Violence against women continues to rank highly among the region’s social problems. This issue has again been brought to the fore in Barbados. It was reported that “thirty-one-year-old Melissa Holder … suffered a miscarriage after being beaten by a man and that “she was too distraught and shocked to talk about the incident and the loss.”
Why did this opportunity for public engagement on the issue of violence against women become instead a public attack on the victim?
Over the past couple of days, we have seen Ms. Holder’s image being splashed across the news. Journalists and citizens alike have had a field day with this story in spite of the fact that she indicated that she did not wish to speak about what happened. The worst headline we have seen thus far is associated with the Nation News Publishers who described the account as “Foetus in Toilet.” This headline is crass, unimaginative and insensitive. Our grievance therefore is with the manner in which this story has been framed. It has taken several days to confirm the identity of the alleged perpetrator. In the end when the assailant’s identity was revealed Ms. Holder’s photograph continued to be circulated with the story. To date, there has been no photograph of the assailant. The main issue of the violent, public and gendered nature of the assault has taken a backseat. The story has become that of the “irresponsible mother” who casually threw away her child.
The fact is that Caribbean women are not regular features in the news. This has been revealed by a recent regional research project conducted by Jamaica Media Watch. When they do make the news, however, they are presented in familiar and problematic ways: the poor single mother being one of the favoured archetypes.
The entire framing of the story focuses more on the disposal of the foetus than on the public and brutal attack the woman has suffered. The Nation story implied that there is some acceptable way in which a mother must behave after being beaten and suffering a miscarriage. The Nation reporter and its readers put Ms. Holder on trial for what they perceive as her transgression of appropriate maternal behaviour. The readers of the Nation’s facebook page immediately echoed the sexist and classist framing of the story describing the woman as a criminal, a “parro” and a social delinquent and asking what kind of woman would throw away a foetus? The use of this woman’s image in the face of such exploitative and degrading reporting makes it all the more irresponsible and reprehensible.
Journalists and media houses must be more responsible in their reporting. Incidents such as these carry serious legal repercussions. Firstly, persons enjoy a right to privacy, our constitution is clear on this. In the common law jurisdictions such as Barbados image rights have been recognized by the courts. But more important than any legal implication based on the right to privacy, is the need to ensure that as the media fulfills its responsibility to the public, it does so in a way that does not reinforce social inequalities or exploit the vulnerable.
CODE RED letter to the editor submitted to the Nation (Barbados).