Sunday, November 19, 2017

The new fight against domestic violence

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Lynette Seebaran-Suite

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Slit throats. Chopped bodies. The painful recollections of relatives. Ever so often red letter headlines and bloody details remind us that domestic violence remains a reality for some families.

But the statistics tell us something more. This issue, far from being isolated, is endemic. At a Magistrate's Workshop on the Domestic Violence Act last Saturday, attorney Crystal Brizan pointed to data from the Crime and Problem Analysis (CAPA) unit of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. Over the decade from 2001 to 2011, on average 25 persons were murdered each year as a result of domestic violence. And strikingly, in 2011 there were 157 recorded cases of protection orders being breached. That means that even when survivors muster the courage and resolve to seek the protection of the state, they remain vulnerable.

Advocates for Safe Parenthood: Improving Reproductive Equity (ASPIRE) hosted the workshop at the Hall of Justice to identify strategies for strengthening the protection order. The event was part of a European Union-funded effort—the Zero Tolerance Campaign. It was also supported by the Judicial Education Institute of Trinidad and Tobago.

ASPIRE chairperson and attorney, Lynette Seebaran-Suite, acknowledged the work that has been done by advocates, civil society, law-makers, the police service and the judiciary over the years to increase awareness about the issue and bolster the national response. Over the 21-year-long existence of the Domestic Violence Act, she said, there has been a shift toward treating domestic violence matters with the seriousness and confidentiality they deserve.

"Yet despite all these gains women are dying gruesome and violent deaths at the hands of their partners although they have protection orders," Seebaran-Suite stressed. She said the goal of the Zero Tolerance Campaign was to usher in a new generation of the response to the issue.

"It is about a change of the mores and norms of society so that the problem is stemmed at the outset rather than dealing with the terrible symptoms. There must be support for survivors. We want to devise the machinery and methods so that support is extended after a protection order is issued," she went on. Seebaran-Suite noted that there is a role for observers, whether in the community or workplace, to "throw up a network of support around survivors even after that have accessed an order". And she insisted that all elements of the response including shelters, hotlines, counselling services, social services and a social welfare network must be well-resourced.

The attorney stressed that there are already in existence a number of legal tools that are not widely used to secure the rights and safety of domestic violence survivors. For example, bail may be refused on applications from breaches of protection orders if the perpetrator is judged to still be a threat and danger to his partner or other family members. She also noted that there was a discretion to remove the perpetrator, rather than the survivor, from the house.

Columnist and novelist, Kevin Baldeosingh, explored the untapped potential of the media to reduce domestic violence by influencing a change in attitudes.

"Journalists report stories," he began. "Sometimes we even get it right. Both journalists and magistrates see the good and the bad. How these stories are shared is important because human beings are story-telling and listening creatures. We use narratives to internalise our space. Attitudes are part of what needs to be changed in the battle against domestic violence."

Pointing to a 2008 survey which found that 97 percent of Trinidadian women thought that a man can never be justified in beating his spouse, Baldeosingh noted that there was a proportion of women who remain in violent situations despite this belief, while a smaller group still holds the view that men are sometimes justified in beating their wives.

"Public opinion can be more powerful than bureaucratic measures you may want to take," he said. He suggested that the media couldhelp make domestic violence less accepted and tolerated in society, but had to walk a tightrope in terms of not exaggerating the situation and being critical about some of the data.

Last November ASPIRE launched a counselling clinic providing legal and medical counselling services to abuse survivors. In a second phase of the project Brizan compiled domestic violence statistics from various agencies with the goal of creating a clearing house of all national data on the issue. She noted that a seeming spike in cases in 2010 was largely due to improved report-recording processes by the Police Service. The next step, she said, is recreating the outrage surrounding the issue and collaborating with stakeholders at all levels of the response to fill the gaps in the existing system.