When Bodies Become War Zones

Danielle Toppin

Gender activists in Jamaica have noted the persistence of strong links between community-based violence and rape.

During a recent walk through a secluded road in my neighborhood, I came face to face with the discomfort of unwanted desire. I was in a zone: in my own world, feeling confident and self-assured. As I walked, however, I became aware that I was attracting male attention, and an interesting thing happened. The more attention I received, the more uncomfortable I became; and at some point I became aware that I had noticeably slowed the pace of my walk, and quieted the skip in my step. I was trying to make myself less visible, in order to detract the male attention I was receiving. I also became aware of a feeling of fear…fear that someone would seize me and try to forcefully kill my jauntiness. I felt fearful of being raped.

This is a feeling I have heard expressed by a number of other women. We often avoid certain places and situations, not only because of a general fear of crime, but in many cases, because of a specific fear of rape. Rape affects both men and women, as sexual violence can be directed at anyone, regardless of their sex. Despite this, however, women are disproportionately the victims of rape. In this way, rape becomes an undeniably gendered issue, in which concepts such as ‘masculinity,’ ‘femininity’ and ‘power’ often come together to endanger female bodies.

That the threat of rape so greatly shapes the experiences of so many women, both those who have survived it, as well as many who have not been personally affected by it, speaks to the pandemic nature of sexual violence against women.

In a report entitled "Against Her Will," released in 2006 by PANOS Caribbean, which undertook a situational analysis of rape in Jamaica, links are drawn between high levels of violence in poverty-stricken inner city communities, and the use of rape as a weapon in war.

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It can be argued that the high levels of violent crimes cannot in and of itself qualify Jamaica as a war-torn country. However, in a number of select communities, gunplay between warring factions has become commonplace, with young, black males featuring as the main victims and perpetrators of this violence. However, among those who have been directly affected by the violence is a growing number of females, with sexual violence being used as a weapon of war.

Despite assertions by local police officials that "reprisal rapes" are infrequent, gender specialists and activists have challenged that view, noting the persistence of strong links between community-based violence and rape. In the drive to instill fear into communities the bodies of females are sometimes caught in the middle, and "gang rape and rape-as-terrorism… is used on women and young girls in these troubled communities as a form of revenge and also to render the occupants powerless. It sends a message to the people in the community about ‘who run things’. In one such case, two teen-aged sisters were repeatedly and brutally gang-raped by a group of eleven men (who originated from a community other than theirs), who threatened them that they would die because of the area in which they lived.

What emerges is an ugly side to the increasing crime situation in Jamaica, one that disproportionately affects the lives of many working-class, black women in war-torn communities. The need to examine the gendered impact of crime in these communities is succinctly expressed by Jamaican gender specialist Dr. Glenda Simms, who notes: "As long as there are Jamaican communities which are militarized, the figure for rape and other sexual offences will continue to increase. Women pay the price for war."

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