Lisa M. Shoman
This is important. It is about domestic violence/ violence and abuse of women and girls in Belize. It is not pretty, and it is long, but I ask your attention.
FORCE RIPE BABY
“Every woman is entitled to the free and full exercise of her civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and may rely on the full protection of those rights as embodied in regional and international instruments on human rights. The States Parties recognize that violence against women prevents and nullifies the exercise of these rights.” Article 5, BELEM DO PARA CONVENTION 1994
This starts and ends with personal anecdotes but it is not about me. It is about the abuse that women in our Jewel have endured and still endure. It is about a culture, and it cuts across all classifications, ethnicity, economic class, education level, rural/urban. This does not present solutions. It is meant as provocation.
This is about unmasking. It is about facing our evil because I think we have lived with it so long, we don’t even really see it anymore.
At age 12, I had a young woman’s body. I don’t recall being proud of that fact, rather, instead of running around freely and energetically like the skinny tambran branch I’d been at 11; I began to slouch inward, and I stopped running. Generous breasts hurt when they bounce, and attract attention from people. People like your mother’s friends who call you “force ripe” in accusatory tones – as if you had wrapped yourself in brown paper with a banana to achieve ripeness. People like your father’s friends who suddenly began to ask for a big hug for “Tio “.
No, I was not hurt, but I was abused. Abusers by adults who could not leave my innocence alone anymore, because my body was “force ripe”. It didn’t get better either. It got worse.
Random men on the street would shout things, demanding acknowledgement , insisting that I smile at them, sleep with them, eat them, allow them to eat me – all without shame. And this was mostly when I was walking to/ from primary and secondary school in my white uniform. Comments about “poke” and “bread” were commonplace. No, I was not hurt, but I was abused. And I became an angry child/young woman with a smart, sharp, even vicious tongue. It was all the defence I had.
Why start there? Because a smart, sensible woman who is friend and mentor, seemed genuinely surprised that this vulturine hovering around girls who had developed early and could pass the 100-pound test, didn’t happen only in her home village.
What 100-pound test? The one where men consider you “ready”, she explained, once you weigh 100 pounds. But she seemed rather shocked to learn that an urban, middle class kid with educated parents had faced male abuse that was overtly sexual in nature, and the corollary female disapproval and suspicion that runs with it.
This came up because we were discussing the recent case of the 14-year-old Belizean child, found in Mexico, drunk, nude and raped. The question was asked – where were the parents? Her mother? Speculation about her background began. And somehow it ended up at my force ripe angry tween self and the 100-pound test.
That 14 year old child was abused, her faith, trust, and personhood viciously violated. She was severely hurt. And no one since has made any outcry, me included. What can we say? Better yet, what can we do? Do we even WANT to do anything? Are we unfeeling? Numbed into paralysis? Or is it something even more insidious, in our culture that still demands that women must be quiescent flesh, fair game for consumption of any kind by a man? Yes, that is angry feminist talk. But it is also true.
Week after week, reports of men arrested for “having sex” with minors appear in newscasts – and those are the few who are caught. Inevitably the comments on social media get around to accusing the girl child of being “wah lee hot crutch”, selling herself for money and gifts, “wanting it bad”, of being immoral, force ripe, and reckless. It is standard commentary, virulent, heat seeking and laser-sharp. It is lacerating.
The men can be bad. The women commenting are worse. The victim is abused again, verbally raped by adults, all of who, in Belize are legally obligated to protect her. Yes, ALL.
The law mandates, albeit without penalty, all adults in Belize to report all forms of child abuse. Of course, we noh bizniz. Or rather, few care, fewer see, fewer yet do report.
Both men and women in Belize watch young girls like brown hawks riding the thermals on a lazy afternoon. Like the hawk, both see prey. Women with suspicion, men, avidly. This is our ugly truth. It is so etched in our culture that it is perceived as normal, natural, inevitable. We never question it, let alone condemn it.
Girls (and women) are reduced to the sum of their flesh, breasts and butts, legs and thighs like poultry parts. We are like that old Suzanne Vega song where “backs are cheap and wings are nearly free.” Hearts are offal, along with livers and kidneys.
No wonder, too many girls and women in Belize end up in violent, abusive relationships with men who repeatedly abuse their human dignity, denigrate them as persons, beat them unmercifully, rape and sexually assault them, isolate them, keep them economically vulnerable, hold them hostage to their children, imprison them in their home, stab them multiple times in front of their children, shoot them, kill them. All because they fail to be cooperative flesh for the abuser.
It isn’t about sex. Sex is the weapon. It is ultimately about power, specifically, male power.
That is why I co-wrote the first Domestic Violence Act. We had no specific law in Belize against any of this in 1988. It is why, with the support of Dorla Bowman and Women Against Violence (WAV), I drafted a model Sexual Offences Bill, and a Sexual Harassment Act in the early 1990s, the latter of which was passed, but has not, to my knowledge ever been used.
It is why I helped to push for, promoted and supported the creation of the Family Court. It is why I welcomed the fact that Belize was one of the signatories of the OAS- sponsored Belem Do Para convention in 1996, which states in Article 3 that “Every woman has the right to be free from violence in both the public and private spheres.”
And still we have failed to change our culture of violence. I feel that I have failed.
I thought, in the 1990s, that all this advocacy and legal work would help to change our culture. When my friend and client, Leslie Maud Smith was murded by multiple stab wounds at the hand of her violent abusive ex on a Good Friday at her home, in front of her mother and young children, days after I had obtained a protection order for her; I thought it couldn’t happen again.
I thought that we would wake up, cry out, shake the heavens and stop this. The outpouring of grief promised it, but did not deliver. I was fatally wrong. More women died, all over the Jewel in ways that were just as brutal.
And fast forward to more than two decades later, where in April 2015, Colleen Sharp was found, battered and shot in her own home at the hand of her husband who committed suicide thereafter. Then in July 2015, just days apart, we learned of the horrific murders of Juana Cardinez-Cowo and Keisha Buller at the hands of men who claimed to love them, in the sanctuary of their home. Ms. Buller’s grandmother and child were at home when the homicide occurred, and reportedly witnessed this traumatic event.
Two days ago, yet another woman, Merlin Elizabeth Herrera Mejia was found in her home with her throat slashed, and her ex is currently missing and wanted for questioning by the Police. She may have been murdered in front of her four-year-old son.
And there have been many, many more Belizean women murdered before them. Do we even remember their names?
And it’s not just the women who have been murdered…what of those who have killed after experiencing unrelenting abuse and violence, like Nora Parham, Cruzita Godfrey, Melanie Staine, Laverne Longsworth, and most recently, Keyran Tzib.
What help did they get? Who heard their cries? Who refused to help? Who said that “dah man an ooman” business? What physical and mental health assistance did those women get?
Yet, the Minister of National Security is proposing, as his sole contribution to deal with domestic violence in Belize, that women who seek to discontinue domestic violence cases should not be permitted to do so by the State, and should be forced to “mandatory counseling”. Why? Is serious counseling available to women before arrest or trial? Will it be available after? Is any form of protection available to safeguard these women who do proceed to testify at trial?
Why is it always the women/victims who are the ones who have to bear the brunt of the criminal justice system and its disadvantages? In an article on the Amandala about Ms. Mejia, the Deputy Commander of the Southside Belize City Police formation, says that “the situation is being monitored and that the Women’s Department is taking steps to address the troubling issue.”
Don’t you feel safer already?
I have had clients who have been isolated from family and friends and forbidden to make calls; who have endured psychological torture on a sustained basis; being called mule, animal and made to feel utterly worthless, ugly and fat despite being rail thin and model pretty. I have known women who have had to beg for money for food, and even sanitary napkins, while being forbidden to work. I know another woman who was locked inside her home and had to escape by tying a sheet over a concrete third story balcony.
I had a client whose senior policeman husband would play ‘Russian roulette’ with her, and who was dragged by her hair in front of her teacher colleagues out of a nightclub by him. She moved out of her own home, only to find him sitting on the bed in her rented room, and her landlord begged her to go back home to the policeman so he could avoid any reprisal. This same senior police officer told the magistrate in my presence that my client wanted no further action. She finally left, one day, in the middle of the day with only her handbag and the clothes on her back, on a one-way flight out of Belize to safety and has not returned since.
I have physically gone to the home of women, and helped them to move out, only to watch them return – to abuse. And these are but a few, in my 25+ years of practice. And yet, I feel like a failure on the issue of violence against women, despite my advocacy and effort at law reform. One woman who I respect deeply, reminded me today that we are in crisis. In her small community alone, eight women in close proximity to her in the past seven weeks have been the subject of domestic violence. It is endemic.
You know a woman/girl who has been abused in her home. What have you done for her? If you did, did it matter? Can we change our violent culture? Do we want to? Or are we more interested in the juicy art of “shush and yerisoh” and the blood sport of “slut-shaming”?
And that brings us to that recent “sex tape” circulated on Face Book and elsewhere. How many of us watched it, instead of reporting it, sharing it, rating the ‘action’ and the ‘actors’ and commenting salaciously? How many condemned the girl?
What about the bullying/cyber bullying over nude photos of so many Jewelizean girls and women, most recently on the internet and in social media? From the one circulated to shame a female politician in the 80s, to photos of girls being circulated on Instagram, examples abound. Seven years ago, in 2008, nude photos of a young teacher on a website featuring Belizeans “babes” almost cost her job and took me about two weeks of persistent harassment of the web host to remove them. It was not obscenity concerns, but privacy considerations that made them remove the photos, because she had not consented, and we threatened to sue.
In so many ways, nothing has changed. In fact, we have gotten worse. We have new and creative ways, unrelenting in the public gaze, to shame and abuse women and girls.
So now we will have to accept that we are the evil. We are the wrong because we just tacitly accept it. We are silent about it. And no NGO/activist/law will fix this. Please don’t ask ME what to do. Ask what YOU can do, because we must all fix this. Fix this culture of treating our women like flesh to be consumed; like subjects over whom male power can be exercised at will.
I hope we want to change this. I hope. I’m not very optimistic, but I still have some hope.
That brings me to my closing anecdote. I was recently invited to a meeting – one where I sit at the table as an equal among equals. I am infamous at that table for my unvarnished speech and ‘firm opinions’. One misogynist in attendance who has long had “issues” with my facy feminist self, decided it was time to try the feel of his boots on my neck. He called me out on an issue, addressing me in that meeting as “baby” and when I protested, as “honey”. I exploded on his head. You might think it a small thing, but that day I was feeling powerful and at the same time, raw.
Raw from the constant battering that Belizean women get. Raw from being 51 and still being treated like “a girl” when I have earned my adulthood and I am due my rightful dignity. Raw, sick and tired from the constant grind of being a badass to just to survive as a woman in Belize without any visible male protector. And yes, I have survived. Survived and even thrived, in my own way – but at a cost.
To be clear: what I face is nothing at all compared to what my sisters face daily, but that day, it got on my last nerve, as we say and the kraken was released to roar in protest.
Men will continue to try to exercise power over women in the Jewel by whatever means possible – social, political, economic, sexual, religious; because that power is hard to relinquish. It is too hard to stop being a boss when society expects it of you.
As the feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie reminds us, it is not only that women have to raise our girls differently. It is also that we must raise our sons differently, or nothing changes.
Until there is a culture change, women and girls in Belize, indeed in the wider Caribbean, will continue to be force ripe babies, vulnerable to a power dynamic that see us a commodities for consumption in a society that thinks that is normal. And no. It is not. It is not normal. It is not acceptable.
Women are people too – people with dignity, worth and power. Stop trying to “strong” our power away from us, to mash it or beat it out of us. Stop trying to jack our rightful power.
Stop, think, change. Easy to say. Hard to do.
It is beyond an epidemic- it has to change. I dedicate this to the women who have died, who are suffering and continue to suffer…and especially Earlet