Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Gender-based violence and the relevance of feminism

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Last Sunday Gleaner's sensational news item, 'Gender-based assaults haunt UWI', claims the campus "is a haven for those who assault and harass women". The university administration responded that "it is not aware of wide-scale cases of gender-based violence on campus" that and the guild president indicated "that isn't one of the things we are giving priority attention at this time ... . I agree we should be encouraging persons to come forward and build awareness about these issues, but right now, unfortunately, we don't have those as one of our priority issues".

Violence against women at universities and everywhere else is a global phenomenon and it would not be out of place if this were also the case at UWI, Mona. The extent of violence against women at Mona is not clear, but we are given an opportunity to have serious discourse on the matter of gender violence. It is important that we seek some deeper understanding of it, including why it emerges in terms of the peculiarities of patriarchy (male domination), the complex experiences of women and the absence of feminist movements in the contemporary Caribbean.

FIGHTING FOR POWER

Violence is a means through which power and order are established. Violence against women is about the production of a certain type of order in which women are subordinate. Patriarchy depends upon ideas of masculinity that define manhood as willing to use violence to secure men's power. Presumably, men need violence to defend themselves, their property and territory, women included; and presumably, women benefit from men's defence of them as they are weak and in need of men's protection.

The trade-off for women is that they must know their place in relation to men. If they do not stay in their place, violence is likely to be used against them to restore order in power relations between men and women, including as it relates to men's rights to women's bodies and to make decisions about women's bodies. Indeed, patriarchy also produces hierarchies among men. Consequently, men seen as weak or effeminate, poor or homosexual, are also subject to violence as a way of establishing order within sexual and gendered power relations. In certain cases then, violence against boys and men can be viewed in terms of sexual and gender power. Addressing violence in Jamaica requires an assessment of why some groups experience more violence than others - women, homosexuals, working-class men, and children - and why others are more protected (such as middle- and upper-class heterosexual men).

CRISIS OF MASCULINITY

Our present context is shaped by anxieties about the marginalisation of men and the advance of women in the Caribbean. We might say this leads to a crisis of masculinity and renews attempts to secure patriarchal power. These anxieties have overshadowed the evidence which shows that though Caribbean women are advancing, they continue to be over-represented in low-wage sectors of the economy; are overburdened in economies of care (for families), especially given the rolling back of the welfare role of the State; face limitations on their reproductive autonomy; face stigmatisation of various kinds; and are under-represented in leadership.

For UWI, there is expressed concern about male enrolment on campus but no equal alarm regarding the imbalance of power in favour of men. While female students outnumber males at a rate of 7:1, men predominate in student government and in the governance structure of the university. How can we come to terms with the mixed evidence about women's progress and the discrepancy between sources who claim high levels of violence against women and the view of the university administration?

We know that under-reporting is a major problem in relation to the management of sexual and other violence against women, and silence is, therefore, an important means through which it is perpetuated. Girls and women are shamed when they tell their stories in these contexts, and developing mechanisms to give them space to speak has to be a priority. Their ability to speak up and out is a direct product of their relationship to power, and we, therefore, have to address the problem of power.

We do not sufficiently critique the patriarchal contours of power in Jamaica. Feminist critiques that decry male privilege are deemed an assault upon men and are seen to reinforce their presumed marginality. In the absence of a strong feminist movement, there is little to ensure a move towards more equal power structures between men and women. We may accept some advances for women, but if they request too much and advance too much and love other women instead of men, we must return them to their places, including their place as women in search of 'eligible' husbands on university campuses rather than as women on the move. Women are kept in their places through assaults on their person, through humiliating them, stereotyping them as whores and failed mothers, through leaving them with enormous amounts of unpaid work at home and low-paid work outside the home. We reproduce patriarchal power by failing to prioritise issues that affect women in a world that perpetually humbles and burdens them. Gender-based violence will remain a feature of our societies until male dominance and the ideas that sustain it are overturned.

n Dr Maziki Thame is a lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mazawati@yahoo.com.