No Laughing Matter: Stories of rape and sexual assault in Caribbean media this week

Laughing at boys who are raped

The Jamaica Observer recently subjected readers to the most crass and reprehensible of cartoons which pokes fun at the rape of boys in institutionalized care. Yes, they invited readers to laugh at the fact that boys were being raped.  A UN study of nine Caribbean countries found that 32% of boys described their first sexual experience as forced or somewhat forced.  Men and boys in institutionalized settings such as prisons face high rates of sexual assault.  These violations are often met with laughter or are seen as adequate punishment for the transgressions that land men in prison.  Never mind that prisons are filled with young, poor men with little formal education.

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Even the Minister’s statements as reported by the Observer seemed to suggest that the boys were criminal and to blame for the fact that the residential programme was being closed. Terms such as criminal acts, sexual predation, non-responsive and financial burden painted the boys as the problem, as incorrigible, and the overall story was very unsympathetic toward them:

Among the reasons were rising cases of sexual predation by older boys against younger male wards, criminal acts being perpetrated by the wards, severely traumatised youngsters and the astronomical financial burden straddling the convent.

“The Sisters of Mercy cited the grave antisocial behaviour of children in the care system, the sexual predatory nature of the boys on one another, children who are witnesses of serious crimes or are victims of heinous acts, and who are non-responsive to traditional interventions for which their institutions have been equipped to provide,” Hanna said.

“The Sisters of Mercy have also indicated the incapability of human capital to respond to the many changing faces of the issues being manifested. The challenge is further compounded by the high cost of care for each child, as a result of the more extensive interventions required which is beyond the capacity of their resources, thus limiting the ability to meet basic operating demand,” she added.

The Minister who was quoted in the Observer story is also reported as defending herself against criticisms that “the boys had been damaged by unfortunate statements made.”  There was no report which I came across in which the government committed themselves to improving the lives of children in state care or to eliminating sexual assault in these settings. At the root of why the Observer found the rape of boys funny are notions of men’s sexuality as active, never passive or receptive and understandings of heterosexuality as normal and natural, hence the harmful misconception that (real) men and boys cannot be raped.

Read this young Belizean man’s story about surviving rape and incest by both male and female rapists.

Putting Professional Women in their place

Feminist Aliens is a brilliant project run by some amazing women from the Caribbean and Africa.  They recently posted the first person testimony of one of the founders who was sexually assaulted while on an internship:

I was 22, training to become a member of one of the oldest and most patriarchal professions. I had already completed four years and my career horizon loomed large after all I had only a few more months and requirements to complete. From Day One I was warned about the ‘professional climate’, maybe it was a code for ‘this is a man’s domain’, but it was during my required internship that I really fully understood the extent of this climate. My first encounter with “wuk fuh wuk” happened that summer.What basically was communicated as “don’t worry I will look out for her”, a subtle, gesture of “I understand” or “I was there too as a struggling student trying to make my mark”, turned into “you put out for me and I will take care of you”.

 

She then goes on to detail the heinous sexual assault and abuse of power by a very powerful man and subsequent sexual harassment at other places of employment. Not only was such behaviour criminal, it was common knowledge that these men were predators. Widespread acceptance of such behaviour meant that it was difficult for young women to be accepted as colleagues by their male peers:

I left that job and tried to branch out on my own but was constantly subjected to unwanted comments from senior male members of the profession. “I like red women so be careful.” or “You know them bow legs sexy in them heels.” and “Next time I see you girl… (shaking head in desire at least so it appeared)”. Instead of feeling like a colleague, I felt like a sideshow.

Much is made about the fact that of the minority of Caribbean people who are privileged enough to attend university women outnumber men.  As Tracy Robinson noted years ago very little mention is made of what women’s numerical dominance means in terms of the sexual assault and harassment they face just because they are women. As more women enter the professions we need to break the silence on the sexual assault and harassment that seem to come with the territory. Outing rapists, especially powerful rapists is not easy but it must be done.

Go read the entire article here.

Sexism, heterosexism and homophobia are scourges across the entire Caribbean.  The Dominica Bureau of Gender Affairs recently took to the streets to protest, noting that  “60.3% of 614 cases of domestic violence were sexual abuse. 72.3% of these domestic violence cases involved victims below the age of consent (0-15 years). Of that figure, 3.79 were males and 68.5 were females.”

In Trinidad and Tobago men and women have come forward to report sexual and physical assault by government Ministers.

Check out part one and part two of Healing Through Words, a series on surviving sexual assault.

Rape is no laughing matter.

Can One Billion Rising End Violence Against Women?

Many Caribbean countries participated in the global One Billion Rising campaign. You can view photos from the events across the region and even add yours to the pool.

Barbados held two events:  One at the Cave Hill campus on the University of the West Indies which focused on sexual violence since three Caribbean countries are in the top 10 globally for rates of reported rape.  The other took place in the capital and featured collaboration among many women’s organisations, artists and UN WOMEN. The Bridgetown gained significant publicity in the mainstream media, particularly radio and press.  The following letter to the editor details the UWI event which was hosted by the Institute for Gender & Development Studies: Nita Barrow Unit.

Barbados might be interested to know that the UWI Cave Hill Campus also held a significant One Billion Rising event that mainly targeted students, but also involved staff in the audience and as performers.

I write this letter and hope it is published because of what emerged. Female students at the campus routinely face harassment, sometimes physical, on ZR vehicles. Some also continue to face the problem of voyeurism (peeping toms) in some private residences around campus. Obviously this is unacceptable.

The Cave Hill campus administration does what it can from what I can see, including establishing protocols and addressing safety issues. In fact, the event was hosted by the university’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies – Nita Barrow Unit as a means of gathering just such data.

Students testified, a Guild of students spokesman informed that the Guild’s position was zero tolerance on campus and off, one male students spoke touchingly of the solidarity he feels his colleagues should express to prevent not only physical but also emotional abuse of young women.

Staff members and students performed poetry and sang songs relevant to the theme of rejection of violence in all its forms, and the need for the embrace of more loving, respectful and self-respecting behaviours by men and women singly and collectively. One staff member spoke of the fact young men are themselves victims of sexual violence by other men, and this underscores the evident necessity for men to strongly support the eradication of this scourge.

Violence against women is a feature of vulnerability, especially when men congregate in even temporary gangs.

It is good to see the solidarity your paper offers in highlighting these issues. I certainly ask our community of ZR drivers, conductors, owners and the owners of private residences around the campus to join you in that solidarity and put measures in place to secure the young women using their services. It is just the right thing to do.

– Margaret D. Gill

Source: This article originally appeared in the Barbados  as a letter to the editor.

Guyana also hosted a significant One Billion Rising event in which many women’s organisations participated. There were events in St. Lucia, Grenada and Antigua as well.

A recent comment on the CODE RED blog called into question the political strategies of the One Billion Rising Campaign:

I wish every Feminist initiative, everywhere around the globe, wholehearted success.

But… I have a seeeerious problem with the “Let’s All Dance!” focus for the “One Billion Rising” event. Could someone tell me WHY – and in a way that makes pellucid sense to me, WHY Women, in their seemingly chronic male-designation as Abuse Fodder, would choose the carefree, spontaneous, *celebratory* act of …dance: to (somehow?!?) symbolize the One Billion Rising initiative?

The whole things seems miscued, somehow; it appears – at least to me, like some desperate psychological “buffer” being enacted by Women globally, to try to distance themselves emotionally from what I have NO FEAR in stating as The Harsh REALITY: i.e., WOMEN’S RIGHTS IS ON A STEADILY DOWNWARD CURVE!

Consequently, to “Dance While Women’s Lives are BURNING TO HELL…smacks oddly of a SIMILAR Roman initiative. Only I think the Ancient used FIDDLES to distract themselves whilst their Home-Space INCINERATED!!!

So – as they say in Showbiz: “Break a Leg!”

 

This Huffing Post article took One Billion Rising to task for a lack of feminist consciousness, a refusal to name the causes of violence against women in favour of feel-good dancing in which everyone could participate and a false notion of sisterhood which perpetuates racist hierarchies.

What do you think? Is One Billion Rising a celebrity-driven, white-feminist-saving-the-Third-World-woman danceathon/mediafest that lacks political edge? Or were local organisers able to “creolise” the One Billion Rising to make it meaningful for their communities as part of wider and ongoing efforts to address violence against women?

Pssst…my sexy friend…

This BBC article about street harassment was posted to the CODE RED facebook page.  The poster noted that “there certainly is a great deal of ‘seepsin’ in the Caribbean.”  By seepsing she is refering to what Trini’s call “sooting” or the way men use a hissing sound to get women’s attention when they are walking in the street.  Someone else responded that

I like this article, but how would you get a message like this across in the Caribbean where culturally male-female relations are often viewed as “the hunter and the pursued” and how will you define boundaries? E.g. what would be an acceptable method of indicating attraction / asking someone out to dinner without be labeled a stalker.

The central idea here is that men have the right to initiate sexual contact or indicate sexual/romantic interest and that there must be a way of retaining that right that does not count as harassment.  (And certainly, many women have countered that they quite appreciate unsolicited compliments.)

I responded to the post by seeking to connect street harassment to other the forms of harassment women face which, as Caribbean legal feminist scholar, Tracy Robinson, points out, do not even have a name in law.  I offered a personal experience of 18 years of harassment in my home and the chronic harassment of women students of the University of the West Indies just because they are women:

Aside from street harassment of women by men there is also the harassment of women in their homes. Just recently a man broke the windows of two women UWI students within 30 minutes of each other and threatened them with sexual obsenities of what he would like to do with them. The police were called. Just last week I woke up to a man standing outside my bedroom window with a flashlight trying to look inside. This was around 4:30 am. Having endured this kind of harassment since I was 11 years old I did not bother to call the police.

Then this week a Nation News columnist proudly relates the uninvited comments he said to a young woman because in his opinion she was inappropriately dressed.  Clearly,  he does not view his behaviour as harassment:

Walking in front of me were two women, one of whom wore an extremely short skirt, which was made of a light material. With every step, she was trying to hold the skirt  to prevent it from blowing up but the wind was winning the battle.

As she climbed the steps, she struggled to keep the skirt down, and I asked: “Why yuh trying to keep it down for? You dun know you put on that skirt to show off de stuff, stop pretending! If yuh uncomfortable wearing it, why yuh put it on in the first place?”

He then goes on to state how he selects his wife’s clothing to ensure that she is appropriately dressed:

Last December, I spent four days trying to find a dress for my wife to wear to a wedding. I was so disappointed and frustrated that almost every single store I visited only had dresses with a low neck, which was designedto reveal cleavage.

Whether it is the husband as benign patriarch lovingly selecting his wife’s clothing or publicly disciplining another woman about her choice of clothing,  I am disturbed by the ways in which women’s bodies become property and are then policed and disciplined.

Students at the prestigious Yale University filed a title IX complaint against the university for failure to properly address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault which has resulted in a “hostile environment.” In the words of complainant Hannah Zeavin, this campus climate “precludes women from having the same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts.”

These disciplining and policing behaviours circumscribe women’s access to the public sphere, preserve unequal gender relations and contribute to a sense of fear among women.  Women then police themselves, for example, by curtailing their own movements.  The irony is, however, that the same kind of treatment you receive in the street may be brought to your very doorstep.  Not even the home then is safe for women.

I want to draw a connection between the supposedly innocuous behaviours such as “tiefing a wine” or uninvited flirting and those which seem obviously reprehensible like rape.  They all stem from the unacknowledged and unquestioned male privilege and men’s assertion of their right to control women’s bodies. And as the Yale law suit highlights, women will not allow these harms to go unchallenged.

This post is but a small intervention in the hopes that it would inspire those who wear their privilege so proudly to rethink that privilege.  To begin to see the harmful in the seemingly innocuous.  As feminists, we are often accused of preaching to the converted but I know for a fact that CODE RED’s facebook page and blog are read by those who are decidedly not feminist and who as it stands have a mainstream media platform which allows them to reach a wide audience.  I have opened the dicussion.

Original note posted on the SEEING RED blog here http://redforgender.tumblr.com/post/4282806046/pssst-my-sexy-friend

Read the note on the blog for the links to all the articles referred to (am too lazy to re-insert all the links here).