The Death of Marcia Henville: Domestic Violence in Trinidad & Tobago

Marcia Henvill, image courtesy of Caribbean360.com

 

They said that she gave voice to the voiceless. Now it is time for someone else to step up and be her voice…

A couple of days before she was to serve divorce proceedings to her husband, Marcia Henville was murdered.  She was bludgeoned and stabbed from behind, and her throat was slit.  Her body had been set ablaze with an accelerant post-mortem, presumably to try and conceal the murder.  Her neighbors had heard strange noises coming from her bedroom just before the fire started, but did not investigate or call the police.  Her son bravely broke down the bedroom door, but her body was already burning.  Her husband, Sheldon Henville, managed to escape the fire, though he suffered burns.  He was taken to a hospital where, according to his lawyer, Fareed Ali, Henville is being mistreated and has suffered some sort of mental haze that prevents him from speaking.  Ali claims that Henville is “heartbroken” over the death of his “soul mate.”[i][ii]

Call me cynical, but I don’t believe him.

Like Errol Fabian,[iii] I am angry at the neighbors that did nothing, but mostly, I am angry at a society that feels that violence in the family is a “private affair.”  According to a recent UN poll, one out of every seven men in Trinidad thinks that it is acceptable to beat a wife or girlfriend for infidelity. Just as disheartening, three in ten people reported that a family member of friend had experienced domestic violence in the last twelve months. [iv]

What happened to Marcia Henville is not an isolated event.  This is not a simple tragedy-turned-scandal; this is a symptom of a sickness that undermines our island. Right now, as you read this, there are women and men who live in fear of their partners.  There are women and men who are in danger, but who have no place to run.  There are not enough programs in place to meet the needs of these women, and men who experience domestic abuse are even more isolated.

Like poverty and deficits in education, domestic violence does not have a simple, quick fix.  It will take a multifaceted approach, requiring the cooperation of law makers, social workers, police, teachers, communities, and individuals. We can’t afford to view it as a private affair.  Abuse hurts wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.  The damage then echoes out into the larger community, and the cycle of can continue for generations.  It has to be stopped.

Violence within the family needs to be addressed directly: on the news, in the papers, in textbooks, training manuals, and educational workshops for police officers, teachers, and hospital workers.  Most importantly, parents need to teach their children the warning signs of abuse, and what to do if they find themselves in an unhealthy relationship.

Contrary to popular opinion, abuse isn’t really about gender, though male privilege has led to a disproportionate amount of abused women.  Abuse is about control.  Abusers seek to dominate their victims.  They feel powerful when they intimidate and hurt their targets.  After the abuse occurs, they feel scared that the abused partners will leave them.  They then say that they are sorry; they promise that it won’t happen again.  But eventually, the abusers start to reflect on how powerful they felt when they were hurting their victims.  They set their targets up for more violence, and “punish them” with verbal, financial, emotional, or physical abuse.

The days surrounding victims’ escape from their abusers are the most dangerous.  It is the time when the abusers are about to lose control over their victim for good, and when they are most desperate to regain that control.  I wish I could have warned her.

Jack Warner, leader of the Independent Liberal Party, called her “a true patriot and dedicated advocate of the people, especially the downtrodden and the oppressed,”[i] and she was. It just made me so mad to know that in her final moments, there was no one there to advocate for her.

I can’t help but see parallels in our lives. I too am a mother of two wonderful children, and I too am trying to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. On the day of her funeral, I sat in my kitchen, listening to Whitney Houston’s “Home,” giving Marcia Henville my own private eulogy.

“We never got the chance to meet in person, but I feel your loss keenly, as all of Trinidad does.  You dedicated your life to making the world a better place for others.  You weren’t afraid to stand up against injustice; you stood up for others.  It is not fair, who was there to stand up for you? You have been a role-model of what it means to be a fearless crusader, and I will try to live by your example.”

Cold comfort though it might have been to her and her children, I promised that I would dedicate my next book to them, and I dreamed of Trinidad making a national Marcia Henville Day.

At the funeral, her children called for forgiveness for their mother’s murderer,[ii] and my heart broke for them.   I admired their compassion.

The children of abused/abusive parents are caught in a terrible quagmire. They love both parents, and it hurts these children terribly to have one parent hurt the other.  They feel the need to defend both, without implicating one or the other.  Domestic violence creates terrible collateral damage within families.

As the days have progressed, I have found myself growing increasingly angrier.  But as Barbara Deming has said, “Our task, or course, is to transmute the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change.”

My father, St. Elmo Gopaul, used to say that our children are the leaders of tomorrow.  He strove to bring education reform to the island, and the Trinidad & Tobago Teacher’s Union (now called the Trinidad & Tobago Unified Teacher’s Association) is his legacy.  But more than that, he understood that it is not just about teaching a child how to read or how to do long division: the goal of education is to help turn a child into a critically thinking, intelligent, and compassionate human being.

Assistant superintendent Joanne Archie, Public Information Officer of the Police, has stated that Trinidad already has a Victims and Witness Support Unit, which she says trains police officers on how to respond to domestic abuse.  The VWSU offers counselling services to victims, and Superintendent Archie urges women (and presumably men) to call the police when they are being abused.

There has been some criticism directed at the VWSU; specifically, that its efforts are not enough. Chair of the Coalition Against Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and former Independent Senator, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, has stated that there needs to be a better way of dealing with the problem, as well as more funding to the VWSU if it is to be effective. She has stated that more emphasis needs to be placed on providing education about what constitutes a healthy relationship and how to safely get out of a dangerous one. [iii]

After I went public with my own memoir of abuse, I received dozens of calls, texts, and emails from men and women seeking help and looking to tell their story, but none had ever even heard of the VWSU. And though I have no desire to create antagonism with law enforcement, the police that I have dealt with when trying to help women in Trinidad do not have me convinced that they have had sufficient training or motivation to keep women and men safe from their abusers. In my opinion, the VWSU is a start, but only a start.

I don’t want Marcia Henville to have died in vain.  I want this to be a wakeup call, not just to the elite, but to every citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. The American President, John F. Kennedy once asked his fellow men and women not to ask what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.  I would ask the same.  These are our mothers, our daughters, our sons, and our elders that are being hurt by the violence.

So as I attempt to channel my anger into the will to bring about change, I will strive always to do so in the spirit of unity and cooperation. I will work with Superintendent Archie; with the Minister of Gender, Youth, and Child Development; with the Minister of Education; and the National Security Minister to try and bring about a holistic solution. I urge everyone to get involved.

It doesn’t matter what kind of economic circumstances you come from—some will have the means and way to donate thousands towards building shelters for battered men, women, and children—but do not think that you need money to make a difference.

Write to the ministries and let them know that you want to see this problem addressed. Teach your children how to have healthy relationships. Show through example that love never seeks to punish or control. Learn to recognize the warning signs of when a loved-one is being hurt. Call the police when you hear a man or a woman screaming for help. Never be afraid to stand up and declare that abuse is wrong.

To quote Barbara Deming again, “Think first of the action that is right to take, think later about coping with one’s fears.”

Let God bless our nation, and let us all work to break the cycle of abuse.

 

Gail Gopaul is the founder of the NGO, No More DV. She is author of No Regrets and Parents Are a Treasure to Some and a Treasury to Others.  Gail splits her time between Trinidad and the US, tirelessly working to shake up the status quo on the Island and stop the systemic abuse of the most vulnerable citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. She is the proud mother of two doctors, and a survivor of domestic violence and addiction.

 

[i] Caribbean360, “Autopsy Confirms Prominent Trinidad Talk Show Host Murdered” http://www.caribbean360.com/news/autopsy-confirms-prominent-trinidad-talk-show-host-murdered

[ii] Trinidad & Tobago Warning http://www.tntwarning.com/coredet?cid=i2vwszKk

[iii] Trinidad Express News Papers,“Marcia Henville’s Funeral,” http://www.trinidadexpress.com/videos/-MARCIA-HENVILLES-FUNERAL—290395401.html

[iv] “New UN Study Finds One In Seven Men Says” It’s Okay to Beat Your Wife.” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian  http://www.guardian.co.tt/news/2015-02-02/new-un-study-finds-one-seven-men-says-it%E2%80%99s-okay-beat-your-wife

[v] Jack Warner “Official Statement on the Death of Marcia Henville” http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Warner-Her-voice-will-be-missed-289694871.html?m=y&smobile=y

[vi] La Rose, Miranda, “I Forgive My Mother’s Murderer,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,206318.html

[vii] Caribbean New Media Group, “TTPS Calls on Domestic Violence Victims to Seek Assistance” http://www.ctntworld.com/cnews2/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5302:ttps-calls-on-domestic-violence-victims-to-seek-assistance&catid=137&Itemid=707