Invisible women

DR YANSIE ROLSTON Monday, March 13 2017

WALK the streets of downtown Port-of-Spain and you are bound to pass a few unkempt, smelly human figures as you go about your business. So what do you do? More than likely you pick up pace, walk a bit more briskly, and say a few silent prayers for your personal safety, without giving a moment’s consideration to the person or their circumstances.

But in the manner of International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8 annually, I ask that you spare a thought for those invisible women for whom the street is their home.

International Women’s Day 2017 saw a number of seminars, workshops, and activities geared towards achieving gender parity, but there is a group of women who because of their circumstances are inevitably left out of the matrix.

Female street dwellers or vagrants – as they are commonly referred to, are often perceived as dishevelled, mentally ill people in filthy rags with the potential towards violent tendencies, and as such there are not many opportunities afforded them where they can have their voices heard.

So, who is championing their cause? Whenever there is a focussed discussion on disability it goes without saying that persons with disabilities would be in attendance, but if you are invisible who is going to provide that expert-by-experience viewpoint on the issues that impact upon your life. Who offers the expert opinion that will be the basis for formulating evidence-based interventions? Let us not forget the attempts by the then Portof- Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing to remove street dwellers from the city which psychiatrists described as “cruel” and “inhumane”.

For the most part, female street dwellers are ignored and treated as bits of discarded garbage except when charitable volunteers provide some meals or items of clothing. They are some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society, so is it not time for some emotion and sensitivity to be applied to understanding and alleviating the problem of homelessness? There is no denying that their needs are quite complex, as they have vulnerable health care needs – they experience reproductive cycles of menstruation, ovulation, pregnancy and menopause, are susceptible to increased episodes of mental ill health, and high morbidity.

There are a myriad reasons why these women who are wives, daughters, mothers and grandmothers end up on the streets, but it is never a decision that they take lightly. It is due to traumatic life experiences: domestic violence, emotional breakdown, intellectual impairments, substance abuse, eviction, and poverty.

And as if those experiences are not distressing enough, the majority will then go on to be victims of physical violence, threats, sexual abuse and exploitation, which is why many intentionally make themselves invisible – hiding from view as a means of protecting themselves.

The UK’s Channel 4 TV show Dispatches reporting on a survey of 458 recent or current rough sleepers in England and Wales, noted that: Nearly one in four female street dwellers has been sexually assaulted in the past year.

Three in ten female street dwellers have experienced sexual violence at some point while homeless.

Nearly six in ten have been intimidated or threatened with violence in the past year (compared to four out of ten male street dwellers).

Understanding the complex needs of female street dwellers is challenging, but surely as a civilised society the answer is not to ignore their lived experiences and hope that they will mysteriously disappear from the city streets.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Be Bold for Change – so in addition to championing the State for systems reform and policy interventions to address gender disparity, how about undertaking some responsibility for spearheading pragmatic actions that will initiate sustainable change for those invisible females who hardly ever get their voices heard.

To quote the Los Angeles DownTown Women’s Centre, USA, “it is not inevitable, but it is a societal problem that bears especially hard on women. And it can be ended.” #BeBoldForChange If you have a comment, suggestion, want to share an experience or offer support Dr Yansie Rolston can be contacted at yr@

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