ST. KITTS & NEVIS — According to the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Caribbean’s rates of sexual violence are significantly higher than average when compared to other regions in the world. Yet, while the numbers for the region are high, these statistics sorely underrepresent the prevalence of sexual violence in the region. It is widely known that most incidents of sexual violence are not reported, for various reasons, and real rates are even higher than available data is able to show.
In St. Kitts and Nevis, a startup organization called No Judgment SKN is working to change a social climate that directly and indirectly permits sexual violence to perpetuate. What follows is an in-depth interview that gives their take on sexual violence in their country and the approaches they are taking to combat it.Antillean: How did No Judgment SKN begin?
No Judgment SKN: No Judgment SKN was established in April 2015 and became officially registered in August 2015. It began out of an expressed desire to have a support group for survivors of sexual crimes. Our organization intends to provide a social support market for persons who have been victimized and do not feel that there is an outlet to express themselves in order to cope. We hope to provide educational, psychological, and financial help to sexual assault survivors.
How did you come up with the name for your organization?
The name No Judgment SKN is a combination of our culture and what we hope to provide. In our society, our initial thought is always to blame the victim/survivor. We ask: “What clothes did they wear? Where were they? Were they drinking? Are they promiscuous?” Sexual assault has been questioned as “what did you do wrong to deserve this?” as opposed to “how could someone do this to you?” We judge before we support.
So we had a brainstorming session where we considered names that would represent anonymity and a safe environment without prejudice or judgment. As such, our name says we are not here to judge you, we are here to support and care for you.
What is No Judgment SKN’s mission?
Our mission is to be a safe haven, a confidential counseling forum, and an advocate for the defense of sexual violence victims/survivors in St. Kitts and Nevis. We will also strive to create awareness in our community through various media, provide support for victims/survivors of sexual abuse, influence just legislation, and reduce ignorance through education.
To increase awareness means that people will understand what is not okay, how to report, and to whom and where to seek help and support. With the implementation of the St. Kitts Counseling Center, survivors will be educated about sexual assault and get the counseling they need. In the future, we will explore the venture of providing multi-channel counseling as well as a 24/7 crisis hotline.
Why is preventing sexual violence so important?
The level of damage that sexual violence inflicts on a survivor is not fully understood by our society. It is seen as a crime that has a low mortality rate; a crime that involves something that is taboo and vulgar, something that should be covered and hushed down, something that can be easily forgotten. We view prevention as something that can be prevented by the victim/survivor instead of something that society, the predator, or even our own family can prevent. It is on all of us to ensure that we teach one another that it is not okay to sexually assault anyone.
What do we currently know about sexual violence in St. Kitts and Nevis, and in the greater Caribbean region?
There is an average of 30 incidents per year of sexual assault in St. Kitts and Nevis, which can alternately be interpreted as one (1) act of sexual violence occurs every 12 days. It is also alarming that in the last two decades, there has been a 20% increase in the detection of “unlawful carnal knowledge” (a legal phrase for rape). Additionally, it is estimated that a citizen is five times more likely to be a victim/survivor of sexual assault than they are to be a victim of a separate fatal event. All of these figures are based on almost 35 years of official police reports. We know that this data does not account for the true rate, which would be the much larger and more representative statistic one would see if every crime that happened was actually detected and reported.
What do you think is missing from the conversation around sexual violence prevention in St. Kitts and Nevis?
The general conversation itself is missing. No one wants to talk about something they think is so ugly, and shaming the victim/survivor pushes it under the covers instead of actually trying to solve the problem.
As Caribbean people, sexuality is very prevalent in our culture, and religion guides a lot of our thinking. Unfortunately, in Kittitian culture, the way a woman dresses often determines the level of respect she receives. A woman wearing a short pants is more likely to be touched and disrespected than a woman who is fully covered. But wearing what you want does not give anyone permission or access to your body. We do not acknowledge the fact that women are raped regardless of what they wear.
Another thing that we are not talking about is that boys and men are also raped, but they are not likely to speak out about it because of social stigma. There is also the false notion that boys and men cannot be sexually assaulted by women, and if a boy or man is sexually assaulted by someone of the same gender, they become social targets for ridicule.
Lastly, we also do not talk about the fact that consent should always be at the forefront of every sexual encounter, regardless of relationship style or sexuality.
How do we move from conversation to action around the issue of sexual violence?
In our case, we need to start the conversation (we have been using social media), then move to legislation to get a sex-offenders registry, and also start adding to sex education curricula so the upcoming youth can be more informed. We do all of this through education, awareness, and social support.
What is your take on how gendered the issue has become? How do you see Kittitian or Caribbean people taking an approach that involves people of all genders?
Sexual violence is seen almost exclusively as “women’s issue” when in reality, it happens to and affects people of all genders. This is not surprising when most reported cases are in relation to women who are survivors. However, men do also experience sexual violence, but due to gender stereotypes and norms, they hardly ever report. When they do report, they’re often not taken seriously by law enforcement, because again, sexual violence is wrongly seen as something that only happens to women. In addition, there’s no legal framework governing sexual assault of men.
While women make up the majority of the survivors, there still needs to be a collaborative approach to solving the problem. Some groups for men outside of St. Kitts and Nevis discuss these kinds of issues. St. Kitts recently formed the National Men’s Council, and our group intends to work with them to provide healthy and useful resources regarding sexual assault.
Are there any laws in St. Kitts and Nevis that prosecute sexual violence or prevent justice?
Laws exist in the constitution under the Offences Against the Person Act. However, the punishment applied to those convicted appears too lenient, and rehabilitative approaches are not included. Additionally, crimes such as rape are not defined. The lack of delimiting terms can pose a problem as it may leave what constitutes sexual assault open to the discretion of the law.
Why do you think people fail to acknowledge that sexual violence is a problem in St. Kitts and Nevis and the Caribbean region in general?
Sexual violence is seen as a woman’s issue. “Women’s issues” often tend to be ignored and their seriousness diminished. The fact that women are seen as inferior and as objects for the sexual enjoyment of others allows for continued disregard and dismissal of the problem. Even incest and sexual abuse of youth are frequent happenings, and they have been normalised. These are viewed as ways of life for people, and initiations into adulthood for boys to prove their manhood or for young girls to provide for their families, for example. The fact that it is a problem that cannot always be seen relegates it to the back corners of the Caribbean psyche.
Sex is still taboo, and persons are still afraid to freely purchase condoms at a pharmacy or speak openly about what they want sexually or how they feel sexually. We are taught to keep anything sexual quiet and reserved. Thus, when someone is sexually violated, it is seen as a crime that should be hidden, hushed down, something that the survivor should feel too ashamed of to think of reporting. Kittitians and all Caribbean people need to understand that this is not a family scandal, it is not a secret you live with–it is a crime and one that has dire effects on survivors.
Additionally, confidentiality issues lead to underreporting, and there is no real focus placed on sexual crimes compared to other crimes.
Why do you think sexual assault is prevalent in Caribbean cultures? Why do you think it is prevalent in the world?
Perhaps the history of the Caribbean and the reality that people’s bodies in the Caribbean were the sites of violation and conquest have helped to maintain the occurrence of sexual assault. The media and cultural products that we produce and consume promote ideas that are not rooted in equitable sexual experiences. Sex is often portrayed as something that is done to rather than done with someone else.
In relation to child sexual abuse, Caribbean children are taught to be seen and not heard; we teach our children to be quiet rather than to speak up, and possibly worst of all is that we encourage environments where children are forced to be comfortable with adults around them, thereby lessening the chance of reporting any inappropriate sexual activity.
We encourage rape culture, whether it be indirectly and subconsciously, or directly and consciously. Victim blaming is still prevalent in our society. It is still falsely believed that sexual assault can be prevented by avoiding drinking, dressing provocatively, socializing, walking at night, and taking rides from strangers, or by learning to fight back, instead of through cultural change, education, and awareness. We still do not believe that most harm doers are persons known by the survivor, not strangers. When the harm doer is known to the survivor, persons are asked to keep quiet for the sake of the family member or friend, as not to “destroy their life”, unaware or refusing to believe that a survivor will struggle with post-traumatic stress, depression, hypervigilance or anxiety.
How do you think sexual violence, particularly that against women and gender non-conforming people, affects people of Caribbean heritage specifically?
Sexual assault has existed in our Caribbean cultural history since our African ancestors were enslaved. The practice of shaming, controlling, and breeding humans for capitalism and imperialism were all done through sexual assault. Today, we are free to make changes and speak out, however, we are still bonded by the invisible chains of slavery, which have been passed down through generations. Sexual assault is still being used to shame, control and silence attempts to speak out or against sexual assault.
Vulnerable or marginal populations, such as women and LGBT persons, are likely to experience sexual violence in a different way than other groups. In the Caribbean, these groups may experience the doubled effects of powerlessness due to their identity and the violation itself. However, coming from a culture where sexual violence is not taken as seriously as it should be, these persons might feel the need to downplay the effects and are probably less likely to seek help. And the fact that discussing mental health issues and accessing counseling are not norms for Caribbean people worsens the potential impact of sexual violence.
We have encouraged a culture where strength is shown through the ability to suffer silently, and that to avoid sexual assault, one should appease their assailant’s expectations or requests (for example, responding when catcalled). Speaking out means subjecting oneself to judgment, and seeking help means labeling oneself, as it is believed that only persons living with mental health challenges seek counseling.
How can we change the culture to be more focused on respecting people’s humanity, personhood, and bodily autonomy so that people do not commit sexual violence against one another?
Some steps include having conversations about sexual awareness and rights, adding to sex life education curriculum, conducting public forums, and lobbying for more serious penalties for offenses. Also, equity is extremely important if we are to change a culture of the normalisation of violence. Persons need to see each other as equal, first, if there is to be any discussion of respect. To approach a cultural change we have to start with the upcoming generations, as well as begin to target specific groups.
We can also do this through education and awareness, by making persons aware of the long-lasting effects of sexual assault, where to report, how to support, and what is required of them to prevent sexual assault (such as being accountable for one’s actions and seeking consent first).
What do harm doers or potential harm doers need to know or do? Is there any chance or room for community restoration, for harm doers who no longer want to cause harm to others, to be involved in the conversation and action?
There should be a registry for sexual offenders/harm doers for public access, and there should be follow-up with parole officers and counselors. Harm doers need to be rehabilitated, but the community, too, must be prepared to aid in such rehabilitation.
Persons who feel as if they may sexually assault someone should contact the Counseling Centre or speak to someone who can help guide them through that difficult time. They need to know that sexual violence isn’t okay, and that they can receive help from a professional. Conversations with former offenders will be extremely useful, and these persons can be used to aid in preventing other acts.
Harm doers should understand that while they may think what they are doing is harmless, someone’s sense of security has been invaded. They have stripped someone of their peace of mind, and their ability to control what happens to their own body. Harm doers who no longer want to cause harm to others should be allowed to give their testimony in a safe environment, one that has other reformed harm doers who are interested in making a change. They should seek to speak up against sexual assault and use their experience to discourage potential harm doers.
What are the biggest challenges that someone starting a non-profit organization might face, or that you have faced?
The bureaucratic process is slow and tangled and no clear written guidelines are established. The culture of volunteerism has not blossomed here; finding the help needed to carry out programs and run the organization is quite difficult. It is also challenging to find activities that will have the largest influence/impact on society. Additionally, there are few opportunities for local funding; nothing really exists for sex education and awareness campaigns.
Personally, time management -being able to juggle a full-time job, non-profit responsibilities, and personal life – is extremely challenging.
What is your vision for No Judgment SKN in the medium to long term?
Over the next few months we envision No Judgment SKN moving through high schools making students aware of what consent means and highlighting sexual offenses that we ignore that have damning effects on the victim/survivor. Additionally, we want for the organisation to be established enough to influence litigation changes.
In the long-term, we hope to be able to provide 24-hour online and phone support, online and in-person support forums, and shelter in times of crisis.
What are the next steps for No Judgment SKN? Are there ways for people to get involved?
No Judgment SKN held its first annual light up the darkness walk-a-thon in May 2016. It was a proud moment to see follow Kittitians taking the walk against sexual assault. We hope to have another successful walk in 2017 with more supporters. We will also be hosting our first Art Gala next September 2017 as a part of sexual assault awareness month activities. It is our hope that we are able to receive financial support and volunteers during our preparations. No Judgment SKN seeks volunteers for the following: events and stewarding volunteer, counseling/listening volunteer (must be certified), youth work volunteers, information and technology (IT) volunteers, administrative volunteers, and legal advice volunteers.
What is the salient message that you want to leave people with when they encounter No Judgment SKN?
Confidential support, free of judgment, and a passion to foster positive change.