SATURDAY, November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW), marked the beginning of the Global 16 Days Campaign, also known as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. National Women’s Week, a government initiative, coincides with the Campaign and usually involves the Department of Gender and Family Affairs planning a few events. One of them always seems to be Christian church service. There is, of course, no acknowledgement of the existence of other faiths or the people who have them which, on its own, gives insight into the way that many people think of this nation. That way of thinking extends to the way that many, including the government and far too many of its actors, regard women. This should raise the question: Who is a woman in The Bahamas? The finely printed continuation of the question is “who is considered to be of sufficient value to be protected from gender-based violence?”
There are many issues here. For now, we can look at two of them. One is the singular way that the government and many other institutions define “woman.” Another is the focus on the protection of (some) women from gender-based violence.
Women are not all the same. We do not all have all of the same experiences. We do not all experience the same forms of oppression to the same extent. The difference is not one that just happens to exist. It is one that based in the difference of and between women. No woman is only woman. Though we are often discussed as though we only have gender and that dictates our entire life experience, we have many other identities. In the same way that society has used gender to define and limit women, it used our other identity markers. We have race and ethnicity, age, nationality, income level, and marital status, among many others. None of these exists in isolation. They are used together to oppress, discriminate, and violate to extents that vary greatly among us.
Consider women and age. A twenty-year-old and a seventy-year-old are not treated the same in very many circumstances, if at all. What happens to each of them when they seek social assistance? How are they each treated when they go to the police to report incidents of violence against them? How do people respond to each of them when they report a concerning pain to a medical professional, or even to their family members? We have certain ideas about age that shape the way to engagement with people of different ages. In no time at all, we decide, based on age, whether or not a person should have enough resources needed to meet their needs, or the ability to indecently create or access them. Can this woman get a job? Does or should this woman have savings? Does this woman have a husband or children? The assumptions that we make about people, based on what is visible to use, affect them and the way they move through the world.
Consider women and religion. The image of the Bahamian women that is held by the government seems to be one that is a Christian who goes to church regularly. She wears pantyhose and a slip, and she likely wears a hat and/or a broach. After church, she cooks dinner for her family to eat together. She quotes verses from The Bible and she likes to let people know that she is a member of a church and believes in the Christian God.
Based on this description, how old do you think this woman is? Is she married? How many children does she have? What kind of car does she drive? Where does she shop for her clothing? What is her race? What area does she live in?
These are important questions because this is the woman that the government sees and thinks about. This is the woman who is centred in government-planned activities. This is the woman who needs to be protected from gender-based violence. She is the Bahamian woman, she is the one of value, and she is the one who deserves to live a happy, violence-free life.
You know this woman, don’t you? You probably know quite a few of them. You see them at work, you pass them in the grocery store, and you sit behind them when you find yourself at church, whether that is weekly, monthly, seasonally, or strictly for special occasions. What does it mean to be that woman?
What about the other women? How many of the women you know and interact with on a daily basis are not that woman of a certain age and marital status who goes to church with her knees covered? How many of the women in your life are not included when the government thinks about what women need and plans national events to honour women and call attention to the achievements of women over the years? What does it mean for them to be excluded?
There are many other questions to grapple with when we consider the way that women are defined, not just by the people around us, but by the government, and not just in theory, but in its practice which is supposed to include critical services and resources. Perhaps the definition it holds for women is the reason there are so many dark streets and overgrown bushes. The government definition of woman suggests that women do not venture out of their homes when it is not light outside. This may seem like an exaggeration, but look at the evidence. Look at who is centered and who is ignored. A national church service is not just a church service. It is a site of exclusion and it is a statement on who gets to be a woman who is regarded by the government and its actors as a woman who, importantly, “deserves” acknowledgement of any kind.
The central question raised here is: “Who is a woman in The Bahamas?” I put a finer point on the question. “Who is a woman in The Bahamas who is considered to be of sufficient value to be protected from gender-based violence?” The definition of woman, as seen by the government (based on its planning of National Women’s Week among other demonstrations), considered, we can look at the second issue. Protection. When we talk about gender-based violence against women, there is still an emphasis — and often singular focus — on protection. This suggests that there is nothing to be done about the issue, that is will continue to exist, that prevention and intervention are not an area of focus (or secondary to protection, at best), and we must resign ourselves to focus on ensuring that gender-based violence does not happen to certain women. The women the government sees as fitting into its narrow understanding of womanhood which is bound up in other issues and areas, including the persisting refusal to acknowledge people of other faiths.
Protection does not solve the problem. On the contrary, the focus on protection is the throwing up hands, communicating (incorrectly, in this case) that the problem cannot be solved, so we must simply live with it and put measures in place to ensure that the problem does not affect a certain group of people, or that it only affects a certain group of people.
Who can be included in protection from gender-based violence? Does it include LGBTQI+ people who, along with women and girls, are disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence? Does it include migrant people and, in particular, undocumented migrants? What about people who have been and are being trafficked? Does it include sex workers? Who is protection for?
We see, with every reported case of violence against women and girls, that some women and girls are valued more than others. There are some women and girls that people are more concerned about. People are more upset by violence against certain kinds of women and girls, while violence against others is shrugged off. Look at the reports of missing girls and requests for help in finding them. What do most of the comments say? What does it say about this country that so many people are adamant that they will not help to find a child because she is “bad” or “think she is woman” when this has nothing to do with her, if she was taken by a man, being raped? What does it say about this place, that some even some girls are seen as less “deserving” of protection? If all girls do not need or get protection, then what about women?
Protection is not the way to go. Violence against women and girls must be eliminated. Gender-based violence must be eliminated. This is in the language of the day that starts the Global 16 Days Campaign every year. International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is in the language of the recommendations based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Gender-based violence is not to be accepted. It is to be eradicated. The Government of The Bahamas needs to understand that it is responsible for ensuring that all women and girls — not just the ones fitting its special definition — live free of violence, and that protection will not get us there.
Equality Bahamas is hosting a series of events during the Global 16 Days Campaign, delving into the issue of gender-based violence from various perspectives. Tonight, at 6pm, in a session on gender-based violence research, Étoile Binder, president of Sanigest International will talk about data collection and analysis on gender-based violence in The Bahamas, regional statistics, and the development of a coordinated care model in response to gender-based violence. Register at tiny.cc/16days23c. See the full event lineup at tiny.cc/16days23.