Mon | Aug 10, 2020

Kristen Gyles | Women’s interests in a very male Parliament

Published:Wednesday | July 1, 2020 | 12:09 AM
Mental health expert Dr Saphire Longmore.
Mental health expert Dr Saphire Longmore.

The ‘more women in leadership’ conversation has never really grabbed me, since I have never been a big fan of deliberately and unnaturally trying to change the demographics in leadership spaces. I have always felt that the most committed and talented people should occupy positions of leadership, regardless of gender, age, race, etc. Recent happenings have really had me thinking.

Last week’s Joint Select Committee’s parliamentary discussion surrounding the proposed Sexual Harassment Bill was very telling. Justice Minister Delroy Chuck seemed to have been scoffing at the idea of a woman coming forward “30 years later” to say she was sexually harassed in the elevator, and he reiterated that after 12 months of an incident of sexual harassment occurring, a woman ought not to attempt to make an accusation. It didn’t strike me as unusual that the one dissenting voice on the committee, to the matter of limiting the amount of time sexual harassment victims may take to come forward, was the lone mental health expert, a woman, Dr Saphire Longmore.

Given how disproportionately women are affected by sexual harassment and assault, I wonder how different the conversation would have been if there were greater female representation in Parliament. I wonder this because, with only 17 women in an 84-member Parliament, there wasn’t very much room for picking and choosing which women would form a part of this 12-member committee. What is clear is that the interests of sexual harassment victims were not adequately advocated for. If they were, Minister Chuck would not have been so comfortable making light of the ‘Me Too’ movement and advocating a position so dismissive of the many women who have faced sexual harassment.

NOT ALONE

The Me Too movement in the US started as a campaign to give support to young black women from low-income communities who have suffered sexual assault, through collective empathy and emotional empowerment. The founder of the movement, Tarana Burke, herself having been a sexual assault victim, wanted to create a platform where other victims would benefit from an understanding that they are not alone. Since 2006, when the movement was launched, it has subsequently evolved to include both women and men from all races and backgrounds. In 2017, the movement seemed to crescendo into a popular social media hashtag, where millions of women started sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and assault with the hashtag #MeToo. I don’t know if this is the unfortunate thing the minister did not wish to see repeated within our Jamaican context.

It is very unclear why the #MeToo movement carries such little credence in the minds of many of our men (especially), notwithstanding the fact that according to The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in the US (RAINN), 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are never reported. Instead of adopting a position that sympathises and seeks to understand why so many sexual assault victims don’t report, many find it easier to support a policy that would see sexual harassment victims pushed into silence after a measly 12 months.

Just for clarity, there are a few reasons well as to why many sexual assault victims do not make reports until years after the fact. The same reasons can easily explain why sexual harassment also frequently goes unreported. One is that in many cases, sexual assault victims are genuinely stunned into confusion. Especially in cases where the perpetrator is a trusted person in the victim’s life, the victim may spend years trying to understand the assault and why it happened and may not, until years after, muster the courage to speak.

An interesting piece of data shared by RAINN is that of the slew of victims who do not report, 20 per cent don’t because they fear retaliation. Quite a reasonable concern. Just about 80 per cent of perpetrators of sexual violence know the victim. If the victim is in no way protected from the accused who knows them well and could easily harm them further, why would the victim feel safe in making a report? Matters are even further complicated when sexual assault perpetrators occupy positions of power and can threaten the victim with a job loss, tarnished reputation or otherwise.

THE TRIGGER

Another contributor to the delay in reporting was borne out by Minister Chuck in Parliament. When sexual assault victims do come forward one week after the fact, we wonder out loud why they waited all of one week to make a report. Knowing this, after the passage of relatively short periods of time, many resolve to forget the matter and ‘move on’, in fear of being called a liar. And then more time elapses, reducing the likelihood of them ever reporting; that is, until there is a trigger that pushes them into finally making a report.

Some have tried to paint sexual harassment claims as being frivolous and flippant and of a totally different class from sexual assault, since harassment is in some cases non-physical. A very blurred line makes the distinction between sexual harassment and assault, since in many cases the trauma brought on by sexual harassment can be just as damaging as in the case of assault. Furthermore, sexual harassment, in many instances, does in fact get very physical.

What has been a little disappointing, yet not at all surprising, is that, as usual, the greater number of persons seemingly unable to see any issue with the minister’s unfortunate position are men. Surprise, surprise. Suddenly, there is a concern that women will start cooking up allegations of sexual misconduct simply out of idleness or malice. This shows very little understanding of the fact that sexual harassment allegations would naturally be put before a tribunal and would be examined based on the evidence available. The bill also outlines clear penalties for anyone who makes a false report.

Statistically, more women have experienced sexual harassment and are, therefore, more likely to sympathise with sufferers of sexual harassment. Similarly, there are numerous other issues that affect women either uniquely or predominantly. It is for this reason I am inclined to say the call for greater female representation in Parliament is not merely a shallow display of symbolism or tokenism, but is very practical and, in fact, very necessary.

Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator and actuarial science graduate. Email feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.