Featured Storyteller

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Women Are Suffering in Paradise

Sherna Alexander Benjamin
Posted January 25, 2019 from Trinidad and Tobago

Sherna Alexander Benjamin, a tenacious advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, encourages women to take their rightful place as decision-makers.

“It is an affront to women when men declare peace while women and girls continue to endure insecurity, threats, and violence.

The Caribbean and Latin America is the most violent region in the world for women outside of conflict contexts, according to the United Nations Development Programme after the release of a 2017 report on violence against women. Yet here, like elsewhere around the world, men are mostly the ones sitting around family, local, regional, and international decision-making tables. With impenitent boldness, they discuss women’s safety and security.

These forums exclude women’s voices and our visions for better lives and a just and sustainable world. This blatant disregard for women’s participation enables the global brutalization of women and girls. These discussions are often guided by male assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors. They are enabled by cultural ideologies of patriarchy and blinded by gender bias.

Occasionally, women are invited into these male-dominated spaces. Inviting women to decision-making spaces and offering us a seat around the table is not only disrespectful, it is vexatious and insulting. We cannot be invited because it’s our innate right to be there.

Do men invite other men to sit around decision-making tables? No, they don’t! Men are socially conditioned to believe those tables belong to them and they are entitled to them. The mere thought of using the word “invitation” when it comes to women taking their rightful places around those tables irks me. The invitation comes with conditions attached. There is an expectation of conformity. When the expectations of the male oligarchy are disappointed, women feel the impact.

This is the world I have had to navigate to share my voice and contribute to the peace and security of my country.

I grew up in the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago. Yes, it’s beautiful beyond comprehension. But international leaders, economists, and technocrats see no need to invest in women’s peace, safety and security in this small, island state because the country is considered “oil-rich.”

It is indeed “oil-rich,” and I hasten to tell you how rich. It’s oil-rich with poverty, oil-rich with violence against women and girls, oil-rich with insecurity, and certainly oil-rich with human rights violations. The oil-rich money circulates among the minority who own the majority of wealth in the country.

If you believe my country and the Caribbean is a paradise where women run around happily, singing calypso, soca, and reggae, dancing to steel pan music all day, bare-breasted with skirts made from coconut leaves, then you need to take a glimpse inside paradise.

I was conceived out of wedlock and fathered by a married man in the '70s, when this was shunned. Being a girl child of African descent, with darker melanin did not help much. Before my birth, I was legally labeled a “bastard child” under the country’s Colonial Bastards Law. Such children were considered born to fail, and many did. Institutionalized discrimination can sting like a viper with unseen fangs and its consequences can sometimes last a lifetime, transforming itself in every generation. Although this law no longer exists, the ideology is still very much alive, guided by hidden powers among us.

Growing up, I experienced severe childhood and adolescent abuse. Safety was that imaginary place in my mind that took me away from the reality of being sexually molested and abused. I was not protected from external threats or internal harm and self-injury. As a young adult and married woman, I endured sexual assault and marital rape.

My security required lying about the pain that I felt. I had to be silent because breaking the code of secrecy was not encouraged by society. Exposing abusers would mean social isolation, victimization, and further abuse. I was mentally imprisoned and physically controlled; my agency and autonomy were undermined. All these experiences shaped my definition of safety, security, and peace.

Peace was something I never knew because my silence masked inner turmoil and wars. Alone with my pain and shame concerning adolescent sexual urges, I contemplated suicide. Between physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, I was always in a war.

Let’s get it straight. Conflict and dysfunction can create colossal damage. The absence of war, bloodshed, and political and civil unrest does not mean peace is present or realized. Violence in times of apparent peace has taken as many lives as active wars, and maybe more.

While we should all strive for the dream of a peaceful world, it is an affront to women when men declare peace while women and girls continue to endure insecurity, threats, and violence—visible and invisible. Let women be the ones to declare our own state and moments of peace, safety, and security.

My story is not an isolated one. Across my country and throughout the Caribbean, many women share their stories of pain. Media houses publish headlines of women being murdered, raped, and violated. Individual stories are commonly told in secret. As the names of women who have been killed continue to increase, some victims courageously speak out in public domains. Women’s stories and reports of violence continue to reside within the pages of police diaries and sit on the desks of magistrates and judges. Sadly some stories will never be told.

This reality motivates my work to bring about a more secure Caribbean and world. In 2011, I officially registered a non-profit organization called O.A.B.I.: Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals. We engage in public education; we advocate for public policy changes and support survivors; we work with women and girls, and men and boys; we actively advocate for social, economic, political, and gender justice, the prevention and elimination of gender-based violence, and the promotion of peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and women’s leadership.  

Did I choose this path? Hell no! On the contrary, this path has chosen me. If by using the debris of my life I can touch one life, save one life, influence public policy, and participate in social change, then what happened to me was not in vain.

Every day, I see, hear, and experience more human horrors than I can detail here. I see the detrimental effects of violence against women and the results of unmanaged conflict and dysfunction. I see socio-economic challenges that are exacerbated by violence and that undermine the safety, security, and peace of women and girls in the Caribbean. This overflowing pervasiveness of violence against women is a cause of grave concern. It calls for sustainable, consistent, collaborative, innovative, and structured action.

The escalation of violence against women in my region challenged me to expand my work so I conceptualized the Caribbean Communities Initiative (CCI). We are working to build women’s capacity for leadership through training workshops and consciousness-raising circles. Our initiative will prepare women to take their rightful places at those decision-making tables to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

At the same time, we will work with men and boys to find innovative ways to manage address conflict. We need to involve men and boys in creating new masculinities. Ultimately, we aim to reduce violence and crime, increase safety and security and create a better Caribbean where peaceful coexistence is realized.

Conflict can be incredibly fertile soil for social change, but only for those with the knowledge and skills to transform it. The Caribbean Communities Initiative will bridge the gap by working toward a safe, inclusive, and just Caribbean—and world—for all women.

This initiative calls for the support of global sisters. To make my vision a reality, I need their positive energies and encouraging words. I need support mobilizing resources. I am seeking linkages to strong networks and the international amplification of this initiative and the challenges of women in the Caribbean.

Whether we are ready for it or not, transformative, technology-driven social change is intensifying with each passing year—often morphing unpredictably, destabilizing and fracturing the foundations of our families, communities, and cultures. It is therefore imperative that we work collaboratively with the widest possible array of present and future leaders to address these rapidly evolving challenges. Women’s lives are at stake.

My own experience and the experiences of the women who come through my organization have taught me that personal safety, security, and freedom are elusive dreams for many women—regardless of how free their country may be. In the Caribbean, many women experience severe difficulties in finding and expressing their voice, agency, autonomy, and identity. The intersection of conflicts in families, communities, and organizations undermine the safety of women—especially marginalized women. Violence is far too commonplace, creating barriers to sustainable development and social, economic, political, and gender justice.

We live in a world where institutions are governed by men and these systems enable systemic gender inequality, the violation of human rights, and the discrimination and oppression of women in every aspect of our lives. We must work to dismantle these systems, to reorganize and create new systems.

I encourage women all over the world to join me in expressing our views on peace and security in our communities. Whenever you are extended egotistical and conditional invitations to participate in decision-making, I encourage you to accept! Accept them with strategic purposes and goals in mind. Use what influence and authority you have in those spaces to perform exceptionally well. Begin conversations that lead to actions for greater parity. Create entry points for other women and work with men to create new masculinities and change their views of women. Fight for women’s rights, support women’s voices and advancement, and push for progress—leaving no woman behind.

Do this with the knowledge that with every seat you have, every decision-making table you sit around, every forum you speak at, every leadership position you hold, it’s your innate right.


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the Future of Security Is Women digital event and is sponsored by our partner Our Secure Future. World Pulse runs Story Awards year round—share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

Comments 26

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Sis. Salifu
Jan 25
Jan 25

Congrats dear on your featured story. Hope you are having a nice day!

Thank you very much, my sister.

Tamarack Verrall
Jan 25
Jan 25

Dear Sherna, beloved Sister,
What a tremendous message you have written here.
I was so tempted to pull quotes that touched me especially deeply, but I would have quoted the whole story. Instead, I read it 3 times, took it in deeply. It is so inspiring to read what you have been up to, and your expansion with the creation of O.A.B.I.: Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals.
It is our time. And women are finally stepping forward together. I will share this as widely as possible. Brilliant writing, courageous work.
With love in sisterhood,
Tam

Leonora
Jan 28
Jan 28

Hello Tam,

Like you I am tempted to pull quotes from this passionate and powerful piece.

Thank you for the kind words.

Tam,

You have always been an encourager, It is an honour to know you. Your passion for women and girls rights continue to inspire me to become better, develop more and use my voice, pen and technology for change.

Isabella Unzia
Jan 26
Jan 26

I can not explain what I feel right now. Its not only in the carrebean where women are violated, I went through verbal, emotional and psychological abuse in my marriage. I was never physically abused but the pain I felt was unimaginable. I conteplated alot of things but I emerged a victor and I believe your story will inspire many.

Leonora
Jan 28
Jan 28

My sister,
I am reading her story and it is inspiring me. You are correct violence against women is happening the world over and our voices must unite to bring about change.

Sister Lenora,
Thank you for kind comment and support.

Sister Unzia,
Speak your truth, speak your truth. Silent no more. Indeed the violation of women and girls is a global issue which must be addressed, using digital platforms is one way to push for change and provide spaces for women to be empowered. Thank you for your encouraging words.

Jan 28
Jan 28
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
Jill Langhus
Jan 26
Jan 26

Congrats, Sherna, on receiving the story award for your excellent and informative post:-)

Sister Jlanghus,
Thank you for your kind comments, your continued support as an encourager and for being a wonderful human being.

Jill Langhus
Jan 29
Jan 29

Hello dear Sherna,

You're very welcome. Aw, thank you.... right back at you!!!

Hope you're doing well, and having a great day!

Leonora
Jan 28
Jan 28

WOW! This is indeed a powerful piece. The world needs to hear it. Its not only deep and filled with rich content it also gives an insight into the life of women and girls in the Caribbean. While violence and insecurity happens in every country. I honestly believe the Caribbean continues to be overlooked. Great atrocities continue to happen as you call it "Inside Paradise"

I wish you great success and I pray that this story is seen by many eyes at the highest levels where action is taken. Continue pushing for progress, continue working for social, economic and political change using technology and digital platforms.

Sister Lenora,
Thank you for the kind words. Thank you for the encouraging words. Continue to use your voice to help and support women and girls.

Congratulations, Sis Sherna! Wow. Powerful arguments and call to action. Yes! Yes! Yes! There is hope in your country because of your voice and the work youo doing.

As a mother of boys, I hear you when you wrote to raise boys with a new kind of masculinity. Amen, sister!

Thank you Siste Karen Quiñones-Axalan,
Your comments are inspiring I would love to hear what masculinity looks like in your region. Keep using your voice for change and I look forward to communicating further.

In Service to Humanity
Sherna

Auma
Feb 13
Feb 13

Wow! What a powerful story, Sherna! Women suffering in paradise? What a bright light you are shining through ensuring Women's Rights, their Voices and Progress take the front position!
Bravo! My sister!

Sister Auma,
I appreciate you and your words of encouragement and support. Each of us must shine as a bright light in the face of social, economic, gender and political injustice. I would love to hear your story of what masculinity looks like in your region. And find ways to further our conversation for a better world.

In Service to Humanity
Sherna

Elaine
Feb 15
Feb 15

Sherna, my heart sings reading your passionate words. It is SO time for women to take their rightful space and power!

Hello Sister Elaine,

Thank you for taking the time to read my post and leave me a comment. Each of us has a part to play, each has a story to write, a truth to tell and a purpose to actively become a change agent. I look forward to communicating with you and would love to get your insights and thoughts about women taking their rightful space.

In service to humanity
Sherna

Kirthi
Mar 20
Mar 20

How amazing, Sherna! So incredibly proud of you and so grateful to know you!

Thank you Sister Kirthi,
I am humbled to know you and look forward to connecting in the near future. Thank you.

modomdull
Apr 30
Apr 30

Sherna,
Thank you for sharing your powerful survivor story.

Thank you, Sister,
I look forward to reading your stories, thank you for joining and welcome to World Pulse.