The History of Gender-Based Violence in the Caribbean

The following are excerpts from a teach-in titled ‘Gender-Based Violence in the Caribbean: Historical Roots’, given by Dr Verene A. Shepherd, professor of social history and university director at the Institute for Gender Development Studies (IGDS), University of the West Indies (UWI), and member of the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, held at the Mary Seacole Hall on February 8, 2017. Persons researching gender-based violence in the Caribbean should find the information useful.

… gender-based violence has a long genealogy in the region.

We are all aware of the immediacy of the issue. We have all heard the comments and the statistics, not just for /about Jamaica, but for/about the Caribbean and even at the level of the United Nations. In her recent lecture in the Cayman Islands as part of the IGDS’ regional lecture series, Dr Dalea Bean reminded us that in 2015, United Nations’ Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon shocked the Caribbean when he stated: ” The Caribbean has among the highest rates of sexual assault in the world.” He went on to name three territories as being in the top 10: Bermuda with 67.3 rape incidents per 100,000 citizens, Suriname (45.2: 100,000) and Grenada (30.6:100,000) as the numbers 5, 7 and 10 respectively.

In an article in the Jamaica Observer of Tuesday October 1, 2012,  Dr Betty Ann Blaine of “Hear the Children Cry” wrote this:

“the fastest-growing crimes in Jamaica at the moment are rape and incest. Statistics show that the cases of sexual abuse have increased exponentially since 2007, moving from 121 cases in that year to 2,671 reported cases in 2011. And experts agree that the figure is actually much higher since there is an estimated high percentage of under-reporting.

Not only are rape and incest increasing, but the ages of the victims keep getting lower and lower. Earlier this year, Dr Sandra Knight of the Bustamante Hospital for Children shared some of the horrifying stories with the nation of cases presented to her at that institution. Some of the cases involved babies as young as 18 months old who had been sexually assaulted and otherwise physically abused.”

The question I seek to answer this afternoon is: what circumstances in our history brought us to this place? The truth is that gender-based violence has a long genealogy in the region and was present from the time of conquest, colonization and the start of the decolonization movement.  In the historical period, it may not have taken all the forms it does today, but some forms were present. According to the European Institute for Gender Equity, while it is difficult to distinguish between different types of violence since they are not always mutually exclusive, gender-based violence includes:

  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual harassment
  • Rape
  • Sexual conflict and harmful customary or traditional practices (e.g. forced marriage and honour crimes)
  • Trafficking in women
  • Forced prostitution
  • Violations of human rights in armed conflict (murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy)
  • Forced sterilization
  • Forced abortion
  • Coercive use of contraceptives
  • Female infanticide
  • Pre-natal sex selection

Not all of these have historical antecedents in our region. During the period of slavery, GBV more normally encompassed three sets of acts:

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring as part of the human trafficking and perpetrated by crew against women and girls on the Middle Passage
  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence including battering, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse of females in the household, and violence related to exploitation on the plantation and other spaces of exploitation during the slavery period
  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated in the home against men and women and children in the post-colonial period and at times condoned by law enforcement officials.

Conquest and Colonization:

Violence linked to power relations was gendered from as far back as the development of civilizations. …

Gender discrimination operated in indigenous societies where gender roles were distributed according to gender, not sex. In the islands called the Greater Antilles, which included Jamaica, Taino men believed that, unless in emergency situations, men should be the rulers; the power holders and the warriors.  Europeans perfected this system, but added racism and ethnocentrism to it, exploiting indigenous women in gender-specific ways, including trafficking, and rape.


Under African enslavement, women’s bodies became the site of power contestation. Indeed, any honour or esteem attached to being an enslaver arose only from the power that he or she could exercise over the bodies of his/her chattel enslaved; and this was sanctioned by laws which allowed white men and women to exercise intimate power through punishment, torture and control. In drawing up and enforcing such laws the enslavers in the Caribbean, like those in the rest of the Americas, created their own version of slavery. They invented from scratch all the ideological and legal underpinnings of a totally new slave system.

This violence was manifested in:

  • The invasion and capture (of lands and peoples) in the Caribbean
  • The forced kidnapping and trafficking of Native Caribbean peoples and Africans
  • The chaining and shipment of Africans in inhumane conditions
  • The throwing of live African male and female captives overboard (as in the case of the 132 on the ship Zong to Jamaica in 1781)
  • The sale and branding of Africans on the plantations
  • The sexual harassment of women
  • Rape and other forms of violence on the Middle Passage and later on on the ships with indentured Indians
  • Flogging and degrading punishment of field slaves and enslaved domestics like Long Celia of the Cayman Islands, tried for inciting rebellion in 1820, found guilty by 2 magistrates and a jury of 12 white enslaver men and sentenced to 50 lashes on her bare body “in some public place at Georgetwon”.(p. 93)
  • Murder (including during and after armed conflicts)

For the full text, please contact Dr Verene Shepherd ( All the information above directly quotes her and should be attributed to her as copyrighted material. diGJamaica thanks her for allowing us to post excerpts here.