The issue of sexual violence against women and girls is in the media too often for us to pretend the incidents are isolated or separate from systemic issues. We struggle to recognise and address some of those issues, such as capitalism and misogyny, while others are universal enough to receive widespread acknowledgement. Most of us agree, for example, that the current economic structure does not work for most of us and it is obvious that the distribution of wealth is disproportionate and not tied to merit or skill.
Connections, however, are not immediately made between economic conditions and violence against women. Coercion is often downplayed and there is a lack of analysis of circumstances under which women and girls are sexually violated.
We are all used to seeing photos of missing girls. Many people ignore them or make dismissive, presumptive comments about the girls without knowing anything about their situations. There is a disturbing willingness to ignore the predatory behaviour of men who take advantage of the vulnerability of girls.
Adults make judgments about the characters of 13, 14, and 15-year-old girls. They label them as “bad” and decide they are undeserving of the resources it would take to not only find them, but protect them from the criminals who specifically, consistently prey upon them.
There are sexual predators who spend time developing relationships with girls. They find out about their lives at home. They get details about the other people living in the home, when they are present and what they can and cannot provide. They find the gaps and make promises to fill them. They do some or all of what they promise. They earn the girls’ trust.
During this time, these predators groom the girls. They set expectations of the girls. Those expectations tend to include the secrecy of their relationship, the dynamics within the relationship like the requirement that they are obedient and deferential to the predator and the nature of the exchange. The girls do not always know what they will be expected to give, but they are made to understand the “love” they receive has to be reciprocated in some way. All along, the predators create an image of themselves that is authoritative. This image may already exist due to their jobs, or it may be impressed upon girls through their interactions.
By the time a girl goes missing, if she is, indeed, “with man,” there has likely been a grooming period. A relationship has been established and the predator is the authority figure and the source of something the girl needs and has not been able to otherwise acquire. Maybe they promise a better life. Maybe they suggest a payment of debt. Maybe it is supposed to be a treat. Maybe it is by force. Maybe an event at home prompts the girl to seek refuge somewhere else. By whatever means, predatory men steal girls away from their homes. Whether or not the girls resist, this is a crime.
The girls’ family members report their absence and the police seek assistance from the public. Members of the public decide they know the story and assign blame to the girl and her guardians. Maybe there are a few offhanded comments about “big, rusty men,” but the girls are found guilty: of being too fast, of wanting to be women, of being duped by men.
They are, essentially, judged for not being the “right” kind of children — those who have what they need, know the right things to do and say, and are, by their material conditions, protected. The parents are found guilty of not knowing enough about where their children are when they are not with them, of not disciplining them enough, of not paying enough attention, and of being focused on other things. They are guilty, in many cases, of having to be away from home to work for long periods of time.
Children are not responsible for themselves.
Girls are children. Before a teacher can take children — in their care at school — on a field trip, the parents or guardians of those children need to give their written consent. Children do not attend doctors appointments without parents or guardians. They cannot drive. They cannot legally purchase or consume alcohol. Girls cannot consent to sex.
When cases of sexual violence against minors are reported, the language used — given by the police — does not make it clear they cannot consent. Phrases like “unlawful sex with a minor” are used. This certainly does not help. People continue to read it as girls choosing to have sex with men rather than men preying upon girls who cannot legally consent to sexual activity.
We all know of stories of religious leaders, teachers and family members taking advantage of children, whether by use of force, threat or manipulation. These adults are criminals and need to be held accountable. The children are in need of our support and protection.
As with many other issues, ending grooming, manipulation and sexual violence against girls requires a multi-tier and multi-pronged approach. While some children get the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” lesson early in primary school and some get a version of sexuality education in high school, there is a large gap in time and information between the two.
They are constantly warned about eating too much candy and spending too much time on screens, but what about the predatory behaviour of adults they may already know and trust? They need to be taught to assess situations, determine when an interaction is or is not safe, and how predators may try to get information from them and use it to manipulate them. They need tools to deal with strange situations, not only with strangers or new contacts, but with people familiar to them.
Even when children have the warnings, information and tools to safely respond to situations, it is not a replacement for specific needs that may be met by going a different route. Economic factors often complicate situations for people who cannot see another way. We have seen, over a long period time, but especially following Hurricane Dorian and now during the COVID-19 pandemic, that we do not have a proper social safety net. The assistance available to people who are unemployed or underemployed is not sufficient. People have always struggled to pay rent, keep food in the home and purchase medication. For many, it is now much more difficult.
It is not unusual for the those who have to take advantage of those who need. Financial institutions do it. Businesses do it. Individuals do it. Some of them are able to make it look like they are helping people, but they are usually helping themselves to much more.
When will we create systems to support the people who cannot support themselves? When will we make the changes necessary for a fair distribution of resources? When will we stop blaming people for their own vulnerability?
To end hunger, we have to recognise the need to develop food security, then learn to grow our own food. To prevent the disappearance of this country, we have to acknowledge the issue of climate change, then build, consume, develop, and fund differently. To end sexual violence, we have to — among other actions — actively reject victim blaming, connect the issue to gender inequality, and understand how it is directly related to socioeconomic conditions.
Sexual violence against children, missing girls and sexual harassment are far too common, casually dismissed and, as a result, underreported. It is never caused by “bad” girls or less than constant supervision, but by the attitude that girls are disposable—one area sexual predators and victim-blaming people seem to agree. The safety and protection of girls is on us, from our attitudes to our actions.
Date for the diary
Equality Bahamas is hosting Women’s Wednesdays: Redefining Leadership at 6pm with guest moderator SDG Focal Point, Regional and International Partnerships Aneesah Abdullah. Ms. Abdullah will be in conversation with women leading in various sectors including business and non-governmental organizations about women’s leadership beyond the stereotypical traits and expectations. The conversation will focus on the importance of feminist leadership, what we need from leaders in various sectors, and the value of leaders who are willing and prepared to advance women’s rights in law, policy, and practice. The session will be held on Zoom and streamed at Facebook.com/equality242.
Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on February 3, 2021.