Last month, a young woman came forward to share a horrific report of being drugged then brutally raped by three men at a business in Mahdia where she had worked. As if the experience that she detailed were not horrific enough, the woman later found that the police—to whom she had made at least two reports—had deduced from her initial interview that there was no rape, although she had been incapacitated, and they were only pursuing a physical assault complaint based on visible bite marks about her body.

Unfortunately, hers was not an isolated case. At Matthews Ridge, a partially-paralysed woman, who alleged that she was raped in her home late last month, was also to learn that despite compelling evidence to support her allegations the police were only investigating a physical assault committed upon her.

20140104ianaBoth reports are frightening, as is the thought of the reports that likely don’t find their way into our daily newsfeeds. One wonders how many victims are being undermined in their attempts to seek justice before their complaints even reach a courtroom? And how many, seeing those before them dismissed and denigrated by the very persons entrusted with the responsibility of serving and protecting them, opt instead to remain silent, living as prisoners of a broken system while their numbers continue to grow.

It’s always extremely hard to obtain accurate statistics on sexual violence in Guyana because only a small number of survivors come forward to make reports. However, in its landmark study, ‘Without Conviction: Sexual Violence Cases in The Guyana Justice Process,’ released in 2005, the Guyana Human Rights Association had found that in the period 2000 to 2004, only 3% of 647 rape reports made it to trial. Even more startling, the average conviction rate was 1.4%. The study also pointed to a rise in rape and statutory rape reports and sounded an alarm over the processing of complaints by the police and the courts, which were identified as obstacles to the effective delivery of justice.

Judging from the statistics released only last week by the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for the recently concluded June 2014 Criminal Assizes, the justice system continues to frustrate and deter victims of sexual offences. In 17 sexual offence cases, the DPP was forced to abandon prosecution of the accused because the complainants did not wish to proceed with their complaints. In three other such cases, one accused pleaded guilty, another was found not guilty and the other unrepresented accused was further remanded to prison after reporting that he would need five years to prepare his defence.

It should be recognised that under successive administrations, Guyana has become a state party to many international human rights treaties which prohibit sexual violence, including rape and torture. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Geneva Conventions. More recently, four years ago our legislators overhauled the sexual offences legislation in one of last significant acts of bipartisanship and what can also be seen as a kind of victory for rights activists who had been campaigning for years for reforms. But it should also be recognised that all the conventions and the new laws mean very little if the very people they are intended to protect continue to be shut out by the keepers at the gate.

At the very least, the reactions to the reports of the complainants at Mahdia and Matthews Ridge by both law enforcement and medical professionals suggest that we still have a considerable way to go in delivering needed training so that they understand their roles and responsibilities in the handling of sexual offences cases under the law. For example, under Section 41 of the Sexual Offences Act, where a report of an offence covered by the law is made to the police, they are required “in every case” to record the report and conduct an investigation. Section 41 (2) further states that within three months of a complaint being made, a charge shall be laid in respect of the report; or the file relating to the report and investigation shall be sent to the DPP for advice. Where the police fail to act, the law caters for investigating ranks to be disciplined. “Failure to comply with subsection (2) constitutes neglect of duty by the Investigating Rank and the Investigating Rank shall be liable to answer disciplinary charges in accordance with the Police (Discipline) Act,” it says at Section 41 (3). This provision begs the question: In the four years since the enactment of the law, how many ranks have faced disciplinary charges for neglect of duty in investigating reports of sexual offences? Given the fact that the enforcement of the law has left a lot to be desired—a situation chronicled over the years by groups and activists, including Red Thread and Help and Shelter—it is doubtful that any one has been.

It is also significant that the reform legislation had stipulated that training programmes on sexual violence were to be developed by no less than four ministries—Legal Affairs, Home Affairs, Health and Human Services and Social Security—for police, prosecutors, magistrates and judges, health workers, probation officers, social workers and the prison service. At the same time, it is important that we acknowledge and also act to address the deeply-rooted cultural attitudes within our public institutions—and especially the police force—that continue to undermine the response to victims, and particularly those from vulnerable groups. It should not have to be said that the reports made by victims of sexual abuse ought to be treated with the respect and sensitivity entitled to everyone who seeks the protection of the law. It should also not have to be stated that reports made by Amerindian women in the hinterland area ought to be treated the same as reports made in any other part of the country, by any other citizen, regardless of race, gender, class or creed.

Instead of helping victims who come forward to seek justice, the Guyana Police Force in particular continues to show indifference and, in these recent cases, its members have gone as far as to deny the existence of the complaints because of their own failings. This kind of response is emblematic of a culture within the force that trivialises violence against women and underscores the barriers that still exist within our criminal justice system. Working to change the culture is crucial in encouraging victims to come forward and helping them to heal.

To some degree, acting Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud has demonstrated his sensitivity to the public’s perception of the force. Still relatively new to the post, he may well be trying to navigate between meeting the expectations of the citizenry, while not alienating the ranks who serve under him, to say nothing of the Home Ministry. As a result, it’s not practical for him to be putting out every fire ignited by bad policing. If he did, he might never get anything done. That being said, ultimately, he is responsible and will be held accountable for the action of his ranks. Since taking office, Persaud has been notably silent on this culture within the force when he should be demonstrating leadership. A strong message needs to be sent that suspicion, hostility, and shaming will not be tolerated among investigating ranks.

There is need for a multi-faceted approach to combatting sexual violence in Guyana. This must include enforcing existing laws to cultivate a more responsive criminal justice system that will encourage more victims to come forward, while ensuring aggressors can no longer act without fear of punishment.

Important too is breaking the silence on the situation by our political leaders, including those who are never shy about articulating their positions on the plight of people half way across the world. There is a lack of political will to end impunity for perpetrators of abuse. But the culture of ‘zero tolerance’ that is needed to end sexual violence and ensure survivors are adequately supported cannot simply be preached on occasion or offered up in sound bites at official engagements, we need to work towards it. Perhaps the government can start with a loud condemnation of rape. We don’t need resources to condemn rape and other forms of violence against women, we need only the will.

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