Society…Tackling the mountain of domestic violence in Guyana

Help and Shelter continues to apply itself to the task challenge of responding to the scourge of domestic violence by providing a multi-faceted supported base for victims of various forms of domestic abuse. The organization’s challenges, its Co-ordinator Margaret Kertzious says are to influence changed behaviour and attitudes to domestic violence particularly in the home setting and the society as a whole and to encourage individuals to communicate in a non-violent way. As publicly available information on domestic violence continues to point in the direction of a worsening trend, however, Kertzious is under no illusions about the size of the mountain that her organization is striving to climb.

Concerned and forthright about the challenges that lie ahead for the organization, she is, nonetheless, persuaded that even if the steps in the right direction are often small and measured, the organization can point to a fair measure of accomplishment.

Director Margaret Kertzious
Director Margaret Kertzious

Help and Shelter is substantively funded by the Government of Guyana. The organization receives an annual subvention for its routine administration as well as an annual grant for the running of its Shelter. Over time the work of the organization has attracted the support of various international organizations including USAID/ GHARP; UNIFEM,  UNICEF; UNFPA; The World-day of Prayer Committee; Every Child Guyana and the Canadian High Commission in Georgetown.

Locally, Help and Shelter works in   collaboration with other NGO’s,   networking to build its limited capacity and to support those NGO’s through the provision of skills training.

When you ask Margaret Kertzious just how serious the problem of domestic violence is in Guyana she responds without the slightest equivocation; “very serious! From our experience nearly every home in Guyana is affected by this social ill and our description would include all races; the rich and famous, the middle class and of course the poor.”

Of no less concern to Kertzious is the fact that we are still ill-equipped to effectively confront the challenge of domestic violence. Processes and procedures designed to alleviate the suffering of victims is “slow.” A lot, she says, depends on the efficiency of the courts; this, despite the legal mechanisms enshrined in the 1996 Domestic Violence Act.

What the Act has done, she says, is to allow for the development of protocols that dictate procedures to follow when there is need to effect intervention on behalf of the victims.

These processes, Kertzious says, are designed to provide clear guidelines that allow the victims of domestic violence to access Protection Orders.

Protection Orders, Kertzious explains, are instruments designed to remove the threat or menace associated with domestic violence. These are legal instruments that require the offender to cease communication with the victim and, in cases where homes are shared to find alternative living accommodation. 

But protocols and procedures cannot stand alone. Kertzious believes that the wider society including the law enforcement agencies still need to develop a far greater sensitivity to the importance of applying the correct responses to domestic violence. 

The police, she says, remain unaware of, even indifferent to their role in supporting the national response to the scourge of domestic violence. “In most cases they are not aware that they can assist the victim in accessing a Protection Order. In most cases they have never seen a protection order form.” Another “regular complaint” she says, is that the police response is often dismissive, constituting, she believes, further abuse of already traumatised victims.  

Perhaps, however, the sheer scale of the problem of domestic violence has created what Kertzious says is a closer relatrionship between Help and Shelter and the Guyana Police Force. “We have a constant training programme with the police. We have even encouraged them to include domestic violence sensitization   including familiarization with the Domestic Violence Act in the training programme for police recruits and that is now being done. The Commissioner himself has told them that they cannot treat with cases of domestic violence effectively unless they are familiar with the contents of the Act.”

Meanwhile, Kertzious says that conditionalities for multilateral lending to the Government of Guyana for the refurbishment of police stations across the country dictate that Domestic Violence Units be installed. “What we expect is that these police stations will each have a sealed room attended by a police officer who is trained in social work to intervene in domestic violence matters.”

She is, she says, hopeful that the advent of the Domestic Violence Act coupled with the work done by Help and Shelter to establish a closer relationship with the police will bring changes to law enforcement procedures relating to cases of domestic violence. She explains that in the past some reports of domestic violence have been set aside after victims had indicated to the police that they no longer wished to pursue the matter. “That is no longer happening. We are encouraging the police to pursue domestic violence reports based on the guidelines set out in the Act. Our position is that appeals to drop charges against victims have to be made to the courts not to the police.”

Children can sometimes be forgotten victims of domestic violence. While statistics provided by Help and Shelter outline five categories of direct child abuse – trafficking, physical, non-physical, sexual, and alcohol – Kertzious says that children are also frequently indirect victims of domestic violence.   

Kertzious says that there are other critical constraints facing Help and Shelter in pursuit of the effective execution of its mandate. ‘We depend heavily on international agencies both to keep our doors open and to conduct our service activities. “Children live what they learn and once they experience domestic violence in its various forms in the household it is most likely that they may develop attitudes and practices that derive from that experience. Those attitudes could be physical, verbal, and or emotional. The violence will have an impact on the child particularly in the area of them  blaming themselves for the violence. Often they cannot cope with  cannot cope with the violence and they may turn to the use of alcohol and drugs, become delinquent or experience teenage pregnancy. Some are school dropouts who themselves become aggressive and violent.”

And while the incidence of domestic violence in rural and hinterland communities is on the rise, Kertzious concedes that the work of Help and Shelter is limited mostly to the coastal regions.  “In terms of visits to the office most of our clients are victims living in the nearby Regions – Regions 3, 4,5 and sometimes 6. For the other Regions our service can only be reached through the hotline. Unfortunately, victims in outlying Regions are not able to access the service on a one-and –one basis due to the fact that we have no sub-offices in these Regions.” This year,  the organization received funding from the Canadian High Commission to finance the extension of its counselling services to Moruca and Leguan, to create a Capacity Development Program with two non-governmental organizations in Region 6 and  to provide counselling training in Region 2.