‘Is why the man beat you this time?’
- Guyana struggles to reverse the epidemic of violence against women
By Neil Marks
When she was just 12, my mother was already entangled in a strange world of emotional pain and uncertainty.
Her mother died suddenly, and when her father left on a business trip, her grandfather assumed guardianship and soon arranged her marriage with the son of one of his friends.
Her marriage to that man, my father, a year after Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966, turned out to be far from freedom of the bounds of poverty and heartache. A drunk most of the time, he would beat her “whenever he felt like,” she told me last month.
It was our first conversation ever, about the kind of man he was –33 years after he drowned in the waters of Atlantic coast while on a fishing trip.
She was unable to hold the tears; the scars from those beatings were still fresh decades later.
Left with nine children, she girded up her loins, fighting one wretched circumstance after another, to make ends meet, but there was only so much she could do.
Four years after my father’s death, I ended up living with my eldest sister, her husband and their six children that came along.
For seven years, I saw my sister being beaten mercilessly by her husband; sometimes as his mother watched – in approval.
The children would all scamper to my room, screaming, as their father beat their mother, as I begged for the moment to end.
The one night, I decided to intervene was the one night she ever called out – to me – for help.
I rushed into the room.
“Oh, I have to deal with two of you now?” I was smart enough to know that was a threat and not an idle question of surrender.
I grabbed some of the children and my sister held on to the others as we crashed down the stairs as he approached with a machete.
We ran into the midnight darkness to find shade under a tree in the cow pasture. After some time, when we calculated he would fall asleep, we returned “home” – to wait for another weekend of torture – just the same way my mother always returned after the times she was bold enough to run away to a relative’s house when the beatings were unbearable.
Where I lived, violence against women was the norm. It seemed part of the consequences of living; there was nothing shocking about it. Sometimes the neighbours intervened, other times they didn’t bother to.
I wondered why they didn’t; I had often silently prayed that someone would come to rescue us.
My personal experience is by no means an anomaly. Last year, the Guyana Police Force received 2, 140 reports of domestic violence from its eight police divisions, an increase of 14.2 percent in the number of reports made.
“It seems not a single day passes without there being a report of someone raped, brutalised or murdered, usually by an intimate or previously intimate partner,” First Lady Sandra Granger bemoaned last week when she addressed a function hosted by the British High Commission in Georgetown.
To gain the protection of the police, the women must visit the station personally or make a call.
“But how many women know the numbers of their police stations?” asked Akila Doris, manager of the government’s Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Policy Unit.
For those who do know the numbers, the reputation of unprofessional conduct deters them from reporting the abuse.
“The systems are not perfect and the systems can be frustrating,” Doris admits.
“…many of our sisters are living in a conflict situation, having access to neither peace nor security, much less stability,” the First Lady stated, added, “they do not have faith in a system in which reports of domestic violence are treated as bothersome if not dismissed”.
Indranie Chandarpal, the chairperson of the Women and Gender Equality Commission, a constitutional body set up to promote the development of women’s rights, suggests that rural and hinterland women are mostly unaware of how they can get help.
At Parika, some 40 kilometers from the capital Georgetown, I decided to analyse the situation for myself.
After a short wait, a woman approached the station. She had not even reached the gate when an officer shouted: “Oh god, this one coming again!”
In what seemed like a chorus, the other officers burst out laughing.
“You too steady with this thing,” the officer told her when she got into the station. “Is why the man beat you this time?”
She denied his assertion that she was drinking again; he did not take her report. She left—more frustrated than when she came.
“We need to make our women more aware of how they can seek help and we need the police to understand how to deal with them when they do get to the station,” Chandarpal lamented.
At the police outpost in Tuschen, just a few miles from Parika, I visited to follow up on a case when a woman approached to make a complaint against her husband.
“What’s the problem?” the officer blurted out. With myself and others around, her pleas almost muffled with uncertainty. “Speak up, I can’t hear you lady!”
She related her story, but his response reeked with unprofessionalism.
“Nobody else ain’t here with me; if somebody else come, I will come. You have money to pay the taxi if I come?”
She told him she would pay, and left.
“The system as they stand are adequate; the procedures are laid out on how our police should handle these cases, but one bad example of an officer not being responsible throws away all of the good work we are doing,” David Ramnarine, Guyana’s acting Police Commissioner later explained.
Chandarpal said that while the reports are dominated by abuse against Indo-Guyanese, abuse of varying forms cut across racial divide and has not eased with time.
The day my mother was married, the Guyana Graphic newspaper carried a story abouta city watch technician Louis Pontes, who was found guilty of assaulting his former wife Clothilde.
During an argument about having their sick child see a doctor for mumps, he shoved her violently out onto the landing, but she grabbed hold of the handle to save herself from falling.
Tomorrow, 21-year-old Kyle Goddett will appear in court for the first time after he was placed on bail for attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend, Susana Culpepper.
Early last month, as Susanna lay in bed with her new boyfriend, Godette doused her with gasoline and lit her afire through an open window. She remains hospitalised.
“All groups of women are victims of violence in one form or the other; people accepted violence as a way of life; they see it as normal in relationships,” said Chandarpal.
Melinda Janki, a human rights attorney who last Friday presented research on the effectiveness of Guyana’s gender laws, agreed with that position.
“Guyana’s legal system originated with European colonists, mostly Dutch and British who regarded women as inferior.”
“In the 21st century, Dutch and British have moved on a long way from that, Guyana has not. The deep structure of our law remains colonial and patriarchal and if you understand that, you will be more aware of how law can oppress women while appearing to liberate,” she explained.
Guyana’s Domestic Violence Act was passed in December, 1996. One of its provisions is for a Protection Order, where the abuser can be told to stay away, and other orders under the law would mandate him to still provide for the victim and children, if there are any.
A woman who decides to leave the relationship, like my sister did after years of abuse, may be afforded Public Assistance of $8, 000 (US$40) but there are rules. For example, if she has children, she would have to prove they are attending school.
In some cases, a woman may be afforded an apartment and basic provisions for a period. Again, a Means Test is necessary.
There is also a Difficult Circumstances Fund, from which a loan of up to $250, 000 (US$1, 250) can be accessed to start a business.
On the short-term, women in Guyana are accommodated in shelters run by Non-Governmental Organisations. Just one such shelter exists in the country’s most populated region; but two newly built State shelters will come into operation.
The Domestic Violence Unit and the Police Force will soon be developing huge posters which will be placed in every police station to ensure the Police understand their responsibilities and to ensure women also know how they should be treated.
“Women must feel confident that they will get justice when they make a report,” the Police Commissioner said.
For me, it will take much more than that to save more generations of our mothers and sisters from being abused, in some cases, to the point of death.