With Andrea Bharatt’s murder still fresh on many minds, gender expert Marcus Kissoon is calling for people to recognise the role TT’s male-dominated culture played in her death and many others.
For Kissoon, dismantling the patriarchal system and its beliefs are key steps towards curbing the spate of gender-based violence and femicide.
Patriarchy can be defined as a social system which creates inequality and inequity between men and women to men's advantage.
“Everybody (men) wants to be a boss man, a dan dan…everybody wants to be an alpha male," Kissoon told Sunday Newsday. “That power dynamic is quite important in how we see violence being perpetuated against women and girls…it is all about power and control.”
Kissoon, a research and outreach team member at the UWI, St Augustine campus’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies, works on the national campaign Break the Silence: End Child Sexual Abuse. He has a master’s degree in gender studies and his work has also included raising awareness of women’s rights issues over the past 12 years with various NGOs.
When men perpetrate violence against women, Kissoon notes the importance of breaking down these acts through a gendered lens. For example, in a domestic situation, men are traditionally expected to be providers and breadwinners.
But when they can't meet these expectations, and have limited emotional intelligence to help them cope with the resulting pressures, this can lead to domestic violence.
It doesn’t surprise Kissoon that men turn to violence as a first response. His research has found anger and aggression are the most widely accepted emotions that men are allowed to express in most cultures.
The result is: “We see how violence against women is a way of maintaining a kind of a masculine position in society."
While difficult, Kissoon said it isn’t impossible to break down systemic patriarchy. He said men must recognise their roles as allies of women.
“Men need to engage other men in uncomfortable conversations.
“We need men to sit and understand that what they are doing is unhealthy for women and they are the ones creating those spaces for women and girls to feel unsafe.”
In recent years, Kissoon has noticed more men getting involved in initiatives geared towards ending violence against women.
He said it is also time for parents to have conversations they consider “taboo” with their children.
“Young girls, when you have a conversation with them, tell you that they think this is a way of life and they are supposed to be at the hands of abusers or dominated over."
Kissoon stresses parents must ensure boys understand girls are not property. and the education system must provide reinforcement.
“Why is it so difficult for us to incorporate health and family life education (into the curriculum)?...
“It gives children the language to support them through uncomfortable social issues, including the way in which girls and women experience sexual assault and domestic violence, and the way in which boys execute violent and toxic behaviours.”
Although health and family life education is part of the curriculum, many school boards object to it and to sex education.
Kissoon said research on Caribbean masculinity, which has been ongoing since the late 1990s, is important to understanding how gender-based violence becomes learned behaviour and how it can be eliminated.
Kissoon credits UWI Prof Rhoda Reddock as a pioneer in the research. He also highlighted efforts like the 2019 First Citizens Boys Symposium, a Sexual Culture of Justice 2018 project called “Men Speak Up! – Champions Against Gender Based Violence” and the work of the Gender Studies Institute.
Not everyone supports or understands this work or the need for change.
“For example, religious groups still see men as the head of households and breadwinners."
Kissoon also said some men may be intimidated by efforts to analyse their behaviour. But he notes that if men do not take responsibility for gender-based violence, it can often lead to the dangerous rhetoric of women being blamed for being in certain places or positions when they are harmed.
Male dominance not up for debate
Amilcar Sanatan, a UWI doctoral candidate in cultural studies, agreed patriarchal culture is the place to start conversations about what leads men to commit gender-based violence.
“People often think culture is just around music and the beliefs people carry around (but it’s more than that).
“Our culture is a patriarchal culture that upholds the ideals of male dominance and that is not up for debate.
“The ideals of dominance, the idea that men must have control or that a man must naturally be the head of the home – which is fundamentally undemocratic – could put us in a situation of violence.”
Sanatan is researching issues of violence, urban development, and community empowerment in east Port of Spain.
“To transform culture is not to transform the individual attitudes of men alone but we need to seek systemic change to challenge patriarchy....To challenge colonialism we needed decolonisation; to challenge the patriarchy we need de-patriarchal work.”
He said institutional changes can help move the needle. Recognising women’s rights as human rights is the most fundamental step.
TT can also look towards countries, like France, that have laws on parity to ensure women are substantially represented in decision-making positions.
But even then, a legislative agenda must seek to support women’s rights by dismantling the hold of patriarchy, which often leaves women disadvantaged in employment or safety, for example.
For Sanatan, governments must be held accountable for their role in contributing to patriarchal ideals.
“When a sitting prime minister, Dr Rowley, says that women need to do better at choosing the man that they have, as a strategy to reduce violence, it was Dr Rowley, it was the PNM, and it was the government.
“When Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in the opposition, does not caucus her party to vote to end child marriage collectively and gives room for members of the Parliament to abstain (on the vote)…that is a UNC problem.”
Dismantling patriarchal ideals shouldn’t only be viewed through a top-down lens; Sanatan believes grassroot work is important.
In recent years, youth and student movements in TT have been taking up gender equality, but Sanatan wants this issue to be incorporated more when these bodies are forming.
When NGOs place gender equality at the forefront, he said it can be helpful to opening up avenues to empower women through things like entrepreneurship.
Work can also work can also be done in schools. For example, Sanatan noted Bishop Anstey High School East and Trinity College East already have leadership training programmes which incorporate gender equality.
Also, “Guidance counsellors and social workers need to be more empowered in the types of interventions that they can in schools at the secondary and primary levels.”
At the household level, Sanatan is calling on families to start assessing whether structures of power are equal.
He said the goal should be developing a concept of masculinity where men are not only self-aware of behaviour that is toxic but also be comfortable enough to call out other men.
“People think a society changes in grand events, but it is a group of people and consciousness of a time that can change.”