Jamaica is a paradox of a nation; known for it’s stunning landscapes and the warmth of its people, it is simultaneously a notoriously violent and intolerant society. Though often overlooked in favor of its tourist attractions, the island’s struggles with severe inequality and widespread poverty spawn a number of social issues. One of the most pressing is that of gender inequality.

beachsilhouetteViolence against women is often cited as one of the region’s largest problems, with Jamaica used as a flagship country for interventions over the years as a result of its markedly high levels of gender-based violence. Yet the island’s shortcomings in equality have little to do with any inherent sexism rather than rooted in poverty, allowing the flourishing of gangs in the urban areas, a lack of education for the majority of the population and a stunted social system which encourages inequality.

The country’s high unemployment and poverty rates, combined with an under-equipped police force, has allowed the rise of drug trafficking and gangs. The link between gang violence and violence against women is clear, with commentator Royes explaining,

It would appear that violence against women in Jamaica is not decreasing, but rather that it has taken a more sinister and criminal form, institutionalised in gang culture which uses women and children as part of [its] reprisal system.

As women are often wives of dons and drug runners, and are also often informers, they become targets. Thirty-two percent of all homicides on the island are attributed to revenge or reprisals, and the number of women in this percentage is rising.

Another potential side effect of the island’s significant poverty is a lack of education, lack of opportunity for social mobility or economic independence and women’s subsequent dependence on a male figure. Problematic in itself, this is only aggravated by the fact that the society is deeply patriarchal, and a certain hostility towards women seems entrenched in the culture.

The island’s hallmark dancehall music is almost characterized by its misogyny and promotion of the denigration of women. In the art scene, the popular reproduction of a local artisan’s sculpture ‘Ready Freddy’ is a none-too-subtle example of the island’s focus on male power and dominance. Socially, women are expected to put up with catcalling and casual harassment, with men seeing it as simply complimentary.

Sexual violence and rape are an offshoot of this, and rates of sexual violence on the island are elevated. In a simple but effective explanation of a culture of poverty and masculinity begetting violence, The Caribbean Quarterly explained: “…being aggressive is masculine; being sexually aggressive is masculine; rape is sexually aggressive behavior; therefore rape is masculine behavior.”

The culture of sexual violence starts young, with girls as young as 13. According to a report by Amnesty International:

  • 70 per cent of all reported sexual assaults in 2004 were recorded against girls rather than women.
  • According to self-report and population-based surveys, 17 per cent of 13 and 14 year olds in Kingston, Jamaica had experienced rape or attempted rape; the majority by adult casual acquaintances.
  • Approximately 33 per cent of girls in this age group experience either verbal enticements to have sex or unwanted physical contact. A Caribbean study found that 47 per cent of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was “forced” or “somewhat forced”. “Forced” was the term used by many Jamaican men, women and girls spoken to by Amnesty International to refer to rape.
  • One study found that 20 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds had been forced to engage in sexual activity, and that this was more prevalent in rural areas. These forced experiences occurred within relationships as well as outside them.
  • In 2002, a women’s organization providing shelter for victims of violence reported an increase in the number of girls under the age of 12 who had been kidnapped and raped.

The island’s government is strapped for resources and often diverts attention to more pressing and visible issues, as, in a poor and patriarchal country, women are often marginalized and their plight not made a priority. Jamaica’s problem of violence against women would not be solved by a simple awareness campaign; it’s roots are inextricably entangled with the nation’s political, social and economic woes. Solving women’s issues means also solving human issues and restoring human dignity, starting with fighting poverty on all levels.

Girls’ Globe has spent the last week highlighting issues of poverty and violence against women. To learn more, read:

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