The National Family Services Division (NFSD), at the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services (MSDFS), is urging victims of domestic violence to speak out and seek the help that is available to them, to get them out of such situations.

The appeal comes as the world observes International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and kicks off 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence.

Edris Gabriel, Social Worker at the NFSD, concurs with the United Nations that violence against women and girls is one of the most persistent and devastating human right violations in today’s world.

“Domestic violence seems to be plaguing our land as we continue to see incidents making headlines related to the abuse of, and in some unfortunate instances, murder of women,” she said.

Edris Gabriel also sits on an Inter-Ministerial Committee spearheaded by the Office of the Prime Minister which was formed to coordinate strategies to reduce domestic violence. The Committee undertakes a number of projects designed to combat violence against women and comprises a number of stakeholders, including the Victim and Witness Support Unit of the TTPS, the Child Protection Unit, as well as various Non-Governmental and Civil Society Organizations etc.

One of the most recent ventures of the Committee was the establishment of two shelters specifically for accommodating female victims of domestic violence and their children. These two shelters are able to house children up to the age of 18, who accompany the victim (in many cases, their parent).

Domestic violence in T&T

“Many have the misconception that domestic violence is only physical,” Edris Gabriel observed. “However, domestic violence may also encompass abuse of a verbal, psychological, sexual and financial nature.”

The NFSD social worker points out that financial abuse must also be considered, as in these instances, the breadwinner may withhold household contributions in attempt to punish their spouses and/or children.

“Another common misunderstanding is that a lot of persons associate victims of domestic violence to be women who live in rural communities, refugee women, women with minimal education, etc. But according to the statistics, this is not the case,” Edris Gabriel explains, “as the situation affects women across all levels in society. The difference, however, is in the number of cases being reported, as some women may refuse to report mistreatment due to the stigma attached, and the associated embarrassment which may accompany it.”

Image courtesy UN Women.

Edris Gabriel notes that with the onset of Covid-19, some of the associated stresses have contributed to what seems to be an increase in domestic violence cases recently.

“With the number of job losses due to the pandemic, families are spending a lot more time within the households.  For example, where a woman may be a ‘stay at home mom’ and the father/breadwinner has now lost his job, there is no time apart,” she explained.  

“Thus, with everyone being in each other’s spaces, it has created a fragile situation creating conflict.  Hence, cases of frustrated men abusing women seem to be rampant and some women are now forced to go out to earn money to help maintain households,” she said.  “In a lot of instances, these women may have basic levels of education and would have to secure jobs such as street vendors, and some even resorted to prostitution.”

Edris Gabriel also remarked that domestic violence, coupled with Covid-19, has triggered associated mental illnesses in women—such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, among others—and these women often do not possess the coping skills to deal with such mental health challenges.

“This is why the NFSD urges persons to contact them for the necessary advice and guidance,” she said.

The NFSD interventions

Edris Gabriel explains that whenever the NFSD intervenes in domestic violence case, it determines if certain homes are safe for women to return to, or whether it is safer for them to be placed in a shelter.

“Some of these shelters are able to assist victims secure jobs in order for them to be able to provide for themselves and/or their child, in an effort for them to rebuild and return to some sense of normalcy,” she said.  

And she noted, the help is not all one-sided.

“Once willing to be counselled, the NFSD also offers services to the perpetrators of the abuse, in an effort to help them change their habits,” Gabriel revealed.  “The NFSD realizes often times, these abusers are persons who either would have grown up in a dysfunctional home, or would have been abused themselves as children.”

She also reports that the NFSD has seen an increase in domestic violence against men, and at present, the Inter-Ministerial Committee is exploring introducing a men’s hotline as well, so male victims of domestic violence also can receive help.

In terms of current affairs as it relates to Venezuelan women coming to our shores, Edris Gabriel works closely with the Counter Trafficking Unit, which is aware that a number of under-aged girls are being held against their will, having been forced by their abusers into becoming employed as sex workers.

“On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women,” she said, “the NFSD—and by extension, the Ministry—is encouraging women to report their situations of abuse and seek help. It will be the first step in the right direction.”

Edris Gabriel says the NFSD plans to host sensitization workshops in the very near future to address issues such as domestic violence, and encourages members of the public—who may be in need of their services, or knows someone who does—to contact them at 623-2608 Ext. 6701 – 7.