Domestic violence is not the personal business of public officials or private citizens

Dear Editor,
The former First Lady has made a number of charges against the President of Guyana, who was her husband, and he has declined to respond to the specifics, implying that they are matters to be resolved between the two – indeed on an earlier occasion the former First Lady had herself publicly stated that she was not prepared to discuss the details of their relationship or disagreements.

We completely reject the view – whoever expresses it – that domestic violence is the personal business of public officials or of private citizens. The reason that domestic violence is not and cannot be dismissed as private business is that its effects have many negative implications for the public good.

The charges in the former First Lady’s statement of concern to Red Thread are those which amount to a description of domestic violence. To be clear, the definition of domestic violence covers not only physical abuse but any acts of commission or omission which result in emotional and psychological hurt to the receiver.

We don’t have to “know” whether every detail of the former First Lady’s statement is correct. No one has ever required us before to meet this standard in our defence of women or children who complain of abuse.

Proving or disproving allegations is for the courts to do. What we can say is that it is very unlikely, in our experience, that a woman would expose herself to public scrutiny with wholly fabricated charges against her partner, and that very few women report the first incident of abuse. In fact, women spend a lot of time hoping that the abusive behaviour will stop.

We are uncomfortably aware of the difficulty in getting complaints against high officials of the government, opposition, police and army dealt with. This makes it all the more imperative that when accusations of domestic (or other) violence are made against senior officials, and even the highest public official, we address them in a way that makes very clear that it is unacceptable in all its forms, whoever the complainant or the person complained against.
We know that when the accusations are made against the highest official the responses are likely to be coloured by the position of the responder in the political party spectrum. This will do a disservice not only to the former First Lady but to every single woman, child (or yes, man) who complains of being a victim.

Historically, Red Thread has responded to domestic violence charges by being advocates for the complainant using the laws on our statute books. In the matter of (the former) Mrs Jagdeo vs Mr Jagdeo, this might not be practicable given the constitutional exemptions of the President. In any case, it does not appear to us that Mrs Jagdeo is in search of an advocate for relief from her situation.

In the circumstances, all we can do is to remind the President  that he recently advocated the deepening of the campaign against domestic violence, suggested we might have to name abusers and shame them, wherever they may be located, and called for men to join the campaign to recognize and understand the behaviour described as domestic violence and to speak out and organize against it. Guyana must get to a place where public utterances match private conduct.

We will go nowhere in the fight against domestic violence if all we intend to fight against is domestic violence among poor people whose weapons are their fists and their cutlasses and their tongues because they don’t have power to wield.
Yours faithfully,
Karen de Souza and  Andaiye,
For Red Thread

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