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Tackling gender-based violence in St. Vincent


by Carlos James, Esq. Fri, Nov 4. 2011

Violence against women will soon become a serious problem here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) if measures are not taken to address this issue. In fact, some may suggest that this article is incorrect and that it is indeed already a serious problem.{{more}} With reference to United Nations studies in the sub-Saharan context, figures have shown that gender-based violence and gender inequality are important determinants of women’s risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and increased human trafficking, among others. These are chronic social ills, for which gender-based violence serves as a breeding ground. While we have not yet reaped these bad fruits, we are certainly fertilising the ground.

Clearly, the problem here in SVG is larger than the resources allocated to tackle these issues. The main reasons generally attributed to the rise in violence against women are the failure of the existing laws and that of the law enforcement agencies to effectively deal with the problems – so, too, is the moral decay of some fragments of society. Though our local constabulary continues to ensure all reports, regardless of sex, are thoroughly investigated, they are far from adequately equipped to handle gender-based crimes. Most people would agree that this form of criminality requires a ‘special’ type of policing.

Take Rwanda, for instance: A UN-supported centre in that country serves as a health, legal and psychosocial support network to victims of domestic and gender-based abuses. The support centre spearheads awareness about violence against women, particularly among men and serves as a training ground for educating police officers about gender-based violence and how to thoroughly investigate such cases. The policy laid out through this system helps the security forces to properly take on gender-based violence cases and allows them to take violence against women not just as a security but human rights issue. This is supported by legislations passed in that country.

If Commissioner Miller says that the curriculum at the police training school covers remodelled gender-based policing techniques, then kudus to him. If Mr. Miller says there is a confidential domestic abuse hotline and a special task force to investigate these cases, then again kudos to him. If not, then you see where we have a problem.

Going deeper to the root of the problem, it is really no fault of the police when at policy level the mandate and support for these initiatives are not implemented. Despite efforts to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the introduction of the Domestic Violence (Summary Proceedings) Act, we are still struggling to reduce the high incidents of rape and assault against women in our communities, and violence against women has not shown any signs of abatement, as a UNODC (2007) report found.

Having a domestic violence Bill gazetted is far from any robust effort calling for its prevention through educational campaigns and stiffer legal penalties for perpetrators.

The lack of any meaningful effort to curb this growing problem of violence against women is an insensitive act to the patients nursing chopped wounds, rape victims, children left motherless because of domestic disputes, parents of missing teens who turn up dead, etc. This level of insensitivity is horrendous. Violence perpetrated against women is a flagrant violation of their fundamental human rights so well documented in our Constitution.

So where are the resources and policies to tackle this issue? Social groups still cannot afford the costly educational campaigns against gender-based violence despite a great deal of international funding available for government to tap into – Irish Aid spent €1.8 million on gender based violence in South Africa in 2008 along with coordination and support for the departments of health and social development, while the Commonwealth Secretariat continues to develop resource materials and training programmes for the judiciary, police forces, health departments, the media and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to promote the human rights of women.

The police and the prosecution service cannot investigate and prosecute thoroughly without the administrative resources and legal support when victim or witness support units and special measures for vulnerable witnesses are practically non-existent; neither can the judiciary implement stiffer penalties in favour of women without having their sentences overturned at the Court of Appeal if legislation is not in place to guide judges on stronger sentences in these particular cases.

So, again, where does the problem lie if we have failed to implement the respective social policies to support preventive campaigns, remodelled policing techniques and legislation dealing with legal procedure and trial?

It is time we get to work, starting with gender-based violence forums to heighten awareness in an effort strengthen our social safeguard against these types of crimes. What are we really doing to curb this problem?

Carlos James is a practising barrister-at-law.