By Kela S. Roberts
It’s an interesting thing to ask ourselves, the ‘why’, of violence. We understand, to an extent, the why of ‘getting hurt’, an inevitable outcome of violence. Without getting too scientific or philosophical, we get hurt because our bodies are soft, they are flesh, impact shatters bone, tears skin, we bleed, we feel. Violence however has a multitude of factors leading to it. Often we say it’s senseless but really, when it comes to it, it’s an expression of larger structures within our culture, playing itself as something animal, hasty, and explosive.
Violence is never just senseless, it’s rather an informed senselessness, the fulcrum as scattered as it might seem, of a culmination of other factors we might not be seeing. I preface with this distinction because I would like the reader to understand something clearly with regards to the topic we are about to discuss and think on; violence, is not without thought, not without reason, not as random as it seems. With regards to gender based violence, the harm that women and girls face at the hands of the men of society I think this distinction is important. Marking violence as senseless, as random, linguistically absolves the perpetrators of some of the ire.
Gender based violence is not senseless, it is informed by systemic and cultural structures which create an environment where men are allowed, expected, to physically lash out.
Having made this distinction clear, let’s get back to the original question, the ‘why?’
I ponder over this a lot, with the covid pandemic leading to an increase world wide in femicides and domestic violence, we see the realities everywhere. You don’t really have to pay attention to notice that within our own shores, there has been an increase in cases of domestic violence and feminices. Headlines like “ woman’s body found’, ‘man charged with assault’, ‘man charged with punching his wife’, cases spousal rape and even murder suicides all point to something sinister manifesting itself again and again. As discussed in our previous blogpost by the brilliant Ashlee Burnett, the circumstances of coronavirus lockdowns, and the economic fallouts from the pandemic have placed already vulnerable groups, in this case women, in an even more precarious position. Being confined to their homes, some of which pose an abusive environment, or losing their jobs make them both spatially and economically dependent on their abusers, effectively locking them into a self insulated cycle. The data shows this increase. However, to answer the question of why with just chalking it up to women being at home and around their abusers more paints an uneven picture of an answer. We need to delve deeper, into the culture, the psyche of the society itself, then and only then will we be able to truly get an answer to why.
Trinidad and Tobago is a misogynist’s playground. We have a unique flavor of it here. While misogyny and patriarchy are universal world spanning structures that cross all boundaries and are unique to no one place, the forms and messages it takes on and portrays can be very unique to the society it festers in.
T&T has what I would like to call the laissez faire flavor of patriarchy and misogyny, meaning, that while on the surface, we don’t actively have a culture that shuns, abuses or vocally invalidates the humanity of women, we do have a culture that passes a dismissive hand over rape allegations, a culture that talks of gender based violence as just a ‘regular’ occurance, a symptom of a couples spat.
We do have a culture that devalues sex workers and sex trafficking victims, we do have a culture that blames women for their assaults, for theiir beatings are due to them not choosing the fabled ‘right man’. We have men who don’t hold their friends accountable when they notice the symptoms of misogynistic or woman hating behavior in them, even when it is dangerous, even in the face of allegations of abuse or assault. Its in the law, where a man can only receive a five thousand dollar fine for breaking his wife’s two front teeth for refusing to have sex with him, an injury which caued her twenty thousand in dentistry bills, its nonchantly reported in the paper as just another passing headline. We live in a country which silently expects this kind of behavior, where men aren’t asked to be better.
Sure, maybe on social media you might see the call from the offhand average Joe, another performer, harking to his male peers to ‘protect women’ and to ‘do better’ but really, it’s not much more than lip service. People don’t know how to do better even if they truthfully wanted to, because doing better would require a significant amount of accountability, it would involve being the buzzkill at parties, it would involve cutting off a lot of friends, it would involve a lot of introspection.
So we opt for the lazy misogyny instead, we allow for this culture of turning the blind eye, of muffling the noise to become the norm. Men are not encouraged to be better because it’s too hard to try to get them to be, it is too hard to try to change something that’s become so normal. Women on the other hand, are relegated to their place, we are told to walk the world with this understanding of implicit violence and brace for impact. This is why it is so easy for governments and authorities to ignore or to not properly consider the effects of GBV and its relations to the Covid 19 pandemic. How can we ask them to consider something now that was barely really an ‘issue’ before? Though we like to tout ourselves as having progressed, I think the collective mentality of the country has inched further than that of the 1970’s, where maybe now instead of beating your wife in the streets you beat her at home, while the neighbours peep from their windows. Instead of correcting or even shunning your friends for their misogynistic behavior, you turn your eye, tell yourself that at least I’m not that way, and make an offhand joke about their behavior to lighten the mood. The culture doesn’t adequately punish men for their violence, nor does it shame them for their inactions and complicit behavior. Violence is taken as ‘senseless’ but expected within the culture, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t take violence as something that is cocooned and fed by the lazy, obtuse and lackadaisical nature of our local misogyny.
This culture of laissez faire misogyny seeps into the policies we lay out, and was especially seen during the pandemic. Globally governments opted to completely negate the effects the lockdowns would have on vulnerable populations especially women and Trinidad was no exception to this. The government failed to ensure access to already scarce support services amid the Covid-19 pandemic, making it even more challenging for survivors of sexual and GBV to report violence and get help from authorities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many shelters had even fewer staff than usual and had to operate at a lower capacity in terms of how many survivors they could accommodate, due to public health measures such as restrictions on mobility and social distancing guidelines. The why factor of the increase in GBV during the covid pandemic has nothing to do with the pandemic itself. Much like with other societal ills rooted in inequality the pandemic only magnified what was already there, the increase in violence is only a symptom of the illness; an imbalance of power and control.
As the pandemic rages on, we don’t know what the future might look like. Sure , certain businesses are open, lockdowns are not as frequent and people can leave their homes again. But mentally speaking, the damage has already been done, those who were trapped at home in abusive environments already lived through the entrapment, those who were hurt were already hurt, those who were killed are already gone. The reality is that just going back to normal is just nor possible. We know what the problem is, we know were it lies and that it is a malignant presence within our societal consciousness, that breed this kind of gender based violence and ignores its victims. The only step forward, of course, with most things of this nature is introspection and policy change. Governments should at least work to provide increased awareness as to the severity of gbv, allocate adequate resources to shelters and ngo’s aimed at assisting and increase the severity of punishment for gbv under the law. The introspection, of course would be a bit harder, but without it, these broadscale policy changes might not be done. To fix the problem, we really, truly need to see it as one first.
““I Had Nowhere To Go””. 2021. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/09/21/i-had-nowhere-go/violence-against-women-and-girls-during-covid-19-pandemic-kenya. Nations, United. 2021. “Addressing The Impact Of The COVID-19 Pandemic On Violence Against Women And Girls | United Nations”. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/addressing-impact-covid-19-pandemic-violence-against-women-and-girls.
Kela S. Roberts is an International Relations and History graduate. She is freelance writer and a member of the Feminitt Caribbean writing team, with a passion for understanding gender issues and furthering women’s liberation.