Post 380.

Decades of advocacy to end gender-based violence have led to some changes worth commending. The latest step is the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill which expands protections for children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and some dating and visiting relationships. 

Debated in the Senate on Monday, it was assuring to see support on both sides for preventing domestic violence and protecting victims. Senator Wade Mark himself mentioned that amendments proposed by the UNC in 1999, which would have allowed police to enter a home without a warrant to stop domestic violence, were not supported. Over twenty years, global and regional advocacy continued to press for a response that prevents and protects, changing legislation all over the world, creating new norms, and making this the now accepted and required response. 

The Bill also removes the need to preserve the institution of marriage from the Court’s consideration in determining the terms of a protection order. After decades of women being told by police and magistrates to try to make a violent relationship work, for the sake of marriage and family, advocacy also created greater recognition that this repugnant norm should no longer have legal teeth. 

In their speeches, Senators, Khadijah Ameen, Hazel Thompson-Ahye, Sophia Chote, Anthony Vieira and Charrisse Seepersad, spoke in favour of expanding protection to those adults sharing a home who are not related by consanguinity or affinity, meaning blood or marriage. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender Based Violence has argued such expanded protection would reflect the diversity of those sharing domestic spaces today. In the oncoming economic contraction, many unrelated persons will have to share homes as they are less able to afford rent or expenses on their own. All persons who ordinarily or periodically reside in the same dwelling deserve equal access to protection by law from domestic violence.

The AG described this as a “Pandora’s Box”. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box released great and unexpected troubles on the world when opened. “How will we draw a line on who is a member of a household?”, he asked. So, the brouhaha is not over provisions, but over definitions. 

Here, the role of legislators is not to determine which consenting adults can or cannot be members of a household, but to protect those who are. This is why Colin Robinson, in his column, argued that “member of a household” could simply be changed from “a person who habitually resides in the same dwelling house as the applicant or the respondent and is related to the applicant or respondent by blood, marriage or adoption” to a person who shares the house and/or is related by blood, marriage or adoption. It’s hyperbole by the AG to make inclusion of an ‘or’ the cause of many unforeseen problems. 

The consequences are well-foreseen by the AG, and they relate to changes to what he has identified as 23 pieces of legislation, such as related to immigration, sexual offenses and children.  He’s repeatedly said he is “urgently” waiting for Jones v. TT to be decided by the Privy Council so he can get guidance on amending these laws. 

This is a bit of balderdash. The AG can amend all these laws without waiting for the judgment, and Parliament has the authority to pass all such amendments if it boldly chooses the right side of history. 

A Privy Council decision will compel the AG to make those changes. It will lord over any legal challenges, protecting him from having to defend these evolving norms himself. The Pandora’s Box isn’t ours, and it isn’t about legal conundrums. It is his, and it is entirely political. 

Senators were not oblivious to this, nor to their own parties’ complicity, which is why recommendations to expand protection were voted against by 16 PNM senators with 9 UNC senators abstaining, and only 4 Independent Senators, Anthony Vieira, Paul Richards, Sophia Choate and Charisse Seepersad, voting in favour.  

Yet, the call for a larger definition of “member of household” is not only about same-sex relationships. What we watched on Monday was the way that intent to deny protection to those relationships left others also excluded. It shows our deep interconnection with each other, and the jeopardy of thinking some can be denied rights without consequences for us all. 

The Pandora’s Box isn’t the risk of opening broad inclusion of domestic relationships. It is the release of the harms of discrimination, of sacrifice of some citizens for votes, of cowardice by representatives who well know what is right.  

In the Greek story, all that was left in the box was Hope. So, we continue to advocate for state response to all victims’ needs, and for a culture of tolerance, rights and peace, knowing that this is what we must do so legislators that today deny necessary provisions, tomorrow will agree.

Post 379.

When a woman experiences partner violence, her neighbours, friends and family can report even if she does not. Often, neighbours and families witness or experience violence or its threat because of their relationship or proximity to a victim. The more we all report is the more we empower police to respond and can hold them accountable for doing so.  

Reports of domestic violence do not require women to seek a protection order to ensure their safety. Threats and violence by partners and relatives are also criminal offenses, and police can immediately investigate and charge perpetrators.  

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence has stated, “It is time that the police develop and implement a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. If a serious offense has been committed or is threatened, the police must act independently, whether the victim cooperates or not”. 

Proposed amendments to the Domestic Violence Act include provisions for undertaking risk assessments. Upon reports being made, a risk assessment should be undertaken so that police can predict whether lethal harm is likely. A protocol should then be in place which connects with the courts, psychiatric intervention, and social services.  Police should also check perpetrators’ history of violence.

As Conflict Women’s recent press release reminded, Michael Maynard was charged with rape and released on bail in 2018. In February this year, after a history of violence, he killed his 8-year old daughter, Makeisha.  In response to a report by her mother, police were willing to go with Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass to remove her belongings from the house. The TTPS press release states, “She never did, but instead, moved back into the same home with her spouse until her death on June 9th”. 

Perpetrators, not victims, should be removed from a home. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that leaving a home does not guarantee that violence will end. Women are at greater risk when they begin to leave or have left, and threats and intimidation continue long after they attempt to end relationships. 

In the case of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, she was fearful of a partner who killed one woman already. It had been years of torture. Her family was also vulnerable. Such terror can lead women to return to abusive partners repeatedly. 

Love, hope, forgiveness, guilt, loss of self and self-blame are always enmeshed in such decisions, but such complexity should never distract from the fact that responsibility for violence always lies with the perpetrator and, in many cases, his controlling practices, his beliefs in traditional gender roles and male dominance, his history of witnessing, experiencing or expressing violence, and triggers such as substance abuse.  

The proposed amendments also allow police to seek emergency protection orders electronically through judicial officers, enabling them to be granted quickly. They allow Interim Orders to be granted after the second hearing where adjournments are being sought by the court and/or respondent.  In 2017-2018, over one-third of more than 9000 applications were dismissed, 72% of adjournments were related to the unavailability of the magistrate, and only 29% resulted in a protection order. 

The amendments address the needs of victims who appear repeatedly at court and leave without even protection on paper. Expanded beyond cohabitation and marriage, the amended legislation will enable some persons in visiting and dating relationships to seek protection orders.

There are expanded protections for children, including those who are witnesses to domestic violence. Mandatory reporting to police is now required if domestic violence is being perpetrated against vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities. Such reports should also be able to be made to the Division of Family Services and Children’s Authority. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender-based Violence, comprising over 20 civil society organisations, including The UWI, continues to call for the amendments to protect all persons who experience violence in a domestic context, regardless of family status or gender. To continue to exclude some from protection is to define who can share domestic space or have relationships. That is not the point of the DV Act. It should provide protection without discrimination. 

My condolences to the family of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, 37 years old and mother of one. We should all commit to preventing such violence in whatever way we can. These amendments will be debated in Parliament next week.

The GBV Unit and Special Victims Department are important, but as yet underfunded, steps in the right direction. Where police and judiciary can improve, the only headlines should be about how much is possible and how soon.