As I sat in my makeshift office chair after a long night at work with only two hours of sleep and my mind racing with various thoughts regarding our center which recently opened, I reflected on its launch, the number of emails before me which I still had to respond to, and the letters which I was about to begin penning to request support.
Then, the phone rang. I was drained and hesitant to answer, since lately it was one crisis after the other, one person in peril after the other, and women calling for help. At times, I felt as though my hands were tied, my voice useless, and my sacrifice in vain.
I have wondered and asked myself, “How can a caring society look on as women and girls were murdered and tortured, but did nothing? How can advocates voices and pleas go unnoticed? How can resources not be invested into this work? As I contemplated whether or not to answer, the phone rang out; I breathed a sigh of relief, as I really could not take on any more sad news.
In less than two minutes, my phone began to ring again; this time from another number. Reluctantly I decided to answer and the person on the other end shouted, “Another one gone, another one violated. OH, GOD! When will it end? When will those in authority really do something significant to help? When will they truly support people like you? It may be only when they and their family have to feel it; then, will they know it and do something.”
In response I said “Hold up. What happen now?” Marsha (not her real name) shouted in response, “You ain’t hear what happen Sherna? You ain’t buy papers? You ain’t listen to the news? They just find a woman body dismembered in a barrel in the river somewhere by Manzan. The man who did that have to be more than a beast.”
For a few minutes, my mind went blank, my blood ran cold, and my heart sunk, as I tried to imagine the last words of this woman: her beseeching cries for her life, her thoughts of the children she would leave behind, and her thoughts of her own life. Then, I tried to imagine what would have been going through this man’s mind: while he dismembered her body. And I responded by saying, “I am tired. How many more women must die? How many more? How many more must be disfigured before this issue of violence against women and girls are taken seriously? And how many more must lose their lives before real action and support can be given?”
Then I really contemplated on something the caller had said. Is it that violence must touch the lives of those who have the means to help and support before they actually do, or is it that the media has sensationalized violence so much that people regard such acts as nothing and there is not the urgent push to help those who are in need of it and help those organizations and agencies who are on the ground?
Trinidad and Tobago is facing a crisis. Violence against women and girls is no longer approaching a crisis. It is a crisis! This violence is not isolated and has far reaching consequences, as it affects everybody: the person (the recipient of the violence), family members, future generations and society as a whole. It undermines personal safety and security; it is a human rights violation and negatively affects women’s and girls’ mental health, physical well-being, academic advancement, employment, financial stability, and even their sexual health.
On January 1, 2016, 69-years-old Aluira Warner was shot and killed by a stray bullet at her home in Beetham, Port of Spain.
January 15, 2016, 41-years-old Hassina Sarah Khan’s body was found in a shallow grave, off Esperanza road in Couva; her ex-lover afterwards confessed to the crime; she leaves behind 3 beautiful children.
January 03, 2016, Aneesa Murray was brutally murdered in Cunupia, shot multiple times while she sat behind the driver’s seat.
February 2016, the wife of a prominent businessman took to social media after years of physical abuse to show her injuries. As a result of the abuse and the lack of law enforcement to intervene and assist her, 12-years of abuse culminated to her social media story going viral and forced the hand of law enforcement to get involved.
February 22, 2016, 35-year-old Rachel Chadee, mother of 3, was locked in her room as her male attacker forced her to ingest acid, threw acid on her, and chopped Chadee in the face.
March 04, 2016, 31-year-old Amina Mohammed’s body was found in a drain in Retrench Village, near San Fernando. Her throat was slit. She leaves behind two children. She went missing two days after she took out a protection order against her ex-husband.
March 05, 2016, While Jennifer Rampersad slept, her male attacker entered her home and began his brutal onslaught using a cutlass to repeatedly chop Rampersad, severing both her hands at the wrist and an arm which he almost chopped off.
March 08, 2016, Eden Nekieisha Teesdale’s headless corpse and her dismembered body was found stuffed in a barrel near the Mitan River in Manzanilla. She leaves behind 3 children.
March 22, 2016, Michelle Roanne Ramdoolar was pulled out of her vehicle by her hair, punched and kicked numerous times, all by a complete male stranger. After he finished raining blows on this unsuspecting female driver, he went back into his vehicle, which was causing a traffic pile up and sped off. Sadly fellow motorist and passersby did noting. According to law enforcement, the onlookers chose not to get involved because they thought the beating was as a result of a domestic issue.
According to Margaret Sampson Brown, head of the Victim and Witness Support Unit of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service “between 2005 and 2015 almost 300 women have been murdered as a result of domestic violence.” She said this is of great concern. Based on the figures which she mentioned this is an average of 30 women per year and many on the ground are saying this figure is not representative of the true figure and nature of this crime.
In 2013, former Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development Clifton De Coteau said, “Homicides due to domestic violence is second only to gang murders.” It seems since then the murders have increased, women and girls are running scared, cultural and societal norms are solidifying their position, the gap between coordinated efforts widens, gender stereotyping seems to reign as king, and disaggregated data and research continues to elude us.
The United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security OSAC, Trinidad and Tobago 2014 Crime and Safety Report stated, “The majority of violent criminal activity (i.e., homicides, kidnappings, assaults, sexual assaults, etc.) in Trinidad is gang/drug related or domestic in nature… Despite the decrease in overall criminal activity, crimes related to economic gain, sexual assault, and domestic violence continue to plague the country… Many crimes go unreported. Further, there are instances in which crimes are reported but not documented.”
The department’s 2015 report voiced similar sentiments from the 2014 report “The majority of violent crimes (homicides, kidnappings, assaults, sexual assaults) are gang/drug-related or domestic…. Not all crimes are reported. There are also instances in where crimes are reported, but not documented…. The government faces numerous challenges in its effort to reduce crime, including an overburdened legal system, bureaucratic resistance to change, unemployment in marginal areas, disenfranchised youth, and the negative influence of gangs, drugs, and weapons.” - The United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security OSAC, Trinidad and Tobago 2015 Crime and Safety Report.
According to Chief Magistrate Marcia Ayers–Caesar at a 2012 media launch for the 16 days activism, she said for the period 2009-2010 the judicial annual report showed that in the magistrate courts 12,106 new domestic violence applications were filed, and for the period 2010-2011, 11,984 new domestic violence applications were filed. She went on to say, “These figures should be of concern to us all. These statistics, which can be found in the Judiciary’s Annual Report for this period, also reveal for 2009-2010 term, the Magisterial District of Arima received the highest number of applications, while Mayaro had the least. After 2010-2011, Arima again had the highest number and Rio Claro had the least. I am sure that you would agree with me that these statistics are indeed shocking.”
“The cost to the community of lost lives and resources is a constant reminder that domestic violence is not a family affair or a private affair. It is a community affair demanding a community response. Early intervention by the legal system can save lives. As judicial officers, we have an opportunity to stop domestic violence before it becomes extremely dangerous or homicidal through early intervention,” said Chief Magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar.
“The Caribbean has among the highest rates of sexual assault in the world. Three Caribbean countries are in the global top ten for recorded rapes. In the eastern Caribbean, UNICEF estimates that child sexual abuse rates are between 20 and 45 percent, meaning at least one in five precious children are affected. Most are girls who have no choice but to live close to their attacker. They desperately need our help. Too many women are afraid to seek help. One study showed that up to two thirds of all victims suffer without ever reporting the crime. I am outraged by this. Shame belongs to the perpetrators, not the victims. We have to change mindsets, especially among men,” stated United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon in Bridgetown, Barbados on July 2, 2015.
This statement shocked the Caribbean region however there is still no collaborated push to have a Caribbean Campaign to bring awareness and to implement prevention intervention strategies and early intervention.
The cases of violence against women and children are staggering and continue to make headlines. Unfortunately children are not exempted from this tumultuous unleashing of violent acts. As in the month of March 2016, the newly appointed Children’s Authority shocked the country when it unveiled that in its nine months of operation there have been 4,158 reported cases of children in need of care and protection. Trinidad and Tobago made history with these numbers. Their report when published will reveal that the highest categories of child protection issues are sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and children lacking care and guardianship.
While the country has come a long way, women’s and children’s protection and personal safety continues to be a major issue. The support mechanisms and structures have serious gaps; along with lack of research and disaggregated data. It must be emphasized upon that these continue to pose a major hindrance as governmental agencies, NGO’s, and academic institutions try to make sense of the present challenge. Obviously, the destructive course with this issue will submerge the country, if left as it is.
Effective training for law enforcement officers is seriously lacking as they are considered first responders to the cases of domestic violence and child abuse. Many times victims are re-victimized, re-traumatized, and their voices disrespected by the officers who are taking the report, as they still regard this issue as a private one.
NGO’s who are feverishly working on the ground as foot soldiers, and are many times the victims first point of contact, receive measly or no support from Public and Private sectors across the country and also from government agencies. The bureaucratic process to request assistance of financial nature is met with months of red tapes and a list so long that many NGO heads throw their hands up in the air, continue existing without making any real impact or just close their doors.
The media continues to sensationalize and trivialize the issue; thus the public becomes desensitized. and the impact and seriousness of the matter is lessened. Also, the consequences and detrimental domino effects of the gruesome acts of violence against women and children are cheapened, being seen as a non-issue with a few women and advocates making noise in a corner over nothing while the country has more serious issues to attend to. No media house has been bold enough to take up the elimination of violence against women and girls as their point of view and assign journalists to work on this issue to examine causes, solutions, hold people accountable, have opinion pieces on the subject, develop a campaign, and host seminars to make a change.
Cultural and societal norms, gender-stereotyping, and illiteracy maintains a strong foothold in the country. Early intervention, prevention awareness and national programs are lacking. Also, coordinated efforts among agencies, even in the NGO community, is severely lacking. Victim blaming comes from all social, economic and academic classes, thus the victim is further silenced, abused and victimized by an uncaring public who holds up the hands of the perpetrators to maintain their levels of violence and perpetrate their gruesome acts of psychological, economical, sexual, and physical warfare against unsuspecting victims.
Academically, the country does not offer any certificate courses, diplomas, or degrees which are specifically developed for combating and preventing domestic violence and gender-based violence. When a victim breaks her silence it is a life or death matter and if society encourages them to speak out there must be the systems in place to fully support them. Mental health and abuse is a critical issue as the mental health of victims are not attended to; most victims suffer from various mental breakdowns and challenges.
There is often the call for women and girls/children to break their silence and come forward; however, the systems are not fully in place to support victims when they come forward. Some shelters are inept and lacking in confidentiality and security measures to protect victims from their attackers, so much so that women have reported that workers at some shelters have told their abusers where they were. Some victims report further type of abuse emotional in nature from their care takers. Most victims are faced with a choice to either leave the abusive relationship or separate from their children when they have to enter a shelter. After 12 weeks at a shelter, the victim is faced with having no funds, no place to stay, and no support systems in place.
There have been constant calls from advocates in the country for a transitional housing community to be established. Such a call came from the Organization for Abused and Battered Individuals since 2008 and this calls continues today, where other advocates have begun to join this call using their own words and their own voices. Financial support for victims of domestic violence is not a commitment for any government in the country.
The Housing Development Corporation has been asked on numerous occasions to make a few of their homes available for housing victims. The medical system is poorly lacking when it comes to working with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. There are no Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) to assist and work with victims of gender-based violence (GBV), and doctors silently ask for support. Also there continues to be a call apart from having medical social workers in the hospitals for the government to place GBV advocates in every major hospital within the country and in every police station.
One organization, Conflict Women Ltd headed by Asiya S. Mohammed, leads the way and has really taken up the fight in helping victims of domestic violence become self-sustainable and entrepreneurs using the art of jewellery making. The recently launched VASCO Center (Victim Advocacy Service Center and Office) networks closely with this organization as they see the importance of victims becoming self-sustainable and financially independent after the abuse. Other organizations are slowly following this model.
While education is free, the government due to the present economic instability of the country is considering removing its funding which makes education free or placing restrictions on the basis of needs assessments. Be that as it may, women and girls still need financial support so they can further their education or begin it.
Women and girls are mortally afraid in Trinidad and Tobago. They try to tell the world of a time and of an experience which they (the world) would prefer to not hear. They try to keep their voices relevant; however, the masses have ingeniously crafted subtle measures to silence the victims. They try to hold onto each other so that their voices will stand predominate but some victims would rather forget for the pain of their experience is too much to be remembered.
Their voices are cheapened, their experiences passed over as exaggerations, and their presence slighted. They are asked to remain strong when all their strength is gone, they are asked to be vocal when their voices are taken away, they are pushed to stand when their foundation is removed, they are asked to be human when they live with beast, they are forced to keep sane when their minds have been eroded, and they are asked to be independent when they have no support.
As women and girls, they struggle alone and they fight alone. They fight to maintain their sanity, they fight to keep alive for their children, and they persevere so their stories can be told. They look to a future where violence will be no more and they look to each other for the strength to remain alive, for the power to remain relevant, and to live so that they can be free—even if that freedom is sadly at times in death. Sage Steadman said, "They looked to each other for support, for strength, and at times, motivation, to remember why and for whom they lived."
Sherna Alexander Benjamin
This article will be re-posted on my weekly column, Inside Paradise.