With 22 persons murdered as a result of domestic violence up to November 30th of last year, Manager of the Domestic Violence Policy Unit Akilah Doris is cognizant that more needs to be done; she believes all must work together to fight this issue and there is need “to stop normalising gender-based violence on a whole.”
According to the figures Doris provided, 20 women and two men were killed by their intimate partners up to November of last year.
She pointed out that sexual violence, domestic violence and gender-based violence are still largely unreported because of the stigma attached and this goes back to the cultural make-up of the country.
The unit, which came into existence in October 2016, but was catered for under the 1996 Domestic Violence Act is policy driven. It is governed by that piece of legislation along with the Sexual Offences Act of 2010. But according to Doris it is not all about sitting behind desks and directing policy, they would often hit the ground as they seek to assist victims.
“Even though we are not an operations unit we still channel them [victims] in the right direction, we record every person who comes in and then we refer them to the respective network for the respective service they require,” she told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview.
The unit also has an open door policy and persons who are in need of care packages can access same right at the unit without having to go through red tape.
Importantly as well, with funding from the United Nations Population Fund the unit last year started to coordinate an essential services response for victims and this will include health, police, justice and social services, all being made “available in a comprehensive way”.
Work has begun in selected regions but this year the programme, dubbed the Essential Services Package, will be fully rolled out.
“This is to coordinate services…we are trying to eliminate the bureaucracies of them going all over the place to get support,” she said. While all the services will not be in one place coordination will make it easier for the victim.
The unit has two trained social workers, Doris and another the Prevention Care and Education Officer, who intervene at times in terms of walking clients through the process of seeking an occupational or tenancy orders and other related services. And when the need arises they would go as far as accompanying victims to police stations and health centres, though this is outside of their mandate. Where there is need they attempt to fill it.
At the moment the need to do more than policy is so great that Doris said this year will see them “getting our feet wet” as it is recognised that setting and developing policy are all well and good but the policies must speak to the issues of people.
And if recommendations are made for policy development then the people themselves have to be heard from in terms of what the issues are and how they should be addressed. This approach will not see just the vulnerable and marginalised communities being targeted but communities across the board as all are affected by violence.
“We have to change the stereotypes… in terms of viewing domestic violence. It is not a poor people issue, it is not an African issue, it is not an Indian issue, it is a Guyanese issue, it is a global issue and it affects everybody,” Doris stated.
This year will also see the establishment of the unit’s hotline for domestic violence.
According to Doris, the unit came into existence following the Ministry of Social Protection’s recognition of the cry for a specialised unit that focuses primarily on sexual, gender-based and domestic violence.
“It is a policy unit which suggests that our work primary has to do with reviewing current policy and legislations, making recommendations for revision of these legal instruments as well as the policy framework for addressing these issues ,” she said.
Once the framework is established, Doris said, they would then work towards an operational plan to give the policy life. The unit is also engaged in public education and awareness as it recognises that there can never be too much information and there is still a large segment of the population that is ignorant as regards the issues of gender-based and domestic violence.
“More so we have the cultural implications where because we have … a diverse society where we have numerous traditional cultures and new emerging ones, we find that it is very difficult at times to penetrate the population and we have to keep revisiting our strategies and our approaches to ensure that they are tailored specifically for the population,” she added.
She pointed out that there is now an emerging Venezuelan population and the unit has not moved to ensure that some of its resource material is in Spanish.
Doris said the unit works closely with the police notwithstanding some of the challenges they face. She was quick to point out that it is not a case of her justifying their challenges, “but they have a lot of work to get done if we are going to holistically address domestic violence.” She pointed also that the police have Standard Operational Procedures that they should follow when a domestic violence victim makes a report and some stations as well have specialised units to take reports. However, one of the reoccurring complaints over the years is the privacy afforded to a victim upon visiting the station to make a report.
“We recognise that the reception received at the police station many times it acts as a deterrent to victims coming forward and seeking the sort of help and justice that they require,” Doris acknowledged. In some stations “little progress” has been made since “behind the buildings, behind the structure are people. We are the ones who provide the service and we have to make convenient for clients and so forth,” she admitted.
She believes that “sitting and just saying the police ain’t doing nothing” is not going to engineer change but persons need to make reports when the police do not operate in the correct way. She said while there is indeed a lot more work to be done with the police, officers are often rotated and as such training has to be continuous.
Meantime, in addition to the sensitisation programme, the unit also has two radio programmes on 94.1 FM every Wednesday evening from 7 pm to 8 pm and on the Voice of Guyana every Thursday from 7 pm to 8 pm. Both are call-in programmes and she said the information received has helped to shape the direction of the unit; she believes that they have assisted more persons to visit the unit for information and assistance.
Also because the majority of the perpetrators of physical violence are men, Doris said they believe that they cannot and should not proceed with their intervention unless they strategically engage men and boys.
“If we are saying that they are part of the problem then they ought to be part of the solution,” Doris said. And it was precisely for this reason that the Men Against Violence group was formed. It is made up of a group of men who are alarmed by the increasing rate of the violence against women and have made a commitment to help the unit sensitise the public in terms of bringing about attitudinal and behavioural change.
“The ministry is very strategic in its approach and it is a deliberate approach in terms of engaging men and boys at all levels. It is just the beginning and in 2019 I can assure you that we are going to be intensifying our efforts and going to go down into the grassroots ,” she posited.
Upon many requests the unit has also been into workplaces sensitising employees about domestic, gender-based and sexual violence and what assistance is available. It has also been recognised, according to Doris, that sexual harassment in workplaces has become more prevalent and in this year the unit plans to develop a reporting mechanism to track the numbers so as to understand the percentage of the population affected.
Aware but not prepared
Sadly, Doris said, while many have the information they are not prepared to make the decision to leave an abusive relationship and that is one of the concerns.
“But it is not our decision to make because when we think in terms of entrapment, why a woman chooses to remain in an abusive relationship we can understand with empathy that it is not easy leaving… some people have ties to material things… and they are not prepared to leave it for anybody else come and enjoy it. Some stay because of their children, some they don’t have any skills, they don’t know where they can go to get a job. The sex is good for some that is why they say,” Doris stated.
She shared a situation where one woman lost three teeth owing to domestic violence and the shelter was provided as an option but she refused to leave. Another was beaten repeatedly and was even forced to run down the road naked but she also refused to leave. Some are not prepared to live in a shelter even though their safety would be guaranteed.
Doris pointed out that it is the woman’s right to make that decision and this is afforded to them and the unit still attempt to help them to remain safe even if they stay.
Apart from Help and Shelter’s home for battered women, Doris said, there is also a shelter in Region 6. It is yet to be occupied as persons prefer the shelter in Region 4, but it is hoped that through regional collaboration there will be a shelter in every region. The Region 6 shelter is the only government-run one (the government provides a subvention to Help and Shelter).
Before coming to the policy unit Doris worked at the Ministry of Communities where she was a community monitoring and development officer. “Working at the grassroots was really my cup of tea because I really believe that if we are going to create change that is the level we have to start at in terms of empowering people and helping them to understand that you don’t need to wait on anybody else to come and develop you,” she related. She was also a teacher for six years and had worked at Help and Shelter. According to the unit manager she is “passionate about my job, I love my job.”