Violence Against Women: There’s a Lot of Work to be Done, Says Senator Kamina Johnson Smith

Senator Kamina Johnson Smith has been advocating consistently for the rights of women and girls for some time now, in various fora. The Senator is particularly concerned  with how the law is (or is not) keeping up with the struggles of the 21st century Jamaican woman for equality and justice. As the Sixteen Days of Activism continue, I thought I would share with you her remarks on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, with her kind permission. I know she often moves away from her script to reinforce her points. This is “lightly edited,” as they say. I am sure we will hear more from the Senator in the future on these issues, and hope for much more progress to be made by our parliamentarians in this area in the future. We have a long way to go, in my view.

Kamina Johnson Smith speaking on violence against women at the University of the West Indies last month. (My photo)
Kamina Johnson Smith speaking on violence against women at the University of the West Indies last month. (My photo)

Orange Your Neighbourhood: Unite to Eliminate Violence Against Women

Mona School of Nursing, UWI

November 26th 2015

Senator Kamina Johnson Smith

As in many cases the issue of violence against women has given way to a broader look at gender-based violence, I welcome our marking of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women because it focuses squarely on violence against women. While we must always evolve and be socially aware of all vulnerable groups affected by violence, the fact is that data shows that women and girls are disproportionally affected by gender-based violence.

A quick look at the 2014 Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica (ESSJ) tells us from emergency room visits between January to September 2014, that although men outnumber women for blunt force injuries (889 v 588), 46 males under 20 were admitted for injuries as a result of sexual assault, as against 778 girls and women. Add to this, 114 under 20 girls were admitted for attempted suicide – more than twice the number of boys (58). You see the difference in the numbers. The last Jamaican KBAP Survey of which I’m aware (2008) reflected that close to fifty per cent of women surveyed stated that their first sexual experience was forced. A look at the Office of the Children’s Registry website shows that in absolutely every year and in every category of abuse, girls outnumber boys. When you look at trafficking figures, women and girls outnumber men and boys. And when we look at missing children, girls also outnumber boys.

The Honourable Madam Justice Desiree Bernard, the first female judge of the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The Honourable Madam Justice Desiree Bernard, the first female Judge of the Caribbean Court of Justice.

In 2006, at the Fifth Biennial Lucille Mathurin Mair Public Lecture, the Hon. Madame Justice Desiree Bernard noted that: “The most common and frequently-encountered form of violence occurs in domestic situations; research indicates that women are more likely to be abused, killed or injured within a family setting. It ranges from slaps and kicks to more serious assaults as wounding with knives and other implements, sometimes resulting in death…”

This has not changed in the decade since that lecture.

Official police figures in Jamaica in respect of intimate partner violence are deceptively low. This is partly because of how we report officially – (domestic violence is not a crime in and of itself for example), but also because in Jamaica and other countries in the Caribbean, there is a serious problem of underreporting of abuse.

In many cases women are either afraid or ashamed of admitting to being victims of abuse; in some they either believe it’s their fault or that it is not even wrong; in some they don’t believe the police will or can protect them, or that there is anyone who can. There is also the ever-present reality of economics, where some women who are financially dependent on the abuser fear the loss of that economic support for them and their children.

Violence against women is a complex issue that has confronted our societies in the Caribbean for centuries. It has only been globally recognized as a public health issue for maybe the past two or three decades, and has since then been the subject of increased study by academics and policy makers here at the University of the West Indies and worldwide. Some academics lay blame at the feet of economics, some claim history, some socialization; while others still ground it in the reinforcement of negative societal attitudes towards women and girls.

Whatever the root causes, rape and beatings continue to be tools used by men to control and dominate women and girls, together with the more insidious tools of psychological abuse and its economic counterpart.

Violence against women cuts across culture, race, class, colour, age – every difference real or perceived among us. The problem exists whether countries are rich or poor. Women experience it whether they are rich or poor.

It is important that as a nation we seriously tackle the issue of violence against women. According the World Trade Organization, “It is not only a serious public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, but also has large economic costs—affecting productivity, earnings, and taxing health care and judicial systems.[1]

We have to target the issue on many fronts, one of which is legislative.

Laws are the cornerstones of civilization. Laws should reflect a society’s priorities and the priorities of Parliaments. Laws can and should set the tone, supported by public sensitization and education. How else can you change a destructive element of culture except by tackling it with institutions and knowledge?

There were widespread demonstrations after the Delhi gang rape case in December, 2012. (Photo: AP)
There were widespread demonstrations after the Delhi gang rape case in December, 2012. (Photo: AP)

In India, a country known for a general culture of male domination, their turning point regarding gender-based violence came when six men gang raped and beat a 23-year-old woman, and she died as a result. The case came to national and global attention and sparked massive action. Within one year of that tragedy, India completely transformed their penal code and:

changed the definition of rape. They replaced the term rape with sexual assault, but included penetration to any extent by a penis or any object or body part into the vagina, mouth, urethra or anus of any other person;

instituted harsher sentences ranging from minimum periods to imprisonment for life where aggravating elements were present, and in certain circumstances the requirement for payment of compensation to the victim in an amount sufficient to pay for medical expenses and rehabilitation of the victim;

created the crime of sexual harassment , punishable by up to five years in prison with or without a fine where accompanied by physical contact or demand for sexual favors, and up to one year in less egregious instances;

created the crimes of voyeurism and stalking with punishments based on the number of incidents and the level of exposure created by the voyeuristic act.

The Indian Parliament did their part and it is now for the other agents of the State to enforce the laws, prosecute the laws and sensitize the people – not only regarding the contents of the laws so that persons will think twice before they act, but also to encourage the process of cultural change needed at the heart of the struggle to reduce and eliminate sexual violence.

We can contrast with the situation here.

What was our national reaction after the tragic gang rape of two girls and three women by two men in Irwin, St. James in 2012? We had national outrage and marches, but what was done? In February 2013 I moved a motion in Parliament against that background, following a Gleaner article reporting that 1,600 children having been murdered over the previous twelve years, and the murder of six pregnant women in six months. The motion asked for a review of the Sexual Offences Act (SOA), Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), Domestic Violence Act (DVA) and the Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA), to look at offences and sentencing and administration of the laws – and their effectiveness.

The Committee started sitting in the following year – in July 2014, but has not been reconvened by the government since December last year.

During this time, there have been numerous tragedies.  We have had headlines of pregnant teen girls murdered by their adult male abusers; another terrible gang rape of a teenage girl by seven boys and men in Trelawny, which went viral on Facebook; and the recent Facebook rape video done by a young man, who felt it was a perfectly reasonable punishment for this young lady who had dissed him. He has thankfully been charged, but the comments he felt quite confident to post on Facebook and the discourse that followed in social media made it crystal clear – or should have made it crystal clear – that there is a lot of work to be done for both men and women to understand what rape is, to understand that it is a crime, and to understand when help is needed.

We need more support services, including the establishment of more shelters for women and which can accommodate children, so that women have somewhere to go when they fear for their lives.

Areas we need to look at under the law include:

The definition of rape versus grievous sexual assault;

The conditions required to establish the crime of marital rape;

The fines and sentences for aggravated assault of a child/woman;

The establishment of a crime of sexual harassment;

The establishment of a crime of stalking;

The establishment of domestic violence as a crime;

The definition of incest; and

The treatment of young people under the Sexual Offences Act

Youth activists from the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) tackle sexual and reproductive rights, among other issues. (Photo:
Youth activists from the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) tackle sexual and reproductive rights, among other issues. (Photo:

Tackling the issues, of course, go beyond the law. I will briefly acknowledge that we must arm girls and boys with information and sexual and reproductive health services that will allow them to make better decisions about sex, pregnancy and what it means to start a family (rather than “get a yout”). And about what a relationship between man and women can be when it is built on mutual love and respect, instead of fear and intimidation.

While we recognize that there are no barriers to violence, state resources must focus on the majority of women who face it; those in the most vulnerable positions, those with less options, those not economically empowered to say no and to make empowered decisions. Those for whom the decision is not largely emotional and psychological.

Engendering culture change around violence must be a big part of this. Violence against women must be challenged through the formal and informal education system The curriculum should not reinforce stereotypes, and children must be taught how to see and treat each other respectfully and without violence.

There need to be public education and sensitization campaigns. Men must be an important part of this process, not only as targets of messages, but as messengers, leaders and partners in communicating a shared message of balance in building a healthy society; in creating a shared vision of masculinity that is not synonymous with violent aggression; and in sharing an understanding that empowering women does not necessarily mean disempowering men.

Violence against women needs to be addressed on the socio-cultural front, through the criminal justice system and through education, formal and informal. It is a human rights problem, it is a public health problem, it is a criminal problem and it is our problem. We have got to fight against its acceptance as something that’s normal and OK. It is deeply embedded and intractable. It won’t be easy, but with sustained parallel processes, we can succeed.


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