Sunday, December 17, 2017

Really, Vernella?

When I read some of the statements that Ms Vernella Alleyne-Toppin is reported by the press to have made at a recent symposium by her ministry to mark International Women’s Day, I could not believe my eyes.

She had apparently arrived late and her prepared speech in her capacity as Minister in the Ministry of the People and Social Development had already been read, so she took the opportunity to speak off the cuff on a mix of issues, especially domestic violence against women, the HIV/AIDS scourge, and sexual health. And there she was mouthing off about her former husband fathering a child outside of their marriage at the same time he had sired one with her, about her abstaining from sex in Trinidad while her husband was presumably in Tobago as well as about having started late to have sex, about her having never tested for HIV/AIDS, about women needing to acquiesce to their men for marital ‘peace’… .

She was also advising women to use condoms and abstinence in their sexual relations and to reduce the incidence of consequential domestic violence. But what on earth was she doing bringing intimate details of her life into the picture?

I waited for some clarification to quickly follow since there was serious negative feedback and, sure enough, it came in the form of a press release from her. She had used the symposium as “an opportunity for us to engage each other in a very real discussion on the obstacles we face in our daily work to empower the women of Trinidad and Tobago”. She felt it was “very important for all of us to be able to engage in a healthy discourse on these issues”. She thought that her audience of mainly social workers and staff members of the ministry had appreciated her “ability to speak to this issue (sic) in a manner that reflected an acute understanding of the challenges they face”, including “low condom usage, multiple sexual partners, and domestic violence”. And she observed that it was “unfortunate that my attempt to do this was taken out of context by some members of the media” and that this decontextualisation was ‘merely a symptom of the wider problems we face as a society with this difficult issue (sic)”.

This is the clarification offered, but I do not see what is cleared up. My reading of the press reports already left me with the understanding that Ms Alleyne-Toppin was advising against, perhaps condemning, the low use and non-use of condoms, promoting abstinence as well, and sounding off on domestic violence. The press had reported her direct words in many instances and while, inevitably, reporter reformulations are part of the story, those direct words, of and by themselves, are clear in their meaning. In any event, Ms Alleyne-Toppin did not deny the statements attributed to her; rather, she was only concerned to charge, without showing how, that they had been taken out of context.

What context? You might ask. The default context was apparently the people employed to treat with victims of dangerous sex and domestic violence, that is to say, social workers and other ministry staff, but the critical context was the set of intentions that the ministry had in communicating with the audience. Ms Alleyne-Toppin’s intentions could be read from a number of things: i) a clear, prefatory statement of intent; ii) her choice of key words; iii) the tones and gestures accompanying her words; iv) use of various literary devices; v) a combination of two or more of these things.

The press did not report a preface or her tones and gestures, but it gave us some of her words and the occasion on which they were uttered, which the reader then interpreted. Those same words which the minister did not deny or contradict. So we can dispose of her ‘clarification’ that her words were taken out of context. She said what was reported.

The press release says that she spoke in ‘a manner that reflected her acute understanding of the challenges’. The problem is, how does the press capture her manner? I think you would agree that one of the best ways is to report some of her direct words, which is what the press did.

But some people, having seen her direct words, are hurt at some of the things she said and have taken umbrage. I have heard women, particularly Tobagonian women, express their anger, disbelief, and shame. Not over mundane matters like the promotion of abstinence as a strategy, which research overwhelmingly has found to be a failure. But, more pertinently, over matters like washing some of her dirty linen in public and giving (abused?) women dated advice.

What business does the public have with an event of possible indiscretion on a former husband’s part committed over 30 years ago? What does it have to do with HIV infection, especially in a context where you go on to have another child with that same husband and where the physical health of either child has not been affected by the indiscretion?

And while there might be some utility in telling women to abstain while their husbands are geographically distant, why place it in a context of your mature age and the lateness of your sexual experiences? More to the point, would it not have been more useful in the ‘conversation’ to show the audience from the research the relative advantages and disadvantages of particular sexual lifestyles? Apart from presenting yourself as a model, which women will be inspired to follow, how do intimate details about your sexual life—details that involve not you alone but husbands and children—help women victims?

The women who are not happy with you, Vernella, are mouth agape over your judgment—yet another time.