Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Girls aren't disposable

Published:Tuesday | March 10, 2015 | 12:00 AM

In one week, as International Women's Day, Jamaica added two known cases of femicides or murders of the 'girl child'. For Abigail and Kayalicia were not just killed, and are not just victims of our ultimate cruelty to our children. One was pregnant, sexually violated. Their deaths reflect the persistent violence, gender-based violence (GBV), against women and girls, almost always by known men.

When we speak of their deaths, not recognising the underlying causes of gender-based violence, we are essentially being complicit in these crimes.

We must name 'it' to understand 'it'. Violence Against Women/GBV may not always end in death. It happens on our university campuses; when we use sexist, silencing language to female colleagues, whether in the boardroom, or in Parliament to our prime minister, or "the maid"; or in our bedrooms where we still have a provision in law that condones marital rape. It is about power and control - not love.

This month, almost 200 governments will agree to a political declaration to accelerate commitments made at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women's Equality Rights - 20 years ago. Known as The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 12 Critical Areas of Concern were prioritised. Three of these directly speak to how not to allow the violation and murder of Abigail and of Kayalicia: Violence against Women (VAW)[and Girls]; Women's Human Rights; and The Girl Child.

To the joy and pride of Caribbean women, in 1995, CARICOM, including our current prime minister, represented us spectacularly and played a pivotal role. Twenty years later, Caribbean women and human rights defenders are asking why our region now has, as studies show, one of the highest rates of VAW/GBV, which has increased over the last 10 years, including femicides.

 

High rates of forced sex

 

Young women such as Abigail and Kayalicia are the worst off. Jamaica has one of the highest rates of forced or coerced sex of girls under 16. Most CARICOM countries report increasing cases where young women are 'given' to older men, in lieu of money and bill payment - transactional sex - found mainly in low-income urban and rural communities. Young women's bodies are also used as 'collateral damage' by criminal gangs, sometimes political.

It is not a surprise that young women 14-19 remain the age group with a persistent, growing incidence of being HIV+ or living with AIDS. The UN secretary general calls it the "twin pandemic of VAW and HIV and AIDS". The World Health Organization has designated VAW as a public-health issue. A report on St Vincent & the Grenadines calls it a "cultural epidemic".

Young women who are perceived to be or identify as lesbian, bisexual or transgender are subjected to 'corrective rape', sanctioned by some faith groups and families, to gang-rape them out of being LBT!

Many cases of VAW/GBV happen with impunity - perpetrators may never be reported, much less charged, even if it is the job of our police to do so regardless.

 

Educate them

 

CARICOM has gone backwards on this issue - the rights of girls (and boys) are not being protected. Barriers abound to making them aware of how their bodies work, where they can access correct information on sex, sexuality, pregnancy, STIs, etc. Their sexual and reproductive health and rights are being violated.

This is a fundamental component of women's and children's human rights.

Yet, we have allowed international and home-grown religious extremism and fundamentalism of various forms to impact legislation and programmes and our highest offices. We worry about information causing pregnancy! Meanwhile, girls and women die.

It is a fact that when children are taught the value and integrity of their bodies, including how to understand their 'God-given' sexuality, they are better able to protect themselves, and the rate of sexual violations of girls and boys is less - we have safer, healthier communities.

What obtains now is unacceptable and dual-natured (hypocritical): in Jamaica, medical practitioners, educators, counsellors and social workers could be criminalised for giving information that may allow girl and boys to better protect themselves. This does not narrowly mean access to contraceptives and having sex!

Even now, we do not have a sexual-harassment law, condemning significant numbers of women and girls to abuse on

our streets, at schools, faith-based organisations, workplaces, etc. Beijing offered an interconnected plan - we cannot then cherry-pick.

Finally, in the Americas, on average, 26 per cent of parliamentarians are female; CARICOM has the lowest, at 18.3 per cent. Representation matters in our budgeting, policymaking and programme implementation.

Women's groups and other social justice organisations such as the Caribbean Male Action Network, have stayed the course by contributing hours of work to policymaking, programme development and action plans not implemented. Broken promises do cost lives.

- Joan Grant Cummings is a member of the Caribbean Development Activists Women's Network (Caribbean DAWN), a women's-rights advocacy and research organisation. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.