I remember a family friend saying to me, when I first expressed my interest in electoral politics, that I should follow one important rule: “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”
There was no confusion about what this meant as there is no shortage of examples of our politicians tripping over their words because they are chewing on their feet.
Notwithstanding this, it is a rarity for some care not to be taken when addressing sensitive issues such as domestic violence. Still, everything that is said with some degree of tact does not move the issue nicely along.
During her term in office, former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar maintained a consistent position on this issue as seen in her International Women’s Day messages for 2013 and 2015.
In 2013, she indicated that her Government was reviewing the Domestic Violence Act as it sought to send a message that “whether it unfolds internationally or locally, violence against women is unconscionable and must be stopped.”
Then, in 2015, the former PM again gave assurances to the national community that the Government she had the honour to lead “have pledged to strengthen the relevant pieces of legislation, including the Domestic Violence Act.”
It turned out that the talk was just that, talk, as domestic violence cases continued to spiral out of control. And so the nation’s first female PM demitted office without her gender agenda ever getting past the preamble!
In fairness to her successor, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, he was never touted to be a master diplomat and few seem to have any misgivings about the fact that he spoke his mind freely.
But detractor or supporter, you could hardly have predicted his last February comments which had him telling women:
“You call on the Prime Minister to do something about crime, I’m not in your bedroom; I’m not in your choice of men. You have a responsibility to determine who you associate with and know when to get out and the State will try to help.”
“But then,” he added, “when the tragedy occurs and it becomes known to the police, the police must now go the extra mile to ensure that there is detection.”
And perhaps talking his cue from the PM, the acting Commissioner of Police just a few days later chimed in with this further assault on our sensibilities:
“When a brother can stab and kill a brother inside a house for $30, there is nothing the police can do about that. When a daughter could stab a father inside a house, there is nothing the police can do about that.”
He might as well have said: “iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii….. tell you I could stop crime? Me?”
There are several reasons why both statements are horribly wrong but I wish to address just two of them. Issue number one is that the society and bedroom are more interconnected than either man implicitly concedes and issue number two is that failures of the State are a factor in domestic violence cases, particularly violence against women.
Firstly, we must understand the nature of the society in which we live. We have always used violence as both a corrective measure and as a teaching tool. We have always used it to teach behaviour designed to ensure that the subjugated know their place.
In the 1930s, according to the First General Secretary of the OWTU ER Blades, it was not uncommon for the South African foremen in the oilfields to clout, slap and kick workers if the worker got out of line. In the 1960s, sugar workers complained of the same treatment.
I also have a clear recollection of walking as a young boy behind two elderly women who were discussing a domestic violence situation. One of them said to the other:
“Imagine is only one lil lash she get and she want to leave the boy.”
So to start, we need to admit that as a society we have a problem. For a long time, we have accepted unacceptable behaviour but today there is a generation of women prepared to say enough is enough.
And I contend that, if the society condones public violence, then there is no moral or other defence which could be mounted in the bedroom. Values are caught not taught and the society in which they are learned is not some abstract, inert entity. We all collectively contribute to it.
So I disagree with Dr Rowley. And I disagree with Mr Williams. We are all in one another’s bedrooms.
I do not need to be a feminist to call a spade a spade and an injustice an injustice.
That the cry of injustice originates with the young women and young feminists is irrelevant. The fact is that it is a call that we must all heed; we must as a society all begin to examine our norms. The debate we ought to be having is how do we expand the current platform. Let us, for example, explore concepts of victim shaming, regardless of gender!
And so on to the matter of the direct responsibility of the institutions of the State. My time spent in civil society organisations has exposed me to the real challenges which people face when they reach out for help. More often than not, there is very little to come.
I am familiar with a case in which a young lady found herself in a situation which she needed to get out of. She needed a place to stay with her four children. Every time she related her conversations with the social workers, tears filled her eyes. They were much more focused on the extent to which she had caused her own plight by choosing the wrong men.
Her frustration kept building until one Sunday morning I got a call from her son to tell me that she had drunk bleach and had been hospitalised. Fortunately, she survived. She has since given up on seeking State help and now relies on assistance from a small network of people, who are helping her get back on her feet.
It is true that this was not a situation of physical violence but, however you define violence, abandonment during pregnancy qualifies. I need not share the details of how she had to bounce around from makeshift centre to makeshift centre to make the point that we do not have adequate accommodation for such women and their children.
Many women would lay down their lives for their children. So in the absence of centres to which women can safely retreat with their children, they risk their lives by remaining in abusive situations. The reputation of the State mechanisms is hardly encouraging and women sometimes opt for the devil they already know.
Rather than pass scathing judgment, we ought to be correcting the deficient systems.
And there’s more. Every CoP must know the correlation between detection and the increase in crimes. If detection rates stay low and crimes are consistently committed with impunity, what really is there to prevent an argument over an unpaid $30.00 loan, say, to escalate to murder?
Indeed, I challenge Police Commissioner Stephen Williams to tell us if, in his own words, a significant percentage of the murders in T&T have occurred where “the police have no presence.”
I’m sorry but the notion that domestic violence is somehow not a public issue has to be rejected out of hand. Let us, however, give these two leaders their due: both men are right in one regard and that is in rejecting that they are the panacea. Stopping all forms of violence requires that there be a restructured approach and domestic violence is no exception.
Prevention speaks to confronting traditional values and beginning free and frank discussions about decolonising our minds. In addition, the State must acknowledge that it has a fundamental moral responsibility to secure its citizens both where they work and where they live.
Legally, that responsibility does not lie with the citizen as Brent Halls found out back in 2001 with his guillotine trap.
Attempting to take responsibilities off the table is not responsible leadership. And, as the population has regularly demonstrated since 1986, there is no longer any fear of changing leaders until we get it right!