BY SCOTT SELMER
The Bahamas is a favorite tourist destination—famous for its bright blue ocean, white sand beaches and crystal blue skies. However, there is a subculture of crime that may not be well known to tourists or outsiders. The Bahamas leads the Caribbean in the number of recorded rapes of women and girls and ranks among the worst countries in the world for gender-based violence (GBV).
Private organizations and individuals, non-governmental agencies (NGO) are working together to confront rising gender-based violence. One such individual is psychologist Dr. Sandra Dean-Patterson. She recognized the problem of GBV decades ago and has been working to confront the problem ever since.
The archipelago has the highest incidence of rape per capita in the Caribbean. Statistically, it ranks among the top ten countries in the world where rape is common, according to the 2016 report of the National Task Force of Gender Based Violence (Task Force) recently delivered to the Bahamian Prime Minister.
With help from others Dean-Patterson formed an organization to help victims of sexual violence. Originally, the organization was exclusively for women and girls, but has expanded to include the entire family.
Although educated as a psychologist, Dean-Patterson is compelled toward advocacy as well, never hesitating to decry system maladies on many levels. She treats and advocates for women and girls and is particularly alarmed at the number of incidences of sexual assault of underage girls.
Last February, following sentencing of the convicted rapist, Dwight Bethel, 41, for the rape of a young girl, Dean-Patterson publically criticized the legal system, the presiding judge and the defense attorney. She charged that Bethel’s sentence was too light.
“The victim, recounting her violation, stated that her molestation began in 2008 when she was 11-years-old, and in June of 2013 she told him that she was ‘carrying his child.’ Four months later he took her to a clinic to terminate her pregnancy. Dean-Patterson said, “This information was carried in the newspapers on February 10th, 2015.”
Over the years, Dean-Patterson has publically advocated much stiffer sentences stating that she believes that it is one way of communicating the seriousness of the crime and its lifelong impact on the victims. She has declared that it is a way of changing the culture of complacency toward GBV.
She has been actively involved in advocating stiffer sentences for convicted rapists and was a member of the National Task Force of Gender Based Violence. Dr. Dean-Patterson has been treating girls and women victims of rape and sexual assault since she founded the clinic. She has seen firsthand the impact that rape and sexual violence has on a victim’s life.
Annual reports of the Bahamian Royal Police Force show that over the ten-year period, 2003 to 2013, there were 1,109 reported rapes. Over the four-year period, 2008 to 2012, the Bahamian police opened files on more than 9,045 sexual assault cases. Moreover, according to the research performed by the Task Force most rapes go unreported because the victims and their families do not want the publicity and lack confidence in the legal system.
On April 7, 2016, the UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, while meeting in The Bahamas to confer on the implementation of the gender-based violence in the Caribbean task force report stated, “While the worldwide average for rape was 15 per 100,000, The Bahamas has an average of 133, St. Vincent and the Grenadines 112, Jamaica 51, Dominica 34, Barbados 25 and Trinidad and Tobago 18.’ Forty-eight percent of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was forced or somewhat forced. ”
Several years ago, the government became much more visibly invested in the problem. In July 2013 the Bahamian Government appointed a national task force for ending gender-based violence. In early February of this year, the Bahamian Commissioner of Police revealed that rapes increased by sixteen percent in 2015 compared to 2014. The Task Force report went on to say, “The issue of rape, its magnitude, and impact in the country demands further attention.”
There is a legal process, but it is perceived to be inadequate on multiple levels. “Of those cases that are reported to the police, most remain unsolved, perpetrators are never identified and of those that are, most are never brought to justice and fewer are ever convicted, ” according to the Task Force report.
The Task Force Report concluded that it is the negative attitude toward women and girl victims from law enforcement officials including police, magistrates, judges, law clerks, prosecutors and defense counsel that is a significant part of the problem. One such harmful norm is a culture of disbelief whereby women and girls reporting violence are assumed to be lying with respect to its occurrence and seriousness.
Calls to the Attorney General’s Office were declined with the statement that the Attorney General’s Office does “not comment on any matters to the media,” according to an individual who would identify herself only as an assistant prosecutor.
Even though GBV continues to rise, Dean-Patterson and her staff of devoted volunteers continue to provide services and to do whatever they can to educate the public as well as the victims of the importance of speaking out as a way to help diminish gender-based violence.
“Silence is a tool that perpetrators use because they know that victims do not speak up because they are fearful, and the community is silenced because of its apathy. What we do is break the silence and become the voice for those who have been silenced. When we sensitize the public we are making them aware about what happens,” explained Donna Nicolls, a twenty-five year volunteer and activist of the Centre.
Despite the fact that the Task Force report confirmed what had been considered a well-known but officially unspoken problem, Prime Minister Perry Christie spoke about the future Bahamas. At a press conference in February this year, Christie formally heralded the completion of the task force’s strategic report.
“I am confident that we are on the right path to dealing with all of the social problems that we have and that many of them will take much longer than even I anticipated. But the point is that we are doing the right things and making the right decisions.”
For more than 30 years Dean-Patterson and her staff of volunteer professionals, psychologist, social workers, psychiatrists have provided free walk-in services to sexual assault. She recognizes there is a legal component whereas the victims who report their assaults become involved in the legal justice system. Her clinic provides access to free attorney services and victim advocacy counselors to help navigate the process.
Dean-Patterson credits her perseverance to the Ashanti proverb that says, “The ruin of a nation is in the homes of its people.” She said, “We also hope to continue our work, so that it is not just seen as women’s work, but we can work in partnership with men. I think we have come a very long way over these 30 years, but I know there is a lot more fruit in the vineyard to be picked.”