A United Nations report last week said what we suspected all along – that women in Antigua & Barbuda live every day of their lives in fear of sexual assault.
According to the data, almost one-fifth of the women polled said they feared being sexually assaulted. Of that number, 27 per cent indicated that they kept a weapon at home and 13 per cent said they travelled with one at night.
The study, which was done for the UNDP by a lecturer in Criminal Law at the University of the West Indies, rated this country along with six other Caribbean territories.
Shocking as these findings may seem to some those of us in the media know this as déjà vu. We recall distinctly three years ago when the women of this nation were terrorised by a serial rapist who was never apprehended. As a matter of fact, to this day it is unclear whether there was one rapist, two or three rapists with copycat syndrome.
We recall vividly the fear that shook the women in this land every time the news broke that another woman had woken up to find a rapist in her bedroom. We remember the vigils that were held as women banded together to protect each other.
Asked specifically whether the propensity to inflict this kind of abuse is cultural, the lecturer was unable to say. She, however, noted that Antigua & Barbuda has a very high rate of domestic violence in general; much higher than many other places. She indicated that the explanation lies in more than one factor.
We venture to posit, though, that the virulent, verbal attacks from a section of the media play no small part in this. Almost daily there are talk-show hosts who vilify prominent women in this society, oblivious to the message it sends to ordinary women and those who prey on them.
To our lasting shame we recall when the second-highest ranked woman in the land was mercilessly assaulted by a young man who was let go on a legal technicality. True, there was an outcry. But many years later what has really changed?
The lecturer also noted the one-to-one correspondence between high levels of immigration, which often go hand-in-hand with human trafficking and sexual assault. In recent times, government has had to pass legislation to address this growing problem. However, we all know there is a wide chasm between the law and what operates on the ground; and the case now before the court will determine government’s level of seriousness.
Even as the lecturer commended the work being done by the Department of Gender Affairs, she was quick to point out that the national dialogue needs to continue.
Apparently the public has failed to register these latest findings as the dubious distinction of being the country where such a high percentage of women fear being raped seemingly is lost on many. By the way, our closest rival was Jamaica with 12 per cent. The irony here is that female Caribbean immigrants might have a greater sense of safety in their country.
The findings of this Citizen Security Survey have wide-ranging implications for our policymakers. That women go to sleep at night armed speaks volumes of our faith in the law enforcement machinery. That women are prepared to take the law into their own hands is also instructive.
On a positive note, the lecturer acknowledged that the situation is not irreversible as these incidents ebb and flow. Her advice is to adopt the right mix of policies and couple them with strong leadership to change the situation around. It is up to women to make sure this happens.