Addressing Domestic Violence: How about Starting with Women?

Alissa Trotz is editor of
the Diaspora Column

In her column last Saturday in the Stabroek News, Stella Ramsaroop shared with readers some of the text from her interviews with three Presidential candidates – David Granger (APNU), Donald Ramotar (PPP), Khemraj Ramjattan (AFC) – on the question of how each of them would address domestic violence. Stella’s assessment of the responses is really important: that “the female factor (aside from Mr. Granger’s idea of training more policewomen) “was entirely absent in all three answers.”

(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)

How do you manage to talk about domestic violence and at the same time sideline women? Although David Granger recognizes the difference that involving women would make (he says the men “don’t see problems the same way that women see problems”), he restricts his idea of a solution to this issue to increasing the number of policewomen. In fact, reading the text of his and Donald Ramotar’s interviews, one would never know that the vast majority of those who face domestic violence are women and children. While in contrast, Khemraj Ramjattan’s remarks explicitly name male chauvinism and aggression against women, even here, the rhetoric is about all we have to do in order to protect women from the scourge of violence.

Stella has put her finger on an important but sadly not altogether unsurprising state of affairs. On the one hand, the bodies of women are everywhere in the newspapers, their pictures accompanying headlines and gruesome stories of the violence done to them. I have written before about the fact that this violence continues in the face of the passage of important legislation. One could be forgiven for being relieved by the story in Saturday’s newspaper of the man sentenced to 15 years for killing his girlfriend in front of her daughter, while saying at the same time that such justice remains all too rare. And a few pages down from Stella’s column in which the three candidates talked about the importance of education (although they referred to anti-violence education in a general sense which, while important, is not the same as education which emphasizes people’s rights in the face of violence), one finds a story of how Help and Shelter’s public education programme has been severely curtailed in the face of a funding drought.

What all this shows is that it is possible and all too easy to talk about and around women in a way that makes them, and the very real violence they experience, mysteriously disappear. They are there as victims, who need protection. What we need to realize is how such an approach, by treating women as requiring others to act on their own behalf, is not only paternalistic but dangerous. It is dangerous because it reproduces the same ideas about women being weaker, lesser than, second-class citizens in our society, ideas that help produce the violence in the first place.

It can also play into other notions that domestic violence, while important, is not as pressing as other matters requiring national attention and resources. This kind of position was reflected on a recent television programme where I am told that Raymond Gaskin offered the view that social activist Andaiye had left higher politics (presumably party politics) and gone into gender politics (presumably the women’s organization, Red Thread).  If this is indeed an accurate rendering of his position, again this is sadly not a remarkable view but one that many support, that issues having to do with questions of women matter less or can be postponed until the bigger questions are resolved. It is a blinkered approach that fails to understand that so-called women’s issues cannot be isolated from wider questions, and that they have everything to do with questions of power, marginalization, exclusion and invisibility. That at the heart of this is the question of figuring out who has power and who does not in our society, how that power works to secure the position of some at the expense of the many, and then on the basis of that knowledge, organizing collectively to challenge it.

An example of this approach is Red Thread’s Domestic Violence and Rape Survivors Self-Help Group, which takes on both domestic and sexual violence. The word ‘Self-Help’ is key to understanding the organizing principle upon which this anti-violence work is based: not working on behalf of women as if they require representation and cannot speak for themselves, but working with women to name their realities and to organize so that they can advocate on the issues that matter to them, individually and collectively. The Red Thread women who work with the group are grassroots women, often themselves survivors of various forms of violence and therefore themselves members of the group. They counsel other women like them, they go through the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) so that women can see how it relates to their experiences and what they are entitled to under it. This is no nine-to-five job that operates at a safe distance, and it goes way beyond filling an intake form and advising women of their rights. The Survivors demonstrate, through action and collective support for each other, how rights are secured and won. It is true that knowledge is power, but that on its own is not necessarily enough. The example here is one of doing, and of not backing down, so that women come to see that their lives are valued and that they can make a difference. As one woman said to me, “we follow the women all the way through.”  This can involve offering a physical space at Red Thread for the women to meet, finding the minibus fare to go to someone’s home unexpectedly because a crisis has happened, accompanying the women to the doctor if medical treatment is required and ensuring there is proper documentation, going with women to the police station and following up with officers, following women to court and being there when the cases are heard. Just as importantly, these issues are not bracketed off from other conversations in Red Thread. If you walk into Red Thread you are greeted by boards that feature headline accounts of domestic violence, emphasizing that this is a national issue of the highest order and one that should not be made invisible (women go through newspapers each day, making detailed notes of all stories that involve domestic and sexual violence). They share space with other stories that are related, stories about various forms of structural violence – a living wage, children’s education, counting women’s caring work, the shamefully low level of old age pensions. None of these can be, or is seen in isolation from each other.

A good example of the difference this kind of work makes, comes from a grassroots woman who was a survivor of domestic violence. She had come to Red Thread, where among other things women walked through the DVA with her, so that she fully understood the various orders she could apply for through the courts (protection, tenancy and occupation). On the day that her case was called, she turned up at the court, only to find that her lawyer had left early. Rather than accept the magistrate’s offer to postpone the hearing, the woman insisted on representing herself; after all, she knew the DVA and she knew what she wanted. She succeeded in procuring a protection order from the man who had been terrorizing her. I was told that she called Red Thread with words to the effect, “I get through, I had to tell the magistrate.” In a Caribbean (because Guyana does not stand alone in this regard) where researchers have repeatedly shown how easy it is for the legal system to work in ways that silence those with less education, less of the kinds of resources that make you a ‘big one’ in society, those six words, “I had to tell the magistrate,” say it all.

In his interview with Stella, PPP presidential candidate Donald Ramotar suggested a link between poverty and domestic violence: “Some of these things sometimes are probably caused by frustrations and the pressures of life themselves, which are part of society. So I think that generally as our economic conditions improve it probably will become easier to deal with some of these issues.” This connection matters, especially in a country where there is such a huge gap between rich and poor, and where women in abusive relationships find their choices constrained by the lack of economic opportunities that could sustain them and their families. At the same time, the discussion of grassroots women organizing should not lead anyone to conclude that domestic violence is a ‘poor people issue,’ a point that was driven home two years ago when former first lady Varshnie Singh held a press conference in which she alleged that she had suffered ‘hi-tech domestic violence and persecution.’ Many years ago, a woman living in Albouystown was speaking with me when a huge fight broke out in a house a few doors away. I always remember her comment to me, words to the effect that it is not as if in ‘better’ parts of town, fights and violence did not take place, but in middle-class areas, where houses were made of concrete and had big yards and big fences, privacy meant that no-one could hear what was happening. In Albouystown on the other hand, where housing was often inadequate and living dwellings were close to each other, you could hear everything. As a result, Albouystown gets written off as loud while middle-class areas, like the one I grew up in, are seen as quiet. For women in middle-class homes who are survivors, there is a deafening silence that has to do with economic insecurity but also with issues of class respectability and not shattering the illusion of belonging to a social network that is quiet, private and well-behaved. We need to find a way to break the silence on all of this.

The name of the Red Thread group, Survivors Self-Help, underlines what was missing from the responses of the Presidential candidates in Stella’s column, with the exception of David Granger’s nod to bringing more women into the police force. If you do not begin with women in a context where they are the ones who are overwhelmingly at the receiving end of violence, if you do not start by centring their experiences, you end up silencing women or speaking on their behalf. They disappear, or appear only as victims. The women in the Self-Help Group are clearly not victims. As their name clearly states, they are survivors, they will not be silenced, and they must, and will, speak for themselves.

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