Every community, no matter how fractured, has the odd moment of pure consensus, a short interlude where we can all nod our heads in agreement or shake our heads in disbelief. Some of these interludes occur as a result of a structured event such as a cricket match; Guyana, and the West Indian community at large, is embarking on another round of collective cheering, head-shaking and hand-wringing as the Twenty/20 competition gets under way. Other interludes occur as the result of an event that is unforeseen and unplanned such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. In all of these cases, we act or react as one, our response is unified.
There is a flip side. There are also, in every community, patterns of behaviour that are accepted as normal and then acts that are on the periphery of the norm. These are acts which are permitted or to which we are prepared to turn a collective blind eye. We all know someone who beats their child, even if we no longer do this ourselves. We all know someone who beats their wife. And, if we are honest, we probably know someone who is engaged in improper relations with a minor or who uses their position of power to engage in sexual intercourse with an employee or other dependant. This is the underbelly of our culture. It is no use wringing our hands when one such (possible) case comes to light if we all conspire with our silence daily to allow multiple acts of this kind to continue.
There is a short distance between the blanket of silence and collusion, collaboration or cover-up. A submission by Red Thread and Help and Shelter to the Disciplined Services Commission noted that “the incidence of child abuse in Guyana is underreported since many parents do not wish to pursue charges or many older children try to hide signs of especially sexual abuse.” The report also notes that, in the case of domestic violence, “many still believe that ‘man and woman’ story should be private, and that the sanctity of the family is more important than the safety of the members of the family.” In short, there are many types of behaviour which we condone rather than condemn; to condemn would be to step out of line, to expose oneself to ridicule or malice, to go against the grain of our culture.
A decade ago, a study estimated that one in ten girls and perhaps one in twenty boys in Guyana is sexually abused. The abuser is most often an adult male relative: “the majority of rapes of children are perpetrated in the home by trusted caregivers or family members who use their access to, and power over the child to facilitate their crime” (Voices of children: experiences with violence, 2005). Ironically, the same study noted that “caregivers seem less likely to believe the child when the perpetrator is their partner and/or provider.”
This type of behaviour occurs on a continuum not in a vacuum. It stems from a general consensus, in large swathes of our society, that women and (particularly) children are chattel or common goods. The male is the provider and the other members of the household are his possessions to be used or abused at his whim. A man, the argument goes, is free to hit his wife or his child (though it would be better if he didn’t). The same attitude spills over into some office environments where ‘the boss’ has the run of his young female employees. By extension, a man is free to engage in sexual relations with a dependant whether or not that dependant is a minor, a relative or a consensual partner. His rights take precedence. This is the consensus that no one admits to but that very few will act against, the unspoken rule.
We know objectively that this is wrong. We are all quick to condemn such acts once they become public. Yet there is a conspiracy of silence in much of our society about many forms of abuse. We would do well to consider the consequences of our collective inaction. This is not about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Our silence makes us part of it. In the words of our national poet, sent to prick our conscience,
hero or monster
you are consumed!
Like a jig
shakes the loom.
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!