This is the last in a series on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality. As I write this on the eve of our 50th anniversary of independence, I celebrate our youth leaders and activists who offer hope for change as we look ahead to the next 50 years. I wish to thank Gabrielle Henderson and Tonya Haynes, two young Caribbean feminists whose thinking is reflected here.
Caribbean youth activism
Tomorrow’s Adults: A Situational Analysis of Youth in the Commonwealth Caribbean (1997) and the UN’s Youth at Risk (2000) expressed a growing concern with “the crisis of youth.” They drew attention to the high drop-out rates and under-achievement among boys and young men in education; their increasing involvement in violence, illegal drugs, and other anti-social and criminal activities; and high HIV infection rates among young people. They also led to a renewed focus on young people, and the reinstatement of national youth councils and development of national youth policies across the region. At the same time, a dynamic regional youth movement had begun to emerge. Many young women joined youth organisations. Some were involved as peer educators on issues of HIV/Aids, and adolescent sexual and reproductive health. But despite the fact that the HIV epidemic among young people was being fuelled by unequal power relations between young men and women, gender equality concerns did not feature on the agenda.
Gabrielle Henderson makes the point that the absence of young women’s voices and leadership in the Caribbean youth movement shaped a response to the HIV epidemic which characterised them as being poor and powerless, and vulnerable to infection. Youth councils matter since they are often incubators of future politicians and leaders. However, Tonya Haynes, founder of CatchAFyah, a network of young Caribbean feminists, argues that they neither seek to increase young women’s political participation nor foster the development of transformational leadership. According to Haynes, “Young women are not considered a political constituency in the same way as young men. States respond to young men, often in very problematic ways, but respond they do, with efforts to understand and cater to them. Young women do not attract this kind of attention, and this has implications for the recognition of their citizenship rights and their economic and other forms of empowerment.”
Young women’s activism
Young women have begun to organise on their own behalf. For example, a young female incest survivor in St Lucia started an initiative called PROSAF—Surviving Sexual Abuse in the Caribbean, which published regular features on child sexual abuse in the St Lucia Star, a national newspaper. CatchAFyah is network of young Caribbean feminist activists and organisations representing a range of voices—farmers, social workers, artists, social entrepreneurs, counselors, researchers, teachers and students. They stand against discrimination of any kind, including that based on sexual identity. Gender studies programmes at the universities in the region have provided a space for university-educated young women to engage in discussion and activism. Although more women in the region have access to education than ever before, gaps persist between the haves and have-nots. And the media and popular culture, which tend to treat young women as sexual objects, further complicates their sense of identity, belonging, citizenship and nation. Despite all of this, young feminists are beneficiaries of the space created by the earlier generation who have been organising since the 1970s. And their presence is now evident in debates on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and wider issues of economic justice and the environment.
A rainbow on the horizon
To those who are listening carefully, young male and female activists are making themselves seen and heard on the challenging issues facing the society. For example, T&T has been debating the four Marriage Acts which sanction the early marriage of girls at ages 12, 14 and 16. Interestingly, some 40 per cent of participants at a national stakeholder consultation held by the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development in November 2011 were young people representing a diversity of faiths. They spoke out strongly against early marriage. Youth activists are involved in the struggle to end discrimination against people on the basis of their gender identity. A recent newspaper article referred to a courageous youth leader who challenged an opposition political party on the issue.
A group of students linked to the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at UWI recently formed “Support for Change” to lobby for the National Gender Policy. They demonstrated at Parliament last June, bearing placards that said: “I support a Gender Policy,” “Everyone needs a Gender Policy,” “Farmers need a Gender Policy,” “Breastfeeding mothers need a Gender Policy,” “Policemen need a Gender Policy,” “HIV-positive people need a Gender Policy,” “Athletes need a Gender Policy,” among others.
They bring to mind our Olympic athletes and National Youth Awardees, whom we have been celebrating. And the young men and women across the Middle East who generated the Arab Spring. Or the young people engaged in the global Occupy Wall Street movement.
These young people represent a diversity of political ideologies and faiths. They are organising largely through social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Most adults are unaware of this movement taking place all around us.
It is critical that we recognise young people as an emerging political constituency and our next generation of leaders. They comprise over a third of the population. They represent the “swing voters” in the forthcoming local government and national elections. And they are looking for political, economic, social and cultural change.
Those currently in government and opposition ignore them at their peril.
Dr Rawwida Baksh