The Honourable Minister of Social Transformation & Human Resource Development, Samantha Marshall, staff and volunteers of the Directorate of Gender Affairs were deeply saddened upon learning of the tragic and untimely passing of 22-year-old Sheriece Henry on Monday November 28, 2016. The Directorate expresses its deepest sympathy to all of her loved ones left behind to grieve, in particular, Sheriece’s young daughter.
The tears now being shed for Sheriece are ones we have shed before. The emotional wounds her family suffers are wounds other families in Antigua and Barbuda have felt before. The question, “how could this happen?” is one that has been asked across our communities many times before. As the Directorate reflects on its commitment to creating a society free from gender-based violence, we cannot help but wonder how many more mothers, daughters, sisters and friends will be taken before we achieve this end.
The bitter irony of Sheriece’s passing amidst the commemoration of a global campaign to end violence against women cannot be overlooked or understated. Many have participated in activities organised by the Directorate and its partners to recognise the 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women, held annually from November 25 to December 10, but so rarely is the necessity to keep this candle burning personified in national headlines. We speak about the prevalence of domestic violence in our country, while the issue is dismissed and minimized. Yet, we are here again, grieving with another family, and intensely contemplating the ways in which our message can be clearer and wider spread.
In the past year, under the Minister Marshall’s leadership we revised and updated the Domestic Violence Act to ensure victims greater protection under the law. The Directorate embarked on an extensive awareness campaign within schools, churches and communities. The Directorate even took the message to cyberspace, connecting with people across various social media platforms. However Sheriece’s death forces us to reflect on the reality that there are yet still some in our twin-island state who have not heard our messages, and our actions thus far are not enough. Tragedies like this one are not a thing of the past, and there is still a great deal left to do for gender equality to be fully realised in all facets of society.
Too often we view incidents of violence as one-time events, and fail to see their roots in small, innocuous acts. It starts when we condone discriminatory “jokes” about rape and domestic violence. It grows when we dismiss victims’ stories as lies, exaggerations, or misfortune they have somehow brought upon themselves; and it thrives when we choose not to support those working to address gender-based violence in our nation or striving to overcome the victimisation they have suffered. In the coming days, many of us will wonder aloud why victims of domestic violence don’t just leave the abusive relationship they are in, but will close in our louvers when we overhear two people engaged in a “lovers quarrel”.
For victims, this violence is not a singular event. Murder is never the genesis. Women across our nation are victimised through daily, continuous and progressive attacks. In addition to wondering how we have come to this place of mourning today, we must be critical of our prior complacency, and actively seek ways to help support those in need. This work belongs not only to the agencies responsible for responding to incidents of violence, but also to all of us. We must all work towards making Antigua and Barbuda a safe space, free of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and all forms of discrimination. We must make a concerted effort to speak out and act out against violence wherever and whenever we see it.
To those of you who find yourselves in situations of abuse, or know someone who is, we implore you to reach out to the Directorate of Gender Affairs. The office is open from 8:30-4:30 Monday to Fridays, and can be reached 24/7 via the Crisis Hotline at 463-5555.