As a young girl in Jamaica, I dreaded going to the shop down the street when sent by my grandmother because I knew the short journey would be peppered with lewd comments from strange men about the stiffness of my breasts, the flatness of my stomach, and the imagined enjoyment of having me in bed. The sexual abuse of girls and women takes place all across the world, most recently demonstrated by the #MeToo movement that started in the United States and has since highlighted the pervasiveness of harassment and sexual assault in all corners of the earth. But my specific experience is unique to Jamaica, where extreme sexual harassment is just a way of life. In a country notorious for its disproportionate crime rate, sexual violence has also long been par for the course.
Data from UN Women shows that 1 in every 5 women in Jamaica will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. For many, this will start early in childhood, when female bodies undergoing puberty are tapped as fodder for public consumption, which girls quickly learn is the normal state of affairs. Our society tacitly accepts the degradation of our girls and women, exemplified by just how many of us can bear witness to being sexually victimized. The now infamous response of The Jamaica Star’s ‘Dear Pastor’ to a rape survivor’s disclosure only serves to confirm our implicit acceptance of sexual abuse, up to and including the ultimate violation of rape. A direct quote from the pastor’s published advice:
You have kept this thing to yourself for the past four years and now that they are getting married, you are prepared to let your sister know what happened; and so, why now? Is it that you do not believe that she should marry him because he is a rapist? I am not sure that your sister would believe that he raped you.
He also encouraged the woman to attend her attacker’s wedding.
It’s clear our cultural attitudes toward sexual assault need to be addressed, and the red flags are so numerous that it may be hard to know where to start:
- How many of us know of relationships that cannot logically—or legally— be consensual due to the age gap between the man and the girl he is grooming?
- How many of us understand that older men prey on underaged girls precisely because of the latter’s immaturity and diminished capacity for reasoning, but place most of the blame for such partnerships on the shoulders of the child being manipulated?
- How many of us turn a blind eye to these situations because the transactional nature of them benefits our households?
- How many of us spend our days in a workplace where men treat their female colleagues like walking calendars for a brand of liquor?
- How many of you are the men who sit in groups in those workplaces (or on the street, or in a car) taking turns to lob a sexual vulgarity at a woman passing by like you would with a football?
#MeToo led to the creation of #TimesUp, a fund to help root out the perpetrators of sexual abuse by providing expertise and financial support to victims without the means to pursue justice. In Jamaica, groups like the Tambourine Army and agencies like the Office of the Children’s Advocate have led the way in raising the alarm on the shameful epidemic that exists on our own shores. But the inroads haven’t been many, because the fight can’t be carried out by these groups alone.
There needs to be a widespread movement across the country to address this dirt that is not so much a secret, one where we all categorically state that we will no longer tolerate it— ‘it’ being our women and girls being treated as bodies rather than people. We also need civil society— yes that means pastors, but also teachers, the media, and the lawyers who are always on tap to defend entertainers and other public figures accused of all sorts of wrongdoing. We need them all to stand in support of the hundreds of thousands who’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted and say, “I will support you. I will stand up for you. I will share your story. I will make getting justice for you a possibility, and not just something that happens to women in other countries.”
So, will you? Will you help Jamaica say #TimesUp?