Stricken with apathy: Indifference and invisibility in relation to violence in Guyana

In The Diaspora (This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

Savitri Persaud was born in Guyana. She will be pursuing her Masters degree in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto in September.

By Savitri Persaud
Two memories continue to resonate with me from my 2009 experience in Guyana volunteering with the women’s group Red Thread: the rally that they spearheaded in support of the Coalition to End Sexual Violence Against Children, and the battered women that I met who were counselled at Red Thread’s drop-in centre. While both experiences are illustrative of the social problems in Guyana, both are also profoundly telling of the positive work being done by agentive women’s groups in order to foster social change. Yet, as I scour the online publications of the nation’s newspapers, not much has changed in a year. The headlines still are marred with incidents of violence, particularly crimes against women and children: ‘Muslim leader charged with carnal knowledge of girl, 14’; ‘Husband charged with stabbing wife to death at Herstelling’; ‘Man, 54, remanded on carnal knowledge and rape charges.’

What are we to say about these cases, which is not already obvious? That these cases are symptomatic of larger social inequalities, that they are deplorable, that they are heinous, and that they are especially so since they involve both women and children are givens. But every day as these atrocities riddle the headlines, it seems as though the nation lets out an apathetic sigh and shrug. There is a flurry of letters to the press expressing indignation and outrage (most recently in relation to the suspicious and violent death of Bridgette Gangadin, married off as a child at 13, mother of two, now dead at 29, her mangled body found on the Vigilance Public Road close to the police station). This is followed by a flurry of action that reveals itself to be inaction, until the next headline announces another victim. The cultural anaesthetization of violence in Guyana is such that the capacity to commit violent crimes against women and children is heightened, while their suffering is practically rendered invalid in the public sphere. This culture of indifference designates ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims of crime. Women and children in Guyana have historically and traditionally been treated as lesser than citizens. As such, violence against these bodies is often perpetrated with little or no recourse and justice for the victims and their families.

The issue at hand then is stamping out instances of violence altogether, starting with women and children. For this we may turn to government officials and the legal system; however, what I witnessed as a courtroom observer of a pre-trial hearing surrounding the alleged sexual molestation of young boys tells me that the system continues to fail the most vulnerable.

At this trial, the accused confidently strutted about the courtroom and entered and exited the premises as he pleased before the proceedings began, in part because he was on bail.  In stark contrast, the child sat silently in the back row with his family and when called forth appeared to be frightened due to the insensitive and officious nature of the hostile courtroom environment. Specifically magistrates and lawyers are extremely intimidating, and my understanding is that it is generally true that few protections are in place for children in the magistrates’ court, frequently leading to a situation where defence lawyers are allowed to belittle and berate children in an attempt to vindicate their client, and are often free to engage in highly inappropriate lines of questioning without fear of reprimand. In other words the dice are stacked against the children. The prosecutor and defence lawyer later engaged in a heated exchange over the admissibility of evidence; but why is it that cases of this type lose credibility when children are not present in courtrooms for preliminary hearings? For children, this process is especially exhausting, considering that they are often hauled out of school to attend pre-trial or preliminary hearings, for which their presence is not necessary and should not be required. Regardless of the outcome of these hearings, they are already doubly punished as they suffer both personally and academically.

There is another issue that we must be aware of, and which has to do with a dispensation of justice that seems to rely on the size of one’s wallet or the depth of one’s connections, in which money passes hands to grease the wheels and to ensure the accused can escape prosecution, or where attempts are made to intimidate families of victims or buy their silence or non-co-operation. Justice in this case favours the highest bidder. This leads me to conclude that the class dynamics of Guyanese society are also intimately linked to its ‘justice’ system. The allegations that have recently surfaced against government officials and prominent businessmen, such as the accused in this case, reveal that even the sexual exploitation of children and the eventual acquittal of these men are linked to the economic and social cleavages of the nation.

In an attempt to curb the violence committed against children, the Sexual Offences Bill that was tabled in August 2009 recently passed on April 23, 2010. These reforms aim to improve the archaic legislation pertaining to sexual offences that existed prior to the bill’s passage. With input from The Guyana Human Rights Association in particular, as well as contributions from Red Thread, Help and Shelter, and other community groups, the Sexual Offences Bill was successful.  These laws, however, are only as good as their teeth, meaning that active and meaningful enforcement across all institutions of law and order is paramount. Without it, the legislation will remain only an empty attempt – one that gets good public relations mileage – by the government to put a benevolent face on a seeming epidemic.

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