Sunday, August 19, 2012

Our justice system is turning victims into criminals

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 30 June 2012)

I have lamented time and time again about how victims of domestic violence have nowhere to turn for protection in Guyana. When they finally get the nerve to go to law enforcement for help, they are told it is a private matter and to go back to their abusers, where the violence continues and where some even die.
Even when law enforcement does do something about the abuser, getting a conviction is another story. Far too often, files are “lost” and money is exchanged for justice. Moreover, the government remains impotent on this issue as long as they cannot find the will to ensure the enforcement of the laws it created to make domestic violence a crime.
It was only a matter of time before women started to do whatever it took to protect themselves. However, it seems that as victims of abuse start defending themselves, they are being arrested, charged and fined for trying to stay alive and safe from harm.
This week, a victim of domestic violence for 17 years was in court for hitting her husband with a rolling pin, after he twisted her arm, which was just out of a cast. He also threatened to twist it more when she would not give him the cell phone that belonged to their son. (Is anyone else wondering how her arm was broken in the first place?)
Here is what the Stabroek News article from June 26 said:
“She explained that the reason why she hit her reputed husband with the rolling pin was because he held on to her hand which was broken. She explained that the cast had been taken off her arm only two days before the incident and the only means to get the virtual complainant (VC) to let go of her arm was to hit him with the rolling pin…
“She said she pleaded with the man to stop holding on to her arm as he might cause it to break again but he responded by saying that he would ‘break all two.’ The defendant, who said the man hits her, then broke down in tears saying: ‘I put up with he for 17 years and this is how he repaying me.’ She said she has suffered blows at the hands of the man on many occasions.”
According to the article, the magistrate asked the woman if she had ever reported the abuse and the woman said she had not, at which point the magistrate pointed out that the man had “no hesitation in reporting the matter against her.”
The woman admitted that she had assaulted her husband, but in my opinion, this was an act of defending oneself. He is clearly the one who inflicted violence upon the woman first, she asked him to stop, he did not stop and instead threatened additional violence, she then took defensive measures to ensure her safety. I do not see any criminal act on her part at all.

Why on earth was this woman arrested? Why was she in court? Why was she fined? How ironic is it that the law enforcement officer who arrested her did not send the husband back home with a patronising, “It’s a private matter, go back to your wife.”
What was this woman supposed to do? She had nowhere to turn and her safety was at stake. This utter frustration is exactly why the tone has changed when it comes to how society views victims of abuse. The widespread exasperation caused by the injustice these women face is so overwhelming that many victims are starting to take matters into their own hands – and they are being encouraged to do so by even good-hearted members of the community.
I have heard and seen numerous statements, from both women and men, saying it is time to “lock and load.” In short, the victims are being encouraged to defend themselves because no one else in society will protect them. This is not the best way to handle the situation, but what other recourse do these women have? They have nowhere else to turn.
On May 26, Stabroek News ran a letter from 24 women in Lethem who were begging for someone to do something about a serial rapist in that area. The letter said:
“We are a group of women who are concerned for our girl children in Lethem, Tabatinga and St Ignatius. This is so because there is a rapist whose identity is known in the region.
“There is a child in St Ignatius who is pregnant for him. There is another child who was forced to have an abortion in Georgetown. There are several other girl children who have suffered as well. We have been afraid to come forward because the man has money and friends in high places, and we felt that we were no match for him…
“We are calling on the authorities to carry out an extensive investigation because we feel that this man will not stop and may try to threaten the victims. We are also asking the various organizations in Georgetown to assist us, like the Red Thread and the Commission on the Rights of the Child. Our children need counselling and protection.”
Girls and women are being raped, tortured and murdered and no one—I repeat, NO ONE—is protecting them. I know firsthand how law enforcement turned a blind eye to a murderer as he walked freely around a village where the family of the woman he murdered lived. I have seen injustice upon injustice heaped upon women and now it seems that if women defend themselves, they are the ones who are arrested! The abuser goes free. Sexist and corrupt law enforcement officers go free. The impotent government goes free. It is the victim who is considered a criminal for defending herself.
This whole situation—the continued violence, the sexist law enforcement officers, the impotent government and the incessant injustice meted out to women—has reached a boiling point. Women are refusing to be punching bags. They are refusing to stay silent while their daughters are raped. They are ready to fight back.
It should not happen this way. Women should not have to become the very animals they so despise to stay alive and safe. I never condone violence as an answer to violence, but there simply does not seem to be any other way. Here’s hoping someone can offer other options very soon, like maybe a law enforcement and judicial system that actually protects victims.

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