This is a continuation of my last post, 'System Failure,' addressing the issue of Domestic Violence in Trinidad & Tobago. My hope is that if we persist in shining a light here, refusing to let it be swept under the rug of deliberate ignorance any longer, it will effect some positive change.
A couple of comments on my last post addressed the fact that my post didn't deal with the men and children who are also victims of domestic abuse. And they're right... it didn't. 'System Failure', as the title identified, dealt with one thing -- how the system fails the victims -- because I believe it is a significant contributing factor to the prevalence of the problem. I know that women are not the only victims of this crime and men not the only abusers. And as a survivor of childhood domestic violence myself, I know that aspect all too well. There is also not just one cause or one solution. There is just no way to adequately treat with every single aspect of domestic violence in one post. The stories related were all from women simply because they were willing to share their experiences dealing with the system. Men not so much, and as incomplete and unreliable as the available data is for women, there is even less available for men. But I will continue to write the stories that I can write, such as that of Antonia, to highlight this dire problem.
T&T is a wealthy country, due to its rich oil and natural gas reserves, with a small population (≈1.341 million). Yet the UNDP puts the poverty rate at 16.7 percent and the National Report for Trinidad and Tobago Civil Society's Review of the Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)reports that more than 20 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and the social support services which those living below the poverty line desperately need are both inadequate and difficult to access. Antonia's life began in circumstances that are sadly very common in those circumstances.
She was born to a young, unemployed, unwed mother, neither the first nor the last for various fathers, none of whom stuck around. Most children born into these circumstances never escape... the cycle just continues on into future generations. Antonia was one of the 'luckier' ones. Her father, who'd dropped by for another "visit" when she was 5-months-old, found the baby alone in the house and was struck with enough conscience as to not leave her there. Antonia thus grew up with her father, never even setting eyes on her mother again until she was 11-years-old, but he was a good father and Antonia had a very happy life with him until he eventually got married when she was 8-years-old and other children were born. After that, in a "Cinderella-esque" twist, her clothes and shoes got worn down to bare threads while her stepbrothers got new things at every opportunity, unbeknownst to her father. Fearing for his health because he suffered with high blood pressure, Antonia never complained about the unfair treatment.
When she was 12-years-old, her stepmother took the children on vacation to Barbados, where her family lived. One night her stepmother's uncle caught her alone and sexually molested her. Terrified into silence, Antonia never said a word until a year later, when she could no longer hold it inside. She told her stepmother, but she begged Antonia not to say anything to her father, telling her that the shock might kill him or he might kill her uncle and go to jail.
There was nowhere else for her to turn... no school counselors or public awareness campaigns to guide those who need it to help. She did the only thing she could do: bury the memory, the hurt, and the shame deep inside. She couldn't know that nothing can keep that kind of poison contained... the already difficult relationship with her stepmother turned toxic. Unable to deal with the tension at home any longer she ran away at 16, back to the mother she barely knew simply because there was nowhere else to go. Her mother lived with her own mother, Antonia's grandmother, but instead of help or solace Antonia only found a distant, strained and resentful tolerance ... she was an unwelcome stranger.
She was easy-pickings for Jason. He was twice her age and drove a taxi on her school route. He always bought her little gifts "to make her feel special", unlike any of the other people in her life. Her grandmother warned her that he would beat her but Antonia only saw it as more resentment... something she was now accustomed to from the women in her life. When she refused to stop seeing him, her grandmother put her out, and she moved in with Jason.
The first time he hit her she was 18, pregnant and fully dependent on him. Afterwards he would say that he was sorry but that it was her causing him to do it. With nowhere left to go, all she could do was keep trying harder not to do anything to anger him, but it never stopped. I asker her if she could remember what she thought about her life. "It was what it was", she says, "normal, for some people". When I asked her why she would think that that was 'normal', she said that her neighbour used to get a beating from her husband every so often too, and at the top of the hill there was a policeman who used to hit his wife nearly every day (that, in fact, was the reason she never went to the police).
One day she accidently found the key to a suitcase Jason always kept locked. In it was a pile of paper: court documents, summons, newspaper clippings, etc., about an on-going court case involving her husband and the woman who had previously occupied her place... she had been repeatedly stabbed by him but had survived, and he was now facing charges for the attack.
She never said a word, she just put the key back, and he escaped conviction for the crime.
One night he took her to a movie, a rare treat. Halfway into the show he left to "make a call". She sat there until the show was over, and then waited outside as moviegoers poured out. She waited until she was standing alone on the deserted street. He never came back. With no money and no phone, she did the only thing she could think to do... she began to walk back home, a distance of more than 10 miles. She was 6 months pregnant. The road eventually left the lit streets of the town and snaked its way through menacingly dark cane-fields. Terrified, exhausted, cold and straining with the weight of her heavy belly, she was nearly passing out when a car pulled up alongside. An older man sat inside, asking what she was doing walking alone on the road in the dead of night. He claimed he was a policeman, and said he would take her home. When she got into the car, instead of staying on the main road he took her further into the cane-field, his intent clearly obvious.
Amazingly, Antonia was able to think fast enough to save herself. Very calmly she told him that if he took her home there would be a bed instead of a dirty ground and no one was home. Unbelievably, he agreed. When they got there, Jason's car was parked in the yard. Antonia just knew there was a woman there too. Holding her pregnant belly, she bolted from the car, ran around to the back of the house, climbed over a fence into her neighbour's yard and hid in the darkness until the car drove off. She spent the rest of the night sitting outside of the house, hearing the sounds of her husband and the woman coming from her bedroom. When the sun came up, Jason and the woman came out... it was the very same woman he was accused of nearly killing. They got into the car and drove off, and she went inside and cried herself to sleep, a merciful respite from the dawning realization that her life, far from being "normal", was a living hell.
She never knew about shelters or safe houses, or Police Victim Support units. No one ever extended a helping hand to her. She would visit her father whenever she could but she was still "protecting" him by hiding the welts and bruises. She got a job to earn a little money of her own but Jason made her stop. He never hit the children, but they were a constant witness to his abuse. One time her 15-month-old baby boy lay himself over his mother's prone body when his father was about to deliver yet another blow.
[This is the only point in our interview that Antonia begins to shed quiet tears].
She says, "more than ten years of verbal, physical and mental abuse ended only because the last time he beat me I started to haemorrhage. I thought it was my period but a neighbour who was a nurse saw me and said that I was looking very sick. I told her I was having my period but she saw the blood, and told me I was haemorrhaging". That was the moment that Antonia finally knew without any doubt that she would die at this man's hands if she didn't get out.
She had to make the agonizing decision to leave her children in order to get help but knew that as soon as he realized she was gone for good Jason would abandon the children and she would get them back. On January 24, 1991, with nothing but the clothes she wore, she left and went to her father. Shocked and angered, her father saved her once again, but only when she promised that she would never go back. He bought her a plane ticket and on May 7, 1991 she was on her way to the U.S. to stay with some people he knew. As she knew would happen, Jason finally abandoned his attempts to find her and dropped the children off at her father's house. Before he drove off, he maliciously told her father about the sexual molestation in Barbados, saying that it was Antonia who was messed up, not him. That final cruelty may have caused her father to suffer a mild stroke.
Antonia, though, made sure that his sacrifice was not in vain. She found work as housekeeper, sending money home for the children's care, and went back to school at night. The church that she began to attend applied for regularization of her legal status in the U.S. and when that was successfully completed began the process for her children too. She went on to earn a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice and then a Master's in Administration of Justice and Security and is now a social worker subcontracted by the U.S. Child Protective Services. She also works with an organization called Growing Home South East whose theme is 'Building Families for the Future'. She is using her life experience to help others caught up in the same dreadful cycle, something that she had needed so badly herself and never got. That is the immense potential that always lay inside that frightened, hurting, terribly abused child/woman, but it's the country that helped her that is benefitting from it... she has never returned to live in Trinidad.
Antonia's is an astounding story of survival and success in the face of dire odds. Many don't survive. In 2009, one of her stepsisters was murdered in Trinidad, a victim of domestic violence at the hands of a police officer.
In 2009, then Leader of Government Business Conrad Enill noted that the number of deaths resulting from domestic violence for the years 2004 to 2008 had quadrupled: 9, 26, 32, 17 and 36 respectively. The U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011 for Trinidad and Tobago reports that, though reliable statistics on domestic violence remain unavailable, women's groups' findings state that 20-25% of women suffered abuse during that year (US 24 May 2012, Sec. 6), and the Network of NGOs for the advancement of women have recorded 20 deaths from domestic violence so far for 2014. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR describes the situation of domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago as a "significant" problem (UN 25 July 2011, para. 26).
Next post -- change is possible.