(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.