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Let’s focus on eradicating sexual violence

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It was my intention that, in view of the month of March being observed as National Heritage Month, and given International Women’s Day falling in March as well, I would devote my weekly columns to issues relating to those themes. My predisposition also is related to the unholy obsession in our society on partisan political matters, often to the detriment of broader and far more important economic and social issues.{{more}} It is as if, as the saying goes, “we can’t see the woods because of the trees”.

It is however difficult to ignore the precipice over which this internecine political struggle seems destined to propel us all. If we were unaware of the dangers, last week’s disgraceful scenes inside and outside our Parliament are the clearest warning signals yet. Have we lost the voice of reason? Are we so determined to have our own way that it does not matter at what cost? At the end of it all, no matter on whose shoulders the blame falls, it is our country and our people who will be the biggest losers. I shall have more to say, most appropriately when the House of Assembly next meets, because I want to comment today on matters relevant to the welfare of our females, on the occasion of International Women’s Day (IWD).

I cannot but ask, nevertheless, what is the relevance of the fancy-named Ministry of National Reconciliation to what is happening to our country? Clearly there is a pressing need for political cooling-off and reconciliation, but how is the new Minister and his Ministry addressing this? If not at this hour of need, when?

To turn to our females, this year’s IWD seems to be a rather low-keyed affair, a trend that has developed in recent years. At a time when participation of women in such activities should be on a massive scale, the very opposite is the case. By contrast, our women are active leaders in the on-going political fracas. They form the bedrock of both political parties and are often the cannon fodder in their political battles. If our women can so stand up and be counted, why are they not taking a more active role in promoting their own causes and defending their own interests? How come, neither of the political tribes is placing emphasis on mobilizing women to defend and advance women’s rights?

It is a pity that, 37 years after we began celebrating IWD in St.Vincent and the Grenadines, such an internationally-recognized event should be so low on our local calendar of priorities. The status of women has improved significantly over those almost-four decades, but it seems that the more educated and qualified they have become, the less is attention paid to the fundamental rights of all women. Leadership, or lack of it, may be a contributing factor, but that does not excuse the little more than lip-service we pay to International Women’s Day and its relevance to the women of our nation.

Perhaps the shift, externally driven, to an emphasis on “Gender Affairs” rather than on Women’s Affairs, a necessary step, may have caused us to forget that we had not yet won the battle for equity and fairness in relations between men and women. We still have a long way to go in this regard, but sadly we behave as though all is well in that regard and we only have to move on to the next level. That is far from being true.

Let us take a very serious social problem affecting women, violence against women, especially sexually-related violence. It is a most appropriate topic, both on account of IWD but also because of recent revelations of girls as young as 10 and 11 years old giving birth to children. There cannot be a clearer example of sexual violence, but our society seems more concerned with saucy chatter about homosexual activity between teachers and students, focusing sadly on the perpetrators rather than on the plight of the abused.

The Gender Affairs Department is currently implementing a project on “Ending Gender-based violence in the Caribbean”, together with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police. The project consists in part of a baseline Study Report trying to understand the reasons for low conviction rates in respect of sexual assault in St.Vincent and the Grenadines and to consider corrective actions which may be necessary.

At a cursory glance the statistics provided by the local police give cause for alarm. A series of tables details figures for sexual offences in SVG during the decade of the 2000s, ranging from rape and attempted rape, intercourse with under-age females in two categories (under-15 and under-13), incest and indecent assault. Overall, the statistics show a decrease in the period 1999-2002 (from 189 to 114), then an alarming jump to 185 cases in 2003 and a further rise past the 200 mark in 2005. After another drop (2006/2008), the figure again shot past the 200 mark in 2009.

In the last two years in particular, 2008 and 2009, there was a worrying increase in cases of intercourse with minors. By regional comparison, SVG has one of the highest incidences of rape in the Caribbean, with a figure of 112 per 100,000 persons, more than double Jamaica’s rate of 51 per 100,000, St. Kitts (45), three times that of Dominica (34), four times that of Barbados(25), and over six times the rate for Trinidad and Tobago (18).

These figures by themselves reveal that we have a deep social problem relating to our women, our young girls in particular. Rant and rave as we like over our politics, these are issues which need to be addressed with urgency. International Women’s Day should be used as an occasion to emphasize that we must deal with these gross violations of the rights of our women. In saluting our women on the occasion, I wish to urge all, men and women alike, to give their support to the Gender Affairs Division, UNIFEM and the police in the implementation of the project and, above all, to call on our women, particularly the more educated and privileged, to play their part in eradicating this scourge in our midst.

The same passion we have for our politics must be employed in our fight to protect our women and young girls.

Let zero tolerance be our lodestar.