There is an issue that played out in Barbados’ social space over the last few weeks which still needs full ventilation and consideration. The issue was highlighted a few weeks ago when at least four girls of school age went missing over a weekend period.
That particular incident was perhaps the first where so many girls had gone missing at once, but it only highlight an unresolved problem in our social landscape. Young women leave their homes and do not return usually for about 24 hours or, in some cases, up to about 14 days.
The public of Barbados have resorted to believing these female children run off with “their men” during the time they cannot be found. Even if that is where the girls go,
I submit that a 14-year-old child who is not sexually active will not run away for sex. That leaves the overarching and socially pertinent question to be: why would our 14-year-old girls be so comfortable and familiar with sex that they would run away for the freedom to be sexually active?
Before trying to put a few serious considerations on the table, let me emphatically state that I do not believe the 14-year-old girls in Barbados are just “wutless” and run off for sex.
I am completely tired of the simplistic overgeneralization and long for the day when we cease to assume, and collect real data about this event.
In researching the event, I made contact with a number of social agencies to figure out whether they had done research
into the various cases, or had at least had anecdotal pointers. Most of the agencies –– The Welfare Department, The Probation Department and The Family Services Section of the Welfare Department –– indicated that no research was forthcoming on missing female children.
I did not call the Child Care Board because I had neither the confidence nor the conviction it would have paid any attention to the trend. The Child Care Board does not have an operational model or corporate culture that makes it adequately equip to care for the children of Barbados. The new trend seems to be to run around Barbados picking up children from households deemed to be at risk.
In the responses of the officers who took the time to share their reflections, there seem to be at least anecdotal commonalities that could create a frame for further analysis of absconding female children. Firstly, most of the girls come from working poor households. Usually, these households have low levels of post-secondary education and they are less equipped with information about parenting and life skills.
When issues of adolescents arise, there is generally less ability to find healthy coping strategies.
Children who may need emotional support in negotiating their teen years find themselves without the time and attention of their parents, and so they look in unsafe places for their needs. Additionally, these households usually do not have significant sums of disposable income to allow adolescent girls to have items that peer pressure may make important at that stage of development.
This could again result in girls seeking to find alternative ways to meet their perceived needs.
It stands to reason that we must create a social safety net for the children of working poor households. This is not just a call for monetary resources, but a reminder that a society that does not have a sound network of sports clubs, community clubs and other safe spaces to assist in the socialization of its children, is one that is susceptible to children who are less likely to navigate difficult periods of growth.
In order to ensure these young women can find constructive and safe spaces in which to foster and expand their self-confidence, we all have to lend of our time in volunteer capacities to create the safe spaces.
The other overarching issue we will have to reconcile is why our girls in Barbados are sexualized by the age of 14. If we are honest, another feature of the households which these girls come from is that there are high levels of sexual abuse. After living with the abuse for years, they develop a perception of their worth, of how they are to be treated by men, and of what their relationships with men should be about.
If we are serious about arresting this trend, we must become more serious, as women, but also generally as Barbadians about lobbying for more stringent and swift punishments for sexual abusers. We must also pay greater attention to the signs of abuse in children at school and ensure we outline specific protocols for reporting the abuse.
Writing for that type of agitation in my beautiful island today seems ironic. It is the week after the Minister of Finance unleashed another one of his vicious attacks on a female in her professional capacity. His admonition to a senior economist at a banking institution that she should “put up or shut up” has become characteristic of his usual style of addressing women. There has been no major outcry from the National Organization of Women, or any other women’s group.
We are complacent about gender manners in Barbados, and we are just as complacent when our adolescent girls face sexual abuse. These are some of the reasons why our females are disappearing and looking for safe spaces and understanding.
We can either continue to judge their actions or find solutions. What are we going to choose to do?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.
Email [email protected])