By Marion Bethel
Violence against women has been described as “one of the most pervasive and systemic human rights violations in the world”.
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, emphatically states that “violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace”.
Preventing and ending violence against women and girls is one of the most serious challenges for The Bahamas. Women in The Bahamas and the Crisis Centre under the leadership of Dr Sandra Dean‐Patterson have advocated over many years to keep this issue as a national priority. As a result there has been considerable progress particularly in the area of legislative and service responses for the survivors of violence. There is, nonetheless, extensive ground still to cover in creating a social, cultural and political environment focussed on the prevention, elimination and zero tolerance of violence against women.
Women have a right to live free from violence in our private and public lives. This freedom is our inalienable, indivisible and universal human right. The preservation of this right is a strong determinant of the quality of our lives, physically, psychologically, emotionally, sexually and economically. Article 5 of the Constitution of The Bahamas addresses the fundamental right to life, liberty and security of the person and, in my view, women’s right to live free from violence.
Supportive and effective intervention of trained personnel and family members after the violence is critical, but what is needed are systematic and sustained strategies to prevent and eradicate the violence. This prevention and eradication is a national obligation to which The Bahamas, as a member State of the United Nations, the Organisation of American States and CARICOM, has committed itself in the ratification of specific international and regional Conventions, Declarations or Platforms of Action. The State, ie, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and their agents, has a continuous responsibility not only to uphold the right of women to be free of violence but a duty to prevent and eliminate violence against women. It was, therefore, a mockery of the human rights and hard won gains of Bahamian women on February 20 when Members of the House of Assembly, the legislative body of the country, entertained and shared in the Hon. Leslie Miller’s graphic “joke” concerning intimate partner violence. The event was, moreover, a derision of women’s continuing struggle in regard to violence against women, in particular, and systemic gender inequality, in general. Indeed, this parliamentary travesty disclosed the hollowness, superficiality and inadequacy of the State’s responses, particularly in the area of policy, social and cultural programmes, to address gender-based violence and inequality.
What is violence against women or gender-based violence? According to the UN General Assembly In‐depth study on all forms of violence against women, Report of the Secretary General, July 2, 2006: “Gender-based violence is violence that is directed against women because we are women, or violence that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. Gender-based violence which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions, is discrimination with the meaning of Article of the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women”.
The UN General Assembly defined violence against women under the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) 1993 in Article 2 as follows: “Violence against women and girls is ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women [or girls], including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life’.
Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to:
a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilations and other traditional practices harmful to women and girls, nonspousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and girls, forced prostitution of women and sexual exploitation of girls;
c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.
Article 3 of DEVAW states that “women are entitled to the equal enjoyment and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.
Article 4 of DEVAW states that “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination. States should pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women.”
DEVAW was the first international human rights instrument to address violence against women specifically. The Bahamas is a party to this UN Declaration by simply being a member of the UN. This declaration, while not binding on The Bahamas, affirms the member States’ commitment to women’s human rights and establishes a working framework for countries to fulfil their obligations under a relevant treaty or convention.
The Bahamas Government has ratified or acceded to the following international Conventions that address the issue of violence against women: a) the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women acceded to in 1993 (CEDAW) and its later Resolutions & General Recommendations; and b) the 1994 InterAmerican Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women ratified in 1995 (Convention of Belem do Para). The Bahamas is bound by these two treaties to introduce legal and policy changes to prevent, punish and end violence against women. CARICOM countries have ratified these two Conventions. Both Conventions recognise that violence against women constitutes a violation of human rights and is a form of gender-based discrimination.Both Conventions utilise the definition of gender–based violence as set forth in DEVAW.
Further, The Bahamas is a signatory to the 2003 CARICOM Gender Mainstreaming Strategies. This Platform of Action concerns the process of developing policies and programmes that are gender-sensitive and equitable and lead towards gender equality and the positive transformation of gender relations. It refers categorically to “the right of all to live free of violence and the fear of violence, in particular, the right of women and girls to be free of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence”.
In addition, the following international agreements make specific reference to violence against women: Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1990, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action on Human Rights of 1993 and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on Women of 1995.
The State has primary responsibility for the prevention and elimination of gender-based violence in such areas as legislation, the criminal justice sector, economic and social policies, health and social services, school curriculum, public education and awareness. It has the capacity and mechanisms to co-ordinate all sectors of society such as schools, local communities, health and social welfare agencies, the media, churches, corporations, international agencies, in addressing successfully the issue. There has, however, to be a political will on the part of the Government that is focussed, strategic and committed to the goal of prevention and elimination of violence against women. No doubt, such a political will has to crystallise around the sustained action of a women’s movement that not only has a clear understanding of the causes of violence against women and girls but also a clarity in regard to its own power to demand that the State exercise its political will in this regard.
In the 2006 In‐Depth Study a human rights-based analysis of the causes of violence against women and girls is stated as follows:
“The central premise of the analysis is that the specific causes of such violence and the factors that increase the risk of its occurrence are grounded in the broader context of systemic gender-based discrimination against women and other forms of subordination. Such violence is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men reflected in both public and private life.
“Historically, gender roles – the socially constructed roles of women and men – have been ordered hierarchically, with men exercising power and control over women. Male dominance and female subordination have both ideological and material bases. Patriarchy has been entrenched in social and cultural norms, institutionalised in the law and political structure and embedded in local and global economies. It has also been ingrained in formal ideologies and in public discourse. Patriarchy restricts women’s choices but does not render women powerless, as evidenced by the existence of women’s movements and successful claims by women for their rights.”
I draw to the attention of the Members of the House of Assembly, the work of the InterParliamentary Union (IPU) on violence against women. The IPU is the international organization of Parliaments established in 1889. It supports the work of the UN and co-operates with regional inter-parliamentary organisations and non-governmental organizsations. In 2008 at an international conference, A Parliamentary Response to Violence Against Women, held in Geneva, the IPU identified key elements and strategies for the prevention of violence against women. One of the six priorities for parliamentarians to consider is as follows:
“Parliamentarians must build their parliament’s capacities to take action to put an end to violence against women. They should look at what parliamentary mechanisms can be developed to support work on violence against women. The establishment of a specific parliamentary committee on violence against women could be an option.”
I strongly urge that a Parliamentary Committee be convened for the specific purpose of addressing the issue of prevention and elimination of violence against women. In light of the event of February 20, this Committee’s first task might be to build its capacity through a profound understanding and education of the causes of violence against women. There are many resources available in the wider community to facilitate such understanding. Further, the IPU Report itself lays out a systematic plan of action for the work of a parliamentary committee in preventing and eliminating violence against women.
Finally, I refer us to The World Health Organisation Report entitled Violence Prevention: The Evidence (2010) that states as follows:
“Despite the fact that violence has always been present, the world does not have to accept it an inevitable part of the human condition ... Violence can be prevented. This is not an article of faith, but a statement based on evidence.”