By DR IAN BETHELL-BENNETT
Gender is often misunderstood as dealing with women. Gender is actually the social construct of roles and behaviours placed on men and women in a cultural and geographic context. Women are meant to be soft, as Dr Nicolette Bethel establishes, and men are meant to be hard. Masculinity and femininity are therefore given particular values in society. Women are less valuable than men, except that motherhood is valued over the women who are mothers. Fatherhood, likewise, is a claim of social worth, much as motherhood is. Yet many men pepper the city with children, but play no role in their lives and so cannot be seen as active or real fathers.
We often talk about the Bahamas being matrilineal, which means led by women or women’s lines being those which bind. The overarching system, though, remains patriarchal and often paternalistic. Male power insists that women are worth far less than men, and that men are valued by where they are on the socio-economic ladder.
Most families are led by women.
In a society where over 70 per cent of households are headed by single mothers, or by women, there is little consideration for how these women survive and provide for their families. Many women have suffered greatly since Hurricane Dorian because they may have lost jobs and are unable to access adequate assistance to afford them a decent quality of life; they cannot afford to pay rent, school and buy food.
Even with this understanding of the pivotal role women play in Bahamian society, most policies disregard their vulnerability and in fact ignore their needs. Further, many young people ignore their own needs as young women who will enter the formal workplace soon or who work and go to school. For them, social inequality is somehow not their concern and certainly not something that can be focused on. This way of relating, I find almost unfathomable. How do young women argue that women who head up families do not deserve to earn the same as men? Or they do not deserve to have social and economic protections put in place for them?
Violence and women
As most of the victims of violence are women, violence against women has a particularly significant place in the country. Violence, or how we understand and see violence, though, tends to be limited to physical abuse. We choose not to see the economic violence or emotional and mental violence imposed on women. We do not challenge policy violence. Where women will not be paid if they have babies. We ignore the social and gender inequalities this policy deepens. This kind of thinking is particularly important where there are different generations of women living in the same home, each of whom is a single mother. This becomes a cycle of poverty that is almost impossible to break. These women, even though they are brought up in this kind of family structure, often do not support women being afforded economic or financial security when they have babies or are unable to work because of illness. They are usually one pay cheque out of being homeless.
Social services, we are told, is meant to solve this issue. Yet, it cannot as the deepening poverty and inequality in the nation make it impossible for Social Services to adequately address the needs of the growing population, and the growing number of impoverished persons. The impact that withdrawing this kind of assistance from women has is violent. It is a type of state-sanctioned violence that is not only gender-blind, but gender biased against women. In fact, it is a classicist approach to gender where even working-class men are often barred from accessing adequate economic service from the state. When the systems fail women, they are pushed further into the margins and we see increasing numbers of begging or street walking or both. Social structures are failing women, and many have already failed them, particularly if they are working class or poor.
The discussion vis-à-vis coronavirus
As most heads of households are women and many of these women are economically challenged, one would think that policies to protect and adequately address their needs would be implemented. However, as we see from above, they are not. How do we plan to address this social and economic inequality that is going to worsen once the global pandemic really takes hold of the country?
How will Social Services facilitate women who will be unable to work for the required 14 days of isolation and so be unable to feed their children? How will these women be assisted if they are unable to go to work where they may earn the requisite $210 a week? They will have no savings they can tap into. They will have no childcare system they can access. How will we address the national fallout from such gender-biased and gender-blind development? Often what I hear from the general public is that they should have thought about this before they had children.
Can we please be more human and empathetic? These attitudes are only worsening community violence and particularly violence against women and deepening states of inequality.