One of the last times Letty’s husband tried to rape her, she barricaded herself in her daughter’s room.
“When he realized he’s not getting that, that’s when he start to threaten me. In the nights, I have to be sleeping in my pants”.
“I don’t know how much women been through it, but when you’ve been getting raped in your own house, after you are closing off and say no, and say enough is enough … that’s what was going on with me,” she said.
Warning: This story features accounts of domestic violence. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or intimate partner violence and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-SAVE (7283), the Gender Based Violence Unit at 999, the Judiciary’s domestic violence hotline at 866-3828 or email [email protected], or the The Coalition Against Domestic Violence 868-624-0402. The Office of the Prime Minister Gender and Child Affairs has resources available on their website: http://opm-gca.gov.tt
When Letty sought refuge in her eldest daughter’s bedroom to prevent the rapes, her husband of 17 years would pound down the door. She also said her daughter would have to help her move the bed to barricade themselves in the room to protect her from the violence that would otherwise ensue.
“If he couldn’t get to me, he cuss me and our daughter, make all kinda threats and say nobody sleeping in peace tonight.”
That was in early 2021, when Trinidad and Tobago was in lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Letty said the abuse became more frequent as the lockdown months dragged on, and her husband started to use her love for their three children to routinely punish her.
“My son was away at Military-Led Academic Training Programme (MiLAT) at that time, and my husband would lock away the stuff that I was to carry for him. You know, his soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and snacks. He made our child suffer because why? I decide to close off with you, so you start to use the children as a spite to me?!”
As is the case in many domestic violence relationships, Letty’s husband used coercive control.
Letty could not go out without her husband’s permission. On one occasion she said she suspected he had vandalised her car so she couldn’t take her children anywhere. If she needed or wanted to, she said she would have to lie and say that they were going to extra lessons.
Letty’s eyes became red and welled with tears as she recounted not being allowed to take her youngest daughter shopping. “It had a time my daughter asked me to take her to Gulf City Mall,” and he said, “No, no, no, no; make sure you go straight home – in fact you drive in front, and I’ll drive behind.”
Her voice cracked when she remembered how deeply disappointed her daughter was, “my daughter started crying”. Letty had to take a minute to compose herself as she recalled her daughter’s sadness.
“I was afraid to tell him where I was going because he has a habit, even if I’m sitting with the kids watching the TV, he’ll come and switch off the TV and threaten to take off the breaker.”
Not being able to cope with the physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse anymore, Letty applied for an emergency hearing at the Magistrate’s Court through the Gender Based Violence Unit (GBVU). Letty managed to successfully have her husband removed from the home but only for six weeks.
The Court mandated that a wall be built to prevent the sharing of common spaces.
Letty and her children now live on one side of their family home and her husband and abuser on the other. They still share a laundry room and a front and back yard. Letty’s husband often frightens her when she is washing her family’s clothes and she says she never feels safe.
Growing evidence shows the pandemic made domestic violence more common—and often more severe. In 2021, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that domestic violence cases increased by 25 to 33 percent globally.
The United Nations (UN) took an early lead in cautioning world leaders to pay close attention to domestic violence. At a virtual news briefing in the spring of 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on global governments to make, “The prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plan to COVID-19.”
Trinidad and Tobago heeded the UN chief’s call.
The UN Country Representative Tonni Brodber said the government partnered with UN Women under the Spotlight Initiative to offer clear support to organizations and professionals that help people needing protection from domestic violence.
In this capacity, UN women trained police officers and over 500 judicial officers. It also funded Civil Society Organizations with one-off grants. This also included supporting the government technically and offering facilitation support to agencies combatting violence against women and girls.
Nonetheless, as you can see here, The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) reports that domestic abuse skyrocketed during the pandemic lockdown which left 59 women dead.
Female intimate partner deaths rose by 24% in 2020 and assault by beating went up 62% according to the TTPS. Additonal data also shows 695 reports of domestic abuse from women in 2019, compared to 1,865 in 2020, representing more than a two hundred percent increase in violence.
It is common knowledge among domestic violence professionals that intimate partner violence is often underreported. So as alarming as the numbers are, the enormity of the problem may be greater. According to Brodber, only five percent of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.
Gender and Child Affairs Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy said the government instituted a number of initiatives to offset the negative impact of lockdown to specifically assist domestic violence survivors.
This is because she believes there is a correlation between food security and domestic violence. “That was one of government’s ways of trying to reduce the stresses that could lead to domestic violence. The Ministry of Social Development and Family Services provided food support and the Ministry of Education said it provided support for every single child on the school feeding program.”
The government efforts included:
|Partnerships||Social Protection Measures||Legislative measures|
|UN Women: Spotlight Initiative: To end violence against women & girls.||Opening of National Domestic Violence Shelter||Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act, 2020|
Widened definition of domestic violence.
|Opening of Gender Based Violence unit||Firearms (Amendment) Act, 2021- Pepper Spray Law|
Legal for all citizens to carry pepper spray
|Administration of Justice (Electronic Monitoring) Amendment Act, 2020|
Allowed the electronic monitoring of perpetrators of domestic violence
|School feeding programme:|
Provides meals for children in schools and extended support during lockdown
|Emergency Hearings for domestic violence matters at Family/Magistrate/High Courts|
Barbers with counselling skills to mentor boys and men in coping with pressure, disappointments, and conflicts.
The initiative postponed to June 2023
|Rental assistance grant:|
US $400.00 for 3 months per household
|Income support grant:|
US $200.00-$400.00 for 3 months for persons who lost their jobs because of the pandemic
|Domestic Violence Awareness Social media campaign:|
6 influencers posted 1 video each during the 16 Days of Activism (25 Nov-10th December, 2021) sharing how to get help.
|3 Virtual Town hall Meetings|
Online with over 1000 participants
(Nov 2021, Feb 2022, June, 2022)
|Dignity kits were distributed through Civil Society Organisations. Included sanitary napkins, tissue, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, lotion.|
|Domestic Violence Learning Material, distributed through TT Post to 395,000 households|
|Radio Programme: 6 weeks radio program, 1 session each week on I95.5FM sensitizing public about domestic violence and how to get help.|
Webster-Roy described how these efforts were supposed to help the most vulnerable and those negatively affected by the lockdown. The minister spoke proudly of the social protection measures and the social media campaign that was rolled out to provide information to survivors.
Much of the Trinidad and Tobago government’s efforts have positively impacted and assisted some survivors of domestic violence. However, most of the measures the minister spoke of were not domestic violence response actions.
For instance, the legislative amendments were not made in direct response to the effects of the lockdown measures but were on the parliamentary agenda before the onset of the pandemic.
These are welcomed and necessary changes which can help save the lives of more women but were not a direct response to the shadow pandemic of intimate partner violence.
The minister’s claims of workshops and the distribution of learning material were difficult to substantiate. Webster-Roy was contacted twice, asking how she distributed the materials, how they identified targets groups and if the measures extended to our sister island of Tobago. She explained that the learning material was distributed to 395,000 households, and according to the Trinidad and Tobago Postal distribution data, that should mean every household received the material.
The claim Webster-Roy made that dignity kits were distributed as a Covid-19 response measure is questionable. According to the Gender and Child Affairs Facebook page the dignity kits were distributed 17th November 2022 in response to flood relief measures. There was a second distribution of dignity kits to NGO’s working with domestic violence survivors in December 2022, six months after the country came out of lockdown.
Whatever verifiable efforts the government made they did not appear to reach the many women seeking respite from domestic violence across the twin islands.
Letty who was plugged into the system said she knew nothing about the distribution of dignity kits, the awareness campaign material, the virtual town hall meetings, the radio programme, or the social media campaign.
The government opened the National Domestic Violence Shelter, and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) launched its Gender Based Violence Unit January 2020. These were not Covid-19 related measures to protect women from domestic violence but were planned before the pandemic.
Nonetheless survivors did benefit from their existence and the GBVU assisted Letty in getting the help she desperately needed.
Although survivors of domestic violence were not specifically targeted in the social protection measures, many still benefited from the government’s efforts. Survivors often fall into the catchment of vulnerable citizens that include single parents, unemployed women, those living below the poverty line and others whose circumstances changed because of the pandemic.
Sadly, Letty isn’t the only survivor who was unaware of the domestic violence specific measures taken during the pandemic.
Sara and her one-year-old daughter had to flee their home after her boyfriend attacked her and their child.
“He came from work around 9:00 PM and our daughter was running around in the bedroom, and he was complaining about how much noise she was making”.
“So, he told her to come up on our bed and he slapped her hard her on her back and she started crying non-stop. I grabbed her and tried to get her to stop crying; he ripped her from my arms and slapped her across her face”.
Sara said that made her very angry and she told him he’s not supposed to hit her in her face. She then said, ‘He then proceeded to slap me across my face and busted my mouth’.
“I called the police and they helped us leave and took us to the San Fernando Hospital where I was treated for a busted lip”. It’s there that Sara was referred to the GBVU.
Sara said she was not aware of any services to assist survivors until she and her baby became registered victims.
“I just know if you have any problems, call the police. It’s only after I spoke with Ms Valdeen, (advocate against domestic violence), that I learnt about 800-SAVE (7283)”, she said.
800-SAVE is the toll-free number for reporting abuse.
Sara also said she is as an avid social media user, and that she was surprised she did not see or hear about the government’s social media campaign rolled out by Gender and Child Affairs Department .
Particularly since she follows two of the six social media influencers hired by the department. The partnership was supposed to educate the public about the dangers associated with domestic violence and to let survivors know how to access help.
Out of a possible 1.4 million people in Trinidad and Tobago, less than 7,000 saw the social media campaign. The learning material that was distributed through the postal service went to 395,000 households. Webster-Roy said according to TT Post distribution data, every household should have received the learning material.
In the absence of knowing how many people the learning material actually reached, it is hard to determine how impactful it was.
|Social Media Campaign Reach||Facebook Reach||Instagram Reach||Total|
|Stephon Felmine 07.12.21||483||261||744|
|Priyanka Lalla 08.12.21||1,309||277||1, 586|
|Keevan Lewis 08.12.21||671||228||899|
|Joel Brian 10.12.21||1,709||210||1,919|
|Aaron Duncan 10.12.21||783||185||968|
|Roxy James 10.12.21||616||201||817|
Even though the social media campaign fell short, the government continued its domestic violence awareness campaign. There are numerous flyers on the Gender and Child Affairs Facebook page as well as their Instagram account sensitizing people to gender-based domestic violence and where they can get help.
The government was trying to work on two fronts, information, and action. It injected monies in the economy to offset the economic hardships of the pandemic.
In her 2022 budget statement, Minister of Family Development and Social Services, Donna Cox said, US $60.47M (TTD $410M) was spent in the first two years of the pandemic on the social protection measures.
As a small business owner, Letty did not qualify for any of the social protection measures. Her husband removed her from the business they built together, and she was left with no income for herself and no way to support their children when he withdrew financial support.
Another survivor Anka benefitted from a food card valued at US $75.00 ($500,00) from her Member of Parliament. They were being given to individuals who were unemployed or to supplement households who had children on the school feeding program.
Anka was kicked out of her family home by her husband and abuser before the pandemic.
“When he kicked me out, I told them (police) he put me out, I told them he deleted all the evidence of threats to kill me from my phone. They told me there was nothing they could do about it. They never took a report.”
The economic crash led to further instability for Anka, and contributed to her and her now 18-year-old daughter’s homelessness during the lockdown.
When Anka became homeless, she applied for emergency housing at the Housing Development Corporation in May 2021. Unfortunately, she is still awaiting a response about her housing application. This was after she sought shelter through the non -governmental organisation ITNAC, and was told all the shelters were full.
Anka also says she was not aware of any social media campaign, town hall meetings or dignity kits for women. Anka said she wished she had known as this would have provided the relief she needed.
Despite lack of clarity around Covid-19 specific measures to support victims of domestic violence, the government should be commended for the legislative changes it made during the lockdown.
Widening the definition of who can experience domestic violence in the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act, 2020, passed on 7th July 2020.
The amendment also broadened the scope of protection orders and addressed the use of technology for abusers who harass and stalk their victims which strengthened the Act.
The amendment also allows the courts to treat domestic violence matters as urgent, meaning they must be heard within seven days.
The Administration of Justice (Electronic Monitoring) (Amendment) Act passed on 18th September 2020, now gives the Courts legal authority to recommend electronic monitoring of perpetrators.
The Firearms (Amendment) Act, 2021-Pepper Spray Law passed om 6th July, 2021, makes it legal to carry and use pepper spray as a defence against attacks.
The judiciary played an even greater role in protecting women experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic. A hotline was set up: 866-DVCT (3828) as well as an email contact: [email protected] to address matters relating to domestic violence.
It also created a newly designed room built specifically to hear domestic violence matters.
However, if the victim chooses not to press charges, the perpetrator walks free. During the lockdown, the Courts heard more than 13,000 Protection Order applications, the main tool used legally to safeguard survivors.
Despite the legislative improvements, domestic violence survivors find it difficult to leave the abusive space and seek help.
This suggests that the ability to respond adequately to domestic violence cases goes beyond the capacity of the law. Of course, safe havens like shelters count but there are not always enough beds.
Petrus John, the manager of the National Domestic Violence Shelter, says choosing to go into a shelter is not an easy decision. She explains women experience difficulties keeping their jobs or getting to work, there can be issues with children getting to school, as well as them being unable to support or receive support from their extended families. Only the national shelter allows mothers to keep their male children with them.
National Policy on Gender and Development Coordinator Anne-Marie Quamie Alleyne said, another problematic area in domestic violence protection is the way perpetrators are dealt with. Quamie Alleyne said there is an over reliance on the legal system to manage the behaviour of abusers and that protection orders are insufficient. If that fails, then the survivor is at even greater risk.
Letty lives with that risk every day and is terrified that her husband and abuser is free to assault her if and when he feels like it.
She agrees with Quamie Alleyne that there’s an urgent need to address what happens to the perpetrators of domestic abuse.
“I believe that the government, they need to do more. Even though the GBVU directed me on what to do, and yes I did it, I’m still open because he himself stated that many nights he decide he was thinking to come and burn us up in the house.”
“I’m still in the open. I’m still in the open, divorced yes, but I’m still in the open because he’s still in the same yard with me. As long as women and children are victims, you need to remove the abuser, and not just take him and lock him away, he needs counselling.”
“You need to do something for the abuser, not just only for the victim but the abuser themselves need to be dealt with because they’re still outside there to hurt whomever, or probably just waiting for you.”
Letty believes that punishment is part of the solution to intimate partner violence but not the solution. “You can’t just take him and lock him away because that’s where his mental will start to go ballistic, and it will get worse than how it is.”
Currently, there are no specific programs to rehabilitate perpetrators beyond court mandated counselling and or anger management training.
Superintendent Claire Guy-Alleyne, Head of the GBVU supports the contention that there are additional considerations when dealing with domestic abuse.
She said the lockdown contributed to the increase in gender based domestic violence reports but there are cultural norms that need addressing.
Minister Webster-Roy’s Barbershop Initiative is an Outreach Program that balances domestic violence awareness and strategic emotional support to men and boys in a way that challenges prevailing cultural norms. Regrettably, it has been postponed to June 2023.
The minister also shared the Gender and Child Affairs plans to build a center for perpetrators of violence that teach the tools to control violent behaviour.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the hell of domestic violence, revealing both the extent of the problem and the inadequacy of existing support systems.
The pandemic exposed the gaps in support services for victims of domestic violence which are the result of longstanding government failures to fund service providers that protect survivors and punish perpetrators.
Domestic abuse is not a one-person crime and not making provisions for children can exacerbate the trauma they experience. Providing shelters where male children are unable to stay, further victimises the survivor, if for her own safety she has to leave her children behind.
There has been an increased awareness about how emergencies impact gender-based violence. Unfortunately, the Trinidad and Tobago government did not treat the pandemic as a true wake-up call on domestic violence, using the moment to push forward the systemic changes that are sorely needed. Namely, safe family housing, effective domestic abuse sensitization campaigns, and mental health services for survivors and perpetrators.
John said, the process for the shelter to receive social welfare from the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services takes too long. She hopes they can quicken the process so survivors can have access to desperately needed resources sooner.
On the bright side, the minister said the pandemic demanded collaboration between ministries and an understanding that domestic violence is everybody’s business.
She revealed that discussions were ongoing with the Supermarket Association and the Ministry to provide groceries to shelters with the government shouldering the cost.
UN Women plans to continue the Spotlight Initiative until December 2023, working with government, civil society organizations and faith-based organizations in trying to end violence against women and girls. They are planning to find more holistic solutions to ending gender base domestic violence.
It also plans to train all 7,000 police officers and strengthen the Partnership for Peace Initiative. This is a secondary prevention court mandated program working with first time perpetrators, teaching them to find healthy ways of resolving conflict and managing their emotions.
However, the fact that millions of dollars were spent to help citizens survive the significant economic hardships of the pandemic it should be considered shameful that hardly any money was earmarked for domestic violence programmes.
Sara hopes the government continues its social media campaign because she believes people really need the information, and the consistency will increase its reach.
Anka wishes there was a more personal approach used when assisting survivors. She said they need tangible things that can make them feel like they are not alone.
According to UN Women, police data only accounts for five percent of domestic abuse and of that number, 70 percent do not follow through with legal action.
More attention needs to be paid to how Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is contributing to domestic violence being normalized or downplayed. Its patriarchal nature can make it acceptable for men to exert power and control over women and expect women to submit to them.
Additionally, there may be a reluctance to report domestic violence due to cultural norms around privacy and keeping family matters within the household. Victims may feel pressured to remain silent and not seek outside help, fearing social stigma or shame. This is corroborated by UN Women who says 80% of domestic abuse is reported to a family member.
However that family member advises, staying in a relationship characterised by intimate partner violence is inherently dangerous. Superintendent Guy-Alleyne left all women with this stark reminder, “Don’t have your children or yourself around violent people because they’re unpredictable and they can kill you. If someone tells you they’re going to kill you, believe them.”
Despite this, there has been a growing recognition of the seriousness of domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago. Clear improvements have been made using the law, policies and awareness campaigns to usher in the cultural and political change needed to help save the lives of women and girls but more needs to be done.
This is an investigation completed by Natalee Legore for Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) as part of the Investigative Journalism Initiative in the Americas.