The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
Like many womanists and anti-violence against women advocates, my senses were violently attacked by the obnoxious responses fired at Miss Miranda Wood because she made a public allegation of sexual assault against Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. An assault she alleges happened when she was 15 years. Let me say at the start, that the thoughts expressed herein are NOT about the merits of Miss Wood’s allegation. In fact, I do not address it all. Rather, my thoughts are intended to indict our leaders for having failed and still failing our precious women and girls. The Wood event, however, stirred this piece.
That violence against women, an atrocity and societal scourge from time immemorial, retards our development is not classified state secret. Almost all global leaders know this.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is signatory to several treaties and covenants to pledge our commitment to eliminate oppression against women in its many forms. But what have we done? Can we say that any initiative has created the desired social transformation? By we, I mean Government, churches, NGOs and the rest of civil society jointly and severally.
Despite the call to action made some 20 years ago in Beijing and despite some positive efforts, the data continue to show that we have hardly made any in-roads to eliminate rape and sexual assaults against women and girls in its varying forms. Indeed, men and boys, too, are abused, but historically females are the primary victims. My focus here is women and girls.
According to UNWomen, even after more than 20 years after the development of the instrument, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a framework for action on violence against women, 33 per cent of women still experience physical or sexual violence. Around 120 million girls worldwide have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.
The Breaking the Silence study, a regional project involving 15,695 students between 10 to 18 years old revealed that 92.3 per cent of participants had their first sexual experience before 16 years; 42% before 10 years old and more than 47% of females and 31.9 % of males reported that their first intercourse was forced or somewhat coerced and attributed blame to family members and to persons known to their family. This is very damning and irritating news! I remind you that the age of consent in our country is 15 years. The most common across the region is 16 years and recently Trinidad and Tobago raised theirs to 18 years.
Let me also remind you that the 2014 report to UN by the UQAM International Clinic for Defence of Human Rights ranked St. Vincent and the Grenadines as one of the top five countries in the world for rape.
In a few weeks we will proudly wave the Vincentian flag in celebration of 37 years of political independence. But, many have boldly stated that until we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery our political independence is almost meaningless. I too share this view!
The deeply-rooted cultural objectification of women and disregard for gender equity and equality are two links in the chains of our mental bondage. The National Review of SVG Beijing Platform for Action +20 of 2014 reminds us that the gender-based violence is systematically linked to inequality of power relations. Breaking it requires nothing short of collective titanium fortitude, uncompromising persistence and unwavering intolerance for ignorance and arrogance drenched in patriarchal values.
So what is there to celebrate? Should we celebrate the fact that in this 21st century women only have marginal presence and influence in our economy? That while more women have been appointed to boards, gender segregation remains a standing feature? Of 22 Boards only 2 have a female chairperson! Or should we celebrate the fact that the face of poverty is women? And, that we, women, have a higher concentration in lower paying jobs and unemployment?
The following were reported in a Country Gender Assessment 2015: compared against other islands in the Eastern Caribbean St. Vincent ranks highest in the number of acts of violence against women, highest for rape and the highest incidence for female homicides. Should we celebrate these? Or, should we celebrate that we, women, continue to express fear about being sexually assaulted or killed, and that more than 40% of us reported sex crimes involving underage sex?
Perhaps we can give one cheer for the enactment of the Domestic Violence (Summary Proceedings) Act 1995. It opened the doors of the court or for women in common law relationships to seek protection orders against violent partners. But the real effect of this law continues to be undermined by the poor attitude and behaviour of police officers and their contempt and hostility towards us, the victims. It seems that the many training workshops provided by the government have failed miserably. And, while the Women’s shelter is laudable, it remains inadequate and under-resourced. We desperately await the coming into of force of the New Domestic Violence Act 2015. This act will widen the scope of protection for women, so for what reason is it halted in the chamber of inaction? Policy paper is barren without firm action and talk is very cheap.
In the words of the great Nelson Mandela, “Domestic violence, rape and abuse of women remain disgraceful blots on the reputation of a country that is called a [blessed] nation. Undoubtedly, these disgraceful blots continue to oppress and sustain indecency and indignity among and against us. Independence and freedom are inextricably linked, and so too, are women emancipation and national development. Therefore, we cannot say that we are free and independent unless we emancipate ourselves from all forms of oppression. So, until our leaders get off their egotistical patriarchal dunce chairs and in earnest begin the social transformation that is required there is hardly anything about our political independence to celebrate. After all, it has been 37 years, and one a half generation of women have come and growing.
Senator Marcia Zita Barnwell
(Barrister & solicitor)
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].