Neleen S. Leslie | A monster of our making
"Not another one." These are the words I whisper to myself when yet another child's face pops up on my screen: missing. Violence against women and children is at an all-time high. Not a day passes without new reports of lost, abused, or murdered women and children. The oft-heard lament of "what is Jamaica coming to?" and pleas for divine intervention seem to have no effect. We have failed to recognise, and admit, that this monster we now face is one of our own creation.
My first proposition from an adult male came when I was 12. He was a bus conductor. I had just started first form. This would be the first of many over subsequent years. After all, I was a Manning's girl, one of the most desirable commodities to the type of men in Westmoreland who preyed on teens.
I will never forget walking in Savanna-la-Mar during my high-school years when a grown man, a stranger, pinched my breast as I walked down the street. I was appalled that a perfect stranger, without hesitation, violated me, in public, while others watched, and did nothing. No one said anything. I scurried off about my business, thinking I had done something to encourage him somehow. I did not tell my parents.
It was common for girls, as young as seventh-graders, to be in full-blown relationships with taxi drivers, teachers, and other adult men who seemed only to date young girls in uniform. The disapproval of all who watched these illicit affairs unfold would be levelled at the young ladies, the children. They would be accused of "acting like big woman", and wagers would be made about how long it would take for a 'belly' to appear. Rarely was the adult in the relationship, the grown man, treated with similar disdain. These relationships were some of the worst-kept secrets.
In our communities, it was the same. Secret liaisons and teenage pregnancies were part of our reality. Every year, another one or two of our friends got pregnant, and regardless of the laws of the land, nobody went to jail. The shamed girls would drop out of school, occupy the back bench in our churches, be kicked out of their parents' homes and, ultimately, shack up with what was now their sole support system, babydaddy, the perfect breeding ground for another unspeakable tragedy.
Women, completely dependent, without familial support are the perfect targets and have been the most common victims of domestic violence in our country. Even worse off is the woman who is told to lie in the bed she has made - by her family.
A roof over her head and food in her and her children's bellies are her most pressing concerns; personal safety is secondary.
The sad fact, is that my community is one of hundreds across the island with that same history. My experience of assault at the hands of men, familiar or stranger, is not unique. An even more heartbreaking truth is that today, many years later, not much has changed.
The cycle of sexual abuse and violence against women and children continues to be perpetuated, aided and abetted by our wilful neglect. We look away from the black eyes and harden our hearts when we hear the screams, all under the guise of minding our own business. We whisper behind our hands when we see a schoolgirl cuddling up to an adult. Admit it. We do it.
We are at a tipping point, and this problem cannot be properly addressed without tackling the socio-cultural issues at their root. The time has come for us to develop a holistic approach that involves a greater commitment to enforcing our current laws and stiffer penalties for crimes committed. However, this must be accompanied by a national thrust to reshape the way individuals view and respond to situations of sexual abuse - including statutory rape and domestic violence.
While we rely on our leaders to craft a national strategy for the prevention of violence against women and children, we all have a part to play. Our communities need to be part of the solution. We must hold each other accountable and protect those at risk.
- Neleen S. Leslie, PhD, is programme director of graduate studies at UTech. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.