Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Speak Up for the Sisters At Risk

My childhood was filled with violence. I was attacked by children in the neighbourhood and in the schoolyard every day. I was beaten, thrown to the ground, hit with rocks, whipped with tree branches. I was thrown down the stairs. I was drowned. Dogs were set on me. I was spit on, ridiculed, rejected and cursed, by family, culture, religion, all. This is the truth of my life as a child of difference in the island patriarchy. But the ugliest truth of those years is that there never seemed to be anyone around who Spoke Up For Me, no one who would Advocate for me. In those times I still did not have a voice of my own, like any child. And like any child, I had the right to the protection and love of advocates, people who spoke for me when I could not speak for myself. But there were none to be found, even though many people who were meant to be protecting me were often standing around blind-eyed when the violence was coming down. I remember thinking so many times: why won't they do anything? In the tenth grade a boy football-tackled me to the ground. As I lay flat out on my back trying to recover, the PE teacher approached and... stepped over my fallen body and carried on his way. But I especially remember being attacked by neighbourhood children while my seventeen year old brother watched from his hiding place behind the Cassia tree as they pushed me down, kicked me in the face, pelted me with rocks. He came out when they were done and carried me home. But why would he not stop the attack? My own brother would not be my advocate when I was facing the violence. When I told my parents about the beatings, the drownings, the incident with the dogs... they would only say, "O, it wasn't that bad." If I pressed it they'd talk about some "man without feet" whose spectre was meant to make me feel grateful I was not him. No one was ever held accountable for the brutality. In the absence of anyone to speak up for me, in the silence where their protests on my behalf were meant to be, my oppressors received impunity and protection.

At the age of eleven I began to write a diary, and I realize now looking back that this was a subconscious act to begin advocating for myself. By the time I was in my twenties and working as a journalist I was recovered from the childhood trauma and wanting to use the power of my job to help the invisible become visible, to be a way for them to get their voices and their stories heard. In my thirties I came back to my own story in poetry, and today, in my forties, I'm doing the best I can to use the power of the Web and this blog to advocate for women and children at risk, to speak for them, to stand for them, in honor of the little girl I was, in celebration of the survivor I am today.

And yes, I tell you this story for a little bit of sweet revenge too.

But mostly I'm telling this story at last and now because of the resounding silence that is heard across my country where there should be voices ringing out in protest against the violence huge and growing numbers of Bahamian women are faced with every day. We owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to women like Dr Sandra Patterson, Allyson Hamilton and a handful of others, voices in the patriarchal wilderness who speak out relentlessly on their behalf. In recent months MP Loretta Turner joined this small intrepid band of women's advocates when she introduced an amendment to the Sexual Ofences Act. But where are the throngs of women from the community answering their call to become advocates for our sisters, for one another? I see only silent, empty streets. I hear only silence. This silence among women on behalf of women provides protection and impunity for the violent offenders. We women survivors of violence of all kinds must break this collective silence, tell our own stories, tell our sisters' stories too. And we women who enjoy relative freedom and safety must extend our hands and voices to our sisters who do not, because we are not free until all are free. We must talk less about forgiveness and more about justice and transformation. We must come out of our places of comfort and privilege and be our sisters' keepers. We must own the power of our individual and collective voices to change the world, one woman at a time.

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