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Where is the Bureau of Gender Affairs?

Today's WomanLet me say a heartfelt thank you to the rotation who ran the Ultrasound Department at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) last Wednesday around noon. My baby got the terrible flu which is currently weaving its way through the schools of Barbados, and we ended up having to go to that department.

Anyone who has interfaced with the QEH recently knows the litany of complaints about short staff, short supplies and, from time to time, the resultant short tempers of both patients and staff. In spite of the difficulties, though, we must be aware as a nation that the single factor keeping the QEH running is the staff who go above and beyond daily, to overcome the myriad problems of the institution and to offer assistance in times of distress, when people are easily agitated and long waits and pure frustration make them that more difficult to interface with.

In the situation, a kind word goes a long way. A clerk who cannot do anything about the wait but who keeps popping around the corner to reassure that she has not forgotten, is a gem. The doctor not only attended to the examination, but took time to answer my son’s queries about the machine she was using. She also tilted her screen so that he could see what she was seeing. I was a completely happy camper. Good customer service is so rare, specifically in the government service. Positive affirmation is theirs and deserved. Well done!

Our governmental system is so unresponsive, with so many bottlenecks, that we have become accustomed to national debate which is not connected to any mechanisms for systemic forward movement. So, for instance, we are currently discussing the seeming breakdown of morals and values in the Barbadian family which is leading to maladjusted children in our schools and later to citizens disposed to frustration and violence.

While I am heartened that we are having the discussion finally, I am worried about the disjointedness of the approach. I find the silence of the Bureau of Gender Affairs to be deafening.

Commentators, over the last few weeks, have started to discuss the issues of parenting and how they relate to what is playing out socially. Some are alarmed and disappointed that we would have to teach parenting. I cannot follow logically where their disappointment would come from. There are many things which we have done with relation to family and child rearing in the Caribbean that are backward and wrong. We have continued to embrace models of family life given to us by the system of plantation rule, which decimated and destroyed so many tens of millions of African-descended people during and after the transatlantic trade in African people. The only systematic way to introduce healthier models of family life will be to teach new patterns of courtship, engagement and parenting. It is a logical component of a post-Independent social development plan for a country with a history such as Barbados’.

The endeavour cannot stop with simply teaching new models; it must incorporate elements of behavioural change strategies as well, because the issues of family and parenting is one of readjusting culture and not just habits.

The Bureau of Gender Affairs has to be one of the leading agencies in this acculturation. The role of the Barbadian woman is reshaping. The role of the Barbadian male must obviously change to suit. While changes are occurring, I am not certain that Barbadian women are becoming more liberated for the changes in all cases. I also sense that Barbadian men are largely resentful and/or confused about the changes they are required to make. My fear is that the evolution of Barbadian women and men is not being managed effectively and collectively, and as a country we are not benefitting from the changes.

The children are caught in the middle and they are in many cases neglected and uncared for. One commentator, a few weeks ago chastised women for the breakdown in the Barbadian society because they had not become “liberated and had wholly let go”. Women are not the cause of the disintegration in the Barbadian society, even if their achievement of some more equality has brought some of the issues into plain public view.

Unless a woman gets a child by artificial insemination, there is no single woman who is responsible for rearing a child on her own. With that said, the number of “oops” babies we have in Barbados is entirely too high and we have to start to retrain people about when is the right time to introduce a child into a relationship.

When a woman has single care and total responsibility for a child, it is obvious that her “slip up” moments will be in fuller view of the child. If fathers take the child on the weekend, the mother has a chance to party and recreate away from her ward. I do not see the issue as the fact that mothers party. I see the problem as the perennial one that we have had. Fathers must show up and be responsible for their parenthood as much as women need to.

Economic equality remains elusive for many of the masses of Barbadian women. Many of them still find themselves in unskilled jobs where they have to work long hours in order to be able to generate enough income to manage their households. In these cases, when this woman is also a mother, it is obvious that she will not have the time to invest in parenting that makes for successful childrearing. These are the issues, and that the Bureau of Gender Affairs is not at the forefront leading the public debate and showing the intricate linkages is upsetting to me.

Many people in Barbados know individuals engaged in affairs. Many men who are married have maintained two families over the years. There is still no punishment for such behaviour because of how culturally accepted this situation is. How exactly are we to build healthy families within these parameters? Of course we must teach parenting, but before we teach that we must teach integrity and honesty as prerequisites to becoming involved in a relationship. Families cannot be strong within the traditional cultural models that we live by. That we didn’t see the fallouts we are now seeing has nothing to do with new problems. Our family structure has always been weak, but there were social buffers, such as sports clubs and community groups, which used to provide support in a way that they now don’t. Will the Bureau of Gender Affairs please step forward?

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