Women Rise Up Against Gender Violence In The Caribbean

On March 11, survivors of violence against women and their allies and supporters held marches in six Caribbean countries. Started by two Barbadian women, Ronelle King and Allyson Benn, the movement had the hashtag #LifeInLeggings.

In Jamaica, one of the groups marching was the Tambourine Army, a movement of activists dedicated to eradicating sexual violence against women and girls. Some of the Tambourine Army are survivors themselves of sexual violence.

A few days later on March 14, feminist activist and trans advocate from the Tambourine Army, Latoya Nugent was arrested by the Counter-Terrorism and Organized Crime Division of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and charged with “use of a computer for malicious communication” under the Cybercrimes Act. On March 15, the Tambourine Army released a statement about Latoya’s medical status concerned about the denial to her of medical attention.

I spoke by phone about this with Joan Joy Grant Cummings in Jamaica, a volunteer at the Caribbean Development Activist Women’s Network (DAWN) and a former President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) Canada.

Justin Podur (JP): Let’s begin with the arrest first. The use of a Cybercrimes act against a feminist organizing marches against violence is unusual. If Latoya Nugent was accused of Defamation, Jamaica’s 2013 Defamation Act provides for damages to be paid under civil law – but not for criminal penalties. Any idea why the state is going to such incredible lengths against Latoya and this movement?

Tambourine Army, #LifeInLeggings

Joan Joy Grant Cummings (JJGC): It does not look like Latoya or the Tambourine Army (TA) did anything criminal to do with misuse of the internet in terms of their advocacy. Our charter of rights and freedoms were changed some time ago in terms of libel and slander laws through the Defamation Act in 2013. At the time, many journalists were very concerned because it seemed as if their rights were being curtailed. Now we see that they were. The part of the Cybercrimes Act that the state used against Latoya was not supposed to be used to curtail freedom of speech. It was slated to deal with people who were using video recordings of ex-lovers, “revenge porn” type activity.

JP: So Latoya was publicizing people and calling them out as sexual predators?

JJGC: Yes, as part of the leadership of the Tambourine Army, this is a role she played. This is where there’s disagreement even amongst activists whether this should be done, in terms of naming names. For those who think that names should be named, it has to do with the fact that the justice system is not very helpful to victims of sexual and other violent crimes. It’s actually quite intimidating. If you manage to make a complaint, only 5 per cent of cases make their way through the justice system.

It is also worth noting that it’s not clear whether or not Latoya was the first person to call out the name of this particular perpetrator. A complaint may have already been made or the ‘victim’ may have told others about him. The information, technically, may have already been in the public domain.

In the end, libel or slander is dealt with as a civil matter. So why was there such a show of force? And against both leaders of the Tambourine Army. Latoya was arrested under the Cybercrimes Act. Nadine Spence, the other leader, had eight police come to her workplace at the University of the West Indies, approaching her under the Detention Act, something that is usually used under a state of emergency when there’s a suspension of people’s rights. That is a show of force, very distressing for all of us.

JP: So, how did this happen? Did she call out some powerful man?

JJGC: She called out a man who was a Moravian minister, someone who had fingered other Moravian ministers as perpetrators of sexual violence. A young woman came forward to say that, you have done this, too. This man, and his lawyer, have been pressuring her (Latoya) about this.

What he should have done was take it to a civil court – he should not have involved the police. Why is the police involved? The timing is also suspicious. On February 28 the police got the judge to sign the order, but they then waited until after the march was over to make the arrest. We’d love to know their thinking in those three weeks.

Many people have lost the point about why the police did what they did. They are claiming that she taunted the police. We have tried to argue that these are peace officers, they’re trained to be able to deal with taunting. If we ever think it’s OK for police to brutalize us because you taunted them we’re in real trouble. So that’s one piece of education that has to happen, about what is the role of the police. This is the big discussion going on in cafes, on verandas and bars and on the street, people are saying she shouldn’t have named and shamed. But in reply a lot of young women have said, many of us have been raped and there’s no outlet through the justice system, no one saying: we believe you and let this man prove that he didn’t do it. That’s how it gets to this point.

JP: The idea that “she brought it on herself” itself parallels gender violence. How big of a topic is this in Jamaica right now?

JJGC: It’s huge – everybody knows someone who has been molested, by these same groups – clergy, teachers, policemen, businessmen. And it reverberates. Young women are having a difficult time in the job market and their unemployment rate is higher, twice as high as young men. You wonder why we see young women leaving the job market after they’ve been in a job less than a year. Women are more highly educated, more likely to have a certification or credential. But there is 20-24% unemployment amongst women aged 25-34, college graduates. For young men in that cohort it’s 8.9%. And 60 per cent of those women have one or two university degrees. Among the age 20-24 cohort there is 37 per cent unemployment. When the researchers examine the figures as to why so many are in the job only for a year, only then will they reveal the level of sexual harassment that these women are facing that drives them out of the workplace.

JP: Given the scale of the problem, the disparity between resources available for survivors of violence and the resources to arrest women organizers is striking.

JJGC: We’ve been pleading for police to lay charges against perpetrators of violence when women have actually made it to the police post to do so. Police will say, it’s a “lover’s quarrel,” a “domestic dispute.” The high level of impunity is a big part of why men continue to commit these crimes. The police commissioner herself said perpetrators are often men in positions of authority: police, teachers, clergy, counsellors, of course fathers, family members, friends.

JP: Tell us more about the movement itself, the problems it is dealing with, and the demands it has brought forward.

JJGC: Tambourine Army wants to talk about sexual violence more clearly than it is being talked about. We have people talking about “sex with a minor” – there’s no “sex with a minor,” you’re talking about rape. Jamaica has one of the earliest, what UNICEF calls “sexual initiation rates,” as early as 8 years old, girls are being raped. It’s a very premeditated act, because usually the abuse will stop just before they turn 16. In cases where the girl has become pregnant before 16, there have been femicides that have occurred. In 2014-15, we saw many cases where girls were being murdered because they had been sexually assaulted, got pregnant, and were then murdered. We had gone through in a three month period in 2014 when 25 young women were murdered. And in many cases they were pregnant.

The Tambourine Army is a new organizing force and a lot of young women are involved. One of the tensions is women who have been in the movement a long time compared to the kinds of strategies these young women have used. There’s a tension in that sense, a few of us who understand that maybe we don’t think these methods are best. But we understand the point that society needs a jolt about what sexual violence is actually doing, and what it’s costing us.

JP: The fact that many of the demands are for a more functioning justice system for women makes it particularly egregious that the justice system is being used against these women activists.

JJGC: Exactly. It shows the disparity of resources. Take for example the victim support system. We have a victim support system, but the number of resources that are applied to it is miniscule. And the cases of sexual violence that have been successfully prosecuted have been when victim support really worked: When the young woman gets the support from when the time she lays the complaint, to go in to make the complaint with her, all the way to the court. But that is not something that happens on the scale that it should.

JP: Is there a role that unions have to play in all this? For example in trying to tackle problems of workplace harassment?

JJGC: We used to have a wonderful trade union movement in terms of social justice understanding. But I think of late I’m not seeing that in terms of what union leaders will talk about. And in fact it’s shocking that one of our most decorated trade unionists who’s a Senator, when we were reviewing the Sexual Offences Act, argued very strongly for maintaining a line in that act that allows marital rape! We were shocked. Our union movement is very male dominated. Helen Davis White is one of the only women union leaders – she’s a leader in the local government officers union and secretary of the umbrella union. But these issues aren’t discussed at the table the way they were in the past. The connection between gender and labour rights used to be made.

JP: The other area that comes to mind is trying to get more women into the police, the judiciary, and the legal system.

JJGC: Absolutely. One of the institutions within the police that has created some space for this work is the CISOCA unit – the Sexual Offences unit. Now we’re able to get data on sexual offences, a section that deals with women, children, disaggregation and naming the crime as it should be. Because until the CISOCA unit, the police would include sexual violence under “domestic disputes.” Now it’s separated in terms of gender. The Tambourine Army is working toward a shared understanding about what violence against women is and the link to the subjugation of women. That political understanding isn’t reflected in how our members of parliament speak about it, society, and the media. The media has to be pushed, really has to be pushed to talk in these terms.

JP: What resolution could be envisioned to this immediate problem?

JJGC: Our leadership has to acknowledge that sexual violence in our country is an epidemic. The UN has said it. They’ve been saying that the Caribbean has been worsening. Even more frightening is we have politicians who have been participating in violence. Second, we have to have an understanding of this, how it affects social development, the economy. Women who have been abused themselves participate in the abuse when it comes to their children. Trafficking in young boys and girls is increasing. What we call “transactional sex” has really increased, right through the Caribbean. We have a lot of cases of young girls who should be in school, it’s almost like a child bride, to an older man, usually a family friend, and it’s sanctioned by a parent. That’s one of the things it has led to. The Tambourine Army, in their twenty-point plan, make a good point – we don’t have comprehensive services. Sex education in school, family life education, has all been hijacked by Christian fundamentalism, and many politicians go along with it because of the political power of Christian fundamentalism today. That’s repeated in the Caribbean. Two days ago Jamaica at the UN didn’t support women’s and girls’ rights to sexual and reproductive health, teaming up with countries in Africa that didn’t support it.

If we’re going to have comprehensive services it has to start with what we’re teaching young people about their bodies and their rights. The national parenting commission agrees that if we’re going to deal with the violence issue it has to start with parenting. And then how do you have a joined up service sector that deals with young women and young men who have been raped, from the time you make the complaint, rape kits in hospitals and doctor’s offices, having access to support from that entry point. Women fought for that in Canada and got it, lost some of it under Stephen Harper and are fighting to build again. I’m writing an article about the budget just presented at the beginning of March – this budget is going to make it worse. It’s a “gender dunce” budget. It has no gender analysis around the impact on men, women, children.

The other part is, how do we make sure that there’s a greater balance in the economic independence of women because that is really a limiting factor in terms of their empowerment and feeling that they can leave these situations.

The interconectedness of the key issues facing the Jamaican society coalesce with the result that whether it is an analysis of the economy – employment, pay equity. Women’s rights in the workplace; women’s participation in power and decision-making, which is dismal, less than 30 per cent is related to the lack of progressive, gender-aware legislation being passed. These rely on a critical mass of women and men who have at least a working understanding of how gender operates in society.

Statistical data confirm this critical lack of gender parity in key areas in our society. As a result, spending priorities reflect this undervaluing of the impact of continued inequality between men and women. Technically, the easiest way for men to demonstrate their power is to show power over women. Rape culture has been a tool since the enslavement period through Emancipation to Colonialism. Our society has refused to name it. So we all don’t see it as a problem – it is seen as ‘norm’!

So imagine when women in such a society decide that they are going to change this! Even some victims will oppose them – there is serious internalization of sexism as there is with racism.

The struggle now from my perspective is to place this issue squarely back on the national agenda from a broader perspective, to remove from the red herring of focusing on individuals whose way of working or strategies we may or may not agree with – certainly we have to deal with our concerns, they are real and credible for the people involved. Simultaneously, the women’s community and other progressive movements know how the state had relied on this ‘divide and conquer’ and ‘lack of unity’ to maintain the status quo.

The Caribbean region has to deal with this issue now or risk further undermining the political, social, cultural, and economic development of all Caribbean communities. Caribbean democracies are being irreparably damaged and destabilized by this scourge which strengthens the power imbalances between males and females in Jamaica and the broader region. •

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer who blogs at podur.org.

First published in Socialistproject.ca


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