Silence around Intimate Partner Violence in Trinidad and Tobago

by Amanda Chin Pang, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago

In Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), when women, men, and children are killed in intimate partner violence (IPV) or gang-related warfare, this gets immediate attention. However, immediately, the cries of victims and survivors go silent and perpetrators merely put forward trite alibis about their violence, leaving an impending doom of perpetual abuse.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there has been a long-standing silence when women, men and children are killed in intimate partner violence (IPV) and gender-based violence situations. The death of one woman, Andrea Bharatt, is a hopeful catalyst that unmuffles cries of victims and survivors of abuse and violence.

A culture of violence

Since the call for COVID-19 “stay-at-home” measures, there has been an increase in the cases of domestic violence – domestic violence is sometimes used synonymously with IPV – and many of these cases described as domestic violence are in fact between adult intimate partners.

Victims’ silence and lack of opportunities to escape persistent violence leads me to think about a culture of violence that is deeply rooted in Trinbagonians. Muzzles cover the mouths of friends and relatives, aware of these situations. I call for a break in the silence on violence that has deep colonial roots. Bergner (1995) in “Who Is That Masked Woman? Or, the Role of Gender in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks” highlights this historical context, of not only systemic racism, but also the disadvantaged position of women as subjects to men. The lack of direct policies and research on IPV, despite its grave impact on intimate partners and their dependents, leads me to think that some Caribbean people are too comfortable with this pattern of violence. I call this a “culture of violence,” as described by Brereton (2010) in “The Historical Background to the Culture of Violence in Trinidad and Tobago,” because it is normalized in the country.

The normalization of violence

We may ponder various questions surrounding this issue. Violence in intimate partner relationships has manifested as normalized in Caribbean interaction. What is causing violence to be normalized within a small twin island republic like Trinidad and Tobago? Could it be inability to cope with relationship difficulties, or is it that this violence is acceptable to intimate partners, or both? What is it about T&T culture that seems to facilitate and condone this violence, with little or no public protest? Is IPV considered a private issue within relationships? Are men and women afraid?

On a global scale, IPV is prevalent among many couples. Referring to statistics from the WHO Violence Against Women factsheet, one in three women will experience IPV in an intimate relationship and 38% of murders of women worldwide are committed by a male intimate partner (WHO, 2017). While these statistics reflect male violence against female intimate partners, there has also been intimate partner violence by women against men, as well as IPV within same-sex relationships. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence of the USA (NCADV, 2020) states that one in nine men have experienced some form of IPV, sexual contact violence, and stalking. Furthermore, according to this report, male rape victims and male victims of unwanted sexual contact have reported predominantly male perpetrators. This reflects a similar situation in Trinidad and Tobago. Le Franc et al. (2008) in “Interpersonal violence in three Caribbean countries: Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago” provide evidence on reporting of physical and sexual violence in Trinidad and Tobago, finding that 47.7% of men experienced physical violence within relationships and 52.5% of men experienced sexual coercion within relationships.

Interestingly, masculinity is learnt through power, reinforced by family socialization across generations, religion, school, media, and friends, according to Wiltshire (2012) in “Youth Masculinities and Violence in the Caribbean.” Moreover, Wiltshire notes that manliness is expressed through acts of violence and aggression and some men think that women sometimes need to be disciplined by their male partners. While both men and women are perpetrators of intimate partner violence, news reports in T&T are flooded with incidents of women being killed by their intimate partners. This is because there is a larger proportion of men who perpetrate IPV against women compared to the proportion of women who perpetrate these acts on men.

Notions of masculinity and femininity shared by men and women reflect the inevitability of male violence in intimate relationships and the acceptance and silence on the issue. Furthermore, this abuse is legitimated by labelling women as “not respectable” when they transgress the limits of expectations of Caribbean respectability. However, men’s thoughts on women’s expression of their sexuality and femininity are certainly no excuse to abuse.

Silence as a barrier to addressing IPV

It is noteworthy that there are efforts being made to break the silence and give victims a voice. The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCIC) Domestic Violence in the Workplace Policy (2018) and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) Gender-Based Violence Unit are policies addressing issues of IPV. The UN’s Spotlight Initiative is highlighting increased instances of domestic violence due to COVID-19. Despite these initiatives, the culture of violence and notions of masculinity and femininity in T&T reflect a general acceptance of a culture of violence in the country.

Empowering and encouraging IPV survivors through safety and support mechanisms, therapeutic options for couples and for perpetrators not in denial, promoting mental health for men and women, and calling on men to reach out for help can positively change a culture of silence on violence to a culture that speaks out against and publicly disapproves violence.

Furthermore, a resocialization of males and females in their expression of sexuality and gender roles is necessary. I believe the shame and fear associated with IPV for the victim and even for the perpetrator, and a survivor’s false sense of responsibility for their victimhood, leads to this silence on violence. Hence, a main barrier to reporting domestic violence to the police, for male and female victims, was embarrassment/shame, according to Wallace (2019) in “Domestic Violence: Intimate Partner Violence Victimization Non-Reporting to the Police in Trinidad and Tobago.” Despite the reason, the response is silence, which often ends in murder.

Making it a norm to speak out against violence and perceive violence as unacceptable and anomalous in expressions of self and within relationships will break the silence and ultimately change intimate partner relations for the better.

Direct all correspondence to Amanda Chin Pang <amandalall91@gmail.com>

Trinidad and Tobago, Volume 11, Issue 2

Comments are closed.