Women in Montserrat: power, personal safety, and real development

Shirley Osborne

At least since 1952 when universal adult suffrage was introduced into Montserrat and William H. Bramble was elected Chief Minister, the Government of Montserrat has always had a written plan, a listing of its developmental goals and ambitions, and the steps it would take to achieve them. Most countries, corporations, and organizations, and many individuals use these, and the philosophies that guide or anchor these kinds of plans are usually embodied in an accompanying Vision Statement. The vision statement underlying Montserrat’s Strategic Development Plan which just expired, SDP 2003-2007, reads, “The rebuilding of a healthy and wholesome Montserrat, founded upon a thriving modern economy with a friendly vibrant community in which all of our people through enterprise and initiative can fulfill their hopes in a truly democratic and God fearing society.”

This is not a complete sentence. It is what teachers of grammar refer to as a sentence fragment – a long one, but a fragment nonetheless. Still, I think we can say with confidence that we understand and this paper will not list the many reasons for the obvious failure of SDP 2003-2007, but the intentions are good – the Government of Montserrat intends good for Montserrat and its people. SDP 2003-2007 clearly has as its target, the entire population of Montserrat. It promises to work to alleviate conditions such as poverty and unemployment, and to address issues like health and education, and it makes specific commitments to care for what it recognizes are the vulnerable groups.

Beyond this, SDP 2003-2007 is careful to maintain a sense of general-ness and to not appear to favour or to discriminate against any one group. SDP 2003-2007 asserted that government would continue to foster the development of a high quality of life for Montserratians, based on the highest standards of modern human development, and that it would protect the vulnerable by adopting and implementing a number of poverty alleviation programmes. It is noteworthy, for the purposes of this paper, that within the 88 pages of SDP 2003-2007, the word poverty is used 53 times, women appears a grand total of three times, and the word girl/girls, only once.

It must, however, also be said that men and boys did not fare any better – they each get one mention only. Still, that might not be cause for jubilation given that Montserrat is very much a society in which men and boys comprise the standard, despite the visibility and enterprise of its women. Making special dispensations for males is not necessary, therefore, since all dispensations are made with them in mind, and most decisions of note are made by them. And this would all probably be just fine, and would work perfectly for women and girls, and boys and men, if Montserrat were a truly egalitarian society, and these groups had all and only the same concerns, needs, and likely possibilities, or possessed to equal degree the power to mange and direct their own lives, families, and relationships. It is not, and they do not. Those highest standards of modern human development to which Montserrat aspires, do make distinctions among groups – male and female, young and old, rich and poor, vulnerable and not.

But, Montserrat is a profoundly patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic society, and although it does in some ways appear that there is an equality between the sexes – we see women in positions of power, we see women managing households and businesses, and surpassing men in levels of education, for instance – this is so at the superficial levels only. The deeper realities are far different – we also see these same women subsisting in abusive homes and relationships; assuming submissive and subservient roles in their marriages and relationships, even when they are better educated and are earning higher salaries, prioritizing family harmony, and marital status over accountability and the pursuit of justice for victims.

We see social institutions such as marriage, and systems of relationships such as those found in families, that continue to be governed by norms that force women to accept abusive relationships, unworthy partners, coercive sex, and what amounts to domestic servitude in exchange for a certain precarious and unpredictable status and rank. We see a system of laws that makes very little provision for the protection and the safety of women or children, a culture that turns a blind eye to issues such as child abuse, incest, domestic violence, and statutory rape; the business owners and chief executive officers are male, although of course, it is mostly women who work the floors and the paper; in all these 56 years, a woman has only ever “acted” as Chief Minister.

In many sectors, the women of Montserrat come really close, they hover right on the peripheries, they are almost there – so very close to the pinnacles and apices of power that one is almost embarrassed to make the point that they are not in fact sitting in those seats of power ... that the husbands and assorted males still mostly have the final say and make the decisions that matter.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s when Montserrat was galvanized by the labour union movement that brought Mr Bramble to power, there were women among the men on the front lines of the struggle. There was Ellen Peters for example, and in particular. She campaigned so hard, and spoke so well for the unions that some people suggested that she run for political office. In an interview I conducted with Ms Peters in 1988, she recounted a specific evening in Kinsale where she gave a public address, and told how unnerved the leading union men were by the response of the crowd and by the chatter that intensified in the days that followed around her potential for candidacy.

These men, she said, were very careful to disabuse her of any notion she might have had in this regard. She was reminded that she was a woman, and was put firmly back into her place, which did not include any position in Government. She knew she could not win against this perception, she said, and she did not want to harm the movement, so she stepped back and continued her work behind the scenes, campaigning hard and supporting the men, exactly as women were expected to. She noted that the men never actually acknowledged her hard work, then, or later.

“A History of Organized Labour in the English-speaking West Indies” published as late as 2004 by Robert Alexander and Eldon Parker, fails to mention Ellen Peters. But that might not be sexist, for the authors make mention only of Bramble.

History is his-story. It is a recounting of men’s activities. In Montserrat, as elsewhere, women’s achievements are generally relegated to the equivalent of the spaces in between. So, it was my parents who told me about Ellen Peters – round about the time that a woman was finally being permitted to run for office. It was not until 1970 that this occurred.

The development plan for Montserrat at that time, and for a long period afterwards, was focused on certain specific sectors of the economy – on agriculture, tourism, and off-shore banking, in particular. And, of course, a woman could not be entrusted with the rigors and demands of such high-level responsibilities as the ministries of Communications and Works, or of Agriculture, Lands, and Housing. Mary Tuitt, therefore, was relegated to the ministry that managed such fuzzy, easy, feminine matters as education, health, and social services. The men would handle the real business of government – the planting and reaping, the buying and selling, clearing roads, cutting down trees – development, the alleviation of poverty and hardship.

The alleviation of poverty was seen in 1952, as Government’s paramount developmental goal, and in 2008, still is. Clearly, it is vital that Montserratians be able to work, earn, and provide for themselves and their families. Equally clearly, social conditions in Montserrat are far different now compared to what they were 50, 25, or even 15 years ago. It is significant, though, that poverty has never lost its position as the overriding preoccupation, even during that one brief period in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when people were most optimistic and confident, when the national ambitions in that period were strongly focused on the notion of “a house and a car for everyone” and the official political will was “committed to free enterprise, and against government domination of the economy.”

In SDP 2003-2007, the government of Montserrat is careful to note that it would carefully manage public sector activity so as to not stifle or impede private sector initiative, which it acknowledges is a vital factor in any sustainable development strategy. SDP 2003-2007 also affirms that government-driven development strategies would be people-centred, and the government service persons and institutions, people-friendly, given that all sectors share the vision of a healthy and wholesome Montserrat founded on cultural diversity, a code of ethics, trust, network, longevity, transparency, equity, fair play, and values.

Still, in spite of statements like these, and in part because they are so few and far between, SDP 2003-2007 remains an excellent example that both explains why, and confirms that, when we speak in general and even in specific terms about development, we mostly mean economic development – providing jobs and reducing poverty; constructing roads, buildings, ports. The common understanding is that societies are developed and successful only when its people are financially well-off, and it is generally accepted that financial prosperity is preferable in any case.

However, as long as we continue to approach development from this perspective, and until we begin to purposefully cultivate social systems and undertake the deliberate development of human potential as prerequisites to economic development, we shall continue to struggle – like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing that rock uphill and eternally having it fall backwards, one step forward two steps backward, as we have been up till now – and real development, sustainable development, will continue to elude us.

Fundamental to any discussion of, or plans for development, even in the best of times and under the most promising conditions, must be the well-being of the people, of all sectors of the people. I submit that this is even more important, indeed, becomes a major imperative, in difficult circumstances such as those in which Montserrat has found itself over the last 13 years or so. In times of crisis or extreme hardship, it is particularly important that plans for moving forward be precise and specific, minutely detailed, and very tightly targeted towards specific segments of the society.

If Montserrat is to survive, then, not to mention recover, from the ravages of the past twenty years beginning with Hurricane Hugo, plans for development must begin to be precise and specific, minutely detailed, and very tightly targeted – and those targets must be named – women, girls, boys, men, elders, youth, ill, healthy, mentally ill, disabled, single parents, entrepreneurs. Any future SDP must be thorough and exhaustive, taking into detailed account every single societal group and every single issue that has any bearing upon the island’s development. Development plans must acknowledge the existence and significance of distinct groups within the larger population, and “vulnerable” must be redefined to include criteria other than poverty and disability.. Attention must be paid to the potential of specific groups to contribute to the island’s development, and those groups must be managed as vital resources to be developed precisely, purposefully, deliberately, and systematically.

Women must comprise just such a specific group. It is not known whether Montserrat’s women have ever been included within the vulnerable groups category, and one hesitates to do so for fear of exacerbating or inciting any victim status propensities. However, SDP 2003-2007 did declare the intentions of the government of Montserrat to commit to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), of which three are directed specifically at women, although SDP 2003-2007 did also warn that these would be tailored to suit domestic needs. MDG number three focuses on promoting gender equality and empowering women. The UN asserts that women’s rights are human rights, and it insists on the safety and security of women and girls. It calls on member countries to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls, and to mainstream gender issues, which means ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities - policy development, research, advocacy/ dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects.

SDP 2003-2007 said it would investigate gender issues, but lists only one that indicates concern for boys rather than girls– the performance of girls vs the non-performance of boys in Caribbean (not Montserratian) education systems.

This is one example of the way that even in the best of times, many of the issues that most concern women have been neglected in Montserrat, or have been addressed in a haphazard and uneven manner, notwithstanding the placement of a “women’s desk” in the offices of the Ministry of Education, Health, and Community/Social Services; even when there were women in positions of power in the legal department; even though women have been in ministerial office in every administration since 1970, and have been permanent secretaries and unit executives.

At some point, someone must begin to ask why this is so. At some point, and preferably sooner rather than later, someone in Montserrat must begin to take a good long look at history and sociology and psychology and art and science, and understand that not only can economic development not be divorced from human development, but that economic, or any other kind of development can only be possible, and sustainable, if it is grounded in the systematic development of human beings, and of women in particular.

Women comprise roughly 50% of the population of Montserrat. It is necessary that any development plan address their peculiar concerns. Montserratian’s women do have concerns. We have progressed from the primitive feminism of earlier periods which found it expedient to ignore or deny the differences between the sexes. We are far more sophisticated nowadays, and we can acknowledge that differences do exist, that they are eminently desirable and useful, and that difference and unequal are not synonymous – women and men are different, but they are not unequal; anything men can do, women can also do; many things that men do, women do not want to do; many things that men do, women do not want done to them.

Montserratian women are not known to be reticent in matters of speech. In fact, the women of Montserrat are not known to be reticent about much of anything, which makes it all the more interesting and odd that they continue to endure some of conditions that they do without speaking out in protest.

For instance, I have been able to find no official figures that describe the incidences of violence and abuse that occur in Montserratian households and relationships, though the most informal surveys tell a quite horrible story of frequent beatings, belittlement, putdowns, disrespect, lack of consideration, and marital rape. Official records are non-existent or scanty, although it is crystal clear from my conversations with men, women, children, and the police, not to mention, people’s neighbours, that domestic violence and relationship abuse are rife in Montserrat, and that women and their families continue to suffer greatly as a result. Little consideration is given to women’s physical safety, and none to their emotional and psychological security. There is also very little provision in the laws to allow a woman to protect her children.

Victims of domestic violence do not usually report these to the police. In fact, it is generally accepted that up to 90% of domestic and relationship violence never gets reported. They do not report them because there has been no protection under the law, and no remedy in the statutes. Preventing or prosecuting child abuse and violence in homes apparently does not register anywhere near the top of Montserrat’s developmental priorities, and that is regrettable, because to paraphrase a couple of clichés, women are the foundations of our societies, and children are the people or tomorrow. If they are not protected and taken good care of, they will not be able, nor can they be expected to contribute positively to the society. It would be appropriate to add, here, that the security of men is equally important, and that their ability to be participants of quality in their society is also compromised by the impunity they are accorded in their role as perpetrators of violence and abuse against their women and children.

Based on my conversations over the years with Montserratian men, women, and children, it is clear that the fact of the Montserratian condition is that many women and children in Montserrat are not safe in their own homes and intimate relationships. Too many of them are being abused every day; there are far too many women in Montserrat who experience anxiety rather than excitement when their husbands come home; feel intimidated in their presence of their partners when they should really be feeling validated and appreciated.

The police say far too few victims report the violence and seek assistance, and the police also say they can’t really help much, anyway. The police can do only what the law allows and the law of the land of Montserrat makes little or no provision for these things.

In far too may families and homes in Montserrat children are experiencing abuse and violence both as witnesses and as victims, and are being brought up by women who are themselves victims and consequently do not feel empowered to prevent this ill treatment, or even to avoid participating.

Nurses tell of women who, very quietly, seek medical treatment for themselves and their children, following episodes of violence in their families.

That there are so few statistics tracking these matters, does not change the facts. Abuse in families and homes and in intimate relationships on Montserrat is an issue, an issue that needs to be addressed, not only because it is an opprobrious practise, but also because it limits women’s ability to develop themselves, their families, and their communities.

Let us remind ourselves that abuse is not limited to physical violence – in the same way that development is not limited only to matters of the economy. Violence against women includes emotional, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse; it is also about women and girls in fear, misery, loss, mistrust, humiliation, and despair, and all of some of these always accompany the physical, which is generally the most obvious expression.

Women who are victims of abuse are not equal partners in their homes and families, and they cannot then be such in their communities. Children who experience or witness violence and abuse are at greater risk of perpetuating the cycle either as perpetrators themselves, or as perpetual victims. The cycle repeats ad infitum. Women, like men, have a responsibility and a right to contribute fully to their society, and to train their offspring to do the same. Their ability to do either is being restricted and suppressed when they are being violated in their own homes. Their rights are being violated.

This paper is not intended to be a dissertation on domestic violence and abuse, so we shall simply say that domestic violence and relationship abuse hurt every one, and all segments within the society, and diminishes the society as a whole.

One of the primary functions of families is to prepare individuals to successfully navigate the world outside, and to provide a blueprint for building new families that will survive through generations. Violence and abuse compromise the family’s ability to do this, and inhibit the capacity of individuals to build good professional and social relationships, and make it that much more likely that they will create dysfunctional families themselves.

This goes some way to explaining why it is that Montserratians living on the island and those who have left, often, far too often, use the same words to describe their compatriots, and most of these words are derogatory – frighteningly and insultingly so. There is no need to tell anyone here what some of those are. The nicest way to put is is to say that Montserratians generally bemoan the notion that Montserratians are not supportive of each other, and worse that Montserratians often go out of their way to impede each other’s progress and development. Montserratians who are 95 and Montserratians who are 25 years old say this same thing. Apparently, Montserratians are still treating each other badly after all these years, even after all the trials they have endured together. We know our history of enslavement and colonization, so we are aware that some of the blame lies with the systematic ways in which family and other social structures were broken down and eroded by colonizers and enslavers.

If we are objective and committed, we will also acknowledge that, now, the power lies in the hands of Montserratians, to heal our selves.

This paper submits that the place to begin is within the family, and more particularly, with the women of Montserrat.

Women. Women and girls. Those people who cook and clean and wash and iron. Those creatures of many talents who make babies, care for sick men, and feed old people, and change diapers for everyone. In Montserratian homes, as in homes throughout the world, it is women who are the Ministers of Education, Health, Social Services, Community Services, Labour, and Culture.

And that, this paper contends as indisputable, is where the real power for development lies. Within this ministry, lie birth and death and every single thing in between that affects men, women, and children – life, love, mind, body, soul, spirit, and the potential for influencing is limitless. The people who formed the governments in 1952, did not recognize this. In 2008, most people still, apparently are oblivious. The women of Montserrat will need to stop allowing themselves to be co-opted into aiding and abetting their own submission and disenfranchisement and must step up to the wicket, seize their power with both hands, and use it – with courage, with confidence, and with conviction. And government must be made to encourage, facilitate, and invest heavily in this.

The place to begin would be with relationships. It benefits men as much as it does women, it benefits children and the community, when women and men work in consort, in partnerships of equity. Any of a vast number of factors would contribute to this. This paper proposes thirteen.

  1. Men must be encouraged, with the full force of the law, to stop beating, belittling and otherwise demeaning and abusing their women. The same rule applies to same-sex relationships, male or female;
  2. Men must be taught from birth how to be good men, and then must be held accountable for their actions and their failings;
  3. Women must be provided the tools with which to protect themselves and their children;
  4. Statutory rape must come to be regarded as child abuse and must be vigorously prosecuted;
  5. Social and/or community services must identify groups to function as mandated reporters of child abuse and domestic violence, and investigate the possibility of instituting “Good Samaritan" laws;
  6. Families and social institutions and community development organizations must prepare children from birth how to build and recognize positive relationships;
  7. Government must take a position on violence against women and children and must put laws in place to protect victims and punish perpetrators;
  8. Government and community agents must raise awareness about the corrosive effects of domestic violence on individual, familial, and community strength, and forcefully pursue a cultural shift from victim blaming to perpetrator accountability;
  9. Government and community must address the root causes of violence, the sustained devaluation of women, the impunity of abusers, and community complicity;
  10. Government and community must organize cultural transformation by emphasizing individual and community accountability, and by establishing new social norms;
  11. Government must place the leadership of women, girls and youth at the center of strategies for development;
  12. Government must commit firmly to gender mainstreaming;
  13. Finally, in an island with a growing immigrant community, culture must not be allowed to be used as an excuse for violence against women, neither as a defense used by an immigrant groups, nor as cultural freeze by Montserratians. The notion that “people in my culture behave this way, so it is alright for me to do so”, cannot be tolerated because what is being defended is a culture of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy.

The White House Project, an organization which encourages women to run for public office in the United States, and which trains, coaches, and supports women who choose, notes that women have, for centuries, been the “government in exile” – leading at the foot of the table as a marginalized constituency. Yet to address the myriad of issues which confront women, from poverty and domestic violence, to healthcare and work-life balance – women must be represented in the upper echelons of government where such issues are tackled and policy is enacted.”

Instead of addressing these issues in the usual inefficient and piecemeal fashion, the Government and community agents of Montserrat must develop a vehicle that would enact permanent and systematic change, by finding ways to have more women at the tables of power, those in their homes and private lives, those in all of the social institutions, including government, and fostering a truly representative democracy.

No SDP, however wordy or extensive, could be meaningful or practicable such input from the women of Montserrat. No development, however costly, can be “sustainable” on Montserrat if it does not address the concerns and potential of Montserrat’s women and girls. Change will continue to come to Montserrat, so Montserat must decide whether it will fight change, lose itself in any change that comes along, or whether it will actively and assertively seek the change that it truly needs, and that best suits all its people.

This last option is the only viable one. If Montserrat is committed to development that is sustainable, it must create a new society. It needs all its people – it must take special care of its women, because only in doing so does it take care of its children and its men, and only through women can the island have a future that is worthy of its people and potential. Montserrat will not survive otherwise.

© Shirley Osborne

HTML last revised 20th April, 2009.

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