WOMEN, stay the course!
This was the plea from President Paula-Mae Weekes in her message on the occasion of International Women’s Day which is being observed around the world today.
Weekes said the agitation and advocacy which has kept the recent murder of Andrea Bharatt front and centre in the national conscience must be sustained if further violence against women is to be lessened or even stopped. The President’s message was themed: Women in Leadership – Achieving an equal future in a Covid19 World.
Weekes said Bharrat’s gruesome murder united the country in a way that offers hope for potential victims, not just by advocacy but through legislation.
“You galvanised support for timely legislation, you advanced the legalisation of pepper spray, you inspired taxi drivers to improve their service, you brought a number of men’s organisations to the fore and you extracted promises of stiffer penalties for (police) officers failing to attend court. You have created your own hope,” she said.
However, Weekes warned that the gains made by the various pressure groups and non-governmental organisations can be lost if the passion is not channelled in such a way as to make the effort sustainable.
“Marches and vigils driven by the emotion of the moment are unlikely to continue indefinitely; that energy needs to be harnessed so that it becomes a permanent force to be reckoned with.”
The President said while some of the “necessary work” can be done by average citizens in neighbourhood watch organisations or Whatsapp groups, other changes will require the input of public officials.
“Here you can bring the requisite pressure to bear on your representatives, e.g. councillors and Members of Parliament.”
One vital component of the process, she said, is for citizens to take responsibility to inform themselves about crime and the criminal justice system “so they understand the causes and effects and are not misinformed or misled by those contributing more heat than light.”
Ironically, Weekes said, the citizens gave her hope in the wake of Bharrat’s murder. “Hope that at last we will move past our apathy, short attention spans and concern only for ourselves, to appreciate that ensuring our safety and security necessitates that we tackle together the common enemy of violence against women.”
But she cautioned: “Make no mistake, that objective will not be achieved overnight, we are in this for the long haul. Success depends on our ability to stay the course.”
‘CITIZEN WEEKES’ WAS WITH YOU
In her address, Weekes also responded to the criticisms she endured during Bharatt’s abduction and in the aftermath of her murder through social media channels, letters to the Office of the President and other avenues.
“Impassioned citizens enquired, some more civilly than others, where was the President while all of this was happening and why, particularly as a woman, she had said nothing. The enquiry was fair and perfectly understandable in a society which has become accustomed to instant reaction and social media fodder.”
Weekes said: “The straightforward explanation is I was right here among you, aching as I closely followed the unfolding events but as President, was not ready to speak.”
She said having worked for 34 years as prosecutor, defence counsel, trial judge and appellate judge, ‘Citizen Weekes’ could have given an immediate earful.
“I know all too well that women falling victim to serial rapists and murderers or disappearing without a trace is not a new phenomenon in our criminal landscape.” But she said society must take some responsibility for not properly nurturing the men who commit such heinous acts.
“Andrea and Ashanti (Riley) were but the two most recent victims of men we call monsters, but if (they are) monsters, (then) monsters of our own making. We gave birth to them and then failed to effectively nurture and socialise them in our homes and schools and provide them with a social safety net to address their issues.”
Weekes noted that since the start of her law career in the DPP’s office in 1982, 11 governments have occupied the corridors of power and been called upon to address this scourge.
She lamented that despite citizen activism and a suite of legislation, including at least eight Bail Amendment Bills, perennial complaints about an unreliable public transport service, recommendations from experts and police initiatives, women are still exposed to physical violence.
“I do not get the sense that our womenfolk, whether in their homes or on our roads, are safer now than men.”
Weekes also noted that in the 36 months she has been in office approximately 155 women have lost their lives to violence.
In addressing the issue decisively on all fronts, Weekes said the nation must unite in a way in which every citizen and group feels heard, understood and valued.
“We need to move past tolerance to arrive at trust, only then can we come to a shared understanding of who and what we are as Trinbagonians. This is the foundation for a common goal. It is transformative work that is not going to be achieved by any speech from on high.”
Weekes added: “We boast that we come together for Carnival, sporting exploits and public holidays, but these are all temporary and brief periods. Without the intervention of any leader, the nation came together united by the tragedy of Andrea’s death. But that, too, will be short-lived unless we examine and understand what made her death the tipping point.”
The President recalled calling for the Government and Opposition to unite on several occasions, most recently the opening of the 12th Parliament.
“I advised the Government and Opposition to come together for the good of the country. This is an integral part of the duty of the President but I am not being modest when I say that I have a sneaking suspicion that my call is often trumped by political expediency.”
She believes politicians are persuaded most powerfully by the electorate. “This was the main factor at work when your voices compelled a unanimous vote on the Evidence Amendment Bill and swift consideration of legalising pepper spray.” She observed citizens working together accomplished in a few short weeks what Presidents have been unable to achieve.