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?