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Trinidad & Tobago: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse

The case of a 12-year old girl, who recently gave birth to her stepfather's child in Guyana, gets Outlish talking about feminism, education and the everyday reality of women in the Caribbean, while journalist and blogger Lisa Allen-Agostini says it is time to speak out about child sexual abuse.

Writing at Outlish, Tonya Haynes, the co-ordinator of CODE RED for gender justice, talks about her initial reaction when she heard the news:

The newspapers reported that after the [caesarean section] surgery she was resting comfortably. I’m not sure what they meant by that. But I know that news made me uncomfortable.

What about her right to a life free of violence? Why did this girl’s community fail to protect her from sexual abuse? Why, when they found out about it, did they remain silent? What about her right to a life free of violence?

This is why I’m feminist. Because I know the answers to those questions, and I don’t like them.

She views the problem not solely in a sexual context, explaining:

For all the attempts to convince me that there is no gender inequality in the region, and that we have made collective peace with the other forms of inequality, I know better.

I know that we view children in a hierarchical relationship to adults. We expect them to be seen and not heard. We tell them to know their place. We fail to protect them on a massive scale. How safe are public spaces now for teen girls? For gay, lesbian and transgender youth? For young men anxious to prove themselves? Hell, for grown women who just want to walk, or exercise in peace?

This is why I’m feminist. Because any form of inequality or discrimination needs to be redressed. Because gender inequality cuts across other forms of oppression.

Let’s break this down a bit.

Only 10% of Caribbean 18-30-year-olds access tertiary education, according to Sir Hilary Beckles, Principal of the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus. While we’re busy crunching the sex ratios of university education we’re forgetting the majority of Caribbean people (women and men) who just don’t have access to university. Now I’m not saying that finding out why so many young men are turned off formal education isn’t important. It is.

What I’m saying is that we also need to talk about the 90% of women and men who don’t have access. We need to talk about the Ponzi scheme that is the Common Entrance exam, which most Caribbean children take at age 11. We need to talk about how this system essentially bars many of them from access to education in the first place.

The post goes on to detail the experience of the CatchAFyah New Generation Feminist Grounding, which was recently held in Barbados:

We learnt from each other. Tracey-Ann from Jamaica shared that though her mother supported her human rights activism, she had asked her not to appear on television identifying as lesbian. Safety is a daily negotiation among partners, family and community.

Ifasina from Belize shared that because of her organization’s HIV prevention work the groups’ members were stigmatized as all being HIV positive themselves. They persevered out of a sense of conviction for the importance of their work. They went on to not only be awarded by UNAIDS for their community work, but to also win over the community members who now seek them out for the sexuality education, which they provide on location at fetes and parties.

These everyday acts of courage constitute and sustain Caribbean feminism.

Lisa Allen-Agostini, who writes for a mainstream newspaper, republishes her most recent column on child sexual abuse because:

My column in today’s Trinidad Guardian was supposed to be formatted in a certain way and it isn’t. The lack of formatting makes it incredibly difficult to read and I am sure it will make no sense whatsoever to whoever reads it there. That’s why I’m here, to repost the column with the correct formatting. I also want to share it far and wide because it’s about child sexual abuse and we can never say too much on that topic.

Referring to the high-profile Sandusky case in the United States, she talks about the importance of breaking the silence about the issue:

We in Trinidad and Tobago might imagine the Sandusky story is some alien thing, and that this could never happen here. We would be very wrong. There is child sexual abuse happening in this country at this very moment. Somewhere not far from you there is a boy or girl being seduced by someone he or she trusts, seduced with cake and money and weed and PS3’s, and love, or the facsimile of it. This seeming love is the thing that draws child victims in and shuts them up. Because the one who is seducing them seems to care, sometimes more than their own parents and siblings. These monsters will give hugs and back rubs and listening ears. They will know just what a child wants and give it unstintingly. And then they will take what they want.

She makes the point that in the Sandusky case, “it is not the victims’ silence that is the most horrifying part, but the silence of their community”:

The Grand Jury testimony gives stories of people who walked in on Sandusky lying on top of boys, showering with them, having oral sex with them, raping them. Some reported what they had seen to a superior, and those superiors did not do what the law mandated: report it to the police, investigate and take measures to protect the boys who may have been molested. (In one case, a mother did report it to the police, who subsequently dropped the investigation.)

If a child you know says a respected adult is making him or her uncomfortable, what is your first impulse? Is it to ask questions, or to brush the child aside? Do you listen to the silence, or compound it with your own? Whatever the outcome of the Sandusky trial let us take one thing away from the horrendous story: Break the Silence.

In closing, Tonya Haynes makes the point that:

Caribbean feminism is not some giant hairy man-eating monster anxious to claw its way to the top and destroy the family and society in the process. It’s a movement of ordinary diverse women (and men) like the ones I had the privilege of spending two days with: passionate, courageous and committed to being the change they want to see.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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