JFJ Delivers Open Letter with 2,730 Signatures to Parliament Demanding Legal Reform on Sexual Harassment Bill


A wave of anger surged on social media recently, after Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck made a casual (and at the same time pointed) remark regarding the #MeToo movement at a parliamentary committee meeting examining proposed Sexual Harassment legislation. Minister Chuck’s observations, captured on a television news report, were: “We don’t want the situation that now happens in the #MeToo Movement in the U.S., where 30 years later you talk about ‘I was harassed in the elevator.’” With a little chuckle, he added:“If you don’t complain within 12 months, please – cut it out.” I think it was the chuckle that particularly upset people.

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Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck.

Minister Chuck has since apologized (on video and in writing) for his “insensitive behavior.” He committed to being an ally and advocate on the matter and on women’s issues in general, in the future. I hope also that he will sit down not only with women’s groups, but with men – and with young people, in particular – and listen to their stories and their views. It’s important for politicians to listen. At another meeting of the Joint Select Committee yesterday, Minister Chuck reportedly reversed his views, noting that a one-year limit for reporting was not set in stone, but that “timely reporting is very useful.”

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Linnette Vassell, Advocacy Specialist at the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre. (Photo: WROC)

I wrote down my thoughts on my Social Impact page on the Jamaica Gleaner website, on June 27. Gender activist Linnette Vassell’s Letter to the Editor rang true, with me. Ms. Vassell, a veteran of the women’s rights movement, stressed the importance of consulting with civil society on this matter. She emphasized:

To the perpetrator, those actions might seem to be mere every day incidents, common in a patriarchal culture.  However, the victim/survivor, faced with a host of economic and social realities, can, with recollection of the abuse be immobilised for years by the trauma and fear of retaliation if they were to make a complaint.

Jamaicans for Justice also immediately took up the cause, not only sharing the concerns of the public, but most importantly campaigning for a review of the draft legislation, to remove the current 12-month limitation period on reports of sexual harassment and to allow for the longest reasonable time for such reports to be made. The human rights lobby group posted an open letter, calling for signatories to support its stance, and today announced that it has delivered the letter to Parliament with the endorsement of 2,730 individuals and eight organizations. Good going in the space of less than three days!

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On Tuesday, June 30, 2020, We, at Jamaicans for Justice, issued a call to members of the general public and civil society organizations to sign an open letter to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament reviewing the Sexual Harassment Bill. This was in response to public outcry regarding the proposed 12-month limitation period on complaints related to sexual harassment.

Today, at the sitting of the Joint Select Committee, Jamaicans for Justice delivered copies of the open letter, which has amassed 2730 individual signatures and 8 organizations as at 1pm on July 2, 2020, to the parliamentary clerk of the Committee for consideration. This united front suggests that there is a growing population of persons invested in seeing good laws that provide meaningful justice to those who need it the most.

“It is remarkable that in under 72 hours, thousands of persons and organizations have been moved to take direct action. Already, lawmakers have signaled an intention to revise this provision. People have spoken and we are confident that lawmakers will seriously consider their voices. The Committee has requested that Jamaicans for Justice prepare a submission on the Bill and we will be submitting detailed solutions to this and other issues within the Bill. This will go beyond just the 12-month limit and propose balanced solutions to several issues,” said Rodje Malcolm, Executive Director.

Here is JFJ’s original call for reform of the legislation, and a copy of the Open Letter:

12 MONTHS IS NOT ENOUGH FOR PROPOSED LIMITATION ON COMPLAINTS BROUGHT BY VICTIMS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT

JUNE 29, 2020 – Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is calling upon the Joint Select Committee of Parliament tasked with reviewing the proposed Sexual Harassment legislation to reform the provision imposing a 12-month limit on complaints brought by victims before the Tribunal.

Section 25 of the proposed Sexual Harassment Bill sets out that a complaint alleging unlawful conduct must be made within a period of twelve (12) months from the date of the act for it to be considered legitimate by the respective Tribunal. This, therefore, suggests that complaints cannot be made after 12 months, even where credible evidence exists.

This proposed limitation restricts victims’ rights to effectively access justice and ignores many of the most obvious underlying issues associated with sexual harassment. Jamaicans for Justice believes that Section 25(3)sends a message that is inconsistent with the spirit and the purpose of the proposed legislation and ultimately diminishes its scope as a mechanism created to protect victims from sexual harassment.

JFJ wishes to remind legislators that the dispensation of justice does not have an expiration date and in protecting our most vulnerable, we should ensure that institutions and organizations within our society are incapable of losing or abandoning their legally prescribed duties and responsibilities because there has been a lapse in time. As a society built on democracy and the rule of law, we are guided by the need to guarantee a basic and fundamental human right such as the right to access justice and the proposed limitation seems arbitrary, disproportionate to the desired effect, and likely to rob victims of a viable means of securing redress.

Moreover, imposing a provision of this nature is dismissive of the fact that victims do not always nor are they able to report matters quickly as they are often in positions of vulnerability brought about by harassers wielding their positions of authority and power. Instead, the provision in its current form allows perpetrators, harassers, abusers, and derelict institutions to wait, intimidate or threaten victims into silence for 12 months which inherently allows them to avoid accountability.

Accordingly, JFJ has penned an open letter to the members of the Joint Select Committee, which outlines its reasoning on the issue and a detailed analysis of why this issue matters. This open letter is a part of our targeted advocacy around the proposed Sexual Harassment Bill and sets out our full position on the proposed 12-month limitation provision.

With that said, the letter, which will be personally delivered to members of the Joint Select Committee, is now open for public signature and we are therefore inviting concerned Jamaicans to visit our website to publicly sign the letter endorsing our call for legal reform. We are urging the Committee to amend the Bill by either removing the limitation being proposed or where such is deemed necessary, to create a limit that allows for the longest reasonable time for a complaint to be made which is consistent with the limits that already exist for other civil claims.

 

TEXT OF THE OPEN LETTER:

TO: The Joint Select Committee of Parliament Reviewing the Sexual Harassment Bill

Olivia Grange – Chairperson   Dr. Angela Brown Burke   Dr. Saphire Longmore   Delroy Chuck   Natalie Headley   Kerensia Morrison   Franklin Witter   Horace Dalley   Donna Scott Mottley   Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert   Kavan Gayle   Sophia Frazer Binns   Ann Marie Vaz

WE THE PEOPLE undersigned write to express serious concerns with the proposed 12-month limit on the availability of justice pursuable by victims of sexual harassment and call upon you to amend the provision before it becomes law.

The Sexual Harassment Bill seeks to outline the types of conduct that constitute sexual harassment, prohibit certain related conduct, and provide victims with a legally mandated avenue to have their complaints heard in an effort to obtain redress. It regulates how cases of sexual harassment are to be handled and places several legal duties on companies, schools, hospitals, and other institutions to take certain measures, actions, and steps regarding the issue of sexual harassment.

Section 25 of the proposed law states that a complaint can be made to the Sexual Harassment Tribunal alleging that an individual or an organization has breached certain provisions outlined within the law.

Section 25 (2) goes further by providing that that complaint must be made within a period of twelve (12) months from the date of the alleged act for it to be considered legitimate. This means that complaints cannot be made after 12 months, even where credible evidence exists.

This 12-month limitation unreasonably restricts access to justice for victims and we believe that it is inconsistent with the purpose of the proposed law, which is to provide protection for victims of sexual harassment.

Accordingly, WE have outlined five (5) reasons why this provision MUST change.

  1. Justice does not have an expiry date. A person who sexually harasses another, whether a student, a patient, or an employee, is just as responsible after 12 months as they were in the first 12 months. If evidence exists, then victims should be able to secure justice through the Sexual Harassment Tribunal. In illustrating the inadequacy of this proposition, how can someone who damages a vehicle or breaches a contract have up to 6 years to bring the matter before a Court, but a victim of sexual harassment, only 12 months? Why should we impose a different and less than ideal standard on matters related to sexual harassment?
  2. Institutions should not lose their legal duties to take action because of a lapse of time. A school or hospital should still be compelled to remove a predatory teacher or doctor, regardless of when the victim complained. If this provision is upheld, then some major national cases, such as the reported spate of sexual harassment at Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts, could not be examined by the Tribunal.
  3. Victims are not always able to report matters quickly. Victims of sexual harassment, especially those in positions of vulnerability such as a student, a sick patient on a ward, an elderly person in a nursing home, or a child in a residential care facility, may not be able to report in time, even when there is evidence because of the power usually wielded over them by persons in positions of authority. Some victims in such circumstances may wait to report an encounter until they are no longer confined by such, whereas some victims may wait because, in that moment, they believe that the system is unable to guarantee them justice. Twelve months is simply not enough – especially in situations where a student, for example, may need to wait until the next school year or after they have graduated, or an employee may need to wait until she has switched departments.
  4. Access to justice is a basic human right. A 12-month restriction is arbitrary and does not have an apparent compelling justification for that specific time frame. It could cut off victims from a viable means of redress for no clear reason and would send a message contrary to the very purpose of the law.
  5. Perpetrators and derelict institutions will now be able to wait out their victims. Under this provision, perpetrators or institutions can wait, intimidate or threaten victims for 12 months to avoid any form of accountability. Even worse, a perpetrator may now have a legal defense against efforts to sanction them purely because of the lapse of time.

While we welcome the enactment/creation of such a critical piece of legislation, we are faced with the challenge that the proposed law runs contrary to the spirit and purpose of the statute by undermining the victim’s right to effectively access justice and by ignoring some of the most obvious underlying issues associated with sexual harassment.

WE THEREFORE call upon you, our legislators to reform Section 25 of the Sexual Harassment Bill by either removing the limitation being proposed or where such is deemed absolutely necessary, creating a limit that allows for the longest reasonable time for the complaint to be made that is consistent with the limits that already exist for other civil claims.

SIGNED:

CONCERNED JAMAICANS

SUBMITTED BY JAMAICANS FOR JUSTICE ON BEHALF OF THE FOLLOWING:

Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition   Equality for All Foundation Jamaica   Eve for Life   Jamaica Household Workers Union   Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network   This Girl Can Jamaica   UNAIDS  Woman Inc

Individual signatories

Congratulations to Jamaicans for Justice for taking meaningful, practical action on this important matter.  FINALLY, I need to make amends and express my regret that I had not focused on the Open Letter earlier, and thus omitted to sign it! However, I fully endorse its contents, so I hope my name can be added in some way.

Now, let’s get this bill right, and get it passed! It has been languishing for far too long (thirteen long years!) in Parliament. That would be the best thing to come out of this unfortunate episode. Thank you again to JFJ and all who lobbied, tweeted, wrote letters and articles, and supported their position.


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