Everyone is familiar with the term “domestic violence”. It, unfortunately, comes up often enough that it is a regular part of our vocabulary and we believe we know what it means. Domestic violence is violent or aggressive behaviour between people in the same home, and it usually involves partners. We know that it can be physical, but it can take other forms that are often not recognized as domestic violence, and it disproportionately affects women.
In a 2009 survey of 600 college students in New Providence by Susan J Plumridge and William Fielding, it was found that 21 per cent of students grew up in households where domestic violence occurred. There is also the 2014 study by (then) College of The Bahamas in which 58 per cent of high school boys and 37 per cent of high school girls participating said they believed men should “discipline” their partners. We know that what children experience at home helps to shape their world view and behaviour. It is not enough to educate children about healthy relationships and warn them about intimate partner violence and domestic violence. We have to be able to address what is happening now, causing harm to people experiencing and witnessing violence.
Domestic violence is largely understood as physical abuse. The billboards, pamphlets, and PSAs usually include graphic images of women with wounds and bruises, most often on their faces. In many cases, physical violence is hidden, leaving no visible evidence, or covered up by clothing and makeup. There are also many cases of domestic violence that do not involve physical violence. It can be the threat of violence, denial of basic needs such as food and clothing, isolation from family members and friends, deprivation of money or the ability to work, damage to property, and other controlling behaviour. These may not be immediately recognised as domestic violence by the person being violated or the people in their life, if ever. We all need to know the signs of domestic violence and how people change when they are experiencing it. For that to happen, we need to expand our understanding of domestic violence, indicate that it is not limited to physical violence whenever we talk about it, and portray it in more than one way. This work falls to non-governmental organisations, but the government is obligated to engage. It has a responsibility to the people and obligations through international mechanisms, and it must not be allowed to ignore or assign these responsibilities to other bodies, especially with proper resourcing.
Beyond a clear understanding of domestic violence, we need to acknowledge that people are at different levels of risk and require different interventions and support services. Domestic violence is experienced differently by people with children, and their opportunities to leave and to report are affected by having dependents. Domestic violence is different for people with disabilities. It is different for people who are unemployed. It is different for people who are living in a country where they do not have citizenship, family, or any other support system. Laws, policies, and services have to take these people into consideration and respond to their specific needs.
In her report on violence against women in The Bahamas, Dubravka Šimonovic — former Special Rapporteur on violence against women — noted that socio-economic status and social exclusion put migrant women at increased risk of various forms of violence and reduces the likelihood that they would report violence for fear of being deported. She also noted that crimes against LGBTQI+ people, including domestic violence, largely go unreported.
For both migrants and LGBTQI+ people, there is fear of the unintended consequences of reporting. Will they be blamed? Will their status or identity be made public? How will they be made to suffer because of it? Is reporting worth the risk? The government is obligated to ensure that it is not only possible, but safe for people to report domestic violence and that they will receive assistance beyond the option to prosecute.
Šimonovic recommended continued training for police officers on domestic violence along with training of people in various institutions that would come into contact with survivors of domestic violence, including healthcare facilities, welfare agencies, and immigration officers. As first points of contact, they need to understand domestic violence, its impact on people, and the way it disproportionately affects people who are already in situations of vulnerability.
It was noted in Šimonovic’s report that there is a need for more shelters in all of the islands of The Bahamas. It is important that people are able to safely report domestic violence and access safe temporary housing. It is particularly difficult for women with children, especially boys over the age of ten, to find appropriate shelter.
The report said: “At least one shelter capable of admitting women and children around the clock should be available in every region of the State, including rural areas.”
We are not there yet. It is unacceptable that domestic violence is such a common occurrence and we do not have resources in place to support survivors. Even worse, people are shamed for not leaving (sooner), as though they have somewhere to go. We, in fact, need to shift away from displacing survivors, instead requiring perpetrators to find other accommodations and stay away from the home.
We need to implement the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and legislation to protect from gender-based violence and domestic violence. In addition to changes in law and the support of plans and policies, we need to implement practices and procedures that support the work to end domestic violence and violence against women.
One issue that comes up over and over again on most issues, but especially issues of women’s human rights, is the lack of data. The absence of data is frequently used by detractors as “proof” that a problem does not exist, is not big enough, or does not affect enough people to even warrant a conversation. We need to do much better on collecting data, analysing it, and making it publicly available, not in response to the misogynists and anti-rights people, but to better understand the issue, how it is changing, the ways it affects people, and how we can more effectively prevent and respond to it. The issue of insufficient data has been addressed by various experts, entities, and mechanisms.
Šimonovic’s report calls on the government to “regularly collect, analyse, and publish statistical data on all forms of gender-based violence against women, through a femicide watch or observatory on violence against women, with aggregated data on the number of complaints, convictions, and reparations made to victims”. This is a reinforcement of an existing obligation through an Inter-American mechanism.
The Bahamas ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará) in 1995. Little has been done to familiarize the general public with this convention. We need to be aware of the international mechanisms that expand and protect our rights, especially when the State ratified them. The Bahamas is required to come into compliance with Belém do Pará which acknowledges that violence against women is violation of human rights. Article 2 says violence against women includes that which “occurs within the family or domestic unit or within any other interpersonal relationship, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the woman[…]”
The Convention also includes violence that is “perpetrated or condoned by the state or its agents regardless of where it occurs”. It obligates the state to prevent and investigate violence against women and include that in legislation and administrative measures, to amend or repeal laws that “sustain the persistence and tolerance of violence against women,” and to “establish fair and effective legal procedures” for women who experience violence. In addition to legal remedy, the Convention requires states to implement measures and programmes to address cultural attitudes and patterns of violence, raise awareness of the issue, and ensure proper data collection among other obligations.
Belém do Pará is an important convention that has gone without attention for a long time. It is relatively easy to read and understand, and it is imperative that we implement it. It is not enough to ratify. The government is obligated to educate the public on human rights mechanisms and what they mean for us. Civil society needs to be aware of what we have ratified and how it all applies to the lives of the people they are meant to serve.
As we get closer to the start of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign which begins on November 25, take some time to read the Convention. Simply type “Belém do Pará convention” into your search engine of choice and it will be the first result. Get familiar with it along with other conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Equality Bahamas will be especially focused on domestic violence, femicide, and violence and harassment in the world of work in the coming weeks and will host a series of events on these topics as well as human rights, the importance of data, and the role of the media. Follow the organization on social media (@equality242) and look out for the calendar of events and calls to action to end gender-based violence against women and LGBTQI+ people.
Published in The Tribune on October 27, 2021.