Wanted: Police service, not police force
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence started last Sunday in Barbados. This country joins the rest of the world in celebrating the period and International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on the 25th of November.
It is during this time that we reflect on the progress that we have made in making our country safer and more facilitating for women and girls to reach their fullest potential. My personal reflection begins with a lament of the attitude of one of the agencies critical to ensuring that women can feel protected and served as they go about their daily routine – The Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF).
My thoughts first rested on an experience a few weeks ago. After a late meeting, I journeyed home and arrived to an unfamiliar car parked in front my residence. It was the second time that I’d seen the car parked there, and both times it was on the same night after the said late meeting.
I did a quick check with my neighbours to see if anyone was entertaining the owner of the vehicle and no one knew who it belonged to, although they reported seeing it now parking in the gap with regularity. I decided to call the police emergency number. I was dispatched to the nearest police station and after about half an hour had elapsed, I called again.
At that time, the desk officer I’d spoken to before informed me that just because I made a call to the police and think my matter is urgent does not mean that there is a vehicle in the station available. I do not watch enough foreign television to forget that I live in a developing country with limited state resources which must stretch across mutually important needs, including healthcare, policing and education. I understand that we only have one or two patrol cars posted at most police stations at any given time during the day.
In fact, if I am to go by what the officer said, there can still be times of the day when there is no patrol car stationed at all. Where physical resources are scarce, the human resource is called into even greater demand. If there was no car available the officer could have said that the first time. He could have told me what he thought the best plan was for me to feel more comfortable or safe in the circumstances. He could have offered to help me liaise with male neighbours who could have come to my rescue in quicker time.
The officer did not ask me if I was in any abusive relationship, or if I had any prior issues with anyone. He was completely dismissive. The point is that if a police officer is still so nonchalant about a call from a woman, which could be a potential stalking situation, then all of the lives of women who have been lost to violent men in Barbados have been for nothing. If we have not put protocols in place at the various police stations to deal with these matters we are no further along, and we will still be in a reactive mode when the next mother or sister dies, instead of approaching antecedents to deaths in a proactive manner.
In outlining its focus for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the World Health Organization notes that violence against women is predictable and preventable. Somebody please draw this to the attention of the Royal Barbados Police Force and underline their central role as first responders.
The second thought about where we are in relation to the type of society we present for women and girls to live in, kept my focus squarely on the Royal Barbados Police Force. There are media reports about a female officer who is under pressure for not cutting her dreadlocks after a change in the rules of the RBPF. As we celebrate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, what does it say of the fundamental philosophy of the Royal Barbados Police Force that a female officer has to fight to retain the right to style her hair in locks?
While the Force has the right to create rules and laws as it deems fit to retain order within the organization, it cannot be seen to be trampling the fundamental human rights of individuals for the sake of it. The stance of the Force reveals an underlying negative profiling about Rastafarians and people who wear locks in general, which must be disquieting to this entire nation. I have been aware of the stereotyping for years, as I have been pulled over and treated roughly in other instances until it became clear “who it is”.
That type of treatment is entirely satisfactory to too many of us in Barbados. If our name carries weight, such that we can escape the biases and shortcomings of the system, we are unmotivated to change it. That lesson was not taught to me. If there is a situation that is wrong it is wrong – whether it affects me or somebody else. There can be nothing wrong with an African descended woman police wearing her hair in dreadlocks, especially not when there are people who wear locks into the highest law making body in the land.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence ends on International Human Rights Day, December 10. These linkages are not happenstance. If we have men who cannot respect the fundamental human rights of women, then we are more likely to have men who can engage in abuse of women and men who cannot understand their role in assisting women who may be abused. I would like to see the women of Barbados launch a strong show of support and solidarity with this woman police officer for her fundamental right to keep her dreadlock hairstyle. I hope we join together to signal that she has her right to choice and her dignity, and that these cannot be haphazardly revoked based on what are the personal preferences of one or a few individuals (most likely the male hierarchy of her institution).
Until we stop having a Police Force in Barbados and move toward a Police Service, I fear that the social and human considerations which are needed to make the approach to women and girls different will not find space. I am going to partake in the activities for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, but my heart is heavy and I fear that we are not going forward at the pace we need to be going.
Let me issue a public invitation to all of you to try to attend at least one event. Some which have been posted so far include:
A panel discussion entitled Sex, Sexuality and Sexual Abuse – Turning on my Bedroom Light, at The Weston Resource Centre, Weston, St. James on November 29, 2015 at 6:30 pm.
The Step It Up Film Festival hosted by the Institute for Gender and Development Studies: Nita Barrow Unit of University of the West Indies (Cave Hill) and UN Woman at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Arts. There are various films to be shown and the schedule can be had from the Nita Barrow Unit on 417-4490.