Sexual Violence in the Caribbean: Trampling the Normalized Phenomenon

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BY KABRENA ROBINSON

The Caribbean for many is a majestic haven with a euphoric atmosphere echoed in its vibrant and distinctive culture but among the bliss lies troubling social ills. Some becoming normalized and tabooed issues deeply embedded in Caribbean society. One such plaguing dilemma is gender-based sexual violence.

The Caribbean has among the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. A United Nations (UN) statistic indicates that each Caribbean island has a sexual violence rate that is higher than the world’s average. In most cases of reported sexual violence, women are the main victims.

Caribbean society is predominately organized around a rigid patriarchal structure. Elements of misogyny and female degradation have often been highlighted in certain aspects of Caribbean culture, from derogatory dancehall and soca lyrics to the presence of a male dominated hierarchical structure in most social institutions. Gender equality in the Caribbean remains to be a work in progress as the problem is embedded deep in its unpleasant history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization.

Dr. Verene Shepherd explains it best in a brilliantly written research paper titled Gender-Based Violence in the Caribbean: Historical Roots. She states, ”Under African enslavement, women’s bodies became the site of power contestation. Any honor or esteem attached to being an enslaver arose only from the power that he or she could exercise over the bodies of his/her chattel enslaved, this was sanctioned by law.”

It is not difficult to see how much the manipulation and abuse of power through sexual violence progressed into postcolonial society, where female bodies continue to be objects for predators; where there are ineffective laws for protection and justice for victims of sexual violence; and where the society at large has come to normalize and conform to a culture of silence on the issue.

Victims and even witnesses are often reluctant to speak out, a problem synonymous to most social ills in the Caribbean. There is an overbearing and damaging lesson passed down in the community from generation to generation that reinforces silence and restricts mobilization against gender-based violence.

A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report indicates that 30.4%of women in the Caribbean reports high rates of fear of sexual assault. The report goes on to highlight that three of the top ten recorded rape rates in the world occur in the Caribbean. “While the worldwide average for rape was 15 per 100,000, The Bahamas had an average of 133, St. Vincent and the Grenadines 112, Jamaica 51, Dominica 34, Barbados 25 and Trinidad and Tobago 18”. These numbers are concerning when bearing in mind that it does not paint the true picture as there are a large number of unreported cases not accounted for.

This is where relentless community advocacy comes in. Advocacy groups in the Caribbean have been taking a stand on sexual violence. Early this year, women from the Caribbean, some survivors of sexual violence held marches across six Caribbean countries (Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Bahamas and Guyana). The movement ignited by the social media hashtag #LifeInLeggings was brought to life in Barbados by two Barbadian women Allyson Benn and Ronelle King. The “Life in Leggings” movement hopes to combat sexual assault rape culture in the Caribbean by spreading the message that a woman’s attire is not an excuse for harassment or assault.

In Jamaica, another advocacy group with a more militant approach to the cause is the Tambourine Army. The group identifies as “a radical social justice movement committed to uprooting the scourge of sexual violence & safeguarding the rights of women & girls”.

These groups have been working relentlessly to change the gruesome reality of violence against women in the Caribbean, a highly commendable step towards much-needed progress. However, there are still improvements that need to be made to the social structure of the region.

There should be more emphasis on sex education in schools to educate children on sexual violence. In many Caribbean countries, Christian fundamentalism and conservative beliefs place a restriction on the effectiveness of this. Victims of sexual violence should also feel secure to speak out knowing that they will be supported. Lastly, there should be more movements toward female economic independence and empowerment. In some cases, financial dependency can deter victims from seeking help when their abuser is head of the household. More attention should also be geared towards shifting the sociological context of gender equality

While activists and social movements for this cause are on the rise, the change really starts with us as individuals, families and a community. It is time to abandon the attitude that situates gender-based violence as a norm. It is time to break the damaging silence.

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