September 11, 2014
SENATE STATEMENT OF SENATOR LISA SHOMAN ON AN URGENT MATTER OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – CRIME AND VIOLENCE IN BELIZE
“If not me, who? If not now, when?”
The matter of Crime and violence in Belize is all our business. Crime and violence in the Jewel are matters on which we have all, at one time or another, addressed this Honorable Chamber; and on which we all agree is urgent, and a matter of definite public importance.
Our media (formal and social) is awash today and every day with horrific and heart-wrenching accounts of murder, mayhem, maim, and violence. We are living in an age in Belize that no matter where you live, who you are, or how privileged-or not you believe yourself to be, crime and violence impacts us all. We are all affected and touched by the matter. It is a matter of urgent public importance.
Right now as legislators, Colleagues, we are constantly challenged to find legislative and policy fixes for the crime and violence sweeping our nation. We worry about it, we debate, discuss, rail- up, thunder, and emote about it. Not one of us would ever try to deny that it is a matter of national and PUBLIC importance.
But there is a type of violence endured by many Belizeans, every day, day after day, day in day out, in their homes, and in the privacy, sanctity, and confines of private spaces, away from the glare of the public. That violence is often unseen, unheard, and unspoken. It may even be voiceless; but what it is not – it is not faceless. It is not a private matter. It is a public concern.
Call it “man and woman business”, call it “their business”, call it “not my business” – call it domestic violence, but never ever try to claim that it is a private matter, a private affair. Domestic /partner/”friend” violence is not a private matter; it is a matter of urgent, public concern.
Over twenty-five years ago, a committed band of Belizean sisters, acting as WOMEN AGAINST VIOLENCE (WAV) led by the formidable Dorla Bowman pushed for, promulgated, and got passed the first ever Domestic Violence Act in Belize. We did this because we saw a dire need, and we saw that there was no law to specifically address the issue. I am proud to say, and to be, along with the Honorable Dolores Balderamos Garcia, the writer of that act. Twenty-five years later, however, Domestic Violence is still, in Belize, the violence and the crime that “dares not speak its name”.
Twenty years ago, a teacher of Holy Redeemer Primary School came to see me. I was still a relatively junior attorney, and at first I found it hard to believe her account of the emotional psychological and physical abuse she was enduring at the hands of her policeman husband.
Finally, after much agonizing, she decided to apply to the Court for a protection order and moved out of the matrimonial home. I will never forget attending Family Court on the second floor in the old Paslow Building with my client; and before I even had an opportunity to speak, her policeman husband informed the court that SHE did not wish to pursue the case any further.
I turned to my client who had tears streaming down her face and who seemed unwilling and unable to speak. I asked the court for an adjournment and during the break, my client notified me that she had come home from her place of employment to her newly rented room to find her policeman husband sitting on her bed. He told her that if she knew what was good for her, she would not pursue the matter any further.
One day, my client simply up and left Belize, dressed in her school uniform. She simply walked off her job one day, boarded a plane, and left Belize, never to return, unable to endure any more. Her then husband is a former Commissioner of Police.
Domestic violence is all OUR business. We are ALL called to be each other’s keepers. Your silence as a victim, a witness, an observer, or a citizen is bought on expensive terms. It is a silence bought on the backs of those who believe they have no option but to endure. If you do not speak out, you protect the perpetrator of violence at the cost of lives, at the cost of the emotional, psychological, and physical abuse of those lives.
It is silence at the cost, ultimately, of actual lives – lives of those like Leslie Maude Smith. Leslie was murdered in her own home, in front of her small children and her mother by an angry and seething partner on a Good Friday evening in Belize, and while in possession of a protection order obtained by me.
That was not a private matter, a “man and woman” matter alone – it impacted her life. It impacted her children’s lives, her mother’s life, all our lives. The violent death of any human being, of any Belizean diminishes and impacts me. It impacts you. It is a public matter.
The Police, therefore, have a PUBLIC duty to fully investigate any complaint made by any person against any other where an allegation of violence, assault, or abuse is concerned, whether the complainant withdraws the complaint or not. A complaint of such a nature, which is made to the Police, is a serious thing and ought not to be just ignored because it was withdrawn, and the Police CANNOT pretend that it does not exist because it is withdrawn.
I serve notice that I will work to have the law amended to have a complaint fully investigated, even if the complainant withdraws, or tries to withdraw. I will work with whoever is willing to work with me to effect change, and I extend my hand to all Colleagues in this Honorable Chamber. We have a responsibility and the state has a moral and legal duty in these cases.
Silence is complicity. I will accuse myself where I have been silent before. Where I was silent, I was not right. I was wrong. I cannot and I dare NOT be silent in the face of domestic violence no matter where and to whom it occurs, and who commits such violence.
But I expect also, the Women’s Commission to speak out against domestic violence. I urge all NGOs and those organizations that are entrusted with the rights of women and opposition to violence to speak out against domestic violence. Speak out because your silence is complicity, and it is silence, which exists at the risk of the very lives of our citizens, women, children, and yes – even men.
There must be zero tolerance for crime and violence. Zero tolerance for murder, for mayhem, for maim, but most of all there must be zero tolerance for the violence that is not faceless, nor voiceless, nor private.
Domestic Violence must be addressed whether the person committing such violence is a Minister of Government or a member of public. No person, whether high or low, from the north to the south, and east to west of our nation is above the law or exempt from the law.