We need to review whether laws that address women leaving relationships are adequate and cater to their needs

Dear Editor,

The Stabroek News published in its edition of the 17th May 2019 an anonymous letter `Zaila Sugrim’s experience shows neither she nor her husband got the help they needed’ that caused me to pause. 

It alleges that the PPP and I, as Minister under the PPP government who served in a Ministry tasked with addressing the issue of domestic violence 13 years ago, did nothing to help Zaila Sugrim and her husband who is presently under arrest and suspected of committing her murder. It also alleges that I said things on my facebook page, which I have not said.  

The letter goes on to further strangely claim that it is President Granger and his cabinet who have introduced the concept of a good life with emphasis on mental health and solutions! Sadly, whoever wrote it was not brave enough to put his name to this bit of drivel. I invite the writer and readers to consider when all the services mentioned herein were established and/or expanded and what new services have been or not been established.  I specifically invite for consideration that the issue of domestic and gender based violence has always attracted the attention of the PPP and has been so reflected in its various manifestos. I was responsible for the implementation of the 2006 manifesto promises and ALL those promises, save none, and more were fulfilled.

The truth is I subconsciously expected this sort of wild accusation and I am wondering now how desensitized to crude and politically motivated statements I have become and how much of a bad thing that may be.

Zaila Sugrim was, as her sister said in a recent interview, the epitome of a domestic violence victim. She suffered almost every type of abuse our 1996 Domestic Violence law contemplates. She has sworn affidavits that describe her mental, emotional, physical, financial, stalking, isolation-from-family, abuse.

After 15 years she ran away from said abuse and was housed at Help and Shelter  and then with her family who welcomed her back  with joy and provided as much support as they could. She was offered and received pro bono legal services and then speedy orders made by our new Family Court, participated in hours upon hours of professional counseling, received the benefit of much time and tangible assistance from the Childcare and Protection Agency and the Ministry of Social Protection, met with the Commissioner of Police in person and received financial assistance from a Gov’t run programme. Assistance for things like school transfers etc, which could seem like monumental tasks for a tired, worn, beaten woman were done on her behalf.  In the end, it turned out not to be enough for her circumstances. She is dead. So clearly we need to do more and to do so sensibly and quickly. As an entire nation.

I considered not responding to this letter for fear that any response could cause the victim blaming that I see already emerging. Not to provide perspective however, is even more dangerous as it may well send a message to other victims reading and looking on that there are no services available for an exit out of an abusive relationship. And that would be untrue.

Many, many women have been able to successfully exit violent, abusive relationships by and through help they received from their family, the community, the state and through their very own grit. Many have utilized the services of Help and Shelter, Legal Aid, the Child Care and Protection Agency, the Family Court, the Domestic Violence Act, the Women of Worth Programme, the difficult circumstances unit, the job placement programme, the Women’s Affairs Bureau, the Men’s Affairs Bureau, counseling, help from trained religious leaders and service from a much more responsive police force and informed Magistracy.

The above-named agencies do not always work the way it was anticipated that they would function, but they work. And they can help any person who needs to get out of an abusive relationship. Where they do not work for a person seeking help, complaints should be lodged with their management.

Domestic Abuse is an extremely complex issue. It is not unique to Guyana. It has its genesis in the prevailing gender inequality that exists across the world and that is ever so present here in our dear homeland. Every new case for me presents the same superficial symptoms and problems but each case has peculiarities that are completely distinguishable. A one-size solution in any area: law, programme, or facility is not going to meet the needs of every person. Of that I am certain.  We cannot, however, fail to continue to strengthen our institutions, fill gaps where they exist and train, train, train all who will encounter complainants and victims of domestic violence as well as perpetrators.

In my view, which is informed mostly by my practice in the family law area again, I believe we need to review whether our laws that address women who are leaving relationships are modern, adequate and/or cater to their needs. We need to review our antiquated divorce laws which cause untold friction between parties in an already fractured relationship, fill the gaps in our Maintenance Act and make some amendments to the laws that address domestic violence and victims thereof. Amendments to allow for prosecution of offences even without a willing virtual complainant, to clearly allow for the making of orders under the DV Act in the Family Court so that a victim is not forced to run to several courts for relief (I am of the view that they can be made now but they have sometimes been refused by at least one Judge. Clear amendments would change that).

The State needs to establish a programme that offers automatic financial and other assistance (school transfers, training to get jobs, daycare, dedicated counseling to each person for as long as is necessary, medium term housing etc) to women who flee violent relationships. The Police force needs to review and possibly revise and/or implement its policy regarding the granting and renewal of gun licences to persons who have been repeatedly reported for violence in the home. Additionally, except it is consented to by the complainant, the same police officer as far as is possible, should not address a new complaint by the same complainant.  Even further, if a child’s (or any) voice calls on the phone for help from the police alleging violence in the home, police should never leave the home without making sure all the children in the home and each other person is offered the opportunity to leave and is offered counseling within the shortest possible time. This will clearly require inter agency collaboration. The (spiral) education curriculum has to change. Now. Each new student leaving grade six must know what domestic abuse is, what it looks like, how to recognize symptoms early, how to address, how to get help, and more important than anything else, how not to be an abuser. Gender equality, its significance, its benefits, must be incorporated into the everyday teaching of our children from nursery. This curriculum change had been discussed and recognized as urgent. It is taking too long.

I know we are capable of taking this further. As a country, we recognized Domestic Abuse as something offensive and reflected that in law in 1996. We have moved very far from then to now, with the provision of Govt and NGO/FBO established, supported or funded shelter, legal aid, family court, Childcare and Protection, job opportunities, training of police and the Courts, religious leaders, public awareness campaigns etc. But any objective participant in the field will confess that movement has slowed down with prior/old initiatives being treated complacently with little new energy or resources being injected therein and indeed resources being removed therefrom (e.g. Legal Aid and Help and Shelter whose funding have been inexplicably cut.) We cannot afford that. Public awareness campaigns are almost non-existent. International Day against the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the 16 days of activism that goes along with it come and go without a murmur.

I feel particularly shattered by Zaila’s horrific demise. I first met her on August 22nd last. It was a holiday and she was brought to my home for legal help by a Help and Shelter counselor. We spent hours talking. Her self -esteem was low. She believed what she was told for years, which is that, even with her degree, she was nothing without him. She had five children who she loved and who she constantly thought of. She was concerned that her children would come to believe what she was going through for her entire relationship and their entire lives, was normal. She knew it wasn’t and she truly wanted them to be better than she was and better than their father was. This is why she ran.

We sought the Court’s help and she got it.  Over the months until her Court matter ended I would spend a lot of time talking to her and listening to her.  I really felt like she was in a different place from when we first met. Indeed, she was living separate and apart from him. Even before, but particularly after he almost killed her in December, she had promised she would not be in his presence alone again. On Tuesday, her body was found in a shallow grave, reportedly shot to the head and burnt to bits. Whether justice is done will depend on the police investigations that are presently ongoing. I truly hope those are thorough.

Yours faithfully,

Priya Manickchand.

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