By Alicia Wallace
International Women’s Day is on Friday, and this year’s theme is Balance for Better. The theme is broad enough to capture any number of issues, from equality in the workplace to legal reform. I was thinking about several issues that need our attention — specific to women and girls — when I read about the eight-year-old girl who was taken from her home and reportedly sexually assaulted. This is horrifying on its own and, when put in the context of a country that reeled and demanded change almost eight years ago after the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Marco Archer, it is more than infuriating. When viewed alongside the commentary shifting blame from the perpetrator, it is evidence of the attitudes and ways of thinking that keep us here.
The Tribune reported the girl was taken from her home after 1am on Sunday by a man. He took her to a house where he reportedly sexually assaulted her. Other reports say, following the assault, the girl was told to close her eyes and walk. She was in the area of Woodlawn Gardens when a passerby saw her and took her to the police station.
According to reports, two of the children in the home opened the door when the man called the name of someone living there. It was also said a man fitting the description given by the girl was seen lurking in the area on Saturday.
What is the first thing that came to your mind when you found out about this?
I first thought of the violation the child endured and the trauma she will carry with her, and the trauma her family has experienced and will live with for a long time. I ran through a list of resources I know of that she and her family can access, the inadequacy of many of them and the lack of support many service providers receive. I thought of Marco Archer and wondered what we really learned from the tragic loss of his life. Are we doing anything better, or even differently? Have we pushed hard enough for an alert system? Have we learned that perpetrators always find ways to violate people and being distracted by the imperfection of others does not address the issue?
Every time something like this happens, public discussion leads me to question our capacity, as a people, to care. Are we capable of more empathy than we display? Do people choose to compete in the cruelty olympics, or do they not realise that is what they are doing? I have seen one post after another with commenters asking questions that lead to one answer — the mother is guilty. That is the conclusion they have drawn and they want others to agree, so they ask leading questions.
What children doing up so late? How they get to the door? How many children she have? Why does she have so many children? The oldest daughter knows the man? People just in and out of that house at all hours?
These questions only serve one purpose. They are asked in order to put the focus on the mother. It may not be intended, but this a distraction from issues we desperately need to address. Children are being taken from their homes. Children are being sexually assaulted. We do not have systems to adequately respond to this. When children are reported missing and it is publicised, members of the public often ignore it, assuming the child is “bad”. Far too many people are more likely to lecture and boast about their methods of protecting themselves than to empathize with those who have been violated and demand better systems.
When people are violated, they do not need a list of things they did wrong or could have done better. They do not need to be blamed for what they experienced. They need support from systems, organisations and individuals. This includes law enforcement, social services, counsellors, and media users.
We are all expected, to some extent, to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our property. We are supposed to wear seat belts, lock our doors, hide valuables, change our passwords regularly and countless other things. For women, the list is even more exhausting and it is limitless as it requires constant adherence and significantly reduces freedom. We are told to avoid certain areas, refrain from travelling alone at night, always be prepared to make a quick escape, be know how to make a weapon of an ordinary item and be as close to invisible as possible when in public spaces.
Parents have double duty, and it is triple duty for mothers. They have to protect themselves, their loved ones, their property and teach their children safety rules and how to protect themselves. We all know children do not always listen and their behaviour does not always reflect instruction. Parents have to constantly check to make sure their children are following the rules, learning the lessons and practicing what they have been taught. If they miss a single thing and they are harmed, the family will suffer more than the event itself. It will not (only) result in the public being angry with the perpetrator, but enraged about parents they see as negligent or unfit.
It is easy to judge the mother in this situation. People question the children being awake at 1am. They question the children opening the door. The circumstances surrounding this incident are being used to characterise the household. We do not know the routine in that household, but based on what was shared in report, many have painted their own pictures. They have decided there are no rules in the house, the children are always up at all hours and people are in and out all the time. These assumptions do not have to be true, no matter how plausible they may seem given the limited information we have about one night. Whether or not they are true, it is clear too many people are more committed to being judgmental and launching rebuke than they are to pushing for the legal reform and policy changes we need.
We need to resist the urge to blame the nearest woman — especially mothers — for anything that goes wrong. There has to be a way for neighbours to engage one another and raise the alarm when they see a non-resident watching the area. Technology allows us to share information quickly, easily and widely and police should be able to issue alerts as soon as an abduction is reported.
Survivors should be able to access medical services and have any necessary testing done, whether or not they can afford to pay for it. We should be outraged about sexual violence, supportive of survivors and focused on making necessary changes to the way we respond to reports — including law enforcement and prosecution processes — and developing prevention techniques and programmes that address the problem.
Parents have responsibilities and individuals are expected to have their safety in mind at all times, but this does not shift the blame for violations away from the perpetrators themselves. Sexual violence is already under-reported. If you contribute to the silence by victim-shaming, you will have to, in all your self-righteousness, blame yourself too.