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Around the globe, many countries that have instituted lockdowns in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 are also reporting an increased incidence of domestic violence.
Trinidad and Tobago is, unfortunately, no exception. In a press conference on April 9, 2020, the country's commissioner of police, Captain Gary Griffith, shared data confirming that such crimes have been on the rise.
In February 2019, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) had received 39 reports of “assaults by beating”; in February 2020, that figure had climbed to 73. Similarly, in March 2019, reports of domestic violence numbered 42; in March 2020, there were 96.
All told, Griffith reported a rise in domestic violence cases from 232 in 2019 to 558 in 2020. He did admit, however, that the increased number of reports may also be partially linked to the January 2020 launch of the TTPS’ Gender-Based Violence Unit (GBVU).
The unit is staffed with police personnel who have been specially trained in using proper procedures for handling sensitive cases. In the past, victims of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence have complained of ill-treatment by police officers, doctors and lawyers who may voice disbelief in victims’ stories, deal insensitively with them and magnify the trauma by asking inappropriate and humiliating questions.
At the end of March, after the Trinidad and Tobago government announced the implementation of stay-at-home measures for everyone but members of “essential services”, the TTPS’ Victim and Witness Support Unit (VWSU) prepared itself for a rise in domestic abuse.
As of March 30, the unit has helped 48 domestic violence victims and dealt with several sexual offences against minors.
Only a month before, on February 28, activists delivered a petition — signed by 1,700 citizens — to the Office of the Prime Minister. It called for amendments to the country's Domestic Violence Act, asking that special funding be set aside to ensure that shelters for abused women and children can continue to operate.
As many as six women were murdered in domestic violence incidents in Trinidad and Tobago within the first two months of 2020. The country has a population of just under 1.4 million, of which about half are female.
Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus, noted in a column for Trinidad and Tobago Newsday that “behind our closed doors has become more complex than ever” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Some are beginning to feel trapped or out of control. In response, they may turn to threatening and controlling behaviours as part of expressing frustration. Cases of abuse and the severity of violence in families might increase while options for running to family or friends are closed. […]
As with any crisis, women remain particularly vulnerable, whether because they dominate the service and retail industry as workers, and are at risk of losing those jobs, or because they predominate as nurses, and are taking risks that leave them distanced from their families, or because there is deepening isolation for those already being separated from friends and family by abusive partners, or who have been isolating themselves because of shame.
As far as sexual abuse goes, Hosein added:
Girls’ risk of sexual abuse is especially high now that uncles, stepfathers, cousins and other men are more present and difficult to escape. The vulnerability we are all feeling right now can make victims feel even less able to report or leave, particularly if they are also women and girls with mental or physical disabilities.
The TTPS’ new reporting parameters governing gender-based crimes make it possible for reports to be made without victims having to physically enter a police station. Instead, they can make reports through the TTPS app, or by calling the national emergency number, 999.
The unit also works closely with the TTPS’ Child Protection Unit, as well as non-governmental organisations and agencies like the Children's Authority, which protects minors who also suffer at the hands of abusers.