Features — 15 July 2017 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd
RIGHT TO THE POINT: Domestic violence! How is it dealt with under our law?

There is so much to write about violence, because from my little perch and over four decades of life in my little Belize… I have seen where we have become a very violent society and where in all forms, forums, and facets of our daily lives we have become violent to each other. Sadly, too often we have become so accustomed to or immune to violence that we are comfortable in it.

The violence against us by gun may just be the extreme, since we experience social violence by our political leaders, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle. The attacks and rudest and most violent of conduct by the supposedly “honourable” Ministers Castro and Boots are just a perfect example of the blatant violence our political leaders display against us… but more importantly against us women. Then there is the subtle violence of denying us better health care, educational access, social services, etc. because of the mismanagement of our funds by handouts and political bribes that keep the masses dependent and abused… that is called financial violence.

I indeed want to talk about violence because it is practiced in our homes, immediate social circles, community, and society at large. Now with social media, the level of violence against each other has increased. I call that cyber-violence! I know some are limited in appreciating violence beyond the physical ones – which are physical and sexual abuse, because by nature the society has limited our understanding of all forms of violence, thus, we just unconsciously accept the other types of violence. The place we need to start addressing violence is in the home, because what we act out in society is what we learn and experience at home. When I see from the Prime Minister to right down to the lowliest of his Ministers attack women in the House, the media and the rostrum… I know that it’s a reflection of their home upbringing enforced by their societal exposure… compounded by the power that got to their head. To get guidance on the first tier of violence, let us look at the Domestic Violence Act, Chapter 179, Laws of Belize (herein DVA).

What is domestic violence?
When many people hear the term “domestic violence,” they think about a woman or man or child being beaten up or even sexually abused. This is because these are the most visible and tangible forms of violence in a domestic situation. However, it is imperative that everyone learn that domestic violence is more than the physical abuse. Per the definition of domestic violence at Section 2 of the DVA, it “includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological or financial abuse committed by a person against a spouse, child, de facto spouse, or any other person who is a member of the household of the applicant or the respondent.”

That is a mouthful because it tells us the various forms of domestic violence, it tells us on whom it can be committed, and by whom it can be committed, for it to be dealt with under the DVA. This does not mean that there are no other forms of violence and forums where violence, be it domestic, communal, social or political, is practiced or accepted. However, I will start with the forms of domestic violence… or outright violence!

Physical abuse includes any act or omission which causes physical injury and includes the commission of or an attempt to commit the range of offences listed at the First Schedule of the DVA. Sexual abuse includes sexual contact of any kind that is coerced by force or threat of force and the commission of or an attempt to commit the range of offences also listed at the First Schedule of the DVA. For your information these offences range from assault and battery to use of violent or obscene language or disturbance of the peace, misuse of telephone and internet facilities and other telecommunication facilities, arson, murder, inflicting injury with or without a weapon, exposing children so life is endangered, cruelty to children, rape, indecent assault, procuring abortion and the list goes on, as it includes thirty-one different offences.

Then there is emotional or psychological abuse, which is prevalent and very damaging. It’s important to understand emotional or psychological abuse because it is a pattern of behaviour of any kind by the abuser, the purpose of which is to undermine the emotional well-being of a person, the abused. Examples of the kind of behaviour considered as emotional or psychological abuse include, but are NOT LIMITED to:

(a) Persistent intimidation by the use of abusive or threatening language;
(b) Persistent following of the person (victim) from place to place;
(c) Depriving that person of the use of his/her property;
(d) Interfering with or damaging the property of the person;
(e) The watching or besetting of the place where the person resides, works, carries on business, attends for education, or happens to be;
(f) Making persistent or unwelcomed telephone calls to the person;
(g) The wilful or reckless neglect of a child, spouse, or dependent;
(h) The forced confinement of the person (victim), child, or spouse;
(i) Verbal or non-verbal threats of physical violence;
(j) Including, coercing or forcing a person, without the person’s consent, to take a drug that alters the will of that person, or that reduces the capacity of that person, to resist.

Readers can reason out for themselves the other patterns of behaviour that can damage a person emotionally and psychologically. For example, persistently telling a child that they will be put out on the street, or will be sent to live at the youth hostel or comparing them to other kids or peers or siblings. Even telling them they just like their “worthless” father… you all can add to the list.

Understanding financial abuse
Then there is financial abuse, which many persons endure, especially women in an already otherwise abusive relationship, so that they can survive financially so as to be able to provide for their children even if only to barely make ends meet. Financial abuse is a pattern of behaviour of any kind, the purpose of which is to exercise coercive control over, or exploit or limit a person’s access to financial resources so as to ensure financial dependence.

This kind of abuse is so subtle in many ways because the person who has the limited resources feels a sense of guilt to not be able to contribute more financially and yet feels gratitude at the same time for least getting some financial help, because they are not able to provide more financially.

I find this kind of abuse prevalent amongst women who become housewives and care-givers in the home, thus not generating direct income for themselves, yet their labour is not recognized nor quantified in relation to the income-saving or generation it is to the household. For example, the home benefits financially and otherwise, when there is the female at home doing all household chores, preparing all meals, caring for children, thus not expending money on house helpers and babysitters and cooks and the like and even providing sexual duties. Yet, because of our patriarchal culture of dominance, the men actually do not see this kind of work for the worth it is. Sadly, society at large, women included, have not come around to appreciate its value. Often these women do not even get a weekly stipend and must rely heavily on the generosity of the male to buy their personal effects including hygiene products and the like.

Then, there are those situations where the female earns financially but she must hand over all her salary to the male. Yes, this happens here in Belize in this day and age and there are more women financing the home entirely and coerced into doing so often with the additional pain of physical, emotional and psychological abuse. Women many times do not realize when they have slowly fallen into this abusive cycle because they often feel that they must take up the slack in the home to be able to ensure their children are provided for… they justify it by saying they are doing it for their children! You know who you are.
I recently met a female whose husband takes all her money and does all the purchases and tells her there is no need for the wife to be solvent, because he as the husband, once solvent, will provide for her, but yet it is her money he uses and saves his money in a sole bank account, but he must be joint on her account.

I met another who all through the marriage worked in the home and her husband did not allow her to open a bank account as his was all they needed since he alone controls the money. Upon separation he refused to give her any money!

In both scenarios the women remain financially dependent on the man and that is financial abuse!

Controlled by finances!
I have dealt with countless cases where the women earns a bit, but her salary alone cannot provide for a home and the husband or partner may be giving just enough to make ends meet, even if he can give more, but he tells her, plain and straight, that if she goes to Family Court to ask for more, she will get less than the $50.00 a week since he will show he can only afford $25.00. The woman may be so scared to risk that seemingly simple $25.00 more that she stays in the abusive relationship.

I have seen cases where the man stops working so as not to pay towards support of their child(ren) or because of the kind of work he does, like taxi driver or tour operator or those kinds of self-employed jobs where there is no easy proof of income, he then under-reports to the court about his financial ability and gets away without truly doing his share! In many of those instances the female stays in the relationship because on her own she would still not be able to pay rent, and that makes a huge difference. But in so doing, the children see, experience and feel abuse and grow up accepting it as the norm.

This is an area of abuse that is prevalent but victims are afraid to approach the court, because they feel they will get less or nothing, since the court requires proof, and victims tell themselves, well at least he is not beating me, as a means of rationalizing their decision to accept it. My solution to this is that the law should give a minimum that must be paid, and so the man’s or woman’s claim that he/she does not have a job or money, is no concern since he/she is held accountable to maintain his/her child as is his/her lawful responsibility. What if in those instances when the father says he has no money, the mother would likewise say she has no money and give up… then what happens to the child? The failure of a parent or spouse to provide financially or limit their spouse’s or children’s access to his/her financial resources, is a form of domestic violence and the abused person should not be afraid to exercise their right to seek help at the Family Court!

Readers, take time and ponder these definitions and determine if you are in an abusive relationship or not… or consider if you are an abuser within any of these categories or know of someone being abused. There are many solutions to the problem of domestic violence. Apart from seeking medical help, one should consider seeking legal help, and if it’s really bad, seek a protection order.

Who can benefit from a protection order?
I think there are many misconceptions about who can seek a protection order. This is especially so since too often our view of domestic violence is limited to conflict between men and women in the same household. Let me dispel this notion quickly since there is a long list of persons who can apply for a protection order.

First, let us look at in whose interest a protection order can be issued, which then flows into the question of who can go make the actual application at court. For the list of those who can seek protection via a court order we just need to look at the definition of domestic violence. It states against whom domestic violence can be committed, namely; “spouse, child, de facto spouse, or any other person who is a member of the household of the applicant or the respondent.” Thus it is for their benefit it must be sought.

Now I love this part of the act, because it gives a wide range of persons who can seek protection from domestic violence. I think the act in this area is very progressive, though there may still be room for some salient improvement, especially since, sadly, the intake officers and the magistrates who help to give the law effect, interpret it and use it narrowly, much to the detriment of many who should be benefiting under it. Trust me, at times getting a protection order for a person who needs it is rather difficult and tedious, and in other instances in the most flippant of situations it is so quickly issued, showing the problem with giving effect to the legislation. There is a need to better lay out terms, provisions and conditions and give guiding principles, especially since it must be issued at the Magistrate’s Court level, where the magistrates are creatures of statute, unlike the Supreme Court which has an inherent jurisdiction and wider.

Now to the issue of who can benefit? I will deal with each category in depth because this is the core of the DVA since it was designed to benefit these persons.

Who is a spouse under DVA?
Spouse – includes: (a) a woman who cohabits with a man as if she were in law his wife; (b) a man who cohabits with a woman as if he were in law her husband; (c) a former spouse; (d) a de facto spouse; (e) a former de facto spouse

Noteworthy in this category is that DVA is not only to protect women, but to also protect men, since men can also be abused. Then it addresses not only those legally married spouses, but the definition is expanded to include people who are not married but cohabiting together as if they were wife or husband. This would include those already deemed a common-law spouse by virtue of living together five years or more, but can also include those who are do not even qualify yet as common-law spouse, per law because the definition makes no qualification about how long one would be cohabiting together to be considered a spouse. When it says it includes a former spouse, it simply means that even after separation from each other, if the person is still committing acts of domestic violence, then you can still seek a protection order, because the act of physical separation does not bring to an end the bond previously held, despite the relationship breaking down. This holds even truer where children were involved in the relationship.

Then there is a cohabitant mentioned in the definition, so let’s look at who the DVA says is a “cohabitant.” A cohabitant means, “a person who has lived with, is living with, or is in a visiting relationship with, a person of the opposite sex as a husband and wife although not legally recognized as a common-law or legal spouse of that person”. So I really appreciate the importance of this definition because here it covers a lover, a mistress, girlfriend, baby-mother, baby-father, or anyone within this category by whatever name, and they can be an “ex” or a present lover, a mistress, girlfriend, baby-mother, baby-father, etc.

Readers may then be wondering who is a de facto spouse? Well, this term is used to mean a first-named person of the opposite sex who is living with the second-named person as that person’s husband or wife though not legally married to each other, or if not living together, is a parent, but not a grandparent, of a child of the first-named person; or who is pregnant by the first-named person and includes a cohabitant and a person in a visiting relationship.

I like this definition because it ensures it includes those not living together, but parent of a child with the first-named person and it includes those not living together but pregnant for the first-named person, and it specifically includes those just visiting in the relationship.

Then there is the all-encompassing provision that the persons who can seek a protection order can be any other person who is a member of the household of the applicant or the respondent.” So it can be a sibling, a grandparent, an in-law and just about anyone living in the household of either the applicant or the respondent. Thus, you, the applicant, can seek a protection order against anybody of your household and likewise anybody in your household can seek an application against you, making you the respondent.

Of course a child can also seek an application, but being a minor, it involves other details which I will address at a later writing since it deserves to be viewed on its own, especially in light of the large cases of domestic abuse against children, the case of Faye Lin Cannon just being a more recent and high profile one.

The topic of domestic violence is a profound one and I cannot address it all in one writing… so until next time when I can explain more!

God bless!

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