Post 430.

WE TALK about how times change, but not enough about the people who change our times. So much has evolved in terms of legislation, social norms and our recognition of women’s rights. Yet, we often forget the names of the women and men who imagined, created, implemented and defended those changes.

Remembering them recognises that it takes labour, commitment, strategy and collaboration to achieve the smallest of gains. Often, it requires countering opposition from those who would hold an unequal status quo in place. Knowing that these individuals achieved landmark social shifts cautions us to not give up, for we have inherited a legacy in which women’s organising and voices have changed our world.

On August 16, 1991, the Domestic Violence Act came into effect, the first in the Caricom region. Following years of advocacy by the women’s movement, this act established the crime of violence in the home and provided for orders of protection. The act was amended in 1999 and then in 2020, expanding options for and categories of people who can seek protection.

Who were some of those who cut this path? Radica Saith and Diana Mahabir Wyatt established the first shelters and services which provided first-hand knowledge built upon by advocacy and organising.

As minister of social development, Dr Emanuel Hosein was the minister responsible for laying the act in Parliament in 1991. Phyllis Augustus was the head of the Women’s Desk at the time of the 1991 bill. Monica Williams in 1999 provided vital internal legitimacy to efforts by the women’s movement. Dr Linda Baboolal was an early advocate for legal aid for domestic violence victims.

While drafters worked within Legal Affairs, from Laraine Lutchmedial to Angela Moore, from outside of the State Lynette Seebaran-Suite and Roberta Clarke contributed to both the initial act and its latest amendment, 30 years apart. Gaietry Pargass worked with successive governments on legislation related to domestic violence, child protection and sexual offences, again over decades.

In calling for criminalisation of marital rape despite significant resistance, including in Parliament, women’s leadership also cannot be understated. Today, rape is recognised as a common part of partner abuse because of relentless insistence that domestic violence is also emotional, verbal, financial and sexual, and these are bases for granting of protection orders.

Those long labouring on issues of child protection such as Hazel Thompson Ahye would have seen our understanding of child rights better connect with our legislative response to DV. Others such as Joan Bishop, an early leader of a landmark report on child abuse, set the ground for connections between domestic violence and children’s vulnerability. A child witnessing violence is now considered an abused child who has a right to seek an order of protection under the most recent incarnation of the act.

Throughout, women’s organisations continued to call for an end to domestic violence, producing brochures on the DV Act, as CAFRA did, advocating for an end to child marriage as begun by the Hindu Women’s Organisation, managing shelters such as Medina House, calling for an end to corporal punishment of children as led by Working Women, creating civil society coalitions to press for necessary amendments as undertaken by the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and calling for protection of all in the home, regardless of their relationship or sexual orientation, in the way pioneered by Colin Robinson of CAISO.

The incarnations of the Domestic Violence Act are historic markers of how much civil society can effectively transform our values regarding inclusion. As an Independent senator, Ken Ramchand raised the need to protect same-sex relationships in the debate in 1991. Today, we hope that an end to the act’s discriminatory provisions will not take another decade.

Legislation changes behaviour in historic ways. Approximately 130,000 women sought state protection since the act was proclaimed. Yet, legislation is never enough. Legal protection must be effectively enacted by state agencies, and for reasons ranging from gender bias to insufficient protocols to under-resourcing, implementation remains a major deficit causing both police and judiciary to often fail women. Protection orders have not sufficiently prevented femicide. Finally, our ultimate goal must be social norm change so that our society becomes less violent, our gender relations become more egalitarian, and our families become safer. Many women live in fear. We need greater commitment, including by men, to prevention.

Recognising these names and so many others should tell us that every individual contribution counts. This history is a record of our power. And there is so much more to do.

Post 359.

A gender-based violence (GBV) unit is being established by the TTPS. Expectations are high and likely beyond what police response can provide, because real solutions require that policing be integrated with legal amendments, social services, NGO partnerships, data-driven strategies, community buy-in, and cultural change.

Hope is that the unit can coordinate TTPS approaches to intimate partner violence, domestic violence and sexual violence in order to, among other goals, reduce the number of women killed.

Only about 7% of women report intimate partner violence (IPV) to the police. Of those that report experiencing partner violence in their lifetime, about 25% do not report. If the TTPS implements measures to make reporting easier, kinder and safer, such as through taking reports from victims at their homes rather than at a station, those numbers could increase. What happens then?

The whole system, from hotlines to victim and witness support services to shelters to the magistrate and family courts, will have to be prepared for a surge in demand when women believe that reporting could lead to real protection and conviction. We won’t be sure if increased numbers reflect a rise in violence or a decrease in fear and silence, but forecasting these scenarios by the GBV unit is necessary.

It’s the same with orders of protection. If around 10 000 are sought every year, what happens when better policing means they become easier to secure and more likely to be enforced through better record keeping of women’s reports, timely serving of summons, lethality assessments, and other follow up?

There were 579 breaches of protection orders in five years, 174 breaches in 2019 alone. If these men are going to end up in jail, and they should – for breaching a protection order is a deliberate crime, are we prepared to provide mandatory counselling for perpetrators, to implement a restorative approach, and to find ways of making these repeat offenders less likely to get back out of jail and kill? Women report fear for their lives when perpetrators are released, particularly when women are not informed by the prison system. Better policing is also going to require forecasting implications in relation to perpetrators.

The GBV Unit can do a number of things: continue to clarify the law for all police officers, not just those with oversight of GBV or DV crimes; continue to educate all police about established protocols with regard to domestic violence reports; recognize that police may be friendly with perpetrators, may be perpetrators and may discourage reporting; and include outreach to migrant women so they know that they can safely report GBV crimes, which are a violation of their human rights, without fear of deportation or greater vulnerability to traffickers.

The unit can also establish a case study approach to better understand how to reduce men’s killing of women who have applied for orders of protection, and make sure the Domestic Violence Register is being actively engaged. It should work closely with the Child Protection Unit, Victim and Witness Support Unit, and Family Court to share rather than duplicate data. It’s also possible that DV reports can anticipate child sexual abuse reports, and the Unit will need to understand the intersection of different forms of GBV in this way.

CAPA doesn’t currently make perpetrator data easily accessible. As we continue to emphasise understanding and ending perpetration, and not only telling women to recognize “red flags”, sex-disaggregated data that supports this advocacy is also necessary.

The Unit should not start from scratch. The Coalition Against Domestic Violence has already been working with TTUTA to develop and implement the school programme, “Education for Empathy and Equality”. The Sexual Culture of Justice project is producing a toolkit for the Police Academy with protocols for training new police officers on issues of LGBTI bias and gender based violence. It also highlights the particular vulnerability of transgender persons, which is part of the problem of under-reporting.

Caricom recently published procedures for collecting data on domestic violence which may eliminate some obstacles to filling out report forms. CAFRA has been undertaking gender sensitization with police for decades, and the Network of Rural Women Producers has been working with youth and police in the police youth clubs, using the UN He For She Campaign and the Foundations Programme, to promote gender equality.

A civil society advisory committee to provide guidance and ensure accountability is key. The Unit has the opportunity to get things right before getting them wrong. Women’s lives are at stake. Fear and outrage demand urgency.

Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.