The other crime epidemic: Domestic violence in the Caribbean

Kevin Edmonds is an independent journalist and doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto.

By Kevin Edmonds

It is no secret that the Caribbean has a serious problem with crime. In 2007, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report which gave the Caribbean the unwanted distinction of being the “most violent region on earth.” Without a doubt, the ravages of the drug trade are shockingly visible throughout the region, from the inner cities to the smallest of villages. The violent crimes associated with the drug trade are often blatantly public, a reminder to friends and foes alike that a twisted order of power and money prevails. Yet despite the international and regional attention to the drug trade, a second crime epidemic is too often marginalized and even dangerously trivialized. I’m talking about domestic violence.

On the ground, the Caribbean has been undergoing an immense and traumatic economic transformation according to the logic of market liberalization which has been dictated from comfortable offices in Washington, Brussels, and Geneva. Studies are emerging which have solidly linked the rise in the drug trade with the coinciding collapse of Caribbean economies, primarily the agricultural industry.

The economic reforms have triggered a massive spike in unemployment and underemployment and an overall decline in opportunity, a dangerous combination in the face of making quick and easy money in the drug trade. A 2009 study by Fairtrade concluded that of the 25,000 Eastern Caribbean banana farmers who had been actively growing in 1993, only 5,000 remained – a drop of 80 per cent. When the devastating effects of hurricane Tomas in 2010, a steady decline in market access and the ongoing battle against leaf spot disease is calculated in, the unemployment figures are undoubtedly higher – most certainly reaching past the 90 per cent mark.

What has been given less insight and/or context is the relationship between the same economic decline and escalating rates of domestic violence throughout the region. Does the loss of men’s livelihoods instigate violence as a way of re-establishing dominance and control within families? We need to think of this in ways that do not further result in victimizing women; that somehow they are to blame for these upheavals that are leaving whole communities scrambling to make a living. We must also recognise that by and large women have been and continue to be economically marginal, despite the fact that through the daily work in the home that unfortunately continues to be seen as only women’s work, they provide the most important foundation of society. And we also have to address what some are calling a crisis of masculinity and how it relates to the violence, while also confronting head on those who would advocate that the best model of masculinity for our young boys and men is one that puts men in charge and that celebrates men’s dominance over women and children as normal and acceptable.

A huge part of the problem regarding domestic violence is the fact that it is not taken seriously in the eyes of many who have the authority to implement meaningful and lasting reforms – particularly the police and politicians. A case in point was made in January, when Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education of St Vincent and the Grenadines Mrs Girlyn Miguel chastised the island’s women by asking them “to dress themselves properly” so that they “do not give temptation to our men.” Miguel continued by issuing more of an observation than a condemnation of domestic violence stating, “we need to educate our girls, give them a chance…  if they make any mistakes, if they do not do the things which are right, we do not have to kill them, we do not have to chop them, we need to have that love in our hearts.”

The fact that these comments were made by the island’s Minister of Education, who also happens to be the lone female cabinet member and parliamentary representative, is bad enough. However, considering that St Vincent has also become the femicide capital of the Eastern Caribbean makes Miguel’s lack of sensitivity and insight all the more inexcusable. In the first three weeks of 2012 alone, St Vincent—a country with a population of roughly 120,000—tragically lost three women to domestic violence. In the same 2007 UN report, St Vincent was documented as having the third-highest rate of reported rapes in the world.

This has always been an area of concern in measuring incidents of domestic violence, as even in the United States the Department of Justice estimates that over 60% of rapes go unreported. For example, reports by the Professional Organisation for Women in Antigua and Barbuda reported that in many instances police officers do not wish to get involved and overstep boundaries in what is traditionally considered as a “familial dispute.”

All of the Caribbean islands have higher rates of sexual violence than the world average. For example, it was estimated by Caricom gender advocate Dr Rosina Wiltshire in 2010 that one in four women in Guyana has been physically abused in a relationship.

A recent letter to the Stabroek News by Red Thread pointed out that by February of this year already five women have been murdered for 2012. Another regional victimization survey published in 2003 revealed that 48 per cent of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was “forced” or “somewhat forced” in nine Caribbean countries.

This crisis is neither new nor exclusive to the Caribbean – as domestic violence has been a seriously underreported and under examined area across the world. Nor do I intend to imply that domestic violence is only experienced by those who have suffered most from the dislocating effects of global and local economic shifts. This is simply not the case. To see the extent which violence against women plagues the region, one only has to look again at St Vincent and the Grenadines, where the current Prime Minister has been accused of sexual assault, once by a policewoman and once by a Toronto lawyer. Both charges have since been withdrawn, but not without controversy. Recently released WikiLeaks reports have highlighted that Prime Minister Gonsalves allegedly offered $185,000 for the policewoman to drop the charges. And examples like this, in which those with power abuse women in public and private with seeming impunity, could be repeated across the Caribbean, including in Guyana where one case in the public eye at the moment involves the allegations that the police commissioner himself sexually assaulted a woman who was apparently under investigation on an extortion matter.

Indeed, many important initiatives are taking place and being implemented in several Caribbean countries, to develop community awareness of domestic violence and strengthen the laws against it in many cases. However, the fact that violence against women continues and appears to be on the rise despite the establishment of stricter anti-domestic violence initiatives across the Caribbean, raises crucial questions about the effectiveness of legislative measures in the absence of an uncompromising approach to enforcement, one moreover that does not end up going after everyone but those with the power and money to ‘buy’ their own justice. Without that unwavering commitment to significant resources and attitude shifts, it will be hard to make these initiatives anything more than window dressing. Nor should we ignore the larger context, and the fact that in the face of few alternatives, many women may not follow through on charges, not because they believe they deserve the violence as Miguel’s reckless comments suggest, but in part because they may fear losing whatever economic support their abuser might be providing them and their children.

The comment by parliamentarian Girlyn Miguel that ”if they do not do the things which are right, we do not have to kill them” reflects the idea that domestic violence is a response to bad behaviour on women’s part, that it is a way to keep them in line. It is a shallow, one way stream of thought which further punishes the victims, and without seeing domestic violence as an issue which affects not only women, but families and entire communities. Attitudes such as hers will unfortunately foster a repetition of violence against women, as it continues to be something which is both learned and socialized as normal. Only by confronting the traditional marginalization of the discussion as something “private” or a “family matter” will it be possible for governments and organizations to effectively tackle the roots of the problem, and to address how it relates to wider economic, social and political structures and processes.



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