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On the weekend, it was reported that a four-year-old child was taken to the hospital. Soon after, there were claims on social media that the toddler had been sexually assaulted. The toddler, Bella Walker, died.

This assault, not yet confirmed by the Royal Bahamas Police Force which claims it is still waiting for autopsy results, has been met with outrage. People are angry about this child allegedly being abused, and the suggestion that the abuse caused her death. In this state of anger – one that comes and goes as the general public hears a horrific story and, given enough time, forgets about it – people are calling for action.

Anger can be a strong motivator and lead to things getting done, but those are not usually the right things. It is important for us to recognize this as a pivotal moment.

Nothing we do will bring Bella back or undo the abuse she went through or the suffering of the people who loved her.

While we honour her, mourn the loss and empathize with the people who loved her, we have to look at our circumstances. We have to see the gap between where we are and where we need to be, then figure out what we need to do to move from here to there. We will not get there by doing the first thing that comes to mind when we are enraged and want vengeance. If we are to address the scourge that is sexual violence, beyond individual incidents, we have to identify the issue and the systems that allow it to persist.

Gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender or that affects people of a particular gender disproportionately. Examples include sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, stalking and sexual violence. Gender-based violence occurs in both public and private spaces, and it can be perpetrated by individuals, organizations and states.

Sexual violence includes non-consensual vaginal, anal, or oral penetration, non-consensual capture or distribution of photos or videos and sex trafficking. Globally, 35 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence and 38 percent of murders of women are committed by intimate partners.

Intimate partner violence is a pattern of behaviour used by one partner to maintain control over the other, and it is disproportionately experienced by women. Domestic violence is an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour between people in the same household including spouses, people who are dating, parents, children and cohabitants.

Child abuse is the harm of anyone under 18, including one-time events and a series of events over a period of time. This includes physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Perpetrators of child abuse may include family members, friends, people in positions of authority over them, people in community settings and strangers.

Children are often afraid of telling anyone that they are being abused, but there are often signs of abuse. These include being afraid to be around certain people or in certain places, being unusually withdrawn, running away, not being taken to the doctor, and knowing things that are not suitable for their age. They depend on adults to see the signs and take action to protect them.

Neighbours told reporters that Bella’s mother was in an abusive relationship with a man who was not Bella’s father. They heard fighting, saw her locked outside while naked, and heard her say she was tired of him harming both her and her daughter. While one neighbour said they tried speaking with the couple, no one else intervened. They did not call the police nor the Department of Social Services.

On at least two occasions, four-year-old Bella was left home alone. This is only known because she left the house and went to neighbours where she asked for food. It was also said she told neighbours she did not want to go back home while the man was there.

This all points to an horrific example of intimate partner violence, domestic violence and child abuse. There are many questions and no shortage of blame to go around. Blame is of little use, but many of the questions, if we truly answer them and connect them to systemic issues, could lead us to a comprehensive plan to ensure that this does not happen again.

The neighbours decided to mind their own business. Why? One mentioned that the new people in the area do not have anything to live for. Many people choose silence in an attempt to protect themselves, thinking that speaking up would lead to them being harmed. Others believe their household is their business, and that is all.

There are two different ideas here that have the same result. People know something is wrong, but no one is prepared to do anything about it. How can we make it safe for people to report these incidents? How can we change our thinking about what is and is not our business? How much more likely would people be to report violence if they are certain to remain anonymous and safe, are certain that the entity they report to would respond in an appropriate, effective manner, know exactly who to contact and how, and it is an easy process?

There are two challenges here. We need a strong, accessible, trusted reporting mechanism that people are able to use with confidence, and we need to shift community culture and change our ideas about what is and is not our business. We need to understand that what we do and do not do matters, and can be the difference between life and death for the people who depend on others to do something.

A four-year-old child was left home alone on multiple occasions, and she is certainly not the only one. She was left in the care of a person who reportedly hurt her and, according to what we have read on social media, possibly sexually abused and killed her. This person was, reportedly, abusive to the child’s mother. People want to know why the mother left her child with a person she knew was abusing her, even if she did not know he was also abusing the child.

It is easy for us, on the outside, to say what we would never have done. We can easily swear that we would have done whatever it took to protect our children. We, however, were not in this woman’s situation, and we do not know her mental state.

We do not know the specifics of the abuse she endured nor the effects on her mental health. Putting her child in danger cannot be excused, yet we must make the connection between her behaviour and her experience of violence. To ignore it would be a failure to recognize the effects of violence.

We have to ask how and why this happened, and how we can prevent it from happening to anyone else.

We, in The Bahamas, do not have a proper social safety net which should improve the lives of people in situations of vulnerability. We have a desperate need for programmes that reduce vulnerability, and that includes poverty. We need a way to better manage unemployment, illness, disability and ageing. We need to prioritize care for children. Where can people with low incomes take their children while they are at work?

We know that many children are abused when they are left at home alone, with family members and with friends. Everyone does not have responsible, trustworthy family members who are able to take care of their children. For many, they have a trusted person, but their home is not safe because they allow other, not-so-trusted people to enter.

We need public childcare programmes and subsidies. Children are increasingly put in unsafe environments because their parents cannot afford childcare. This is not a private issue or a matter that is the sole responsibility of a household or a family. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed in national policies and programming with allocation in the national budget.

Just as we are outraged about the death of this four-year-old child as a result of injuries that, allegedly, were inflicted by her mother’s boyfriend, we have to be outraged by the negligence of successive administrations that have, without a doubt, been aware of the circumstances.

I have seen people calling for use of the cat -o-nine-tails, the death penalty, and a sex offenders registry.

These are all reactions. It is understandable that people are angry, and the first instinct is to demand the physical harm of the person responsible for the horrific acts we are discussing. People cling to “an eye for an eye,” and want to respond to inhumane acts with the same kind of punishment.

Whatever our positions on their use, the cat o’ nine tails and the death penalty do not solve the problem. They would be used after far too much has happened and at least one person has been significantly harmed. We can beat and kill rapists and abusers every day, and it would not address the issues that the killing of Bella make clear, if only we stop to think about it beyond the incident itself.

We are all angry. We know that Bella should not have been killed. We know this could have been avoided, if only.

We want something to be done. Let’s make sure that what we demand and what we get is not symbolic or ill-suited to our context.

We need to call for actions that will prevent gender-based violence, including domestic violence and intimate partner violence, and child abuse.

Our focus cannot be on what happens after these egregious acts have been perpetrated.

We need to stop them from happening. Let’s ensure that children are in safe, loving homes, that women and mothers are in healthy relationships, and that those who need help can access it with ease.

Let’s build relationships with the people around us so we can truly call ourselves communities, and ensure that we have the resources we need to address the issues we know exist and those we will surely come to know.

The outrage we see and feel will not last. It never does. Let’s do something that will.

Published in The Tribune on November 10, 2021.

Everyone is familiar with the term “domestic violence”. It, unfortunately, comes up often enough that it is a regular part of our vocabulary and we believe we know what it means. Domestic violence is violent or aggressive behaviour between people in the same home, and it usually involves partners. We know that it can be physical, but it can take other forms that are often not recognized as domestic violence, and it disproportionately affects women.

In a 2009 survey of 600 college students in New Providence by Susan J Plumridge and William Fielding, it was found that 21 per cent of students grew up in households where domestic violence occurred. There is also the 2014 study by (then) College of The Bahamas in which 58 per cent of high school boys and 37 per cent of high school girls participating said they believed men should “discipline” their partners. We know that what children experience at home helps to shape their world view and behaviour. It is not enough to educate children about healthy relationships and warn them about intimate partner violence and domestic violence. We have to be able to address what is happening now, causing harm to people experiencing and witnessing violence.

Domestic violence is largely understood as physical abuse. The billboards, pamphlets, and PSAs usually include graphic images of women with wounds and bruises, most often on their faces. In many cases, physical violence is hidden, leaving no visible evidence, or covered up by clothing and makeup. There are also many cases of domestic violence that do not involve physical violence. It can be the threat of violence, denial of basic needs such as food and clothing, isolation from family members and friends, deprivation of money or the ability to work, damage to property, and other controlling behaviour. These may not be immediately recognised as domestic violence by the person being violated or the people in their life, if ever. We all need to know the signs of domestic violence and how people change when they are experiencing it. For that to happen, we need to expand our understanding of domestic violence, indicate that it is not limited to physical violence whenever we talk about it, and portray it in more than one way. This work falls to non-governmental organisations, but the government is obligated to engage. It has a responsibility to the people and obligations through international mechanisms, and it must not be allowed to ignore or assign these responsibilities to other bodies, especially with proper resourcing.

Beyond a clear understanding of domestic violence, we need to acknowledge that people are at different levels of risk and require different interventions and support services. Domestic violence is experienced differently by people with children, and their opportunities to leave and to report are affected by having dependents. Domestic violence is different for people with disabilities. It is different for people who are unemployed. It is different for people who are living in a country where they do not have citizenship, family, or any other support system. Laws, policies, and services have to take these people into consideration and respond to their specific needs.

In her report on violence against women in The Bahamas, Dubravka Šimonovic — former Special Rapporteur on violence against women — noted that socio-economic status and social exclusion put migrant women at increased risk of various forms of violence and reduces the likelihood that they would report violence for fear of being deported. She also noted that crimes against LGBTQI+ people, including domestic violence, largely go unreported.

For both migrants and LGBTQI+ people, there is fear of the unintended consequences of reporting. Will they be blamed? Will their status or identity be made public? How will they be made to suffer because of it? Is reporting worth the risk? The government is obligated to ensure that it is not only possible, but safe for people to report domestic violence and that they will receive assistance beyond the option to prosecute.

Šimonovic recommended continued training for police officers on domestic violence along with training of people in various institutions that would come into contact with survivors of domestic violence, including healthcare facilities, welfare agencies, and immigration officers. As first points of contact, they need to understand domestic violence, its impact on people, and the way it disproportionately affects people who are already in situations of vulnerability.

It was noted in Šimonovic’s report that there is a need for more shelters in all of the islands of The Bahamas. It is important that people are able to safely report domestic violence and access safe temporary housing. It is particularly difficult for women with children, especially boys over the age of ten, to find appropriate shelter.

The report said: “At least one shelter capable of admitting women and children around the clock should be available in every region of the State, including rural areas.”

We are not there yet. It is unacceptable that domestic violence is such a common occurrence and we do not have resources in place to support survivors. Even worse, people are shamed for not leaving (sooner), as though they have somewhere to go. We, in fact, need to shift away from displacing survivors, instead requiring perpetrators to find other accommodations and stay away from the home.

We need to implement the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and legislation to protect from gender-based violence and domestic violence. In addition to changes in law and the support of plans and policies, we need to implement practices and procedures that support the work to end domestic violence and violence against women.

One issue that comes up over and over again on most issues, but especially issues of women’s human rights, is the lack of data. The absence of data is frequently used by detractors as “proof” that a problem does not exist, is not big enough, or does not affect enough people to even warrant a conversation. We need to do much better on collecting data, analysing it, and making it publicly available, not in response to the misogynists and anti-rights people, but to better understand the issue, how it is changing, the ways it affects people, and how we can more effectively prevent and respond to it. The issue of insufficient data has been addressed by various experts, entities, and mechanisms.

Šimonovic’s report calls on the government to “regularly collect, analyse, and publish statistical data on all forms of gender-based violence against women, through a femicide watch or observatory on violence against women, with aggregated data on the number of complaints, convictions, and reparations made to victims”. This is a reinforcement of an existing obligation through an Inter-American mechanism.

The Bahamas ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará) in 1995. Little has been done to familiarize the general public with this convention. We need to be aware of the international mechanisms that expand and protect our rights, especially when the State ratified them. The Bahamas is required to come into compliance with Belém do Pará which acknowledges that violence against women is violation of human rights. Article 2 says violence against women includes that which “occurs within the family or domestic unit or within any other interpersonal relationship, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the woman[…]”

The Convention also includes violence that is “perpetrated or condoned by the state or its agents regardless of where it occurs”. It obligates the state to prevent and investigate violence against women and include that in legislation and administrative measures, to amend or repeal laws that “sustain the persistence and tolerance of violence against women,” and to “establish fair and effective legal procedures” for women who experience violence. In addition to legal remedy, the Convention requires states to implement measures and programmes to address cultural attitudes and patterns of violence, raise awareness of the issue, and ensure proper data collection among other obligations.

Belém do Pará is an important convention that has gone without attention for a long time. It is relatively easy to read and understand, and it is imperative that we implement it. It is not enough to ratify. The government is obligated to educate the public on human rights mechanisms and what they mean for us. Civil society needs to be aware of what we have ratified and how it all applies to the lives of the people they are meant to serve.

As we get closer to the start of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign which begins on November 25, take some time to read the Convention. Simply type “Belém do Pará convention” into your search engine of choice and it will be the first result. Get familiar with it along with other conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Equality Bahamas will be especially focused on domestic violence, femicide, and violence and harassment in the world of work in the coming weeks and will host a series of events on these topics as well as human rights, the importance of data, and the role of the media. Follow the organization on social media (@equality242) and look out for the calendar of events and calls to action to end gender-based violence against women and LGBTQI+ people.

Published in The Tribune on October 27, 2021.

Last week was quite busy as I worked with the all-volunteer team of Equality Bahamas to plan and execute our annual International Women’s Day events. Every year, this process leads me to think about a range of issues, circumstances, gaps and solutions. From people – primarily young women – adding to their regular workloads as volunteers with non-governmental organisations to the response of the public to initiatives designed for and by women, there is no shortage of necessary discussions.

After the march and expo, I came across a Facebook post by someone I’ve known since elementary school. This is not a person I spend time with nor have intimate knowledge of, but I know basic facts such as her name, profession, close friends and other bits and pieces anyone can glean from shares on social media. I did not know anything about her position on political or social issues. Then I saw a days-old post about the (then) upcoming march I organised with a team of dedicated, enthusiastic young women. The post basically said she would definitely not be marching after being duped by We March which proved to be something other than the organiser had suggested.

There were three main commenters, two of whom completely agreed with the post. One person noted it was an unreasonable position to take, unfair to paint women organisers with the brush of a reckless person, and important to properly use non-violent forms of protest.

I struggle to find a word for the way I felt when I read this thread. “Disappointed” is not quite it. I know better than to expect everyone – or even most people – to get on board. I have come to expect naysayers and finger-pointers. I know people find it easy to call other people’s work garbage – and this is a euphemism for the word used – than to do the work themselves. Still, it is almost as though I expected more from this particular person. Why? Because I “know” her? Because she has never shown any signs of being against the expansion of women’s rights? Because she is a young woman and business owner who has surely experienced misogyny and sexism, and has definitely been disadvantaged by the systemic issues we have yet to properly address? Because I think she should care?

In reflecting on this experience, I have been reminded of two important lessons I have learned over the past few years. The first is that it is important to take conversations about rights, justice and feminism outside of the comfortable spaces. The Equality Bahamas team can talk about national issues and what needs to be done to tackle them all day, every day, but it would not change anything. We have to take our critique, our ideas and our plans of action outside of our own space, engage others in the conversation and convince them to take action with us.

To be clear, we do this regularly, but the reminder helps push us to think more about where we have not gone yet and what we need to do to get there. The second is that our greatest opponents in the fight for equality are systems and social constructs – not people. People – including some we know – embody those systems and constructs and they act in the ways that are dictated by those systems and constructs. For many, those systems and constructs are all there is. They have not had the chance to think about a world without them.

The day-to-day hustle to get to and from work, figure out how to pay the bills and keep groceries in the house and take care of the unexpected does not leave us much room for imagination. All some of us have is the memory of what has already taken place and the heaviness of the current situation. Reality does not encourage us to dream. If we never take the time to think beyond what we have, to envision what we do not yet see, we are doomed to a future that looks exactly like the present. To get beyond this point, we have to identify and deconstruct the systems that find homes within people and we have to create opportunities for people to imagine, create and realise more.

Leaders of organisations, movements and people have a responsibility to the people under the sound of their voices. They have to be more than charismatic. They have to be honest. Loyal. Communicative. Accessible. They have to be able to answer questions about where they want us to go, why and how we will get there. They have to be willing to go the distance, to train, mentor and elevate others to take the position they must eventually vacate. They have to do what they said they would do. They have to prove themselves worthy of the trust and support they receive. When they fail to be and do all of this, and without apology, we end up where we are now. We find ourselves surrounded by people who are disappointed, hurt and unwilling to act.

No one fighting for a cause can hope for another’s downfall. The failures, missteps, compromises and disappointments of one can negatively impact others, even when they seem completely unrelated. How can we reactivate imaginations that have been dormant for so long? This may be the challenge of this generation of changemakers – to reactive imaginations so we can see something better, then believe we can make it happen.

Why whistles don’t get to the root of the issue

When Philip “Brave” Davis suggested the government provide women and children with whistles, there was no way to keep it out of the headlines. Yes, he made other recommendations, but this one deserved a response. The knee-jerk reaction grazed the surface, but did not quite go deep enough to explain what is really wrong with the suggestion.

The whistle is not a new idea. Many of us are familiar with the “rape whistle”. We are expected to be equipped with these whistles and, should we feel unsafe, we are to blow the whistle.

The first issue is that the answer to an issue is not in the response of the person on the receiving end. Gender-based violence is a systemic issue. Gender is a social construct that prescribes ways of being for people based on the social and cultural expectations of each gender. Gender-based violence is the name for harm caused that is directly related to understandings of gender and how it controls us.

The man who attempts to harm a woman because she is seen as weaker and meant to be submissive is not likely to be scared off by the sound of whistle for various reasons. The whistle has to be accessible enough for the woman to blow it. If is it around her neck, it can become a weapon for strangulation. If it is loose, held in her hand, it can be knocked out. If she gets it to her mouth, she risks more physical injury because she could be caused to choke, or she may be struck. If she manages to use the whistle to make noise, this could aggravate the man and lead to further harm.

The second issue is the uncertainty about its effectiveness. Do we know what to do when we hear a whistle being blown in a parking lot? Is a Junkanoo group on the way? Is someone practising for sports day? Did a child get a new toy? What are we, as citizens, supposed to do when we hear a whistle. Do we know when it is a distress signal as opposed to something else, and do we know how to intervene if we determine it is a distress signal? On Saturday, we distributed whistles and one of the women decided to blow it in a public space when approached by a man she knew. Luckily, she was in no danger, but she noted no one paid any attention at all.

Women and girls are always told what to do and what not to do in order to prevent acts of violence against us, especially rape. Nowhere near as much effort is put into teaching consent, making a distinction between sex and rape and engaging men and boys in conversations about gender-based violence prevention. We need to get to the root of the issue. The problem is not that women and girls are not scared enough, vigilant enough, or bombarded with enough products – like mobile apps to indicate to friends that we’re in distress, pepper spray, and date rape drug-detecting nail polish – to prevent violence against us. The problem is that all the focus is on us and ways we can make sure the less prepared women or girl is the victim instead of us. We do not want to make someone else the statistic. We want to change the statistics. To do that, we need to start at the root, and not create another path to stress and further harm.

Published by The Tribune on March 11, 2020.

We need to talk about consent. Most of us understand it to mean permission. Parents and guardians signing forms to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities probably comes to mind. We don’t think about consent as a way of controlling and protecting our own bodies. Instead, we view the bodies of women and girls as public property.

When we force children to show affection to family members and friends without prejudice, we teach them they do not own their bodies. When we tell teenaged girls, “Dress the way you want to be addressed”, we are telling them other people’s perceptions of them are the most important thing. We have many ways of making each other less than human, stripping away rights and dignity. We find ways to blame one another for any violation experienced, conditioned by and continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape culture is prevalent in our environment and allows people to believe there is something women and girls can do to prevent sexual assault. We can dress differently, travel in groups, ensure we are always accompanied by men, refrain from consuming alcohol, get home before dark and ignore our own sexuality. Even further, we can purchase a number of products like special underwear that only we can remove and nail polish that detects date rape drugs in our drinks. The onus is continuously put on us, women and girls to protect ourselves by being less visible and investing in products specifically designed for us. As if this is not enough to bear, our law does not recognise us as full people after we marry.

According to the Sexual Offences Act, once married, women are no longer entitled to (not) give consent to their husbands and are expected to engage in sexual activity whether we would like to or not. The Act says we cannot be raped and, by marrying us, men have unlimited rights to access our bodies.

What if this were the case for murder? If a man owns his wife’s body to the extent he can penetrate her vagina without her consent, what is to keep him from thinking he can kill her without consequence? If we stick to the “two become one” argument, we set ourselves down a slippery slope. Married women can vote, but not say “no” to sex and have the right to press charges if her husband rapes her. Married women are human beings in some ways, but property in others.

There is no reason for women to be denied the right to choose what to do with their bodies, in marriage or otherwise. The narrative of false accusations is completely baseless at best and foolish at worst. If we create legislation and policies based on potential for misuse, we would likely be forced to go without. Anarchy, anyone?

People talk about the great fear of the lying woman. Won’t married women lie on their husbands, just because?

People sometimes lie — not women; people. Cases sometimes go to court and the defendants are innocent. Sometimes it is difficult to prove the crime. We see this happen every day. This is the reason for courts, judges and juries. It is the reason evidence is required. The justice system has its issues, but so do society, the church and the institution of marriage. Are we really satisfied to doom married women to live as the property of their husbands, able to be lawfully violated? Are we happy to have even ten women suffer in silence, with no legal recourse, because one might lie on her husband? Do we really believe men are entitled to sex on demand when they marry a woman?

To be clear, rape is not sex. Sex can only occur with clear, continuous consent from all parties involved. When anyone is forced to participate in sexual activity, it is assault — a violation. If a person is underage, they are not able to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to give consent. If a person is unconscious or asleep, they are not able to give consent. Consent must exist for a sexual act to be lawful. It must be explicit and cannot be coerced. There is no such thing as sex without consent; that is rape. It does not matter whether or not the people involved are married. Consent is not granted in perpetuity, regardless of licences and vows. We have the right to say yes or no.

In July 2009, then MP for Long Island Loretta Butler-Turner tabled the marital rape bill which would have amended the Sexual Offences Act to omit “who is not his spouse” so that marital status does not enter the definition of rape or impede access to justice. Eight years later, we are having the same conversation on the same level, seemingly with no better understanding of or appreciation for women’s rights as human rights. We listen to political and religious leaders and allow them to guide our thoughts on opinions far too often. We forget Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers work for us and should be acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people. Laws and policies should be made to protect the most vulnerable among us; not putting them at higher risk or further marginalizing them from the rest of society. Religious leaders should not be interfering in governance of the country, or imposing themselves and their views on the citizenry. They should be rebuking the consistent, dangerous misuse of biblical text to support misogyny.

Those who support men who rape their wives often use biblical text, mostly in fragments, to compel others to do the same. A favourite is Ephesians 5:22 which implores women to submit themselves to their husbands. Those quoting this scripture conveniently neglect to mention verses 23 and 28 which call on men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “as their own bodies”. A true, practising Christian would surely look at the full scripture and, upon seeing “love,” refer to I Corinthians 13 for its definition and characteristics. According to Paul, love is patient, kind and protective and is not self-seeking. If a man loves his wife, would he not be patient, kind and protective, and willing to put his own desires aside instead of being self-seeking? If a man loves his wife as Christ loved the church — for which He gave His life — what limit would there be to what he would give up for her? Why aren’t we holding men to the same standards we demand women meet?

A married woman is still a woman, and a human being. Married women, like unmarried women, have human rights. These include being equal in dignity and rights, the right to security of person, freedom from slavery or servitude and recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In addition to being protected from sexual assault and understood to be human beings, women deserve to have access to justice. We need to look at the Sexual Offences Act and its definition of rape. We need to look at the way we view marriage and, in particular, the privileges of men within the institution. We need to understand that rape is rape, no matter who is involved. Perhaps more than that, we need to look at the positions we take and the arguments we use and ask ourselves who we are trying to protect – and why?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 20, 2017

Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that often goes unrecognised and unchecked. We all know it exists, but our understanding of it can be quite limited in scope and type.

In discussions about violence, emphasis is generally put on direct violence which includes physical acts like hitting and pushing, with little focus on forms of violence that are just as damaging. Direct violence also includes sexual violence, from harassment to rape, and less frequently discussed acts like human trafficking, exploitation of domestic workers and online harassment.

We have fallen into the habit of excusing direct violence. We find ways to put blame on the survivors and victims of violence. This is sometimes because we want to protect the abusers, but in most cases, we fail to recognise certain acts as violence. We use words like “teasing” and “flirting” to downplay harassment, refusing to see the distinction between them.

Women and girls are seen as unfriendly or “stuck up” when they dare to say or show that attention is unwanted. Men and boys are allowed to make nuisances of themselves because there is more value on their performance of masculinity and seeking to fill their own needs than the comfort and safety of women and girls.

Far too many people concern themselves with what a women or girl was wearing, where she was, who she was with and why she was there with whomever was in her company when she reports sexual assault. This refusal to recognise the violation in favour of misplacing blame for the violation is another act of violence.

Indirect violence includes systemic issues and the stereotypes with which we are familiar, even if we do not recognise them as such.

Yesterday, in a session focused on the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, a differently-abled woman spoke out about the lack of access to spaces — public and otherwise — and increased vulnerability of differently-abled women.

She identified the exclusion of differently-abled women as an act violence. This is a form of violence we do not often recognise or acknowledge, but is part of the lived reality of differently-abled people and compounds the marginalisation of differently-abled women. Women do not get to be only women. We are women and black, women and queer, women and poor, women and elderly and any number of other layered identities.

Every year, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence — a global campaign — run from November 25 to December 10. It opens on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and closes on International Human Rights Day. These observations underscore both the pervasive and possibly most easily identified forms of gender inequality and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. This campaign coincides with National Women’s Week in The Bahamas which this year began on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the first time Bahamian women voted.

The Department of Gender and Family Affairs planned Orange Day, a church service and the information and walk-through of the CEDAW report. The Department also disseminated information on NGO-led events and initiatives, including the Zonta Says No town hall held last night and the series of events and actions organised by Equality Bahamas.

These included a Day of Silence, screening of Marion Bethel’s Womanish Ways — a documentary on the Bahamian Women’s Suffrage Movement — and open mic at Expressions at Bistro Underground being held tonight, featuring Tingum Collective from University of The Bahamas, Blue Elite dance troupe and poets Zemi Holland and Letitia Pratt.

This 16-day campaign includes a broad range of activities which are aimed at raising awareness and driving action. Beyond wearing orange and attending events in droves, it is critical we advocate for the change we need, systemically, to end gender-based violence. As Donna Nicolls, of Bahamas Women’s Watch, stated at a few events thus far during the campaign, we need to continue our action and remember that 16 days is not enough.

The campaign is beneficial for introducing people to the issues, increasing and deepening understanding of those issues and connecting with organisations and individuals working on women’s rights and ending gender-based violence year-round all over the world.

Last year, the Life in Leggings movement started in Barbados, swept across the region and encouraged many Bahamian women to share their stories of sexual violence. For most of them, it was the first time they had spoken about their experiences.

While the campaign was not launched as a part of the 16-day campaign, it connected thousands of Caribbean women and highlighted the similarity of stories, laws and systemic issues. This year, just before the beginning of the campaign, people in Guyana stood in support of high school girls who reported sexual violence by a teacher and rebuked the headmistress who shamed girl students for not supporting their teacher. They pushed for a response from the Ministry of Education with regard to the teacher and the headmistress. It is clear none of us can wait for annual campaigns, nor can we limit our advocacy and activism to these limited periods.

Everyone is not able to participate in global campaigns or contribute to ongoing work in the same ways, so it is important to consider various levels of involvement, time commitment, and frequency of activity. As the holidays approach and the season of giving makes us more willing to part with money, think about how can you support an organisation advocating for the rights of women or providing support to women and girl survivors of violence.

While money is always helpful, a phone call or email to find out about items needed is always welcome. The Bahamas Crisis Centre, for example, is currently in need of nonperishable food including noodles, tuna, corned beef and small packs of rice.

Whether you can give a can of tuna or a case of tuna, it would be appreciated by both the organisation and its clients.

There are always people who want to help, but are not able to give tangible items, and there is space for them too. Bahamas Sexual Health and Rights Association (BaSHRA) is running Baby Can Wait — a comprehensive sexual education program — in a few high schools this academic year and could certainly benefit from more volunteers willing to be trained and assigned a class to teach for one hour per week for ten weeks. There are many ways to take action and Equality Bahamas is sharing a new idea every day during 16-days.

The first step is to think about violence in its various forms, where it shows up in your life and how you respond to it. Every act of violence is not intentional, but is still wrong, so it is on the individual, along with organisations, to be intentional in our actions and inclusion of women and girls and all other marginalised people.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 30, 2017

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on October 18, 2017

‘MeToo’ — a campaign started by Tarana Burke and promoted by actor Alyssa Milano encouraging women to let people know they have experienced sexual harassment or assault has populated social media with evidence of the pervasiveness of sexual violence.

While it is empowering for some to be able to share their stories, or even say they have experienced something without naming or describing it, it is difficult for some people to see and understand.

It has sparked necessary conversations about sexual harassment and made it clear we need to clearly define the term and consider its effects.

In a 2015 survey conducted by Hollaback! Bahamas and Cornell University, 71.9 percent of respondents said they first experienced sexual harassment before the age of 15.

Seventeen percent reported their first experience of sexual harassment occurred before the age of 10.

We often think of sexual harassment as benign comments causing minimal harm if any at all, but over 50 percent of respondents were groped or fondled in 2015, and 80 percent had been followed by a man or group of men which made them feel unsafe.

Seventy-nine percent chose not to go out at night, 85 percent changed their route home, and 72 percent decided not to interact with a person as a result of street harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and includes verbal and physical acts of a sexual nature which violate dignity and/or create an intimidating and hostile environment.

It often depends on and abuses an existing power dynamic, used to coerce people in order to access or maintain employment or enrolment in educational institutions.

For example, in the workplace an owner, manager or supervisor may use their position and subsequent privileges to sexually coerce employees.

Suggestive remarks and inappropriate touching often go unreported because those experiencing sexual harassment fear being ostracized, terminated or facing discrimination at work.

Not limited to the workplace or educational institutions, sexual harassment frequently occurs in public spaces.

This is known as street harassment. From whistles and “Hey, baby” to following and groping, it is a daily experience for many. It disproportionately affects women, people of colour, differently-abled people and members of the LGBT+ community.

Generally, the more people are in a public space, the higher the frequency of street harassment, so those who walk and/or use public transportation are at a higher risk.

Why does this matter?

Sexual harassment, even when taking the form of comments and suggestions, is not harmless.

It is an act of violence. It is easy to dismiss this as an exaggeration, but it does not take long for an unwanted comment to escalate to physical aggression. Sexual violence is a spectrum, and while sexual harassment is seen as the lower end, it is not far from rape.

A sexual harasser ignores the same concepts and messages as a rapist. They impose themselves on other people.

They refuse to acknowledge or respect boundaries. They do not bother to get consent.

They are okay with making people feel uncomfortable.

They prioritize themselves.

They look for ways to exert their own power.

They do not care if the person says no or shows fear or anger.

They want to do what they want to do, no matter how it makes another person feel or impacts their life.

If a person can sexually harass someone in public, or in private where their job can be at risk, what else are they capable of?

What can they do behind closed doors, with no one to see, intervene or report?

Sexual harassment and the casual manner we respond to (or ignore) it contributes to the normalization of violence. It creates a world where people are free to do as they wish without consequence.

We assume everyone has the same experiences and interpretations of events as we do, and expect them to respond in the same ways.

We are slow to consider other points of view, and recognize the problem with predatory, violent behaviour whether or not it directly affects us.

Our failure to teach and talk about consent has manifested itself in generations and generations of people who have no spatial awareness, no understanding of boundaries and a belief they have the right to other people’s bodies.

What is the difference between a compliment and sexual harassment?

In discussions about street harassment a lot of time is always spent dissecting compliments and trying to draw a line between a compliment and harassment.

This is an exercise in futility because there is no clear, solid line.

This is obvious in the definition of sexual harassment which uses “unwanted” as a descriptor of the act. By definition, an act is deemed sexual harassment when the person on the receiving end does not want to experience it.

One person may find a comment acceptable while another does not. While one person may be flattered by a comment, another may be offended, angered, or fearful.

The difference between a compliment and sexual harassment is how the message is received.

This means we need to be mindful of other people’s feelings and pay attention to social cues.

If someone walks by quickly, avoids making eye contact, or is engaging in another conversation or activity, recognize that person as uninterested in your attempts to engage.

If you decide to offer a greeting and get no response, accept the lack of interest and move on. Resist the urge to impose yourself on another person.

If you give what you believe to be a compliment and get no response or a response you do not like, move on without taking up more time and space.

If your “compliment” has another result, something has gone wrong. Remember that compliments are about making other people feel good; not about making yourself feel good or reaping a reward.

Impact vs. intent

People often find the seemingly blurred line between a compliment and sexual harassment frustrating, especially when their focus is not on ending sexual harassment, but on their own desires.

If your “compliments” make someone cross the street, leave the office, or find other ways to put distance between themselves and you, you have had a different impact.

It is not unusual to affect people in unexpected, unintended ways. Sometimes we want to make people laugh, but offend them instead. There are times when we want to lighten the mood, but our actions only make things more uncomfortable.

At these times, our focus should not be on excusing or explaining ourselves. A message was not delivered properly, and it has affected other people.

Instead of considering our own feelings and getting lost in ideas of our rightness, this is the time to recognize the impact our actions had on the other people involved. Our impact is more important and deserving of our attention than our intent.

Bystander Intervention

Most of us have witness sexual harassment. We see people pull strangers by the arm to force conversation.

We hear whistles and kissing noises.

We see people being cornered by strangers. By not doing anything, we condone this behaviour and communicate that we don’t care what may happen next.

If we understand the importance of consent and ownership of our own bodies, it is on us to condemn acts of sexual violence.

We can do this by directly addressing the harasser, distracting them with a question (like which bus to take or directions to the nearest bank), asking others to help stop an act, and checking in with people who experience harassment in our presence.

There is always something we can do to help.

For more information on ending street harassment, visit facebook.com/hollaback242.