Two recent cases reported in regional media demonstrate the extent of the injustice which girls who survive sexual assault face.
In the Cayman Islands a judge did not award a custodial sentence for a man who plead guilty to raping a 14-year-old girl because, “he had a wife and two children to support.” This along with the provisions for alternative sentencing, time spent on remand, his difficult childhood and psychological problems were offered up as reasons why a custodial sentence was not ordered.
The judge is reported as saying that “the most important thing was to create the circumstance where the defendant would never commit such an offence in the future.” He, however, failed to describe what exactly that would entail. It would certainly be useful to have practical and concrete advice on how we can collectively create the circumstances where no one ever commits sexual assault. I’m not sure that deflecting responsibility from the persons who do is likely to be of much use.
All in all it seemed like a gross injustice and a suggestion that the rapist’s freedom and his patriarchal responsibilities were more important that the young girl’s life and right to bodily integrity. It really says a lot about our relative valuing of children and adults, girls and men. Unpacking this decision also reveals the way in which heterosexual sex, even when criminal and coerced, is viewed as normal and inevitable. Collectively we seem more moved towards safeguarding the future of the rapists than that of girls. We worry more about how an accusation of rape can ruin a man’s life and bury our heads in the sand about what the experience of rape does to a girl’s life. (Read Velika Lawrence’s story in the St. Lucia star. She is co-founder of PROSAF, an organisation which fights against child sexual abuse & incest).
In Antigua, a former principal and lay preacher escaped a custodial sentence after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. It was reported that the girls mother made a “stirring plea for forgiveness”, saying that she and her daughter had forgiven the sexual predator and he was a family friend.
In addition, the forgiving mother also used the fact that the former principal was the sole breadwinner of his family to argue for a non-custodial sentence.
In examining why domestic violence complainants vanish from Caribbean courts, anthropologist Mindie Lazarus-Black argues that a culture of reconciliation operates in the Caribbean:
I coined the term cultures of reconciliation to identify local norms and practices separate and apart from law, but that influence profoundly the decisions people make about what to do about violence in their lives. The concept is useful both: 1) as an analytical framework to capture how local ideas and practices coalesce into structural patterns that operate
against the institutionalized forces of law; and 2) as a research tool for cross-cultural investigation and analysis. More specifically, cultures of reconciliation reflect norms and practices intrinsic to “family,” “gender,” and “work” that intersect to keep men and women out of legal processes. Such norms and practices are learned, mostly early in life. (Source: VANISHING COMPLAINANTS: THE PLACE OF VIOLENCE IN FAMILY, GENDER, WORK, AND LAW).
Perhaps it is this same culture of reconciliation with its gendered and hierarchical valuing of women and men which operates as a barrier to justice for girls who survive sexual assault. Rapists in the region have a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card and these are the ones who actually have to stand before the courts. Our culture of silence means most rapes and cases of incest goes unreported, ignored, invisible or resolved outside the law.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Edited to add:
Another recent story in Caribbean news reflects the sympathy offered up to men who abuse girls in the region. In the Bahamas, the overwhelming majority of the members of the Pilgrim Full Baptist Temple voted to retain their disgraced Bishop as head of the church despite the fact that he is currently serving three years in jail for having sex with a dependent. One of his colleagues suggested that the Bishop has neither admitted his sins nor asked forgiveness for them and should seek professional help. Nonetheless, it is clear he has the support of the majority of church members. I suspect that the rush to forgive comes from the church members understanding of the 16-year-old girl as having been a temptress and the Bishop as unable to help himself. It’s the message that’s repeated over and over when we tell women what to wear and how to act in order to avoid rape: that women are responsible for tempting men into sexual violence against them.
Leave a comment with any similar cases in regional news.