ALICIA WALLACE: Whispered secrets which tell a much deeper story

Everyone is talking now, just as they were before, but with voices that are a little louder. It almost seems as though there is less fear. Memories are being jogged as stories are spilling and judgments are being made. People are finally saying, in spaces where more people can hear them, that they knew at least a part of what was allegedly happening behind the walls at Peter Nygard’s Lyford Cay home.

“I knew.”

“We all knew.”

“Everyone knew it was true.”

“I worked with someone who...”

This is not the first time these stories have come to mind, been shared widely, or prompted a range of responses. Who could help but be horrified, disgusted, or angered when hearing about the ways girls have allegedly not only been sexually violated, but silenced by money? How could we ignore the deep-rooted issues that allow this to happen – in this large, publicised case and in other cases, smaller, that have also been shrouded in silence and buried by money and shame.

Rape culture and victim blaming have allowed predators to get away with sexual violence. Sexual assault becomes normalised. Predatory behaviour becomes normalised. We forget what is and is not truly normal. We fall into the habit of finding reasons the survivor caused or deserved whatever happened, often in the attempt to convince ourselves that it could never be us because we would not have said or done whatever the survivor did. Surely it was something they said or did that put them in that position. We are smarter than them. We are better than them. We could never be them. This thinking comes from the illusion of safety combined with a sense of superiority that allows us to ostracise and belittle the vulnerable.

The acts described in the court document about Peter Nygard’s alleged violation of girls – children, all under the age of 18 – are vile. In them, we can easily recognise intent to cause harm, the means to cause harm and the way resources of the rich and powerful are used to keep them rich, powerful and free. There are numerous people to blame, from the perpetrator himself to his operatives and enablers. It is both useless and wrong to blame to the survivors themselves. We have to recognise that some of the people complicit, having helped to bring more girls to the predator, are also survivors. Some of them were doing what they thought they had to do to get by. Some of them did not see any other choice.

Recall Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis saying the Progressive Liberal Party would address the issue of marital rape, then saying it is not a priority because the economy is more important. Think about what that means, then review the allegations made against Nygard. Consider the connection between the economy and society. Understand that the state of the economy affects and is affected by social issues. One cannot be separated from the other, and one cannot be put ahead of the other.

People experiencing poverty are often preyed upon, and women, girls, and LGBT+ people are often reduced to sexual objects, not by coincidence or because it is innate, but because their economic vulnerability is recognised, weaponised and used for profit by people in positions of power.

For some of us, the only thing we own is our bodies. This sometimes means the body will be used for economic gain. It sometimes means we will do everything within our power to protect the body. There are people, however, who find ways to take away the choice, to dominate us, to violate us, to attempt to turn sexual assault into an economic transaction, and to use their resources to ensure we are too afraid to speak.

Some of us, however, find the place and support to speak, even if it is decades later.

Moving towards a more equitable society

Last week, Equality and Justice Alliance (EJA) held the Commonwealth Equality and Justice Forum on Mahe Island in the Seychelles, closing its two-year programme of support for countries working to reform laws that discriminate against women, girls, and LGBT+ people. The forum opened with a welcome from Dr Linda Yueh, Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a short speech on the importance of human rights and fully participating in the forum which I delivered, and a keynote by President of the Seychelles Mr Danny Faure.

Attended by representatives of non-governmental organisations and governments from Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Mauritius, South Africa, Vanuatu, and Tonga among other countries, the three-day forum was a space for peer learning as participants shared their experiences in working toward legal reform and people had the opportunity to engage one-on-one outside of the sessions.

Linda Yueh highlighted some of the successes over the past two years. Six Commonwealth governments have been benefiting from the EJA’s technical assistance programmes including Belize - an indication of their commitment to acting to reform discriminatory laws. Civil society coalitions have been formed across countries and evidence-based reports have been published – including the research on marital rape produced by Marion Bethel – and made available in print and online.

Yueh emphasised the importance and benefits of sharing information, experiences and good practices, pointing to India’s reference to Belize when it decriminalised same-sex acts. This has, perhaps, been the most impactful part of the programme – bringing government actors, non-governmental organisations and advocates together and creating opportunities for them to share expertise, successes, challenges and ideas.

A panel discussion on legal reform in Belize was particularly insightful. The country’s Supreme Court ruled the criminalisation of same-sex relations unconstitutional in 2016, and it is now working on its Equal Opportunities bill which will help to create a more equitable society. The bill is championed by the National AIDS Commission and the Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation and the Office of the Special Envoy for Women and Children.

The panel included a legal drafter from University of the West Indies, an LGBT+ rights advocate, representative of an LBT women’s organisation, the Special Envoy for Women and Children, a campaign expert, and a criminology professor. It was easily one of the most valuable sessions for me as it brought so many perspectives to the central theme of legal reform and, while specific to Belize, addressed issues burdening many Commonwealth countries. It allowed for a productive conversation about the challenges Belize has had and how they are working to overcome them. The participants were able to share their thoughts on the process, be critical of systems and positioning, and takeaways that could guide other countries embarking on similar journeys.

The Belize session was the picture of what has been missing from conversations about legal reform in The Bahamas – buy-in from multiple stakeholders, collaboration across sectors, willingness to learn from others and commitment to a single message. We need these elements in order to work more effectively toward to a more equitable society.

The distinction between how we feel and what we think

In her newsletter this week, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a Trinidadian writer and editor, challenged the strict dichotomy of “for” and “against” which exists even in the supposedly impartial sharing of information. She drew attention to the tendency to interpret challenges to the popular position as violence and challenges to those in positions of power as impolite. She encouraged readers to question the source of their feelings, but to also think beyond them. Ishmael said we need to shake off preconceived notions and default positions in favour of truly assessing the information being shared.

“It is hard to stop and think and question your own reactions when your possibilities are narrowed by ‘if not x, then y’[…] Watch more widely, more deliberately, more like a critic and less like either a cynic or a true-believer.” Ishmael suggests this is key to better understanding humanity. We understand ourselves to be on a certain side, but sometimes we need to “reduce our reflexive defense of the default,” as Ishmael puts it. We can hold positions without them preventing us from properly assessing new information, but it is a practice. It requires an intentional distance or, at the very least, a distinction between how we feel and what we think. When we can identify and separate the two, we can be objective. We can analyse. Question. Debate. Move beyond choosing sides, and toward full, meaningful participation in the conversations that need our attention.


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