Red Cross: ‘Cayman must tackle sexual harassment and abuse’

The Cayman Islands is overdue for an honest “reckoning” of the level of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the community, according to Red Cross deputy director Carolina Ferreira.

She believes harassment is rampant in the islands and has become “normalised”.

Ferreira, who leads the Red Cross campaigns and education programmes aimed at stamping out sexual abuse in Cayman, believes a “culture of silence” is keeping the issue hidden and under-reported.

In a written question-and-answer interview with the Cayman Compass, she argues that it is time for change:

How common do you think sexual harassment is in Cayman? Anecdotally, we hear about it a lot, but there doesn’t appear to be official statistics.

It doesn’t surprise me that there are no official statistics because as far as I am aware there really aren’t many mechanisms that would require that employers submit the number of sexual harassment-related complaints or allegations to any national body that would compile those statistics from a work environment perspective.

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Outside of the workplace it really isn’t being reported given that there is little to nothing that appears to be done.

Sexual harassment is absolutely a problem here, from what happens in the workplace, social gatherings, walking down the street day or night, and even in our homes due to the advancements in technology and the connectivity we all have due to smartphones and other modes of communication.

Other countries have had the #metoo and Time’s Up movements to encourage the community to tackle these type of issues. Do you think Cayman has or needs something similar?

The important thing to note about #metoo is that it isn’t just about sexual harassment, it also includes sexual assault and abuse.

The culture of silence around sexual abuse is something that numerous advocates and NGOs have been trying to break for decades, and while we have made some strides there is still tremendous pressure for victims and their families to remain silent.

As rampant as sexual harassment is within our community there are so many aspects of it that are so ingrained in what gets called ‘culture’ that keep not only perpetrators of these behaviours from acknowledging it as problematic but also impacts the way which victims ‘rationalise’ what may be happening to them and bystanders from identifying it as unacceptable behaviour as well.

Sexual harassment here starts young in large part due to the way in which we sexualise children and young people, and it is incredibly visible.

Think of the girls walking from school to town and the cars with men that slow down to ‘pay them a compliment’ and the expectation that these girls should be ‘glad for the attention’.

What is not as visible are the women who pressure young men into proving their manhood by engaging in sexual activity with them, playing into the toxic masculine notions of ‘real men don’t turn down sex with women lest they be gay’.

Cayman is long overdue for a #metoo-style reckoning, and it is one that would shake our country to the core if the victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuse were empowered enough to come forward to speak of their experiences.

We know the perpetrators aren’t just those that we ‘other’ when talking about sexual abuse or those whom we ‘expect’ when talking of sexual harassment, such as construction workers, gardeners or gas station attendants that everyone readily identifies.

The perpetrators are also politicians, civil servants, pastors, high-ranking executives, partners at established firms, entertainers, police officers, and numerous others who have a public persona of dignity, trust and credibility, some who even publicly support the plight of ending these types of abuses, but who in more private spaces feel entitled to use their power to harass and abuse those who are vulnerable.

At the Red Cross, I think you deal more with sexual abuse and the issues that stem from that. Do you think these issues are related?

The issues are absolutely related. Whether talking about sexual harassment or sexual abuse we are talking about sexual behaviours that are happening without consent, that are unwanted and uninvited, and most importantly that can be harmful to the victim.

We have normalised sexual harassment so much that when we hear of something happening where the harassment was mostly verbal or which is seen to be as minimally physical the response is usually ‘well, at least it wasn’t that bad’, as in anything short of sexual assault and rape doesn’t really ‘count’.

Yet sexual harassment is absolutely harmful to those who experience it, and we know that victims of sexual harassment can suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep disorders, and so many other mental and physical health ailments.

Is there community education that can take place that can help fight sexual harassment and related behaviour in Cayman?

There are agencies like the Employee Assistance Programme which offer seminars/workshops/presentations on sexual harassment.

At the Red Cross and as part of the Protection Starts Here project when it comes to both child protection and sexuality education, our work really focusses on building the right foundation to mitigate this as a problem.

We teach kids and young people about things like safe/unsafe/unwanted touch, consent, differences in types of relationships (personal, familial, professional, etc), and personal empowerment in age-appropriate ways that build on the message over the years so that, as adults, they have a clear understanding of these boundaries for themselves and others.

We also address some of these issues in our workshops that focus on gender and sexuality due to the fact that traditional gender roles and sexual stereotypes contribute to instances of both sexual abuse and harassment.

It seems like no one agency or group has oversight on this issue. There are resources for domestic violence, gender equality, sexual abuse, but a lot of people who face sexual harassment feel they have no recourse and nowhere to turn. Do you think there is a gap here?

Yes, there is a gap and it’s likely as much due to lack of resources on the part of agencies that are dealing with the related issues to address this as well as assumptions that are being made as to whose remit is to be focussing on this specific area.

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