I wish to thank the health ministry’s Division of Gender Relations for their kind invitation to deliver the opening message at this remembrance event for victims of gender-based violence. I am honored to be here. Firstly, I need to ask: Can it be mere coincidence that our gracious hosts have chosen to stage this particular event at a venue dedicated to peace and harmony, tranquility, self-control, even-temperedness and unity? I am inclined to believe it was by divine guidance that the Division of Gender Relations decided on Serenity Park.
As far back as 1999, the United Nations designated November 25, International Day for the “elimination of violence against women and children.” In recognition of this important date, the Division of Gender Relations has selected as its theme on this occasion: “Take a stand: End violence against women and girls.”
The theme calls for collective action, primarily by governments, with the support of individuals, groups, communities and institutions. Today’s ceremony, then, is but one of our government’s activities to “honor the many Saint Lucian women and children killed or otherwise rendered victims of violence.”
The question may well be asked: Who are the victims of gender-based violence that by our presence today in Serenity Park we are remembering and honoring? It is to be hoped that this ceremony will bring to mind such dearly departed sisters as Cheryl Hunte, Mary Rackliffe, Verlinda Joseph, Valerie Lorde, Giselle Georges, Crystal Felix, Chrystal St Omer, Chereece Benoit—none in a position to confront us with the inconvenient truth that we are all, each and every one of us, as responsible for what they suffered as are the actual unconscionable perpetrators, too many of whom have never been brought to justice—and have every reason to believe it’s possible in Saint Lucia to get away with murder.
Though we need not be, too many of us, if only inadvertently, are aiders and abettors of the system that, to quote one former local attorney general, “let Verlinda down!”
That same system, fellow Saint Lucians, did not let down only 13-year-old Verlinda Joseph. The system we depend on for justice also let down Cheryl, Giselle, and yes, Mary Rackliffe—and, sad but true— continues to let down other women and girls: Chereece Benoit, Chrystal St. Omer, Crystal Felix, Alisha Hunte, to mention just four. There are scores more I could name.
It occurs to me that some of the names just mentioned should be as familiar to all of us here as are such names Oprah, Rihanna, Mongster and Ricky T. Alas, I suspect the majority of us could not say with any degree of certitude who was Mary Rackliffe—let alone why she is worth remembering and honoring today. Then please allow me to refresh your memories. After all, that’s why we are here gathered: To remember and to honor victims of domestic violence, recent and not so recent. We will in due course get to the honoring part!
Mary Rackliffe was a mother of four, the youngest of whom had not yet celebrated her twelfth birthday when she was brutally ravaged by her mother’s sick and depraved ostensible lover. Caught in the criminal act by the child’s mother, his pathetic excuse for his abominable incestuous assault on a child was that he needed her virgin blood for the purposes of obeah. He then coolly promised the devastated woman whom he claimed to love, that if she dared inform on him he would most certainly kill her.
Confronted by similar circumstances, how many of us sitting here in this park named for peace and love would retire to a corner to cry our eyes out, and then convince ourselves it was in our best interest to pretend we had not seen with our own eyes the barbarous rape of our innocent and dependent little girl; that indeed we may have imagined the whole horror?
Our records indicate such behavior as I’ve only hinted at is commonplace; a daily fact of Saint Lucian life that continues to exacerbate the job of law enforcement in our country. In other jurisdictions, the authorities have enacted laws for the specific purpose of discouraging victims from abandoning their right to justice, regardless of pressures placed on them.
We should keep in mind, as concerned Saint Lucians, the sorry fact that the vast majority of gender-based crimes of violence committed in our country, including rape and child molestation, go unreported. Yes, even in these supposedly enlightened times.
Mary Rackliffe was made of sterner stuff. Shortly after her demonic boyfriend had issued his death threat he left the house they shared at Bexon to join friends in some Saturday night fun. Mary and her first born, a boy of fifteen at the time, also left their Bexon home. But not to party. Doubtless encouraged by the then ongoing Crisis Center’s version of Take a stand, End Violence Against Women and Girls campaign, Ms Rackliffe literally took her miserable life in her hands and headed on foot for the Port Police Station in Castries.
Having placed on record the evil that her young child had suffered, Mary was assigned a female police sergeant who was supposed to escort her back home and keep her safe from her daughter’s assailant. Once outside the police station, however, the officer, also a mother, suddenly remembered the next day was Sunday. There were chores she had to do for her own family that could not wait. Instead of following orders, Mary’s assigned protector solemnly promised to visit her the next day, as soon as she’d taken care of her own domestic affairs.
That was the last time she saw Mary Rackliffe alive. Or in one piece, for that matter. By the time Mary and her son had returned home, her boyfriend had learned of their meeting with the police and was ready to deliver on his promised deadly threat; with just one murderous swing of his cutlass—and with two of her young children looking—on, he beheaded Mary Rackliffe, then made good his escape.
The year was 1989. A few days following the shocking incident there was the usual march to nowhere, on the remembered occasion organized by the grossly under-funded Crisis Center. Mary’s killer has never been arrested. As for her now grown-up children, rest assured, they continue to suffer unspeakable consequences.
Verlinda Joseph was only 13 when her half-naked body was discovered in a field near her Saltibus home. Not only had she been raped, her autopsy report also confirmed her killer had attempted to force Gramoxone down her throat.
Pending in court at the time of Verlinda’s death (it, too, was followed by marches to nowhere) were three several-times-adjourned cases of sexual molestation involving Verlinda—the unforgettable shameful fact that had inspired the day’s attorney general to admit “the system let Verlinda down!”
I could go on citing similar grisly instances of violence against women and girls, but already I believe the point has been made. Even now, with our endorsing silence and pretend deafness, we, as unthinking citizens, tacitly and otherwise encourage what we conveniently describe as “the system” to continue letting down victims of gender-based and other violence. We also allow the perpetrators to defy and elude justice.
Yes, and now that we have remembered some Saint Lucian victims of violence against women and girls, we are required to honor them. At any rate, their memory. But how do we do that? How do we honor the memory of Mary Rackliffe, Valerie Lorde, Giselle Georges, Crystal Felix, Chrystal St. Omer, Alisha Hunte and others too numerous to mention?
Do we erect stone monuments in their name, as has been suggested with regard to the casualties of the Morne Sion tragedy? Do we pay compensation to relatives of the dead victims of gender-based violence? What about the victims still alive and suffering quietly, who sometimes wish they were dead?
In all events, what do we have in mind when we set out to honor someone? My understanding of honor is “to hold in respect; esteem.” We are reminded by the Division of Gender Relations that “this year the UN Secretary-General’s Unite to End Violence Against Women movement is calling on everyone to ‘Orange the World’ in 16 days by wearing orange and taking action to raise awareness and prevent violence against women and girls.”
As early underscored, this gathering is the Division’s way of raising local awareness levels of the problem of violence against women. But action is also called for. Collective action on the part of the government that has organized this event, as well as action by fellow citizens, concerned groups, communities and institutions.
In more conscious countries, laws have been named after victims of particular crimes, especially violence against women and children. There is, for instance, Megan’s Law that was created in the United States in response to the murder of Megan Kanka, a young girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered.
At the federal level, the law is known as the Sexual Offenders Act of 1994 and requires persons convicted of sex crimes against children to notify law enforcement of any change of address or employment after release from custody. The notification requirements may be imposed for a fixed period of at least ten years.
Should we have renamed our Crisis Center in honor of Mary Rackliffe—for her demonstrated courage, for her having taken a stand to end violence against women and girls even before the UN had designated November 25 International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and Children?
Should we have named a law for Verlinda Joseph? A law requiring child abuse charges to be heard as quickly as possible, perhaps even ahead of all other pending larceny and other such cases?
How about renaming a law that requires our doctors and nurses to report pregnancies of children below the age of consent? Oh, but some might say we already have such a law. Nevertheless, it is not too late to purposefully rename it!
Indeed, we already have on our statute books every conceivable law pertaining to crimes against women and girls. But do we, as citizens, care whether or not they are implemented? Does it matter to us that it takes, on average, five years before most charges are heard by a judge and jury?
Do we care that we have just one criminal-court judge? Or that the DPP’s office, as a result of lack of funding and staffing problems, is next to dysfunctional? What about the much discussed forensic lab that has yet to serve the purpose for which it was set up at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars?
How do we really feel about the number of young women and girls murdered without resolution? How confident are we the killers of our daughters and sisters, the rapists and other perpetrators of crimes against women and girls will be brought to justice?
I humbly suggest we dishonor ourselves and the victims we seek to remember and honor when we silently look on with eyes wide shut; when we continue to tolerate a system that obviously has failed us for far too long; a system that continues to let us down years after Verlinda’s passing.
By all we have read and been told, the justice system needs much more than its current measly government allocation. We need courts able to deliver other than egregiously delayed justice. We need a system that is adequately funded, and effectively manned. We need more judges and magistrates. We need a more sensitive police department, fully equipped to protect women and girls from killers and child molesters—and from embarrassment when victims seek justice.
We need laws to discourage suspected rapists from intimidating their victims, to the extent that they abandon their own cases, sometimes in the middle of a trial—often before they even get to court.
In other jurisdictions rape, sexual assault and other crimes against women and girls are prosecuted, despite that alleged victims may wish not to cooperate with prosecutors and accept what we know here as wangement—or pay-offs.
We might want to name such a law after Chereece Benoit or Crystal Felix or any of the deceased victims of gender-based violence. I dare to say this would be a great way of remembering and honoring these fine young women who were taken away in the prime of their lives by monsters masquerading as civilized human beings, and who live among us.
Although we are honoring today the victims of violence against women and girls , I also want to remember the men of all ages who are also victims of horrific acts of violence. However, we should keep in mind that all the laws in the world will amount to nothing while but we effectively make socially acceptable violence against women and girls. To win this battle, our men need to stop seeing this as a women’s issue and join with us in the action to “ end violence.”
Our men must help us find a way to stop the perpetration of this violence and do not expect us to fight this battle alone.
In addition, we must recognize the need for countrywide education programs, focus on anger management and conflict resolution skills. Train personnel to address our increasing mental health problems. We must undertake a targeted approach to reduce our alcohol and drug consumption.
And finally, we need to take a closer look at election candidates and other seekers of public office, male and female. We need to hear from them where they stand, in particular, on matters relating to crimes against women and girls. We need to be told their plans for strengthening and enforcing our rape and incest laws. We need their solemn promise to help create a justice system that does not let the people down.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been talking and marching and holding vigils for far too long. It’s now time for the combined action associated with the Division of Gender Relations ‘take a stand, end violence against women and girls!” The time for effective action can no longer be postponed.
Editor’s Note: Lorraine Williams is a former magistrate, attorney general and gender affairs minister. She recently returned home following official stints in Ottawa and Geneva.