Why I must write about Amarah Lalitte, a little girl brutally murdered in Trinidad

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On the night of April 8, in a house in Arouca, a town situated along Trinidad's east-west corridor, four-year-old Amarah Lallitte was found decapitated. Shortly before, her mother had fled the house, running to the nearby police station to report that her male partner, who is not Lalitte's biological father, had attacked her.

She reportedly tried to get her daughter to leave with her, but told the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, “She thought we were playing, so she was laughing. When I called her to come, she was not coming, she just stayed on the bed. So I had no choice. I had to try and get away from his grip and go to the station with the anticipation that the police would have reached there in time to save her.”

So traumatising was the scene that even experienced police officers had to receive psychological counselling, as did the child's relatives and neighbours of the family.

Much of the online discussion around Lalitte's murder consisted of reposting information reported in mainstream media, probing the reasons the child's biological father was not part of the picture, lamenting the evil taking hold of the country, and inferring that the death penalty should be reinstated.

Trinidad and Tobago is the only country in the English-speaking Caribbean to retain the death penalty, although no one has been hanged for murder since 1999. There have been countless studies debating whether or not capital punishment deters violent crime, with human rights organisations like Amnesty International claiming it does not, and many others being unable to draw a clear conclusion.

With a population of about 1.5 million, Trinidad and Tobago's rate of violent crime is high. In 2022, World Population Review ranked the country third in the world when it comes to murder rates per capita, right behind two other Caribbean nations — Jamaica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, 2022 was cited as the year with the highest murder rate in local history: 605 people were killed, but only 89 were charged with murder, representing a solve rate of just 12.4 per cent. In 2023, its ranking had only slightly improved — according to Statista, Trinidad and Tobago was tenth on its list of the world's most dangerous countries by murder rate.

Breaking down the deaths by cause, the situation appears just as grim. In 2017, for instance, when there were 494 murders, just over 10 percent of the victims were women. Of those, nearly 83 percent had been killed by an intimate partner. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instances of domestic violence became more common. The impact of this behaviour on children was cause for concern, as it is a well-documented fact that “the risk of serious harm from domestic and family violence is disproportionally carried by women and children.”

Article 3 in the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies the right to “life, liberty and security of person,” yet so many women in Trinidad and Tobago — and throughout the wider region — have that right denied them and in cases like this, denied their children as well.

It is a problem that has been bubbling for some time. In 2014, Caribbean social media users questioned whether societal attitudes and laws against sexual assault were contributing to a regional “rape culture.” In 2016, the region was forced to confront its attitude towards women, yet Trinidad and Tobago's first murder victim of 2017 was a schoolgirl. For three years in a row — 2020, 2021, and 2022 — gender-based violence has continued to be a pressing issue.

As a nation, Trinidad and Tobago has marched against gender-based violence on International Women's Day, held public remembrances for femicide victims, tried to dismantle some of the causes of such a complex issue, called out victim-blaming and violence against children, identified links between gender-based violence and child abuse, and attempted to use humour to raise people's awareness and shift their perspective.

Citizens have routinely agitated for action, shifted the responsibility from women onto men, suggested tangible measures to make women safer, and said, “Enough is enough.” They have asked important questions — many of which remain unanswered — to the point where “sometimes even words feel futile.”

The problem remains finding a way to quell the violence. How do we go about stemming the prevalence and acceptance of — or is it stoicism around — domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago?

Many non-governmental organisations, doing this work on scanty budgets for a long time, can answer this question far better than I — but from a journalistic perspective, I'd like to riff off veteran correspondent Christiane Amanpour's belief that reporting should “be truthful, but not neutral.” She first came to that awareness when covering the Bosnian genocide, but says that the approach “applies to everything,” not just “gross violations of human rights.” But aren't the levels of violence we are currently experiencing — as a nation and as a region – just that?

To take Amanpour's stance on truth one step further, the role of the truth-telling journalist has got to be more than bearing witness. If it is the truth that is being brought to light — without agendas or interests — then a natural offshoot of that must be to effect change in the upholding of that truth.

First comes advocacy. We must tell the stories and shine a light. Education is key, as it bolsters the impact of the work that is already being done. How much more effective could our NGOs be if they worked together, alongside state agencies, communities, educational and even religious institutions, integrated into a national campaign against domestic abuse? If we figure out which of these organisations is making solid inroads, fund them so they can do more, and connect them to others so the communal effort can be augmented, I suspect that small steps will soon become big strides.

People would start talking more openly about what gender-based violence looks like and what the warning signs are. By putting our ingrained “macociousness” to work for good, unnecessary deaths could possibly be prevented. People would hopefully become more aware of how to access support, and less ashamed to ask for it. Literacy programmes and skills-building workshops in anger management have performed well in the past. How much more good could they do if they received the resources needed to scale up?

Socialisation of our boys and young men is key to breaking this cycle. This begins with families, regardless of how they look: nuclear, extended, blended, broken. As a society, we need to find ways to get into homes and provide the help that is needed. In some cases, this might begin with economic support. Other situations might call for social outreach or mentorship to alter mindsets and give people tangible coping mechanisms.

Parenting workshops are also desperately needed. It's time to reinstate home visits by community nurses and social welfare officers — maybe even random visits that take the “mystery shopper” approach — so that we can better gauge which households are struggling with domestic and child abuse issues. This framework is integral to the proper functioning of state social services, and has the potential to relieve the workload of the Victim and Witness Support Unit of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) by helping to prevent attacks in the first place.

Could the government make better use of the experts in its population? Could private sector psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and mental health experts, for instance, be assigned to help different communities and, in return, qualify for tax breaks? Could such an initiative extend to people like yoga instructors, nature enthusiasts, musicians, artists and other cultural workers? Let's use the resources we have at our disposal to create a country we all feel safe living in.

The scourge of corruption needs to be addressed in tangible ways. Without consequences for illegal behaviour, our systems will continue to deteriorate until they are mere façades. Our judicial system is in dire need of streamlining for it to be truly equitable. This is not to say that there has not been hope amidst the doom.

The Evidence Act, for example, has been updated to allow for more modern approaches for evidence gathering in criminal trials, and the recently launched National Strategic Action Plan to end gender-based and sexual violence puts a strong emphasis on prevention and protection for survivors, as well as prosecution of abusers. In the country's 2023-24 National Budget, social development was the fourth highest funded sector.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, changing a culture requires innovation, commitment, diligence and consistent implementation for it to take hold. We are all our brother's — and sister's — keepers, or, to cite a local idiom, “When your neighbour house on fire, wet yours.” Will we continue to turn a blind eye while things are building up to disaster, then wail over the tragedy — until it happens again? Or will we finally wake up, realise no political party or action hero is coming to save us, and begin to show up for ourselves?

If we are to break free from this morass, we must take advantage of every opportunity to respectfully and responsibly participate in our society — top down, bottom up. Our women and children deserve nothing less. When we do, I suspect the need to write about such harrowing stories will diminish — and that on the occasions where we must, it will feel much less like despair.

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