Good afternoon everyone.
I would first like to thank the British High Commission for giving me this opportunity to offer my two pence on a subject matter that touches and is of deep concern to me.
Normalisation of Violence in Intimate Relationships
I grew up in Geddes Town, a deep rural district in the hills of St Mary. As a young girl there were three things of which I could be certain: (1) the bread van came on Saturdays (2) I had to be in church on Sundays and (3) at some point in the week, the lady from next door would be hollering and screaming as her partner slapped, kicked and punched her. And it wasn’t just that one neighbour. There was always some neighbour or another involved in verbal or physical fights with their partner.
The police were called in at times. They would take statements but nothing would come of the matter. It was after all ‘man n ooman story’ and the society, including the police, seemed to have developed this unwritten rule about interfering in intimate partner conflicts – even in cases of violence and abuse. Violence in intimate partner relationships was considered normal. It was, according to one judge, ‘a part of the normal wear and tear’ of being a couple.
But there is nothing normal about violence in intimate relationships. And it certainly isn’t normal for a man to kill his partner and then turn the gun on himself. But thank God, as a society, we have begun to see the light!
Identifying Gender-Based Violence
Gender based violence is not only domestic violence as described above. When being a woman means that you will be sexually harassed while walking in Half- Way Tree or at your workplace… that is gender based violence. When LGBT women are raped in order to ‘fix them’ or make them straight…that is gender-based violence. When 1 in 3 Jamaican woman considers her first sexual experience with a man as being ‘forced’ …that is gender based violence. When gay men are beaten and killed because of their sexuality…that is gender-based violence.
Gender based violence not only scars survivors emotionally and/or physically but it also increases their risk of being infected with HIV and AIDS. While studying at the University of Oxford, which was made possible with a Chevening Scholarship, I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to work with the National AIDS Control Council on mainstreaming HIV and AIDS programmes into the public sector. That experience opened my eyes to how gender based violence or its threat increases women and young girls’ vulnerability to being infected with HIV.
It is extremely difficult for women in abusive relationships to either refuse sex with an abusive partner or negotiate the use of a condom. Further, young girls who are preyed upon by older men are made especially vulnerable by (1) the power imbalance created by the difference in age as well as the fact that these sexual encounters are entered into either by force or economic necessity. The statistics speak to these vulnerabilities. In Jamaica for example, young women between the ages of 10 and 29 are four times more likely to be infected with HIV than men in the same age group.
State Responsibility to Protect Women
Survivors do not usually report instances of gender-based violence; and when they do report, a large percentage fail to take the matter further than lodging the complaint. While some survivors do not report because of feelings of shame, the vast majority remain silent because they feel, and have seen, where either the police do not take the complaints seriously or the legal procedures make it difficult for survivors to obtain justice. However, silence emboldens the perpetrators and gives a licence to others to carry out acts of violence.
The state must therefore take responsibility for providing an environment in which survivors can feel safe to report gender-based violence. The Jamaican government must be commended for taking steps to improve the criminal justice system’s response to survivors of gender-based violence. The Domestic Violence legislation makes provision for survivors to get protection orders against abusers. Persons who were sexually assaulted no longer have to give evidence in court but can do so via video. Further, survivors of sexual assault are no longer required to have their evidence corroborated by an independent eyewitness. The creation of CISOCA, the unit within the Jamaica Constabulary Force, with the special responsibility for dealing with survivors of sexual assault, is testament to the government’s willingness to take gender-based violence seriously.
But much more needs to be done in providing training and support to members of the security forces to properly deal with survivors of gender based violence. In this regard, this project funded by the US and UK governments and to be implemented by Woman Inc. and the JCF, is both timely and necessary.
While offering support to survivors of gender-based violence is extremely important, to tackle it effectively we must focus on redefining masculinity. The vast majority of perpetrators of gender-based violence are men. This says to me that this type of violence is linked to the way in which masculinity is defined and performed.
I will give 3 examples. First, to be a man you must have your woman ‘under control’. When a woman threatens that control she must be put in her place – with violence if necessary. Second, your manhood is defined in terms of your ability to sexually conquer women and as such gay men are not seen as men. Gay men are a threat to your masculinity and people usually react violently when their sense of self is threatened. And third, masculinity often comes with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and male sexual urges are seen as natural and not to be contained. Looked at in this way, it is no wonder sexual harassment and sexual assault of women and girls are so rampant.
As we move forward with efforts aimed at eradicating gender based violence, providing a supportive environment in which survivors can make reports remains critical. But putting in place measures that teach men not to abuse or sexually assault women is also important. I believe that redefining masculinity to include respect for women’s autonomy is a good place to start this effort. Thank you!