November 25 is the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As such, it is always recognized by the Jamaican Government with a major event, hosted by the Bureau of Women’s Affairs. For many reasons, this is a topic very close to my heart; and it is an area of such burning importance for Jamaica that one cannot ignore it for one minute. We need to keep discussing the issues and seeking solutions throughout the year, not just on the appointed day. That should go without saying.
So I made my way on a lovely afternoon to the event at the Terra Nova Hotel in Kingston. The large tent in which it took place backed onto the busy Waterloo Road, and so everyone spoke with the continuous noise of rush-hour traffic in the background. Nevertheless, the tent was full of women (and two or three men, only) and we were warmly received and duly pinned with purple ribbons. The audience seemed to consist of government officials, representatives of non-governmental and community-based organizations, and a small group of high school students. I sat down next to representatives of the Victim Support Unit, a very important but little-recognized section of the Ministry of National Security; it does great work in counseling and supporting those affected by all kinds of crime. The seats were very narrow; on the other side sat a lady in Afrocentric dress, who did not respond to my greeting. I guess some sistren are more equal than others…
Back to this important day. In 1991, at a special event spearheaded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the United States, it was decided that “Sixteen Days of Activism” should follow. The sixteen days – from November 26 to December 10 – encompass World AIDS Day and Human Rights Day. (Those sixteen days are nearly over; I attended another event related to this same topic during this period, which I will get to in Part 2). As the Bureau of Women’s Affairs’ Executive Director Faith Webster noted, the aim is to emphasize that violence against women is “a fundamental violation of women’s rights.” And it is a crime. Not a cultural norm to be accepted, tolerated or excused; it is a crime.
This year, the Bureau decided on the theme: “The Impact of Public Images on Violence Against Women.” Before we reached this topic, Ms. Geeta Sethi, Director of the United Nations Population Fund‘s Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean, pointed out an uncomfortable fact: Jamaica is one of three Caribbean countries with rates of domestic violence higher than the world average. The other two are the Bahamas and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. She noted something which is entirely obvious to us all in Jamaica: that violence in general has somehow become acceptable, woven into the fabric of our society and causing it to fray very badly. We must listen to our girls, said Ms. Sethi. Often their tormentors are under their own roof, or close by in their community. No. This is not acceptable.
Ms. Hermione McKenzie, who is President of the Association of Women’s Organizations of Jamaica (AWOJA) and a dedicated advocate for women, said with a note of urgency in her voice that we “must break the silence” and speak out as individuals. “What is the use of a chorus of angry, impotent voices?” she asked. We must take every opportunity to “make noise.” And indeed, she personally made a lot of noise when she was recently attacked by a gunman in her own back yard. Fortunately, she had fierce dogs. And her loud screams and shouts were so intense that the man was frightened off by it all. Her neighbors turned on their security lights; but no one came to help. A cautionary tale. Make noise, lots of it. Behave like a mad person, and the predator might run away. Don’t expect any help.
The smart and witty Dr. Blossom O’Meally-Nelson, who chaired the forum, added her note that it had been a “very bad year” for Jamaica in this area. There were several horrific and high-profile cases of rape and murder in 2012. Women are now targeted so frequently by criminals that Dr. O’Meally-Nelson says, for the first time, she has felt concerned for her own safety over the past year. It is all so “mindless,” she observed, adding: “You can’t plant bitter cassava and expect to reap sweet cassava.” Indeed.
We all nodded, taking note.
Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.
Ms. Hyacinth Hayden, a representative of the Trelawny Parish Advisory Committee on Women’s Affairs, has been a dedicated worker in her rural community for the past 27 years. “We will not relent,” she said, to a rustle of approval. She showed no sign of relenting, at all. As Mr. Annan also said in his remarks, “It is up to all of us — in our homes, our communities, our nations, our global community — to create a world that is safe for women and girls, in which all women have full enjoyment of all human rights.”
So far, so good – as far as it went. The panel discussion began, and this was where I had, I confess, some moments of doubt. But let us proceed on the question of whether the media (art, music, reporting etc) exacerbates and encourages violence against women in the society. There was a comment on the infamous wood carving at the end of Fern Gully, a tourist attraction in Ocho Rios. There is more than one, now, and at least one of them has the tip of his huge, erect penis painted red, in case you should miss it. How do I personally feel about it? I find it offensive. It is crude. Moreover, it is a horrible stereotype of the black Jamaican man, ganja pipe in mouth, always ready to have sex.
Well, once the audience had all tut-tutted over that, on to the panel. We started with Dr. J. Walcott, a consultant psychiatrist at the University of the West Indies Hospital, on “The Psychological Impact of Public Images.” He pointed out that violence against women has always been around, even before the days of mass media; so is the media really to blame? Isn’t it more a question of our socialization? In an era dominated by a heavily patriarchal society, the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that “hysteria” was a product of a woman’s sexual abuse as a child, or sexual repression. Freud believed that, as the weaker sex, women did not have much to offer. No concern there for women’s rights, really. Nowadays, the term “psycho-trauma” is in vogue, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, which we are familiar with. This is a common reaction to the trauma of violence, rape and sexual abuse.
Communications specialist, media veteran, women’s activist and businesswoman Dr. Marcia Forbes pointed to some aspects of her research, outlined in her book “Music Media and Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica.” She emphasized the power of the Internet and its impact on our youth. Parents, she suggested, are not “getting it.” They do not recognize or understand the awesome influence of social media, and all the new media technologies that are constantly evolving. They are not engaged. Their children live in their own little world. The impact of dancehall music and its associated set of cultural manifestations – mostly revolving around sex and violence – cannot be ignored. “I am not bashing dancehall,” said Dr. Forbes – but we cannot pretend it is a sub-culture any more. It is mainstream popular music, whether we like it or not.
Dr. Forbes contends that probably the most powerful and influential media of all is the music video. Yes, you know the kind. Huge bottoms winding in slow motion. Curvaceous girls in skimpy bikinis posing in or beside a pool, while the deejay/singer reclines like some kind of playboy, a girl on each arm. Some kind of simulated sex on satin sheets, possibly. And so on, ad nauseam. Almost three quarters of dancehall videos include sexual images, a diet that our teenagers are fed on. And, as we know, the lyrics as well as the images are unreservedly misogynistic. Sex and violence are often referred to in the same breath – for example, the “daggering” craze of a couple of years back. There are so many videos on YouTube and the social media… if you can stand it, browse a few. You will soon get the picture.
As Dr. Forbes offered examples of the ways in which teens interact in the social media, sharing photographs etc., there were more mutterings and expressions of shock. But do, please, get your hands on a copy of her book “Music Media and Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica.” I have it on Kindle. Details are at the author’s website link below, and they can be purchased at local bookstores as well as on amazon.com. Remarkable research.
After that, the discussion seemed to lose its way. Ms. Pat Ramsay spoke about “Art as an Expression of Sexuality,” describing a day when a “boxful of clitorises” to be set up as an assemblage arrived at the art gallery that she managed. She sent them back. (At this point my first instinct was to laugh, but this would have been most inappropriate as the general air of disapproval was growing stronger by the minute). She did, however, point out that “my age group must take responsibility” for the rampant violence in society. I agree with her that it cannot be “what our ancestors fought for.”
Talking of ancestors, we next had a contribution from Dr. Dalea Bean, an Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies/Mona. She gave us“a historical perspective on sexual violence against women” – and it did seem to be mostly sexual violence that was discussed, overall – prefaced by the question, “The shame of the past, the same for the future?” She proceeded to give a detailed account of the slave master’s sexual domination of slave women, as pieces of property; and the stereotyping of black women as “animalistic,” while the Indian woman was seen as “sensual and loose.” More shudders of disgust and horror as she provided details. But what of the past fifty years, Dr. Bean? Perhaps we could have included in the historical perspective some post-slavery history? Has it been more of the same in the past 174 years, the objectification of women? Where is the slave master of the twenty-first century? Are we still blaming the present climate of violence on the horrors of slavery, which finally ended in Jamaica on August 1, 1838?
The psychiatrist came in with a comment about “barbarians,” noting that “when an advanced culture meets a barbarian one, the barbarians always win” – the barbarians being the slave masters. OK. That got murmurs of strong approval from around the room. But I am not sure I agree with the premise: Do the barbarians really always win? And if that were the case in Jamaica, can we then conclude that the barbarians have been continuously gaining the upper hand since the abolition of slavery?
Who are the barbarians of the twenty-first century? Is the present as bleak for women as the recipients of violence as it was in the past? What of the future? And…solutions, anyone?
At this point, there was a flutter of excitement. Our Prime Minister with responsibility for Women’s Affairs (for many years) Portia Simpson Miller, entered with an entourage. She was resplendent in a red and black Chinese-influenced outfit which sparked much admiration among the ladies gathered. It transpired that she would have been celebrating fifty years of diplomatic relations between China and Jamaica that day – hence the lavish outfit.
Everyone jumped to their feet. I thought this honor was only accorded to the Governor General, but was told that this is the normal show of respect for the “head of State” (pardon me, but I thought the Governor General was still the head of State, for better or for worse). Oh, well.
By far the most powerful comments came from the director of UNAIDS in Jamaica, Dr. Pierre Somse. I have a lot of time for Dr. Somse, who is outspoken and intensely caring. He pointed out that where he served previously in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape was (and still is) used as a weapon in civil conflicts. But as for Jamaica, we have to “step back,” he believes, and look for the root cause of violence against women – and violence in general. Ah! He suggested that there is “nothing to balance” the so-called “power” of music and media. Dr. Somse added that he “has not seen much leadership in the fight against violence against women.” (He was about two feet away from the Prime Minister when he said these words). The balance to this overwhelming power of the media should be education – and specifically, the streamlining of sex education in schools, he suggested.
Why did I come away feeling dissatisfied? Because I felt that I did not get any answers; just a re-hashing of information that I already had – another overview of the symptoms without discussing the cause; and without finding possible remedies. I did not want Sigmund Freud and slavery and the horrors of rock music (this evoked more shudders); those can’t help us in today’s dire situation. The speakers were eloquent, the audience attentive and the Bureau’s team of dedicated staff did a splendid job, as usual. I understand that the Prime Minister spoke about the need for parenting, and the Values and Attitudes Programme (which I thought was defunct). But, there was too much wringing of hands and beating of heads against the wall. What to do? We all seem so helpless.
Do I sound pessimistic?
Yes, I am.
I could not stay any longer, so missed the Prime Minister’s speech, and the presentation of awards to fifty women, men and organizations who have made significant contributions towards the elimination of gender-based violence. My warmest congratulations to all.
Related articles from around the world:
UN Raises Awareness of Violence Against Women (blogs.voanews.com)
http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/2012/sgmessage.shtml (UN Secretary General’s Message)
Violence against women in South Africa transcends class (bikyamasr.com)
The Crucifixion of Kasandra Perkins:Victim Blaming, Black Maternal Homicide and Stupidity ” Cree7′s Blog (innerstandingisness.wordpress.com)
Just The Women: media portrayals of violence against women (sarah-graham.co.uk)
http://allafrica.com/stories/201212060856.html (Congo/Kinshasa: Sexual Violence not just a Weapon of War in DRC: allafrica.com
Women’s groups demand new watchdog to confront sexism in the media (guardian.co.uk)
https://www.facebook.com/16DaysCampaign (The Official 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign: Facebook)
http://16dayscwgl.rutgers.edu (Rutgers University 16 Days Campaign home page)
http://www.marciaforbes.com/ (Marcia Forbes blog)
http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads/32453 (Victim Support Unit fulfilling mandate: Jamaica Information Service)
http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/list/32413 (Laws to protect women and children coming: Prime Minister: Jamaica Information Service)
http://unaidscaribbean.org/node/300 (Homophobic violence fuels HIV- UNAIDS Caribbean)
http://theelders.org (The Elders: Independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights)