Roberta Clarke

With the majority of T&T’s population in isolation for at least the next two weeks, two NGOs are calling for mechanisms to be put in place to treat with an expected increase in incidences of domestic violence.

“The natural stressors that accompany this pandemic will only serve to exacerbate the existing tensions and conflict within families, as there is no escape,” according to a statement from the Shelter for Battered Women and Children.

Coalition Against Domestic Violence president Roberta Clarke also believes this is likely, saying, “If one is living in a household with an abuser, it is a perfect scenario for unhealthy relationships to be violent. Isolation or distance from family and friends is a common trigger for domestic violence, even outside of COVID-19.”

They are calling for the following:

1) An immediate response to all reports of domestic and gender-based violence by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service.

2) Additional counselling services.

3) Social welfare payments for victims, especially if they are unemployed, or have children.

4) An increase in special budgets to shelters to ensure that they can meet the basic needs of victims.

5) More informercials on issues such as parenting, managing anxiety, developing healthy relationships and conflict management.

6) The opening of more shelters and increased availability of emergency housing.

“We need to have available emergency housing and more shelters. The Government needs as a matter of priority to ensure that the NGO shelters can respond to the emergency needs,” Clarke said.

The Shelter for Battered Women and Children agrees with Clarke, saying, “The process of leaving an abusive relationship during this time may be sudden. As such, it will be essential for us to ensure that the required safety nets—shelters, hotlines, the TTPS’ specialised unit—are functioning effectively as if the victims are forced to return home, the consequences could be fatal.”

In January, before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that at least 20 women were murdered by their abusers in the previous 12 months. This prompted NGOs like the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the shelter to lobby vigorously for amendments to the Domestic Violence Act.

According to the NGOs, the existing act, which has not been amended since 2006, does not do enough to ensure reports were taken seriously, or to ensure protection orders were adhered to. In response, the Police Service established a Gender-Based Violence Unit in January.

But Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has assured that legislation will soon be introduced, saying the amendments will include the introduction of electronic-monitoring bracelets.

“We are proposing that the electronic monitoring bracelet for the person against whom the order is given would correspond to a unit which the person who is to be protected will have. So a proximity alert will alert the persons,” he said in Parliament on March 4, 2020.

The onset of COVID-19, however, has seemingly put the proposed legislation on the backburner for the time being.

NGOs are now asking victims, past and present, to follow their instincts, speak out and stay connected with family and friends during this period.

As for the public, the NGOs are asking that you lookout for the most vulnerable: children, the elderly and those involved in violent relationships. They advised that if you know someone who is being abused, you talk to them, keeping in mind that expressing concern will let the person know you care and it may even save their life. They added that if citizens witness abuse they should call the police at 999. The Domestic Violence Hotline’s number is 800-SAVE.