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The Police Commissioner is reported to have stated that the police received a total of 1,662 reports of domestic violence in 2020 (approximately 5 reports for every day of the year). The bulk of those charges related to violence against women and girls. The reports represent a fraction of the incidence of violence. Unadorned figures mask the efforts required for such reports to become a reality. Bare statistics do not capture the stress involved for women victims in making reports to the police. Behind almost every report are one or more women who are supporting, advising and giving courage to the female victim. International Women’s Day should be a moment to honour these unsung, front-line responders in the pandemic of violence.
Female victims are not readily inclined to report violence. While struggling with the trauma and shock often accompanying the violence, the victim is also calculating the effect on her children, her relationships, her financial dependence and the other consequences of setting in motion a complaint to the police. Only when the victim works through these fears – with the support and guidance of other women – be they mothers, neighbours, friends – does a report to the police materialize. In too many cases for women without such support, the consequences seem too threatening and no report is lodged.
Apart from retaliation from violent men for ‘interfering’ in their affairs, such women also have to contend with the default response of police-stations which, for all the resources invested in producing community-oriented policing, remain bastions of traditional law and order policing. Confronting the heavy barbed-wire fortifications, barrack-room culture and calculated lack of interest in complaint-makers, that too often characterize our police-stations, constitutes another formidable obstacle for individual female victims. Efforts by individual police offices to push back against this culture have proven to be inadequate for the task.
Moreover, these statistics relate only to domestic violence. How many cases of verbal abuse and harassment do women and girls experience just walking on the streets, in mini-buses, school yards, markets and shopping centres go unreported. Again, other women are the key to reducing the incidence of such violence. Most men see and hear but only a fraction of them intervene to prevent violence. An even smaller percentage appreciate the extent to which girls and women make constant calculations about their safety: are there enough women in the minibus to enter safely? Should she walk past the bridge where a group of men are ‘liming’? Is she safe with this taxi-driver?
Below the radar of publicly reported acts of violence, too many insecure males are controlling women’s and girls’ whereabouts, their phone-calls and their friends. Underlying this domination is the enduring conviction that subjugation of women to men is the natural order of things. This is known as patriarchy.
Accelerating this process means confronting the institutions that continue to foster patriarchal attitudes. First among them must be our religious institutions – all of which remain male dominated and whose values still influence the majority of Guyanese, whether religiously active or not. Moreover, religious gatherings for most women in rural communities are the main form of socializing. To date, religious institutions and traditions have been spared any serious challenge with respect to discrimination against women. The non-governmental sector has seen a range of non-profit responses to violence against women, offering comfort, support, solidarity and limited forms of legal assistance.
Against this patchwork of solidarity from females closest to victims, isolated police officers working against an institutional culture, NGOs and religious institutions sympathizing with victims but unwilling to confront perpetrators, we have national and international government responses which are frustrating. With the scale of resources which have been made available – one billion Guyana dollars from the UN and the EU Spotlight Programme – and with all the necessary legislation in place (Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Offences Act, Trafficking in Persons Act, etcetera) we should expect transformational campaigning. A response akin to the original response to the HIV epidemic is required – mobilizing the society at all levels to stamp out violence against women. All sectors which foster or sustain attitudes and practices that contribute to violence against women – religious, policing, commercial, educational, sports and entertainment – need to be involved.
To date, the Ministry of Social Protection has identified a “Survivors advocate programme”, a help-line and an App for victims to contact help. These forms of amelioration and welfare do not meet the level of advocacy ambition required. Acting like non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but with larger resources is not the role either of the Ministry or the international community. The vital contribution international Agencies should make is to require a policy framework rooted in women’s rights that clearly indicates the institutional changes required. Yet not a single reference to women’s rights is to be found in the official statement at the launch of the Spotlight Programme of September 2020 by four UN Agencies and the EU. Violence against women continues to be treated as a technical and resources issue rather than a violation of rights, justified by vague references to ‘women’s empowerment’ and ‘gender mainstreaming’.
Without the combination of effective action at the institutional and community levels, the required transformational impact will remain elusive. Solidarity of friends, family and neighbours at community level is as much as victims of violence can hope for currently.