PARIS, March 8 (IPS) – For the past six years, Jamaican author and researcher Opal Palmer Adisa has been one of the voices shouting against the prevalence of gender-based violence in the Caribbean and elsewhere. To highlight this human rights issue, she launched “Thursdays in Black” – she held public protests throughout the year and on Thursdays used social media to spread her message and raise awareness.
Palmer Adisa, former director of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, is also known as one of the forces that bring to the fore Caribbean artists “at home and in the diaspora” (alongside SWAN, which launched in 2011). She is the founder of Interviews the Caribbeana magazine where artists from all genres discuss their craft and art in general.
But it is her work on gender that now comes to the fore and is the focus of her latest publications – she has written some 20 books, including novels and collections of stories and poems. Her latest work, The Return of the Narratorlooks at misogyny and examines how women find healing in the midst of violence.
For International Women’s Day, SWAN spoke to Palmer Adisa about her writing and her continued fight to end GBV both in her home country and globally. The edited interview follows.
SWAN: The UN defines gender-based violence (GBV) as “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their sex”. The organization cites estimates that “one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime”. Why doesn’t the world call this for what it is and do more?
Opal Palmer Adisa: As much as some people argue that feminists always blame the patriarchy, the reason gender-based violence is not called out for what it is – life-threatening to women and harmful to society as a whole – is because of the patriarchy and the institutions that are patriarchal; Therefore, gender-based violence is not taken very seriously.
There are band-aid things being done in Jamaica and elsewhere to address the problem, but the issue is deeper and encoded in our social/religious institutions and therefore needs to be attacked or resolved at those levels.
We need to look at the different interpretations of religions that make men responsible for women. So, to change the gender-based violence, we are talking about a complete transformation of the whole society starting with the institutions. We need to project and reinforce that women are equal to men and should be treated equally in all areas.
A question I have wrestled with, even in my new novel, is: why do men rape? Why is it something that they feel they can and do? It is a form of terror and control of women. There is definitely some progress, but the various governments need to declare GBV as war, which it is, and treat it as such.
SWAN: Campaigns to end violence against women – the main victims of GBV – are generally recognized every International Women’s Day (8 March) and every 25 November – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. What do these campaigns achieve at an international level?
OPA: International Women’s Day and the 16 days to eliminate violence against women have brought international attention to this issue, and this has forced more governments and people around the world to stop and pay attention and understand the long-term impact of gender-based violence, not only on the woman and the men involved (because 80% of the perpetrators are men), but it affects the children, it affects the elderly, it affects the health industry, the economy – because women have to seek help through medical care, lose work time, etc.
More importantly, because of these specific days, a growing number of women globally understand that they don’t have to be victims and that there are now resources for those in abusive situations to get some kind of respite. The changes needed are still a long way off, but these days bring attention and awareness and education.
However, we must understand that we live in a world that prescribes violence as a solution, and GBV is an obvious consequence. There has to be a big paradigm shift – what we’re talking about is conflict resolution without violence, which for me is one of the important things in my fight against gender-based violence: teaching men and women how to talk to each other and how to disagree with each other without resort to physical harm.
We must teach men to deeply respect women, not just to say it, but to respect women and to understand that women are not here to serve them, to wash their clothes or cook, to take care of them sexually – that woman is their partner and deserves to be treated with mutual respect.
International Women’s Day and November 25th through December 10th are very important as they bring immense awareness to women’s ailments and difficulties and offer some solutions to alleviate these conditions.
SWAN: According to the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, Jamaica is among the countries with the highest rates of femicide (intentional killing of women) and of “intimate partner violence”. You have highlighted these questions through both your scientific and creative work. How did your initiative in this field begin?
OPA: As you have indicated, Jamaica has a very high rate of femicide and gender-based violence, and growing up I saw this. I grew up on a sugar plantation where poverty was a reality for the cane cutters and their families who toiled daily under the sun, and violence fueled by anger was also part of that reality. There were many whispered stories of gender-based violence.
This lived experience influenced my work, so my very first collection Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories explores this issue as well as sexual assault. In my creative work I have always felt that it was important to highlight these issues in order to create awareness. My advocacy of “Thursdays in Black” is really just a sequel.
As a writer, my work is meant to address the issues that affect both women and men and try to offer solutions. Growing up, I felt that not many people did anything about these issues and dismissed them as “man-and-woman” affairs.
Honestly, I think a lot of people didn’t understand the social and long-term impact it had on children, on the whole family unit, and so I feel it’s my duty to do that, to write about these things and expose the theme in hopes of bringing about change . My writing is really about healing – how do we heal from these historical traumas of enslavement but also the daily traumas that we inflict on each other.
SWAN: At the 2021 Bocas Lit Fest (an annual literary festival in Trinidad) you did a powerful online reading of How do I keep them safe?. Can you tell me what motivated this poem?
OPA: For the past 6 years I have worked specifically looking at issues that affect women and children. When you live in Jamaica, you can’t help but hear about the enormous atrocities committed against girls, rape and mutilation. It’s just horrible, quite devastating and in some cases debilitating.
So I wrote that poem for mothers. Seeing them in the newspaper or the news, highlighting their lament and sadness is how we can keep our girls safe. I’m a mom, and even though my girls are young adults, that was my constant concern—how I could keep them safe. The poem is the voices of women, the society, the voice of fathers looking for ways to protect their children, especially their girl children from sexual harassment, which is rampant, and from rape and mutilation.
SWAN: Your latest collection of poems, The Return of the Narrator, explores misogyny and women’s survival and healing in hostile spaces. What do you want readers to take away from it?
OPA: The Return of the Narrator is a love story for Jamaica, a book of gratitude about being able to return. It is for all returnees and for all those who want to return but do not feel they can. While it claims that Jamaica is unsafe and misogyny is pervasive, it also reveals that there are still safe havens and beautiful wonderful people in Jamaica.
I really want readers to take away from this book that in the midst of hostility, there is redemption, and that we all have a role to play. The collection is truly a tribute to those who are gone and who have returned and who want to return and who cannot return – to understand that even in the midst of the seeming chaos and hostility there is opportunity and joy and peace.
SWAN: Not all artists can be activists, but what are some of the ways that everyone can join the fight to end GBV?
OPA: For gender-based violence and violence in general to change in Jamaica, and elsewhere, everyone must do their part. You don’t have to be an activist and go to marches and do other conscious acts of protest like I do, and you don’t have to make this your weekly mission, but there is a lot you can do on a personal individual level.
Start by having meaningful conversations about some of the diseases you see in your community and what each of us as individuals can do to help eradicate and address these diseases. Almost everyone has seen, heard and/or witnessed GBV. We must adopt the African motto: “Each one teaches one.” Start at the individual level, talk to each other, act peacefully with your friends and colleagues and whenever you see injustice or wrong, be brave and speak out against it; don’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So, that’s how our part does – be a witness, speak out, help a victim when and where you can.
© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service