By Ronnie Daniel
On Feb. 28, I was part of a panel of speakers to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the existence in St. Vincent and the Grenadines of the Public Service Union (PSU), the trade union that speaks on behalf and champions the causes of public servants. The theme on which panellists reflected was “Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Violence Against Women and Girls: The Uncomfortable Conversation”.
On this occasion, I deliberately and provocatively use the biblical concept of “unclean hands” to suggest that all of us, including those institutions (FAMILY, CHURCH, SCHOOL) that have traditionally been the guardians of our morality and well-being, have unclean hands. I went on to note that when men use their hands, minds, and penises (body) to violate women and girls, “our hands are unclean”. I further argued that when institutions use their power, privileged, money, structures, processes and procedures to violate women and girls, “our hands are not clean”.
You see, there is tendency in our society to think of violence as something outside of our space — it is something that is done to those people over there, or it is something that is done to dem kind ah women dey, rather than something that we do within our own space (s) and with our own hands. We are dishonest, to say the least, when we think and pretend in this way.
While I was disappointed with the turnout at the event, it was not surprising at all. However, the presentations and the ensuing discussion made for an engaging and interesting evening. Some critical points were raised that need further ventilation in the public domain and in the highest spaces of national debate. But what made me nearly “pee my pants” was the disclosure by our esteemed Speaker of the House of Assembly, Jomo Thomas, that someone told him, “that if [he] had had sex with more women [he] probably would have eclipsed the 118 votes that [he] lost by and that [he] might have won”. (The Speaker was referring to his bid to win the South Leeward Constituency seat in the 2015 General Elections). This is no casual, idle talk, it is indicative of a mindset and what happens at the highest levels of leadership of our beloved land.
And so, I am worried that our society has not matured in engaging in honest talk about sexual exploitation and its damaging effects on the psyche of our young girls and women, and what this means for the well-being and economic development of our society. Like most parents, I am disturbed by the levels of intimate partner violence and the levels of sexual violence perpetrated against our young girls and NOT just young girls, BUT VERY YOUNG GIRLS. And secondly, I am even more disturbed by our tolerance, indifference, slowness to act, our silence, and our normalising of violence itself. Police data would reveal that between 2011 and 2016, 1,536 cases of sexual offences were reported. Of that total, 324 were sexual offences against girls under 13. I am advised by legal friends that this is statutory rape. Another 295 reports were classified as sexual offences against girls under 15, while 230 as rape. Have you gotten the picture yet? Our girls are at a higher risk of being sexual assaulted than women.
One reason which we all seemed to agree on at the panel discussion was that the acquiesce to sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls may, in part, due to the reality that it involves leaders whom we revere across a wide spectrum of the political, civic and religious sectors of our society. If this is the case, and I have no reason to challenge this, then the question is how can we disrupt this trend, change this mind-set and prevent this scourge from doing further damage to more than half of our population? How do we clean our physical and institutional hands? How do we get rid of this stain in our nation? I don’t have the answers, they would certainly have to come from our careful and thoughtful collective reflection and action. What I do know is that we can begin to fix the little things.
We can simply wash our hands and they might become clean for a while. But if we are serious about the fundamental change that is necessary in our society to begin to disrupt the current patterns and manifestations of violence, then we have to change attitudes and our mind sets. We have to revisit some of our religious teachings that relegate, demean and view women as inferior and second class citizens. Churches must stop encouraging women to go kiss and make up with their husbands/boyfriends when it is clear that to stay in the relationship, more violence will be inflicted on the woman because she sort help in the first place. Our police must take instances and reports of abuse seriously at the first instance of it being reported. In fact, they must carry out the law, because the Domestic Violence Act of 2015 places an obligation on our police and other actors in the Social services to take this issue seriously. Mothers and grandmothers must stop taking hush money among other things.
Can we stop violence? May be, may be not! But one thing is certain, we can say NO to violence as a society in all its manifestations. I have recommitted to do whatever I can with others to help fight this ill in our society. We need disruptive interventions not palliative solutions. Can we start by advocating for a disruptive approach in our current education system? A fundamental change in education approaches and content where boys and girls are taught to respect each other and cherish each other. Something like a rights-based society that my friend Anesia and her colleagues have been talking about for some time now. Let’s not wait for another mother, sister, aunt wife or girlfriend to die. The time is now!
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@example.com.