#KickOutGBV: More Than Just a Hashtag

October 22nd, 2015

Where is Jamaica going in the campaign against gender-based violence? Are we getting anywhere?

I asked myself this question repeatedly at a recent public forum on “Gender-Based Violence in the Caribbean,” ably organized by the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Model United Nations and the Department of Government in collaboration with Respect Jamaica. The moderator was the outspoken Dr. Michael Abrahams, who nevertheless brings a great deal of sensitivity to such topics, and rounded things off with a poignant verse. Congratulations to UWI Model UN for organizing what it considered a “controversial” issue.

Panelists at the Public Forum on Gender-Based Violence listen to an audience member's question. (My photo)

Panelists at the Public Forum on Gender-Based Violence listen to an audience member’s question. (My photo)

Over one in ten visits to the Accident & Emergency Departments in Jamaica are due to rape. “It is a shocking moral issue,” observed the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer Joshua Polacheck, one of five panelists. But it’s more than that. Gender-based violence, he suggested, must be on the agenda as an issue of “national dialogue,” focusing not only on the victims, but also the perpetrators (who are themselves victims) and those who witness the violence.

Dr. Herbert Gayle lectures in Anthropology at UWI and also heads an organization called Fathers Inc, a community-based parenting group. I remember feeling skeptical (I still am) when Dr. Gayle asserted several years ago that 65 per cent of all children in Jamaica have access to their biological fathers – higher than many European countries; while 55 per cent of Jamaican households actually have fathers living in them. But that is another issue. On this occasion Dr. Gayle told us that globally, the percentage of men who are victims of intimate partner physical violence is much higher than one might expect. Considering that men are much less willing to report such incidents than women (“There is no space for men to admit they are victims,” said Dr. Gayle) it is very difficult to find reliable statistics.

Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith thinks there are serious flaws in current legislation that do not protect women. (My photo)

Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith thinks there are serious flaws in current legislation that do not protect women. (My photo)

This scarcity of data remains an issue of great concern. In the Caribbean, statistics are particularly unreliable. There is “serious under-reporting” on gender-based violence, noted panelist Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith. Everyone is talking in a bit of a fog. We know gender-based violence is a huge global issue, regardless of class, race, age and other considerations; but in Jamaica, we cannot really get a handle on it.

I gathered, though, that the discussion at hand was primarily about violence perpetrated by men against women and girls. I noted there was no reference to intimate partner violence among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jamaicans. Yet members of WE-Change (an affiliate of J-FLAG) and other LGBT Jamaicans and allies were present. It simply did not come up – one must assume because the panelists didn’t feel able to address it.

Surprisingly, too, gender-based violence on campus (a burning issue last year, if I recall) was briefly mentioned in passing. Moving on…

Professor Carolyn Cooper thinks the patriarchy is firmly entrenched in Jamaica. (My photo)

Professor Carolyn Cooper thinks the patriarchy is firmly entrenched in Jamaica. (My photo)

Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies Carolyn Cooper and Dr. Maziki Thame, Lecturer in the Department of Government both spoke about the patriarchy, from different angles, as the source of the “real man run tings” macho mentality that has apparently taken hold of the younger generation. That patriarchy, said Professor Cooper, is grounded in Christianity. Of course! God is a man, isn’t he? She also spoke about sexuality encoding violence in the dancehall culture:“We need to deconstruct that language.” In any event, says Dr. Thame, “Boys tell girls to shut up, in the schoolyard and every other setting.” 

Senator Johnson-Smith reminded us that, in spite of all this, Jamaica has only one shelter for victims of domestic abuse (and their children). Just one, and it is not exactly spacious. It is operated by Woman Inc., a non-governmental organization that has done its best over the years but for some reason has kept a relatively low profile. Woman Inc provides counseling and has a volunteer-operated hotline. But this begs the question: Are we really serious about offering “frontline” assistance to victims? Abuse is something that happens suddenly; if you are in pain and fear, if you think your arm or your jaw might be broken, where do you go? It’s a situation, not just something to theorize about. As the Senator notes (she was very focused on the legal aspects of the issue) it is a crime, and must be investigated as such.

Moreover, there is no law, or even policy, on sexual harassment, which often affects less economically empowered women, leading to abuse and rape. The law also wrongly addresses marital rape, which it deems only possible under such narrow circumstances that it makes matters worse.

Joshua Polacheck: "Equal citizenship for all Jamaicans is the goal." (My photo)

Joshua Polacheck: “Equal citizenship for all Jamaicans is the goal.” (My photo)

Then we went back to the witnesses – the children, neighbors and so on, who are unwilling to say anything. Joshua Polacheck, who has years of experience in the Middle East, noted that“special rights” for women is not what is required, but simply equality. Without equal citizenship for all Jamaicans, we cannot have a safe and just society with good governance, he commented.

Equality is our goal. It has to be. And yet…

And yet, all the way through the discussion – as each panelist rose to speak at the podium, as each audience member moved up to the standing microphone – I was thinking: At this very moment, while we discuss and theorize, a man is hitting a woman hard on her jaw, knocking her to the floor. A woman is taking up a knife to stab her partner, out on the street while a crowd gathers. A man and his gay partner are quarreling and coming to blows, and furniture is broken. A small child huddles terrified in a corner of the room watching her mother trying to fight off her husband, who has grabbed her by the hair and is pulling her clothes off to rape her. GBV is happening now, as we speak and applaud and ask questions. Where is the equality?

At this very moment, it is happening. What are we doing about it?

Where does she go? Where does he turn to? Who will help?

I am not convinced that enough is being done, while lives lie in ruins.

I did not mention the touching comments by Respect Jamaica Ambassador Raheem Lawrence. "Men need space to express themselves," he urged, "In an atmosphere where we can discuss our problems." When he was growing up, other youth threw stones at him and called him names, because he was "different." (My photo)

I did not mention the touching comments by Respect Jamaica Ambassador Raheem Lawrence. “Men need space to express themselves,” he urged, “In an atmosphere where we can discuss our problems.” When he was growing up, other youth threw stones at him and called him names, because he was “different.” (My photo)

 

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One Response to “#KickOutGBV: More Than Just a Hashtag”

  1. […] To reporter/producer for the excellent “Live at Seven” program Yolande Gyles Levy (and of course, its ever-cynical and caustic presenter Simon Crosskill). Their program this evening focused on gender-based violence (and the fact that there is still only one shelter that can house just about eight women in the entire island!) A recorded interview with me was interspersed with shocking video footage of men beating abusing women (in public). If you missed it, the program is posted on the CVM TV website here: http://www.cvmtv.com/videos.php?type=live7#clip=1391242. Last week, I wrote in my regular Gleaner blog on the topic: http://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=2997 […]