Gender, Reparations and Revising the CARICOM Ten-Point Plan

The Repair Campaign interviewed Professor Verene Shepherd, Director of The Centre for Reparation Research, to get her perspective on the links between chattel enslavement, gender and reparations.

November 28, 2023  

Professor Verene Shepherd is the Director of the Centre for Reparation Research and Vice-chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission.

Verene, you’ve said before that “the past is connected to the present, and only a long historical view of the scourge of domestic and gender-based violence can explain that connection.” Can you expand on this and explain how gender-based violence in 2023 relates to the past? 

Yes, you’re quite right that it’s a scourge that we are experiencing in the contemporary period and as I always say, unless we know our history, we’re not going to understand our present. As you study history, you realise that women in the Caribbean faced multiple forms of oppression and one of them was sexual violence.   

Everyone who is interested in the historical roots of gender-based violence should read ‘In Miserable Slavery’ by the late Professor Douglas Hall, various works by Lucille Mathurin Mair and journals like ‘The History of Mary Prince.’ They research and detail vile treatment of enslaved people – mostly women – including rape, torture and subordination.  

We inherited this tendency to have women subordinated to the power of men and we have not yet rid ourselves of that ideology of hegemonic masculinity. When you inherit a system where men are told that they are the natural leaders, heads of the household and women belong to them, what you have are power dynamics that take the power away from women.  

These days, women are pushing back against that ideology. In cases where they are educating themselves, getting good jobs and earning good salaries, it creates a problem for some men who still believe in hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity sometimes shows itself as sexual violence. That’s why, if you look at our history, where come from, the practices of enslavers and the teachings about power, then you see what we are suffering from today. 

 

How was the experience of women in chattel slavery different to that of men? 

I would say that the burden of enslavement fell disproportionately on women. A lot of people believe that fieldwork in the cane fields was somehow men’s work. It was not so. Women were the majority of fieldworkers because the supervisory and skilled occupations were mostly given to men and not to women. On all sugar plantations, and even on other properties like livestock farms or coffee plantations, you’d find women doing the backbreaking work. I’m not saying that men were not in the fields – I’m saying if you look at most lists of enslaved people, you will see that women were in the majority. Women were also doing work in the domestic sphere, in the houses of the enslavers.  

Even after abolition, when enslavers could not import more enslaved people, they put the burden of child-rearing to replenish the enslaved population on women – sometimes by rape. 

We’re not trying to create a hierarchy of oppression to say, “men were not oppressed,” but the evidence points to the fact that women were disproportionately affected by chattel enslavement and in ways different from men.   

 

Can you explain how reparations for the harmful legacies of chattel slavery are addressing gender? 

In 2014, the leaders of the CARICOM Reparations Commission sat down to develop a Ten-Point Plan for Reparatory Justice. The simple listing is accompanied by a document that elaborates on the history and justification for each plan. 

There is now an ongoing plan to have a second revision that will re-examine each of the points and ensure that we pay attention to diversity and inclusion. We’re looking at gender and other marginalised groups, including the indentureship of Asians. In each of the points of the plan there are places and gaps where we can more broadly represent the experiences of our population. 

Let’s take ‘Apology’ for example. We can put in a specific call for apology for what women went through: the sexual violence, the over-representation in the field, the illnesses that they developed because of the long hours of arduous work they had to do, the fact that families were broken up and that women had most of the childcare responsibilities.    

We can be very specific in how we infuse apology with a specific gender-based focus. We can say that gender-based violence was one of the scourges, and that there must be a specific apology for that, in addition to an apology for what all our ancestors went through and for what those who came after went through.   

 

Are you specifying in the “Apology” point one of the Ten-Point Plan that not only was there specific sexual violence perpetrated against women, but that the sexual violence was perpetrated by enslavers?    

Yes, and we can prove that by looking at the sources and information we have like the Thistlewood journals, for example. Another piece of evidence for that is the pigmentocracy we have inherited in our society, where people have ranked other people by the different shades of their skin. We have Kamau Brathwaite’s work in which he shows us how skin colour functioned under chattel slavery. If you look at the lists that plantation owners kept you will see that there was a tendency to have women who were categorised as Mulatto, as Octoroon, as Quintroon doing tasks that were not given to black-skinned women. That needs an apology too because that tendency is with us today. We’re still living with that ‘skin-shadeism’ and that pigmentocracy in too many of our societies. 

 

How can the Ten-Point Plan more adequately reflect on the intersecting forms of discrimination that women experience today?  

There are so many possibilities. For example, we know that the first onslaught was against Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples of the region generally so diversity and inclusion will be incorporated into point two, the Indigenous Peoples Development Programme. 

Regarding public health, we don’t have to even think too much about that because we know that we need more clinics, maternity wards in hospitals, and care of women specifically. In education, we need to make sure that girls go to school, we need to make sure that we have women’s centres across the Caribbean to ensure girls can return to school after pregnancy and that there is specific attention to their needs. For psychological rehabilitation, we know that people were traumatised and we’re still living with the intergenerational transmission of that trauma.   

It is very important in this endeavour to be mindful of intersectionality, of the multiple ways in which one person can be discriminated against and can have their life chances affected because of intersecting identities. How the experience of a woman is different as a black-skinned woman, an African woman, or a woman from a certain part of the world, of a certain religion, or if that woman is a migrant or asylum seeker. Black women are affected more in terms of racial profiling and racial discrimination especially as it relates to the ‘skin-shadeism’ that is a legacy of enslavement. We have to ensure that we eliminate this from our society, but we lay the roots of this discrimination at the feet of those who created that pigmentocracy and that tendency towards elevating people who are not black-skinned, and the way in which people describe or interpret black skin.   

 

Do you believe the review of the Ten-Point Plan will be adequate in this regard? 

That’s the intention. The Center for Reparation Research, of which I am director, has been tasked with leading the review as we did for the first review. I’m going to ensure that the CARICOM Reparations Commission have broader consultations that include women, Indigenous people, Rastafari, descendants of indentured workers and civil society to ensure that anyone who feels they have been left out of the plan is represented. The centre has visited Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago and is committed to ensuring that we have broader consultation. As the slogan says, “nothing about us without us.”  

I’m integrally involved in this process. I can’t tell you what it will look like now as it will take a little more time than the first review because we want to ensure that we get it as close to right as possible. 

 

Do you think it is possible for the Ten-Point Plan to not only acknowledge the legacies of gender-based violence but implement gender-focused initiatives to mitigate against these legacies today? 

That’s not the intention of the Ten-Point Plan especially since we have so many groups, researchers and activists in our society who are already working on gender-based violence. What the introduction to the Ten-Point Plan will do, however, is lay the foundations for why gender-based violence is still a scourge and explain why there should be an apology for it.  

It might be long, but we think it’s necessary to justify the plan by looking at the history and the harm.  We have to explain who all the populations were that were harmed. We have to explain how we were harmed by hegemonic masculinity. We have to explain why Rastafari, who were in the vineyard before so many of us, are calling for reparation and talk about the Coral Gardens massacre in Jamaica. We have to look at what happened to Indigenous people in Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is necessary to understand why we have highlighted these ten points because when you read the explanation for each of them, you realise how much harm has been done to the people of the Caribbean. 

In terms of prescriptions, when we form the committee to dispense reparation, that committee of experts will play a role in deciding and we’re not saying if reparation, we are saying when reparation – and we have to prepare for it. The Brattle Group have provided a figure quantifying the harm and we have the Ten-Point Plan to guide what development should look like so next in the process is to ask, “how do we implement the Ten-Point Plan?” 

 

If you had one hope for the integration of gender within the Ten-Point Plan and, therefore, for the future roadmap for reparations, what would it be? 

We have to understand that the system of chattel enslavement affected both our men and our women, but we have to admit that chattel enslavement and the burden of production fell disproportionately on women. Therefore, I want to help to shape the review of the plan to ensure that fact is there and that there’s a specific demand for reparatory justice for what happened to women. We continue as women to experience the legacy of the discrimination that colonialism brought and left here in our region and I can assure you, as part of the team, this will be done. 

I’d also like to reinforce that the review of the Ten-Point Plan is a collective exercise and it will be done consultatively. It’s very important that people don’t think it’s just the executive of the CARICOM Reparation Commission that will do this. We are going to buckle down as a team with broad consultation and not allow colonial boundaries to affect our work. We refuse to replicate the actions of the colonisers with this divide and rule mentality.   

We need to build Jah army. We need all hands on board. We need people who are advocates because this movement is not just for academics. This movement was started by our enslaved ancestors who took to the streets, who marched and who fought for reparation in the form of emancipation. They were followed in the post-war period by other people in the Caribbean who were protesting for rights and respect because rights and respect were not given to our people under chattel enslavement or under Asian indentureship. Our Indigenous peoples have suffered and therefore, we say in the name of our ancestors, whoever they were, we have a responsibility to call for rights, respect and reparation, the three Rs.   

Rights, respect, reparation.   

 

Where can someone find more information about getting involved with reparations?    

The Centre for Reparation Research remains a resource for information and publications and people can reach out to us at [email protected]. We do school visits and have financed the donation of books to the schools.  

The history departments of the region are also resources, as are the reparation committees in each country. We have a commitment to ensure that this knowledge just doesn’t stay with the pioneers but that we share the knowledge and bring young people together.  We have to take the history from text to public space and we have been doing that by joining up with media houses to have outside broadcasts and celebrations of our ancestors through various means.   

As Marcus Garvey said, history is a landmark by which we are directed into the true course of life. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you have no roadmap to know where you’re going.