Published in The Tribune on May 10, 2023
In June, I attended #CHOGM2022 in Kigali, Rwanda. I attended in the Commonwealth Women’s Forum, moderating a panel organizations by The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) on LGBTQI+ rights, and was on the closing panel at the Commonwealth People’s Forum which was focused on building upon the ideas shared during the two-day forum and looking toward the future.
Later in the week, I participated in the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Roundtable where I spoke about the relationship between governments and civil society and why it needs to change. We, members of civil society, know our communities. We work with and within them every day, we can reach them with ease, we know the pressing issues, and our access cannot be matched by the government. Non-governmental organizations cannot be skipped over and ignored when services and programs are being developed to benefit the people in the communities we serve.
If I come across a recording of the Roundtable, I’ll be sure to share it. I’m happy to see the Commonwealth Foundation has shared the recordings from the Commonwealth People’s Forum, and it was great to revisit the closing panel. Check it out.
I was invited as a part of the delegation of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali Rwanda from from 19 to 25 June 2022.
I shared my experience with TCEN, which you can take a look at from 10:45 in the video below.
- Institute a quota. Go beyond 30 percent which is a low bar and does not result in gender parity in a world, and a country, in which more than half the population are women and girls. Low bars do nothing for us. Let’s start with acknowledging that we have a long way to go, then figure out how to get there. Make the quota 50 percent, and do it now. The current administration can still do this on a national level. All political parties can do it for themselves. Let’s call on all political parties to make their positions on women’s leadership clear by instituting party quotas of 50 percent now. This commits them to do the work of recruiting and training women, creating enabling environments within the parties, and improving the conditions of all women so that they are able to pursue opportunities in frontline politics and other forms of political leadership.
- Provide training and mentorship for women. Boys and men are raised and trained to believe that they are destined for leadership while girls and women are often taught that they are to play supportive roles. What we see in the leadership of men and boys and in women and girls is not a result of natural abilities or inclinations on the basis of gender, but gender ideologies that have been used to put people on particular paths. Men and boys have long been considered more suitable for leadership and certain kinds of work, so women and girls have been dealing with implicit and explicit discouragements from leadership and the areas of work that have been reserved for men. This needs to be intentionally interrupted and corrected. We need specific programmes and initiatives targeting women and girls, preparing them for leadership.
- Reject gender stereotypes. Publicly challenge and rebuke all suggestions that gender is a determinant of ability or suitability. Create opportunities for women and girls to pursue education and careers in areas that continue to be dominated by men. Run campaigns that highlight women already working in these areas, their contributions to the industries and to the country, and the support that has made it possible. Encourage the private sector to do the same. One example is providing scholarships and other opportunities such as fellowships to girls and women pursuing education in STEM and trades.
- Reduce the burden of care work. One of the factors that impacts people’s performance in the workplace and both ability and willingness to pursue ambitions is the work they have to do outside of their formal employment. Women are often tasks with the upkeep of the home. Even if a household can afford to employ domestic workers, the supervision and management of household tasks still tends to be the responsibility of the women. Childcare and eldercare are often the responsibility of women as well.
There is so much to be done at home that it is known as “the second shift” and can prevent women—and the girls often enlisted to help and learn from them—from studying and participating in other activities that could help to advance their careers. Recognize that women’s time is not elastic, acknowledge that women have taken on much of the work that the state is obligated to do, and make structural changes to allow and encourage men to share the domestic labour and support women in reclaiming their time. For example, change the expectation that women are solely responsibly for childcare by amending legislation to give parental leave so that fathers have more than five days to help with newborn care, leaving postpartum women to heal and care for babies alone.
- Protect women from gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that is affecting families, communities, islands, and the country. It can be physical or non-physical, and it takes place both in person and online. Social media has been weaponized by men, used to discourage women from engaging in public life and punishing them for it if they dare to enter public life anyway. This administration and all political parties need to rebuke all forms of violence against all women, regardless of political affiliation or position. Disparaging comments and ads that target women on the basis on their gender need to be banned.
Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on March 10, 2021.
Bahamians tuned in to the Budget Communication in Parliament last week Wednesday with great interest. After laying out a number of supposed benefits to the Bahamian people, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest showed the price tag. The FNM administration intends to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) by 60 percent, taking it up from 7.5 percent to 12 percent on July 1. It expects this tax hike to increase revenue by $400 million in the next fiscal year.
In a press conference, Turnquest suggested this is the best way to pay off arrears left by the former administration of approximately $360 million. He insisted that the government is doing the right thing by being honest with the Bahamian people as opposed to presenting a misleading budget and delaying pay day.
Under-budget or increase taxes. These are clearly not the only options. This administration is depending on us to play into the stereotype of “lazy” and “D-average” so it can do as it sees fit with little to no pushback.
Even if VAT is the best option for The Bahamas, it would have been more transparent — a term the FNM enjoyed using before May 2017 — and shown a commitment to more participatory governance to share the details of its financial concerns with the people before this point. It would have been easier to understand this decision if we had been provided with this information before the Budget Communication and had the opportunity to offer ideas. The people sitting in Parliament are, after all, our representatives and not a collective dictatorship.
Over the past few days, many people have quoted the 2016 version of Dr. Hubert Minnis who said, “I don’t believe in increasing taxes, I believe in decreasing taxes and increasing opportunities. Increasing taxes is a lazy way out. When you don’t want to think, you just tax.”
In 2013, Dr. Minnis said the PLP should share its economic studies and analyses as well as alternatives it considered with the Bahamian people. Today, the Bahamian people are making the same request. We want to know how this administration came to the conclusion that a 60% increase in VAT is best for the country. We also want to see the other options that were under consideration, why they failed, and how the administration arrived at this conclusion. Hearing from the Prime Minister on his change in position would be welcome as well.
VAT and Customs Duty
In the Budget Communication, it was announced that Customs exemption would be increased from $300 to $500, twice per year. There is also a reduction in Customs duty on new small cars and excise duty on new electric and hybrid cars under $50,000 in value. Neither of these benefit the poor.
We learned that VAT will not be applied to bread basket items. These include rice, flour, grits, cheese, butter, cooking oil, milk, evaporated milk, soups, and mustard. Concerns have been raised about the lack of healthy options on the bread basket list, and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands suggested more items, including fresh produce, will be added. VAT is also being waived from electricity bills below $100 and water bills below $50 impacting 30,000 and 43,000 people respectively — close to the 40,000 reportedly living in poverty. This measure, clearly meant for the poor, still does not bringing balance when we are looking at 12% VAT on everything else. The 2013 Household and Expenditure Survey showed 12.8% of the population in The Bahamas is living in poverty — on less than $5,000 per year.
What is poverty?
We need to understand what it means to be poor. Poverty is not the inability to purchase a particular brand of cellphone. It is not making the decision to attend a community college instead of a well-known university. It is not driving a 2010 Honda Civic. It is not being a college student and living with your parents. It is not a situation you can see your way out of at any given time. It is not a decision or series of decisions you consider prudent or responsible. It is having $5000 per year, and being unable to make decisions that do not fit that budget. Poverty is not a choice, and it is not about choices. It is not the result of working less, or working less hard.
Poverty is a systemic issue, and a monster we continue to feed with unilateral decisions like VAT and VAT increases and discriminatory practices. It is an issue we trivialize and makes jokes about when we hear about VAT going up and declare ourselves “poor” because we may not be able to go to crossfit any more. Not being able to benefit from the elimination of duty on airplanes does not make you poor, and jokes about it are lazy and D-average. Dine on the Line — an awareness campaign in which participants spend $4 on food every day — was last week, and maybe we should we have an exercise of doing everything else on the line for a month. Can you live on $11.64 per day? And no, 12% VAT is not likely to force many of us below the poverty line, but think about what it means for those already living in poverty. The reality of the over-burdened Bahamians living in poverty is not a punchline, and we do not need that kind of comic relief.
Equal, but not fair
The general conversation about the increase in VAT has revealed what we do and do not understand. It has been made clear, repeatedly, that the privilege some of us enjoy helps us to ignore or be completely unaware of the challenges other people face.
VAT is paid by all, but our experiences are not the same. We are not all in the same situation. VAT is a regressive — as opposed to progressive — tax. It is not higher for people with higher income. VAT is flat, so everyone pays the same rate, but it is not equitable. Middle class and poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes through VAT. Though everyone is paying the same tax on individual items, the effect is different.
There is a popular pair of images used to show the difference between equality and equity. There are three people of different heights trying to watch a game over a fence, and there are three boxes they can stand on. In the first image, they each get one box. The shortest person still cannot see the game at all while the other two can. That is equality. In the second image, the tallest person does not get a box, and the shortest person gets two. In this image, they are all able to see and enjoy the game. That is equity.
What if taxation was equitable? What if the government found a way to alleviate the burden that has always been on the poor? What if we, as citizens, cared enough to look for alternatives to the quick fixes our representatives find and implement?
What we need
Fiscal responsibility is critical. We know the government needs money to provide services, from education and health care to road repairs and waste disposal. None of this is free, and the government needs a source of revenue. It does not, however, need to disproportionately burden the poor to meet its needs. It does not need to keep financial records and decisions out of our reach.
This administration needs to recognize that while the people did not necessarily vote FNM as much as it voted anti-PLP, there were expectations. Expectations of accountability. Transparency. An understanding that the Bahamian people are not interested in being blissfully unaware of the government action and inaction. We expect to be involved, and to have the opportunity to contribute, critique, co-create the systems and programs we need and demand.
We need to have a conversation about wages. Over the past few days, many have talked about the need to increase minimum wage, but that comes with its own effects. Even so, it is time to talk about a living wage so every working person can afford adequate food, shelter, and other physiological needs.
VAT is in the spotlight. No one wants to hear about taxes, much less increased taxes. We can agree on taxes, bills, and poverty. We do not want them, but they exist. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other and not only these issues for ourselves, but use our power as a people to call on our representatives to stand with us, regardless of class or color.
Published in The Tribune on June 6, 2018.
The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.
Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”
Who’s Afraid of the UN?
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.
Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.
Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit? It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?
Bullied by Big Brother
The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”
The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?
We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.
This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.
On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.
That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.