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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Mon Jun 5 05:37:14 2000
Date: Sat, 3 Jun 2000 15:10:02 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: WOMEN-CARIBEAN: Despite Legislation, Violence Against Women Continues
Article: 97563
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Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Despite Legislation, Violence Against Women Continues

By Corinne Barnes, IPS, 1 June 2000

KINGSTON, May 31 (IPS) - Unable to tolerate her stepfather's sexual abuse any longer, Gwen Smith was forced to run away from home when she was 13 years old. With no financial support she lived on the streets of this capital city for many years, surviving on what she could beg or steal.

Soon she turned to prostitution as she continued the search to earn a living. During those years she says she thought of committing suicide several times but did not have the courage to go through with it.

Just as she thought all was lost she met a farmer who promised to take care of her if she would go home with him. She was happy to accept the offer.

But only a few months after her first pregnancy, the first of many years of physical abuse started. With no other option available to her, she was forced to remain in this abusive situation for 10 years during which she gave birth to five children.

Smith, now 36, is one of thousands of Caribbean women who are faced with violence daily.

According to a new UNICEF report, violence is the most pervasive abuse of the rights of women and girls throughout the world, affecting 20 to 50 percent, depending on the country or region.

In some societies, it begins at birth with the abortion of female foetuses. In some, there is sexual abuse of young girls in the mistaken belief that sex with a young virgin can cure sexually transmitted diseases.

In 28 African and Middle East countries about two million girls are victims of genital mutilation each year.

These and other forms of violence against women and girls are among the issues for discussion at the United Nations Special Sewssion on Gender Equality in New York Jun 5-9.

In Jamaica, statistics from the Women's Crisis Centre, which provides counselling and shelter for women who have been the victims of violent crimes indicate that in 1989 the Centre dealt with 2,226 women who had been victims of rape, domestic violence and incest. By1999 that figure had risen to 6,680.

An average 90 women have been murdered in Jamaica in each of the last three years.

According to Women's Media Watch, a Jamaican feminist watchdog group, 20 percent of all Jamaican women between the ages of 15 and 55 have been assaulted by a man.

In Trinidad and Tobago, 16 women were murdered in domestic violence situations in 1999.

Under-reporting and an inadequate collection and compilation of statistics make it difficult to get an accurate picture of the extent of violence against women in the wider Caribbean region.

However, " it appears from newspaper reports and from anecdotal evidence that violence against women, for all the attention the issue has been given in the decade of the 1990s shows no signs of decreasing and may in fact be on the rise," says Dr. Len Ishmael, Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Ministerial Conference on Women held in Trinidad last year.

And although laws exist in several of these Caribbean islands aimed at protecting women, the situation persists.

For instance, since the international conference on women held in Beijing in 1995, legislation has been enacted in several Caribbean islands including, the British Virgin Islands, Guyana, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda.

Prior to 1995, legislation , all of a similar nature had been enacted in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Belize, St. Vincent and St. Lucia.

Only Dominica and Grenada are still without specific legislation on domestic violence.

In most of these countries the new legislation places priority on threatened or actual violence by extending a range of injunctive orders for the protection of the victim.

. But some argue that the laws, while necessary in the fight against violence against women, if not vigorously enforced make no difference to the plight of women in the region.

"Domestic violence is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon which is international in scope and destructive to the fabric of society. It requires a multi- sectoral approach involving government, private and international agencies, as well as non-governmental and community legislative and non-legislative types in every aspect of life," says Penelope Beckles an attorney and president of the Rape Crisis Centre as well as a member of the non-governmental organisation, Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Implementation must be a collaborative effort among law enforcement officials, non-governmental organisations, the politicians and the justice system, she says.

"Legislation doesn't mean a thing, it's just pen and paper. The average guy in his home doesn't care and when he's in a state of anger he's going to beat his woman. Most men aren't aware of the laws but in a moment of passion they don't care," says Jamaican newspaper columnist Tony Robinson.

Pamela McNeil, head of the Women's Centre in Jamaica , an organisation that assists teenage mothers with continuing their education, says legislation is of little use in Caribbean societies because violence against women is a manifestation of the deep resentment that men feel toward women.

"I don't think legislation is going to do it, we have to change people's attitudes. Of course you have to have laws but if we keep thinking in terms of legislation, we'll never get anywhere. We might just end up with a lot of laws that no one observes," she says.

Joyce Hewitt, a Jamaican women's rights advocate agrees. "We have to change the way men see women, view women and feel about women in terms of women being property.

"We also have to change the way that women see themselves, they must have self-respect and self-esteem," she adds.

Education about resolving conflicts must also include police officers who intervene in domestic disputes in a manner which only exacerbates the problem. The law enforcement officers often introduce additional violence into the situation by beating abusive men and hauling them off to jail, says Hewitt.

"This can make it worse for the women, the children and everyone involved. It solves nothing. They've got to learn a different way of handling domestic situations. They need to become facilitators of peace and be someone who is intervening and helping with conflict resolution," says Hewitt.

And according to Jamaican attorney-at-law, Antoinette Haughton, although the existing legislation is a vast improvement when compared to the laws which were previously on the books, they are weak in some areas.

She says in the Jamaican situation, for example, the Act allows a woman to get an abusive man out of the house, but it does not address the issue of maintenance so when the man leaves the woman still has to pay rent, light bills and water bills and in many cases women can't afford it."

"The issue of maintenance needs to be dealt with because if a woman is going to be left without support, this will act as a deterrent when she thinks about using the Act. If she is not economically independent there is no place for her to go," says Haughton.



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