The Other Side of Paradise

The Other Side of Paradise

Fly down to Grenada in the depths of a North American winter, and you can be forgiven for thinking you've landed in a sliver of heaven. Blue seas, blindingly white beaches, bougainvillea dripping from doorways and walls. No wonder the Minister of Tourism calls this three-island Caribbean nation of just over 110,000 "our little paradise."

But there's another side to paradise. Grenada is part of a sobering trend in a corner of the world where rates of domestic violence are double the global average. The World Bank terms gender-based violence in the Caribbean "not only a serious public health problem and a violation of women's human rights," but also an economic burden "affecting productivity, earnings, and taxing health care and judicial systems."

Between 60 and 78 percent of all female homicides in the region occur within the victim's home and are committed by a male partner, relative, or ex-partner. Last summer, in a single horrifying week, three Grenadian women were hacked to death by their male companions. In the wake of the murders, the Ministry of Social Development issued a statement urging Grenadians "to avoid sullying the reputation of the dead women, or even blaming them, as though they were somehow responsible for the actions of their killers."

SPH alumnus and Paul B. Cornely postdoctoral fellow Rohan Jeremiah, PhD, MPH '06, has spent years working to understand and reduce the high rates of domestic abuse in the Caribbean, with a focus on Grenada. His research points to multiple contributing factors: high unemployment, inequalities in education, religious strictures against divorce, the brutal legacy of two centuries of slavery, long-held cultural norms about gender roles, and social taboos that effectively silence victims.

By the time most Grenadian boys in lower socioeconomic families reach adolescence they're expected to contribute to household incomes, Jeremiah reports, and they typically forego school. Girls, by contrast, are encouraged to complete secondary school, even though it costs money, because families tend to think it will make them more marriageable. It also makes them more employable—which can breed resentment in a nation where male unemployment approaches 50 percent in some areas.

Jeremiah has found that Grenadian men who abuse women often share the same story. "They're unemployed, they can't take it anymore, and they snap."

Love itself can be a factor. "It seems there is no specific process by which children are told what love is and is not," Jeremiah says. Sadly, many wind up mistaking abuse for affection. One woman told Jeremiah that when her partner doesn't hit her, she wonders if he still loves her.

Grenada's colonial past has helped engender a culture where men routinely express their masculine identities by taking multiple partners and/or using verbal, physical, and sexual violence to exert power and control. (Women also occasionally engage in violence, but chiefly in response to assaults from men.) Few Grenadians speak up for fear of intruding on others' privacy or courting trouble, says Jicinta Alexis, a social research consultant in Grenada who collaborates with Jeremiah. Many Grenadians view domestic violence as "a societal thing, something that happens among ‘the other people,' the lower socioeconomic classes," she adds. Wealthy Grenadians who suffer abuse often leave the island rather than risk the social stigma that comes with admitting to difficulties.

But there are signs of hope. Jeremiah has been evaluating a United Nations program called Partnership for Peace (PFP), the first comprehensive domestic-violence intervention in the English-speaking Caribbean. Launched in the wake of Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Emily (2005), which destroyed or damaged 90 percent of Grenada's infrastructure, the volunteer program provides behavior therapy for men charged with domestic abuse under Grenada's Domestic Violence Act of 1999—itself a sign of change.

Since its inception, PFP has enrolled more than 200 men, and its success in reducing recidivism has led seven additional Caribbean nations to adopt the program. Jeremiah believes that in conjunction with elevated law enforcement in rural communities, new measures to address education and employment disparities, widespread dissemination of violence-prevention programs and communications, and greater engagement by church and community groups, PFP can do much to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence in the Caribbean.

Increasingly, Grenadians are speaking out against gender-based abuse—in person, through letters to the editor and Facebook pages, in schools and community groups, and here on these pages. The profiles that follow are drawn from focus groups conducted in Grenada in March 2013 by Rohan Jeremiah, Jicinta Alexis, and Findings editor Leslie Stainton. The names of the individuals have been changed to ensure privacy.

Alicia: The System is Flawed

A thirty-something police officer in Grenada, Alicia says she responds to a domestic violence call at least once a week, often more. She's seen incidents of abuse where outsiders have intervened and called the police, only to have the victim—usually female—then turn against the person or persons who tried to help her. Sometimes a victim will try to convince the police that the person who phoned for help is in fact the one who caused, or even committed, the abuse. As a result, says Alicia, "persons refuse to help because they realize that it becomes a game." Or they call the police but refuse to divulge their identity.

Once a domestic abuse case enters the legal system, there are other problems, like corruption. If a legislator or highly placed government official is charged with domestic violence, for example, "they keep it at a hush-hush."

But what really "kills the system," Alicia says, are the magistrates. "The police will do what they have to do, social services will do what they have to do, but the magistrates do not enforce it. On many occasions, the magistrate will say, ‘Is he a good boy? Ever been charged? Is he a businessman? Come from a good family?'" The law is crafted in such a way that magistrates have discretion in determining the length of a sentence for someone convicted of domestic violence. Often magistrates will elect to give the minimum sentence because of some special circumstance. "So then, you train the constable, you train the cop, you train the social worker, [but] you don't train the magistrate! We have female magistrates who are even worse than the men."

Jason: It happens in Broad Daylight

A teacher with more than seven years' experience in the classroom, Jason has worked with young people in business, social, and religious settings and is currently involved with a program to end violence against women.

"One of the sad parts is it stems from our heritage with slavery," he says of Grenada's high rates of domestic abuse. "It stems from that heritage where female slaves were victimized sexually by both the planter class and their male slave counterparts." Women grow up believing physical violence is normal, "and then they find a man who would treat them just the same way, and it's a vicious cycle, and it keeps going on and on and on."

Four years ago Jason was in Grenada's capital city, St. George's, at a busy intersection, when he spotted a mini-bus with a male driver and a woman in the passenger seat. A child was sitting between them. The woman was talking to the man when suddenly "the guy literally took his fist and socked her a couple of times across the child to get her calmed down. And I was shocked. I was, like, really? That just happened in the middle of town, in the middle of the day, in bright sunlight? And it's, like, nobody's business. She settled down. She got quiet."

Karim: There's a Lot of Fighting

A twenty-something unmarried man who has worked in the media and with youth groups, Karim grew up witnessing domestic violence "without knowing what it was. There's a lot of fighting in the community, boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife."

Not long ago, Karim dated a woman who expected—even wanted—him to be violent with her. He told her, "It can't work because I'm not that type of person." But she saw his response "as me being soft, or probably me not being a man or something. That just is not my mentality, not my demeanor." Karim broke off the relationship.

One of his friends had a girlfriend who claimed she could not get sexually aroused "if he don't slap her or hit her or tell her something bad, demean her, things like that. And it was shocking. And I was, like, yeah, well, it happens."

Uel: Some See Abuse as Survival

Uel is in his twenties and has a background in media and business. He is eager to find ways to reduce domestic violence in Grenada but is unsure how to change prevailing attitudes and behaviors. In rural areas, he's aware of "parents who encourage their young daughters into relationships with older men." It doesn't happen often, he admits, "but it happens. Some people see it as a way of survival."

One woman told him she can only afford to send her kids to secondary school because her young daughters have relationships with older men, who in turn provide funds to the family. "You see it especially in the rural parts," Uel says. "A woman has three daughters, and she doesn't want to work, and they might send the daughters for a visiting relationship with an older man, knowing that the guy would approach the girls sexually and expect the girls to provide." Uel notes that according to published reports, the average age for initial sexual experiences in Grenada is 11. "For both girls and boys."

Chandra: Attitudes Need to Change

A high-school guidance counselor, Chandra talks "all the time" to students who've witnessed abuse or experienced it themselves. Some are as young as 11 years old.

As a child, Chandra herself witnessed violence. "My father used to beat Mommy. For the life of me I couldn't figure what she was doing wrong." One day Chandra asked her father why he hit her mother. He told her the other men in the village were doing it, and he didn't want to appear "soft."

As a society, she believes, "we've grown to accept it. Men will be unfaithful to a woman, and vice versa, and we'll come up with the most philosophical, the simplest reason." Only a very few people are rational enough to say, "Even though this is the case, it is wrong."

Recently, Chandra went shopping for clothing and tried on a dress that was too short for her. A female customer in the store told her, "Buy it. If you don't buy it, you will cause your husband to look at younger girls in shorter dresses and leave you." Chandra did not respond to the woman.

"I think we're beginning to correct some of our mistakes," she says. "All of the schools now have a counselor or two. Women in Grenada—I'm so proud of us these days—we're career-oriented rather than divorce-oriented. So women are studying, women are holding powerful positions." Even though social status can still be an impediment, upper-class and educated women are beginning to report incidents of abuse. "We're getting there. I am hopeful that we're going to get there, and not too very long from now."

Gender-based Violence By the Numbers

Although the precise level of domestic violence in Grenada is unknown, rates across the Caribbean region suggest the gravity of the problem:

  • 30% Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados
  • 25% Guyana
  • 29% British Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago
  • 70% Suriname

Source: Clarke, R., and Sealy-Burke, J. (2005) Eliminating gender-based violence, ensuring equality: UNIFEM/ECLAC regional assessment of actions to end violence against women in the Caribbean. Bridgetown, Barbados: United Nations Development Fund for Women.