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Supporting survivors of family violence - working with Woman Inc. and the Bureau of Gender Affairs Jamaica

Leanna is a forty-nine-year-old mother of three. She has been volunteering with Woman Inc since she was around seventeen years old.  Woman Inc is a voluntary, non-profit, non-governmental organisation [NGO],  in Jamaica, founded in 1984. It draws upon the creative energies of women from all walks of life that are dedicated to providing assistance to victims of rape, incest, domestic crisis, sexual harassment at the workplace, human trafficking, and domestic violence. 

The organisation manages a crisis center that offers a twenty-four-hour crisis hotline that provides women and girls that are experiencing violence remote crisis counselling, information, and referral to a series of actors that can meet their needs, such as police, access to justice, health services, including sexual and reproductive health services. It also links survivors with actors that offer a series of other social services, such as material and financial aid and safe accommodation in case of an imminent risk.
 
As a volunteer at the center, Leanna has witnessed the challenges faced by victims of gender-based violence (GBV) over the years. Our conversation is a virtual one; there is no video, but the tentative and concerned nature of her tone is apparent as she speaks about her experience volunteering at the hotline. She says she was introduced to the organisation by a friend who was affected by domestic violence and explained that once she realised what the focus of the organisation was, then she was sold on getting involved because she wanted to help others.

“The more information I got, the more I realised that we have to do something about this, because it has so many far-reaching consequences.” Ultimately, she says she just wants to help “I feel for people when they have situations. And I realise that a lot of people’s circumstances prevent them from achieving more and I fundamentally believe that everybody can be better,” she states.

In addition to volunteering at Woman Inc, Leanna works in Human Resources at another outreach organisation and has a creative side that allows her to do some writing and event planning. She notes however that working in human resources has allowed her to realise even more just how much need there is to empathise with people and provide support where necessary so she is grateful to be able to help in her capacity as a volunteer.

What she did not expect, however, was that she would eventually need the same kind of support that she was providing to other women who call the hotline.  She explained that her marriage had a number of challenges which included a scenario where her husband hit her. She explains that after her experience of GBV with her husband, she stayed in the situation for a very short while, but then she said to herself that she had witnessed too many of those stories to allow it to continue. “If I let it slide, it might happen again and we are not going to let that happen, so I just went to him and said we can’t do this, you need to go; so I think if I were not more aware, I might have allowed it to slide and it would have happened more than one time”.  She credits her time at Woman Inc for helping her to navigate the situation. “Perhaps if I had not been more exposed, I would have made worse decisions.”

She tells the story in a matter-of-fact way, however, it is evident that her life and the life of her children have been significantly affected. Although she is worried about the effect on them, she also seems hopeful that the issues can be resolved in their best interest. “It is important to me that we still work together for what we consider the common good” she concludes. 

The Spotlight Initiative has been working with Woman Inc, the Bureau of Gender Affairs and other organizations  to expand and support the services they offer to survivors of violence against women and girls through a partnership that began in July 2020. Its aim is to strengthen the existing capacities of the Crisis Centers and the hotline to respond to the increased demand of services by women and girls’ survivors of GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marie, a forty year old  mother of two says things have been slow with her hair dressing business since the onset of COVID-19. She has been a hairdresser in her community for fifteen years. According to her, Woman Inc has been there to provide support for her during the pandemic “The other day I did not have a tablet for my daughter (who needs it for distance learning) and Joyce (Director for Woman Inc) worked up some magic for me and got me a tablet because with COVID work was slow and nothing was going on.” 

Marie is also one of the survivors who received from Woman Inc a Spotlight Initiative bag with items that are useful for coping with the hard times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bag contains hand sanitizer, masks, soaps, sanitary pads, among other things.

Marie is very open to talking about her experience as a GBV survivor. She shares that she met her ex husband when she was fourteen years old. At the time he was eighteen. She lived with her grand-aunt and her parents were not there to support her with various needs such as money for lunch at school.  

“I got to know him, we got close and then he started to give me lunch money for school” she explained, then she went on to tell how she got pregnant by him when she was sixteen. They eventually got married when she was eighteen years old.

“And then all the abuse and everything came down on me” Marie stated, while explaining that she continued living with her grandaunt when she got married. She said whenever she would visit her husband there would always be issues because he had other women and oftentimes he did not want her to be in his home.  

“I was there and I don’t remember if he wanted me to leave or what happened, but I was there, and I don't remember what happened except that he slapped me on my leg with a piece of plastic pipe”. She said that there were many other similar incidents, but she stayed with him because of her children and they eventually moved in together. 

“Mi never grow with me mother nor father and me always say mi a go try fi make a life that I didn’t have for my kids”. 

She said that even though she did not want to separate her family, things got so bad that she had to seek counselling and she eventually decided to move out. It was a difficult time for her because her husband was the provider, but since she moved, life has been better despite the financial hurdles. She credits family and friends, her faith and assistance from organisations like Woman Inc for helping her to get through the challenges. She says she sees a bright future for herself and her children and she wants to expand her entrepreneurship. She is also hopeful that her children will make her a proud mother and is  grateful to those who have helped her along the way.

“I will always share my story because not everybody knows how to get themself out of certain situations. It wasn’t easy for me but it’s good that I have some good people around me to help me like Woman Inc, the Bureau of Gender Affairs (BGA) and the Ministry of Labour. The counselling is the biggest thing that helped me most of all, so thanks to everyone” she said. 
According to the Women’s Health Survey (2016), in Jamaica more than one in four women between 15 to 64 years of age experience intimate physical and/or sexual violence, nevertheless 63% of abused women do not seek help from any of the critical services.  This is  due to a series of factors that include lack of trust in the system, lack of knowledge about their rights, fear, and normalization of violence. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is one of the UN agencies that contributes to the implementation of the EU-funded Spotlight Initiative, focusing on supporting organizations to improve the quality of the health, social, policing and judiciary services for survivors of violence against women and girls.