The Caribbean Is Stuck in a ‘Blame the Victim’ Mindset

A sign from the Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) project at the Live and Learn Offices. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

A sign from the Men Against Violence Against Women (MAVAW) project at the Live and Learn Offices. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Sexuality in the Caribbean has been fraught for some time, with several recurring themes: rape and gender violence, public sexual harassment, a sexist culture that at once objectifies and demands modesty from women, and a startling lack of gender equality.

Add homophobia, gay rights issues and sexual abuse of minors to the mix and you have an idea of how mired in controversy sex can be.

A couple of recent developments have revealed that one of the most disturbing aspects of sex and gender in the region — the “blame the victim” mindset — is alive and well. In a blog post that is being widely shared, Jamaica-based Annie Paul discusses the problem of sexual harassment at the university where she works. She accuses the top brass of burying their heads in the sand and not tackling the problem, noting the responses of two spokespeople — women no less — who refute the claims that gender-based violence is widespread on campus.

Paul explains:

The denials come in response to a study […] quoting Taitu Heron, currently National Programme Coordinator at UN Women Jamaica, who chronicled some of the reported cases of violence against women on the campus in her 2013 study Whose Business Is It? Violence Against Women at UWI, Mona. The study, conducted while Heron was a lecturer at UWI’s Institute of Gender and Development Studies, used data compiled from incident reports made to the Office of Security Services on campus. Records showed 67 reported incidents including stalking, physical assaults and domestic disputes.

Astonishingly this was categorically denied by the UWI registrar who stated in the media ‘…while the university cannot say sexual violence does not take place on campus, the university has never had a report of sexual harassment on any of its six halls of residence.’

Such a categorical statement is at odds with Paul's personal experience:

I still remember a women’s group on campus in the early 90s putting up posters inviting concerned individuals to a forum to discuss the many violent incidents female students were facing on campus with a view to forming some sort of strategy that would provide women with better support than was then available.

Before the meeting could be held an edict was issued by the administration. There was to be no such forum and all posters advertising it were to be taken down forthwith. Organizers were reprimanded for jeopardizing the ‘good reputation’ of the university by holding such a discussion in public and ordered never to do it again.

In 2007, according to Paul, “the attacks grew so flagrant that another women’s advocacy group took the matter of female security on university campuses to parliament”, adding that Heron, the researcher, concluded that “the primary concern was not that the incidents of violence against women occurred but rather that speaking about it in an open forum made the University look bad.” Paul cites several instances of such censorship in her post, saying:

What is consistent in all of this is the University’s tactic of demanding and imposing silence on victims and potential victims of sexual harrassment on campus while at the same time doing very little to secure the safety of its female students. […]

Also striking is the emphasis placed by senior UWI management on the lack of reportage of sexual harrassment incidents as some sort of vindication of its reputation rather than recognizing it as an extraordinary situation that requires immediate investigation.

‘We pelt stones at the victims’

Attitudes in Grenada towards recently leaked nude photos of teenage girls are not much different. Groundation Grenada maintains that the sharing of the images on social media further compromised the minors:

Together with the images came the expected commentary and Facebook statuses, much of which made the girls out to be the villains and blamed them for the leaks (as opposed to the the [sic] people who violated their privacy). […]

The comments revealed a cultural disrespect for data privacy and deep-rooted hypocritical values around sexuality and in particularly teenage sexuality. They also revealed some assumptions that we have internalised without thinking too hard about them: that teenagers are not supposed to be sexual beings and they are bad if they are, and, that wise people don’t keep or share sexual images of themselves. The debacle in general revealed very obvious holes in children and teens education, holes concerning comprehensive sexuality education, holes that many children and teens fall through to hurt themselves.

The post refers to interesting statistics that call into question pervasive religious attitudes and the dire need for responsible sex education in the country, saying, “In revealing themselves the girls revealed much more than themselves. They revealed an educational policy gap that we must address”:

Recent statistics from the WHO and the OECS Behavioral Surveillance Surveys (BSS) show that in Grenada about a quarter of young persons between 13-15 are having sex, many of them with multiple partners, many of them without protection. The BSS survey shows that those who attend church are having a lot more sex than those who don’t. Also, 1 in every 8 live births in Grenada is to a young woman, aged 15-19.

Groundation also makes the point that the teens’ online privacy has been compromised, which adds insult to injury:

We pelt stones at the victims while the real wrongdoers skin teeth on the side. I would be very happy to see charges and convictions under the Electronic Crimes Act coming out of this. Maybe then people would begin appreciating the value of respecting people’s privacy.

I get the sense that for a lot of people sharing the images with commentary is about shaming the girls. A shaming that is meant to punish girls particularly for crossing lines that we have told ourselves girls must not cross.

In a region where religious leaders still make sweeping statements about women for allegedly doing nothing more than wearing a bikini — on a beach — in a effort to shame or embarrass them, intelligent debate about sex in the Caribbean still has a long way to go.

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