Domestic violence in grassroots organizations’ crosshairs

Black, swollen eyes. Puffy, torn, bleeding lips.

A collective gasp rippled through the Internet in February 2011 when photos surfaced of pop singer Rihanna, taken two years earlier, after she reported her then-boyfriend, hip hop artist Chris Brown, assaulted her before that year’s Grammy Awards.

Now, more than three years after the fight, the Internet again buzzes with rumors that Brown and Rihanna, a native of Barbados, are reuniting.

Magazines dedicate their covers to photos of the couple. Gossip bloggers questions whether she should take him back.

But the issue of domestic violence hits home for Sukree Boodram, a Guyana native and domestic violence survivor. She established an awareness group in 2010 for other Caribbean women who have been abused.

“(Rihanna is) a drama of the media,” said Boodram, who established Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA) in 2010. “But most people are not doing anything about it.”

Domestic violence is a problem not uncommon in the Caribbean. The United Nations estimates a third of women are victims of abuse in intimate relationships in Barbados.

“(Domestic violence and sexual harassment) are particularly serious problems here in Barbados and in other Caribbean countries, and rape is shockingly commonplace,” said the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in a statement towards the end of her April visit to Barbados.

Twenty-one percent of murders in the country were linked to domestic violence between 2000 and 2007, according to statistics from the Royal Barbados Police Force.

And the Save Foundation, a violence-prevention nonprofit group in Barbados, estimates that of domestic violence survivors, 91 percent are female.

Pillay urged the country to take the issue seriously, to promote legislative action to protect victims and to establish a culture of awareness.

The current culture of many Caribbean countries, like Barbados, is one key factor of the problem. Throughout generations, the cultural norm of silence regarding violence, something families consider private, has been deeply ingrained throughout the Caribbean people, Boodram said.

“Generally, men drink at night, go home and beat their wives,” she said. “When you go to your neighbor, they tell you the same thing: ‘Go back home, it will be better in the morning.’”

A young American woman conducting research in Bridgetown, Barbados lives in a neighborhood of locals, and she and her roommate often hear couples loudly fighting into the night. The woman asked that her name not be used because her employer does not allow her to speak to the press.

“Nobody calls the police, and if they do, I never hear them come,” she said. “The island is so small –everyone knows everyone . . . getting involved is a risk people aren’t willing to take.”

Sometimes people will close their windows to literally silence the issue they hear outside their homes, she said.

As many Caribbean nationals migrate to the United States for jobs and other opportunities, their cultures and norms come with them. And often that includes domestic violence.

Boodram has worked in Caribbean communities in parts of Florida and New York City to help address what she says is a nearly insurmountable problem of domestic violence there as well. But getting people to talk and address the problem head-on has been difficult.

The culture is very concerned with status and worry over what others think of them, Boodram said.

“In these cultures, you’re married for life. It’s just how it is,” she said. “There’s no solid help addressing the core issues of addiction, alcoholism and behavior to contradict domestic violence.”

The Barbados government infrastructure and laws are also to blame for the rampant violence in the country. Domestic violence was not, until recently, defined as a crime unless it was considered a sexual attack or violated a protection order. As a result, police officers have little training on how to deal with the situation if a victim does reach out for help.

In a similar vein, women slightly outnumber men in terms of the Barbados population, yet women are severely underrepresented in the country’s policy making. Though the majority of voters were women in the 2008 election, only nine of 67 candidates were female, according to government reports to the U.N. Only six of 21 senators and four of 30 members of Parliament are women.

Tiffany Jackson, a survivor and a CADVA volunteer, calls herself lucky to have lived through her relationship with her child’s father. While living in the Caribbean, she was attacked in front of her young son. The injuries she sustained to her skull have left her partially blind.

“There are always signs. And there are always signals,” Jackson says in a video that CADVA posted on the Internet to encourage other survivors. “It brings you to a place of brokenness.”

Jackson encourages women to find someone to talk to who will assure them that the abuse is not their fault and who won’t make excuses for the abuser.

That habit of turning a blind eye to violence and making excuses must change, said Boodram.

Currently CADVA is working throughout the Caribbean, holding forums within communities to spur the first step towards ending violence: conversation and sensitization.

Boodram believes this grassroots effort, using Caribbean people to talk with each other, is the only way the problem can begin to be remedied.

“The older generation is unlikely to change” because they are so set in the cultural norm of silence and privacy, she said. In her eyes, empowerment must begin with the youngest generations.

“This gets people to open up and talk about it,” Boodram said. “They may go home and get beaten, but at least they’re learning to talk.”

Though the U.N. urges for swift action to remedy what it sees as an endemic human rights issue, Boodram says it will take at least three to five years of just conversation to see any kind of results, and there’s no guarantee things will change.

“The Caribbean, at this point, is where the U.S. was in 1970s or 1980s in terms of domestic violence,” she said. “People need to want to make a difference.”

But no matter how difficult the situation or horrible her memories, Jackson believes that a brighter day is coming to the Caribbean.

“There is hope and we can make it. We are survivors.”


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