The common denominator in the efforts of Alinda and Marva, Shirley, Barry and Juanita is that they were able, not only to think of their own needs but also the needs of other sisters in the struggle. For us to move 25 more years beyond the first 25 years, we need sisterhood. We have had our first female President of the Senate, we have our first female Prime Minister, we have our second woman Governor General and our first female Director of Public Prosecutions. The question MUST be, how has this changed life on the ground for the average Barbadian woman?
I think that the next 25 years will demand us not just to look for space for women, but also to ensure that we are clear about the kinds of women that we put in spaces. What are their visions of and for themselves? What are their visions of and for other sisters? Are they going to use the positions that we fight for them to get, to fight for us? If we keep installing women for the sake of installing women, I submit that we will get similar results as the last 25 years. Moving Beyond requires something different.
As we build a stronger sisterhood in Barbados, we have to be willing to go to bat for one another on issues of principle and policy. I continue to be one of the advocates that accompanies women in their everyday lives as they negotiate various injustices. One element of our national culture remains embedded and pervasive. The system in Barbados takes advantage of the less abled – whether the challenge is limited intellectual capacity, learning disability, speech or sight deficits or physical limitations – there is a meanness that characterizes Barbadian culture in relation to others and we must smite it if we are serious about moving into the potential gains of the next 25 years.
Our national culture must be adjusted such that we are all personally incensed by injustice and inequality. It must start with each and every one of us. More specifically, since I am speaking as a woman, to women about women, it must start with each of us holding the hand of another sister, be she sighted or not, be she of the same school vintage or not, be her house as nice as ours or not – we must protect her against abuse and injustice.
If this sisterhood was mature and vibrant, we still would not have some of the policy discrepancies that remain. Enough women have shattered enough glass ceilings in Barbados that there is no reason why the discrepancy between the amounts of benefits paid to women affected by sight and hearing impairments would not pertain to all sisters living with other types of disabilities.
While I am happy that women living with visual and hearing impairments get a grant of non-contributory pension, I am concerned about the other differently abled sisters who have to face the indignities and delays to beg welfare officers for a ‘bligh’. Right here, we see the point that I am making highlighted. Many of the officers of the welfare department are women. Many of the policy makers in the social care space are women. So it is not as simple as blaming men for oppressing us or maintaining the status quo.
The next 25 years require us to unhinge ourselves from the systems of oppression that we have invested in. Just as the pioneers of this sub-committee realized that they had the power and agency to establish it, we must now realize that the power of the next 25 years rests in our efforts to carry their efforts further. Each and every woman welfare officer in Barbados, each woman policy maker, has to become agitated and offended until we find a way to close the gap in benefits for all differently abled sisters.
This point brings me nicely back to the one I started these remarks with. I want the sub-committee of the Visually Impaired women of the Barbados Council for the Blind and Deaf firmly under the umbrella of the National Organization of Women of Barbados. By creating linkages such as these, we form a singular agenda for the upliftment of all women in Barbados. I apologize on our behalf as NOW because really, this is not a partnership that should still be outstanding.
When I talk about the cost of sanitary napkins in Barbados and the fact that they are not zero rated for VAT, some people say that is no issue at all and that I am complaining about a non-point. They see life only from their vantage point because when a sister is receiving a paltry welfare check or indeed, even $900 a month, then buying a pack of $15 sanitary napkins, which will not by itself service one month of menstruation, it is an injustice. The injustice is compounded by VAT being on the women only items because it amounts to a tax for being a woman.
The next 25 years will call for partnership. It will call for us to put our heads down and become resolute about non-negotiables. Every woman in Barbados has the right to price controlled, VAT free access to sanitary napkins to ensure availability and minimize price exploitation. That is what will get us ‘Beyond’. Every sister living with a challenge is entitled to a social support grant that is adequate to ensure that she lives in dignity.
If a woman cannot even afford her period, how will she see the Parliament or even attendance at University as a reasonable life goal? If we do not empower all women, even as we in our personal lives shatter ceilings, we are not contributing to the movement overall in the same way the women we celebrate today did.
I am always for people just understanding that injustice is wrong – but some people can only see when they are inserted into a picture. So, I end by reminding the sisters who believe that they have no investment in rights for women with different abilities, that there, but for the grace of Mama Universe, we go.
Non-communicable diseases, gun violence, even just routine household chores leave us all vulnerable to accidents and occurrences. The rights and embrace that we give to differently abled women should be born out of our humanity and sense of decency – but if that is not persuasive enough, the rights we fight for today for differently abled sisters just may be the very ones we lean on tomorrow.
Here is to the first 25 years and to shoulder to wheel for the creation of the next 25.
Speech from President of NOW Marsha Hinds at the 25th anniversary of the Subcommittee for Women of the Barbados Association for the Blind and Deaf.