Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Annie Paul | Yes, let's #saytheirnames

Published:Wednesday | February 1, 2017 | 2:00 AM

In the wake of daily revelations about the sexual abuse of young girls at the hands of much older men with power and status in Jamaica, a young activist began a hashtag titled #saytheirnames. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable endeavour, encouraging victims of sexual abuse to out their abusers by naming them so that they could be held responsible for their crimes instead of hiding behind their cloaks of respectability.

The hapless activist might as well have proposed legalising gay marriage, the chorus of naysayers was so loud and vociferous. The matter even came up during a TV discussion of which I was part, and when all three female panellists said they agreed with the campaign, the host, a man, reacted with unmitigated horror and disbelief, as if we had suggested the universal castration of men.

"You can't allow women to name whoever they feel like," he kept protesting, although none of us was suggesting anything remotely like that. No one had said the names of anyone we 'felt' like including should be listed. What we had said was that a victim of rape or sexual abuse MUST, and has the right to, call the name of the aggressor in question. Asking victims to name the perpetrators who have harmed them is surely a very basic and fundamental rule to live by. Even the five-year-old-boy who outed Pastor Hanniford for molesting his 13-year-old sister knew he had to tell his mother what had happened, despite Hanniford's attempts to silence him.

But my friend, the TV host, wouldn't countenance the thought of naming and shaming at all, and he wasn't alone in this. Other prominent journalists have expressed the same opinion. The perpetrator should be reported to the police and have his day in court, they insist. The judiciary must be the ultimate arbiter of guilt, and only then should names be revealed. This despite the fact that the subject had come up in the context of a dysfunctional justice system that more often than not fails to find the accused guilty, particularly when the perpetrator is a man of influence and standing.

Betty Ann Blaine brought one such instance to the attention of the nation six years ago in a column titled 'Rape of children - Jamaica, no problem'. It was yet another case involving a churchman, the case of the Reverend Paul Lewis, accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in Sav-la-Mar, in the presence of another 14-year old girl who testified in court to the rape.

Despite the reverend's semen being found on the child's underwear, despite the testimony of an eyewitness, despite the existence of a second charge alleging an attempt to pervert the course of justice by buying off witnesses, the Jamaican court saw fit to hand down a not-guilty verdict. As Blaine pointed out, the case was a travesty, but perhaps the outcome was predictable since it was a case involving "a mighty international televangelist" against two poor Jamaican children.

 

No exception

 

Sadly, this case was by no means the exception to the rule. Blaine said she knew of at least three cases of children under 12 - one, only 6 - in which the accused walked free despite incriminating DNA evidence.

It's time to discuss this unseemly panic on the part of Jamaican men at the prospect of their names being called when they do wrong. Why is this automatically read as an invitation to women to concoct stories about those against whom they have grudges? The refusal to name perpetrators has dangerous side effects.

In 2009, Al Jazeera carried a story titled Jamaica's 'Silent children', in which they described Jamaica as "a nation where child sex abuse is endemic". The documentary said that despite research indicating that 40 per cent of Jamaicans said their first experience of sexual contact was forced and while still under the age of consent, "taboos about reporting incest, rape and the abuse of power by older men are so entrenched that thousands of young Jamaican girls still continue to suffer in silence."

Is this a case of men's virtue being considered more important than women's? The putative damage to a man's reputation vs the actual violation of women's bodies? When it was pointed out that men have the same recourse to the legal system if wrongfully accused, several men I spoke to immediately said they couldn't rely on the justice system to vindicate them, so that was a non-starter. Yet they want women to rely solely on the creaky, corrupt courts? No, thanks, we will just continue to #saytheirnames.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.