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Should a woman be assaulted because of how she dresses?

Lively, controversial debate marks launch of 'Not Asking For It' campaign

BY CANDIECE KNIGHT
Observer writer
knightc@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

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The launch of a campaign aimed at protecting women's rights encountered a bit of controversy on Friday when an attorney essentially advised women to be careful not to dress in a manner that would attract sexual assault.

The advice offered by Davion Vassell elicited a strong response from Zanda Desir, conceptualiser of the 'Not Asking For It' campaign.

Vassell, pointing at loopholes in the existing laws against sexual harassment and assault, advised that “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”

“If you're going somewhere and you know that you're going to be out late and you're not in the company of others, then I would advise you to be careful of the way you dress, specifically females. I'm not saying that we are going to surrender our freedom to the perverse nature of men, but at the end of the day you need to be mindful of your own safety,” Vassell told the launch at The University of the West Indies (The UWI), Mona campus.

“You didn't ask for it, but it comes your way. Certain things, certain behaviours, certain groups that you associate yourself with may attract the thing that you are not asking for, so if you can prevent it, then prevent it… until we get to that stage where the law adequately covers it,” he added.

But his remarks were quickly shot down by Desir, who maintained that the campaign is the exact opposite of Vassell's views.

“This is the entire basis of the campaign,” she quipped. “We should not just tell women to do XY and Z so that you do not get raped or attacked or murdered; however, speak to those who actually perpetuate the act. The tight-up skirt and short skirt are not the reasons why people get assaulted. People get assaulted all over the world, wearing all different kinds of dress, from near naked to a worker with only the eyes showing,” Desir said.

“Dress may arouse a man or a woman, but that is not what causes it. Shift the argument a bit. Let's change what we're saying and who we are really addressing. The responsibility cannot just be placed on a woman to watch how she dresses and where she goes,” she said.

Vassell explained that the current Jamaican legislation falls short of covering certain aspects of harassment, which the Sexual Harassment Bill should cover once it is passed into law.

“For example, a woman who is voluptuously clad is walking and every time a man sees her, he gropes his crotch and says “Sexy ting, mi like yuh ennuh”… that is harassment. But under our laws, that's not covered. It tends to cover more obtrusive types of harassment. The Sexual Offences Act really deals with obtrusive acts of sexual assault [such as] if you are touched on your breasts, or your private area. Unless it gets to that level, we realise that the law is inherently lacking in that regard. That's why the Sexual Harassment Bill is so important in terms of fine-tuning certain aspects of the law. Because there will always be loopholes, there will always be gaps that need to be filled in by members of the society,” said Desir.

Dr Leith Dunn, dean of the Institute of Gender Studies at The UWI, said the issue is a complex one.

“The sexual assault is one thing. We also have not been able to make adequate progress in terms of our laws, in terms of protecting the female body from assault, or from sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment Bill has been languishing, and why? Because at the highest levels of decision-making — in Parliament that is male dominated — sometimes even the persons in Parliament are among the harassers,” Dr Dunn argued.

She echoed Vassell's sentiments.

“You have to protect yourself. You shouldn't be assaulted because of what you're wearing or not wearing, but the reality is that you can be, and some are going to take it as licence to attack you,” Dr Dunn said.

Another attorney on the panel, Sean-Christopher Castle, said that more needs to be done to educate the university community.

“Especially during carnival time, just taking part in certain events, you see certain interactions between a male and a female at a party and you don't know if it's wholly consensual. You never know,” he said. “It's a very good campaign, but just putting advertisements out there and doing videos here and there… I don't think it's enough. For the moment, especially on all-male halls, or halls which have a majority of males as residents, I think there needs to be some amount of sensitisation.”

The 'Not Asking For It' campaign was started in 2016 under the leadership of then UWI Guild Vice-President Lavern King. The campaign is strategically relaunched at the beginning of The UWI carnival season each year, when it is expected that large numbers of students and visitors will converge on the campus to party.


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