I remember clearly when the discussion about Guyanese immigration was at its peak in Barbados. I remember the rhetoric about Guyanese women coming to take Barbadian men away from Barbadian women. The responses of the Barbadian men were instructive and worrisome to me.
Many responded [saying] the Guyanese women were easier to get along with. They were willing to have sex on a man’s demand, they saw to housework and ‘knew their place as women’. I quickly realized that two factors made Guyanese women in particular, and immigrant women in general, more attractive to certain types of Barbadian men – their vulnerability and their inability to negotiate relationships as equal partners.
I want to go slowly and purposefully today because miseducation and misunderstanding are causing female lives to be lost in this country. I have now come to the conclusion that there is still general ignorance about the issues that cause intimate partner violence. We, the advocates, are talking among and to ourselves but beyond us, there simply has not been enough movement in people’s perspectives and attitudes in relation to intimate partner violence.
I am not for a second suggesting that a woman cannot cook for her man or give him sex on demand. What I am saying is that the conditions under which a woman offers these things, and the feeling of a man that he is entitled to these things as a part of his natural right of being a man, are the variables that determine how healthy the exchanges will be. There is a vast difference between a woman doing these things because she wants to and having to do them because she is not [considered] equal to her partner and is only useful for the benefits she brings to his life.
The fact that Barbadian men then were not willing to adjust their views of women in response to education and better opportunities for Barbadian women was profoundly problematic. Barbadian women who were learning the red flags to avoid in dating and who were less willing to tolerate certain behaviours from men were seen as bothersome, demanding and to be avoided. Instead of calling out Barbadian men who wished to persist with the mistreatment and the undervaluing of women, we turned ire on Guyanese women who were only trying to find ways to improve their work and living opportunities.
I think it is now time that we revisit our views about and services provided for immigrant women living and working in Barbados. We must realize that immigrant populations are vulnerable for several reasons and individuals who seek to take advantage of [them must] feel as though they will face some societal scrutiny. Where women have left countries with high levels of abuse against [their gender] and patriarchal constructions of dominance and control, they are often willing to do almost anything to establish themselves in another country.
[If they or the children they may bear end up being in real danger due to these efforts], it is imperative that the State becomes involved in saving human life. In many ways, I am pointing here to the unfinished work of the social system in Barbados and the uncompleted work of the Caricom project. In our desire to have free movement of people but retain little sovereign fiefdoms, we have not had a full discussion on how we ensure that people are treated humanely as they move to live and work.
In some cases, women who have been seeking the assistance of social service agencies are being turned away if they are non-national or Caricom citizens. If they do not have funds to secure private services they are forced to feel that they have to put up with abuse. This is all compounded by the cultural view of domestic violence. People responsible for making laws or administering them apparently still believe that intimate partner violence is punishment meted out to ungrateful women or to women who deserve it.
The Domestic Violence Act is law but there are significant loopholes. Also, little work has been done to address the issue of intimate partner violence at the cultural level. We are now seeing an escalation in intimate partner violence and it is not surprising that immigrant women are surfacing as a vulnerable group. Hopefully, we are now ready to turn on a dime after having talked over these issues over several years.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)