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The Caribbean Misses the Mark on Gender-based Violence
We’ve reached the end of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a time set aside to internationally recognize the atrocities committed against women and girls and recommit to putting a stop to them. Despite the campaign, Caribbean women and girls were brutally assaulted and killed during those sixteen days. While families are heartsick and mourning, the public overlooks critical factors in their debates. In many ways, we have missed the mark—again.
We need to acknowledge that women and men are not vulnerable to gender-based violence in the same ways. While men are also the victims of violence, we cannot pretend that men and women are equally vulnerable to acts of violence that are committed on the basis of gender. That is a crucial distinction.
According to UN Women, up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime – the majority by husbands, intimate partners, or someone they know. In the Caribbean, the rate of rape is higher than the global average. Women and girls, more than men, are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. They are sexually harassed on the street, forced into child marriages, and suffer acid attacks, honor killings, and genital mutilation.
When men are attacked in the Caribbean, it is not because their gender confers upon them an inferior status. Also, when men are assaulted, they are most frequently assaulted by other men. The violence that men experience is abhorrent and worthy of our attention. While such violence must be treated seriously, it should not be mistakenly equated to violence against women and girls. Specifically because of their gender, women and girls are made vulnerable in particular ways that men, especially heterosexual men, are not. To ignore this is to miss the mark.
We need to acknowledge the ‘gender’ in gender-based violence. Too often, the gender dimension is left out of discussions about gender-based violence. In our society, men are seen and socialized to be in charge. A quick glance at our economic and political landscape reminds us that a man’s right to lead is unquestioned. A ‘manly man’ is one that is aggressive, dominant, virile, and in control. A respectable woman, on the other hand, is refined and chaste. She doesn’t have ‘too much lip’ and she knows her place. Moreover, the images of women’s bodies that flood our mass media teach us that women are created to provide sexual gratification.
These ideas about gender contribute to the view of women as ‘less than’ a man. So, when a man sets his girlfriend on fire, rapes his niece, or gouges out his ex-wife genitals, it is not simply because he cannot control his emotions or resolve conflict well. There are deeply embedded ideas about who owns and who is to be owned, who is in control and who is to be controlled, what makes a ‘real man’, and a woman’s rightful role to shape these encounters. To ignore this is to miss the mark.
We need to blame the perpetrators—not the victims—for gender-based violence. Victim blaming is common when it comes to gender-based violence, with the public scrutinizing a woman’s appearance or behavior instead of a man's decision to rape her. What we need to do is to place the blame squarely at the feet of the perpetrator, which is the only place it belongs. At the end of the day, the choice to assault a woman lies with the offender. When we insist upon excusing, rationalizing, and justifying horrific acts, we fail to hold the culprit fully accountable.
Gender-based crimes seem to be the only ones where the victim has to prove her innocence. To continue to blame everyone and everything, except the person who actually committed the violent act, is to sorely miss the mark.
As long as women and girls continue to be violated, we will continue to have public discussions about gender-based violence. But in order for the conversations to be effective, they have to fundamentally change. We must stop dismissing and ignoring the gender dynamics at play. Only then will we stop missing the mark.