When Dr Kamane Soman finally decided to walk away from an abusive marriage eight years ago, it was the best decision she could have ever made for her life.
For Soman, 45, it was not just about escaping the abuse but reclaiming her independence and self-worth.
Today, through her work as founder and president of People Against Domestic Abuse (PADA), which she established in 2016, Soman is on a crusade to help other abuse victims do the same.
But her mission, she quickly learnt, is a lot easier said than done. Tobago, which she has called home for more than two decades, is especially challenging.
Cultural stereotypes, fears of not being supported financially by a spouse/partner and concerns about the well-being of their children have caused many women to accept abuse in its various manifestations, she observed.
And while she does not currently have the data on the extent to which women are being affected by abuse in Tobago, Soman said based on her interactions with victims over the years and the reports the organisation continues to receive, domestic abuse appears to be a grave problem on the island.
But PADA’s work extends way beyond support for the women who are often the victims of physical, emotional and emotional abuse. The organisation, as far as possible, also counsels men and couples, depending on the severity of the situation.
Soman said identifying the warning signs of potential abuse is vitally important.
“We need to educate our women and men, young boys and girls about the signs of abuse early,” she told WMN.
“We need to educate them so they could see and recognise the signs of emotional abuse, verbal abuse and financial abuse and what to do when it's spotted and seek the help so that they and their partners can be counselled.”
Owing to the Government’s restrictions to stop the spread of covid19, Soman observed that domestic abuse in Tobago has escalated during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has affected us all in a lot of ways, especially people already facing domestic abuse in their homes. We saw a lot of job loss, decreased incomes.”
She said the loss of jobs and earnings in some households placed an additional burden on couples who were already experiencing problems in their relationships.
Soman said some couples do not even know how to relate to each other and discuss issues rationally.
“This posed a challenge because everyone was at home, sharing the same space. The women also had to cook more and clean up as people were constantly around.”
She said some couples with children also had to cope with the challenges in executing the online curriculum.
During the pandemic, Soman said PADA also could not counsel victims and offer court support as it had done pre-covid19.
“We tried our best to still offer it online which isn’t as effective as face to face because our work was sometimes constrained by loss in connectivity. The safe space we create for a person to talk about their issues just was not there.”
Originally from Arima, Soman grew up in a large family. After completing her high school education at El Dorado Secondary, she enrolled in a cosmetology programme before moving to Tobago in 1994 with a sister and her family in the Plymouth area.
Four years later, she married her husband and the union bore two children.
But Soman, who was 21 at the time, recalled the abuse started at the beginning of their relationship.
“I just thought he would change, that if I do better I can make him change. I took care of the house, kids, cooked, cleaned but that never seemed to help.”
She said as the years wore on, the abuse worsened to the point where she literally struggled to find some peace and happiness.
“One minute he was good and seemed okay then the next he was like a monster behind closed doors. The abuse started violently, then boiled down to verbal, financial and emotional before ending up physical again.”
Soman said she left the home several times but always returned for the sake of the children.
She recalled encouraging him to join her in couple’s therapy and he always complied.
“We did lots of counselling with different pastors and it helped for a time.”
But Soman said after a particularly horrible beating, she decided to take a stand.
“I had to get out to save my kids from this horrible life.”
She made a report at a police station and later explained her situation to a justice of the peace (JP) at the courthouse. The JP gave her a date to appear in court.
Soman recalled her husband told the magistrate they agreed to see a counsellor in Trinidad. But she said the magistrate did not ask her to corroborate his statement.
“The magistrate told him to go for his counselling and appear back after two weeks. But he went down for two days and came back and beat me.”
She made a second report at the police station and was advised to revisit the JP. Soman eventually pleaded her case in front of a magistrate and was granted a protection order. Her husband admitted to all of the allegations that were brought against him.
Soman said he also admitted to seeing his father hit his mother as a child.
The petite social activist, who holds an online doctorate in Christian counselling from the US-based Grace International Bible University, said things reached a head when he later breached the protection order and doused her with a flammable substance.
“God save me that day. He held me in the palm of his hands and promised that no weapon formed against me shall prosper (Isaiah 54:17) and though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil (Psalm 23:4). These are the verses that kept going over in my mind while all this was happening around me.”
Soman said the abuse continued and they were in and out of court for several years until one day, desperate for solution, she began researching different types of abuse on the internet.
“I looked at how it affected a person and children and started doing short courses. But one day the abuse was so bad that my eight-year-old son turned to me and expressed how he felt. He told me what he would do to help defend me next time.”
Soman said that was her breaking point.
“I knew I had to leave for the sake of saving myself and my kids.”
After mustering the courage to leave her husband, Soman felt the need to review not only the abuse but the manner in which the court and law enforcement law responds with victims and perpetrators. Her experience, she said, highlighted the flaws in the system.
“Going through the experience of feeling alone, vulnerable, defeated at times, I realised how the system is designed to frustrate and fail women facing abuse.”
Determined to make a difference, Soman said she established PADA as a forum for victims of domestic abuse. The non-governmental organisation has a director, secretary, accountant and counsellor and a few volunteers.
Over the years, she also pursued several courses to deepen her understanding or abuse and how it can be treated. She has studied conflict- resolution, mediation and negotiation, grief counselling, risk and vulnerability in children, anger management as well as programmes relating to fatherless sons, toxic masculinity and helping children cope with traumatic events.
The activist said a local businessman has donated a piece of land to the organisation to construct a safe house and educational centre to help abuse victims.
She added PADA, which offers free counselling, court support and family mediation to victims, is currently seeking funding to build the facility.
“We don’t have a safe house as yet but we continue to work with local business people to help facilitate if the need arises by providing a place to stay for our domestic violence survivors.”
She said PADA also works closely with the TT Police Service and Victim and Witness Support Unit.
The organisation drew some attention after the abduction and gruesome murder of Arima court clerk Andrea Bharatt in January. It held a silent, candlelight vigil in front of the I Love You Tobago sign in Scarborough calling on citizens to do more to protect women. Members of several civil society groups and religious organisations supported the event.
Of Bharatt’s murder, Soman said, “Andrea was a beautiful soul and didn’t deserve to die like that. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people. Her death really affected me. Every time I look at her pics, especially with her UWI gown, I feel like I am seeing my own daughter as they were almost the same age.”
She said she spoke to Bharatt’s father several weeks ago.
“Unfortunately, grief is something that never leaves a parent. It affects their everyday normal life. When the world goes back to its “normal,” their world rocks with the loss of their child. From a counsellor’s point of view I know it is something parents never recover from. They just learn to cope one day at a time.”
A regional director for Grace International Bible University, Soman said PADA has changed her life.
“Facing the court, my perpetrator, becoming brave, fighting the stigma and baring my abuse to the public, I became a strong, independent woman. My eyes have opened up so much as I tell my stories and have other women come forth and share their experiences. I realised I am not alone.”
Soman said education is the key to empowerment and ending the stigma of domestic abuse.
“There are many free courses that are available and victims can do them at their own pace.”
She added You Tube also has extensive data on domestic abuse and violence so that victims can understand the early warning signs.
Soman said women can also get involved with NGOs in their communities.
“Even if they don’t want to get involved, they can go to one of the support groups and hear and see that they are not alone and that there is help available. Our NGO is always looking for volunteers.”
People interested in making donations to PADA for the construction of its safe house can visit Republic Bank’s Auchenskeoch branch, Tobago. The account number is 200-807-425-301.