Domestic violence and the Guyanese Diaspora: We failed Stacy Singh

Stacy Singh

By Aminta Kilawan Narine

Aminta Kilawan-Narine is an attorney, community activist, and co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, which is committed to promoting social justice through the values at the heart of the Hindu faith. In 2015, Aminta began writing a column for The West Indian. A shorter version of this article was first published on January 7. 2018, in The West Indian Online, a weekly newspaper covering and serving the Caribbean diaspora, based in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York.

It is the kind of headline more likely seen in Guyana’s headlines. “Woman fatally stabbed in Queens home. Abusive husband found hanging from tree in suspected murder-suicide.” Stacy Singh’s death was the first homicide in New York City of 2018. She was 26 years old and the mother of two young children, a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, now orphans.

According to authorities, the bodies of Stacy Singh and her husband Vinny Loknath, 46, were discovered about three hours apart on New Year’s Day. Singh had been stabbed repeatedly in the back and left face-down in the couple’s home in Richmond Hill on 103rd Avenue near 113th Street. Loknath was found hanging from a tree at Forest Park.

Singh’s brother-in-law, Romain Shaw, told the Daily News that Loknath was “very abusive to her.” “She stayed with him no matter what because they had two kids together. She was hoping for him to change, but he never did,” he said. “He was so drunk, so very drunk. He always beat her up when he went home high.” According to Shaw, Loknath was drinking heavily and using cocaine on New Year’s Eve, where he and family members gathered to celebrate the occasion. Eyewitness testimony indicates that the couple argued at Maracas Nightclub, where they rang in 2018. Loknath was a multiple offender. He was arrested last September for attacking Singh and charged with misdemeanor assault.

The killing marked the second consecutive year that New York City’s first murder occurred in the Ozone Park/Richmond Hill area with a Guyanese victim. On January 1, 2017, 31-year-old Ricky Kalisaran was shot dead during an attempted robbery on 124th Street near Liberty Avenue. The murder was allegedly over a gold chain the victim had been wearing.

A neighbor said Singh and her husband fought often and recalled one incident that ended with Singh leaving their home in an ambulance. “The cops are always there,” the neighbor said. “They were always having big fights. But she still came back to him.” The neighbor described Loknath as a construction worker who often sat on the front stoop of the house, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

We need to be careful about blaming Singh’s death on her husband’s propensity to drink alcohol or do drugs. The root causes of domestic violence are far more complicated. Our community often tries to rationalize domestic violence with external factors. “He beat her because he was drunk and couldn’t control himself.” “He wasn’t in his right senses. Work it out for your children’s sake.” I’ve heard these lines one too many times. Sure, alcoholism and substance abuse can exacerbate violence among individuals, but taken by themselves they do not cause violence. In fact, they are often used by an abuser as an excuse to carry out violent acts.

When a man is drunk, he probably wouldn’t go hit his boss or a parent. Why then does he choose to hit his wife or girlfriend? In the end, no matter the circumstances, domestic violence is a matter of choice. It typically happens in private behind closed doors affording the abuser the comfort and protection of his own home with a victim he knows intimately, whose response he can very much predict. An abuser is very much in control when he chooses to emotionally or physically hurt, or in this case, kill his partner. Let’s stop trying to justify abuse and instead face the facts, no matter how ugly they may be.

Here’s the truth of the matter: Indo-Caribbean culture still perpetuates male domination and excuses violence against women. While we may have progressed economically post-migration, many of us have carried this mentality across borders from the Caribbean to the United States. And we tend not to support those women brave enough to stand up for themselves and end the abuse. It will take massive movement building and a major culture shift to change all of this. Singh’s death uncovers something we are afraid to accept. Many times we minimize the abuse that trickles into our own lives. We turn a blind eye. We let our fathers, brothers, and sons continue the cycle. After all, we love them. Our love makes it almost impossible for us to speak out. We become accepting if not supportive.

In efforts to raise awareness of Singh’s tragic death, activists and community members took to social media to share various news articles that were published on her murder. Some responses to the articles were downright anger-inducing. People blamed Singh for not leaving her husband instead of casting blame on the man who killed her. “Why didn’t she walk away?” “Why didn’t she accept help?” they wrote.

We can’t blame Singh for returning to her husband in spite of the abuse. It isn’t easy to leave an abusive situation, particularly if you are married and have children with your abuser, like Stacy Singh was. We know that victims of domestic violence tend to return to their abusers for myriad reasons. They may be financially dependent on them. They may fear the guilt of breaking up their family unit or the shame of being judged by their loved ones and broader community. They may fear that the violence will escalate if they leave their abuser. They may fear that they’ll be killed. This fear is very real. I have felt it before.

We also have to think of ways in which to reduce recidivism among men who batter. There are very few batterer intervention programs out there. Most of them are court-ordered programs that aren’t responsive to the needs of specific communities. They say hurt people hurt people. While there is no justification for domestic violence, we need to get to the bottom of why abusers turn out the way that they do. All of this work can’t be done by one person, or one organization.

As my friend Will Depoo from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) said, we all failed Stacy Singh. But as a community, we must corral together to ensure that the tragic circumstances surrounding Stacy Singh’s death do not repeat themselves. Jahajee Sisters, an organization founded after two young Indo-Caribbean women were killed in New York City at the hands of domestic violence, reminds us that is wasn’t just Stacy Singh who we failed: “It has become far too common for us to mourn the lives of Indo-Caribbean women like Stacy Singh lost to gender-based violence. We have also grieved Rajwantie Baldeo, Amrita Khan, Natasha Ramen, and Guiatree Hardat.” They further stated: “It will take all of us to ensure the safety and dignity of women and girls in our community.”

On Martin Luther King Day, January 13th, 2018, Jahajee Sisters, in collaboration with many community organizations, held a vigil and speakout in remembrance of Stacy Singh. The entrance was flanked with powerful paintings by Carl Anderson brought by the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA), including one of the late Sukree Boodram, author of Breakout and community activist. Held at the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir in Queens, NY, where Jahajee Sisters hosted its first Women’s Empowerment Summit several years ago, the event included a panel discussion with the backdrop being a Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, a reminder of how important it is to use faith-based institutions as places to reach a broad cross-section of our communities and build a movement against domestic violence. Stacy Singh’s family, led by Ramona Latsis, courageously spoke, just days after Stacy’s death, calling on all to ensure that Stacy’s death does not go in vain.

During the panel discussion, I had the honor of joining Shivana Jorawar of Jahajee Sisters and Mohamed Amin of the Caribbean Equality Project. It was the first time I ever told my own personal story of dating abuse to such a large crowd, of over 100 people. Jorawar did the same. Our stories underscored that domestic violence doesn’t just impact our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation – it trickles into ours. Amin tearfully addressed being a bystander and witnessing abuse, feeling hesitant to do something about it, but now being a champion for change. I reflected on a day of outreach that Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus conducted along Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, and coming across an elderly woman who eagerly held my hand and said “Beti, wha me guh tell you? Me so old me about fi dead and me husband still a beat me.” Her story broke my heart. It highlighted the need for culturally sensitive resources in Richmond Hill for victims of domestic violence.

Several prominent leaders were present, including newly elected Council Member Adrienne Adams, who pledged her support to a grieving community, as well as Guyana Consul General Barbara Atherly. Representatives of the Hindu, Muslim and Christian faith communities delivered prayers and committed to doing more to bring the issue of domestic violence to the forefront.

Jahajee Sisters’ Nadia Bourne performed a chilling rendition of “Redemption Song” and a collective of Jahajee Sisters did a spoken word piece all dressed in red, in honor of Stacy. During the speakout session, Jyoti Hardat, sister of the late Guiatree Hardat, held up a photo of her sister who was killed at the hands of her fiancée in 2007. Jyoti indicated that she and her mom still have not healed from the pain. Others fearlessly stepped up to tell their personal stories including Maya Sookdeo. The audience included an even number of women and men; important as it takes two to create a healthy relationship. Men do need to be at the table in order for a shift to happen and for the patriarchy that engulfs our culture to be tackled and dismantled.

The vigil was a painful gathering, but it was also a powerful one. Hopefully it is the start of a wider community campaign to end the pervasive cycle that leaves too many suffering in silence behind closed doors, and also to tragedies like Stacy’s death. May her soul forever rest in peace.

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