Saturday, April 5, 2014

The agony of abused Bahamian women in The Bahamas and Leslie Miller's domestic violence revelations

My daughter’s lesson on domestic violence

Every morning, on the way to school, my eldest daughter’s job is to read the newspaper’s headlines or top stories to me as I drive.

She always waits for my reaction to the news before moving to the next story. So it was when Leslie Miller made headlines with his offensive, tasteless and very harmful story told as a joke on the floor of Parliament. The first day my reaction was a “suck teet”. She did not react and we moved on to other news stories.

As the matter captured headlines for many days, I noticed that she continued to watch for my reaction. Still, and notwithstanding the anger boiling up in me, I made no comment.

By the time we got to the newspaper headline about the $1,000 check donation Miller presented to and which was refused by the Crisis Centre, I had reached my limit and made my displeasure known with a few choice words. I told her that Leslie Miller was a poor example of a member of Parliament. I told her that his behavior in telling the story about abusing a woman was wrong, demeaning to women and inexcusable.

Then came the million-dollar question: “Mummy why are you so angry if he said sorry?”

I had to determine how I was going to explain to an eight-year-old that when someone does something so bad, such as bragging about committing acts of domestic violence, “sorry” simply doesn’t cut it.

I wondered how best to impart that fact to her. I told her that unfortunately some women somewhere in our country are abused every day by their boyfriends and or husbands. I told her that often their abusers say “sorry” but then abuse them again. Sometimes, I told her abusers come home with flowers and candy or with gifts of jewelry or cloths. Many mouth poetic apologies and give promises to never again commit those disgraceful acts of aggression and hurt. And I told her that sometimes, in those terrible circumstances, sorry is not enough; gifts don’t mean anything and women must learn to protect themselves. I explained to her that in life she would learn that not every apology was genuine and that every apology did not have to be accepted.

As most trusting children do, she accepted what her mother told her and moved on.

I, on the other hand, began to really think about the lesson I was teaching her. As a mother, was I teaching my daughter that domestic violence is a joking matter? Was my original silence on this important issue tacit consent? Was I silently condoning what was most likely one of the more despicable commentaries ever uttered in the House of Assembly, where supposed honorable men and women gather to represent the interests of all Bahamians at the highest level in our society?

At that moment I determined, rightly or wrongly, that I would wait until I spoke in the Senate to express my disappointment in the member of Parliament for Tall Pines and to express my support for the great work being done by the Crisis Centre, and organizations like “Holla Back”, which seek to raise our consciences about the problem of abused women in The Bahamas, helping to create safe spaces for those persons escaping abuse.

I did not want any statement made by me to be interpreted as scoring political points and so I intended to reserve comment for the upper chamber. Unfortunately, the opportunity to discuss this very important matter in the Senate has not presented itself and I feel compelled to make my views on this subject public.

The messages we send

I believe that we have to be very careful about the messages we send to our young people by what we say and what we do in our lives.

We cannot tell them that abuse is a joking matter whether it is abuse of a woman by a man, of a child whether male or female by a woman or a man; indeed, abuse of one man by another man is not acceptable.

We cannot, and must not, tell the next generation that it is acceptable to brag about or to joke about or make light about beating down another human being, much less accept our men telling tales and joking about abusing a woman.

Such acts of abuse cannot go without a strong, strict rebuke.

I did not speak up right away. For that I apologize to my children and to every woman, man or child who has suffered abuse in our Bahamas.

Shamefully, others seated in both chambers of our Parliament also failed to speak up including our prime minister, the leader of our country and the leader of Miller’s political party.

As a young Bahamian woman, I thought it was important that we hear from Prime Minister Perry Christie on this matter. I thought this was especially important since he, when given the opportunity in 2002 to stand up for equality for women, voted first in support of constitutional amendments meant to remove the last forms of official discrimination against women from our constitution, but then came out of the House of Assembly and spearheaded the Vote No campaign to kill the amendment.

After successfully derailing the first opportunity for women to attain equality under our independent constitution in 2002, Christie promised that if elected to office he would bring back the same constitutional referendum concerning equality for women. He won an election in 2002 but that constitutional referendum never came back and Bahamian women continue to be discriminated against in our constitution.

Since returning to office again in 2012, Christie’s government has not found it convenient to bring the constitutional referendum to remove gender discrimination from our constitution.

Recently, Christie’s government made much ado about the 50th anniversary of the Bahamas’ women’s suffrage movement. At that time, he again promised to bring forward a constitutional referendum on women's rights; the same promise he made over 12 years ago.

We continue to wait; while the government finds the time for a referendum on numbers and gambling; while legislation is drafted and redrafted to accommodate stem cell research, always taking care of “da boys” out in front while Bahamian women continue to wait.

While I cry shame on the prime minister on his deafening silence on this critically important issue for women in our country, I express even more surprise that the usually vociferous (I would even dare say pit bull like) women of the PLP appear to have allowed the bite of a self-styled “political potcake” to get the better of them.

Shamefully these PLP women called a press conference to condemn and ridicule the member of Parliament for Long Island, Loretta Butler-Turner, for her stand against the abuse of women and the actions of Miller in trivializing this terrible issue that traumatizes far too many women in our country.

In fact, at that press conference the PLP female spokespersons said that no woman in public life who is a mother should be making those political statements. Well I say that no woman in public life should remain silent while a male MP brags and jokes about domestic violence, others squawk and cackle and others just remain silent.

Standing up for women

I want to teach my daughters a few valuable lessons about respect for the dignity of all human beings.

I call upon the leaders of this nation to help me to teach this lesson, not only to my children but to all the children of our country. Sometimes “sorry” is just not enough. Sometimes a monetary gift cannot erase the damage.

I call on the PM, my own leader, Dr. Hubert Minnis, and all public figures on all sides of the political divide, please stand up for women. Let us demonstrate that we can still be a country with moral and ethical standards.

Prime minister, your government has not been a bastion of hope for women’s issues. So many promises that were especially targeted to win you support of Bahamian women at the polls in 2012 have thus far proven to be little more than electioneering.

I ask that you not fail Bahamian women on this issue of standing up against abuse. Say something. Let us hear from you – loudly and repeatedly. Do something that will encourage the thousands of women – wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and girlfriends – who have either been abused or who have a tender loved one who has or is presently suffering abuse. Assure Bahamian women that you really do care, that you do not condone or excuse abusive behavior – verbal or physical from any person on your team.

Let us all stand up and support human dignity and respect for one another.

The time for this is now.

• Heather Hunt is an attorney and senator.

April 02, 2014