While women’s rights remain the most urgent human rights priority, they remain subordinated to broader gender concerns as reflected, not least, in the UN International Women’s Day 2016 theme of “Planet 50-50 by 2030 – step It Up For Gender Equality” – a complacent time-frame seemingly unperturbed by the untold numbers of murdered and disfigured females that can be expected by 2030. Were lethargic time-frames of this nature applied to migration or money-laundering, an international uproar would be predictable. This lack of international intensity on women’s rights stands in contrast with dedicated work at ground level which continues to reveal that the achievement of women’s rights remain an uphill task.
Education of women, for example, reflects progress in women’s rights, but it has also exposed the degtee of resistance to re-ordering of domestic gender roles which the education of girls implies. In the Guyanese context, better-educated younger women earning good salaries are no longer unquestioningly available for traditional domestic house-keeping, kitchen-gardening, minding fowls and parenting roles. Nor are they helplessly subject to the whims of men and boys, dependent on them for money: they own cars and scooters and phone for taxis,
However, this evolution of women’s rights is not as acceptable or secure as we like to think. Coercive male control, or patriarchy, has always been the crucial gender battleground. It remains pervasively manifest in everyday ordeals of checking cell ‘phones and interrogation over length of time spent out of the house or on Facebook and control of women’s earnings by partners. Control is the commonest form of domestic abuse whether by fathers, husbands, child-fathers, partners and brothers. It also remains, according to recent studies, a huge risk factor for domestic homicide.
Experts argue that the tactics of coercive control even when extreme can be effectively hidden. It is a pattern of behaviour that “includes intimidation, constant put downs, mind games, isolation from family and friends… the victim being forced to perform sexual favours in exchange for small basic items or liberties, such as access to sanitary towels.”
Moreover, control is not only a feature of settled relationships. A girl who having told her boyfriend she is going out with the girls for a night and decides to cancel with the girlfriends because yet again he ‘forgot’ and came around anyway’, is already being controlled.
Coercive control is pervasive and generates a wide range of psychosomatic ill-health and distress affecting women’s behavior in Guyana, accounting for the widespread use (and abuse) of valium and other sleeping pills and is no doubt a factor in our suicide statistics. But controlling behavior is not a crime in Guyana, or most other countries. Providing evidence of such behaviour to satisfy criminal standards is likely to be particularly difficult.
Moreover, extreme jealousy and possessiveness can be dressed up to look like care or concern. In a culture where police response is difficult to mobilize even with ample evidence of physical assault, how are they – and juries — to be persuaded to engage in complex issues like coercive control?
In addition to the police and the courts, the understanding and response to this problem in Guyana by social workers, healthcare staff, the media and, most particularly faith organizations, is nowhere close to adequate. A leading expert in this area has noted that the “why doesn’t she just leave?” mentality permeates every agency: they cannot appreciate that coercive control means she doesn’t have that choice.
Identifying coercive control is not easy and is going to require some fundamental changes in approach. The same expert noted that rather than investigating, for example, a domestic incident by asking “what happened?” which will produce very little evidence, they need to ask what a week in the person’s life is like and they will get a very different response.
While the status of all women remain so vulnerable to domination and the coercive control of men, it is an illusion to believe that the rights of minorities, such as indigenous, migrant, trafficked, and disabled women along with women vulnerable to sexual orientation discrimination can be secured and protected. This is not to undermine the struggle to secure and protect rights of these minorities, so much as to guard against any untroubled belief that women’s fundamental rights are so well-established that they can be submerged into generalities about ‘gender’ – for the next fifteen years.