By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
PUBLIC discourse on the upcoming constitutional referendum has been hijacked by “red herring” arguments over same-sex marriage, according to Bahamas Crisis Centre Director Dr Sandra Dean-Patterson yesterday.
Describing recent public comments on the issue as “unbelievable”, Dr Patterson charged that equal rights for women should be unquestionable given that the government made an international commitment to removing gender discrimination more than 20 years ago.
Dr Patterson spoke on the sidelines of a training seminar on the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – which affirms the principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women. The convention was ratified by the Bahamian government in 1993.
“I think there is a level of, maybe not so much ignorance, but misinterpretation, miseducation and people are bringing in red herring issues,” she said.
“The issue is not same-sex marriage, the issue is men and women having the same rights.”
She added: “Women have the rights the same way a man has the right to pass his citizenship on so does a woman; men and women have equal rights and that’s what we have to work on.”
Her comments were echoed by seminar participants, who expressed concerns that the discussion was losing focus on central issues, and the critical need for a strategic public campaign.
“Men and women (should) have equal rights and that’s the basic thing that’s been discussed since the late ’40s,” Dr Patterson said. “We signed onto (the CEDAW convention) and ratified it in 1993 and here we are 21 years later still debating a basic, basic human right. Men and women are born with equal rights to life, we have the right to vote, we have the right to work, we have the right to education, all those equal rights.”
“It’s essential that we get it (the referendum) right, and that we should be delaying and arguing and questioning whether we’re right in this is unbelievable to me.”
The training seminar was hosted by Bahamas Women’s Watch, in partnership with the Crisis Centre and the United Nations.
Co-founder Gwen Knowles said the forum was a timely opportunity to provide positive and factual information given the resurgence of debate over women’s rights with the upcoming referendum.
Mrs Knowles said: “People don’t know or understand about CEDAW. We want to explain to people exactly what we signed on to, also violence is such a problem here in our community against women so it’s very timely that we raise up our consciousness. We can do it in a nonpolitical, nonreligious way, that is very important so that everybody can be a part of it.”
CEDAW represents the commitment of the United Nations, to not only set standards for gender equality worldwide, but also to encourage governments to be accountable to their people and the international community for the obligations which they voluntarily accepted in this area.
The convention promotes women’s equal attainment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights for women, but also provides protection, and a form of recourse for women who have exhausted local resources seeking such protections.
The seminar was led by Gaynel Curry, gender and women’s rights advisor, acting chief of global issues for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ms Curry declined comment on the upcoming referendum; however, she noted that the global movement on women’s rights has been slow.
“There are still challenges in terms of how we actually fulfil all the rights and freedoms guaranteed to women under the international conventions,” Ms Curry said.
“I think responding to discrimination against women in law is really the first step. The challenge for governments will always be how do we change the hearts and minds of people, how do we change those customs, those as we like to call it, cultural beliefs.
“How do we actually change that, that’s really the big step forward,” she added. “How do we break down those walls on a practical level to ensure de facto equality with men in society.”
Debate on the bills to amend the Constitution is expected to resume tomorrow.
Progressive Liberal Party MPs Leslie Miller, Greg Moss, Andre Rollins, and Renward Wells have noted their reservations about some of the bills.