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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

July 2006

Women as victims, survivors and agents in conflict

The case of Jamaica.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | India |

Description of the conflict:

Most of the men in the communities under scrutiny in Jamaica are marginalized, socially and economically. So too are the women. Historically, they form part of the socially excluded Jamaicans that represent generations of social neglect, class and racial prejudice for almost 2 centuries. Rebellious in nature, and anti-status quo, it is from this very same group, that many of our cultural icons have also sprung. From this group, there has always been a fight “against the system”. Poverty levels and unemployment rates are high among this group, and highest among the women. There is a high prevalence of teenage parenting, and subsequent dependency on men for economic survival. Most of the men, are under pressure to provide for their women and children. Family relations are unstable, often the men “ride and provide”, and are not emotional or physical constants in a household. The women, not just the teenage mothers, are often economically dependent on the men.

Some women are working getting on with their lives, trying the best they can given the circumstances. There are also examples of some youth, also going to school and having to study at night, with gunshots blazing in the air at night. As many as 8 people may inhabit one yard, with only one standpipe and bathroom in another yard. Movement between yards is often curtailed when the communities are at war.

The changing structure, from Area leader to Shotta Don, has brought more terror to these communities. Some women, for economic survival, would get involved with an area leader or Shotta Don and become “his woman”. But then he might take another, and then these women would then fight among themselves for the economic benefits. Women get entangled as well, one shotta don may shoot or rape the woman, sister or daughter of an area leader as a weapon or to “teach him a lesson”. In other cases, young girls in particular are summoned by the Shotta Don, to provide sexual services in exchange for ‘protection’ of the household. Mothers are often forced to comply for fear of death and being terrorized. Gender relations have changed in these communities, in so far as, they no longer represent any kind of normality, even in a traditional way, albeit it gender based but provided some form of stability. Power, and terror and sacrificing of the body for economic benefits define how many men and women relate. At the same time, women are still primarily responsible for the household. Any notion of stepping out of that mould, is met with the threat of force or as being ‘worthless’.

Other women and children get innocently caught in the terror by simply leaving their yards to use a bathroom in the middle of the night, or walking from one lane to the next. They either get raped, stabbed or shot. There is not much bargaining power for these women. The nature of the terror in many of these areas is such that a lot of community members suffer from low self esteem, living in despair and have accepted being pawns of these men. On the other hand, those who are lovers of shotta dons, or area leaders have interests and needs to uphold and are reluctant to defy these men individually or with say, the police. There is a real threat of death to do so.

The terror of the Shotta Don, doesn’t offer much room for negotiation. It is a game of power and manipulation and fear. A lot of the young men, who have already dropped out of secondary school, very little options for legitimate employment, then get involved because of the ‘glamour’ of the idea of warriorhood presented by this model of hypermasculinity. Media influences from North America and our own internalized expressions of negative self-image get further rooted in the minds of many young men, whose low self worth, impoverished condition, sees the idea of a “thug life”, a “gangster warrior” as a way of dying in honor, since they will not be living long anyway. No body wants them or cares about them so they might as well. Respect and love of self is practically non-existent and therefore not difficult to disrespect and express hatred to others. Rape and sexual violation of young girls in particular is rampant.

Hegemonic masculinity, as constructed by the middle and upper echelons of the society, pays slight attention to these conflicts. Their hold on power is not in anyway threatened so there is not much interest to get involved. At the political level, grand declarations are made of making Jamaica a just society, about eradicating poverty, crime and violence, about the abhorrence of rape and sexual exploitation etc. But there is a huge gap between words and deeds when the issues have to be addressed. Corruption by government officials mostly men, actually, demonstrates another type of crime that they get away with, and therefore have the power to dismiss public outcry and dismiss old connections with communities that are at war for either political reasons or territorial conflict to secure arms. As a country that does not make weapons, the state has its own dirty hands in the arms trade, the picture is not altogether clear. However, some indications point to the police and to customs officers, that facilitate the guns being brought in and then constantly re-circulated within and between communities. The area dons are short of weapons, and are always in a more perilous position than the shotta dons, who by their very name implies a gun man. That is what they do, they rule by the gun. There is report of some women becoming gang members led by shotta dons, for similar reasons as young men. Such activities defy the nature-nurture debate. Indeed some of these women, have no interest in having children, as they represent burden, « blocking progress ».

To compound the gender problem, some women, withhold evidence of criminal activity if it entails a family member, lest they be known as informers which in Jamaican culture strikes an ancestral nerve, for an informer, traditionally, is an enslaved person who tells the white master that a rebellion is on its way. While the context is different, the stigma attached to being labeled as informer is akin to death and may cause death if you are found as one.

The state stays away for a long as possible before intervention in communities where reprisals and gun warfare takes place. When the state does get involved, the process in the court system is slow and prejudiced. Basically, the lives of the poor, are not valued. The idea of defending the case of a woman who was violated in such a community would be beyond the extraordinary, for as it is, rape under ‘peace’ circumstances, doesn’t receive much justice either. The same argument goes for the young men, whether criminal or innocent, whom, because of where they lived, and how they may have lived, the court system would just put it aside as a waste of time.

This is a case of group violence but it is symptomatic of violence throughout the society, which in Jamaica is getting more and more prevalent. Gender based violence has also spiraled alongside other types of crime. Cultural violence also occurs at the level of the state where the value of female life which is rhetorically stated (at international women’s day, CEDAW celebrations etc) is not transferred in real or practical ways of dealing with gender-based violence, - especially with regards to the facilities, the opportunities for counseling, preventative measures such as teaching and dealing with these negative values and attitudes in schools. The court system tends to treat violence against women and children as a minor matter and the cases often drag on for years and the survivor is often chastised and treated as if it is her fault. The media, especially cable TV, and popular dancehall songs perpetuate the sexual objectification of women and hyper-masculinities. All this presents a picture in which cultural violence is prevalent. There is some amount of structural violence in this regard. – Because the spiraling rate of violence as social implosion in Jamaica is directly connected to poverty, low self worth, living a life where human dignity is not preserved for neither man nor woman, especially among the poor. At another level it is structural, because the social /class stratification is so stark and wide, that the rich pretend, and ignore the connections between it and among us all.


In this paper the author presents the gender dimension of the conflict in Jamaica and how women can play different roles in conflicts, either as perpetrators of sources of transformation.


  • The author of the file is : Taitu Heron.