Dalea Bean | What’s the matter with all violence matters?
In a set of recent tweets, Parliamentarian Juliet Holness offered a commentary on the futility of addressing violence by focusing on gender, triggering a renewed conversation about the real causes of violence in the nation. For many, the comments were insensitive, particularly from one of only 18 current sitting female parliamentarians, and most importantly, in the midst of a notable uptick in violence, murder, sexual abuse of Jamaican women, the least of which is the ongoing assault debacle surrounding her own party colleague, member of Parliament (MP) George Wright.
Holness noted: “We need to stop seeing acts of violence in a partisan or a gender specific way so we can address the root of our problem, which continues to affect every class, race, gender, political or sexual orientation.” In one fell swoop, Mrs Holness has undermined the recent spate of specific crimes against women and girls perpetrated as a result of their gender as well as the work of hundreds of local activists and scholars who have spent numerous lifetimes waging war against GBV (gender-based violence). Borrowing from Spice: “I feel a way.”
But apart from these insults, which though wounding, were probably unintentional, what is the real issue with saying that all violence matters? The popular #BlackLivesMatter movement from the United States gives a fitting backdrop for why such statements are inherently insidious and inimical to real progress and change. Responses to #BlackLivesMatter through shouts of All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, or White Lives Matter are never intended to broaden the conversation or seat conversations in unity of purpose. They are intended to counter a movement that is challenging the status quo and bringing much-needed attention to a specific issue disproportionately plaguing a specific undermined community. #BlackLivesMatter is not intended to suggest that black lives should be or are more important than all other lives. Instead, it is pointing out that black people’s lives are relatively undervalued in the US and that they are more likely to be ended by police, and the country needs to recognise that inequity to bring an end to it.
Let us think of this this way: if your grandmother, aunt, and your brother died from breast cancer, this may inspire you to become a breast cancer advocate. You raise funds for research, you wear pink every October, and you may even become a specialist oncologist as a result of that personal experience. Are there other cancers? Yes. Are there some common underlying issues that link various forms of cancers? My now fading sixth form biology and keen attention to numerous medical shows since then leads me to say yes. But does anyone go to a breast cancer research facility with placards yelling “All Cancers Matter” and belittling the importance of this specific disease with its own peculiarities, causes, consequences, and remedies? Well, if anyone has, they would surely seem insensitive and tone deaf. Yes, all cancers matter, all lives matter, and all violence should be fixed. But there are specific pathways to problem solving that warrant a look at the nuances associated with each scenario. The same is true for gender- based violence, which, simply defined, refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power, and harmful norms.
ON THE MARK
Mrs Holness is quite on the mark in saying that root causes of violence need to be unearthed in this Small Island Developing State that is so violent that our murder rates per capita rival those of war-torn countries. It is also accurate that gender socialisation teaches us that men’s bodies are duplicitously “superior” to women’s but also more dispensable. It is men who have traditionally fought wars, and it is men’s bodies that bear the brunt of violent crime in most countries. Men are expected to defend and make the ultimate sacrifice to save “women and children” from harm. Men’s risky behaviour to constantly buttress their masculinity and poor health-seeking habits make them key candidates for life-threatening harm. It is for these and other reasons why deaths of men are usually less jarring than women’s (who are portrayed in collective consciousness as weaker and more in need of protection because of their childbearing and nurturing roles).
As social anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle has also offered, women are disproportionate victims of men’s wars in which they play less critical roles. This facilitates an extra umph of outrage when women are harmed as opposed to men. Mrs Holness is also touching an important nerve when she says that “many of our institutions have perpetuated violence, inclusive of our educational system, our domestic practices, and some of our disciplinary beliefs”. However, instead of seeing this truth as a reason to remove gender from the equation, it is very reason to mainstream gender as it remains at the core of much of the violence we experience and see daily.
For instance, much work has been done on the extent to which violence in schools in based on gender. The educational system, predicated on deep-seated gendered norms, is a prime breeding ground for poor gender socialisation, which, unfortunately, often begins in the home. In schools, boys are socialised to be hard, tough, and they receive harsher punishments at a time of their lives when they are the most vulnerable but are also often absolved of micro aggressions towards girls or other boys exhibiting any sign of a subordinated masculinity. The adage “boys will be boys” guides much of how young men are raised, and it excuses toxic, violent, and harmful behaviours as necessary collateral damage in the raising of strong, heterosexual men. Many girls, on the other hand, often suffer in silence as their developing bodies become public property for some boys and men in their school environment. Leering looks, sexualised comments, physical assault, and sexual harassment are well-documented features of girls’ school experiences.
VIOLENT LOVE PLAY
Combined with these realties is our tendency, as Mrs Holness hints, to show love through aggression and beatings of children. When we raise children under the whip and express that love is the basis of this method of correction, we instil in them that physical violence is a sign of love and care. Hitting can then become a violent love play that continues into adulthood. However, gender cannot be omitted as it is mainly women who experience beatings (particularly from male partners) because like children, they are seen as inherently inferior to men, in need of occasional discipline and control in order to keep them in line and in place. Importantly, this view is not only held by some men, but perpetuated by some women as well.
In patriarchal societies the world over, women and men have very different lived experiences. Jamaica is no different. Here, men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes, particularly at the hand of strangers, but women are much more likely to suffer sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, and death from an intimate partner. One in four Jamaican women between 15 and 64 years of age experience physical and or sexual violence from their intimate partners or non-partners. One out of five women experience sexual abuse during childhood, mostly by someone who they know, and one out of four women report being sexually harassed. It is women who are encouraged to not go out alone at night, not wear certain revealing clothes, not to accept a drink from anyone at a party and to call to let someone know when they get in safely. The reality is that women are an endangered specie for specific reasons, and they are often faulted for their own endangerment.
Conversations with women living with disabilities also reveal that those who are abused by an intimate partner have been told by police that their claims are false because no one would “deh wid yu”. On the other hand, men who suffer abuses from female partners are laughed out of police stations as “weak men” while those who are abused by same-sex partners often face more abuse rather than receiving assistance from government services set up to secure human rights and dignity for all. These realities are all based on gendered expectations and socialisation and must surely warrant different strategies than those used to combat organised crime, praedial larceny, robberies, and fraud.
As Bob Marley groaned: “There is so much trouble in the world.”. Indeed, there is so much trouble in Jamaica as well. We remain an enigma of beauty and beastly behaviours. Our crime rate is high, and violence is endemic. But excluding gender is among the worst possible ideas in a long history of largely infective crime-fighting theories with which this country has been presented. Gender is at the heart of much of the violence in our country, regardless of sex of the victim and perpetrator, and violence against women has particular roots, which must be named and framed in order to be unearthed and destroyed. All violence does matter, but so does gender. Gender matters.
- Dalea Bean, PhD is lecturer and graduate coordinator at Institute for Gender & Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office, University of the West Indies. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org