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Invisible women —silent screams

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I sat down to a solitary breakfast of tea and fruit to an empty round table with a starched white table cloth laid for ten in a neon lit room, the very space in the Hilton where I met media colleagues the previous Sunday at the invitation of the hotel’s general manager to celebrate Christmas. Then, gold in the afternoon light, reflected in a deeply potent rum punch, frenzy of parang, a feast for sybarites.

Now, Spartan with a head table awaiting the Prime Minister, a screen on which a documentary by the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, (Winad) funded by the European Union, was to be launched, amongst sombre women and men dressed in suits. Gradually the women who were later to transform my morning (begun with sweetness, a fragrant Caribbean breeze) to burning red stomach churning painful experience.

Fancy manicures
They were beautifully dressed, with cocktail rings, chains, and fancy manicures, some tipped in burnished gold, others in borders of a French manicured paisley. Big women, piling their plates high with various forms of flour, from bread and croissants to bake and rolls with generous helpings of butter, bacon, eggs, jam and everything else that was going on, moving with a Parisian ease.
There was barely time for introductions. The speeches had begun when I began noticing things around my table.

While Susan Alfonso, the Team Leader of Winad was welcoming guests the woman opposite me began to shake uncontrollably. Her plate abandoned, her mouth moved. Was she praying? Unwell?
While Stelios Christopoulous, Charge d’Affaires of the European Delegation to T&T, was on the floor speaking of the organisations commitment to “women, peace and security in T&T” a woman with voluptuous features and Audrey Hepburn bangs, began tapping her feet. Her shoulders heaved. I thought I was seeing things. Was she having a fit?

When Folade Mutota, Director of Winad was saying “somebody is missing” quoting a sibling who could not get over the death of his brother who was standing innocently at a bus stop waiting to go to school when he got caught in a shower of bullets between two gangs, a woman was taking big gulps of air. She couldn’t breathe it seemed. Her eyes watered into her plate of uneaten breakfast. By the time the documentary was into four minutes, as mother after mother recounted how many bullets it took to kill their son, how they still take out “his” plate of food for him, how they wanted to kill themselves after their second son died, how they long for justice, how they wondered where they went wrong, how they live with a hole in their hearts I understood.

In the break while the media table overflowed in anticipation for the prime minister, and cameramen staked out the best angles for her speech I recognised woman now collapsed outside the room, being held up by her friends, from the video. Now lying in a heap, she was the one who said: “the Police called me, told me to come to forensic. I went there and saw my son with five bullets in his head.”
It hit me that every single woman on my table had lost sons, some two, even three to gun and gang violence. While the Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar spoke, wearing deep crimson, a potent symbol power and beauty, they all sat up attentively.

The hope and expectation in the women’s faces turned to a frankly baffled expression followed by disappointment and finally resignation. It soon became clear that the Prime ministers speechwriter had got it wrong. It was a symptom of disconnect that can happen between the leadership and the people if attention to detail is not paid. As she spoke I thought. The question of gender equality was important, the issue of women wanting or not wanting to take leadership roles on boards was valid, and the plan to review the domestic violence Act was commendable. (I remembered interviewing Mrs Persad-Bissessar when she was redrafting this vital piece of legislation a decade back)

But with a sinking heart I knew an opportunity had been lost, for asking the real questions. Between the pause and applause I pieced together what we all women, all mothers especially those with teenaged sons on the table wanted to know. Who was bringing in the guns, drugs and feeding the gangs? Why were these young men illiterate? Where were the teachers, and fathers? Was the police force corrupt? Are there jobs for young men? Is URP breeding more gangs?

We all share a fear when we hear the car carrying our sons roar off and the panic we feel in our beds, with images of hold-ups and shootings and car thefts and battery circulating like stale air until they get home be it at four in the morning or afternoon. They wanted answers, just as I did. Why do we have among the highest rates of murder in a non warring country? There was plenty money. Oil, electricity and water was dirt cheap. Food cards, health care, and ‘a ten days’ was available. Support systems were not ideal but they existed. Why kill?

Poverty can’t be it
Poverty can’t be it. I was just in Mumbai which houses a slum of 800,000 people almost the entire population of T&T. I pushed around a piece of paper to get their numbers. I wanted to speak to them. “Most of our sons can’t read and write” said the woman with the burnished nails. So they kill? I whispered back I thought of the slum dwellers in Mumbai and ALTA figures here. Over 45 per cent of our people are functionally illiterate.) that is over 400,000 illiterate in T&T).

But 67 per cent of slum dwellers in Mumbai were literate. It could be literacy but it doesn’t explain all.
Why? By this time, the room was media frenzy. The reporters had encircled the Prime Minister asking about the Secret files, the CAL imbroglio, Jack Warner. The women and their silent screams were forgotten as they shambled back to their grieving lives.  It was on to the next bacchanal. That’s why nothing will change. That’s why a city of 17 million people can go for months without a murder and our streets in a tiny population of 1.3 million people flows nonstop with the blood of young men and their mothers’ screams go unheard.


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