Battered woman’s syndrome needs to be a mitigating factor

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Annan Boodram

By Annan Boodram – The Caribbean Voice

Melissa Playter, a Guyanese woman who suffered years of abuse at the hands of her partner, eventually ended up killing her abuser in what is widely seen as self defense. Yet, not only was she arrested and charged with murder but she was also placed on bail that she could not afford. Fortunately, a local NGO was able to raise the bail and has also offered to help her start a business so she could support herself and her children.

This case highlights the issue of battered woman/people syndrome, which according to a study, women who kill in response to domestic violence, is “the psychological mindset and emotional state of female victims of abuse (developed by Dr Lenore E. Walker), which explains why women often stay in abusive relationships; and the “slow burn reaction”, where women in a situation of abuse tend to not react instantly to the abuse, partly for psychological reasons but also because of the physical mismatch between the abuser and the victim, which makes an imminent response seem futile or even more dangerous to the victim”.

According to the 2015 study conducted by Linklaters LLP for Penal Reform International, “In the majority of the jurisdictions reviewed, there is no specific legislative basis for a history of abuse to be considered as a mitigating factor…” This certainly is true with respect to the Caribbean and so The Caribbean Voice strongly urges Caribbean governments and CARICOM to work towards a regional mechanism that:

  • Enables battered woman/people syndrome  to  be considered a mental health condition that must ensure that its victims are immediately provided both psychological assessment and counseling once their cases reach the courts;
  • Sets any bail in such situations at a very minimal level or better yet, a court order that allows the victim to be free under supervision by the court and/or psychologists while she/he awaits her day in court;
  • Ensures that battered woman/people syndrome is a viable defence in cases like Melissa’s. In fact in nations such the US, Brazil, Japan and Australia, battered woman’s syndrome is indeed a mitigating factor is court cases of this nature.

This situation also raises a number of other issues that need Caribbean governments’ attention and legislation; issues that were also recently ventilated in Trinidad and Tobago over the ongoing debate and discussion on the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill. In his contribution to the debate on the bill, member of parliament Dr Surujrattan Rambachan took issue with communities and religious organizations, which do not take an active role in addressing and preventing domestic violence. Actually, Dr Rambachan was expressing a global truism, one that is more pervasive in Caribbean societies and developing nations.

In fact, there is a long-held view in the Caribbean that you should not get involved in conflicts between wives and husbands because it’s not your business. Now, generations later, we in The Caribbean Voice (TCV), have been saying as loudly and as often as we can that ‘abuse prevention is everybody’s business’, and as such this mindset has to be built into every Caribbean person. As well, we also support a number of other propositions arising out of both the Melissa Playter case and the debate/discussion on domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago:

  • That religious organizations include anti-abuse training and activism both at the level of their priesthood as well as congregation while eschewing what Dr Rambachan referred to as “these old-fashioned trends where women were urged to put up with abusive behaviour from their spouses”;
  • That governments launch public education campaigns “so families in need could understand their rights and legal options”, know about available resources that they can access and are able to develop safety plans for/with family members who are abused;
  • That domestic violence awareness and sensitization be conducted in schools, in collaboration with other stakeholders such as NGOs and community based organizations;
  • That protection orders be given them actual teeth, there be substantial increase of fines issued to penalise breaches and proactive monitoring components be added to court verdicts;
  • That “privately-run shelters are able to keep their doors open and provide the best level of support for survivors” and that such shelters are supplemented with state-run domestic violence shelters;
  • That all regional police forces follow the lead of the Trinidad and Tobago police service in setting up nationwide Gender-based Violence Units (GBVU) with the ability for quick responses and the skill-sets to know what to do and how to do it with priority on victims’ safety;

TCV also endorses the call by Trinidad and Tobago commissioner of police, Gary Griffith, for it to be mandatory for medical institutions to report domestic-related wounding and assaults. And we urge that all convicted abusers should be publicly listed along with their photos in a registry that would be easily accessible. There are those who would academically argue about rights of abusers but completely ignore the rights of victims and the potential for abuse to be repeated. They also ignore the fact that there is a mountain of literature and lived experiences that clearly say that every abuser is a potential murderer.

Also, TCV believes that like the Trinidad and Tobago Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill, all domestic violence legislation throughout the Caribbean should contain mechanisms to stop the police from telling complainants to “go back and handle your business” and/or from taking it upon themselves to coerce victims to make up with their abusers.

Additionally, strident efforts should be made to ensure that police do not allow themselves to be influenced to dismiss reports, belittle victims, engage in casual investigations that destroy cases and ignore any and every sign that clearly point to abuse and potential for femicide. There must also be follow through on all reports taking cognisance that victims will often withdraw complaints or refuse to testify because of threats to self, children and family, economic dependence on abusers and ‘because of the children’.

As well, TCV urges Caribbean governments to urgently organise stakeholders’ focus group to come up with coherent and concerted action plans for immediate implementation. By stakeholders we mean organisations that are currently directly involved in gender-based activism – not those who say they are but do nothing, not those who talk, talk and talk but do nothing else and not those who engage in photo ops and pageantry but no concrete action. We also urge that politics be taken out of the equation and that only the passionate and committed, who already give of their time and efforts, be involved.

Consultants are not needed because there is absolutely nothing to consult on. Contractors are not needed because there is nothing to contract out. And consultations are not needed because everyone is aware of the harsh realities on the ground. Instead, bring together all those who are already striving to address the issue, build a plan that is practical and doable and implement it across nations, with governments and the private sectors providing the financial and logistical resources. Then:

  • provide the requisite training;
  • develop and deploy signposting,
  • create gatekeepers/first responders in every community,
  • map a network of counselors nationwide that can almost be immediately available to jump in and help,
  • enhance and nationally extend the victims support and safety networks where they currently exist or establish such networks where they do not exist;

In effect, what to do is very clear. Now, instead of verbiage and rhetoric from officialdom and wastage of resources in piecemeal, ad hoc, infrequent and ineffective action, the political fortitude needs to be displayed to build networks of activism, nationally armed with skill sets and resources to handle this crisis, through stakeholders’ collaboration.

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