In 2016, Trinidad and Tobago was embroiled in a battle for women’s and girls’ rights. ‘No Slut Shaming’ and GBV discussions with political pressure by young women’s and feminist groups challenged the then Mayor of Port-of-Spain, Tim Kee on his expression and defense of his sexist statements after carnival. The carnival was not over when debates around the rights of girls and critiquing patriarchal notions of the family were at its highest point during the ‘End Child Marriage’ campaign mid-year. Then came the Barbadian-grown Caribbean dialogue #LifeInLeggings that spoke to the pervasiveness of rape culture in our post-independent states. And finally, the murder of Shannon Banfield ended the year in deep sorrow and frustration…a reminder that the small gains, in policy, funding and even in the way we speak, did not end the constant threat of violence against women and girls. 2017 so far is no less bloody and dangerous for women and girls – students in school uniform are first reported as missing and are discovered later, dead.
At the Conversations with the Prime Minister at Maloney Amphitheatre on Monday 6th February 2017, the Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said the following:
1. A crime is to be committed, invariably; the police may not know it is to be committed. More often than not the police only know after the crime has been committed. And therefore, when that happens, for example, right now when I speak to you, approximately one third of the murders in the last month have been domestic related issues.
2. Now, what is the role of the police in preventing that or should I say the state? You know what the state did? These domestic issues usually start or ending with women with difficulty in relationships and the state intervened and put something called ‘protection order’ in place to deal with women and their men. That and all is creating a basis for violent crime.
3. One third of the murders in recent times are domestic violence or domestic issues. And then that, you call on your prime minister to do something about crime…I am not in your bedroom, I am not in your choice of men.
In Excerpt 1, Dr. Rowley offers recognition to the problem of gender-based violence as a national issue. He gives recognition to domestic violence as a serious crime by illustrating its measure. In Excerpt 2, there is a commitment to state responsibility. The Prime Minister makes the point that the State needs to create a response to address domestic ‘issues’ of violence. However, his last statement highlights the gap in his understanding of the realities of GBV and domestic violence. Ask any activist, social worker or close family member of a victim, ‘protection orders’ have the effect of putting women into a new form a danger where men become more aggressive and controlling toward them. For example, anyone with experience in the field will let you know that a ‘restraining order’ does not always bring restraint by the abuser. The surprise expressed by the Prime Minister highlights his distance from the issue.
Excerpt 3 is fundamentally where the problem lies. His attempt at nuance was necessary but his analysis was woefully inaccurate and prejudiced. Yes, people demand greater institutional accountability to reduce the rate of domestic violence because it is a global problem and violence against women is an institutional inequality. And yes private citizens, we must also build strong communities and utilise the social services and programmes provided by the state to help in the fight to end domestic and gender based violence. But at no time, does this personal and citizen sense of responsibility abdicate the government (of the day) and state’s duty to end gender-based violence. At no time.
What if Dr. Rowley said?
1. “A law alone cannot change what happens in the minds of people at home. We want our families, community groups and leaders to help in our fight against crime.”
2. “The task has been difficult but it is not impossible with you, the citizen. If you choose the love you deserve, work toward building healthy relationships and work with national security and social services when you need help, we will have a better T&T.”
3. […say nothing more]
For men, we need to rethink the politics of women-blaming in domestic violence situations. One thing is to say, “she look for it, she stay.” Another thing we can ask, instead, “what are the conditions that make it difficult for her to leave?” I have worked with young men who turned their anger into expressions of violence against their partners…what they need to hear is not “how a woman could make a man turn” or “she really don’t know what she want in a man”…the kind of conversations we need to have with men is that they are emotional beings because anger is (also) an emotion and there are safer, healthier and more dignifying ways that they can resolve their conflicts (and not be violent).
Women do not marry or form relationships with rapists and abusive men. In a relationship, women are raped or they are trapped in an abusive relationship. Get that. The psychological conflicts and issues of self-esteem that underpin domestic and gender-based violence cannot be trivialised by “choosing a man.”
In bullet points, this is what I have to say to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley:
1. You are the Prime Minister of the nation. The power you occupy and therefore the standard you are judged by are not the same as an ‘ordinary citizen.’
2. You could cut down all the pepper plants in this island to make pepper spray and put a degree in Kung Fu funded by GATE but women, the target of the attacks, are not the ones responsible for their safety from GBV.
3. “Choosing a man” is not a crime reduction strategy but choosing your words wisely that reflect gender awareness is a good start to good governance.