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The Domestic Violence Bill was passed in the National Assembly around this time of the year – 17th December 1996 – 26 years ago and was signed into law that Old Year’s Day. Then, as now, there was wide condemnation of domestic violence and demands for solutions. The Bill was drafted by lawyers involved in the National Women’s Rights Campaign based on domestic violence legislation in other countries, a Caricom draft, etc. and presented to the government in about September 1993. Some 30 organisations associated with political parties, trade unions, religious and professional organisations, the disciplined forces, etc., participated, in one way or another, in preparing the final draft. The Guyana Human Rights Association held a series of workshops in various parts of the country at which the draft Bill was considered in some detail and recommendations were made.
Yet there continued to be those who insisted that legislation is not the answer to these kinds of social problems, that the Bill was some kind of foreign intervention and should await the existence of critical supportive infrastructure, that it could lead to the breakup of families and the pauperisation of children, that it would encourage women to make malicious complaints and that it gave the police excessive powers of intervention and arrest, etc.. None of this has happened and if anything, there is a body of opinion that institutional/legal responses remain too weak.
That domestic violence (DV) is still with us is not surprising but there appears a widespread belief that the situation has become worse and that men, being largely the perpetrators of DV, are to be blamed and need reeducation and mentoring. The president has got onto on the bandwagon and is reported to have said that his ‘1000 Men on Mission’ will help to provide these inputs and ‘will be the foundation to remove violence against women and children.’ As suggested last week, faced with a major social challenges, Guyanese tend to focus on changing people when the emphasis should be on changing the system that allow individuals to behave as they do holds much greater promise.
To arrive at a reasonable understanding of where we are, what is achievable and what is required, the following is an elementary comparison between Guyana and the global and Caricom leaders in women’s safety. The Women Peace and Security Index (WPS Index) draws on recognized data sources to measure women’s inclusion, justice, and security in 170 countries (https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/WPS-Index-2021.pdf). The conceptual framework of the index suggests that providing domestic and public safety for women requires a multi-dimensional approach.
The following table isolates security, i.e. intimate partner violence (IPV): the percentage of partnered-women who experienced physical or sexual violence committed by their intimate partner in the preceding 12 months. Perception of community safety (PCS): the percentage of women ages 15 and older who report that they ‘feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where [they] live;’ perceived safety in the community affects women’s mobility and opportunities outside the home. Organized violence (OV): the total annual number of battle deaths from state-based, nonstate, and one-sided conflicts per 100,000 people averaged over 2018–20.
Country performance and ranking Women’s Peace and Security Index and indicators
|52||Trinidad & Tobago||9.8||45.0||00|
Domestic violence should be condemned, period, but Jamaica is the highest ranking Caricom country at 43 and contrary to popular opinion, Guyana at 52 is doing no worse than its other ranking neighbours. Of course, all of the Caricom countries have some way to go to reach the standards of safety provided the top ranking countries that are also among the richest countries in the world.
Interestingly, poorer than most of the larger Caricom countries and politically dysfunctional, Guyana usually ranks just above Haiti (143) on these kinds of matters. I believe that responsibility for Guyana’s enhanced ranking rests in the fact that underpinning the entire political struggle in Guyana was a strong and vibrant women’s movement that is also largely responsible for it being among the first country in the region to begin and then enact domestic violence legislation. But long before that, the Constitution enshrined equality between the sexes, the Equal Rights Act of 1991 sought to enforce that equality and Guyana has been party to most if not all of the international conventions dealing with DV. The other two indicators below suggest that a focused multidimensional approach is what is required.
Country performance and ranking Women’s Peace and Security Index and indicators
Inclusion (ED): the average number of years women are educated is as critical to their opportunities, as is freedom from violence, and the promotion of women’s health. Financial inclusion (FIN): an individual or joint account at a bank or other financial institution allows for independent consumption and risk management, greater resilient and freedom to invest in education, health, start and expand a business, etc.. The percentage of women employed (EMP) captures women’s economic opportunities, which are central to realizing their capabilities. Cellphone use (CP) is increasingly recognized as very important to people’s opportunities to participate in the economy, society, and politics. Political participation (PR) is a critical aspect of people’s capabilities and is most widely measured by women’s representation in parliament.
Justice: the absence of legal discrimination (ALD); the degree (0 to 100) to which laws and regulations differentiate between women and men or protect women’s opportunities across 35 aspects of life and work. Discriminatory laws – such as those restricting some professions to men – limit women’s economic opportunities. Son bias (SB): the extent to which the sex ratio at birth (ratio of number of boys born to number of girls born) exceeds the natural demographic rate (1.05) reflects serious discrimination against girls and women. Discriminatory norms (DM): the percentage of men aged 15 and older who disagree that ‘It is perfectly acceptable for any woman in your family to have a paid job outside the home if she wants one.’ This is an important indication of gender discrimination in economic opportunities and the world of paid work.
Politicians love to talk about changing people because this is usually a long term project that would not affect their present hold on power and is a form of ‘soft’ propaganda since the populace is socialised to believe in this kind of framing. Guyana is weak on all of the important power-enhancing variables in the above tables. What is required and is likely to bear faster positive results than trying to convince already usually physically and financially empowered men to give up their power, is for women to be economically and socially empowered as a counter force. This demands the immediate adoption and enforcement of more adequate social policies: better education, good, secure well paying employment, adequate democratic political representation, less autocratic and stultifying governance, stronger policing and enforcement, etc.
From the slave ships and the cane fields, into professions and political offices, Guyanese women have struggled for their freedom and rights: these were not acquired at the behest of men. But unfortunately, the autocratic nature of the political process over the last two decades has enfeebled the women’s movement and the 1000 men initiative is likely to take that ‘emasculation’ much further.
The main problem is not the existence of a persistent backward smattering in our culture but the absence of consequential strong and sustained measures that will empower women, indeed all of us, to destroy it.