Sunday, November 28, 2010

Teach our good girls to be bad girls, too

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 28 November 2010)

I once heard a woman say she allows her daughter to explore the not-so-nice aspects of her personality. With wisdom, the mother said it is important to have that stronger side of us – as well as the nice, well-mannered side – since the world can be cruel at times.

Although I never thought to teach my girls this lesson in an overt manner, I could not agree with this lady more. There are times in life when we need to have a thicker skin and be a little stronger, because if we were anything less, life would chew us up and spit us out.

As women, we have been told our entire lives that we are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” So we try to live up to that notion and in the process we can get walked all over. Some women even submit to abusive relationships because they have never been taught to stand up for themselves.

If we teach our daughters to always play nice, what happens when they are confronted with real life? Real life can be so tough sometimes and it takes a tough woman to handle tough times. As parents we go to great lengths to teach our daughters to be good little girls, but does that instruction alone give them what they need to function effectively in today’s world?

One of the reasons some women find it so hard to cope with life is because they have not been taught how to do it effectively. We are taught how to deal with a fantasy life of sugary situations and sheltered from what the world is really like.
Meanwhile, boys are taught to be well-mannered, but they are also encouraged to explore the other side of their personality too – the not-so-nice side. In a world where men still rule the roost in most business and political environments, it puts our daughters at a severe disadvantage to force them to be sweet when we all know business and politics can be cutthroat.

Parents go out of their way to “toughen up” their boys, but the girls are not supposed to get dirty or raise their voice. They are not taught to fight for what they want, which is what a person has to do in life sometimes. I allowed my daughters to explore the not-so-nice parts of their personalities, but I have always brought them back to a place of caring about others too.

Once when my oldest daughter was about 13 years old and still very sweet and innocent, she developed a friendship with another girl who was not so sweet and innocent. The girl would lie, spread rumours and even yell at other people. My daughter had no idea how to deal with someone like this.

She came home crying one day because she was so hurt and so mad over the situation. I told my daughter that she should not back down from a mean person. I told her to stand up to the girl and see what happens. The mean girl backed down and everyone was deeply grateful to my daughter for letting the girl know she would not get away with her nastiness.

Afterwards, I reminded my daughter that it was important to mend the rifts and to try and maintain a civil relationship since they attended school together and had to interact on a daily basis. Balance is key in teaching our daughters how to deal with real life, just as it is when bringing up boys.

Maybe it is time for us to teach our daughters to be both naughty and nice – after all that is what real life will be like when we are not there to protect them from it anymore. There are some scoundrels in every community who love to prey on weak women, which is exactly why we need to raise strong women.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported, “Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women.” If we gave our daughters all the available tools to effectively deal with life, perhaps this depression rate would decrease.

The more strong women there are in society, the fewer victims there will be for scoundrels. None of us want our daughters to be a scoundrel’s victim, a mean person’s doormat, or a submissive wife to an abuser.

So the next time your daughter fights for a toy that someone just took from her, let her explore that part of her personality. It just might teach her to fight for something more important later on in life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let the healing process begin

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 24 November 2010)

I have written much on the issue of domestic violence in the last couple of months. It is a topic that needed to be highlighted because of the direct impact it is having on society. Tomorrow is the big event “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” at the Georgetown Cricket Club (GCC) ground, Bourda, and it feels to me like the start of a new era.

I walked in the Rights of the Child (ROC) march last Sunday and as we chanted our way from Bank of Guyana to the seawall, it felt as if there has been a definite shift in the way people are viewing domestic violence. And it felt good. It feels like the healing is about to begin.

We chanted through the streets, “Real men don’t hit!” and “Stop the abuse, there’s no excuse!” There was a solidarity in that group, comprised of both women and men, that was extraordinarily powerful. It was a large group and it was encouraging to see so many young people taking a stand for this cause. It was obvious that they are in this fight to see a safer life for themselves and their neighbours, too.

To be sure, healing is needed. Years of domestic abuse and victimisation have altered the psyche of the people as a whole so that even if a person has not been exposed directly to domestic abuse, the indirect results will still touch that person. Yes, healing needs to happen, not just for individual victims and survivors, but for the entire country as well.

Imagine the change that can be brought about when so many people in the country start to heal and are able to shed the anger, fear, vengeance and intimidation. Once upon a time, I was told this struggle against domestic violence was in vain. I was told this is the way it is and it will not change. Now I am being told there is hope for change.

One of the questions I am often asked is how does one define “domestic violence.” As such, I am restating the following definition from a previous column.
I have gone to Wikipedia to help define domestic violence. Wikipedia is not an authority on domestic violence either, but the following definition will provide the reader with a description adequate enough to help determine whether she/he is a victim of domestic violence.

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse or intimate partner violence, can be broadly defined as a pattern of abusive behaviours by one or both partners in an intimate relationship such as marriage, dating, family, friends or cohabitation. Domestic violence has many forms including physical aggression (hitting, kicking, biting, shoving, restraining, slapping, throwing objects), or threats thereof; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; controlling or domineering; intimidation; stalking; passive/covert abuse (e.g., neglect); and economic deprivation.

Physical abuse is abuse involving contact intended to cause feelings of intimidation, pain, injury, or other physical suffering or bodily harm. Physical abuse includes hitting, slapping, punching, choking, pushing, and other types of contact that result in physical injury to the victim. Physical abuse can also include behaviours such as denying the victim of medical care when needed, depriving the victim of sleep or other functions necessary to live, or forcing the victim to engage in drug/alcohol use against his/her will.

Sexual abuse is any situation in which force is used to obtain participation in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity.

Emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse or mental abuse) can include humiliating the victim privately or publicly, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, implicitly blackmailing the victim by harming others when the victim expresses independence or happiness, or denying the victim access to money or other basic resources and necessities. Emotional/verbal abuse is defined as any behaviour that threatens, intimidates, undermines the victim’s self-worth or self-esteem, or controls the victim’s freedom.

Verbal abuse is a form of abusive behaviour involving the use of language. Abusers may ignore, ridicule, disrespect, and criticize others consistently; manipulate words; purposefully humiliate; falsely accuse; manipulate people to submit to undesirable behaviour; make others feel unwanted and unloved; threaten economically; place the blame and cause of the abuse on others; isolate victims from support systems; harass; demonstrate Jekyll and Hyde behaviours, either in terms of sudden rages or behavioural changes, or where there is a very different “face” shown to the outside world vs. with victim.

Economic abuse is when the abuser has control over the victim’s money and other economic resources. In its extreme (and usual) form, this involves putting the victim on a strict “allowance,” withholding money at will and forcing the victim to beg for the money until the abuser gives them some money. It is common for the victim to receive less money as the abuse continues. This also includes (but is not limited to) preventing the victim from finishing education or obtaining employment, or intentionally squandering or misusing communal resources.

If you read any portion of this passage defining domestic abuse and now recognize you are being abused, then it is time to start making some healthy choices concerning your physical and emotional well-being. Stop using excuses to diminish the reality of the abuse, like “He only hits me when he’s drunk,” or “I made him mad and deserved it,” or “He just had a hard day,” or whatever rationale you attempt to try to justify the abuse.

Come to the rally tomorrow and be a part of history as Guyana takes a stand together in unity against domestic violence. It is my hope that we can fill the renowned cricket ground with as many voices as possible to Break the Silence and Say No to Violence.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

You are not alone

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 21 November 2010)

One of the most distressing aspects about domestic violence is how isolated victims can feel from the rest of the world. Even if there are family and friends who love and care about the victim, she may still feel there is no one on earth who understands what she is going through, especially if no one steps up to intervene on her behalf.

For example, after I recently wrote about my own experience of domestic violence at the hands of my mother, I received an email from a reader saying, “I have just read your column…and it has opened up old wounds. I am currently in tears because I lived my own hell that I never thought any other child experienced at the hand of a mother.”

Living in an abusive relationship is a lonely life. There are threats of more violence if the abuse is spoken about to others, yet even when the silence is not broken, the violence continues. It is a lose/lose situation and the silence only allows the violence to continue.

When someone says that domestic violence is a “private matter,” they are completely and utterly wrong. This reckless statement is intended to absolve the speaker of responsibility to help the person being abused and to hold the abuser accountable. Moreover, dismissing domestic abuse as a “private matter” keeps the victim in her prison of silence. No leader should EVER say domestic violence is a “private matter.”
If there is one reason above all others that I am a part of the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event this Thursday at the Georgetown Cricket Club Ground, Bourda, it is because I know what it is like to suffer in silence. I know what it is like to feel isolated from the rest of the world in my own little hell and to believe there is no one else who can or will raise a finger to help me.

How many women suffer in silent torment today in Guyana? Hundreds? Thousands? Even if it is just one (though we know it is far more), that is one too many. Life is too short to spend even one day being subjected to blows, covering up the bruises, listening to the venomous words or being beaten down emotionally by psychological abuse.

We never know how many more days we have left to spend on this earth, let us not waste even one precious day in the arms of an abuser.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse, come to the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event on Thursday and see that you are not alone. There will be others to stand with you. I will be there to stand with you. If you are a survivor of domestic abuse, come and find support and healing. If you know someone who is being abused, offer to bring that person to this event as a way of taking a stand against the evil of domestic violence.

If you are neither a victim nor a survivor, nor do you know anyone who is a victim or survivor, it is important that you come to this event, too. The only way to initiate real change – the only way to stop seeing headlines of women murdered – is for every single person of excellent heart to take a stand against domestic violence.
I have already had many people give verbal commitments to be in attendance. I appreciate this since I have not asked these friends to come; they are coming to support this cause because they know just how important it is to stop the maiming and killing.

I have been writing about domestic violence since the start of my column in 2005 and yet today the situation is worse than ever. Multiple times a week there are headlines with women who die horrible deaths. This past week a 62-year-old woman was hammered to death by her own son. The time for idle talk is long past. It is time for action now.

This Thursday, the day of the big event, is the Thanksgiving Holiday in the US, a day where families gather, feast and spend the day together in thankfulness for all they have.

I have spent every single year of my life with family on Thanksgiving, but this year, I chose to spend it in here in Guyana so I can do my part to find a way to curb the violence.

Thursday is also International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In other words, when Guyana stands together at the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event – we are not alone – there will be others around the world standing in solidarity with us.

We will join our voices with brothers and sisters around the world to vehemently reject violence against women.

We cannot bring back the ones we have lost to domestic violence over the years, but we can take a stand together this week to stop the onslaught against women. Please make your commitment to come to “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” on Thursday. Bring your best friend – bring all of your friends. Bring your family members. Bring everyone – and let us do this together.

It is time to do more than just say, “We have to stop the killing.” It is time to put our words into actions. Come stand with the victims and survivors this Thursday. Look them in the eyes and tell them, “You are not alone.”

Columnist’s Note: If you have a mother, daughter, sister or someone you know who has been killed this year by domestic violence, we would like to honour her at the rally on Thursday. Send me an email so we can include her.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Well-behaved women?

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 17 November 2010)

There is a certain etiquette little girls are taught from young and they take these lessons into adulthood. For example, well-behaved women do what they are told, regardless of what they truly want to do.

Well-behaved women know to keep their mouths shut on issues of politics and other important matters that men have long managed. Well-behaved women cook dinner every day, clean the house, raise the children and are waiting at the door with a kiss when their husband comes home – not because she wants to do these things, but because society has told her that she must do these things or she is not a good woman.

For the woman who does want to be what society defines as a good woman, more power to you. But there are so many women who do not want this life and feel trapped, because this is what society still expects from them. In these women, there is potential wasted and intellect stifled. Life as one of these women is so unfulfilling.

However, the most dangerous social standard imposed on women is the one that says she must allow the man in her life to abuse her if he so desires. She is to take the blows without crying out for help. She must listen to the verbal assassinations without expecting words of love. She must resign herself to the torture of her abuser without whispering a word of dissent lest she disgrace the man.

The woman also remains silent about the abuse she receives because it will embarrass her. You see, social tradition also says that if a man beats a woman, it must be because she did something to provoke it. She was not good enough somehow. Not a good enough cook, not a good enough maid, not a good enough wife – not a good enough human.

Let’s tie this all together to get a realistic look at the world in which so many women live. Social tradition not only imposes impossibly restrictive lives on women, but in this diminutive world she is also tortured physically, verbally and emotionally – and is then too ashamed to ask for help because all of it must be her fault.

That this type of social ill still exists in 2010 is intolerable. That as a human race, half of our species is still subjected to such a deplorable quality of life is indefensible. That so many vital resources are lost because women are not allowed to reach their fullest potential is self-destructive.

I know there are some who get upset when I talk about freeing women from this unendurable lifestyle. Why mess with traditions that have worked so well for millennia? I mess with these traditions because they do not work. These traditions have enslaved and tortured half of the human population for too long and it is time for them to be obsolete.

Just because a tradition has existed for thousands of years does not make that tradition a just or good practice. Humans have long followed practices that are detrimental to the species, such as slavery, wars, human sacrifice, mass deforestation and many more. It is my opinion that the subjection of women for countless centuries is the most injurious tradition the human race has ever practiced.

My all-time favourite quote is, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I like this quote for several reasons. Firstly, it looks convention right in the face and dismisses it. Secondly, it states an important truth that women should know, because if a woman remains locked up in the small world forced upon her by patriarchy, she would rarely be able to “make history.”

Another reason I like this quote is because it challenges me to learn more, to be more and to do more. It also reminds me that I am not alone in my “misbehaving” ways since there are many, many women who have made history and are still making history even today. If it is behaving badly to ignore suffocating traditions, then so be it. I would rather die knowing I reached my fullest potential in life than to curtsy to archaic customs simply to appease some small, egotistical minds.

Another of my favourite quotes is, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life.” Women are so full of guilt all of the time. We feel guilty when the house is not clean, when the laundry is not done, if the dinner is not cooked, if we are not at the house when our teenagers get home from school. There is so much guilt because there are so many responsibilities – more than what one person should have to bear. And no woman should have to bear all these alone, regardless of what social standards say.

This quote allows me to disregard that guilt and focus on more important things than folding laundry or chopping onions. The house gets clean eventually, if not by me then by others who live in the house – and my potential is realised and I find fulfilment in ways that washing dishes will never give me.

Are women behaving badly when they want to push themselves intellectually and otherwise? No one would ever say such a thing about a man. Yet that guilt creeps up again and insists that such desires are not noble, but instead selfish. Nonsense!

Next week, on November 25, there is going to be a rally at the Georgetown Cricket Club Ground, Bourda, to support survivors and victims of domestic violence. It is being held on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to make a statement that regardless of what social tradition mandates, we will gather on that day to “Break the Silence and Say No to Violence”.

On this day, we make a stand together in unity against the violence. This is one archaic social practice that is on its way out the door.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When you attack Freddie, you attack us all

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 14 November 2010)

Yes, I was a bit more than just tickled when I saw that straight line that stopped exactly along my colleague’s fence. I laughed out loud, examined the photo some more, laughed some more and continued this process for another 10 or 15 minutes. Poor Sweet and Sensitive Freddie Kissoon.

The harsh reality, though, is that this situation is no laughing matter. The reason I laughed so much is because no one in their right mind can look at the straight line those stark photos showing Freddie’s uncut canal, after his neighbours had all been nicely cut, and say this was not intentional. If ever there was a show of someone higher up being unhappy at Freddie, this was as obvious as it can get.

Moreover, this untoward incident certainly makes it seem all the more suspicious that the attack on Freddie earlier this year also originated from higher up. And why? Because Freddie speaks his mind when he finds governmental actions to be wrong?

If America decided not to plough the snow away from in front of the houses of critical media correspondents, no one would ever be able to drive in the winter months because there are so very many critics. In Guyana, there is Freddie in the newspaper daily giving his opinion on the state of the country. Even though he has a daily column, all his columns in a year would not add up to the number of critical media reports in America in one day.

Yes, this is another barefaced attack on the freedom of press. From where ever it originated, the intent was blatantly obvious, the person who gave the original order to pass over Freddie Kissoon’s house while cleaning the canal wanted to send a message to a member of the media that he/she was not happy with what Freddie has to say.

The bigger statement is this; this is what will happen to anyone else who does what Freddie is doing. I have been focusing on women’s issues lately, especially domestic violence, because this is a topic that must be addressed to make life better for half of the world’s population. However, I cannot stay silent when freedom of the press is attacked.

It is for freedom of the press that I started writing this column in the first place. Squelching the freedom of the press goes against the very nature of democracy. Democracy demands that the press be able to operate openly and freely without censorship or interference by the government. It is quite obvious that Freddie was censored this week and for that I must speak up.

I simply do not understand why it is so difficult to allow this one man to speak his mind. It is not as if there are thousands of publically dissenting voices in Guyana. There are not even hundreds or dozens. There is Freddie and perhaps a handful of others, like Mark Benschop. Mark sometimes posts on his Facebook page that he fears a physical attack. I do not know how realistic this is because I do not live in Guyana, but he fears it nonetheless.

Here is a potent truth that some in power fail to understand. This truth surpasses all cultural divides and stands true throughout time. The more freedom of press is attacked, the more people who will stand up to defend it. If a Freddie Kissoon meets his end in any other way than a natural one, there will be five who will rise to take his place. The same is true for a Mark Benschop. I do not always agree with what these men say or how they say it, but I will defend their right to say it to the bitter end.

For example, I was minding my business and trying to help domestic violence victims and survivors, but could not ignore the call to fight when an attack was made against the press. Free speech is an essential to a quality life – as essential as breathing and eating – because when a human is forced to remain silent while feeling oppressed, that is a life not worth living. Free press is the breath and substance of a society. Without a free press in a nation, the people cannot breathe.

Another important question arising from this newest attack on Freddie Kissoon is where is the professionalism of the person who ordered this type of action? This was petty and small-minded, neither qualities of a good leader. Even as a columnist I receive critique from my readers and I must remain open to this analysis to become even better at what I do. This is true of every single person in whatever job they hold. It is an immature person who gets upset at critique and inflicts revenge. Again, not a quality of a good leader.

I stand in solidarity with my Kaieteur News family and vehemently oppose yet another attack on press freedom. When an attack is made on one agent of the press, it is an attack on all of us. If the order to skip the section of canal outside Freddie Kissoon’s home did not originate from within the ranks of the government, then the culprit who gave the order should be fired, as an example of the fact that the government does indeed value press freedom.

If the order instead originated within the government, the outcome should be the same. As a show of goodwill toward the free press of Guyana, the person who ordered the workers to skip Freddie’s yard should be made accountable for his/her actions. After all, hidden in the comical and petty action of whoever made this order, we are talking about an attack on the free press of Guyana – the breath of the nation.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Little girls for sex toys?

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 11 November 2010)

I recently posed this question on my Facebook page: It is my opinion that men who seek relations with young girls actually just want the sex without the rest of what comes with a grown woman like a thinking mind, common sense and a full knowledge of the respect due to a female. In most cases, when the young girl grows up and starts thinking for herself, she is cast aside, too. What do you think about this creepy phenomenon?

I was more than a bit surprised when there were some – male and female – who defended this paedophilic behaviour. I’m going to be brutally honest and say that if any stinky old man touched one of my daughters at such a young age, my fury would explode to the point that the world would think Armageddon had begun. There’s no way that sick pervert would escape justice.

Which brings me to what I really want to talk about in this column; mothers who allow stepfathers and boyfriends – or anyone, for that matter – to molest their young daughters. If there is anything in the world more unnatural than a man wanting to have sex with a young girl, it is a mother who will knowingly allow it to happen.

It truly baffles me that society will look at sex between two consenting adults who happen to be of the same gender as unnatural, yet the heinous act of raping a little girl is not viewed with the repulsion it deserves. In fact, all types of homophobic rhetoric is tossed about freely (which is a shame), yet when someone talks of a man who has sex with little girls, it is almost wistfully stated as if to say, “wouldn’t that be nice.”

On my scale of good and bad, 1 – 100, the best of people rating a 100 and the worst of people rating a one, a man who has sex with little girls ranks a big zero in my book. The paedophile is the worst of the worst, the scum of the earth, a person who makes thieves and corrupt politicians look like angels. That any mother could allow such filth to touch her precious daughter is utterly incomprehensible.

I have been told that it is for the sake of money that mothers allow this atrocity. Either she wants that man in her life for the money to live and eat or she allows – or even sends – her daughter to seek out men with whom she can have sex and bring the money back home.

Of all the ways in the world there are to make money, why would any mother choose this loathsome one?

In fact, as pointed out by an acquaintance of mine, if that mother has no qualms with using sex as a means for making a living, then she should be the one to do it – not her little girl. That little girl should be playing with dolls, doing her homework and giggling with other girls her age. Not being inappropriately compromised by a rank old man.

What I find interesting is that this ugly circle starts when fathers with little girls want to abandon their responsibilities at home. Mom is left to care for children without an education, a solid job, or family with the ability to help her. So mom puts her little girl out to be prostituted or she takes a lover to take care of her, but he wants to use the little girl too.

In short, dad reneges on his responsibilities with his little girl to have fun instead, and in the process, another male is having “fun” with his little girl. Now that is one very ugly circle.

Moreover, this circle has become so popular, that it is now common to see young girls dressing to attract older men, in hopes of scoring some money or an escape from poverty.

If those older men had any moral fibre in them at all, they would send those young girls home to do their homework.

That would be the honourable thing to do. Then those little girls would have no reason to be prostituting themselves and could go back to being little girls.
Instead, the men use these girls, maybe for a night, maybe for a few weeks or maybe for a couple years, but when they are done using that girl, she is discarded like so much trash. After all, let us be honest here, men who use little girls or grown women for nothing more than sex, give not a passing thought to the fact that she is a person, a human.

Here we are again – always here again – with the fact that women hold very little value in society. Women can be chased down the street with a pot full of food the man finds unacceptable for dinner or pulled down the street by her hair – both cases that I was told happened in the last month.

Women can be allowed to die in childbirth. My husband’s grandmother died in childbirth in Guyana – and 60 years later this nonsense is still happening. Women can be beat like animals and when one takes her own life because no one else saw how precious it was, everyone finally says, “What a waste.” Yet no one saw her value while she was alive.

At the end of the day, I still cannot comprehend a mother who allows a man to rape her daughter. Isn’t it bad enough that the rest of the world does not value that little girl? But to have her own mother devalue her precious life, too? There are no more words to further communicate my feelings on this matter. My heart aches for those girls.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

An interview with Minister Priya Manickchand on Domestic Violence

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 07 November 2010)

Stella Ramsaroop (SR): Because of its depth of brutality and suffering, the Neesa Gopaul case created an unprecedented outcry from the public. As such, your Ministry, as well as yourself, were under extreme pressure to explain how the system failed Neesa on many levels. What steps have you and your Ministry taken to ensure another Neesa does not fall through the cracks?

Priya Manickchand (PM): Let me first say that I was absolutely encouraged by the public outcry that was made after Neesa’s murder. I felt encouraged and inspired by that outcry as child abuse and abuse of women is so often met with apathy from society in general that that alone sometimes is daunting.
To say that we were pressured into explaining where the system failed suggests that we weren’t willing to so determine in the first place and that does not reflect reality. As soon as I learnt that a child, whose matter had engaged the attention of the Child Care and Protection Agency, had died in such brutal circumstances, I launched an investigation because we just had to know if the system had erred, where and why it erred and how we were going to attempt to prevent this from happening again.
The investigation found that there was negligence on the part of some officers and recommended that disciplinary action be taken, including the dismissal of two officers, one of whom was a very senior person.
There were also recommendations to establish a management information system, house the agency in a separate building where accommodations are more conducive to fulfilling the mandate of the agency and increase the complement of staff.
Serious work has begun in all these areas. I have to note though, that policy-wise everything was in place for something like this not to have happened. Manuals and protocols are written, training on said manuals done and officers at the agency do only child protection work as compared to other offices in the Ministry who do general duties which include so much that their expertise is sometimes stretched.
It is incumbent on officers to do what is required of them, not be lazy or ignorant of laws and/or best practice when dealing with the nation’s children. If this does not happen, if officers do not do what they have sworn to do, what they are paid to do, then we cannot ensure that this does not happen again.
We can minimise the likelihood by tightening on supervision and every effort is being made to do this, but supervisors would still have to rely on the judgment of officers and so, as much as it may not be prudent for me to say it, it would be misleading for me to say that something like this would absolutely never happen again. What we have to do is put in place enough measures to catch a lack of follow-up on a particular matter before it becomes too late.
As you would know this sort of horror obtains in many other countries that have services far more advanced in experience as well as resources than we do. Guyana faces the same challenges those other countries face in their child protective services and while we have far less resources than most of those other countries, we are well on the way to putting those preventive measures in place.

SR: As Guyana transitions from a culture where domestic violence was at the very least a private issue, if not socially acceptable, to a society that now incarcerates abusers, there will be many abusers who should receive professional counselling to help them make the psychological adjustments needed to accept this new reality. Does your ministry offer this type of counselling for abusers?

PM: In 2008, we published a National Policy on Domestic Violence titled “Break the Cycle, Take Control.” It is a five-year policy. We have stated that one of the issues that must be confronted and offered is counselling for perpetrators, but we were clear that in no way should that interfere with the policy to first address the safety of the complainant.
Ever since we published that policy, in collaboration with several NGO’s, we have done very necessary things under the policy. For example, we have expanded Legal Aid services to six (as opposed to 1) regions of Guyana, we have provided funding to ensure a shelter stays open and available to victims of violence and their children, we have published protocols that would be needed by the police, prosecutors, magistrates and social workers, we have trained service providers who are to use those protocols. These are all actions more aimed at assisting the victims and their children.
Presently, if perpetrators request counselling then it is offered, but I have to say no aggressive program has been established as yet to address the needs of the abusers. We are strategically employing resources to address the needs of the many victims. We are about, however, to officially launch a Men’s Affairs Bureau. The establishment of this bureau was born of the recognition that in this whole effort to address violence against women, we were perhaps failing to address a necessary component, the men – who are in most cases, the abusers – thus making our efforts less than holistic.
One of the mandates of this Bureau, which has begun its work, will be to advise on and implement programs that could address the men of our country in issues that are topical and, of course, with a mandate like that, Domestic Violence, its causes, perpetrators, consequences and solutions would have to be addressed. I am aware that this Bureau is already working on partaking actively in a national campaign that the Ministry is about to start. Their focus will be on men.

SR: What are the specific laws in Guyana that protect women who are in abusive relationships?

PM: There are several pieces of legislation that could be utilised by the service providers, the police, social workers, teachers, etc., to protect women in abusive relationships.
The very important law in this regard though is the 1996 Domestic Violence Act. It is an extremely comprehensive piece of legislation that provides for protection in very many forms as well for other types of relief that are needed if a victim is to successfully flee an abusive relationship.
This Act provides for the making of protection orders, occupation orders and tenancy orders. A protection order would ordinarily have in its terms provisions that seek to protect the complainant/victim. A typical order is one that prohibits the respondent/abuser from going to within a stated number of yards of the complainant/victim.
An occupation order allows for a complainant/victim to occupy premises to the exclusion of the respondent/abuser. It matters not who owns the premises, so the premises could be in the sole name of the abuser, given to him by his parents or bought by him and an order could still be made that the victim occupy the premises alone and that the respondent/abuser move out.
A tenancy order allows for the complainant/victim to have a tenancy transferred into her name and for her to become the sole tenant irrespective of who initially was the tenant and for her to occupy to the exclusion of the respondent/abuser. Additionally, the Act provides for maintenance and custody orders. So a court can order that the abuser move out of a home that belongs to him, leave the victim complainant with the children and pay maintenance and/or rent for the victim and children so that she can survive.
Applications to the Court do not have to be made by a lawyer, but lawyers are available through the Legal Aid Clinic in regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10. The Court is duty bound to consider the application within one week of it being filed. There are still challenges with getting this Act implemented in the way that I believe our lawmakers intended it to be implemented and daily efforts are being made by the Government as well as by many NGOs to ensure this Act is properly implemented. Attitudes of service providers have to be constantly worked on.

SR: It is alarming that women are now killing themselves to escape domestic violence. What would you say to any reader who might be contemplating the same course of action?

PM: Don’t do it! Help can be sought and obtained from any of the many Human Services offices in the regions or from NGOs such as Help and Shelter and the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic. Political Parties, particularly their women’s arms could also provide access to help. The very many police stations all over the country could also offer help to get out of abusive relationships and any or all of these means should be utilised.

SR: Until recently, domestic violence has been viewed as a private matter and though neighbours and family may know and talk about the abuse, seldom would anyone intervene or call for law enforcement. It seems the Neesa Gopaul case has opened the eyes of many to the responsibility each of us has to stop domestic violence. However, for those who might want to revert to traditional social norms and restrain themselves from responding when a neighbour or family member is being abused, how would you persuade them to perform their civic duty?

PM: I am frequently perturbed by the inaction on the parts of family members and neighbours in assisting victims of violence. If for no other reason, everyone has to get involved in this struggle because it directly touches and concerns all. If our women cannot be all that they can be, and if they cannot live to contribute, then we are dooming our entire country to a slower pace of development. And that would directly affect persons who believe they can hold themselves aloof and apart from the violence happening in their neighbour’s house. The neighbours and family members of those women who were killed by their partners would all tell you they never really expected that the abuse would reach those levels, that it would result in murder.
I beg everyone to see every bit of abuse against any woman as one that will lead to death and get involved and call for help to stop another murder of another Guyanese woman. See that as your effort not only to do your human duty by saving a life, but also as your patriotic duty to prevent another of our resources going down the drain wastefully. See that as your duty to your own children because it is if you help to save our resources then your own children will benefit from a country with more resources.
Sometimes I get the impression that persons believe that if they step in and the victim herself doesn’t want them to do so, they would be wasting time. This is not true. Even if the matter does not reach the court much work can be done with the victim to make sure she is safe and to convince her to seek better for herself.

SR: What should a victim of domestic violence do if she/he goes to law enforcement for protection and is turned away without any help?

PM: If this happens, then it should immediately be brought to the attention of another authority. A complaint to any of the offices of the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security would see assistance being offered to that victim.
But I urge all persons, too, to be aware of their rights. Know that the Police must help you when you make a complaint and insist that you get that help. Know the various actions the police may take and advise them if necessary about these actions. Insist that you get help!

SR: Domestic abuse is oft times debilitating for the victim. Although victims may know it is vital to find a way to escape the abuse – fear of the abuser, cultural socialisation and financial circumstances can cause victims to hesitate in finding the help and protection they require. What advice would you give to victims who feel they could be the next one to die at the hands of their abuser?

PM: I know just how hard it is for victims to even see the need to get help and then for them to seek to get that help. It is hard because in almost all these circumstances victims are seeking help from that very person they believe themselves to be in love with and who they expected would look after them and love and protect them for the rest of their lives.
This is never going to be an easy decision, but I say to any victim that you can and should imagine yourself to be the next woman killed by your abusive partner. I am sure many of the women who were killed did not believe their abuse would lead to their death. They didn’t think it would go that far.
Leaving is not going to be easy. It is going to require resolve and strength and a decision to make sacrifices that I know women have in them. Financially things may be harder. Socially there may be some who ridicule you for leaving. Your children may begin to miss their dad. But if you believe you are in danger, you have to get out!
There are many ways you can be protected from your partner, financial help is available and society is learning that this is the only course of action for victims of violence.
The Government stands ready to assist in any way that is needed and I beg all women who believe they could be the next one to die to leave now. Wait not on another night. It may be your last.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Political campaign strategies must address position on domestic violence

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 03 November 2010)

It goes without saying that as the election season gets into full swing, any party that does not have domestic violence at the top of its campaign blueprint should not be considered as a viable choice at the polls. Domestic violence is one of the top national issues that has plagued Guyana for years now and is slowly, but surely, killing off the women of the nation.

If there were a medical disease that killed off as many women in Guyana as domestic violence has in the past decade, there would have long ago been calls from every section of society to find a way to cure the disease that brings so many horrid and painful deaths.

But alas, this is not a medical disease that has been killing the women folk. It is a social disease. This disease steals a woman’s self-confidence and joy, then replaces it with fear and pain. There are physical signs of this disease as well. Bruises, bumps, blood and swelling. Slowly, each day, the disease works itself throughout the woman’s entire body so that all that she knows is the disease and fear, until one day when that disease takes her life.

The silence that has overshadowed this disease is like a dark cloud that never leaves the sky. So many have turned their eyes away from the disease and pretended it was not there. But it is now clear that pretending it does not exist will not make it go away. Just like a medical disease, there must be research to discover what causes it, methods of treatment considered and decided upon, and preventative measures taken to prevent future outbreaks of the disease.

This is where politicians come into the picture. The chosen leaders of a country are where the people turn for help in combating diseases. If Guyana were hit with an outbreak of cholera, the government would need to act swiftly to minimise the loss of life. It is at such times that we see the mettle of a leader. Domestic violence is one issue that will test even the best of leaders, even the most caring of leaders.

As in the last election, I choose to be neutral in my columns on which party I view as best suited to govern the nation for the next five years. However, I can say from the get-go that any party that does not have a comprehensive framework assembled to address domestic violence once in government would never, ever get my support.

Here is a good rule of thumb; if a candidate has a reputation for disregard toward women, is a known wife abuser and/or has been seen around town with young girls – that candidate is no more a fitting leader than a stray dog. The truly sad part is that too many of the current or wannabe leaders fall into one or more of these categories. Keep your eyes open, dear reader, and make wise choices as to who should lead the country.

I have already spoken of how religious leaders who do not stand up against the wickedness of domestic abuse are not representing God here on earth. Likewise, if a political leader does not take a strong stand against this evil, they have no right whatsoever to represent the best interest of the people in a political office. Moreover, if a political leader embraces the evil and is an abuser, he belongs in a prison cell – not a political office.

There has been a recent change in the way society views domestic violence. I believe it is because of the brutality of the Neesa Gopaul case, but whatever the reason, the public is starting to take a stand against this social evil. There are now demands for accountability and justice. This change seems to acknowledge the fact that domestic violence is not a private matter, but a very public issue that requires public intervention to protect the women and children.

However, it is ludicrous to think that any politician that demeans and degrades women cares one iota about protecting women. Sure, some of these politicians may clean up well and put on an angelic face to fool the voters into believing they care, but actions speak louder than words and if these candidates have a reputation for abuse, that should be the voters’ criteria concerning the domestic abuse issue and nothing more.

Because, let’s be honest, if a candidate uses women for sex and then tosses them aside, if he has ever been verbally, mentally or physically abusive to his wife or any other woman, if he runs around with little girls and uses their bodies before they are physically or mentally ready to be used – that candidate will only be able to pretend to be an angel for so long before the real devil shows back up – and we certainly do not want that person to be a leader in the nation when the devil’s horns do reappear.

A politician’s reputation precedes her/him. All the way here in Texas, I hear about all kinds of things – the good and the bad, but mostly the bad, of course. I can only imagine the things I would hear if I lived in Guyana. Guyana is a small nation and it seems everyone knows everyone else’s business. As such, it should not be too difficult to decide which leaders would bring more tragedy to the women folk and which ones would find a way to eradicate domestic violence once and for all.

The nation’s religious leaders have stepped up and taken a strong stance against domestic violence. Now let’s see if the nation’s politicians will do the same during this election season.