The recent release of murder convict Arleigh James from HMP Dodds brought to the fore a topic that is still not widely discussed, despite its prevalence in society – that of violence against women.
James was jailed in 1996 for the brutal murder of his wife Debra James and stepdaughter two years earlier. He was originally sentenced to hang, however, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
There was a strong public outcry when he walked out of prison a free man last week, because of the sheer barbarity in which he took the lives of the two women; he beheaded his wife and slashed his stepdaughter to death in a frenzied cutlass attack.
The local chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club was one of the organizations questioning James’ release, given that its members have been dealing with hundreds of cases of violence against women since the club started a rape crisis hotline more than 30 years ago.
“In the mid-80s there were a series of rapes around UWI [Cave Hill campus] and we got together and decided that something needs to be done, so we came up with having a hotline . . .we called it a rape crisis hotline at the time.
“And then a few years later, after we started getting calls, not just only about rape and sexual assault but a lot on domestic violence, we changed the name to a crisis centre hotline,” Club member Marlene Hewitt told Barbados TODAY.
In 1999 the club opened a crisis shelter for abused women with the help of Government.
“We realized that we were helping and providing services to some of those women who called but then there was nowhere for them to hide. Because when it comes to a situation where that person’s life is in danger, you need somewhere for them to hide,” she said.
“Since we opened it we’ve always had people in it. We’ve never ever been empty. We could get as high sometimes as maybe 12 women and their children, we can fall to as low as three. We find that around Crop Over time there is less, maybe because everyone is in a happy mood etc., although last year we noticed there was some increase around Crop Over time but usually there’s less people in the shelter,” said Hewitt, who is coordinator of the crisis centre.
According to the United Nations, one in three women will experience some form of violence, mostly from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
“There may be some with just verbal abuse but I think a lot of the abuse that becomes physical doesn’t start with physical, you get the verbal, the emotional and sometimes sexual and then it ends up as physical,” Hewitt said.
The crisis centre offers a refuge for abused women for up to three months. However, they are allowed to extend their stay if their case is deemed serious.
“We get all kinds of women, it doesn’t matter who they are. We even had some visitors. We’ve had quite a few visitors . . . we’ve also had some very prominent women, but sometimes in a case like that we would accommodate them somewhere else. And with the wives of police, we’re very careful there as well with accommodation. Because some police [officers] will actually try to find them. We’ve had instances like that . . . so we’re extra careful, sometimes we have had to house them someplace else as well,” Hewitt stated.
Attendance at counselling sessions is mandatory during their stay, she said.
“Because when they come in, the person has more or less taken from them their sense of empowerment, their sense of being able to make decisions for themselves. So you have to recreate all that, you have to be able to teach them, and you have to be able to show them that this person is not good for them.
“Sometimes they may still love the person, or the person is the child’s father, so we have to be able to show them over time that there is a different way and that their life is important in the world,” she added.
The women are also given practical assistance in other areas, including setting up their household when they leave the confines of the centre, assistance in learning a skill, finding a job, and preparing a balanced meal for their children.
The centre also receives assistance from the Family Conflict Unit, which was set up by the Royal Barbados Police Force in 2013 to deal with cases of domestic violence.
“Now with the police conflict unit we’re reaching more women because they themselves when the police find out, and they consider it’s really a serious case, they call us,” she said.
The release of James, and the stabbing death of nurse Kimberly Lovell in May, are the latest high profile cases of violence against women in Barbados.
Lovell was killed in an apparent murder-suicide at her home in Alleyne’s Land, Bayville, St Michael. The body of her husband Derek, was discovered hanging from a rafter in the house.
Hewitt acknowledges that while the club will not be able to reach all abused women, the members will continue to do their part in dealing with violence against women by offering as much assistance as possible to the women who seek out their services.