on Staff’s Sexual Behavior

Last week, Super Value President Rupert Roberts said the company will no longer cover maternity costs. The company practices a form of self-insurance, setting money aside to cover medical costs rather than engaging an insurance company which could cost more money. It has decided to discontinue maternity coverage in order to have more money available for catastrophic illness and life-saving treatment. Roberts claimed this decision came as a result of the increase in pregnancy over the past 24 months. He added that covering the expenses is “no problem,” but the company wants to keep its reserve big. He then said he hoped this change in policy would impact employees’ sexual behavior, noting that some had been caught having sex at work. He suggested that young women — whom he referred to as “girls” — specifically want to work at Super Value to benefit from the maternity coverage. This is a preposterous assertion as maternity coverage does not come close to the cost of having a child, but if it is a strategy for reducing the initial cost, some might call it family planning.

The public debate sparked by Roberts’ comments zeroed in on a number of concerns, but there are others that did not get the same attention. His comments leave quite a bit to be unpacked.

Compensation is not a gift

Far too much of the conversation about Super Value discontinuing coverage of maternity expenses frames it as a gift or a kindness. Health care is essential and, aside from public health services, insurance is that only way it is possible for many people. Health insurance is also expensive, especially for women. When asked why health insurance for women costs more, insurance agents say it is because women give birth. It is assumed that women will, at some point, become pregnant and give birth. Not only is that assumption made, but it is built into health insurance plans to ensure those expenses can be covered, at least in part. This is considered essential, from prenatal to postnatal.

Most of us do not work for fun. Some of us are fortunate and innovate enough to enjoy what we do for a living, but compensation is a part of the deal. Employers offer compensation packages. These packages can include money, vacation time, flexible schedule, incentives, a company vehicle, and yes, you have probably guessed it — health insurance. Employers are not always able to offer a salary that adequately compensates for employee output, so there are other components in the package. In some cases, employees can even take study leave, bring their children to work, or access special offers and discounts. Most employers, however, include health insurance in their compensation packages. Sometimes employees contribute to the group plan, and sometimes the employer covers the cost. This is not extraordinary, and it is not an act of benevolence. It is earned. Super Value has not been doing its employees a favor; health coverage is a part of the package because the salaries alone are not sufficient compensation.

Right to have sex as adults

It has been said that sex is a national past time, right up there with drinking alcohol. This is not exclusive to Bahamians. It is not a special fact about young people. It is not limited to a particular gender. People have sex because it feels good. Consenting adults have the right to enjoy sexual activity. At times, people choose to have sex in inappropriate places for a range of reasons, from not having access to a private space to looking for an extra thrill. It happens.

It is understandable for an employer to be upset about employees having sex on property. It is, however, ridiculous for an employer to bring that issue to the public. If it is true that employees are having sex — and we must keep in mind that this is hearsay — there are better, more effective ways to deal with it. There should be a conversation with the staff which may be accompanied by new policies and consequences. These policies and consequences, however, do not need to include public lambasting and shaming or the loss of compensation owed to all employees.

Again, it is important to note that we do not know that what Roberts said is true. If it is, he has a strange way of dealing with the issue. I find it difficult to believe the offense would be repeated to the extend he suggested if it had been appropriately addressed internally. Even if employees have been behaving this way, it is unacceptable to punish them or try to change their behavior by altering their compensation packages and publicly sharing the details of the situation. It is also paternalistic of him to suggest that the loss of maternity coverage might stop them from having sex. People have sex. It does not mean they want to have children, or want to benefit from “free” maternity health care. It means they want to have sex. All Roberts needs to concern himself with is ensuring sexual activity does not happen at work.

Creating an unsafe work environment

It is clear from the conversations about these comments that Roberts has created an unsafe environment for the women working at Super Value. In particular, cashiers are very visible as they are on the frontline and have the most interaction with customers. Men have shared their plans to go and “get a Super Value woman.” In a misogynistic society where sexual education is lacking, rape culture is seen as normal, and sexual harassment is a common occurrence, it is irresponsible to publicly share a narrative about the women working in the stores. At the very least, Super Value needs to make a public apology to its employees — specifically the women — as well as reverse its change to the compensation package and increase security at its stores for the protection of the women it has made particularly vulnerable.

Sexual education opportunity

It is no secret that sexual education is either nonexistent or woefully lacking in most schools. This has always been the case, so there are thousands of adults who do not have critical information. Now is a good time to do some research, visit a medical professional, or get other resources to learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is an excellent time for Super Value to bring in professionals to talk to staff, conduct HIV testing, give information on STD testing, and offer male and female condoms. With its large reserve and the amount of money it stands to save since it has cut maternity coverage, the company can certainly afford to pay nonprofit organizations for a few hours of work. Make it a community event. Invite the general public to visit booths, get free condoms, learn the correct way to store, open, and put on condoms, and engage with sex educators. The company made a big mistake, but should not ignore the opportunity that now exists. There is a lesson for everyone to learn.

Published in The Tribune on July 25, 2018.