‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

Gender-based Violence at Mona: #SpeakUpUWI

A Closer look at gender-based violence on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.

The University of the West Indies’ repeated claims that it was clueless about the level of gender-based violence (GBV), or any violence on its campus for that matter, because it “cannot admit to a phenomenon that is not supported by data collected by UWI” are damaging the institution. They are an embarrassment because they lead to the inevitable conclusion that there are fundamental problems with UWI’S methods of data collection. Either that or the methods are designed to evade collection of data that would indicate beyond any shadow of a doubt the enormity of the problem.

Because of course the University’s claims that GBV is not a major issue at the university flies in the face of the experience of students who have to live and work on its campus. On February 12 students at Mary Seacole Hall, one of the only female halls of residence at UWI, mounted a silent protest against gender-based violence on campus (See video above). Accompanying this, for the first time in a long time, students mobilized social media to make their views known using the hashtag #SpeakUpUWI. There were of course the usual disparagers.

“You guys think UWI care abt your tweets?” scoffed @Appleton_King.

“No but UWI cares about their image #SpeakUpUWI” responded @italisvital crisply.

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And that is the crux of the matter. It seems there may have been careless under-reporting going on all these years in an effort to ‘protect’ the University’s reputation (see my previous post Sexual Harrassment and UWI: Can we talk?  for more background). If UWI Admin think it is the reports of GBV that are ruining its image I suggest that everyone from the Vice Chancellor down to the Hall managers study these #SpeakUpUWI tweets carefully. In the meantime the administration’s stubborn insistence on a policy of denial is not one that the rest of us who work at UWI can or should support for it is bringing the university and all of us who work at it into disrepute. It is simply untenable. We have a vested interest in insisting that Senior Administration reconsider this unconscionably dishonest policy forthwith.

From all available reports around 11 pm on Tuesday, Feb 10, two Taylor Hall girls were walking between the halls of residence when some male students started throwing stones at them. When one of the girls objected and told off the boy who had stoned her in no uncertain terms it appears that he attacked her, leaving her with serious head injuries. The rest of the male students, proud Chancellorites by all reports, stood by and did nothing to intervene. A security guard was also said to be present yet this did not prevent the student from being injured.

Only the previous week the Gleaner had published an article titled UWI Halls of Horror outlining the risks faced by female students on campus. The University’s Registrar and Marketing Director strenuously objected to the article, claiming it wasn’t aware of any such problems. The tragedy is that in spite of having its prevarications thrown in its face by what happened to two female students at Chancellor Hall, just a few days after the University had loudly proclaimed that there had NEVER been a report of GBV on campus, once again the Deputy Principal finds it important to reiterate the tall claim that so-called data doesn’t support the evidence of the numerous attacks that have and continue to take place on campus. What kind of scholarship is that? You fail to collect important data and then claim a problem doesn’t exist because data doesn’t exist??

This is as absurd as a bank saying that it had noticed large chunks of money disappearing from clients’ accounts but as no one had officially made a report it didn’t think there was a major problem. Haha try that NCB!

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It’s only a pity that the poor Taylorite whose forehead was bashed in by a male student wasn’t part of a building, or a car or some other piece of private property, the University would have treated the incident like a major crime and steps would immediately have been taken to prevent its recurrence. I bet if asked the University can produce a complete list of property crimes on campus, disaggregated by all sorts of components.

But hey its just another female who’s been attacked. She’ll shut up or go away eventually when she realizes she has to continue attending classes with her assailants as well as those who stood by and watched without intervening.

Take a look at some of the tweets I extracted from the #SpeakUpUWI hashtag and see if you think I’m wrong (i’ve combined consecutive individual tweets for ease of reading) in bringing these matters to your attention.

RT @DanielleaAlexa: Went to UWI for a yr and Likkle bit. Lived on post grad and I was always scared as shit. Scared scared scared. 1 of my fren frm trini who lived on PG was attacked by a guy who lived on PG as well bcaz she never want him. UWI wanted her to hush hush. My girl get her lawyer an everything. Ole demons bwoy had to move off pg. like the whole a dem ova deh a drink mad puss piss to claart. They told her they would move the guy to another building in the complex. She was NOT standing for it. they moved him to the other side of campus.

RT @jdrenee_: Girls are safe at UWI yet I need to find a male friend anytime I want to leave my faculty? #SpeakUpUWI

RT @jdrenee_: Girls are safe by UWI but I got trailed when I left the Library by myself at night with no-one around? #SpeakUpUWI

RT @ShanaCogle: If violence is the way of the educated, what say the uneducated? #SpeakUpUwi

RT @Occupy_Jamaica: The first major sign of #Campus social media Activism in the Caribbean in a longtime. Get moving on this #SpeakUpUWI

Responding to the suggestion that things like this happen at all universities and universities in the USA and other first world countries have responded evasively as well, tweeter @Rosina_v retorted “yes but don’t have the time to care about overseas. [I] Care about the university i went to and suffered gender based harassment at.” She then went on to recount her experiences when she was a student at UWI.

Haile Minogue @Rosina_v
I was stalked for months by a man who would follow me to library and laywait me and scribble disturbing notes to me #SpeakUpUWI. had to go 2 a legal aid+get a civil injunction. He ws held by police who found 3 knives on him. Still no help from student affairs #SpeakUpUWI. tried to report it, turned out he had been doing the same to several other girls but me the worst. Directed to student affairs #SpeakUpUWI. I was told by head of Student Affairs not to tell her “Hi” when speaking to her, as she has a PHD & prefers the formal “hello” #SpeakUpUWI. That man had been deregistered from UWI since 1991! Still walking around campus terrorising women w impunity for over a decade #SpeakUpUWI. I couldnt bring myself to attend UWI graduation even though i was nominated as Valedictorian of my faculty. I couldnt stand for u #SpeakUpUWI.

In answer to a follow up question Rosina told me the following:

I went to UWI between 2008-2010. Did a BA in Philosophy and minor in Political science, graduated with a 4.01 GPA and was one of 5 students nominated to be valedictorian of Humanities and Education…Gender based harassment and violence is REAL, and the whole overall culture of the campus–and I can personally attest— is subliminally and overtly abrasively sexist and is a distressing environment for girls to achieve within–if places like the library, where late studying is a must for achievers breeds this kind of unwanted attention. Even in broad daylight, as in my case, harassment was not restricted to day or night.

Then there are the apologists for the University:

RT @GodivaGolding: We can’t blame UWI or Chancellor for the actions of a few. #speakupuwi

RT @GodivaGolding: It seems lost on some that UWI is a mere microcosm of the wider society we operate in. #speakupuwi

The apologists were swiftly dealt with. As @Cuddlephonics pithily put it: Cant and wont blame uwi for the incident but I will chastise them for how they handle these situations. #SpeakUpUWI

RT @Mandi143: “@KristinaLien: Nah we blaming UWI for something they’ve seemingly been ignoring for DECADES/” #SpeakUpUWI

UWI Problems @UWI_Problems
I wonder how many more things UWI plans to sweep under the rug…& how many things it has already that we don’t know about. #UWIProblems

Gaza Slimesha @AudiNatlee
Whether it is being investigated or no, SAY SOMETHING. Let us know you are as deeply outraged as we are. But sitting silence makes it worse.

Jack Mandora @darius_roberti
Women are speaking up about instances where they HAVE attempted to report things and were rebuffed.
So yes. That’s a UWI problem.

Odel @odelkerine
It’s been a good while now we’ve been crying out for PROACTIVE measures.
But now, AFTER the fact meetings being held.
#SpeakUpUWI

Jack Mandora @darius_roberti
If the ‘meetings’ aren’t about the expulsion of the responsible parties and them being charged for assault, what’s the point? #SpeakUpUWI

sash. @sashsolomon
Campus Police are bigoted, sexist buffoons with no empathy to rassclaat. You are there to SERVE and PROTECT, not victim blame #SpeakUpUWI

If the University wants to tackle the problems women have been trying to bring to their attention for decades let them start with the male halls of residence. @brandonallwood puts his finger on the problem: I went to UWI for a semester. Hall culture is abrasively macho n OBVIOUSLY n PATENTLY distressing for women.” #SpeakUpUWI

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What is Hall culture? Has anyone at UWI taken the trouble to study it? Have any of my esteemed colleagues in Social Science thought of investigating the fascinating sociological problems sitting on their doorstep? It’s a charge Verene Shepherd, head of the Regional Unit of the International Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) department has often made. The university’s researchers have been busy studying external problems instead of the ones that beset it internally.

Of course its also true that when a scholar undertakes a study as Taitu Heron did in 2013, the University is liable to reject its conclusions because it suggests there is a serious problem with GBV on campus. This is untenable. The Administration needs to lay out for us what it’s data collection methods have been all these years. Also what happens after a student reports an assault to the Police? Do the Police make weekly or monthly reports to the University about assaults on campus? If not why not? and if so why has the University said Ho, hum! and turned away?

Fortunately not all senior administration personnel at the University of the West Indies, Mona, are in denial. “Sexual harrassment is a troubling aspect of life on the Mona campus and has always been so from the time I was a student. It is not always manifested in violence but it is verbal also,” says Professor Verene Shepherd, head of IGDS at UWI.

“If Taitu found in her research that 67 cases came to the attention of campus security, one can bet it is a higher figure because it often goes unreported,” continued Dr. Shepherd. Education is vital; and I would suggest a Foundation course for all students — a kind of Gender 101 to sensitize all students to the historical roots of GBV and to the fact that the female majority on the campus is no excuse for male students to think that women are available for harrassment.”

In addition to a foundation course in Gender Studies let us at once examine the charge that the male halls of residence at UWI are little more than fraternity houses or frat houses as they’re more popularly known. At many American universities frat houses have been barred from campuses because it is widely acknowledged that such fraternities with their ultra-macho culture and investment in rowdiness, conspicuous machismo and male-oriented behaviour have contributed to the prevalence of rape culture. Yet at UWI not only are fraternity-type dorms such as Chancellor, Taylor and Irving part of the campus, some of them have also been turned into co-ed residences with female students placed in these havens of ultra-masculinity.

Add to this Hall Managers who have graduated from fraternities to become their managers (rather than the post being filled by the most highly qualified and competent candidates whether they lived on the particular Hall or not) and there is almost nothing to curb the masculinist excesses that occur, in fact are encouraged, from time to time.

It is noteworthy that in the instant case of the two female students who were attacked at Chancellor Hall around 11 pm on February 10th the University administration itself was unaware of the attack until the afternoon of the 11th. Allegations are that the Hall Managers concerned neglected to report the matter until it became obvious that the media, social and otherwise, was not going to turn a blind eye to what had happened.

It is sad also that the injured student’s parents, a working class couple from Montego Bay, were not given accommodation at the University so that they could tend to their daughter, instead of having to return to Montego Bay the same day they arrived to inquire into what had happened. Inexcusable also, if true, that the University did not escort the student back to Montego Bay after her doctor’s examination yesterday. These are simple ways the University could have started to repair its image instead of flatly denying the violence that is plaguing its campus.

I end with two tweets worth sharing. Let’s hope that everyone comes to their senses and starts doing what’s necessary to make campus safer for students, faculty and everyone who works there.

RT @_JKav: Worse thing is that some people are going to complain that it’s being made a gender thing.
But it is a gender thing.
#SpeakUpUWI

RT @italisvital_: My prayers go out to that girl. Confrontation or not, she doesn’t deserve a cracked skull and what they did to her face #SpeakUpUWI

Sexual Harrassment and UWI: Can we talk?

A discussion of The University of the West Indies’ peculiar policy towards sexual harrassment on its Mona Campus.

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Everyone agrees that in order to deal with a problem you first have to acknowledge it exists. I thought of this when listening to Camille Bell-Hutchinson, University Registrar, energetically refuting the charge that gender-based violence is out of control on the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies. Today the Letter of the Day in the Daily Gleaner is from the University’s Director of Marketing, Recruitment & Communications, Carroll Edwards. Like the Registrar she denies allegations of rampant attacks on campus women made in a Sunday Gleaner article dated February 1, 2015, ‘Halls of horror: gender-based attacks haunt UWI, Mona’.

The denials come in response to a study cited in that article quoting Taitu Heron, currently National Programme Coordinator at UN Women Jamaica, who chronicled some of the reported cases of violence against women on the campus in her 2013 study Whose Business Is It? Violence Against Women at UWI, Mona. The study, conducted  while Heron was a lecturer at UWI’s  Institute of Gender and Development Studies, used data compiled from incident reports  made to the Office of Security Services on campus. Records showed 67 reported incidents including stalking, physical assaults and domestic disputes.

Astonishingly this was categorically denied by the UWI registrar who stated in the media “…while the university cannot say sexual violence does not take place on campus, the university has never had a report of sexual harassment on any of its six halls of residence.”

Remarkable! If this is true it is a huge feather in the university’s cap. Its security arrangements are so good that not one case of sexual harrassment has been reported–EVER. I hope the University’s PR and marketing department is making lavish use of  this extraordinary ‘fact’ in advertising the campus and the excellent security that obtains there to potential students.

Considering how prevalent sexual harrassment is on virtually every other University campus in the world this should also qualify UWI Mona for some sort of global award–for it has NEVER had a report of sexual harrassment on its campus if the Registrar is to be believed. I would imagine that the University’s gender specialists and social scientists have done considerable research on this amazing state of affairs so that it might lead the way in showing other universities how to manage gender-based violence on their campuses.

Returning from UWI’s alternate universe to the one described by Ms Heron, much of what she reported sounded alarmingly familiar. I still remember a women’s group on campus in the early 90s putting up posters inviting concerned individuals to a forum to discuss the many violent incidents female students were facing on campus with a view to forming some sort of strategy that would provide women with better support than was then available.

Before the meeting could be held an edict was issued by the administration. There was to be no such forum and all posters advertising it were to be taken down forthwith. Organizers were reprimanded for jeopardizing the ‘good reputation’ of the university by holding such a discussion in public and ordered never to do it again.

Very little appears to have been done by the University to upgrade the security of female students between then and 2007 when the attacks grew so flagrant that another women’s advocacy group took the matter of female security on university campuses to parliament. A Gleaner article detailed the issues:

Rape, a major problem at UWI – advocacy group
April 12, 2007
Complaining of a disturbing number of rapes and other forms of sexual offences on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), a female advocacy group on the campus is calling for special legislation and other measures to combat the problem at all universities in Jamaica.
The recommendation was made yesterday by the Society for the Upliftment and Advancement of Women Via Education (SUAWVE), a group based at the UWI’s Mary Seacole Hall, during a presentation to the joint select committee of Parliament considering legislative changes relating to sexual offences.
Real-life incidents
Lanoy Crumbie, president of SUAWVE, related three real-life incidents on the campus: In the first incident, she said a female student attending a party on campus was gang-raped by male students from her class, who videotaped the assault. Student number two was raped by her male study partner in his on-campus bedroom, after they had finished studying. The third student was raped by a classmate, whom she had invited to her bedroom; but he flatly denied that it was rape, since she had invited him to her room and, by her own admission, he did not use physical force.
Crumbie admitted, however, that none of these incidents had been reported to the university authorities or the police, citing the victims’ reluctance to undergo the “trauma” associated with rape cases.
Responding to the report, Joseph Pereira, deputy principal of the Mona campus, also made clear in an interview with The Gleaner, however, that these incidents had not been brought to the attention of the university administration.

Heron also cited SUAWVE’s 2007 initiative to Parliament in her paper. In its submission to Parliament SUAWVE noted the prevalence of ‘acquaintance rape’ as a particular problem at UWI’s Mona Campus.

“Shortly afterwards”, as Heron notes in her paper, “the Student Group was called into the Prinicipal’s Office and reprimanded for bringing the university into ill repute”. Heron concluded “The primary concern was not that the incidents of violence against women occurred but rather that speaking about it in an open forum made the University look bad.”

Nothing much seems to have changed between the early 90s and 2007 or since in the University’s strategy for dealing with problems of sexual harrassment. Suppressing information and preventing potential victims from mobilizing support for themselves or discussing the problems seem to be cornerstones of its policy towards sexual harrassment. In another incident I’m aware of two girls narrowly escaped being raped by a mob of young male students at one of UWI’s Halls of Residence at Mona. When a student newspaper tried to publish a report on this incident, in an act of blatant censorship, they were ordered to drop the article from the publication immediately. How women are to take precautions when much needed information is suppressed in this way is something an institution of higher learning such as UWI needs to explain.

In the same vein a few years ago some female students called up Ragashanti’s virally popular Newstalk 93 talk show to complain about rape and sexual harrassment threats they faced on the Mona Campus. Ragashanti was sympathetic, urging them to speak freely, only to be hauled up by the administration who ordered him to cease and desist from holding conversations on the subject of female vulnerability on campus. The virulent arguments between Ragashanti and Rodina Reid, a senior campus administrator, originated over this matter.

Recall also poet and writer Stacey Ann Chin’s vivid description of the near rape she suffered in a bathroom at UWI.

What is consistent in all of this is the University’s tactic of demanding and imposing silence on victims and potential victims of sexual harrassment on campus while at the same time doing very little to secure the safety of its female students. It was striking that in her appearance on Newstalk 93, University Registrar Bell-Hutchinson insisted there were hotlines for students to call in case of trouble though she was unable to provide the number when pressed by the host to announce the numbers for the benefit of students who might be listening.

Also striking is the emphasis placed by senior UWI management on the lack of reportage of sexual harrassment incidents as some sort of vindication of its reputation rather than recognizing it as an extraordinary situation that requires immediate investigation. Instead of claiming proudly that the university “has never had a report of sexual harassment on any of its six halls of residence” or that “these incidents had not been brought to the attention of the university administration” let’s try and find out what is preventing such reportage, let us then put systems in place to facilitate female students who are being victimized, and let us immediately stop this foolish strategy of censorship, cover-ups and bullying of advocacy groups who are legitimately attempting to solve problems the University has been more concerned to deny than address.

Finally no more of statements such as this: “The UWI, Mona, also rejects the allegation that the issue of gender-based violence has not been accorded priority by the campus.” Had this issue been prioritized as it should have been as far back as 30 years ago it wouldn’t keep returning to haunt the university today.