Stigma and social pressure behind underreporting of domestic violence, pundits say   

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By Carlena Knight

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Several pundits have added their voices to ongoing debate over a recent United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council review which stated that gender-based violence is being underreported in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider region.

Experts speaking on Sunday’s Big Issues show agreed with the UN’s findings – despite last week’s rebuttal from Social Transformation Minister Dean Jonas.

Interim President of the Association of Caribbean Social Work Educators, Dr Karene Nathaniel-Decaires, said there are several factors that discourage domestic violence victims from coming forward, including fear of stigma and a lack of knowledge on what exactly constitutes domestic violence.

“The social pressure from family. The pressure from the faith-based community, the pressures of social stigma and status concerns that persist in the society, for example, being in a relationship and the stigma of being a survivor is quite discouraging for people, and then we add the other things,” Dr Nathaniel-Decaires said.

“The challenges of reporting. What are the consequences of reporting? What happens next? So, all of those factors, if we don’t fully understand what living with domestic violence means, then we are going to fall into the rap of saying things like ‘no, no, no we have the systems in place for people to report so there is not going to be underreporting’.”

Sharing her sentiments was Deputy Director of the National Counselling Centre in St Kitts and Nevis, Naeemah Hazelle, who went a step further to say that persons need to understand what avenues exist to make a report.

Hazelle, who is also a psychologist, noted that police officers and others also need to be aware of how to deal with victims as, most times, although a system is in place and protocols are established, they are not always followed.

“It’s not very easy to report. Then, when you report, it’s a continuous process of people having to go through the whole report themselves,” Hazelle said.

“People are not accustomed to having to relive their trauma while the police write it out by hand, or if they are printing it out, taking their time and bringing them back again and again. It gets frustrating.

“You get to the court system and the court system is a hearing, it’s a put-off hearing and then a hearing again. Sometimes it can take two, three years to prosecute a sexual violence or domestic violence court case.

“Some women who may want to get restraining orders, now there are charges for restraining orders in some countries. So, if you can’t pay then you cannot get a restraining order? And then the process of getting one is not as clear in practice as it is in policy,” she explained.

Hazelle suggested that what may help to reduce underreporting regionally is the addition of a shelter for victims and the implementation of programmes like a sexual victims’ advocacy initiative.

Meanwhile, Antigua and Barbuda’s Director of Law Reform and Special Legal Projects, Adlai Smith, said it is important to distinguish between the level of under-reporting that occurs and underreporting in general.

The former prosecutor said while he can agree that there will never be 100 percent reporting in the country, a more formal approach needs to be taken in terms of gathering information so that a more decisive assessment can be made and the adequate resources administered.

“Determining that, I think the best way would be to probably have a formal survey. I noted that, at least reported in the press, the UN group did not give the basis for its finding of underreporting and even when the minister was challenging that particular assertion, he didn’t give his basis as to why no underreporting,” Smith said.

“I think until we know what the variables are in terms of the time period that we are talking about, the demographics that he is using, we are basically spinning tops in mud, we are not going to get anywhere.

“We need to formally determine to get an idea of what it is and have appropriate strategies to deal with that,” Smith added.

The review also called on Antigua and Barbuda to adopt legislation to explicitly criminalise marital rape.

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