Spotlight on slavery, abuse of women


In less than a month most of the world’s population will be celebrating a New Year. The rapidly approaching 2011 has been declared the “International Year for People of African Descent” by the United Nations.

Meanwhile, there is much to do and remember in December 2010. Last week, on Thursday, November 25, the city of Toronto celebrated Human Rights Day by presenting several awards to deserving Torontonians, during which several important dates for commemoration and remembrance in December were mentioned. Those dates include December 2 – the UN-recognized International Day for the Abolition of Slavery and December 6 – the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery came out of the adoption of the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (resolution 317(IV) of December 2, 1949). To memorialize the resolution, a UN report of the Working Group on Slavery recommended in 1985 that December 2 be proclaimed the World Day for the Abolition of Slavery in all its forms and by 1995 the day was known as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

The commemoration of December 2 is recognition that the UN is committed to fighting against slavery and considers bonded labour, forced labour, child labour and trafficking people modern forms of slavery.

Some sources claim that more than a million children are trafficked each year for cheap labour or sexual exploitation. These are global problems and against article four of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

The December 2 commemoration is separate from the commemoration of the horrific and inhumane centuries-long enslavement of Africans. The recognition and commemoration of the end of the 400-year Maafa (trade and enslavement of Africans by Europeans) is recognized annually on August 23 as the UN International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.

From the 15th Century to the 19th Century, Africans were subjected to a particularly horrendous form of slavery by Europeans where they were stripped of their culture, languages and names, forbidden under pain of death from practicing their spiritual beliefs and used for inhumane experiments. The systematic abuse was documented in books like Thomas Thistlewood’s diary which was published in 1999, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86.

In Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Short Illustrated History, published in 1983, James Walvin writes that the enslavement of Africans “represent an unparalleled degree of human misery and social dislocation”. Dr Joy De Gruy Leary reminds us that the effect of the 400-year trauma was never addressed and continues to plague the descendants of enslaved Africans today in the form of what she terms Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

While slavery has been sometimes considered an example of “man’s inhumanity to man”, women, because of their gender, suffered a unique inhumane abuse during slavery and every armed conflict between men.

During the enslavement of Africans, women were vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their gender. In any situation of armed conflict, women are vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their gender. The ongoing armed conflict fuelled by White corporate greed has led to horrific gender-based violence against Congolese women which has engendered nothing less than a deafening international silence.

This silence continues even on December 6 when Canadians observe the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women although the majority of mining companies fuelling the ongoing armed conflict in the Congo are Canadian. Admittedly, the December 6 observances came out of the murder of 14 White women who were students in the engineering program at École Polytechnique de Montréal on December 6, 1989. However, violence against women is no respecter of race, caste or class. Where does this violence against women begin?

“A boy who hits a girl is a coward” was a mantra from my childhood and youth growing up in Guyana, South America. Most boys took it to heart and it would be very rare when a boy would hit a girl. Maybe it was because they did not want to be considered cowards or because parents, teachers and their peers reinforced the idea.

From recent incidents at schools in Toronto it is obvious that the decades-old mantra from my childhood is not part of the culture here in Toronto. One incident involved a seven-year-old student whose parents are clearly distressed at the continued bullying of their daughter by a seven-year-old boy in her Scarborough school classroom. The child’s mother also detailed and posted to her Facebook page her frustration with the continued physically violent abuse of her child. The mother documented that the little boy was attempting to kiss and lick the little girl’s neck, among other inappropriate behaviour and when the little girl objected her classmate would become physically abusive.

The parents met with the principal of the school to express their concerns and were surprised when they were told by the principal that if their child could not handle the rough culture of the Scarborough public school system, they might want to consider enrolling her in private school.

In another case, a five-year-old kindergarten student reported to her parents that she had been “kicked three times in the stomach” by a classmate. The teacher admitted to the little girl’s mother that she had witnessed the abuse but was not sure if the little girl had done something to provoke the violent attack. To her credit, the teacher in that case did ensure that her kindergartner apologize to his classmate for kicking her in the stomach.

Parents send their children to be educated and it is little enough to expect that those children will be safe from abuse. No student, male or female, should fear attending school because of continued bullying from other students or staff and physical violence needs to be addressed immediately when it is witnessed or reported.

It is quite possible that Marc Lépine, who murdered 14 women at École Polytechnique de Montréal and the Ottawa police officers who brutalized Stacy Bonds ( were physically abusing their female classmates in kindergarten and their behaviour was tolerated and or ignored by adults.

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