Voices of Advocates Part 1: Domestic Violence (Trinidad &Tobago)
The story of a young woman who endured both domestic violence and a court system that is unfriendly to the poor.
A hard-working, law-abiding young woman who made the wrong decision of entering into a relationship with someone she thought she knew. During this relationship she endured physical, mental and emotional abuse. Not only did she had to literally run for her life, but the life she now has she can barely call her own because of her country’s inhumane, unfriendly and insufferable legal system which she had to turn to for help.
She even lost her mother as a result of the said system. She recalled how one day her mother left the court with her feeling so helpless that the next day, after enduring a night of torturous worry for fear of her daughter’s life, she suffered a ruptured blood vessel in her brain. Her mother passed away two days later, leaving her children orphans. Her older brother dropped out of university; the younger brother, who is currently pursuing his post-graduate studies at the main University in Trinidad, now has a hard time paying his school fees.
The judicial system in Trinidad & Tobago, she said, is plagued with overcrowding, lack of privacy, bureaucracy and insufficient human resources to effectively deal with all the issues brought before it. She recalled that since her application and appearance in March 2011 for breach of a protection order, she had endured at least 10 adjournments and was forced to wait two and a half months for a verdict that came sometime in May 2012, although she was represented by a counsel.
More than that, she had to beg her employers for time off to attend court with the promise to return in a timely manner, only to break that promise over and over again, as she would spend almost the entire day at the court. The Magistrate would instruct parties to be present for 9:00am but would sometimes arrive at 10:00am, if at all.
But she can’t even make him apologise for his tardiness or absenteeism. Most times, the Magistrate would proceed to arbitrarily adjourn matters as if it was so easily done for those who had suffered. She also pointed out that even when Magistrates are absent from other courts, the Magistrate from the Domestic Violence/Family Court was expected to go and deal with those matters as though domestic violence cases were less important or urgent.
She is a professional woman with supervisory responsibilities. The judicial system that is supposed to protect her has instead left her feeling frustrated, discouraged and hopeless. She said she has come to the humble realisation that the country’s legal system is designed for people with lots of time on their hands and the very rich who can be escorted through the basement of the courts.
So my question is: what about all those law-abiding people who diligently contribute to the asset base of the country through paying taxes, as well as those contributing intellectually and spiritually? She has done nothing wrong and yet she (and by extension her family) was made to suffer unfair consequences.
She recalled further that her commitment to her job was questioned as she constantly had to be seeking time off and as a result had been by-passed with opportunities for training and acting in higher positions. But according to the law of reinforcement, shouldn’t good behaviour be rewarded and undesirable behaviour punished? This to me creates conflict, and the minds of persons and their fundamental teachings can be brought into question.
More than that: it highlights a contradiction in the system which is supposed to protect people from crimes. What it does instead though is encourage lawlessness and forces people to take the law into their own hands.
The system she painfully describes is very harsh and oppressive and benefits the unscrupulous lawyers who can charge exorbitant fees per appearance. If one does not have a lawyer, they are made to feel as though they are stripped of their dignity. Unrepresented persons who are usually poor generally feel the brunt of the system as they are made to wait for hours to have their matters called because they are usually the last ones on the docket.
As a young woman of this country, I must ask: what about their human right to be recognised a person before the law as well as their human right to security and protection? How does the world help young women who do not have the capacity or the financial resources to fight their ground?
What scares me though is that this country has committed itself to international declarations such as the UN Declaration on Elimination of Violence Against Women, which means it must enact, strictly enforce, repeal legislation and take preventive measures to protect women, youth and children from all forms of violence and abuse as well as to enact and enforce legislation against the perpetrators of practices and acts of violence against women.
Additionally, governments agreed to provide mechanisms to victims of violence to report violations and access to justice with effective remedies which also includes the provision of low-cost or free legal assistance for those living in poverty. But for this woman, from making reports to the police all the way to the court has been a nightmare: she says no-one seemed to be trained, sensitised, informed or educated in dealing with cases of domestic violence.
I believe the time has come for reforms in how Trinidad & Tobago deals with domestic violence. Women continue to be beaten, raped and killed, even set on fire. In 2011 two children, aged five and eight, were brutally stabbed to death along with their mother. It has also now crept onto the doorsteps of a prominent law practitioner as he too has lost his daughter to domestic violence. Based on crime against women statistics, over 18,000 protection orders were sought in 2011 in this country; it is well on its way in becoming the domestic violence hub of the world.
Society owes its citizens security, health care, water, education and love, just to name a few. Protection from violence is also a need that must be fulfilled and society and the government must play their part.
This opinion piece is published in collaboration with Women Deliver: 100 Young Leaders. Ife Smith is one of the 100 Young Leaders for 2012-2103.
Ife Smith, 28, is from Trinidad and Tobago. She is pursuing her Master’s in Labour and Employment Relations at the University of the West Indies – Barbados. She has 11+ years’ of experience in advocacy, peer education, and sexual and reproductive health rights. She is also a volunteer at the Family Planning Association’s youth branch, Youth Advocacy Movement.
Photo by CWGL via Flickr under Creative Commons license.