Jamaica’s “Tambourine Army” Making A Welcome Racket

An army is thriving in Jamaica, but not one whose fight is violent. Rather, the battle faced by the soldiers of the Tambourine Army is one of attaining justice and empowerment for victims of sexual abuse. Last weekend, hundreds of Jamaicans took to the streets to unite in a Survivor Empowerment March across Kingston, the country’s capital. This watershed moment was led by Jamaica’s newly-founded Tambourine Army which presented a 20-point action plan foregrounding the statutory and social change regarding gendered violence that is necessary to improve safety and equality for women and girls in Jamaica.

Instigated in late 2016 when a 64-year-old pastor was arrested for raping a 15-year-old girl, the Tambourine Army sought to shed light on the longstanding, yet publicly-suppressed, epidemic of child sexual abuse and gender-related violence in Jamaica. Exposing the Church’s abuse on the community’s trust and its corruption of power, co-founder of the Tambourine Army, Latoya Nugent, said, “if we choose not to acknowledge this failure [of the Church], we are, in essence, perpetuating the culture of silence and rape, and it will just continue.” By inciting a public call to challenge cultural attitudes towards sexual abuse, the Tambourine Army represents a renaissance of hope in the ongoing battle for equality.

The focus of the group is to shift the assigning of blame and humiliation from the victim of sexual abuse to the perpetrator. In seeking to challenge the normalization of rape, the Tambourine Army provides a platform for survivors to speak out and heal by sharing their experiences in a peaceful and inclusive community. As stated by former Jamaican Senator and self-professed change-maker, Imani Duncan-Price, “the tools of this army are knowledge, passion, determination, and love.” Striving to fragment a systemic culture which has the oppression of women at its very center is vital for ensuring a safer, more prosperous society.

Problematically, gendered violence in Jamaica is increasing. Indeed, Duncan-Price recently reported that the number of femicides in Jamaica rose to 134 in 2016, up from 116 in 2015. The annual report for Jamaica by Amnesty International highlights the government’s failure to introduce a national human rights institution, despite having promised its establishment. The report stresses the inadequacy of the Sexual Offences Act and its limitations, further citing that over 470 women and girls reported rape in 2016.

With the UN estimating that 1/3 of women suffer domestic abuse, Jamaica, among the 10 countries with the highest rates of rape in the world, has suffered a long history with regards to sexual abuse. The cultural attitudes towards gendered violence that remain entrenched in Jamaican society have roots in the country’s colonial past, whereby the physical and sexual exploitation of female slaves by white men has had a flow-on effect to the present day. This is clear through the distinct lack of statutory protection for women and girls and the normalization of male entitlement which manifests in forms of abuse ranging from street harassment, intimate partner violence, to femicide. The changing economic situation of Jamaica has further instigated a “crisis in masculinity.” The increasing fragility of the male psyche as symptomatic of gendered violence is foregrounded by Dr. Verene Shepherd of the University of the West Indies who argues that, “as the economy worsens and […] as many women climb the social ladder, patriarchal ideology, biblical teachings, and hegemonic masculinity come to the fore and manifests in violence and jealous rage.”

The philanthropic work of the Tambourine Army has inspired movements across the Caribbean with its focus on providing psychological and emotional support for victims of abuse, strengthening the justice system and calling for statutory amendments, proposing education initiatives, and improving policing within their respective communities. In challenging a society in which inequality, violence, and suffering prevail, the gravity of the Tambourine Army’s work is not to be underestimated. Their work is crucial in facilitating peace and prosperity which can only be achieved when the dominant cultural attitudes towards women shift. In the words of Jamaican political leader, Marcus Garvey, “we are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”