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‘Is she cause it!’ - Domestic violence and human rights abuse in the Jamaican context Part 2

Published:Monday | March 6, 2017 | 12:00 AMOberlene Smith-Whyte
Too many adults are hiding their faces when they see women and children being abused.
Students of Wolmer's Girls' School staging a peaceful protest against child abuse last year.

There was a man in the district, Roy, who was involved with two women at the same time and had several children with both of them.

The two women lived a short distance from each other. Sometimes the women quarrelled with each other, but neither was prepared to end the relationship with Roy.

Some men in the district talked about Roy with reverence, while women talked about both women with derision. Roy was not hiding; he would be seen at one home or the other. If there was a problem with Morell, he went to Evadne. In addition, he had children with two other women in the community.

I vividly remember several women who were the subject of abuse, particularly on a Friday evening, for one reason or another.

It was the norm to hear bawling in Ginned Lane as Mr Boyan used anything he put his hands on to beat Gloria; or stone-throwing on Cheswick Road as Mr Roland threw stones at Ms Joyce with whom he had several children.

On one occasion, Joyce was admitted to hospital after Roland hit her with a stone and she fell and lost consciousness. Roland argued that he had not meant to do it but blamed her for provoking him.

When she was discharged from the hospital, Joyce went back to live with Roland, who promised not to hit her again but ultimately did not keep that promise.

Roland stopped hitting Joyce when her son, Fitzroy, turned 19, and 'draped' him one evening. The boy explained how embarrassed he was as his friends made fun of him because of how his father treated his mother.

Suffice it to say, Fitzroy beat the living hell out of Mr Jimmy's daughter when he later had a relationship with her. The men's behaviour and its seeming acceptance in some quarters revealed issues of male dominance, which also reinforced the perception that men are in a position to subjugate women even with violence.

Then there was Roxy who lived with Ten Ten. The couple had no children but the district people used to refer to Ten Ten as a 'maama man' (a weak man). He was disregarded by the other men and made fun of by women because it was unusual to see a man washing his and his woman's clothes.

Ten Ten washed, cooked and cleaned, and the couple appeared happy. He seemed oblivious to what was being said of him. I don't know if he cried surreptitiously because sometimes the abuse hurled at him almost brought me to tears.

Abuse and sexual exploitation of children

In the district in which my father was raised, there was one man who had a sexual relationship with a woman, her daughter that was not his, and the first daughter between them.

He built three huts for the three women and one hut for himself in the middle. There were countless children in his yard and none of them went to school. The woman and her daughters had children, one after the other. Despite the women going to hospital to give birth, the authorities did nothing.

It was only when one of the girls ran away to a relative in Morant Bay that the police were called in, the children were sent to safe houses and the man jailed.

There were other children who were not sent to school, or sent to school only on certain days of the week. There were children who had to subsidise the family's income, and not in ways the laws permit.

Children were subjected to other forms of abuse by parents who beat them mercilessly under the guise of the biblical expression, 'Not sparing the rod and spoiling the child', which was taken literally.

I remember a family member beating a cousin, about six years old, and then tied him to the bed base, put the bed down and put the mattress on it. My brother and I, we were both nine and seven years, respectively, took turns looking under the bed when we did not hear him crying to see if he was still alive.

My cousin is now an adult but he is unable to have a normal stable relationship with a woman.

Broader implications of domestic violence

Growing up, I never witnessed public discussions around domestic violence. I never heard the term human rights, or even human rights violations or abuse. I, however, knew that the conduct of the adults around me did not seem right. It was not normal.

I have come to recognise that what happened in my district was not unique to that district. I have also concluded that what happened in my district during my childhood and what is unfolding in my country constitute violence and abuse.

During my professional life, I have come to the realisation that the nature and pattern of this violence is deeply rooted in the culture.

Part of this has been possible because of the patriarchal society in which we live, and because of weaknesses and gaps in our legal system.

The problem is much wider than we may think, and unless we take our situation seriously, things will get worse because violence is now seen as a normal way of life.

Studies on the impact of domestic violence and child abuse on society have produced startling results, which must be utilised to inform policy and areas of legal intervention.

For example, in an editorial in 2013, the influential US publication, The Huffington Post, indicated that "men who are exposed to domestic violence as children are four times more likely to perpetrate intimate partner violence as adults".

The editorial further suggested that "one in seven men will be victims of domestic violence in their lifetime, and one in four women will be victims of domestic violence in their lifetime".

There is no doubt that women who experience domestic violence may also abuse their children, both boys and girls. A boy abused by his mother, whether through neglect, physical or emotional abuse, may have no problem or see anything wrong with abusing his son or daughter, and the cycle of violence continues.

It is also important to emphasise that the impact of domestic violence may have long-term damage to the character and confidence of victims.

This is especially the case where remedial mechanisms such as professional counselling and psychosocial care are absent.

In many situations, victims of domestic violence adopt coping mechanisms which often involve concealing or not wanting to talk about their trauma and painful experiences.

This category of victims often appears to lead normal lives. A conversation with them can reveal deep wounds that have not healed or large scars unseen by the human eyes.

The interesting part is, there are some who may say it was not abuse or that the 'licks' did not kill them, or that the beating made them stronger and better.

Professional encounters with domestic violence

What we are experiencing today is a cycle of violence that started in the past, which was not effectively addressed.

Our experience of domestic violence has now extended to an intolerant society, one that ignores and perpetuates modern-day slavery, also known as human trafficking.

We have grown so cold, callous and selfish that we are willing to sacrifice other human lives to make money.

Human trafficking has extended its boundaries to every nook and cranny of our shores, sometimes under some very misguided notion of employment overseas.

Unsuspecting young women and men are lured into prostitution by false advertisement of legitimate employment. Many people support human trafficking, either wittingly or unwittingly, and education in this regard cannot be overstated.

Legal obligations to combat domestic violence

International human rights laws impose obligations on Jamaica to take positive steps to address domestic violence and child abuse.

As a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Jamaica's domestic violence legislation must make provisions for the deterrence and punishment of domestic violence.

Following concerns over the scale of domestic violence incidents, Parliament passed the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act in 2004, which introduced new protection orders meant to protect victims from domestic violence.

The act also expanded the category of persons who can seek relief under the current law.

Two other pieces of legislation, the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Suppression and Punishment) Act, and the Child Pornography (Prevention) Act 2007 were enacted in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

Despite the Government's statements and assurances, the occurrence of domestic violence remains high. In its concluding observations on the status of Jamaica's implementation of CEDAW, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that the national legislation, especially the Sexual Offences Act of 2009, "protects against marital rape only in certain circumstances and that rape within a marriage is not always criminalised".

In addition, the committee expressed regrets over the "limited data on transnational and internal trafficking and sexual exploitation and the inadequate measures to support victims of such violations".

The conclusion of the committee's assessment of Jamaica's responses and approaches to domestic violence and sexual exploitation shows that more needs to be done.

Urgent help needed

The verdict is now out, the issue of domestic violence has been a long-standing one within the Jamaican context. A robust strategy needs to be developed that will effectively address the myriad ways that domestic violence manifests itself in the homes and in communities.

It is indeed sad to know that many Jamaicans only develop an awareness of domestic violence on becoming adults and being so exposed in another jurisdiction.

This issue of domestic violence is not confined to Jamaicans from the lower strata of the society as all are affected directly or indirectly. While effort continues to be made to address legal obligations to combat domestic violence, it becomes necessary for urgent and serious early social interventions and awareness, the building of structures where women, children and other vulnerable groups can have options to divert from violent situations.

It is necessary to quickly establish shelters to accommodate some of these individuals whose lives are threatened, to enable them to recovery quickly.

The cost to the country is a dysfunctional society, high crime rate and high cost of health care. We must equally get help for the perpetrator so that he or she is rehabilitated and does not move from one victim to another.

Kudos to Acting Commissioner of Police Novelette Grant, who, since 2000, has been a lonely voice in the wilderness regarding domestic violence and its impact on the society.

Her prophetic messages and clarion call to partner with the police in a proactive approach to prevent murder has fallen on only a few ears over the years. It is incumbent on all well-thinking Jamaicans to get on board and become a united force to stamp out or minimise domestic violence.

- Oberlene Smith-Whyte retired from the Jamaica Constabulary Force last Wednesday, having risen to the rank of superintendent. Feedback: