A breakdown of the efficacy of Domestic Violence Laws & Frameworks in TT

By Kara John

What is GBV + Prevalence?

Violence against women is a form of discrimination inhibiting women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on an equal basis with men.[1] This discrimination includes ‘any act of gender-based violence (GBV) that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’.[2]

Crime data highlights that while women are less frequently victims of crime generally, their susceptibility to GBV is drastically higher than men’s. United Nations (UN) Women in Caribbean highlight that ‘women unlike men are more likely to be beaten and sometimes killed, not by a stranger’, but by someone they know intimately like a husband or boyfriend.[3]

What obligations exist in international Law?[4]

Many international agreements, that Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) are party to, create obligations relating to the equality and protection of women by law. To highlight some of our international obligations I examined, The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) and the Convention of Belém do Pará.[5] These three agreements mainly create due diligence obligations requiring the state of T&T to construct effective mechanisms for the protection of women, in different forms. They acknowledge the need to address the gendered reality of society’s structures in order to target the root cause of GBV.  

Furthermore, they recognise that legislation affording women protection and the power  to prosecute alleged perpetrators need to be created in order to recognise a women’s fundamental right to be protected. The more onerous, and perhaps most important aspect, is the effective operation of law, in order to adequately protect the legal right. The scope of a state’s obligation arising under these agreements is well examined internationally through judgements from the court which all highlight that structural frameworks, laws and programs, need to be effective.[6] As such it is not enough to create mechanisms to protect women, these mechanisms must actually effectively reduce GBV. 

What are some of our frameworks to combat GBV that exist in T&T?

  1. The Domestic Violence Act 1999 of T&T (DV ACT)

The DV Act provides a broad definition of domestic violence, inclusive of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse and section 4 delineates a wide listing of persons who can apply for protection under the act, including persons who don’t live together but have a relationship. The DV Act also prescribes numerous protection orders to prohibit or direct offenders as the court deems fit inclusive of counselling and therapy. Under the DV Act police officers have wide powers to arrest and enter premises where it is suspected that domestic violence has occurred or is occurring. The DV Act also provides for the creation of a domestic violence register.

  1. Sexual Offences Act 1986

The Sexual Offences Act 1986 of T&T has been influential in addressing women’s rights by recognising marital rape and sex trafficking as serious offences and also increasing penalties and fines for offences. The Sexual Offences Act 1986 also provides for a sexual offender’s registry. 

Do note that the above mechanisms are not representative of all state or non-state frameworks for combating GBV. However, the two acts are good examples of existing structural mechanisms to protect women that have the force of law.

Possible Shortcomings of existing frameworks in T&T

While the DV Act provides a wide range of protective orders and powers to police to arrest and investigate, it is focused on tackling gender-based violence after it has occurred. Under the DV Act a protection order can only be made where it is found that domestic violence has already happened. Additionally, a police officer is only empowered to arrest or detain an abuser, for breaching an order after the breach has occurred and they must show that they have reasonable grounds to believe that the protection order has been breached. Both of these provisions highlight that the DV Act operates after the harm has been done, retroactively. 

The penalties and fines in the Sexual Offences Act 1986 are also framed in the same retroactive language. Neither Act provides for preventive or supervisory measures to preclude the occurrence of violence in the first place or effectively prevent further instances of gender-based violence. The inefficacy of our mechanisms to combat violence against women is demonstrated by the (not-so-recent!) surge in kidnappings, resulting in the rape and murder, of so many of our young girls. 

While T&T has been able to comply with their due diligence obligations [creating legislation], the mechanisms are mostly reactionary and fail to address the systemic causes of violence and also to provide for effective reporting and response from law enforcement. Firstly, the provision for a sexual and DV offender’s registry while theoretically appropriate, does not account for the practical reality of T&T as a small island. The registries and the other protection mechanisms outlined in both Acts operate on a presupposition that offenders may be strangers who can be classified separately and avoided. 

Legislators failed to account for the fact that many of these offenders have a familial link which results in an added dimension of psychological control and power over victims, which may prevent their victims from reporting them in the first place. The primary issue with the legislation is that it is a last resort remedy, meaning that it does not address the systemic causes of gender, the power dynamic of society and nuanced DV situations that might prevent victims from being able to leave and report situations.

What should be the way forward?

Structural mechanisms need to be effective, as the state has the positive duty to prevent GBV. In this regard, the failure of police to respond promptly and effectively, as well as the retroactive nature of the Acts illustrate that T&T has fallen short in complying with its obligations, though fulfilled. Programmes, syllabi, and attitudes towards what it means to be a man or woman need to be reconstructed. This will allow men and women to be more sensitised to the gendered reality of society and hence be better equipped with knowledge to understand and deal with situations and ‘toxic’ formulations that result in violence.  

An example of a good program is The Partnership for Peace: A Domestic Violence Protection Programme, implemented by United Nations (UN) Women in T&T. This program uses a psycho-educational approach to prevent a person from re-offending. This programme encourages perpetrators to “confront harmful ideas about women’, masculinity, the uneven power dynamics that fuel violence and “accept personal responsibility for ending their violent behaviour.’[7] Presently, there is no data to verify whether this program is still running, but this was a great program that sought to target the root of the issue. However, like the laws above it is retroactive. It would be great for more programmes and initiatives like this to take place and target young people so that harmful ideologies can be deconstructed before violence is done.

However, I am glad that we have the DV, and Sexual offences legislation aimed at targeting GBV. I also think programmes such as the aforementioned are great ways of targeting the systemic causes of GBV. For the future I hope that our leaders engage in more preventive mechanisms. I would also like to see more dialogue about the root causes of GBV. It is great to have conversations about empowering and educating women, but now that we have empowered and educated women, we must ensure that we have a society ready to accept and uplift them. 

[1]General Recommendations Adopted By The Committee On The Elimination Of Discrimination Against Women, General recommendation No. 19: Violence against women 1992

[2] United Nations Development Programme, ‘Caribbean Human Development Report, Human Development And The Shift To Better Citizen Security’ (2012).

[3] ‘Caribbean GBV Law Portal: GBV In The Caribbean’ (UN Women | Caribbean, 2019) <https://caribbean.unwomen.org/en/caribbean-gender-portal/caribbean-gbv-law-portal/gbv-in-the-caribbean#_ftnref10&gt; accessed 19 November 2019.

[4] For a general understanding of what international obligations are check out one of my earlier blogposts https://smalltalktt.wordpress.com/2020/08/30/whats-an-international-obligation/

[5] Organization of American States (OAS), Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belem do Para”), 9 June 1994,

[6] González et al. (“Cotton Field”) v. Mexico, Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACrtHR), 16 November 2009; Opuz v. Turkey, Application no. 33401/02, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 9 June 2009; [1] Maria Da Penha v. Brazil 2.051, 16 April 2001, Report No. 54/01, Inter-Am. C.H.R., Annual Report 2000, OEA/Ser.L/V.II.111 Doc. 20 rev. (2000)

[7]‘Partnership For Peace’ (UN Women | Caribbean, 2019) <https://caribbean.unwomen.org/en/for-later/partnership-for-peace&gt; accessed 21st December 2019.