A continuing uphill struggle
-Rhoda Reddock on the Caribbean Feminist Movement By Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
July 6, 2002

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Professor Rhoda Reddock, Head, Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies (UWI) on Wednesday became the seventh recipient of the prestigious CARICOM Triennial Award for Women. In her acceptance speech, she said: "I consider myself fortunate to be among that group of women who have been able to earn my living from a cause to which I have been so committed. I have been able to do so through my advocacy in women's and community-based organisations as well as intellectually as a teacher, researcher and writer. I also consider myself exceedingly fortunate to be honoured for my contributions while I am still alive... I see myself walking in the footsteps of those important Caribbean foremothers who have done so much to pave the way for future generations of women and men."

Reddock talked of her career, the issues surrounding feminism and economic development in the Caribbean, and what the award means to her:

On the award:

"I think the award is recognition from peers, and from the region. I come from one region, one country in the Caribbean [Trinidad and Tobago], and the award comes from the entire Caribbean community. So I think that whatever contribution I have made, is recognised throughout the region. Also, I think it represents the commitment of CARICOM generally, to the advancement of women. To me, the award is important because it says something about the community and where it stands. For me personally, to receive the award is a tremendous honour.

"This particular award even though it is given by the state, is the result of nominations from women's groups, community organisations and institutions. It is different in the sense that it doesn't just come from above. But in terms of my own work, it's a continuing uphill struggle. I think that in the region, we have been able to achieve lot - though there is a lot left to achieve."

On the status of the Caribbean feminist struggle:

"There is a big backlash against the women's movement in the region. There is this view that women are moving ahead and men are losing. There is a general feeling that there is no need anymore to support women's advancement or changes in gender relations. We really have to develop new strategies in order to deal with this situation. One of the main challenges to me is to reach out to younger generations, both women activists and women in general. I teach gender studies, and therefore the challenge is to excite a new generation to continue the work we have begun.

"At the government level, our work is to continue to ensure that there is state commitment to many of the goals that they ratify at international levels. It's a big effort to continue that push from below, to ensure that they live up to the things they say they are committed to. In our region, in the 1970s, we had the allegation of feminism being imported. That is why my work particularly focused a lot on women's history and uncovering the early feminists of the region, the early women's movement, going back to the 19th century, and identifying our tradition of feminist struggle within the region.

"In terms of issues facing the movement right now, we are in a much more conservative climate. You see the re-emergence of religious fundamentalisms. In my country it is 'fundamentalisms'. In a sense, it is competing fundamentalism, between Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, where each one is trying to see who can be more 'moral'. Many women tend to be very religious and tend to get caught between all these contradictory currents. Politically, many governments are in a situation of economic crisis, and have limited resources. And that is why you really need that push from below, to ensure that resources continue to be allocated towards issues related to gender relations and women.

Also, many leaders are men, so they continue to suffer from the same anxieties [as described earlier] as to what is seen as women's advancement in the region, especially in the area of higher education. For example, the concerns around young male criminality: as feminists we are pointing out that a lot of the issues here have to do with our constructions of masculinity and femininity. Therefore, if we really want to deal with these problems at the root, then looking at gender issues would be fundamental in coming up with solutions to such pressing issues."

On issues confronting Caribbean women:

"Domestic violence, and violence against women in general has the effect of sweeping other issues off the table. In my experience, with my own women's organisations - [Women Working for Social Progress, a community-based organisation, and the Caribbean Association For Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA), a regional feminist network that she is a co-founder of] - the issue of violence against women tends to overshadow all the other issues. Certainly, in my own work personally, I have done a lot of writing on race, class and gender. I plan to introduce a course at UWI on this subject. We have also done work around the environment, looking at aspects of environmental degradation, and how intervention may need to target women and men differently - also noting that the impact of this degradation may affect men and women differently."

On sexuality as a Caribbean issue:

"Sexuality is very important. While it is not fortunate, the AIDS pandemic in a contradictory way provides a window and a space through which the region is now forced to confront issues around sexuality. The currents coming from religious groups - in Trinidad we have a strong Catholic influence, which is generally against contraception - lead religious communities to feel the need to compete morally on this issue. But I think that the exigencies of the situation are such that women can no longer afford to ignore the issues.

"The Caribbean Epidemiological Centre is undertaking research on homosexuality. We have to confront issues of sexuality and sexual behaviour. We have to conduct more research on the attitudes of young people on sexuality and sexual behaviour. I think that we are still pushing the barriers. Certainly, in our teachings, we discuss sexuality - and though we can do more - at least we are beginning to force students to widen their horizons, to challenge their traditional thinking. It is important as well to empower young people to be in control of their sexuality, because at the same time that society is silent and moralistic on this subject, young people get conflicting messages from media, to adopt sexualised patterns of behaviour, and as a result, are often quite confused. We need to be at the forefront of sex education. We are hoping that one result of the whole AIDS pandemic will be a more open approach to sex education in schools and community organisations, and therefore, a more sophisticated understanding of sexuality. This is something we are working towards.

"The issue of sexuality is a question of human rights. For a woman, it is a need to claim her right to an active and progressive sexuality. The point I am making is that because of all the taboos facing sexuality, activists have to be strategic. They have to see the spaces that emerge and use those spaces in order to achieve larger and more general goals. In terms of the whole discourse on same-sex relations, the AIDS pandemic also opens up that space, which has been very much closed. In our own teaching, we deal with it. Attitudes (to same-sex relations) vary within the region, some parts of the region are more tolerant, and in some areas, it is a part of the national identity to be intolerant.

"In general, in terms of legislation, in terms of popular understanding and education [around same-sex relations] we still have a long way to go. In my work at UWI, I hope that educating students well, and broadening their horizons, can potentially have an impact on wider society."

On feminism in the context of globalisation:

"In fact, the feminist movement in the region is very concerned about issues of globalisation and liberalisation of trade. There is a strong network, and regional organisations like CAFRA, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), as well as other groups in Jamaica have been doing a lot of work on gender and trade. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they have not been able to interact enough with policymakers and with people who actually conduct trade negotiations. Here, at the [CARICOM] meeting, they have mentioned an interest in having a discussion on gender and trade, and I think that is very positive.

"A lot of research is being carried out - by CAFRA, DAWN, and other groups - to ensure that trade issues are gender sensitive and that women are able to influence trade policy. There certainly is a lot of discussion in the region. Unfortunately, we have not been able to use mass media adequately. Also, because we compete with the global US media on this issue, I think the broad population of the Caribbean is not aware of our discussions, writings and activities."

On sustainability and solidarity:

"Certainly in comparison with earlier eras, the social movement community - what is now called the NGO community - was much more active. We are facing a generational transfer challenge. The late 70s and 80s were the high point in activism in the region. The trade union movement was at the forefront of critiquing neo-liberalism and structural adjustment. In my opinion, the women's movement is the most consistent in continuing this critique, and trying to influence the outcomes of policy. But that is why we need a younger generation: because a lot of the women who have been involved with us have been around since the 70s and 80s, and they are tired. "The Caribbean Peoples' Development Agency and the Caribbean Policy Development Centre are some of the groups who closely with the feminist movement. If there is one group whose struggle is comparable to ours, I would say it was the environmentalists, who we see as allies. We look for allies, and we would like to see more allies to broaden the debate. We would particularly like to see a more active labour movement, which can move beyond individual struggles to larger issues facing the region."

On influences and her personal life:

"I am a national of Trinidad and Tobago, though my father is from St Vincent and the Grenadines. I was born there but spent most of my life in Trinidad - and thus consider myself Trinidadian, but value my roots in other parts of the Caribbean. My mother was a very strong influence and she brought me up with a very strong sense of myself as a woman. She brought me up with a love of the country and a love of reading. Through her own studies - she never attended school - she got into university, and she was at the UWI with me, when I was a student there. Later, she became a schoolteacher. She was a very brilliant woman.

S"My father was an agricultural officer. I think I got very good home influences, though in school, I was also very active - I was a member of the Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh awards. In the 70s I was influenced by the social movements of the time, and became a member of a number of political organisations. I have been active in the women's movement right since the 70s.

"I think I have had a very full life. I very much love the arts, and if I weren't working as an academic, I would have had a career in the arts. I like singing, acting and performing: I love creativity and I have a great admiration for creative people. My partner, Dean, is an artist, and makes up for what I lack and don't get an opportunity to deal with."