A Story House
A Story Teller
“A story of the struggle to eradicate domestic violence in Suriname”
Written by KEITH EVANS
Remembering my friend, Nadia Raveles,
“A friend of a friend”
The writer is a former Representative of the Inter-American Development Bank in Suriname
The Story House
On the Rust en Vredestraat, it sits. Ancient, but well-preserved and freshly painted in soft colors that bespeak its outer quaintness and bear testimony to its inner serenity, it is not unlike many of the buildings that adorn the landscape of this old Dutch city on the South American main. It is a place of quietude, this place. Known to the locals as the Tori Oso, the name in Sranan’ Tongo for Story House, it is a popular gathering place for those whose self-appointed duty it is to speak authoritatively on the issues of the day; a place where the clash of ideas and ideologies of politicians, party stalwarts and parliamentarians of all political persuasions seldom rises above murmurs of discord, falling on ears, lent and un-lent, in tones measured not by the quantity, quality or blend of the libations that sometimes in profusion flow, but by a respect for its serenity: the same serenity that welcomes and encourages poets, and artists, and artistes alike, of popular and self-acclaim, to display their talents. For others, it is simply a place that offers repose, as shades of night descend upon the city and twilight yields to dusk and, on occasion, even as dusk gives way to dawn. Yet is was here at the Tori Oso, that the issue of domestic violence in Suriname unexpectedly intruded onto the agenda for discussion one September evening in 1996; its sordid details striking discordant notes in this place of tranquility; an irritant and a despoiler, stealing the calm of twilight time in this little corner of the city and introducing a darker shade of dusk, more akin to gloom.
The Story Teller’s un-nerving story
She, this friend of a friend, with whom I met at the Story House that September evening, had a story to tell. This Story Teller recounted that she had been an activist in the field of women’s rights for a long time. Her involvement, she said, dated back thirteen years to 1983, when she worked at the National Bureau for Women. It was during that time, she recalled in a pained and anguished voice, that she first became aware of the pervasiveness and gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Suriname; an awareness rooted in the all too many accounts of women reporting to the Bureau the abuse they suffered at the unrestrained hands of their mates; an awareness that was quickly transformed into frustration at the inability and unwillingness of society that, both in its public persona as government and in its private persona as a composite of non-governmental organizations, at best, seemed to care too little to do anything about it and, at worse, to accept it as though it were some self-evident truth about the relationship between the male and the female of the species.
In a tone that grew steadily more agitated as more than a decade of memories came rushing back and bound themselves to 1996 accounts of an evil that just would not go away, she spoke of her own efforts, in concert with those of like-minded crusaders for the rights of women, to come to the rescue of those women who were being reduced to a state of wretchedness by male abusers; of efforts to find shelter and offer counselling that would expose this so-called self-evident truth for the deception that it was and is. And then, her mood and spirit reclaimed by the serenity of the Tori Oso, she spoke of the unexpected appearance of a ray of hope; of a promise of a more effective and sustainable support for the abused, in the form of an offer she received to become the Representative of the Suriname Chapter of the Caribbean Association of Feminists for Research and Action (CAFRA), wherein she perceived an opportunity not only to access another source of human and possibly financial resources, but also to “regionalize” or even “internationalize” the truth of the worsening predicament of Surinamese women and bring greater attention and energy to bear on its resolution. As she spoke, the irritant and despoiler that had crept onto the agenda that September evening in the cloak of an intruder, disappeared into the gloom that it had itself created and returned in a Tori Oso twilight in the garb of a messenger, with a message form the abused and tormented – a plea for help it was, that fell on the lent ears of a friend of a friend of the Story Teller, who, by a stroke of good fortune if not fate, happened to be the Representative of the Inter-American Development Bank in Suriname.
A Tori Oso Response
Little did the Story Teller, this friend of a friend, suspect that on that September evening in 1996, this “bringing together” place on the Rust en Vredestraat was birthing a “bringing together” of two organizations unified in common purpose; little did she know that she was about to learn that her cause had friends in places that had hitherto never entered into her consciousness; that a little less than a decade earlier, in 1987, the Inter-American Development Bank had approved its “Operating Policy on Women”, with the general objective of “bringing about the fuller integration of women into all stages of the development process and improving their socio-economic situation”; that four years later, in 1991, it adopted a plan to make this policy operational; and that three years later at the “1994 Forum on Women in the Americas”, aptly titled “Participation and Development”, the Bank was presented with an agenda for action by the Forum’s participants to guide bank policy and programming, and fashion its project investments for the rest of the decade and beyond; that in the implementation of the agenda, it came face to face with the stark and cold reality that domestic violence posed a serious obstacle to the attainment of its policy objective; and that, at that moment, it committed itself to its eradication.
And so it was that on a September evening in 1996, a casual conversation with a friend of a friend brought more friends into the picture and signaled the start of an initiative that would put Suriname in the forefront of a regional movement, then only in its incipiency, to eliminate the scourge of domestic violence from the Region and introduce a Tori Oso feeling of serenity into the lives of its women.
A concert of action
Excited and encouraged by the Bank’s support for the cause, our Story Teller approached the Country Office with a request for financing from CAFRA for a regional conference on domestic violence, under the theme “Violence Against Women and Changes in Gender Relations”. With co-financing from the Caribbean Development Bank to enable the participation of delegates from the member countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which were not members of the Inter-American Development Bank, the Country Office was able to respond positively to the request and the conference took place in Paramaribo in August 1997. In his opening remarks at the Conference, the Representative suggested that the conferees send a delegation to the International Conference on Domestic Violence, which was to be held at the Bank’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C., two months later, taking with them a powerful and convincing message of efforts to combat domestic violence in the Region.
The conferees did not disappoint, and neither did the Suriname delegation, whose participation was financed by the Country Office. The message was well received in Washington and, in April 1998, the Bank approved financing for a program to be executed in Suriname to: increase the national capacity to cope with issues of domestic violence; to improve the institutional support provided to its victims; and to stimulate public dialogue on the twin issues of domestic violence and gender relations. The targets of the training initiative were the members of the police force and social workers, whose responsibilities brought them into day to day contact with victims.
But the support of the Country Office for the efforts of the NGO community in Suriname to minimize the risk that the issue of domestic violence would ever again intrude on the agenda for discussion at the Story House did not end there. In January 1998, it provided funding for a “Survey of Institutions in Suriname working in the Field of Relief and Support to Female Victims of Domestic Violence”. Out of this survey, came the report “They are crying for help”, which was presented at yet another conference jointly sponsored by the Country Office, CAFRA and the Projekta Foundation of Suriname, in June 1998, under the theme “Building a Culture of Human and Women’s Rights in the Caribbean”. The report was an update, albeit much broader in scope, of a 1994 survey on domestic violence in conjugal unions, which described the social mechanisms in Surinamese society that gave rise to violence against women in the home. Subsequently, the Country Office, in collaboration with another NGO, the Women’s Rights Center, secured approval of funding to carry out a program to train lawyers and other members of the judiciary in Suriname in the proper dispensation of cases of domestic violence that came before the courts.
Legacy of the Story Teller
Twenty-three years after she told her story at the Story House, our Story Teller, her contribution made, went to sleep. In that lapse of time, the story that she first told on that September evening took on a life of its own, evolving chapter by chapter into a chronicle of events conceived and enacted by an enterprising group of nationals, that must have brought joy to her heart. For she would have known that the plea for help that the despoiler turned messenger brought to the Story House fell on lent ears and summoned friends, who brought friends, to join the cause that she so nobly, selflessly and courageously espoused. She must have gone to sleep knowing that somewhere in the land that she loved and, quite likely, elsewhere in the Region, the world must have become a friendlier and more welcoming place for the victims of abuse. She must have taken her leave, content with her contribution and filled with hope that her legacy would be generational; that as long as the despoiler lurked in hidden corners, there would always be a Tori Oso, where stories like hers would be told in measured tones and fall on lent ears of those who would be moved to support programs of the kind that she promoted. Surely, she must have gone to her very own appointed place of quietude, confident that one day the calm of a Paramaribo twilight would not be stolen by an unwelcome irritant; that the discordant notes of domestic violence would never rise above the murmured arguments of politicians nor the sensuous voices of poets in a place like the Story House.
Rest in a Tori Oso serenity, my friend!