Panellists urge end to the 'tradition' of subjugation

By Shauna Jemmott
Stabroek News
December 4, 2000

"Women are killed; a woman was set alight with tyres around her. Women are injured; a woman was stabbed 16 times, another woman lost both her hands and her left eye because she chose to dress in a particular way. Women are threatened. Women are raped in front of their children; young girls are raped while using public transport."

Women's Affairs Bureau (WAB) Administrator, Hazel Halley-Burnett, listed these as just a few of the incidents of violence against women, many of which have fatal outcomes.

Speaking at a recent symposium on 'Eliminating Violence Against Women' held by the Guyana Postal and Telecommunications Workers Union (GPTWU), Halley-Burnett expressed sadness at the increased incidence of violence against women and young girls, adding that it happened more often than reported. "It has become evident that the physical and mental abuse of women within the household is far greater in magnitude than can be imagined. It is still common, however, for mental abuse to be taken for granted, and [conclusions] continue to be drawn that little can be done about it."

She noted that domestic violence against women had a long history, with women and young girls being battered, sexually abused and psychologically injured by persons with whom they should enjoy the closest trust.

"Although violence against women in the family is now acknowledged to be a serious problem in both incidence and effect in most countries of the world... it seems as though violence against women has been validated by the very structures of our society-by the behaviour pattern-moulded by its cultural traditions, passed down through generations..."

She contended that as a result of this, women had been and continued to be subjected to shocking and horrifying degrees of violence.

The social worker related a story she was told by a 12-year-old victim of rape/incest. "When I was eight years old. I used to visit my uncle. He would call me in a room where he usually exercised. He made me lie on him while he was naked. I don't know whether I lost my virginity. I can't remember if any blood came." Halley-Burnett noted that the little girl was raped by her uncle on more than one occasion and at such a tender age, she could not even remember everything.

Violence against women, she said, ranged from verbal and physical abuse, battering, sexual abuse, psychological and emotional abuse. "The information over the years presents strong evidence of the atrocities perpetrated against women in society, which will continue as long as certain attitudes prevail," the WAB administrator said. Noting that Guyana had certain institutional mechanisms in place to eliminate violence against women, she cited the Domestic Violence Act, 1996, saying it ought not to be ignored in dealing with women's rights and violence against women and children.

Section 44 of that act provides for the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security to implement counselling services, and centres for victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. "So we are not only dealing with the victims, we also want to work with the perpetrators, because there must be a problem."

She said that specialized training for police, counsellors and persons working with victims of domestic violence was on the ministry's agenda and that public education sessions were ongoing. Halley-Burnett also mentioned the Legal Aid Centre and homes for battered women and children. She noted that Help and Shelter also provided counselling for victims as well as perpetrators of violence against women.

"Women's rights are human rights. Women have the right not to be physically, emotionally or sexually abused. Women have the right to break up and fall out of love with someone and not be threatened," she stated.

In concluding, Halley-Burnett quoted the late Marcus Garvey's words which were made popular in music by the late Robert Nesta 'Bob' Marley: "Until the philosophy that holds one race superior/ and another inferior... Until there are no longer first and second class citizens of any nation/ and until the colour of [one's] skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes... war." "I say until we see each other as equal and equal partners regardless of culture, social and economical status [or] race, violence will not end. Let us all unite to end war!"

Sociologist and Member of Parliament, Andrew Hicks; Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Gail Teixeira; and Attorney-at-law Cavril Lynch, representing the Guyana Women Lawyers' Association (GWLA) also addressed the gathering.

Teixeira suggested that a national stamp promoting an end to violence against women be introduced. She claimed that before 1985 it was "acceptable for women to be battered" as a means "to maintain and reinforce subordination, and it has certainly been man's style of ruling from the beginning of man itself."

She said that Guyanese had been conditioned to violence and our children will also be conditioned to it. "The victim of violence is always conditioned to be controlled and to lose their sense of self and to see themselves through the eyes of the subjugator ... violence is based on power." The minister said female victims who were economically independent or not so dependent tended to keep their ordeal a secret more than those who depended solely on their partner/ abuser. "The difference, however, takes place in those women who are economically better off, usually have more choices and more access to health care or to hide the fact that they are being beaten. The poor woman has less choices..." Working with men Hicks, sharing his views on how working with men could decrease the occurrence of abuse against women, pointed out that everyone's opinion should be taken into consideration in order to arrive at a strategic framework to enhance family and community life, which would most likely cause violence against women to lessen.

The lone male panellist said there was a need to locate violence against women within the wider framework of extra-marital rape, sexual abuse and harassment, prostitution, trafficking and other acts that were degrading to women.

He recommended that special programmes be put in place for the perpetrators of such crimes so that society could recognize violence against women, which it sometimes denied and ignored.

He said that in establishing programmes for the perpetrators, one should also seek rapport with institutions catering for their women victims. "Sometimes when we seek to address the need to establish mainstream programmes for men we fail to incorporate the work of those institutions that are making services available for women or the victims of domestic violence. As a consequence, there is greater need for networking in this regard."

Hicks also said that those providing corrective services for offenders were sometimes guilty of "the mistaken belief that to concentrate efforts on perpetrator automatically equated with the improved safety of the victim or potential victim.

"However, many experiences have shown that the victims are often exposed to an additional risk, whether that be psychological or physical." According to him, research showed that most men who voluntarily attended corrective programmes did so "because of shame, denial, ambivalence, embarrassment or the cultural imperative that establishes that men ought to be seen as self sufficient, and not necessarily because of their personal conviction or an act of conscience."

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