How one Jamaican woman’s trauma inspired a ‘Circle of Care’ for survivors of sexual abuse

Alicia Bowen-McCulskie, founder and executive director of Circle of Care Jamaica. Photo by Bokeh Clicks Fotos, used with permission.

“Don’t tell your mother because she will beat you.” Not only did those words stay with Alicia Bowen-McCulskie, the founder and executive director of Circle of Care Jamaica, from the age of five; they also impacted how she has lived her life. The threat had come from her first abuser who, by instilling fear in his victim, secured a lifetime of secrecy and ultimately, his own protection.

The weight of the secret, however, scarred Bowen-McCulskie until 2022, when she regained control of her life by openly sharing her story at the age of 42:

I started out as a victim of abuse but I am now a survivor. It was someone close to my family. I was young and I didn’t know what was happening. I knew it wasn’t right, but he used his words to silence me as a child. It continued for a while and even after we moved to another location [when] I was about eight or nine, I was [sexually] abused by a family member. By that time, I knew that what was happening to me was wrong. However, it continued, and between eight and 13, I was periodically abused by two different in-laws — family members [who] were supposed to protect me.

Like many minors who are sexually abused, Bowen-McCulskie thought that the situation was her fault and therefore, said nothing.

At about the age of 16, I went to an event, stayed over [at someone’s house] and again, I was assaulted. I didn’t say anything and it continued. When I was around 23 and in college, I was held up and raped. At that point in my life, I said, ‘This is it!’ because I did not like myself and I did not like my life. I had suicide ideations and made several attempts to end my life.

When those attempts failed, she tried to cope by telling herself that the trauma she endured was not real; that it did not happen. “I had to put something in place to make sense of it all,” she explained, “because my suicide attempts failed and it felt like God did not like me.”

Throughout her life, Bowen-McCulskie told Global Voices, five men sexually assaulted her; four of them were men she knew.

A Circle of Care

As fate would have it, though, Bowen-McCulskie’s professional path eventually led her towards working with survivors of abuse and gender-based violence (GBV). She credits divine intervention for helping her find her purpose:

One day, I think I read the 2016 Women’s Health Survey for Jamaica and it said that one in every four women at that time had been a victim of intimate partner violence or domestic abuse. I said to myself, ‘My story is not in that report because I never reported my cases.’ I began to think about the services and types of support I would have wanted as a victim.

That's when she decided to finally tell her story:

My mother found out about my abuse in 2022. After the first instance of openly speaking about it, I was encouraged to use my [experience] to help others and that is how Circle of Care Jamaica came to be. I was abused at all stages of my life and there are so many persons with similar, less, or even worse cases — but I had the personal experience, professional expertise, knowledge and support. So I crafted an organisation that aims to help.

The stigma of ‘dirty linen’

In Jamaica, it is still culturally taboo to speak about abuse, since addressing it might bring shame on one’s family. “Let it stay inside” and “don’t wash your dirty linen in public” are common responses when victims try to voice their trauma. Such colloquialisms run deep and allow abuse to continue because they promote silence. As Bowen-McCulskie says, “Perpetrators feed on silence”.

In keeping with Circle of Care's mission of offering “holistic care and support services to individuals impacted by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse,” Bowen-McCulskie “envisioned safe spaces and opportunities for women and girls to access psychosocial support, resources and the care needed to aid in their healing process.” Too often, she explains, victims are “crippled by shame, fear, and the psychological trauma experienced from abuse, hindering them from accessing the necessary support required to provide healing and restoration.”

Men can be victims too

Though the primary focus of her NGO is on women and girls, Bowen-McCulskie stressed that men and boys are sometimes the victim and not the perpetrator:

The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) continues to report that more men are coming forward as victims of abuse. There is still this stereotype [of men as weak or “soft”] that is attached, but through the domestic violence intervention centres, they are coming out more.

Circle of Care is currently working on a partnership with the JCF where victims of any gender can be referred to us for support. “When we started,” Bowen-McCulskie said, “we primarily focused on girls and women, but we do not want to turn away men who have been abused themselves.” As such, a programme is pending where the partners of women who have been assaulted can also seek support as they, oftentimes, experience secondary trauma.

Local and regional statistics

Capturing real-time data on rape and other gender-based violent crimes can prove difficult due to underreporting and delays in accessing reports. According to a 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, violence against women touches the lives of a significant percentage of women and girls in the Caribbean.

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. The report further pointed to a survey which revealed that in as many as nine Caribbean countries, 48 percent of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was “forced” or “somewhat forced.”

Recent statistics, however, would be different. As reported by the Jamaica Observer in 2021, data provided by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) and the JCF states that a total of 6,573 crimes of rape were reported in the country between 2011 and 2020. Of that number, only 3,254 have been solved. In 2022, the JCF recorded 241 reported rape cases and in 2023, the count exceeded 171 reported cases.

In 2020, the Trinidad Express reported that between 2000 and 2019, there were 6,047 rapes reported in Trinidad and Tobago. More than 73 percent of victims were between the ages of 7 and 24.

In 2022, The Tribune, reporting on the Bahamian police commissioner’s nationwide crime statistics, revealed that back in 2020, “reports of sexual offences increased by 34 percent with 213 cases, compared to 159 in 2019. These offences include rape, unlawful sexual intercourse and attempted rape. Since then, there have been increasingly more incidents of rape and sexual assault cases.”

Bowen-McCulskie knows all too well that her story is one in a sea of many, and she has made it her duty to protect victims of sexual abuse and amplify the voices of survivors in order to help others suffering in silence.

You can connect with Circle of Care Jamaica via their website, or on Instagram.

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