Caribbean Feminist Activists Face Threats, Intimidation & Misogynist Bullying

On Monday, April 21, 2015 an audio recording captured Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsarran calling feminist activist Sherlina Nageer “an idiot”,  “a little piece of shit”, threatening to “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, and to have her stripped by “some of my women”.

A statement sent to the press by the Minister of Health subsequently claims that he was provoked to such misogynist violence after Sherlina Nageer interrupted a press interview. Sherlina can be heard demanding state accountability for Guyana’s high maternal mortality rate, which is the highest in the English-speaking Caribbean.

The Minister invoked the language of “provocation” to justify his act of violence.  The invocation of “provocation” is frequently used to justify and rationalise men’s fatal violence against women and has crept into state and activist responses to violence. The language of provocation, just like the denigrating language and threats the Minister directed at Sherlina, is the language of misogyny.

Women’s human rights defenders from across the region have attempted for decades to hold Caribbean governments accountable to women. This is not the first time that their efforts, are met with violence, threats and intimidation. Last month,  in St. Vincent and the Grenadines a communications official working in the Prime Minister’s Office sought to shame a rape survivor on live radio for sharing her testimony  at a women’s conference. In Barbados last year, a long-standing feminist activist and government employee walked out of a meeting in response to sexist comments. She and was condescendingly and threateningly offered “a word to the wise” from the floor of Parliament by the Minister with responsibility for the Bureau of Gender Affairs and accused of publicly displaying “bias for one gender over the other”. These examples are symptomatic of institutionalized and systematic sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny in the region, and they promote marginalization and intimidation of women at all levels.

Women are 51% of the population and our governments must be accountable to us.

We will not be intimidated into silence as silence means death.  Literally.

Sherlina Nageer was called a “piece of shit” for insisting that women’s lives and health matter. She was threatened with the misogynist and violent acts of public stripping and beating for insisting that governments have a responsibility to ensure women have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

We recognise such abuses of state power as a reflection of hatred of women, an unwillingness to recognise us as fully human and a refusal to treat us as equals. They also reflect the callous disregard elected officials show for the people — boys and girls, women and men — they are meant to serve.

We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.

Join us in holding regional state managers accountable by submitting accounts of their abuse of power and office to any of the following email addresses:

redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com

catchafyahnetwork redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com

womantratt [at] gmail [dot] com

We invite you to sign below in solidarity with Sherlina Nageer and all women human rights defenders who face violence, threats, intimidation and loss of employment for the work they do on behalf of all of us.

Tonya Haynes

Fatimah Jackson-Best

Stephanie Leitch

Sign on to the solidarity statement here.

Read Sherlina’s response here.

Press Statement by Dr. Bheri Ramsaran

On Monday, April 21, 2015, at around 09:30 hours, I joined a group of peaceful persons at Whim Magistrate’s Court to give solidarity to former President Bharrat Jagdeo.

As I was about to depart two journalists sought an interview with me on the matter at hand to which I readily agreed. During the interview I was rudely interrupted by a woman who kept shouting and interrupting me throughout.

I shifted away on several occasions in an attempt to avoid her but she persisted in interrupting the interview.

It was unfortunate that I was provoked into anger and uttered harsh words at her for which I now regret.

I therefore wish to apologize for uttering those words.

April 21, 2015

Recordings have surfaced that suggest that one day after the Health Minister Dr. Bheri Ramsarran apologised he told a health forum that “so we have these miscreants who are sometimes supported by the international community because they are rights activists, right to spit in my face but not collect two slap, you understand me, or one of my ladies who love me wreck her up, you understand me?” Full transcript of comments available here and below:

“So we have these miscreants who are sometimes supported by the international community because they are rights activists, right to spit in my face but not collect two slap, you understand me, or one of my ladies who love me wreck her up, you understand me? Well you know I’m Bheri best, all the ladies like me. Suppose one of my big strong women seh “wuh yuh do we doctor, wuh yuh do dis innocent lil man? Wacks! Wacks! (imitates the sounds of blows). Then she’s going to become a hero, some of us will mek sure we give her a medal. Right, spit in my face, I don’t know if she got rabies or what, I know she was rabid. That woman need psychiatric help.”

This Stabroek News editorial provides the best reporting of the events and the best commentary and analysis on the Minister’s behaviour. It ends with a call for him to resign or be fired.

The facts of life: Rape has been decriminalized in the Caribbean

Men in high places across the region have advice for schoolgirls.

Trinidad & Tobago’s Attorney General is reported as stating that date rape is a fact of life and girls should therefore be responsible especially at Christmas time.

Barbados men’s rights group MESA were reported as stating that schoolgirls “tear off their own clothes” and then accuse men.

Girls are either raping themselves, lying about rape, dressing immorally or failing to parang responsibly.

The AG conveniently did not mention what, if anything, the government planned to do to address rape, since by his own analysis it is a fact of life.

Research from the UK has demonstrated that rape of the most vulnerable women has been effectively decriminalised where 2 of every 3 rape allegations are not pursued beyond the investigation stage. In other words two thirds of rape allegations do not make it to trial. Researcher Betsy Stanko identifies the following attributes which result in the likelihood that a reported rape will not make it to trial:

1) The victim has a history of mental illness
2) The victim is or was in a relationship with her attacker
3) The victim has a learning disability
4) The victim consumed drugs or alcohol prior to the attack

She notes that “80 per cent of people reporting rape to the Metropolitan Police are considered vulnerable to sexual attack for one of a range of reasons – including being under 18, having mental health issues or learning disabilities, having drunk alcohol or taken drugs prior to the attack and being in an intimate relationship with the suspect.”

She concludes that rather that seeing these women and girls as unreliable witnesses, police investigators need to take a person’s vulnerability as evidence that they are more likely to be raped and investigate whether that vulnerability was exploited by the suspect.

In the Caribbean we know that rates of investigation, trial and conviction in cases of rape and sexual assault are extremely low.  In other words, rapists can expect to get away with rape:

As of September, the Guyana Police Force (GPF) had revealed that there were a total of 140 reported cases of rape – about one case every two days. This is a reduction when compared with the 2013 figure of 179 between January to July.

[…] The Attorney General had also pointed out the blaring fact that in the years 2012 and 2013, only 22 cases had enough evidence to go to court and none resulted in a conviction, even with the Sexual Offences Act being completed in 2012. The Guyana Human Rights Authority had done a study in 2005 titled “Without Conviction: Sexual Violence Cases in The Guyana Justice Process”, which revealed that Guyana only reached an average conviction rate of 1.4 per cent in rape cases, indicating that not much has changed since then.

This year it was reported that Guyana did not have enough rape kits. In other cases rape did not even get investigated until women took to the streets in protest.

MESA is currently arguing that while they support sexual harassment legislation such legislation should include stiff penalties for women and girls who allege sexual harassment but eventually discontinue or fail to give evidence in the case.

In the Caribbean, a girl who is raped at age 12 can expect to see her case come to court when she is 20, that is, if the social stigma, family and community pressure have not already forced her and her family to discontinue the case.  (Should the state not be able to bring these cases forward regardless of whether or not witnesses or families co-operate?)

To argue that legislation should deter women and girls from reporting crimes against them is not in men’s interest. It is in the interest of rapists.

Rape is a fact of life.

And so is getting away with rape.

We are left with empty advice. Rapists’ interests confused as men’s interests. A relentless culture of misogyny that is literally costing us our lives.

We join in solidarity with women activists in Guyana in demanding that governments be accountable to women:

We are not going to take this! We are tired of paper rights. We are tired of being abused, violated and not being able to get justice. We are tired of lack of services, means to access services and poor services because money and resources are not given to improve such services. We are tired of being treated as third class citizens. We are tired of being ignored as our lives and the lives of our families grow more and more dangerous from all forms of violence including sexual violence. We are most of all tired of the hypocrisy, deception, lies, corruption, ignorance and ‘eye pass’. We are sick and tired of the wasteful and empty consultations and empty promises. We know the truth, and the truth is: in this dear land of Guyana, women and children pass for grass.

Well no more! We are not prepared to accept that there is no money for comprehensively addressing the scourge of sexual violence.

We have had enough and are prepared to fight for the world we want.

Future of Caribbean Media

Check out these three online Caribbean media sources that have us excited about new ways of telling Caribbean stories!

Antillean Media Group

Brilliant, fresh and socially engaged.  Antillean Media Group has been in town for a long time and remain as relevant, creative and cutting edge as ever.

The New Local 

Describing itself as a celebration of millennial Caribbean voices, this is definitely a space to watch!  So far we’re loving the outlets for creative writing and reflection.

CatchAFyah Blog Network

With over 30 Caribbean feminist and social justice bloggers in its network there’s something at the CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network website for everyone who’s passionate about the future of our region.

Leave us a comment and share any fresh Caribbean new media projects we need to know about!

Man caah run a rape joke again?

Earlier this year an AlJazeera news story cited the World Bank’s report on gender and business which revealed that “husbands still hold the power to prevent their wives from working in at least 15 countries, and laws in 79 nations still restrict the kind of work women can do.”

In Jamaica, the 1942 act governing the employment of women states that no woman shall be employed in night work except in limited circumstances which include, inter alia, care of the sick, pharmacy and employment in the hospitality sector. At least since last year, discussions have began about amending the act to align with the reality that many woman already work at night, already work flexible hours, often in precarious employment.

Jamaican culture critic, Carolyn Cooper, pointed out that though the 1942 act is sexist, discriminatory, classist and patronizing toward women, the motivations for amending it have less to do with gender justice and more to do with making women’s labour hyper-exploitable.

During parliamentary debate on the Flexible Work Arrangements Bill Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte drew attention to the fact that considerations for women’s safety at work ought to be factored in, noting, “you know we also have high incidence of rape at nights; we have abduction of children and women.” One of her colleagues, Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Senator AJ Nicholson, interjected with, “What you want flexi-rape?” His comments were met with laughter from the majority-male parliament. When asked to withdraw his sexist, inappropriate rape joke, Senator Nicholson, invoked his patriarchal privilege to make a joke of whatever he felt like, “Man caah run a joke again?

No, Senator.  Man can’t make rape jokes and expect them to go unchallenged.  Most of your colleagues may have laughed with you but not everyone is laughing.  Rape is no joke.  Neither is the exploitation of women’s labour in poorly paid, precarious and potentially dangerous employment.  While women don’t need patronizing laws that restrict the kinds of work they can do, they do need decent working conditions and wages that permit them to take care of their families.  They need governments that take rape and sexual assault seriously. Women (and men) in other Caribbean countries have taken to the streets to hold states accountable for their response to rape.

When elected and selected leaders debate these issues on behalf of women who are 51% of the citizenry they ought to do so in a manner that recognizes women’s humanity and citizenship. Women’s lives are not punch lines.

Petchary’s Blog offers a great overview, analysis and responses.

Check out the Top 10 (hetero)sexist moments in Caribbean politics to see other regional leaders behaving badly.

EDITED TO ADD: It has been reported that AJ Nicholson subsequently sent threatening emails to Malahoo Forte, warning that “the big pay back is coming!

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Getting It Wrong On Rape Or No Sperm, No Rape, Or Why a Two-Year-Old Girl Does Not Need to be Taught Modesty

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After an Indigenous Guyanese woman reported that she was drugged and gang-raped at the hotel where she worked and police had no intention of investigating the rape, women took to the streets in protest and solidarity.

One local newspaper alleges that police are not investigating the rape because the woman admitted to “drinking Red Bull and Hennessey”. It also quoted a police offical as saying, “The woman never said she was raped; she said she had sex with some boyfriend or something like that, and that when he left the room another man come in and he like assault her, bite she up on her body.”

In another case, the family of a partially paralysed woman who was raped in her home have indicated that even though she was taken to the hospital she was neither examined nor treated for sexual assault:

The relatives added that when they checked with the police again yesterday, they were told that “they can’t say she was raped because they have no medical but they can put that she was assaulted.”

And in yet another rape case, a Police Commander is quoted as saying that medical evidence refutes the rape claim of a 30-year-old woman raped and knife point and found naked in a clump of bushes because there was no “sperm” found in her vagina:

G Division Commander Kevin Adonis has reported that medical examinations by doctors have failed to support the claim by a Devonshire Castle woman that she was raped during a brutal attack.
According to the Commander, “no sperm” was found in the victim, but he said that the woman has received treatment for bruises she sustained at the hands of her attacker.

Feminist activist, Sherlina Nageer, responded by clarifying what should be obvious but clearly was not:

Sperm does not need to be found on a victim for a rape claim to be valid. Rapists can use condoms to contain their bodily fluids; rape can be inflicted using objects which would not leave sperm, etc. These basic facts about rape should be common knowledge; the fact that Commander Adonis, a senior officer in the Guyana Police Force exhibits such ignorance is extremely disturbing.

These three recent cases not only suggest a high prevalence of sexual violence against women but demonstrate the lack of state investment in an appropriate response to rape. Health care and justice systems are not just failing women but neither operate nor exist as systems. Women who are raped end up turning to women’s organisations, noted women’s advocates or to the media in search of some sort of justice. Media are often exploitative and traffic in gendered stereotypes and norms which support and legitimize rape.

Gross misunderstandings about just what rape is and how rapists select their victims, sexist expectations that responsibility to prevent rape lies with women who should discipline their bodies and movements as prevention measures detract attention from the fact that in effect “rape of the most vulnerable has been decriminalised“.

Research from the UK has demonstrated that rape of the most vulnerable women has been effectively decriminalised where 2 of every 3 rape allegations are not pursued beyond the investigation stage. In other words two thirds of rape allegations do not make it to trial. Researcher Betsy Stanko identifies the following attributes which result in the likelihood that a reported rape will not make it to trial:

1) The victim has a history of mental illness
2) The victim is or was in a relationship with her attacker
3) The victim has a learning disability
4) The victim consumed drugs or alcohol prior to the attack

She notes that “80 per cent of people reporting rape to the Metropolitan Police are considered vulnerable to sexual attack for one of a range of reasons – including being under 18, having mental health issues or learning disabilities, having drunk alcohol or taken drugs prior to the attack and being in an intimate relationship with the suspect.”

She concludes that rather that seeing these women and girls as unreliable witnesses, police investigators need to take a person’s vulnerability as evidence that they are more likely to be raped and investigate whether that vulnerability was exploited by the suspect.

In parts of the Caribbean where there is a lack of access to healthcare and forensic facilities due to state racism, ineffective and sexist justice systems and where women may be expected to consume alcohol as part of their jobs, these too must be viewed as factors which make women more vulnerable to rape and as vulnerabilities that rapists exploit.

Rapists also exploit the sexist ideologies which persist in the region. Such sexist ideologies are frequently presented in our newspapers. For example, A young Barbadian columnist wrote about teaching his two-year-old daughter about “modesty and decency”, noting that “My heart burned and my eyes filled with tears as I saw the pictures and videos on Facebook of girls and women exposing their bodies and sexually gyrating on strangers in the name of fun, revelry and freedom. I am still lost for words and can’t find one single person to convince me that this is acceptable behaviour.” He then compared the thousands of women who participate in this year’s Crop Over festival to “prostitutes”. Ironically, believing that a two-year-old needs to be taught “modesty” suggests a sexualization of infant girls’ bodies. It suggests that it were possible for a two-year-old to even be “immodest”. We need to push back against the sexualization of girls’ bodies and recognise that this supports sexual violence against them.

A two-year-old girl does not need to be taught to discipline and police her own body. Women don’t need an anti-rape nail polish. (Let the rapists wear the anti-rape nail polish so we can recognise them!) Our bodily integrity needs to be respected, whether we are two years old or ninety-two years old. Whether we work work in a bar or the boardroom. Whether or not we fight back with our fists or are too scared or intoxicated to do so. Whether or not we’ve had sex with you in the past. Or were wearing a short skirt. Or out alone at night.

And when our bodily integrity is violated the healthcare systems, legal systems and victim support systems need to be working at optimum. For women everywhere. On the coast and in the interior. For those who turn up naked at police stations and those who arrive months after the attack.

What’s the excuse really?

Why are police officers sharing sensitive information with the media and in such callous and ignorant ways? Why are they not investigating rape when it is reported? Why are rape survivors unable to access the required healthcare? Why is sexism given space in our national newspapers?

Do we really care so little for women?

image source: Red Thread Guyana: Crossroads Women’s Resource Centre

Pride Mubarak

Guest post by Lina Free

So does Ramadan mean no sex for the whole month? Hello- I’m not that kind of Muslim! Ha ha, I just troubling u girl; I kno the thing- my father was Muslim. Eh heh? Yes, Salahuddin was his name. But is only me outta my brothers and sisters get that name. How come? He was always drunk, never had time for us. But I was the last chile; my mother said he felt sorry by then. Salahuddin sounded just like my grandfather Shaheed. Another ‘fullaman’ yes, but that didn’t stop him from drinking and womanizing. When my grandmother ‘ran off’ her head after he got another woman pregnant the same time as she and had to be committed to the Berbice mad house after giving birth to my father- the last child of eight- Shaheed amended his ways. But by then it was too late, the damage already done. Decades afterwards, when I sat behind him in the masjid, watching him prostrate himself in prayer, all I could think about was why I had to sit behind and not beside him. Stop asking all those questions I was scolded. Just keep quiet and do as you are told. Continue reading

Mama’s Day Poetry Playlist

If mothering is the kind of work that makes all other kinds of work possible why are mothers and grandmothers turning to the media as a last resort to plead for jobs and housing for themselves and their families? Why have we not figured out a way to nourish and support mothers in the work that they do? Why is motherhood often impoverishing? Why do women as group earn less than men as a group (around 18% less in Barbados) and why is motherhood part of the answer? Why have we not figured out work-life balance? And learnt a way to honour the multiple journeys to motherhood? That post-24, pre-35 (heterosexually) married, middle-class, with medical insurance, making more than the national average, able-bodied, sound-of-mind, mythic ideal of appropriate motherhood is a minority experience in the Caribbean.  Can’t we honour and support all moms to be the best moms that they can be?

Here’s a poetry playlist that addresses motherhood in all it’s complexity.  Happy Mothers’ Day!   Continue reading