Janet (name changed to protect identity) is a very strong, college-educated woman who, at the request of her husband, gave up her job to stay at home after marriage. She may not have known that being asked to do so was a form of abuse. Soon enough contacts with friends and family were restricted as was movement outside of the home. Then the beatings started. By then a child had arrived and so Janet thought that it was in the best interest of her child that a traditional family should continue to exist. Besides, her husband was a charmer when he was not a monster and she continued to see glimpses of the person she fell in love with and got married to. So she vowed to do what was necessary to keep that while hoping that her love would change the abuser. Meanwhile, the abuse increased, fueled by bouts of alcoholic haze. Then Janet found out that her husband was having an affair. When she confronted him he walked away leaving her penniless. Initially devastated, Janet was able to move on and rebuild her life becoming both financially self-sustaining and an empowerment activist helping other victims.
Beverly Gooden, an American writer who started #WhyIStayed on Twitter, writes on her site that for her, leaving an abusive situation was “a process, not an event.” She explained in a series of tweets the many reasons it took her so long to get out: she once tried to leave the house, but her abuser slept in front of the door to block her; a pastor told her that God hates divorce; her husband said he would change; she needed time to find a place to go and money to survive once she left; she thought love conquered all; she was isolated from friends and family who lived halfway across the country. Indeed victims continue to remain in abusive relationships for many reasons including financial dependence, the children, fear, religion, isolation, ‘love’, family and societal pressure and because a certain amount of abuse has been normalized to the extent that many women accept such abuse as a given in a relationships and some even still equate that abuse with love.
In fact there was the case of a woman who told her sister that her consistently abusive husband was going to kill her. Yet neither the woman nor her sister reported to the police or sought help, and the sister made this disclosure public only after the woman was murdered. And the case of the twenty-one year mother of one who summoned the courage to leave the abusive relationship and go back to her parents’ home but the family refused to go to the police, take any legal action or even accept counseling because of palpable fear driven into them by the abuser. Or the case of the abused wife of a policeman who never went to the police because her abuser told her that his police buddies would do nothing. Or even the case of a victim whose husband holds high status in society and is actually an anti-abuse ‘advocate’ so no one believes her when she shares her experiences of abuse.
As well, we have come across a number of cases on social media that were referred to the traditional media but which never published anything. Since we had no way of contacting the victims we felt that the media had the capacity to contact them, tell their story and hopefully catalyze police action to bring the abusers to justice. We also know of cases of abuse in situations where the abusers are rich and so the victims are often in denial or feel that the materially comfortable lifestyles are a worthwhile tradeoff for the abuse.
In effect, femicide and gender based abuse are reaching crisis proportions in Guyana. The media has been doing a great job of focusing attention on and advocating for action to address thus scourge. Now can the police set up a mechanism so cases can be directly referred to them? Of course, the actions of some police continue to leave much to be desired. The case of the officer who accompanied the victim to her home so she could collect personal belongings and then left her there resulting in her murder made headlines and the line minister’s response is not exactly what was expected. We also know of cases, some of which have been publicized, of victims being ridiculed and insulted when they go to the police station to report abuse. Then there is the case of the woman being stripped naked in the lockups because the police thought she was suicidal. Bribery allegations against the police also continue to be shared by victims. No wonder so many victims refuse to go to the police.
Concerted, ongoing police training is thus an absolute necessity and perhaps it’s also time for police to be fitted with body cams. Also needed is legislation to ensure cases go to trial even when victims refuse to testify and for the public to be made aware of the services offered by the government and other stakeholders so victims can be encouraged to walk away with the road ahead not as bleak and hopeless as they may have thought. In fact there are quite a number of NGOs, including The Caribbean Voice and other members of Voices Against Violence, that offer a range of services, including counseling, legal assistance and safe houses.
As the government gets ready to observe another 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, we urge that consideration be given to some suggestions recently put forward by the Registrar of Barbados’ Supreme Court, Barbara Cooke-Alleyne: introducing electronic monitoring equipment for violent offenders; appointing legal aid for victims without representation; increasing the length of time for counseling for victims (vision of counseling for all victims); and removing penalties for false accusations, so victims would be less afraid to speak out.
Janet was among the few who eventually spoke out on publicly, something that many who walk away and put their lives back together are reluctant to do. This is why VAV has decided to observe 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence by organizing speak outs sessions across Guyana. VAV is a gathering of NGOs and other stakeholders that, three years ago launched the Annual National Anti-Violence Candlelight Vigil, which has seen 1000 plus vigils organized across Guyana since its launch. It is an attempt to forge that collaboration that everyone from the President downwards, have been and continue to call for. Domestic Violence activists, advocates and other stakeholders emphasize that speaking out is important for many reasons. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age, social background, gender, ethnicity, education level or wealth and in all kinds of relationships: heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Also it happens all year round, can be physical, emotional, psychological, financial or sexual and the abuse becomes more frequent over time. Ignoring it condones it. It is not acceptable and should not be tolerated as everyone has the right to live a life free from violence.
Gender-based violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime and is caused by the abuser’s desire for power and control. Thus the abused individual constantly lives in fear and is unable to predict when the next attack will come, yet becomes increasingly dependent on the abuser leading to isolation from friends, family, colleagues and to the individual accepting the blame for the abuse and denying the fact that it’s actually happening. Individuals can develop post-traumatic stress which includes a range of symptoms: agitation and anxiety, depression, panic attacks, trouble sleeping or relaxing, numbness, sense of isolation, nightmares. One of the most serious risks to children in our society, domestic violence leads to anxiety, depression, truancy and the possible fear of abandonment in children. It will contribute to removing the fear of being ridiculed or disbelieved by friends and family members. The bottom line is that no child should have to live with the thoughts of violence or fear. Speaking out encourages more individuals to seek support from specialist support organizations and could save lives, especially since victims are often murdered by abusers, or end up taking their lives.
From 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. The international campaign originated from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute. Currently, more than 3,700 organizations from approximately 164 countries participate in the campaign annually. For the first time organizations in Guyana are joining this effort. The speak outs are being supported the Women & Gender Equality Commission, Help and Shelter, the WPO and The Caribbean Voice. At the time of completing this article, about a dozen speak outs have been planned by organizations such as Golden Om Dharmic Youth, Emerging Young Leaders, Guyana Women’s Roundtable, Orchid Foundation, Young Pioneers, Young Champion’s Network and others, including a number of activists, in various parts of Guyana. Organizations, groups and communities are urged to bring people together and have them share experiences, personal or otherwise, on gender based, child and sexual abuse as well as brainstorm on ideas to address these scourges. These ideas will be gathered together and shared with relevant government ministries and agencies as well as the media.
Speak Out sessions do not need large attendances; in fact small groups create intimate circles that can make victims much more comfortable as they share. Guest speakers are not necessary. Anyone can moderate a session. Organizers are urged to video the sessions so they can be used for sensitization, advocacy and activism. For additional information and/or support to organize speak outs please send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 612-9488, 665-7547 or 621-6111.