An eye for an eye?
August 13, 2000
Here are headlines from the Guyana Chronicle of Tuesday, August 8, 2000:
Page 1: "Band members found dead in shack" (story on page 9).
Page 9: "Band members found dead in shack" (the story promised on Page 1).
Also page 9: "Chopped woman in serious condition" (the story of the chopping of Cheryl Murray).
Page 10: "Judge to rule on admissibility of evidence (the story of a man who allegedly beat his wife, Sursattie Singh, to death in May 1997).
Page 14: "Farmer accused of kidnapping, raping minor" (a story about a 35 year old man who allegedly kidnapped a 16 year old girl and held her at gunpoint for 4 days, and raped her).
The Stabroek News of the same day carried the same main stories, adding three 'smaller' ones:
Page 2: "Woman whose hands were chopped off loses eye" (an update on Sonia Hinds); Monday's papers had first carried the news of her hands being chopped off.
Page 11: "Man denies kicking wife from bed".
Page 16: Education officer freed on indecent assault charge".
I have used only those headlines that have something to do with man/woman violence, between people 'close' to each other and between strangers. I apologise if I have missed any. But I am listing headlines from each paper because the accumulation of violence in each gives you the same sense of being yourself assaulted.
Like two of my friends who separately called me on Tuesday and Wednesday, each saying, almost incoherently, "You see the paper? What is this? What is this? Is what is this?"
Violence everywhere. A neighbour of the band members killed alleges that police beat him till his rib broke. That was Wednesday night's news, along with the news of another woman-burning, the setting alight of a teenage girl allegedly by her boyfriend. At the time of writing this column (Thursday morning), we don't know who the assailant in the deaths of the band members was. The other stories are clearer.
Two choppings of two women on two succeeding days. On the day after the second of these days, a story in Stabroek News must have made most readers think about 'an eye for an eye'. As mentioned earlier, the headline was that having lost her hands, Sonia Hinds had now lost her eye. Coincidentally, the body of the story reports that the alleged assailant, in hospital and "under guard by a policeman and handcuffed to the bed, yesterday said that there was more to the story than meets the eye".
What he meant by that, it seems, is "that the row was not over shoes as Hinds claimed but because of her behaviour." She behaved, it seems, bad. Perhaps she gave him eye-pass. And the punishment was the loss of her eye, and her two hands.
What should his punishment be? As I thought of this (though think is not the right verb for what my mind was doing) I kept hearing voices. One was the voice of a lawyer friend of mine in Trinidad and Tobago - a women's rights activist, as we're called - who used to be involved in fighting against the imposition of the death penalty on her clients. Another was that of another friend, another woman in Trinidad and Tobago, who would scream at me that all these (curse word) women's rights activists mad, fighting against the death penalty for men who had killed women while claiming to be also fighting against violence against women. I thought of them on Wednesday when I read in the same issue of the Chronicle cited above, "Man gets death sentence at retrial", the story of the conviction and sentencing of a man in St Vincent and the Grenadines, found guilty of killing a German woman whose fiance I know. This was a murder whose viciousness made me want to call for the murderer's blood, an eye for an eye - especially after I heard of how the marks on her fingers and hands and arms bore evidence of how desperately she had fought to live. Two of my colleagues in Red Thread exclaimed as they read the first report on the chopping of Sonia Hinds on Monday, that it was a pity that the policeman reported to have shot into the air to stop villagers from beating the man to death had stopped them; said one, "I wish these police would learn when and who to shoot".
In Guyana there is a generalised increase in violence. There is also an increase in ignorant behaviour, some of it reflected in the violence - the small, small things over which one man assaults the other, one woman assaults another
Yet both are against the death penalty, as am I, if only on the grounds that once you have put a person to death, you can't bring him (or her, though it's rarely a woman) back if you find out that he/she was wrongly convicted. African-Americans have always argued that the death penalty is disproportionately used against Black men in America. There as elsewhere, race and poverty are two of the risk factors for being sentenced to death. And now that DNA has been invented, they are discovering in the United States how many people in that country have been wrongly sentenced to death. The Republican candidate, George W Bush, who as governor of Texas has presided over more executions than have taken place in any other state, says he's sure that his were all guilty. But other governors, no less conservative and pro-death penalty than he (but not running for President) have suspended or are thinking about suspending the death penalty in their states, shaken by the evidence that some men were executed for crimes they did not commit.
In Guyana there is a generalised increase in violence. There is also an increase in ignorant behaviour, some of it reflected in the violence - the small, small things over which one man assaults the other, one woman assaults another. But surely, there is also an increase in two overlapping kinds of violence that need a different approach from the rest of the horror. One has to do with the violence within families, including whatever is giving rise to a rise in suicides. Including male violence against women. Including the violence against the elderly by adult children. Including the violence by parents against their small children. Including incest. The other related violence is sexual violence, overwhelmingly by men against women and against children. This also has something to do with a perversion of intimacy, different but same whether it happens in the home between people 'close' to each other or outside between strangers.
In relation to the first kind, Basmat Shiw Parsad has spoken about how the home which is supposed to be a place of support becomes also (not instead) a kind of prison - and we can add, sometimes a slaughterhouse. A letter writer in Wednesday's SN called for "a plan for trained persons to enter every home where trouble has been reported or detected and bring relief before it is too late". In response, we are bound to hear about "the sanctity of the home". A reported community peace project by the United Nations Association of Guyana will have, as one of its aims, to "encourage reconciliation between individuals, within families and communities". I do not know how they will set about the task in relation to families without trespassing on "the sanctity of the home".
But what is to be done? I do not believe that an eye for an eye will stop this descent into barbarism. I am against the death penalty in a country where the overwhelming majority of people are in favour of the death penalty.
What is to be done? Starting at the top of the slippery slope that goes from molestation to rape and sometimes murder, one letter writer in Tuesday's Chronicle said, "Women's groups should help these victims" - speaking of support for women who go to court because they have been molested. I suspect that she is thinking of the 17 year old girl whose alleged molester was just found not guilty. At least two groups I know accompany women and children to court when asked. Maybe they should go even when not asked, and go in their numbers, their presence an attempt to 'manners' lawyers who get off their clients by destroying the women and sometimes children, who have accused their clients; as the letter writer says, they demean the women (and the children), harass them, and treat them "like vermin". One problem in the solution she proposes is her suggestion that "only women prosecutors should prosecute in cases including women in rape and sexual molestation", but women prosecutors will not necessarily behave any better than male prosecutors. After all, women lawyers defending rapists and molesters of women and children demean those women and children just as much as men do.
But never mind them. Like the Mothers in Black who have found their way of demonstrating their unwillingness to tolerate traffic murders any longer, so women and men enraged by all the violence, and outraged by the rising epidemic of violence against women, should find a way to publicly express that rage until due attention is paid not just by government, but by the whole society, to strengthening laws where necessary, to implementing the good laws we have, and to growing and nurturing a culture of active opposition to violence.
And hey, the next time we begin action, let's begin it because we're committed to sustaining it. Our rages are quick to flare, and just as quick to flare out.
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