‘We are poorer without her’: Trinbagonian human rights advocate Hazel Brown dies

Trinbagonian activist Hazel Brown at the 61st Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, March 16, 2017. Photo by UN Women/Ryan Brown on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On the morning of September 22, Hazel Brown, an outspoken advocate who led the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, passed away peacefully at her home. She was 80 years old.

The Facebook page Central Beat, on learning the news of her passing, immediately paid her homage:

Hazel was a cancer survivor who worked tirelessly to support others going through similar struggles with cancer.
Hazel Brown stood up for women at a time when many were afraid to and she faced the wrath of many governments for her outspoken advocacy. She was indefatigable and fearless, often controversial but always heard. At a time when women's rights are facing challenges worldwide her voice will be missed.

Whatever criticism Brown may have received never stopped her from using her voice — she continued to sound the alarm for many other issues connected to women’s rights, including health, consumers’ rights and food security.

Facebook user Nafeesa Mohammed noted that Brown’s advocacy was tantamount to a calling:

Hazel Brown has been a matriarch in this country who has inspired many of us. She was a champion for the rights of women and children. Her advocacy and activism was global and here at home […] Hazel was above the politics. She stood up for justice, fairness, equity and equality.

Ken Ali remembered how Brown always seemed to be leading the pack:

HAZEL BROWN was marching against food prices decades ago when everyone else was meekly accepting the cost of living.
Through the years, Ms. Brown courageously championed consumer rights, like no one else in our society.
She struggled on gender and social justice issues.
Most of all, she fearlessly advocated working class matters.
She was a touchstone of service to her fellowman; an admirable patriot.
We are poorer without her.

Renuka N. Kangal, a colleague of Brown’s, was saddened by the news of her death:

Dr. Hazel Brown was an inspiration. She was a catalyst for change, and her work to our country, especially towards the upliftment of our women and girls was unprecedented. A national hero in every right. […] She had a quiet yet formidable presence that is awe-inspiring and unforgettable. I have so much respect, such high regard for this woman, and I am deeply saddened to hear of her passing.
A great loss for our country.

Safeeya Mohammed added:

Saying goodbye to this visionary, this legend will certainly be difficult. […] The voice that led the charge for the recognition of Women's Rights, Women's Empowerment and Food Security in this country, in ALL spheres! […]

Your fierceness, your voice, your words, your stories, your actions will forever be ingrained in our DNA.

Fellow activist Jason Jones remembered Brown as a “legendary Feminist activist:

She was one of the pioneering voices of the Women’s liberation movement in the Caribbean and fought tirelessly for Women’s equality & liberation from misogyny & patriarchy.

Meanwhile, the Office of the President of Trinidad and Tobago recalled that in 2011, Brown was honoured with the Medal for the Development of Women (Gold) for her dedicated efforts in advancing women’s rights in the country.

The Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago (ESCTT) remembered Brown’s journey. Born on January 31, 1942, in Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, Port of Spain, she grew up in a family that was very involved in community work and believed in the positive changes activism could bring. Her secondary school education, first at Bishop Anstey High School in Port of Spain and later at St. Joseph’s Convent in the southern city of San Fernando, encouraged this spark within her.

She married at the age of 20 and started her family, but her desire to make the world a better place was not limited to the efforts she made inside the home. She joined the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago (HATT), which was formed in 1971 with the aim of raising awareness about consumer rights. Three years later, its work would lead to the establishment of the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards, the statutory body responsible for the quality of goods and services. HATT’s promotion of, and education around, breastfeeding also led to the formation of The Informative Breastfeeding Serice (TIBS) in 1977, now called the Breastfeeding Associaton of Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1971, again on the trail of consumer rights, Brown co-founded the Telephone Users Group, through which many customers throughout the country participated in hearings regarding utility rates, resulting in more equitable changes to water and electricity structures. Brown’s desire to make a difference would soon lead her into the political arena. In 1976, she contested the seat for Port of Spain East, where she was born, as an independent candidate, but her bid proved unsuccessful.

Activism, nevertheless, was where her heart lay. Over the course of her life, she would advocate for the marginalised — from finding ways to allow HIV-positive women to support themselves, to heralding the benefits of solar box cookers as an environmentally friendly and affordable alternative for households, to advocating for the adoption of a National Gender Policy. She believed in sustainable development and the ability of NGOs to effect change at ground level. In 2017, the University of the West Indies (UWI) awarded Brown an honorary doctorate for her untiring work in women’s development, consumer rights and poverty eradication.

Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, a colleague of Brown’s at UWI, tried to process all she was feeling in a heartfelt Facebook post:

Hazel Brown was a gift to the Caribbean and the world. She was a world changer. […] Her analysis and advocacy was intersectional before the term became popular, because she was aghast at injustice of any kind. She was unapologetically for the rights and empowerment of women and girls, domestic workers, low-income consumers, breast-feeding mothers, women in local government, housewives, and so many more. She was a pan-Africanist even as she consistently organised against the alienating tide of racial stereotyping and division. […]

With her goes a feminist era in which she lived and which she helped define. Today, the world isn't the same. […] I cannot imagine her, even gone from this life, without her boots on. […]

May we continue to fight in her name, with her spirit and with the sense of power she wanted us to know was ours. Then, I think, her indomitable spirit may agree to rest in peace.

Funeral arrangements for Hazel Brown are yet to be announced.

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