THE word on domestic violence was not good last week.
As Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy piloted the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill in the Senate, she noted almost a quarter of the protection orders issued between 2010 and June 2020 – a total of 2,664 – had been breached.
The amended act is supposed to sharpen the legislation governing such legal protections, removing ambiguity and making penalties for convictions more substantial. Failure by anyone with care, control or custody of a child or dependent person to report suspected abuse attracts seven years’ imprisonment and a $150,000 fine.
Unfortunately, as noted last week in this space, these improvements fail to protect anyone in a same-sex relationship, a provision that the government voted against and the opposition abstained from voting on. It was a cowardly and dehumanising act by politicians elected to serve all citizens and an abdication of the courage required to effect change in the service of human rights for all.
Stronger legislation on its own demands far more than courage and understanding from the general public, and real change will only begin with widespread education and awareness. The casual cruelty of sharing videos of incidents of domestic violence on social media, the studied indifference of some police officers tasked with investigating cases, and the silence of friends and relatives who witness abuse are all parts of the problem.
It won’t be solved with the passage of new law alone. Activist Diana Mahabir-Wyatt has noted that there are deep-seated patterns of abuse that we accept as part of our culture that need serious and sustained re-examination and readjustment.
Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, Community Development Minister, made that point quite clearly after the passage of the bill, when she resurrected the PM’s infamous admonition to women to be careful who they associate with.
Neither Dr Gadsby-Dolly nor Dr Rowley has ever managed to articulate exactly what advance warning signs, precisely, victims of domestic violence have been missing. Abusers do not come with warning labels as if they were electrical appliances or drugs with dangerous side effects.
Domestic violence is not always physical, and even overtly aggressive assault is also part of systems of control and coercion that lock victims into a psychological dependency that is hard to break.
During the debate, Dr Surujrattan Rambachan questioned the roles of communities and churches, mandirs and mosques in educating their congregations.
The lack of community support is exacerbated by the limited availability of shelters, safe spaces for victims seeking a respite and restart. There are shortfalls in infrastructure, a shortage of compassion, short circuited social support systems and short-sighted thinking in governance. For those most in need of domestic-violence intervention, we continue to fall short.