#MeToo has finally reached Jamaica’s shores with a number of female students at Edna Manley College of Visual Art accusing a male lecturer of sexual harassment. According to some reports these complaints span a decade, yet the lecturer, Winston Campbell, has continued teaching there, suggesting that the college, for reasons best known to itself, did not take the allegations seriously.
A Gleaner article quoted a student who said:
“A lot of people have come forward with written and verbal statements in the past, but they have not gone anywhere,” a student who was allegedly sexually harassed by the same lecturer told The Sunday Gleaner.
“This has been going on now for years, and other students and teachers have brought it to the attention of the dean and the principal, and it has all gone unnoticed … swept under the rug and they kind of just – well, they haven’t done anything; he is still here. They are aware of what he has been doing and they haven’t done anything about it.”
According to my sources at the college, this situation would have continued indefinitely had it not been for an American lecturer, Professor Maluwa Meshane Williams-Myers, who–shocked by the number of students who complained to her about their sexual exploitation, and more conscientious it appears than her local colleagues–decided to blow the whistle. As she told a Gleaner reporter:
“I have known about four or five of the cases involving students. Some of them have had their hair grabbed. Some have been asked questions or told, ‘I can’t wait until you are old enough to have sex with.’ Others, basically, if you don’t do this for me, you are not going to have a good grade … a passing grade,” she told The Sunday Gleaner in graphic detail.
These are serious allegations yet Campbell was sent on leave only in late May this year after the Gleaner reported on the students’ plight, and the Board of the College was informed for the first time of the dire situation female students there faced. One is almost sure that if genders had been reversed and it was an older female lecturer preying on young male students, or a male lecturer preying on male students, action would have been taken long ago.
This case raises serious questions about the predicament of women in Jamaican society. Does the laxness with which the complaints of female students was treated suggest an entrenched belief that women’s bodies should be available for the sexual satisfaction of men? Does the scrupulousness with which the alleged perpetrator of these misdemeanours has been shielded in media reports—he remains unnamed–suggest a disturbing capitulation to the power and privilege of men in this society?
In the absence of the naming of the person against whom all these allegations have been lodged public fury has been directed at the female principal of the college and two other female administrators. But even here questions remain. Shouldn’t a statement be demanded from the current Academic Director of the School of Visual Arts, Miriam Hinds Smith? And if allegations that this state of affairs has been going on for a decade are true, also from the one before her? Shouldn’t both be held accountable just as much as the Principal? They were surely aware of these complaints. Could they both kindly let the public know why they decided not to do anything about these complaints? And why they remain silent in the face of evidence of longstanding violation of the rights of female students? Are they afraid to speak?
Not only have the institution and those who run it failed their female students, Jamaican media have as well. For by refusing to name the person who is alleged to have violated so many of them, they are sending the message that the rights of women to grant or not grant access to their bodies is not as important as the right of an alleged predator to protect himself against their accusations. If only Jamaican society believed in the right of women to remain inviolate as fervently as it believes in the seemingly supreme right of parties accused of sexual misconduct to an unblemished reputation!
Incidentally, I was informed by a lawyer that there is nothing at all in Jamaica’s Sexual Offenses Act that limits naming an alleged perpetrator of sexual violence while there is a raft of proscriptions against naming or identifying the victims or complainants in such cases. Both national newspapers therefore need to explain the excessive delicacy with which they have treated the accused.
Most dismaying has been the reaction of many who work at Edna Manley College whose first instinct was to insist on the integrity of the institution, all evidence to the contrary, rather than empathize with the victims of the harassment. It was reassuring therefore to read the following plea made by Lecturer in the School of Arts Management & Humanities, Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis, M.E.S.
…why are we not loudly asserting a commitment to trust complainants in any case of alleged sexual misconduct and articulate our assurance that such complainants will be cared for and supported while we seek to follow due process and investigate the validity of their reports?
Let us speak louder in empathy.We owe it to all women. We owe it to the great woman in whose honour the college is named. We owe it the women of Sistren – a renowned group of activist women whose genesis began at this college. We owe it to our sisters and daughters and granddaughters.