Imani Tafari-Ama | Rape is no laughing matter
One in four women in Jamaica experiences sexual violence at least once in their lives. UN Women also reports that Jamaica has one of the highest rates of rape in the Caribbean. Many cases of sexual assault go unreported, though, and there is a culture of silence surrounding rape, incest, and other forms of sexual abuse. This is because in many cases, the victim internalises the violation and feels ashamed, guilty, stigmatised, abandoned, and associated emotions. Underreporting is also fuelled by fear of the deadly reprisals that can result from “informing” or telling the authorities what one knows about crimes.
Children, especially the girl child, are also at risk of sexual violation. Queen Ifrica’s Daddy Don’t Touch Me There broke a deafening silence surrounding incest, a cultural taboo subject, which is nevertheless quite prevalent. An examination of data reported over the last decade shows an increase in cases of child abuse over time. Further investigation is required to figure out if there has been a genuine increase in child abuse or increases in the number of reported cases. Both inferences may be correct.
In 2015, the rape rate in Jamaica was 21.3 per 100,000. In that year, of the reported 3,806 cases of sexual abuse, 91 per cent of victims were females. The sexual abuse of boys is shrouded in secrecy because of the cultural taboo against same-sex relations. According to seasoned lawyer Bert Samuels, rape cases are also difficult to prosecute especially if evidence like sperm is removed before a medical examination of the victim is conducted. In such cases, evidence must be deduced from the victim’s testimony and held against the perpetrator’s response.
Against this backdrop, it is understandable that many Jamaicans are desensitised to violence. This indifference is due to the deep entrenchment of multiple forms of abuse in the body politic. Despite this trend, the nation was shocked in the second week of Child’s Month, on Tuesday, May 9, by the abduction, rape, and imprisonment of a seven-year-old girl by an 18-year-old man in the parish of St Mary. Considering that the perpetrator kept the child’s bag over her head during her ordeal, one has to wonder whether the girl knew him. It is also a mixed blessing that after being locked up for some hours, the girl managed to escape and find her way back home. However, like so many victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), she cannot avoid the scarring and trauma that she will always carry in her memory.
After committing the cowardly crime, the culprit, who garnered his momentary power by assaulting a defenceless child on her way to school, was found by the police, cowering under a bed. The young adult’s abuse of a child and his infantile response of hiding under the bed suggests that as a child, he might also have been abused and could have, predictably, become an abuser himself. Speculation aside, it will be instructive to learn what the facts reveal for solution strategies since so many rape cases have yet to be cleared up.
Rape of a minor is defined as carnal abuse. This semantic variation is used even if the child suffers the brutality of having her vagina penetrated by the perpetrator’s penis, or any other instrument, without her consent. Since 16 has been designated the age of sexual consent – although the girl is a child until the age of 18 – the rape of this child is a double whammy. With so many threats to citizen security in today’s Jamaica, many parents no longer trust that their children are safe to go to school or run errands by themselves.
Beyond the horrific impact of the physical assault, psychosocially speaking, a rapist’s attack is about power even more than sex. In many cases, victims are raped by people they know, including friends or family members. Rape is also weaponised during war to terrorise communities and command their compliance with enemy orders. The psychosocial dimension of the abuse resides in the satisfaction that the perpetrator gets from dominating the victim. This indicates that the rapist is usually also suffering from a mental health anomaly, which drives his antisocial behaviour.
NORMALISATION OF SEXISM
The normalisation of sexism as an organising principle of power is what connects the heinous actions of the St Mary rapist to the impunity with which an anonymous supporter of the People’s National Party (PNP) allegedly assaulted with a verbal threat of rape. While the PNP later suggested that the threat was not directed at anyone but instead represented “banter” between comrades – rape and its power apparatus is no laughing matter. The sense of entitlement that accompanied the utterance (directed at whomever) is problematic. Like the misguided man who raped the seven-year-old, this loose cannon has grown comfortable with thinking that his possession of a penis affords him (violent) penetrating power over women.
The PNP’s disingenuous disclaimer that it does not support violence bounced resoundingly off the cynical sensibilities of anyone who was born before the 1990s. The very idea that the PNP owns the rights to wear orange clothing and that their Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) opponents should wear green is part of a divide-and-rule machinery of gangster politics that has cost many lives in the six decades since independence. So, no, the unfortunate rape remark is not the responsibility of one hapless unnamed party supporter. It is the burden of all those who keep silent while benefiting from the aggrandizement that comes from the political clubbing.
The PNP statement also failed to address the skeletons in the closets of both the PNP and the JLP when it comes to the use of violence to create garrison communities. These housing enclaves were created to colonise the votes of the citizens who grew up within this model of pork barrel politics. Politicians are also beholden to the private sector, which they depend on to fund elections. This must mean that there is a political economy of patriarchy and a corresponding complicity with the rape thinking that maintains the sexist status quo. Addressing this complex issue requires challenging societal attitudes towards gender and sexuality as well as providing support to empower victims to come forward and seek justice.
- Imani Tafari-Ama, PhD, is a Pan-African advocate and gender and development specialist. Send feedback to email@example.com.