As we start the 16 days of activism to end violence against women and girls, there is no denying that 2020 has been a year of challenge and uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting lockdown, is causing untold economic, social, and psychological hardships to everyone.
Everywhere, including in Trinidad and Tobago, reports of domestic violence have increased. Global statistics show increases ranging from 30-50%, but the reality is that the full extent will never be known, as in the best of times, domestic violence (including sexual violence against children), is under-reported. What we do know is that in our little corner of the world, at least 20 women were killed already this year, some more gruesomely than others, by men who were once their intimate partners.
The year started off with the murders of four women in January. And despite public outrage, and focused attention, the killings continued. This does not include the injuries to body and mind of the many others, all inflicted by their perpetrators intent on exercising power and control over their victims.
But this year, we also made some gains. The Domestic Violence Act was amended and strengthened to close the gaps in child and elderly protection and to improve police accountability for an effective response. Also in 2020, the Police Service opened a Gender-based Violence Unit (GBVU). And in response to COVID-19, emergency virtual hearings for protection orders became the norm within the courts.
These are significant steps. But, by themselves, will not reverse the tide of abuse that is endemic to this country.
How do we move forward? The Coalition against Domestic Violence (CADV) has been advocating for a more comprehensive response. We need a coordinated plan and remain concerned that over 6 years after its formulation, the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based and Sexual violence has not been adopted. The time has come for this to be on the front burner of our strategic response.
What would such a plan do? Why are we insistent? An action plan outlines the responsibility of all state institutions, the private sector, and civil society organisations to implement programmes that lead to the prevention of domestic violence and to improvements in the services available to those affected.
CADV reiterates the need for a whole of government and societal response, which expands community responsibility. We need teacher training, school-based and youth interventions, gender-sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging boys and men including perpetrator interventions/batterer’s intervention programmes. These interventions are more likely to be implemented with the adoption of a well-resourced national action plan to end gender-based violence.
Whenever a woman is killed as a result of domestic violence, people ask, what are the women’s organisations saying? For our part, we at CADV ask, what are we all saying? And more importantly what are we all doing?
Talking about child sexual abuse, Grenadian Psychotherapist Hazel DaBreo recently noted that “someone always knows”. That insight also holds true for domestic violence. We all must become active bystanders. For our part, we at CADV know it can be difficult to know how to be active, where to start and what to do.
If you know someone is in harm’s way, let us break the silence. If you suspect that someone is being abused, you have choices. You can express your concern to the person and let them know that you care and that you will help in any way you can. You can speak to colleagues, neighbours, friends or family to see how together you could be of help. You can contact crisis hotlines, GBVU and other social service providers for advice.
Speaking up is even more important if you know someone who is perpetrating abuse. If you cannot speak with them then identify someone else who could be a positive influence. With the safety of the victim in mind, perpetrators must know that they will be held accountable and that they can also get help. If you need to, call the police, especially if you have witnessed abuse. If you suspect something, do something. It could save lives.
For victims and survivors, you need to trust your instincts and inner voice when it tells you to leave for your own safety. Do not ignore the signs, do your research, stay connected to family and friends, and alert them and the police if you feel threatened.
For perpetrators, the first thing is to recognize that you have a problem. Take responsibility for your actions; accept that there is never a good reason for abusive behaviour. Abusers are able to control their behavior and seek help.
Workplaces should adopt the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce Domestic Violence Workplace Policy and create avenues of communication and support for their employees. Faith-based institutions must educate themselves and the entire community. They must join in responses to domestic violence that focus on prevention, safety and support for victims and survivors.
The Police Service must intensify its efforts at gender sensitization and training of officers, reaching into rural and under-served areas. Often, victims and their families claim that despite reports of DV to the local police stations, there are no records of such reports. Additionally, a values-based education and focus on accountability is necessary to change the culture of acceptance of male violence.
We all have a part to play in ending domestic violence. In so many of the cases of femicide this year, we read about men determined to end the lives of women who they could no longer control. Fundamentally, responses to domestic violence will remain ineffective until we all embrace gender equality as a defining feature of our country.