DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
WE TALK about how times change, but not enough about the people who change our times. So much has evolved in terms of legislation, social norms and our recognition of women’s rights. Yet, we often forget the names of the women and men who imagined, created, implemented and defended those changes.
Remembering them recognises that it takes labour, commitment, strategy and collaboration to achieve the smallest of gains. Often, it requires countering opposition from those who would hold an unequal status quo in place. Knowing that these individuals achieved landmark social shifts cautions us to not give up, for we have inherited a legacy in which women’s organising and voices have changed our world.
On August 16, 1991, the Domestic Violence Act came into effect, the first in the Caricom region. Following years of advocacy by the women’s movement, this act established the crime of violence in the home and provided for orders of protection. The act was amended in 1999 and then in 2020, expanding options for and categories of people who can seek protection.
Who were some of those who cut this path? Radica Saith and Diana Mahabir Wyatt established the first shelters and services which provided first-hand knowledge built upon by advocacy and organising.
As minister of social development, Dr Emanuel Hosein was the minister responsible for laying the act in Parliament in 1991. Phyllis Augustus was the head of the Women's Desk at the time of the 1991 bill. Monica Williams in 1999 provided vital internal legitimacy to efforts by the women’s movement. Dr Linda Baboolal was an early advocate for legal aid for domestic violence victims.
While drafters worked within Legal Affairs, from Laraine Lutchmedial to Angela Moore, from outside of the State Lynette Seebaran-Suite and Roberta Clarke contributed to both the initial act and its latest amendment, 30 years apart. Gaietry Pargass worked with successive governments on legislation related to domestic violence, child protection and sexual offences, again over decades.
In calling for criminalisation of marital rape despite significant resistance, including in Parliament, women’s leadership also cannot be understated. Today, rape is recognised as a common part of partner abuse because of relentless insistence that domestic violence is also emotional, verbal, financial and sexual, and these are bases for granting of protection orders.
Those long labouring on issues of child protection such as Hazel Thompson Ahye would have seen our understanding of child rights better connect with our legislative response to DV. Others such as Joan Bishop, an early leader of a landmark report on child abuse, set the ground for connections between domestic violence and children’s vulnerability. A child witnessing violence is now considered an abused child who has a right to seek an order of protection under the most recent incarnation of the act.
Throughout, women’s organisations continued to call for an end to domestic violence, producing brochures on the DV Act, as CAFRA did, advocating for an end to child marriage as begun by the Hindu Women’s Organisation, managing shelters such as Medina House, calling for an end to corporal punishment of children as led by Working Women, creating civil society coalitions to press for necessary amendments as undertaken by the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and calling for protection of all in the home, regardless of their relationship or sexual orientation, in the way pioneered by Colin Robinson of CAISO.
The incarnations of the Domestic Violence Act are historic markers of how much civil society can effectively transform our values regarding inclusion. As an Independent senator, Ken Ramchand raised the need to protect same-sex relationships in the debate in 1991. Today, we hope that an end to the act’s discriminatory provisions will not take another decade.
Legislation changes behaviour in historic ways. Approximately 130,000 women sought state protection since the act was proclaimed. Yet, legislation is never enough. Legal protection must be effectively enacted by state agencies, and for reasons ranging from gender bias to insufficient protocols to under-resourcing, implementation remains a major deficit causing both police and judiciary to often fail women. Protection orders have not sufficiently prevented femicide. Finally, our ultimate goal must be social norm change so that our society becomes less violent, our gender relations become more egalitarian, and our families become safer. Many women live in fear. We need greater commitment, including by men, to prevention.
Recognising these names and so many others should tell us that every individual contribution counts. This history is a record of our power. And there is so much more to do.
Diary of a mothering worker