Guest post

Good evening. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Elmer, 22 year old Belizean youth that comes from a humble yet hard working family. Today it is important for me to share my story with you. I am speaking on the impact that my mother’s teenage pregnancy had on me, her son, the product of that pregnancy for a man ten years older than her. But I also want you to know that all four of my mother’s sisters found themselves being a mother in their teen years. I always said that if my mom could have only access sexual and reproductive health services in her adolescent years I would have escaped all the sexual abuses that have scarred my life forever. I know I have no right to judge my mother, but when I was born I knew not that I would never enjoy of my childhood years. Why you may ask? Well, mom was poor she had to work. That means she had to leave me in the care of someone who happened to be my grandmother who ironically should love me for the mere fact that I am her first grandchild. Nonetheless, it was not so. My grandmother hated me, the offspring of a teen pregnancy and the product of an outside marriage. She treated me badly. One day I clearly recall that grandma took me by my legs and slammed me against the wall; I burst my head. That mark still remains in the back of my head. This was the treatment I received for the first three years of my life. I was glad when mom enrolled me at preschool, it would mean I would be away from grandma almost all day. I hated my grandma and for many days questioned God why this had to be for me. Several times I wanted to take away my life. No one was there for me. No one! I often wondered why the poor people could not enjoy of utmost health services as the rich do; why the poor are often turned when asking or seeking professional help especially sexual and reproductive health services.

At age 7 I was sexually abused the first time. Since then it happened several times, however mom did not know. I was abused sexually by my neighbor’s wife, two uncles and a friend’s father. The worries and stress was just too much for me. I hated my uncles and the people who took away my childhood.

Today I stand in front of all of you and I say that these experiences molded me to be the Elmer that speaks to each one of you. I keep striving for a healthy future for my family and even the entire world. Today I serve as the Secretary of the Board of directors of GOJoven Belize alumni Association which has been in operation since 2011 serving the youth population of Belize in sexual and reproductive health and environmental consciousness programs. I also serve as the president of the National Aids Commission/ Country Coordinating Mechanism in my district. I love working for youth development and have shown it to this end and will continue to do so till my physical allows me to. My dream is to one day have all persons regardless of their age, ethnicity, color of skin, economic status, sexual orientation, to have free access to sexual and reproductive health and that their sexual rights, in fact all their rights are respected.

This testimony is published with the author’s permission.  It was delivered at the CARICOM/UNFPA High Level Meeting on Adolescent Pregnancy which took place in Trinidad & Tobago on December 9, 2013.  Elmer decided to grant permission for it to be published in the hope that “it would reach someone that would identify themselves with my experience.” The entire text and title are his own words.

The Double Injustice of Buggery Laws

In Barbados, a scout leader is charged with rape of a 12-year-old boy.  Legally speaking, he is charged with buggery* under laws which criminalise anal sex regardless of consent or lack thereof or age of the victim.

Following reports of the case the Chief Scout Commissioner has publicly spoken out against…wait  for it…not child sexual abuse…not all forms of abuse against children…but against homosexuality.

Most of the comments posted  to the Nation’s facebook page clearly recognise what the Chief Scout Commissioner does not, that this case is about the sexual abuse of a child not yet another opportunity for public expression of homophobia. Using the buggery laws to prosecute cases of child sexual abuse contributes to a lack of access to justice for children who are victims of sexual abuse.

One commenter wrote:

so had been it a girl would that have been okay!!! rather than look at it as being homosexual in nature..Look at it as a sexual assault on a minor and deal with accordingly..Rape is not a homosexual dis-eases!!

Another wrote:

This should not be about homosexuality. What consenting adults choose to do in their private lives, is their business, no on else’s. The Boys’ Scout issue is a criminal matter, it is sexual abuse of a minor. There is no such thing as “leader to boy” sexual contact and Dr Taylor should be ashamed to make such asinine comments. The accused should feel the full weight of the law and punished accordingly. Barbadians need to stop conveniently confusing homosexuality with child sexuality abuse.

This case, however, is but one example that points to a much larger problem. Most Caribbean countries prosecute instances of rape of boys by adult men using the laws against buggery. What this does is conflate rape with consensual relations and conflate the sexual abuse of a child with sex between adults. Ultimately it sends the message that it is the homosexual nature of the act that is offensive/egregious/illegal rather than the rape of a child.

The way in which Caribbean children (especially girls) suffer sexual harassment on the street and public transportation, the fact that girls who are victims of sexual abuse often end up themselves being criminalised by being removed from their homes and placed in dangerous state facilities (let us not forget Armadale) or are charged with wandering, demonstrate an overall inadequate and unjust response to child sexual abuse.

When the Scout Commissioner chooses to condemn homosexuality but not child sexual abuse it speaks volumes of the extent to which the severity of child sexual abuse as an infringement on the human rights of children and a denial of their bodily integrity is often diminished. To give but one of countless examples from the Caribbean, in Belize recently an adult man was charged with having sex with a child (girl). He was allowed to walk free when the girls’ father claimed he could not remember his daughter’s age. If as a region we took the sexual abuse of children seriously such a conclusion would be unthinkable.

In Caribbean feminist online community WOMANTRA I raised the following questions:

has any legal analysis been done on why the buggery laws are used in cases of male rape of boys and not child sexual abuse laws? Do these laws [against child sexual abuse] not cover abuse of boys? Do they carry lighter sentences? Are the statutory rape laws gendered and exclude boys?

Young lawyer, Richie Maitland, responded:

Suffice it to say that the buggery law is used because its the easiest to prosecute. They don’t have to prove anything beyond the fact of anal sex; they don’t have to prove non consent. There are other laws they could be prosecuted pursuant to, but it requires the prosecution to prove other elements.

Lawyer-in-traning and Children’s Rights Advocate, Rashad Brathwaite had this to contribute as we sought to write the post collectively:

The Sexual Offences Act in Barbados, unlike much of the Caribbean, sufficiently provides legal recourse for Child Sexual Abuse meted out against boys under 14 to be dealt with under the statutory rape provision without the additional hurdles of proof of non-consent. That is to say, there is no ostensible need to prosecute the abuse  of a 12 year-old boy under the buggery laws in Barbados.

The current state of the law throughout much of the region and the practice in Barbados require urgent reform to treat the abuse of ALL children, as a class of criminality that deserves its own treatment as an act against our collective humanity and deserving the highest levels of opprobium.

In so doing however, the law ought to treat to the sexual abuse of children, in the instant case the abuse of boys as conceptually distinct from the consensual sexual relations between adults.

Ultimately the buggery laws perform a double injustice. They criminalise sexual relations between adults and support a culture of homophobia and stigma.  They also reflect and support an inadequate response to child sexual abuse, leaving many children who are victimised without access to justice and normalising many forms of child sexual abuse.

Edited to add: conflating and confusing rape of boys with homosexuality also serves to silence boys who are raped or sexually abused. Because they fear being stigmatized and labeled, they suffer in silence, do not report the abuse and may even blame themselves for having been abused.

*based on the reports in the Nation News we assume that he has indeed been charged with buggery.

Check out this post entitled Everyday Rape for an earlier discussion on rape and sexual abuse in the region.

 Thanks to Rashad Brathwaite of CODE RED for gender justice! and Grenadian attorney-at-law Richie Maitland, for their contributions to this article.

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?

Over her dead body: Nationalist rhetoric as (erasure of) violence against women

Natoya Ewers, a Jamaican woman, was hacked to death by her intimate partner, leaving behind three children.  I came across this Jamaican facebook page where the occasion of this woman’s death was used to denounce the fact that Bajans did not like Jamaicans.  Many users asserted that the woman should not have left Jamaica to travel to that third world full-stop of an island Barbados.  Absolutely no mention of violence against women.  No mention of the Jamaican women who lost their lives at home in Jamaica at the hands of intimate partners during that same week.  No mention of how increasingly violent Caribbean societies had become.  I told myself it’s just one facebook page.  Surely that is not most people’s reaction.  Then I saw the Jamaica Observer cartoon above and it confirmed my initial fears.

Caribbean feminist scholar, Alissa Trotz, has outlined how “women’s bodies [become] the site on which group loyalties are enacted.”  Not to be outdone, on the Nation News (Barbados) facebook page comments were also nationalistic as readers alleged that the man who committed the murder and subsequently killed himself was Vincentian.  They quickly moved from the nationalistic to the sexist:

But lets face the truth. Bajan women take and take and take and just take too much from men. Its not like the men can afford to give so much. Men feel compelled to give because its the only way they can keep these selfish bajan women. Bajan women have become a society of beggers.

Just say ” hello” to a bajan women and she wants a top up.

Of course, the other facebook users moved to correct the commenter quoted above, not to chide him for his sexism but to remark that the woman in question was not Bajan but Jamaica.   The stereotype of Caribbean women as mercenary, materialistic and financially dependent on men and these “facts” in and of themselves being presented as a justification of murder went unchallenged.

While the recent tensions surrounding the treatment of Jamaican nationals at the Barbados airport and the rape of a Jamaican woman in police custody explains in part this recourse to an unthinking nationalism, it does not explain why all the “talk” following this woman’s brutal death made absolutely no mention of  the similarity with so many other murders of Caribbean women and displayed very little feeling for the woman herself.   Reports are that she had confronted her partner about sexually abusing her daughter.  On local television one of her neighbours reported watching the woman’s murder from the safety of his bedroom window.

Women’s bodies are used as boundary-markers in what has become an asinine Barbados versus Jamaica beef played out at the highest and lowest levels.  Wasted time, talk and energy that could be put towards fighting against what is really at issue here: men’s violence against women, society’s sanctioning of it, incest and child sexual abuse.



Spotlight on Paternity Testing During Child Month

In Barbados between April 1, 2010, and February 28 this year there were 737 cases of child abuse involving 1 061 children. Of that number 199 children suffered physical abuse, 151 sexual abuse, 612 neglect, 97 emotional abuse and two were abandoned.   Of course these figures do not reflect the countless other cases of child abuse that go unreported and the other institutionalized and normalized practices of child abuse that are not even considered such.

May is child month.  I learn today that the activities for Child Month include: the launch of a campaign against child abuse, a men’s forum to discuss DNA Testing And Implications For Men And Children, in addition to a forum for the youth on the topic Teenage Pregnancy: Life Before, Life After.

Just who is setting the children’s rights agenda in Barbados? With 1000+ children reported to have been abused  and the countless other cases which go unreported, how is a “a men’s forum to discuss DNA Testing And Implications For Men And Children” a legitimate child month activity? Just how do men’s rights and responsibilities with regards to paternity and paternity testing fall within the remit of an organisation set up to respond to the needs of children? Where are the children’s voices?

I’m not dismissing the relevance or usefulness of paternity testing.  Neither am I dismissing the premise of a men’s forum to discuss it.  Yes, men and women, mothers and fathers have a key in ensuring that children’s rights are not denied.  But their interests and agendas cannot be assumed to be the same.  I just think that child month should be about the issues which deny our children their right to a good life and also about the issues which our children define as important to them.

The UNICEF report on “Perceptions of, Attitudes to, and Opinions on Child Sexual Abuse in the Eastern Caribbean” revealed that:

a significant number of people consider that childhood ends at 13 years. This may help to explain why, in the focus group discussions, some men indicated that they considered girls to be legitimate sexual targets once girls have gone through puberty (this phrase was taken to mean that a girl had begun menstruating);

The bible says that when a woman goes through puberty she is ready, so if it happens at 11 she is ready (Male Focus Group Participant).

It also revealed that the majority of respondents agreed that ‘girls draw men’s sexual attention by the way they dress’.  While respondents may have been stating that they believe this to be a fact or that they in fact believed that girls actively seek men’s attention through their choice of dress, it is a belief that ultimately relieves men of their responsibility for their own behaviour and contributes to victim-blaming in cases of rape and sexual abuse.

Another key finding is that the majority of respondents said that if an adult in their family was sexually abusing a child within the family, they would always report it to the police.  However, when asked a related question, a significant number of people said they would try to sort out such a problem without informing the police.   Men were twice as likely as women respondents to state that they would sort it out without going to the police (34% of male respondents said this as compared to 17% of female respondents).

Clearly we have a long way to go towards recognising the right of all children to a good life. This includes moving away from viewing children as the property of their parents, a view that is very much prevalent in the Caribbean.  We also need to recognise that children’s rights must be addressed on their own terms. We cannot allow the children’s rights agenda to be hijacked by groups whose aims are often inimical to the rights of children.

We need children’s voices on the Children’s Rights agenda.  

What do you think?