Sabrina was 7 when her stepfather raped her. She was in high school when a boy she had turned down threatened to kill her. In her early 20s, she caught a man crawling through her bedroom window — the same neighbour who tried to rape her years earlier.
Sabrina’s stepfather was jailed, but only for a month; over the next 17 years, he continued to emotionally and physically abuse her. She reported the boy to police, too, but they just told her to go home. By the time she discovered her neighbour climbing in her window, Sabrina had lost faith in the local authorities.
She attempted suicide but ultimately chose to live — and her only chance at safety, she decided, was to flee. “I had my mind made up,” said Sabrina, who asked that her surname not be published. “I was going to try anything just to get out of here.”
“Here” is St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a Caribbean country of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters — a vacationer’s paradise. But according to a new report spearheaded by Quebec researchers, the sun-dappled island has a dark side: a “cultural epidemic” of violence against girls and women.
In 2007, St. Vincent had the third-highest rate of recorded rapes after the Bahamas and Swaziland, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime document cited by the report. More recent UN statistics showed that in 2011, St. Vincent was the fourth-worst country worldwide when it came to its rate of recorded rapes.
Domestic abuse and incest are common. Between 2000 and 2011, 60 women died from gender-based violence or at the hands of their partner — a staggering figure considering the under-reporting of cases and St. Vincent’s tiny population of 109,400, roughly the size of Thunder Bay.
“Cultural prejudices against women and the trivialization of violence within relationships have a devastating effect on women’s rights, particularly their right to be free from violence,” reads the report, published by the Université du Québec à Montréal’s International Clinic for the Defence of Human Rights and the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association. “In response to this cultural epidemic, the state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines does not provide adequate protection to women.”
This “climate of impunity” for perpetrators of gender-based violence has caused many women to flee the country, a phenomenon revealed by the Star in 2011. Over the past decade, more than 4,490 Vincentians — four per cent of the current population — have sought asylum in Canada, the majority being women. While there are no official statistics on why Vincentian women are seeking asylum, court documents suggest that many are fleeing violence.
Sabrina’s refugee claim was accepted in 2009 and she eventually shared her story with UQAM’s human rights clinic, which began investigating gender-based violence in St. Vincent after a local charity called La Maison Bleue alerted them to the issue. After a year of research, the clinic published its findings earlier this month in a 28-page report, which it submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
The document is a response to St. Vincent’s official report under a 1979 convention to end discrimination against women, which CEDAW is tasked with monitoring. The treaty requires that states contribute periodic reports on the status of women in their country, which St. Vincent submitted last year.
“(This) gave us a great opportunity to reply and submit a shadow report showing that the situation is much more dire in reality than comes across in the state report,” explains law professor Mirja Trilsch, the director of UQAM’s human rights clinic.
Trilsch’s team, comprised of seven UQAM students and two case managers, found that Vincentian women face enormous hurdles when it comes to seeking protection or justice for gender-based crimes.
“It was very shocking, actually,” says Emilie Guimond-Bélanger, a master’s student of international law and one of the report’s authors who travelled to St. Vincent this summer. “There’s no system, there’s no protection for women, to make this violence stop.”
Discrimination against women is rooted in the “patriarchal structure” of St. Vincent and many women are particularly vulnerable because they depend on their husbands or partners for financial support, the report found. The country’s constitution also lacks a specific provision stating that men and women are equal before the law.
When abuse does occur, the woman’s quest for justice often ends at the police station. Under St. Vincent’s Domestic Violence Act — which considers domestic abuse a civil matter, not a criminal one — police are not even legally obligated to investigate. Although officers receive gender-sensitivity training, victims are often met with “gross, disrespectful, chauvinistic, young male officers who feel that the victim asked for what she received,” according to a report by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.
On this tiny island, which is about half the geographical size of Toronto, there is also nowhere for a hunted woman to hide — and the country’s only shelter can only be accessed by victims who file an application through the courts. And even if a woman obtains a protection order against her abuser, she still remains at risk.
And many women aren’t even covered by the country’s Domestic Violence Act. For example, a woman who doesn’t live with her attacker is not protected because the act only covers “members of the household.”
While incest is a major problem, St. Vincent’s criminal code only defines the crime as applying to men who have sex with a “granddaughter, daughter, sister or mother.” Girls raped by uncles or cousins are not considered victims of incest.
But the most “flagrant” problem when it comes to documenting gender-based violence in St. Vincent is the lack of statistics, the report found. Under the 1979 convention, countries are required to compile information on violence against women but in St. Vincent, statistics are nearly impossible to obtain. The best source of information is the local newspapers, which frequently feature stories of Vincentian women being murdered or attacked.
“It’s undeniable that there’s a problem in St. Vincent,” Trilsch said. “So for the state not to offer statistics ... and not to have a specific plan on how to fight against this problem, it is a violation to its international obligations.”
The UQAM researchers made several recommendations in their report, which they hope CEDAW will endorse when it issues its own recommendations next July.
The committee’s recommendations are not binding. But they will pressure St. Vincent to start taking the necessary steps to ensure that girls and women live their lives without fear and violence — and the urge to flee.
“It’s the naming and shaming principle,” Trilsch said. “It becomes more difficult for the state to maintain its position: That everything’s glorious, the sun is shining and nobody is getting hurt.”