Murder, attempted murder and GBH

Stabroek News
April 9, 2000

While there is plenty talk these days about domestic violence, the raw reality of what it involves barely seems to puncture the surface of the public consciousness. Take, for example, the horrific cases of women burnt to death, or scarred for life after having been doused with kerosene and then deliberately set on fire by their husbands and reputed husbands. While people express private shock when they hear about it, there is little in the way of publicly expressed outrage - outrage that local culture should supply so many examples of otherwise ordinary men not just committing murder, but in the most horrendous fashion.

Are we so inured to violence that the notion of someone being burnt to death fails to move us any longer? Or is it that when it occurs within a domestic context it is somehow not regarded as being as terrible a crime as when the victim and perpetrator are strangers? Is it that women - and for that matter, children - in a home setting are perceived as having less humanity than they would have operating in any other surrounding? How else can one explain the silence of the leaders of the Indian community in particular, where setting women on fire is more common than among other groups.

Of course, domestic violence in general, as opposed to burning in particular, is by no means confined to the Indian community. It encompasses all races and all classes and all ages. There are civic groups who have worked hard to sensitize the public to the problem, and we now have a domestic violence act with real teeth, but the assaults continue uninterrupted. For many women in this country the most dangerous place to be is not on an unlit street in a seedy part of Georgetown at three in the morning; it is in their own home. And if they die by violence, the odds are it will not be at the hands of some stranger in a lonely spot; it will be at the hands of their own spouse or reputed spouse.

The Domestic Violence Act has failed to make any impact whatever on the situation, probably partly because the police have not made themselves familiar with it in the way in which they should have done, partly because ordinary people are not familiar with it either, but mostly because the members of the force reflect in a passive way the views of male society at large, to wit, that domestic battering is none of their business, and that husbands have a right to beat their wives.

Changing attitudes is a long-term business, but let us start by calling acts of domestic violence by their true names: they are crimes of murder, attempted murder and/or grievous bodily harm. Secondly, let us stop thinking that physical assaults within the home are a private matter; they are a public matter, just as the assault of a stranger on the street would be. Thirdly, the civic groupings working to reduce the incidence of domestic abuse should start demanding from religious leaders of all religions and all denominations a public statement of where they stand on the issue, and what they are going to try and do about the problem in their communities. What, for example, does Guyana's best known pandit - Pt Reepu Daman Persaud - have to say on the matter?

There are some churchmen who have commendably associated themselves with the campaign against violent crime in the home, but the Guyana Council of Churches as an organization has been silent. What can the pandits, the moulvis and the pastors tell us about morals and family values, if they are not prepared to speak out in the mandirs, the masjids and the churches against the very thing which undermines the structure of the family, and the integrity of its values? What can they tell their flock about the sanctity of womanhood and the beauty of motherhood, if they turn a blind eye to the beatings, burnings and murder of wives and mothers going on in the parishes and the villages?

The guardians of our morals cannot be mute on this issue; they should be heard. We should hear them in unison about a concerted non-denominational religious campaign to save the family from killing and violence.