On International Women’s Day 2024, Jamaica's focus is on protecting women and girls

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International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated annually each March 8, changes its themes, focus and hashtags from year to year. For 2024, it's #InspireInclusion, but in Jamaica, as is the case in many majority-world countries, even more basic rights than gender equality need to be acknowledged.

Jamaica-based blogger and Global Voices contributor Emma Lewis summed up the situation by quoting Hillary Clinton, who, in a 1995 speech in Beijing, equated women’s rights with human rights. In Jamaica, as in other Caribbean territories where gender-based violence and femicide are pressing concerns, that notion takes on a more urgent tone.

Most recently, Lewis has been “distressed by the murders of two sixteen-year-old girls, one in rural Jamaica and one in inner city Kingston, within one week of each other.” Tara Alecia Dennis was murdered on her grandmother’s verandah, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend, and Bianca Thompson was shot several times in the head as she slept in her home in Kingston.

Many other Jamaican women have died violently at the hands of men, often their partners — and while Lewis concedes that Jamaican men can be victims of violence themselves, she makes it clear that they are “often perpetrators, too, especially when it comes to gang activities; but also when it comes to domestic violence.”

The message that the human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) Stand up for Jamaica (SUFJ) wanted to send on the occasion of International Women's Day was also clear: “Salute the women who are fighting abuses, discrimination and injustices.”

The group felt it was important to not only celebrate “the women who are making great strides and pushing the agenda of women’s rights and inclusivity but also [those] who are fighting to survive abuses, discrimination and injustices […] let us also highlight that we still have so much to achieve in terms of rights and dignity.”

The “high number of cases of women being killed, beaten, raped, and violated even as they struggle to gain the same recognition and pay as men,” as well as the high occurrence of intimate partner violence, highlights the fact that Jamaica still has “much work to do,” the SUFJ statement said. It also identified “the toxic poison of male supremacy and the culture of male dominance” as contributing factors to women sometimes viewing these dysfunctional dynamics as normal.

Education — of both men and women — goes a long way to combating these norms, but SUFJ emphasised that Jamaican women also need more tangible types of support, including “shelters to go to when their family homes become a living hell, and [the reassurance] that no one will use their difficulties to take custody of their children. They also need to know and trust a system where while violence is punished, instruments are offered to build their independence and self-awareness.”

There have been strides in this regard. On December 19, 2023, the country's Domestic Violence Act was amended to be more robust and offer victims greater levels of protection. The new measures include increased penalties for breaches of Protection Orders from a maximum of JMD 10,000 (about USD 64) to a maximum of JMD 1 million (approximately USD 6,440) and up to a year in jail.

These steps matter in a country where the last women’s health survey found that four in 10 women experience some form of intimate partner violence.

Also on the agenda are plans to increase the number of women's shelters islandwide, establish domestic violence intervention centres at police stations (inclusive of special police officer training), and provide legal support and emergency response services.

A gender-based violence hotline was launched in November 2023, and additional helpline specialists are to be added this year. Since its introduction, the hotline has fielded more than 7,400 calls, with 5,227 of the reports being made by women.

At the time of the amendments to the Domestic Violence Act, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, who pioneered the changes, registered her concern over the fact that the Women’s Health Survey reported that 63 percent of Jamaican women dealing with physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners did not seek help. Reasons for this under-reporting included stigma, lack of support, and ultimately, fear.

“They have not felt that they can speak out, that they can report,” Johnson Smith explained, “but worse, they have feared reporting to authority. This is why the public education campaign and the establishment of the help line are so very important.”

Stand up for Jamaica lauded the amendments to the Domestic Violence Act and said it hoped “the new penalties will serve as a deterrent and help to reduce domestic abuse,” adding, “And we truly share the sentiment that a new day has come for protecting victims and increasing the punishment for perpetrators of domestic abuse. […] Let us celebrate International Women’s Day with a purpose, by doing all that is required to protect our women, and provide them with equal opportunities and pay.”

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