New organisation in region with high rate of sex assault wants to move from culture of blaming victims to one of shaming perpetrators. A report by Kate Chapell for London’s Guardian.
Early one Sunday in January, a group of women arrived at a church in the rolling, green hills of rural Jamaica. They were not there to worship, but to show support for a young victim of sexual abuse: a 15-year-old girl, who had allegedly been raped by the church’s pastor a few weeks earlier.
The 14 activists entered the church and sat in silence, but angry words broke out when they were approached by a different pastor; the confrontation culminated with him being struck in the head by a tambourine.
The incident marked the beginnings of the Tambourine Army, a new organization to fight gender-based violence in Jamaica, which this weekend will mark its arrival with a protest in Kingston. In what is believed to be the largest-ever protest against gender-based violence in the region, similar marches will be held in solidarity with another group called #lifeinleggings in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Bahamas and Guyana.
“We want to change the culture we have of assigning blame and shame to survivors,” says Latoya Nugent, co-founder of the Tambourine Army. “We want to place it at the feet of perpetrators and change the current narrative.”
The Caribbean has among the highest rates of sexual assault in the world: according to United Nations statistics from 2015, one in three women have experienced sexual or physical violence at least once in their lives. And it is estimated that 14-38% of women have experienced intimate partner violence at least once.
In Jamaica alone over the past few months, at least eight women have been killed by domestic partners, young women have been abducted and assaulted by taxi drivers and another pastor was charged with sex-related crimes on a minor.
Elsewhere in the region, Unicef estimates that in the eastern Caribbean, between 20 and 45% of children have been sexually abused. In Trinidad, between 2005 and 2015, 300 women were murdered by a domestic partner.
Dr Verene Shepherd, director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, said that such violence is often a reaction to women’s improved economic position.
“As the economy worsens and as more men than women find themselves outside the labour market, as many women earn more than their spouses and climb the social ladder, patriarchal ideology, biblical teachings and hegemonic masculinity come to the fore and manifests in violence and jealous rage.”
Others argue that the problem has much deeper roots. “We have never had peace in Jamaica,” said Emprezz Golding, a Jamaican activist and talkshow host. “From the Tainos to Jamaican Africans, we’ve been beaten and raped and enslaved.”
The goal of Tambourine Army is to help bring about some kind of healing, said Nugent and co-founder Taitu Heron of the UN Women Jamaica Programme Office. “This is a predatory environment,” said Heron. “It is abusive, sexually and emotionally and physically. It’s as if we don’t value our women and girls as full human beings. We talk about them as if they are pieces of property.”
But now, Caribbean women are fighting back. In December hundreds across the region shared their experiences of sexual assault with the hashtag #lifeinleggings, which was started by Ronelle King, 24, after she was attacked on her way to work.
A man attempted to give her a ride, and when she politely declined, he violently tried to pull her into his car. She reported it to police, but they brushed her off.
“From my personal experiences, especially in the Caribbean, you get a lot of harassment,” King said. “There is a sense of male entitlement that is very strong, and fragility as well when they don’t get the response they want.” King will participate in the march on Saturday, and hopes that it will reclaim the streets for women.
Sandra Clarke, a 25-year-old operating room nurse from Kingston, Jamaica, says she has felt threatened walking the streets of the city. “I’m uncomfortable, because I just want to get home in peace.” She has felt threatened a couple of times. “One person will be calling to you and sometimes they start following you if they don’t get the answer they want.”
This kind of incident can turn deadly.
Two girls were recently killed in Trinidad, says Amanda McIntyre, who is organizing a march for that island. “In the last year, we’ve had a drastic increase in the amount of violent crimes to women and girls,” she says. “And street harassment is a serious problem.”
Dr Shepherd of the University of the West Indies says the problem requires several solutions, one of which is justice for victims. “Perpetrators have to be brought to justice and psychological rehabilitation offered to victims.”