Nothing short of a national emergency should be declared on domestic violence
Most of the reports on domestic violence describe it as prevalent. Statistics are not reliable because of under reporting. Nevertheless all of the experts and activists in this field agree that the statistics that are available suggest that domestic violence in Guyana is extensive and deep-rooted. The incidents of domestic violence against women and children over the past five years or so suggest that it has now reached epidemic proportions, notwithstanding a large number of government and non-government agencies which are doing dedicated work to reduce or prevent domestic violence. Domestic violence seems to be getting more gruesomely spectacular with each passing year.
While there can be substantial improvements in the services offered by both government and non-government bodies with the appropriate amount of resources, the impression of some observers is that the problems are too entrenched and in segments of society which are either not reached by agencies or, if reached, are impervious to the programmes normally deployed. It is believed that it is in these sections of society that the vast majority of incidents of domestic violence take place. Clearly the strategies adopted must take into account this fact and should target these communities in a more creative fashion.
The most intractable communities are poor and mass communication facilities are either not available or no attention is paid to them. The challenge is to get into these communities, in many of which alcohol consumption is high, and win their confidence in order to promote programmes in language they will understand and which will appeal to them. Domestic violence cannot be reduced merely by laws, institutions or structures or only by programmes in Georgetown or on television.
A great deal of effort has gone into sensitizing the Police about domestic violence cases. Nevertheless, while the situation has undoubtedly improved, criticisms continue about Police handling of these complaints. The key factor to improve the approach of the Police is to introduce training programmes to Policemen at the recruitment stage and continue it periodically. Police approach to domestic violence complaints will not improve if training is only a one-off activity.
The court system, especially the administrative divisions of the Magistrates’ Courts, have been consistently criticized for their unhelpful attitude to victims of domestic violence, often sending them to lawyers which they cannot afford, even though the legislation enables victims to file their own complaints. However, once cases reach the Magistrates, they are usually treated with much seriousness and offenders are often imprisoned.
In the High Court the situation is completely different. Our judiciary still treats the unlawful taking of a human life with great leniency, routinely imposing sentences of ten years or thereabouts. Persons accused of murdering their wives or partners often plead guilty to manslaughter and the approach of the judiciary ensures that they receive the equivalent of a tap on the wrist. While some judges are only now beginning to take a more robust approach, there is a far way to go before the sentence actually fits the crime. It is only when the judges begin to impose appropriate sentences for the taking of human life that abusers in our society will take notice.
Domestic violence has reached such a serious state that nothing short of a national emergency should be declared and a national convention held in order to determine what emergency measures can be taken to bring immediate relief to threatened victims. Despite criticisms of Government’s failure to implement decisions and appoint bodies, which appeared in a letter from Mr. Vidyaratha Kissoon in SN last Thursday and Help & Shelter on Friday, the Government is still the best equipped and resourced agency to take the lead role in this emergency initiative to bring together all the state and non-state agencies together with a carefully prepared emergency agenda developed after consultation.
In considering such an approach organizers will have to be realistic. A large number of victims of domestic violence are trapped in relationships because of fear or for economic reasons. It is not possible for them to heed the Minister’s advice to leave relationships where danger lurks. These are exceptionally difficult problems to resolve and often require long-term solutions in the face of a crying need for immediate relief. The resources available or which can be garnered are often not enough to provide such immediate relief but creative ingenuity and Government support may be able to target the most vulnerable with some degree of urgency. Guyana’s vulnerable women are crying out for support.
This is the third time in as many years that I am writing about this issue, having spoken about it many times, hoping to nudge public opinion to pressure the authorities as well as to give much needed support to those who work dedicatedly and off the radar on this issue for little or no reward. I have watched the situation getting progressively worse. On Thursday last 17 year old Angela Mc Allister was brutally slaughtered, allegedly by her 18-year-old boyfriend, because of jealousy.