Sixteen days to put violence against women on the activist agenda in Jamaica

Today (November 26) is International Day Against Violence Against Women, which begins the Sixteen Days of Activism. As always, this issue will be high on the agenda among human rights activists across the island.

Violence against women haunts us. In August, I wrote about the case of a young woman whose body has never been found. I recently wrote about the plight of many young Jamaican women for the Caribbean Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, based in Antigua – which, by the way, also has a very high femicide rate.

And so does Jamaica – one of the highest femicide rates in the world. This is hardly surprising, considering our high murder rates in general. What is especially sad though, is that Jamaican women often die at the hands of a partner, or a former partner who cannot let go. How many are in danger right now, as I write this?

Through the EU-funded Spotlight Initiative, the United Nations posted this flyer today, this time for Haiti. Yes, it’s a Caribbean-wide problem:

And what about older women? They are by no means immune to abuse, neglect, and violence – often with the added element of ageism. I am glad that the United Nations is focusing on this very real problem, and I hope to write more about this over the next two weeks or so.

Meanwhile, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) has sent an Open Letter to the 21 senators in the Upper House and the 63 members of the Lower House of Parliament. There is much more work to be done in this area, JFJ is reminding us, and they are very specific about how, and what, and where. Here is what they have to say:

Thursday, November 23, 2022 – As Jamaica joins the world in celebrating 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) writes concerning several law reform processes addressing domestic violence that remain outstanding. In an open letter submitted to all 84 members of Parliament, JFJ calls for action from legislators in responding to matters involving sexual, domestic and gender-based violence. 

The 2018 Report of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament, which reviewed the Sexual Offences Act and other pieces of related laws including the Domestic Violence Act (DVA), recommended that the DVA be overhauled. Four years later, no legislative attempt has been made to effect the recommendations.

JFJ welcomes the government’s stated commitment to gender equality, establishment of a shelter and the passage of the Sexual Harassment (Protection and Prevention) Act. We note, however, that a commencement date is yet to be made so the Sexual Harassment Act has no legal enforcement. One year later following this critical legislation being gazetted, it is an extreme disappointment that it is not yet legally enforced. 

Since 2020, JFJ has received complaints and reports from over eighty (80) persons, most of whom are women. We have provided legal advice, representation, securing protection and occupation orders. The organization has collaborated with governments, international agencies, and civil society groups to promote strong domestic violence laws and programmes. We have stood in courts with survivors as they fought for justice. We have held their hands as they navigated their journey from victims to survivors. 

It is now time for the 84 parliamentarians to exercise the political will and move with alacrity in amending the laws. Despite some advancements made, the failure of amending the DVA must swiftly be corrected. Indeed, Jamaica is obligated to ensure such legislation adheres to international human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. 

The current DVA has a plethora of limitations including: 

  • No clear definition of domestic violence in Jamaica, which also limits the Act to effectively define the scope of a Protection Order; 
  • The duties and powers of the police under the legislation is not clearly defined, which provides no clear mandate to police officers and how they are to appropriately respond to victims and complaints; and 
  • The punishment specified for the violation of a Protection Order is a small fine of J$10,000 or a short term  of 6-months imprisonment. Neither of which is serious enough to act as a deterrent.

Time To Revisit The Recommendations On Sexual Offences 

JFJ also calls on the parliament to act on the recommendations of the JSC around amending the Sexual Offences Act and other related legislation such as the Offences Against the Persons Act. This includes: 

  • repeal marital rape provisions under section 5 of the SOA to eliminate exemptions to the general rape provisions based on marital status. 
  • exempt children who are close in age from prosecution for sexual intercourse with a person under sixteen under section 10 of the SOA.

The organisation is disappointed that Parliament in 2018 did not accept recommendations on redefining the definition of rape and making changes to grievous sexual assault to address forced anal sex. By shifting the burden on the general population to vote on buggery by way of a referendum, Parliament has reneged on its legislative responsibility. JFJ reminds Parliament that the rights of the minority should not be subjected to the tyranny of the majority. Further, given the seriousness of rape and the need to ensure our men and boys receive equal protection in law, Parliament must act decisively. 

The organisation urges the legislators to act upon the report of the 2018 Joint Select Committee report, including setting up acommittee to specifically review the DVA given the extensive recommendations made. We note that there are several areas of consensus regarding the DVA that may not require a joint select committee to be formed. Nevertheless, if that is the stance, we urge parliament to name and convene such committee by first quarter of 2023.

The Advocates Network will be focusing on violence against Jamaican women. Here are some suggestions on actions that you can take to raise awareness.

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