This powerful letter is written by Joan Grant Cummings, a member of Caribbean Dawn and the 51% Coalition in Jamaica. Among the most recent cases, we must also remember the murder of Santoya Campbell (another fourteen-year-old pregnant teen) and the deaths of three children in a fire in Admiral Town, Kingston. One of the children, Abigail Reid, had reportedly rejected the sexual advances of her uncle. Joan asks: What has happened in the past twenty years in the Caribbean? I wonder what the answer would be from our leaders.
In one week, on the heels of International Women’s Day (IWD), Jamaica added two known cases of femicides or murders of the “Girl Child”. For Abigail and Kayalicia were not just killed, and are not just victims of our ultimate cruelty to our children. One was pregnant, sexually violated the other sexually molested [“touched”]. Their deaths reflect the persistent violence, gender based violence (GBV), against women and girls, almost always by known men.
When we speak of their deaths, not recognizing the underlying or root causes of gender based violence, we are essentially being complicit in these crimes. We must name ‘it’ to understand ‘it’. VAW/GBV may not always end in death- it happens on our University Campuses; when we use sexist, silencing language to female colleagues whether in the Board-rooms or in the Houses of Parliament to our Prime Minister, or “the maid”; or in our bedrooms where we still have a provision in law that condones “Marital rape”. It is about power and control – not love. “I do it because I can!”
This month, almost 200 governments will agree a Political Declaration, to celebrate, affirm and accelerate commitments made at the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women’s Equality Rights – 20 years ago. Known as The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 12 Critical Areas of Concern were prioritized. Three of these directly speak to how not to allow the violation and murder of Abigail and of Kayalicia: Violence against Women (VAW)[and Girls]; Women’s Human Rights; and The Girl Child.
To the joy and pride of Caribbean women, in 1995, CARICOM including our current PM, represented us spectacularly and played a pivotal role. Twenty years later, Caribbean women and human rights defenders are asking why our region now has as studies show, one of the highest rates of VAW/GBV which has increased over the last 10 years, including femicides.
Young women – ‘the Girl Child’ – such as Abigail and Kayalicia are the worst off. Jamaica has one of the highest rates of forced or coerced sex of girls under 16. Most CARICOM countries, report increasing cases where young women are ‘given’ to older men, in lieu of money and bills payment – transactional sex- found mainly in low income urban and rural communities; young women’s bodies are also used as ‘collateral damage’– weapons of fear- by criminal gangs, sometimes political. It is not a surprise that young women 14-19 remain the age group with a persistent, growing incidence of being HIV+ or living with AIDS. The United Nations Secretary General calls it the “twin pandemic of VAW and HIV and AIDS”. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated VAW as a public health issue. A report on St. Vincent & the Grenadines calls it a “cultural epidemic”.
Young women who are perceived to be or identify as lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LBT), are subjected to ‘corrective rape’, sanctioned by some faith groups and families, to gang-rape them out of being LBT!
Many cases of VAW/GBV happen with impunity – perpetrators may never be reported, much less charged, even if it is the job of our police to do so regardless. Some cases of ‘domestic violence’ end in femicides.
CARICOM has gone backwards on this issue – the rights of girls (and boys), are not being protected. Barriers abound to making them aware of how their bodies work, where they can access correct information on sex, sexuality, pregnancy, STIs, etc. Their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are being violated. This is a fundamental component of women’s and children’s human rights which are universal, inalienable, and indivisible from other human rights. CARICOM claims not to have an agreed definition of SRHR.
Yet, we have allowed international and home-grown religious extremism and fundamentalisms of various forms to impact legislation and programmes and our highest offices. We worry about information causing pregnancy! Meanwhile girls and women die. It is a fact that when children are taught the value and integrity of their bodies, including how to understand their ‘God-given’ sexuality, they are better able to protect themselves, and the rate of sexual violations of girls and boys is less- we have safer, healthier communities.
What obtains now is unacceptable and dual-natured (hypocritical): in Jamaica, medical practitioners, educators, counsellors and social workers could be criminalized for giving information that may allow girl and boys to better protect themselves – this does not narrowly mean access to contraceptives and having sex! It is part of the continuum of our responsibility – from parents to the State!
Even now we do not have a sexual harassment law, condemning significant numbers of women and girls to abuse on our streets, schools, faith-based organizations, workplaces, etc. Beijing offered an interconnected plan – we cannot then cherry pick.
Finally, in the Americas, on average, 26% of Parliamentarians are female, CARICOM has the lowest at 18.3%. Representation matters in our budgeting, policymaking and programme implementation.
Women’s groups and other social justice organizations, such as the Caribbean Male Action Network, (CariMAN) have stayed the course by contributing hours of work to policy-making, programme development and action plans not implemented. Broken promises do cost lives.
Joan Grant Cummings is a member of the Caribbean Development Activists Women’s Network – Caribbean DAWN – A women’s rights advocacy and research organization.