Are societal attitudes and laws against rape in the Caribbean doing women a disservice? Trinidad and Tobago's attorney general set himself up for criticism last week in a speech to Parliament, where he warned women to be especially responsible during the Christmas and Carnival seasons because the use of date-rape drugs rises.
Presumably he intended to encourage women to be vigilant, but the public announcement meant that sexual predators were reminded about the availability of such drugs. Putting the onus of responsibility on the potential victims, rather than the perpetrators, also struck a sour note with many citizens.
Meanwhile, in Barbados, the Men’s Education Support Association (MESA) actively lobbied for legislation in which fines would be imposed on women for making false accusations of sexual assault. According to the head of the organisation, schoolgirls regularly “tear off their clothes” and blame men for what—apparently inevitably—happens next.
The blog “Code Red,” which regularly examines regional feminist issues, was not impressed with this reasoning, saying of the situation in Trinidad and Tobago:
Girls are either raping themselves, lying about rape, dressing immorally or failing to parang [folk music originating in Trinidad and Tobago that is popular around Christmas time] responsibly.
The [attorney general] 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.
The blog also challenged MESA's reasoning:
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. […]
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.
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.
Unfortunately, the misogyny cited above is pervasive throughout the Caribbean. Just last month, a Jamaican parliamentarian was criticised on social media for a flippant quip about rape during a debate about a proposed flexi-work bill. When a female senator made the point that women leaving work after dark could be at higher risk for sexual assault, Minister AJ Nicholson saw it fit to make a joke.
The laws are also skewed against women when it comes to sexual assault. Some groups are trying to do what they can to push back. Earlier in the year, this Guyana-based human rights NGO promoted an online petition to get the marital rape laws changed:
#Petition: #Caribbean Community- #CARICOM- Leaders, Change marital #rape laws and build more shelters for survivors: http://t.co/XP2JAWNl3L
— SASOD Guyana (@SASODGuyana) February 12, 2014
A few months later, another Twitter user drew attention to the rape of children in state institutions and the response of one politician who said that “girls are no angels”—a typical “blame the victim” reaction:
#rape of children in state care in #Caribbean. #jamaica #Guyana politician says girls are no angels! #vaw #catchafyah http://t.co/PthRD3KPLi
— tonya@CODE_RED (@redforgender) April 24, 2014
Code Red blog cites research in the United Kingdom that indicates as many as two-thirds of rape allegations are dismissed without going to trail, thanks to a host of common “criteria,” such as claims of disability, mental illness, being in a relationship with the attacker, consuming drugs or alcohol before the attack, and so on. The head researcher in the UK, Betsy Stanko, concluded 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.”
Trends in the Caribbean are no better. Code Red says the region's “rates of investigation, trial and conviction in cases of rape and sexual assault are extremely low.” In Guyana, where there are on average 140 reported cases of rape, “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 Offenses Act in 2012.” That works out to an average conviction rate of 1.4 percent:
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.
Popular perceptions could be changing, however. Judging from this letter to the editor, some Guyanese women are no longer prepared to accept the status quo:
We are tired of paper rights. We are tired of being abused, violated and not being able to get justice. […] 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.
Guyanese activists are demanding urgent action to address the threats to women, including the dismissal of the attorney general and chief justice, for their alleged poor judgement in matters relating to sexual offenses. Activists are also calling for the establishment of properly funded institutions within the justice system “armed with progressive human rights based policies to support and secure justice for victims of sexual violence.”