DOMESTIC violence is the deliberate act of inflicting harm on someone, usually within a family setting. In most of the cases, the victims are women. Guyana has a relatively high incidence of domestic violence with roughly one out of every two women between ages 15 and 60 having been abused by their husbands, spouses or partners at some stage in their lives. This is higher than the global average, which is roughly one out of three women within that age cohort having experienced domestic violence at one time or another.
According to statistics released by the Guyana Police Force, in 2019, there were 1, 499 reports of domestic violence out of which there were 918 cases and 261 convictions. In 2020, there were 1672 reports, 893 cases and 112 convictions. For the first half of this year, there have been 896 cases, 439 cases and 85 convictions. For the corresponding period last year, there were 733 reports of which there were 370 cases and 85 convictions.
These are all alarming statistics, especially as they relate to the relatively low rate of convictions. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that a significant number of victims declined to lead evidence against perpetrators. This view was shared by the Chancellor of the Judiciary, who saw the failure to report incidents of domestic violence as a major hurdle.
This does not speak well of us as a society. The records showed that domestic violence cuts across all ethnicities, regions, occupations or religious beliefs. The law prohibits domestic violence, gives women the right to seek prompt protection and there are strong penalties for those found guilty. Penalties for violation of protection orders include fines and imprisonment. Several pieces of legislation are in place to deal with domestic violence and violence against women.
Why then, one may ask, is domestic violence still so widespread in Guyana? There is no simple answer as the reasons can be several, such as failure by victims to report such cases to the police, lack of adequate policing, insensitivity of law enforcement agencies towards domestic violence and, in some cases, out-of-court settlement. It is not often that government will prosecute cases in which the alleged victim or family members agreed to drop the case in exchange for an out-of-court settlement, which in some ways helps to embolden perpetrators and potential perpetrators.
The government for its part is doing everything possible to bring an end to this scourge, but so often such efforts are stymied by failure of the responsible agencies to enforce domestic violence laws. This is especially so in rural and hinterland communities where the police do not have a strong presence and courts do not meet as regularly as in coastal areas.
There are, however, some encouraging news. Domestic violence training is now part of the curriculum of the police training college. Only recently, the Police Force established domestic violence units and there are special rooms at police stations where reports are made and follow action taken in a much more conducive environment. In addition, separate rooms at two magistrates’ courts were constructed for victims to testify privately and have their hearings done virtually. The two magistrate courts are Leonora and Wales. The units were constructed with assistance from UNICEF which has been partnering with the Ministry of Human Services to deal with issues of domestic violence, especially as it relates to women and girls.
These are indeed laudable initiatives by the legal system to deal with the issue of domestic violence.
Our women need all the protection they can get against domestic violence, especially in this stressful Covid-19 environment. The government is doing its part at the policy level in terms of putting in place the necessary legislative framework and in providing some limited relief at the Help and Shelter facility. In the final analysis, it is the changing attitude towards women by society as a whole and the extent to which those found guilty are dealt with swiftly and in accordance with the law that will be the main determinants in reducing the incidence of domestic violence.