Everyday Rape

Earlier this month a Trinidadian police officer refused to help a rape survivor  because she was naked.  When asked if he could lend her his raincoat so that she could enter the station to report the rape, he refused.  Two good samaritans then took her to her mother’s house where she dressed before returning to the station to report the rape.

This month the Daily Mail published the story of a 62 year-old visitor to Barbados who was raped on the beach. After the police were called they told her they would drive her around to see if she happened to see the rapist anywhere nearby.  After an hour of driving around she was taken to the station where she waited another hour before she was  taken to be seen by a doctor.  She was then driven back to the station and left inside the vehicle parked outside the station for nearly an hour.  Passers-by peered into the vehicle to get a look at her bruised face.

A friend of my mine recounted recently that while at a local police station to report a missing cellphone he struck up a conversation with a woman who was there enduring the lengthy wait to report a crime.  The woman confided in him that this had been her third visit in as many days to the station to report the rape of her primary school-aged daughter.  The police were yet to take a statement or offer any kind of victim support services.

According to a 2007 UN report, St. Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG) has the third-highest rate of reported rapes in the world. Last year SVG ranked 8th in the world for refugee claims to Canada.  The majority of these claims are by women fleeing domestic and intimate partner violence.

In 1997, a 22 year-old Jamaican rape survivor was remanded to Fort Augusta Prison in Kingston for speaking too quietly while giving her testimony.   The judge said this was for her own good.  She ended up spending the night in jail.

Two independent senators in Trinidad & Tobago spoke out against a bill which would force rape survivors to provide DNA samples. The Justice Minister dismissed their protests as unacceptable “feminist posture.”

The examples provided above are drawn not to highlight them as extreme cases which are interesting because they are anomalous. Quite the opposite.  They point to the long-standing failure of Caribbean states to adequately address violence against women generally, and sexual violence specifically.  This is an everyday failure, a systemic failure.  A failure that cannot be solved exclusively by more and better laws or by gender-sensitivity training for police officers, even though these are important.

CODE RED has also been tracking a growing trend across the region where the sexual abuse of boys by adult men is prosecuted under the laws against buggery.  (The buggery laws criminalise anal sex between men regardless of age or consent.) Are prosecutors using the buggery laws to secure convictions in these child abuse cases because the laws against child sexual abuse are inadequate? Or is it that the crime is not that an adult has had sex with a child but rather that the sex act itself is viewed as criminal?  What does this mean for heterosexual rape?  Is the failure to take heterosexual rape seriously because heterosexuality and hetero/sexism are viewed as normal and natural? Heterosexual rape therefore becomes a normal, natural sex act that is only criminal because of the lack of consent? Or as one commenter put it: “I prefer a man to rape my daughter than bugger my son, Lawd of mercy” ? For the record, both acts of rape are to be condemned equally.

This brings us back to the matter of rape as a fact of life, an everyday part of life:  The construction of women’s bodies as inherently vulnerable and violable, and men’s bodies not just as inviolable and invulnerable (a myth given how many young men die as victims of violence) but as weapons themselves.  Everyday rape. The fear that causes women to police themselves, the warnings that women should not walk the road late at night.  The incest, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children-  an open secret in the region.

You would think that recent calls to end child marriage in T&T would be met with unanimous agreement but that was not the case.  “Child marriages [are] often used as a method to avoid prosecution for sexual violations against minors, or to take the shame away from teenage pregnancies. [..] young girls are married off for economic reasons. [..] the country’s four marriage acts are in conflict with conventions to which T&T is a signatory, including the Convention for the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.”  The majority of children who get married off are girls.  Some of the most vocal opponents of ending child marriage were less concerned with the well-being of girls and more concerned about retaining the masculinist power and privilege which the marriage acts confer on diverse religious patriarchies.  The Muslim, Hindu and Orisha Marriage acts all set a lower age of consent for girls than boys.

Crimes against women continue to be discounted as crime.  Even just saying  “violence against women” is met with opposition.  Next time a story of rape, child sexual abuse or domestic violence murder grabs the headlines look past the sensationalism for the ordinariness, the everydayness of the story.  How else do we maintain commitment to ending the misogyny and heterosexism that are part of everyday life?

What’s in a name?

I felt very frustrated yesterday when someone told me that to say “violence against women” is discriminatory, that it should be called “relationship violence”.  I tried to point out that intimate partner violence is only one kind of violence against women.  There are a range of gendered ways in which women are targeted for violence, not all of which are “domestic”.  Erasing the language feminists have invented to describe the harms women disproportionately face is an attempt at silencing women.

I recognise that some kinds of feminism render women as innocent, always already victims and men as always already abusers.  Reality, of course, is much more complex.  Women are not innocent.  Women are not victims.  Men are not invulnerable to violence from other men and yes, from women.  Many feminists are naming as gendered-based violence men’s violence towards each other.  The kind of violence which makes many boys afraid to go to school, which causes many of them to arm themselves and which claims the lives of many, many young Caribbean men.

Gender ideologies structure the lives of both women and men.  Men and women produce and reproduce gender in their everyday lives.  Both women and men therefore have a stake in ending unequal and harmful relations of gender.

WomenSpeak is running a series of profiles to mark the 16 Days of Activism against Violence Against Women.  CODE RED got in on the action with a quick interview with one of Barbados’ feminist activists.  In Barbados, murders of women by their male intimate partners typically account for nearly half of all murders.

Have a look…

Fictions of the Past, Visions of the Future

The Nation (Barbados) posted the following to its facebook page on Friday:

Research shows that there are more independent women today. Easy magazine wants to know if you agree with this statement, or if you think women are still financially and emotionally dependent on men.

One commenter replied that, “Women are always looking for hand-outs, most women are takers, and not givers.”


I responded with a bit of quick and dirty Barbadian history:

The question assumes that at some point women generally were dependent on men. Let’s break this down a bit for the Caribbean. Most of us in the region are descendants of women and men who came here as either indentured or enslaved labour. So that’s both men and women working under conditions of unfreedom. Fast forward to the “free” years where racial segregation persisted and Barbados of the 1940s had one of the highest mortality rates in the Caribbean. Add to that massive waves of migration of which men made up a significant number of migrants. Women end up responsibility for the care of children, emotional and financial. With the support of men and without it. They end up with a sex-segregated labour market where men as a group out earn women as a group, where women’s unemployment rate outstripped men’s, where the caring work they provide was not valued as work and where they were many overtly discriminatory policies and laws. Writing in the early 80s, sociologist Christine Barrow identified independence and dependence and complementary strategies which women used in order to fulfill their responsibility for running the household. What was the question again? Are women still emotionally and financially dependent on men? Doesn’t it sound a little ridiculous and reductionist when put in perspective? Doesn’t the assumption that a man is always independent and a woman dependent seem like rubbish now??? Women who work, who take care of their children with or without a partner, often with the help of extended families, have a long, long history in the Caribbean. At no point were masses of women sitting at home with their feet up waiting for men to bring home the bacon.

Then I directed them to this post by a Caribbean sista who does a much better job of breaking down the whole independent ladies BS meme:

An extension of that idea is that financially independent women who remain commodities or commodified in men’s eyes are a huge turn-on. It is the Holy Grail of the whole ordeal. It is the reason a man will boast of his sexual conquest of a woman and qualify it with “and I didn’t spend a cent.” So all those independent ladies in the fête who are still willing to scream on command? Oh man. That in itself is an orgasm. Because it means that as financially independent as you are, you still require my penis to be ultimately satisfied. You still take orders and I’m still in control. (via The Mongoose Chronicles)

But this is not about independent ladies.  It’s about how in the Caribbean we are constantly inventing a fictive past in order to ensure that inequities persist in the present.

After UK Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to withdraw aid from those countries which maintain anti-homosexual legislation the predictable happened.  Even countries not receiving bilateral aid from Britain stood up to defend their sovereignty and the mass and social media were awash with renewed anti-homosexual sentiment.  A few brave souls spoke up to say that yes, it was about time Caribbean governments repealed laws which criminalise same-sex sexual relations.

Then there were the usual religious pronouncements. One Nation columnist argued that:

Traditionally, we have been a country that recognized, promoted and practised the moral principles of the Christian Bible and we can see some of those represented in our laws.  […] If we allow others to force us away from the foundational values that this country was built on, we will inevitably have to change the lyrics of our National Anthem, since the Lord will cease to be our guide.

Say what????

Well, I don’t know exactly which Barbados he was talking about but traditionally we have been a plantation under 300 years of uninterrupted British rule.  A regime so  all-encompassing that even today stereotypes persist about the “passive Bajan.”

Historian Mary Chamberlain notes that:

In 1955, infant mortality [in Barbados] significantly higher than its European or North American counterparts, and almost double that prevailing in other parts of the British West Indies. […]

The underlying causes of the poverty lay in the racial divisions which structured Barbadian society. Unlike other British West Indian territories which benefited from the paternalism of Crown Colony (in effect, direct British) government, the legislature in Barbados was elected locally and responsible for taxation and domestic policy.  Those qualified to vote represented a tiny, landowning minority. As a result, the Barbadian government and its economy was in the hands of a small, white and wealthy oligarchy – known as the ‘plantocracy’ – renowned for their racism, their reactionary views and their pride in an unbroken three hundred year tradition of local rule.

Turns out the plantocracy may have had a greater hand in guiding the affairs of this island than did “the moral principles of the Christian Bible.”

Why waste so much energy re-inventing the past when the future is ours to imagine, to invent, in ways that are freer, fairer and more equitable?

Too vulgar for politics?

PNP party leader, Portia Simpson-Miller, too vulgar for Jamaican politics?

That was the headline of a Women’s Views on the News article drawn exclusively from a Jamaica Gleaner report on an opinion poll about political leadership.

According to the Gleaner 51% of Jamaicans polled have a favourable opinion of Prime Minister Andrew Holness and 47%  of those polled a favourable opinion of former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller.   So just how do these numbers translate to the “too vulgar for politics” headline when the story goes outernational?

About one in every four Jamaicans polled view PSM unfavourably.  13% say she is too loud and vulgar, 8%  say she is too hot-tempered and quarrelsome, and 5% say she is too aggressive. Loud, vulgar, hot-tempered, quarrelsome and aggressive are all adjectives which sit at the intersections of class, race and gender.  Have you ever heard a male politician in the Caribbean described in either of these ways?  Would aggressiveness be judged unfavourably in a male politician?

Vulgar, especially, is loaded with classist notions of  “good breeding”, (sexual) lewdness,  and behaviour thought to be crude and unbecoming.  It brings together the notions of political pedigree with gendered prescriptions of appropriate behaviour and the kinds of social and cultural capital which leaders are expected to possess.  The original meaning of vulgar, however, tells a different story. Vulgar comes from the latin vulgaris which means belonging to the multitude, of or pertaining to the common people. Isn’t that exactly the kind of leadership that should be expected in a democracy?

We are actually quite far from anything like a vulgar politics in the Caribbean, i.e. where the resources of the state are used to the benefit of the majority, where decision-making is more representative and geared toward ensuring everyone’s right to a good life.  There are many barriers to women’s participation in national and regional decision-making.  Women leaders face higher scrutiny as leaders just because they are women. This scrutiny extends to many areas of the personal and public lives in ways that it does not for men in the region.  Generally speaking most men and women express a preference for male leadership.   Well, not just any man. Men with enough funding to run to a political campaign.

Targets set by the UN for a 30% (eventually to grow into a 50%) women’s participation  have only been achieved in very few countries.  Guyana is the only Caribbean country to achieve 30% representation of women in national decision-making positions due to a change to their constitution.  Of course, achieving these targets does not result in miraculous  nor instantaneous gender equality and social justice.  Just how are women making an impact is another question to consider.  In fact, just how are all political leaders making an impact toward achieving gender, economic and social justice throughout the region often gets overlooked in discussions about political leadership.   Are they contributing to a truly vulgar politics?

Counting Fathers’ Caring Work

Marlon Bascombe is a young Trinidadian father who had the painful firsthand experience of a hospital policy which discriminates against fathers (and caregivers who aren’t parents).

He was not permitted to stay the night with his eleven month-old son.  For dubious “security reasons” fathers can visit their children at the pediatric ward but mothers can stay with them for 24 hours.  Bascombe’s literal stand against this policy resulted in the police being called in.  The inhumanity of having to deal with the unthinking implementation of a discriminatory policy and the very real threat of arrest right at the moment when one is stressed and worried about the health of one’s child!

The Health Minister’s excuse for the  policy was that that’s just the way it has always been.  Well, now it’s time for change!

Caribbean feminists have highlighted that women do a disproportionate share of the caring work and that this often goes unrecognised.  The hospital’s policy reinforces that women are the “natural” and primary caregivers.  In the process it discounts men’s caring work and institutionalizes stereotypes about men as potential threats to children.

(That hospital visiting hours are often a source of pain for those whose relationships are not validated by society is, perhaps, another topic for another post. )

Bascombe appears to be the first person to challenge this anti-father hospital policy.  He has also opened up dialogue about fathering in a very productive way.   In standing up for his rights as a father and carer, he has stood up for all of us who care about gender justice.