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Monday, April 24, 2006

Veteran regional activist, Peggy Antrobus. Photo: JERMAINE CRUICKSHANK

Born in Grenada. Worked throughout the Caribbean. Spoke up for the region at international conferences. Co-founded a few decidedly un-insular development networks. Studied the impact of worldwide trends on women's lives. Authored a book on the global women's movement.

Peggy Antrobus lives the linkages. At 71 and after more than four decades of social work, the economist and activist views all issues through the wide lens. So she jump-starts our discussion like this: "I'm talking about the work of the women's movement regionally and globally. I live in Barbados so I'm not commenting on this country and its hot issues. That is the business of Trinidadian women." (I make the linkages to local specifics myself.)

It's morning and we're sitting in her 96-year-old mother's airy gallery in west Trinidad. Singing birds. Streaming sunlight. Glowing green. For more than two hours Antrobus' fluid commentary threads together national events, global concerns and personal experiences.

Inside the house, just a few feet away from our breezy seats, there are framed photographs of two of her younger sisters. Deceased. During the 1980s they were murdered in New York, their bodies hurled out a window by a jealous boyfriend who wouldn't allow one to exit their troubled romance. In 1998 Antrobus' would-have-been daughter-in-law was strangled on a Bequia beach by a stranger. How do the years-and-seas-apart tragedies meet the women's movement in her mind?

"A woman cannot say no," Antrobus says. "At the base of that is sexism. You're a woman, you're a body and you belong to me," It's a presumption of men, of governments and of the entire socioeconomic system into which our societies are stuffed, Antrobus posits. (In January Sharmaine Baptiste was held hostage in a Penal house, then chopped and stabbed to death when an obsessed lover decided he would never leave her again. Last September the National Draft Gender Policy was withdrawn, then--according to some sources--nipped and tucked to decency when a Prime Minister declared that there were "certain recommendations in the document to which the Government does not and will not subscribe".)

Her umbrella theory is that the capitalist model has devastated and exploited in a very gendered fashion. The Caribbean is certainly not exempt. In the 1980s when our governments looked to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans, they were forced to adopt structural development as the framework for growth. The growth model emphasises production and big business. (Think aluminum smelter plants.) And it was touted as a good thing. In reality, she explains, these policies had terrible consequences for women.

"The best example of all is social services... they cut government expenditure for things like health and education. Why?"

Antrobus asks. "Because it can be left to women. They talk about leaving it to "the household" but it's really women who have to fill the spaces. And at the same time the jobs being cut are women's jobs. They treat women like a reserve labour force because ideologically women have fathers and husbands to take care of them. In fact women are bread-winners. We're losing jobs, we're losing services and our time, labour and sexuality are being exploited as the basis for economic growth." The super-exploitation of women, she calls it.

Antrobus doesn't discuss Trinidad's gender policy specifically but she explains the premise of the policies in general. They are necessary precisely because of the degree to which sexism and inequity have been interwoven into our socioeconomic systems. No problems can be solved without addressing this underlying injustice, she says. Antrobus refers to the activism of the 1970s when there was increased interaction between women from the Caribbean and other countries. The north was concerned with equality. The third world was talking development. The Soviet block was speaking about peace. The activists soon realised that they were really talking about the same thing. Whether the issue was human rights, population development, environment, religious fundamentalism or sexual and reproductive health and rights--they struggled against a system that prioritised wealth and ideology over people and their well-being.

"A gender policy is fundamental to social policy. It's not about individuals," she says. (At a March Conference to mark the PNM's 50th anniversary our PM commented that some women are doing so much better than men that "they have difficulty finding husbands".) On Antrobus' reasoning, looking at the success of some women who have benefitted from past activism just doesn't cut it. The point is to address the features of the system that prevent all women from fully exercising individual agency.

"Without a gender policy this asymmetry of power and resources continues. We need a gender policy to realign the balance between social reproduction and economic reproduction... something to ensure that people are put first. Men need a gender policy too. It's not just about liberating women. It's about making things better for people. Dealing with violence, indiscipline, HIV and AIDS... we can never overcome these things if we don't deal with gender issues," she says.

Her own life has helped her to make the wider connections. Antrobus won a scholarship and studied economics at university. She was married and had two children but discovered that her chosen career and family life weren't an easy fit: "You can't have a job in public finance if you are married with children. You can't think of a career that requires continuity. Nobody told me that."

She switched to social work and found herself working in the area of development. It was through her work setting up women's bureaus and with the NGO movement that her understanding of gender and feminism evolved. She went on to be a founding member of many regional and international networks including CAFRA, the Caribbean Network for Integrated Rural Development (CNIRD), the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), the network of third world women promoting Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era (DAWN) and the International Gender & Trade Network.

Two years ago Zed Books published the Antrobus-penned The Global Women's Movement: Origins, Strategies and Challenges. Antrobus views the telling of the story of the movement as part of the impetus needed to stir a fresh regional wave of activism.

"We must create a world in which little girls are safe and secure. No violence. Nobody to rape her. Schools. Self esteem. Responsible father and mother. Taught not to be inferior. Boys who are taught not to be superior. That is the kind of world more and more people are talking about. Another world," Antrobus says, "is possible."