Trinidad & Tobago faces a dire situation when it comes to the incidence of domestic violence. The number of brutal, and at times fatal, attacks on women and children are alarming. According to Margaret Sampson-Browne, head of the Police Victim Support Unit, over 300 women and children have died as a result of domestic violence since the Domestic Violence Act, Chapter 45:56, was enacted in 1999. One 2012 newspaper report quotes Chief Magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar as saying that in the 2009/2010 law term 12,106 new domestic violence applications were filed in that period alone.
A major contributing factor to the prevalence of this scourge can be found in the failure of those mandated to protect the victims. Many incidents are not even reported because of the lack of confidence in 'the system' and the fear of even further acts of vengeance as perpetrators remain free.
According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women website, strategies have been introduced across the Caribbean to end domestic violence, including increasing state capacity and accountability through law reform and police training; providing shelters and hotline services; promoting zero tolerance of the widespread cultural acceptance of gender-based violence, and enhancing men's role as advocates against violence. But these strategies are either not being implemented or just not as effective as they should be.
For the victims, they are certainly not effective enough.
It also says that since 1992 there have been developments in the region's legislative system specifically geared towards enhancing the power of the courts, via protection orders, and the police to both prevent domestic violence and to protect suspected victims. It has been made mandatory for police to provide detailed reports on all allegations received, and even apply for protection orders on behalf of children or abused spouses or partners (some territories even giving police the power to arrest without warrant), but the harsh light of reality reveals a far different scenario for those seeking help. In some cases the very lack of swift and just action from the police serves to further embolden the abusers, and that fear prevents many victims from taking any action at all, and the cycle of abuse goes on, reaching into future generations.
I myself, as a witness in a DV case, have experienced the dismissive and patronizing attitude of the police. I have reported threatening behavior and harassment many times, and yet the perpetrator still walks free and continues to abuse, even within the walls of the very court itself, in the presence of his lawyer.
Another woman speaks of both public and private abuse even with a standing protection order, of going through the tedious process of obtaining summons and numerous visits to the police station to have them served, of court appearances stretching out into weeks, months, even years. She is the victim, yet all of the responsibility of making the abuser pay for his actions falls on her shoulders.
Another young mother speaks of the process as a completely dis-empowering experience, where she has been emotionally, mentally and financially victimized not just by her ex-husband, who abandoned family and home for another woman, but also by the courts, police and justice system on the whole.
A strong and intelligent woman, she expresses her own frustration:
"For years I have been at the mercy of a bully who has used every emotional and physical weapon he has to destabilize me, the mother of his children. He has kept our children beyond the agreed time on many occasions, twice during an interim court order, with no consequence. Having gotten away with it, he feels empowered to do it again and again. And everything in the legal system shuts down when court closes for vacation...only if it is deemed 'urgent' will a judge be called upon to give an order. By that time weeks have passed, the act has already been committed and there is no recourse. Nothing is done. One would assume that as a mother whose children have not returned home at the agreed time, I should be able to call the police and get some help. Instead I am told "M'am, he is de chile father right...he ain't go hurt he own children...what you worried about."
If a document has to be served, the system doesn't help because their bailiffs work only when they choose. I have to find another $750 for a private bailiff, who then relies on ME to find out when and where my ex-husband will be so that he can deliver the document. Once again, time is passing, the frustration is all on me, not him, and my children suffer more. He actually uses the inefficiency of the system to get away with his actions.
Despite having done everything: gone through the process, hearings and trial, I still have not been paid the agreed monthly child support, still can't rely on the interim court orders we have, still have to put up with this man's treatment of me, and the police still fail to get involved when they need to. I am still waiting for 'the system' to work for me. I do not fight for myself, it is for the protection and care of our children. Why has the system failed me?"
And all of these experiences are from middle-class women.... educated, independent, resourceful, intelligent, capable women, who have jobs, social lives, networks of family & friends. What of the women who live in far worse circumstances, with far less means and resources? You don't have to stretch your imagination to know ... just read the newspaper on any given day. You get attention when you either die or kill an abuser. In a small and wealthy country, with a woman as Prime Minister, this is completely unacceptable.
There are support organizations in place, even the Victim Support Unit of the police service itself, but it is quite clear that there is only so much they can do. The system needs to work to support their efforts. What the UN Women's site claims is happening needs to actually happen and we need to stop ignoring the fact the it is the very failure of the system that allows this scourge to exist to the extent that it does.