Monday, January 22, 2018

Solution beyond safe homes

THE construction of more safe houses for battered women, children and men is as much a sign of progress as it is of breakdown.

The fact that an increasing number of people, mostly women, need to be rescued from domestic violence, underscores the failure to respond to the seemingly intractable problem of gender-based violence, especially in the home.

Given the hard fact that more and more women must seek refuge from violent partners and others close to them, the Government's decision to build four new safe houses, three for women with their children and one for men, is to be applauded.

The availability of safe houses will make the difference between life and death for some women and children caught up in violence. Indeed, even the option of escape could lift victims out of the sense of helplessness that keeps them trapped in a cycle of violence with soul-destroying consequences.

However, with an annual average of close to 2,000 domestic violence reports to the police between 2010 and 2016, the state's provision of new spaces to accommodate 52 people is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

Even as the Government increases the pool of much-needed safe spaces for the battered, it would know that the problem of domestic violence will not be solved by more rooms but by destroying the culture of violence in intimate relationships and inside the home, rooted in antiquated ideas of wives and children as property. While it is most deadly in the confined spaces of intimate relationships and homes, it expresses itself in the wider society in sexual harassment, denial of opportunity, stereotyping and general disrespect. As has been repeatedly discussed in this space, the culture of violence, especially against women and children, will only be broken by education designed to re-train our instincts away from the destructive habits rooted in cultural approval of violence.

The society of Trinidad and Tobago has had enough experience to know that violence against women and children, whether in the home, the workplace or on the street, is no respecter of social status or income bracket. It can and does happen to anyone. Including to men.

However, unless we are openly honest about the broad spectrum across which domestic violence occurs, the stigma of shame and deficiency under which so many victims labour, will keep them from reaching out for help and exposing their pain. Even as the State expands the number of safe rooms, it also needs to expand and support programmes of counselling and mediation. The most effective point of intervention, however, may be through the education system beginning in early childhood.

Guiding children to non-violent ways of settling scores and differences is critical to weaning children away from the violence surrounding them.

It is also among pre-schoolers that the evidence of domestic violence presents itself to teachers, care-givers, social workers and guidance counsellors.

All of these should be built into an integrated strategy for breaking the cycle of violence, including domestic violence.

The evidence of success will be the redundancy of safe houses.