If Something Feels Off, You NEED to Speak Up

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By Senator Elizabeth Bennett

Part I

There are so many issues to write about that are impacting our beautiful country Belize – our poor road conditions, frequent road accidents, low literacy rate, massive unemployment and the list can go on and on. Covid-19 just came and added its own layer of challenges but it has also presented a multitude of rich blessings as well. And just as we were starting to enjoy the relaxed measures of quarantine, a different type of Covid-19 surfaces that had the country spinning once more. It was not the usual gun violence but allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in a prestigious institution that we would hope would be “immaculate” because of the function and responsibility it hold to the nation.

The issue of sexual harassment/abuse has been an individual fight for both sexes and a collective struggle for many institutions all over the global just like the fight we now have with Covid-19 – no cure, no vaccine. I reflect on my own most recent experiences with males feeling the need to send pictures of their reproductive organ. My initial response at the first incident was anger as I felt violated and disrespected. Angry at this unknown male for having the idea that his private part would be attractive to me. As a nurse, organs are organs. What matters is if they can function effectively for the “patient”, in this case the perverted males themselves and would they be able to satisfy another as they so claim. So it quickly became a simple anatomy and physiology moment and I dismissed their poor disgusting taste in behavior. My words were not nice to say the least and of course a permanent BLOCK and REPORT was done on Facebook. So that was the unwanted picture ordeals and I am sure they will probably continue.

Then there are the unwanted words, “Hi Hon, Hey Bae, Sweetness, Hey you up, Can we talk?, … ” and unwanted messenger calls at weird hours of the mornings and nights simply because the world of technology makes it so easy to communicate to anyone, anywhere at any time. I recall the “hissing of the teeth” that was used some years ago. But some men have become way too darning to share pictures because technology is at their disposal and repeating unwanted words day after day. Being self-aware and not allowing each single unwanted words to upset my day, I have always had a controlled response in the past that I still use to this day. The unwanted pictures caught me off guard. But I generally utter some kind words in response to what would be unwanted “greeting” or “compliments”. Some simple word spoken kindly but firmly that command respect for me as I do not allow myself to become a victim of somebody’s acid. Those words are usually, “Good morning Sir!” or “God Bless you Sir!” These words most often than not, have had the effect to stop the perpetrators in their tracks and not another unwanted word said or gesture done.

These simple words have changed the reaction of many men who uttered unwanted words to me over the years. I recalled, a man said, “Nobody has ever called me Sir before Miss”. That struck up a conversation that I hope would have changed his life forever. In that brief street side stranger meet stranger conversation, I learnt a lot of his rough childhood, and as I listen non-judgmentally, the concept of self-respect, self-esteem and self-love were parting blessings over him. Not all men would be as receptive to this response, but I am happy they generally do! To the few that didn’t, I disregard the actions and say a prayer in my heart for them. But all this is just one person’s experience with sexual harassment and being self-aware.

But when the bell sounds an alarm of an institutional issue of alleged reports of extortion, maltreatment, sexual assault and sexual advances in a pillar institution such as the Belize Defense Force (BDF), this calls for an immediate comprehensive investigation with what should be immediate disciplinary actions to stabilize the core values that the institution represents to the nation. The institution being the soldiers of course, as the barracks cannot perform the core value of freedom, equality, trust, community, collaboration and usability.

The report made in January 2020 by the brave 50 females BDF recruits, is by no means indicating, that the Belize Coast Guard (BCG) and the sister institution the Belize Police Force (BDF) are not plagued by these same issues. But as a nation, to date, based on how sexual harassment, sexual abuse and the like are handled with victims being seen as the trouble maker, fewer and fewer men and women, will come forward to get the help they desperately need. The press release by the Ministry of National Security issued June 1, 2020, at 3:30 pm, almost five months after the reports were made by the BDF recruits, does not indicate that the 50 cases were investigated as a priority. When the tragedy occurred with the helicopter, an investigation was launched and a report was provided to the public almost within two weeks or less. Whether we were satisfied or not as a nation with that report is any matter. We lost some of our most skilled men in that tragedy.

Part II

So now as a nation, are we about to lose another fight against an institutional issue of alleged reports of extortion, maltreatment, sexual assault and sexual advances? This should be every Belizean fight for justice as our soldiers as they are already in a demoralizing working environment in many aspects. Now adding another crippling issue that impacts not just the female but her rich and possible healthy relationship with her significant other, her children and extended family members. Issues of such nature, coupled by fear of being victimized by authority can often leave a woman or man in a world of depression. This state of mind, can then lead to inability to function on the job and later, dismissal from the job which she/he had once deemed as her/his dream career. And in some cases, may lead ultimately suicide.

So when the administration knowingly hides or distorts the findings of an investigation of this nature and no justice is served, the institution should be held accountable. The unspoken message here would be that the institution is offering a free reign for the distasteful, disrespectful, unacceptable behavior to continue and solidify itself in the organization to its own detriment. A legacy that no administration should desire to leave behind. The rippling effects of allegations of this nature in a pillar institution such as the BDF, yields to the erosion of the institution’s own leadership, the institution’s credibility at home and abroad which has long term effect on collaboration; increased cost to tax payers when law suits are served when and if the issue was taken by the horn (tek the bull by the horn) and duly addressed. Legal actions could have been avoided.

In addition, the unresolved issue, if not addressed properly, can result in a heightened awareness of what types of policies exist, the request for these policies to be updated to reflect virtual aspects of sexual harassment, personnel educating themselves about the sexual harassment act etc. But fear can also permeate in someone who tries to understand the scope and depth of how the institution defines extortion, maltreatment, sexual assault and sexual advances in the workplace. People should be empowered to speak out and not be crippled by a coward and the inability of an administration to take decisive actions. What can result, at times as well, is the fact that administration is kept on its toes trying to address one alleged case after the other. This is so because people are unsure of what to say and how to behave for fear of being misread and accused of sexual assault or extortion or sexual advances.

These pillar institutions therefore have a grave responsibility to provide timely training – not once every three years as the internet has heightened the access mode to people in ways that our archaic laws does not yet reflect. These pillar institutions owes it to their personnel to update sexual harassment policy on a timely bases to avoid black eyes of this nature. Each time a solider speaks up, administrations need to estimate the organizational cost of sexual harassment as we taxpayers feel the pinch of law suits. So we continue to operate at a loss when an administration does not conduct due diligence.

All companies in Belize, and more so the Public Service, should be doing comprehensive job interviews which includes personality characteristics that increase vulnerability to sexual harassment among public officers; after all, the black eye will be on the organization so like the good saying goes, “prevention is better than cure.”

I wonder how many of our organizations have embraced Bystander Awareness Program Against Sexual Harassment and Abuse? How many of our force’s managers have received certificated Managers Training on sexual offenses and the like in the past year? When was the last time the BDF Formal Grievance procedures were strengthened and are there supplemented with voluntary dispute resolution? And are these policies easily accessible to all personnel?

This grave issue has existed since biblical days and it is seemingly getting worse especially with the advancement of technology. Therefore, every single person, need to become more self-aware and understand that sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted behavior of a sexual nature which

-violates your dignity

-makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated

-creates a hostile or offensive environment

and that you don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behavior for it to be considered unwanted. This statement is very key, because offenders often tend to use this as a counter argument. At times, the offence is occurring so fast, the victim doesn’t even realize what is happening.

Please remember unwanted sexual harassment can include:

-sexual comments or jokes

-physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault

-displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature

-sending emails with a sexual content

When someone calls you insulting sexual names, talks about you in a sexual way that makes you feel uncomfortable (like commenting on your body), or spreads sexual rumours about you, that’s sexual harassment. It can happen in person, over the phone, or online. Sexual harassment can make you feel anxious, depressed and lead to other problems, such as difficulties sleeping. You do not have to be a victim as you can become self-aware and you certainly do not have to remain a victim, SPEAK UP!

I will not rest my case on this matter! If I have to write a weekly letter, I will do so, until some satisfactory response is given to the nation. So this is my call to the BDF administration, don’t fail our women. You have a mother, maybe even a daughter, a cousin or a niece or a sister or a wife!