Lets start with a question. Which criminal do you believe deserves the harshest punishment: the young man in possession of 0.07 grams of marijuana or another young man who ran down his estranged wife, brutally beat her and then got back on his moped and ran her down again, all because he believed she may have been unfaithful? Think about this carefully. And then consider the actual punishments meted out: $800 fine or 80 days jail for the marijuana (yes, 0.07 grams, you read that right and I defy anyone to get stoned on that amount), a suspended 6 month sentence for the moped man.
The answer prompts more questions in my mind: Why is it that one of the most harrowing crimes seems to receive such light sentences in the courts? That we can wield a zero tolerance policy on thieves and drug offenders but not on those who commit horrific acts of violence against women? I’m not knocking the fight against drugs here, but I am, like many, concerned at the seemingly low consideration given to domestic violence sentencing.
Domestic violence is a silent epidemic. Its victims are predominantly women and children. It affects every echelon of society, regardless of wealth, race or religion. It is so entrenched that you probably have a perpetrator and victim in your social circle without even knowing it. Yet because domestic violence happens behind closed doors by the very people women should be able to trust – their spouses or partners – victims face immense barriers in bringing offenders to justice. When they do, sentencing seems often absurdly light. We as a society should be ashamed for not supporting these women better in their time of need.
Those who haven’t experienced domestic violence often find it hard to understand why victims don’t just leave, but it often isn’t that simple. Even strong, assertive women can find themselves on the receiving end, trapped in a downward spiral that is difficult to break without care and support. They often feel ashamed, as if they are somehow to blame. Family, social and financial considerations can also be significant. This is why organizations such as the Women’s Resource Centre are so important.
The WRC helps more than 200 women a year to find a way for themselves – and often their children – to break a cycle of violence. They offer assistance with counseling and advice, court advocacy, community education and victim support services. The WRC receives just $60,000 a year in government funding and adds to that where it can through fundraising activities – but it is always a struggle to stretch the dollars to meet demands. Yet more victims are supported and protected by the police (regardless of whether charges are brought), the Physical Abuse Centre (24-hour hotline service 297-8278), and the Department of Consumer Affairs.
The examples of sentences that I used above are not unusual – check back issues of The Royal Gazette or Bermuda Sun, and you’ll see what I mean. The man who stabbed his girlfriend in front of their two children, then barricaded himself in the house with them: twelve months. The magistrate was quoted as saying, "I wish I had the power to give you a sentence greater than what I have the power to do." And on it goes.
Lets try this: when you finish reading this article, instead of letting it slip from your mind when you click on another page, make a note for yourself first to drop a donation to the WRC (Reid Street above The Music Box) or call them on 295-3882 to find out other ways to help. Their website is at www.wrcbermuda.com and women needing crisis support can call the hotline on 295-7273 (6pm to 6am). Ask – and keep asking – your local Member of Parliament what is being done to increase sentences.
And before you think it has nothing to do with you, consider this: next time, the victim could be your friend, co-worker, sister, daughter, aunty – even you. Lets all help to call a halt to this epidemic, before even one more woman or child is hurt.