While persons in Barbados have a choice to tell police about an act of domestic violence they observed involving adults, no such option exists when the attack is on children. In fact, failure to inform law enforcement agencies about a minor being victim to physical acts of domestic violence could very well land the negligent adult behind bars for as long as a year.
This reality that holds implications for all adults in Barbados was among a wide number of issues raised surrounding domestic violence, meted out against women mostly, during a recent open discussion that was part of this year’s ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’.
The round-table discussion in the Cynthia Wilson Arts Lecture theatre of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, saw an assemblage of activists lead off discussions and field questions on this abiding scourge to society.
The matter of by-standers or neighbours being uncertain of what to do when they see violence among intimate partners caused the intervention of attorney and round-table panellist Nicole Foster, who said that despite domestic violence being a criminal act, “there is no duty in law to be a Good Samaritan so you don’t have a legally binding obligation to help”.
The Cave Hill law lecturer said this is no excuse for a person to refrain from the civic duty to help, and she went on to make clear that the obligation is to do at least one thing when children are seen to be the receivers of physical assault.
She said that the Domestic Violence Protection Orders Act that was amended in 2016 states that, “in the case of children, there is an obligation for you to report if you know that there has been violence against children… The penalty for that is $5,000 [fine] or 12 months in prison or both… because children are seen as vulnerable and can’t represent their own interest”.
And while the civilian still retains the right to do nothing when observing domestic violence, another 2016 amendment to Barbados’ laws empowers the Commissioner of Police to take action even before blows pass between intimate partners.
She explained that this amendment empowering a police officer to apply a protection order on behalf of the Commissioner could, over time, change the culture here as it recognises “that domestic violence sometimes is not a private matter. It is a matter for society. So we give powers to the Commissioner of Police if he sees it fit”.
“If a junior officer comes to a house and he is dealing with something and he thinks an emergency order is needed, he is empowered to get the emergency order.”
Observed annually worldwide, ‘16 Days of Activism’ is aimed at galvanising action to end violence against women and girls. It runs from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to December 10, International Human Rights Day.
This matter on what the law provides for came up within the two-hour discussion because members of the audience and panellists raised issues of helplessness of third parties in the face of domestic violence.
Human Rights advocate and panellist, Taitu Heron, spoke of “the impact of the violence that we don’t see, the invisible markers, the trauma, the scars that we don’t see and what we carry with us when we either witness or experience domestic violence”.
Lecturer in political science, Kristina Hinds, who chaired the discussion, opined: “we don’t think a lot about when people try to help – the consequences they can face, and what it means for them”.
But while the observer of the violence agonizes over that dilemma on the consequences of action or inaction, the victim suffers in two ways. As one member of the audience cried out on behalf of those who feel it, “it is one thing to be abused, another thing to be isolated”.
Head of Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Nita Barrow Unit, Halimah DeShong, said that when third parties intervene, it is usually with the advice to the suffering woman to leave the relationship. But “we take for granted what the process of leaving means and we tend to encourage women, from the first sign of violence to try to exit the relationship”.
Agreeing that leaving is good advice she, however, addressed the likelihood of even more violence when the victim takes that guidance, “leaving is one of the most dangerous processes that one might experience”.
“So, even as we provide support for mostly women and children who find themselves in these situations, we have to be appreciative of what it actually means.”
For this reason, she said society needs to develop a comprehensive support structure for domestic violence victims.
“We invest quite a bit in legislation and I do understand the need for strong legislation [but] we invest not as much as we should in terms of certain kinds of social protection for persons wanting to leave relationships.”
DeShong said that because women are reluctant to seek the help of the state, “we have to find other ways of intervening”.