By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
BAHAMAS Crisis Centre Director Dr Sandra Dean Patterson yesterday urged opposition Leader Dr Hubert Minnis not to turn the upcoming constitutional referendum into a political football.
Her comments came shortly after Dr Minnis spoke in the House of Assembly and said the Free National Movement could not support the four constitutional amendment bills as they are, in spite of an earlier pledge that his party supported the referendum process.
Dr Patterson suggested that the referendum be delayed if misinformation over the intended changes cannot be resolved, adding that she was disappointed with the negative statements made by younger parliamentarians.
She spoke at a press conference hosted by a coalition of women’s rights advocates and equality education ambassadors, who demonstrated support for the proposed bills outside of the House of Assembly.
She underscored the critical need for factual public education in a bid to combat cultural fears and confusion over two taboo areas of Bahamian society: homosexuality and nationality.
She warned that the democratic exercise was in danger of meeting the same fate of the 2002 referendum after learning that Dr Minnis had backtracked on his initial pledge that the FNM would wholly support the proposed amendments.
“For us in the trenches at the Crisis Centre,” she said, “where we see the silent victims who suffer as a consequence of gender based discrimination and inequality, this is a time for us to make a difference.
“This is a time for us not to be distracted by the naysayers and not to be distracted by the calls about same sex marriage.
“This is about men and women as equal and working together on having the same opportunities to pass citizenship onto their children, the same opportunity to live lives free from violence,” she added.
She charged both Prime Minister Perry Christie and Dr Minnis to “hold fast to the helm”, and not to be distracted or deterred by politics.
“I would challenge Dr Minnis not to lose the momentum he had when this bill was first mentioned (three) weeks ago,” Dr Patterson said.
“It’s very important for the opposition and the government to come together and speak out in one voice. We cannot allow this to become a political football, that’s what happened the last time and we’re walking that same road.
Noelle Nicolls, coalition spokesperson, said concerns about gay marriage as a result of the amendments were a “distraction” from the real issue.
“The Constitution was not a perfect document, it was created so that it wasn’t static, it created a mechanism for change because it recognised that over time culture changes and culture evolves.
“We’re here to say that in 2014 we stand for a Bahamas, we believe in a Bahamas that believes in equal rights for men and women and we believe that the referendum right now is the opportunity for us to affirm that belief. We are here as foot soldiers to continue the fight until we have equality for all women and men in the Bahamas.”
Debate on the four bills to amend the Constitution resumed yesterday with several parliamentarians stating that they would not support select bills unless further changes are made.
Earlier this week, Leader of Government Business in the House of Assembly Dr Bernard Nottage confirmed that the questions have been simplified, and further consideration is being given to the wording of the amendments.
At that time, Dr Nottage maintained that the government would not move forward with the referendum if there was not unanimous support.
The first bill would enable a child born outside the Bahamas to a Bahamian woman to have automatic Bahamian citizenship at birth. However, the government does not plan to have the clause operate retroactively.
Other bills include allowing a Bahamian woman who marries a foreign man to secure for him the same access to Bahamian citizenship that a Bahamian man has always enjoyed under the Constitution in relation to his foreign wife.
The third bill would give an unwed Bahamian father the same right to pass citizenship to his child that a Bahamian woman has always had under the Constitution in relation to a child born to her out of wedlock. Presently, an unmarried Bahamian father cannot pass his citizenship to a child born to a foreign woman.
The fourth bill, which seeks to end discrimination based on sex, remains contentious as speculation continues over whether the amendment could one day lead to gay marriage.
This involves the insertion of the word “sex” in Article 26 of the Constitution to make it unconstitutional to discriminate based on whether someone is male or female.