CAMIKA MC LETCHIE, 43, remembers seeing the back of her father, as he walked away, when she was a girl.
She never knew him, having been raised in an extended household with “with uncles, aunts, mother and grandmother.”
“My father was never around and I never had any interaction with him. He would come to the house and drop off stuff.
“The last time he came, I was about seven-years-old, my mum brought the stuff inside and she was like, 'your father just dropped this off.'
“I remember running outside to see who this man was and I just saw the back of him, leaving, and after that I never saw him again.
“I always had that void. Always wanted that father in my life,” she said.
That search for a father-figure led to her first experience of abuse, at the hands of a “local bad boy”, at 16.
“I felt that he would be that father-figure to me. He would protect me and so on. That was the first time I experienced physical violence.”
Shortly after, she met someone else who she felt was her “prince charming” but the relationship morphed into 20 years of abuse–emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, spiritual, financial and medical.
She was once choked until she almost passed out and, another time, her head was slammed through louvres.
Mc Letchie’s story is the subject of a documentary called Breaking the Cycle and it was filmed as part of the I am Citizen campaign, a project of the Citizen Security Programme (CSP) under the Ministry of National Security.
From October 2 to 10, she participated in Croatia’s Vox Feminae Festival (Croatia Film Festival) to promote the documentary and spoke at its screening in Zagreb on October 6. It won the Jury Special Mention award in Croatia and will soon be shown at the Dumbo Film Festival, New York. The documentary has also been shown at festivals in Guadeloupe and Barcelona.
While Mc Letchie did not think her life would be the subject of a film, she always had a desire to tell her story “like in a Tyler Perry movie.”
But she did not want her story to be told “in a way where people leave the movie feeling hate for anyone."
"I don’t think it was about that. I think it was about bringing awareness to people," she said. “When the documentary was done, I said this is perfect. You don’t go away with that element of hating anyone but you go away with more awareness and more understanding for the issue.”
It was from the launch of her own NGO, WRYS (Women Rediscover Your Strength), that the opportunity to be a part of the documentary came about.
In 2016, Mc Letchie met Gregory Sloane-Seale, CSP programme coordinator, at the launch of the I am Citizen programme and they started talking about domestic violence and their work.
“They needed to interview a survivor. Gregory asked me if I’d be willing to do that, to share my story publicly like that and I said yes. That is how the documentary came about.”
Through her NGO’s work, she realised there was a lot of domestic violence in TT.
"I also realised people weren’t speaking about it. So I felt like victims needed a voice.”
She would be angered when there was a case and she would hear people speak “and it would be judgemental or derogatory. Where they would say, ‘She like the licks. She stupid. And if it was me I was not taking that.’”
These comments demonstrated to Mc Letchie that people did not understand domestic violence. "They did not understand conditioning. They did not understand that leaving is a process and all of these things.”
This, along with losing a good friend who died because of an abusive partner, propelled her to start the NGO which, today, has about 12 members.
The organisation also grew as other survivors contacted her after her story was featured in a newspaper article. “When my story first came out, people started to reach out to me. So then I started to meet other victims and other survivors and that network just grew.”
From her own experience, and that of WRYS, she believes there has been an increase in domestic violence in TT.
“There are a lot of cases that go unreported...What the statistics are capturing are the cases that are being reported.”
She said she had about ten victims coming to her, within two weeks, two on the day of the interview. None of the ten made reports, she said.
She believes there is an issue with how men are socialised in TT and the Caribbean. “Many times, we do not teach young boys to express emotion. It is seen as effeminate and I think it is time we teach them expressing your emotions, or your feelings, do not make you the weaker sex, is vital.”
Men and boys were also victims of domestic violence, she observed, and her organisation assisted three males this year.
This is why Mc Letchie hopes to write a handbook about domestic violence, helping people to "really understand" it.
She also wants to build programmes for schools to help students who maybe living in homes where there is domestic violence.
“I think that in the Caribbean, we need to change the way we groom male children and I want to write programmes that deal with that.”
There were no tears as Mc Letchie spoke of her experience. Her healing process, she said, is ongoing. “The hardest part of the healing process, I would say that took me about three years, but it is not complete because I do have triggers.
“There are things that would trigger me like I don’t like men speaking to me in a domineering way. That is a trigger for me. I don’t like them speaking to me disrespectfully.”
She has also had to look at herself. “I had to deal with my own lack of self-worth, lack of self-confidence, believing that I was not worth anything or that I was not worth love from another man.”
She has had to face “certain negative things” within her personality.
“Being in a relationship like that sometimes you tell lies unnecessarily. Not being very open about where you are going. That was a trait I picked up so I had to look inside myself and change that about me.
“Realising I am free now, I don’t need to hide where I am going or what I am doing. I can just be open. There is nobody there to put me into captivity.”
Forgiveness was another lesson. “I had to forgive him to be able to help anybody that was coming for help.”
To women going through a similar experience, Mc Letchie wants them to know “it is not the end of the road" and there is support, even in the police service.
"We think there isn’t a lot of support in TT or the police officers are not doing anything, I tell a different story. There is support. There are avenues you can go to for help. You don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch. I have met officers and I have officers who work with me. If I need to get a victim out, they are there to help," she said.
“Abuse is empowered by silence. It smothers your voice and is empowered by silence. So they should speak out even if it is to one trusted person. And they should seek help.”
UNwomen.org says, “From November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to December 10, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence campaign is a time to galvanise action to end violence against women and girls around the world.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO), on its website, says “about one in three (35 per cent) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”
“Worldwide, almost one third (30 per cent) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime. Globally, as many as 38 per cent of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.”
A data report on the Office of the Prime Minister’s website (www.opm-gca.gov.tt) entitled Trinidad and Tobago Central Registry on Domestic Violence: January to December 2017 says “data from the Crime and Problem Analysis (CAPA) Branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) revealed that there were approximately 12,540 reports relating to domestic violence incidents between 2010 and 2016. Approximately 74 per cent of these reports were related to female individuals. During the same period there were 164 domestic violence related deaths of which 56 per cent were female. More recent data from the TTPS revealed that there were 1125 domestic violence reports in 2017. Between October 2013 and September 2017 there were a total of 22,171 calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.”