By MORGAN ADDERLEY
MARITAL rape is the most pressing gender-based issue facing the Bahamas, according to Dubravka Šimonović, the UN's special rapporteur on violence against women, during her inaugural country visit to the country.
Ms Šimonović, a human rights expert, stressed the legality of martial rape is “a sign that something is deeply wrong”, adding that the issue could easily be resolved through legislative changes.
She is tasked with presenting a report on the status of human rights in the Bahamas - with special focus on women and children - due to the country's renewed bid for a seat on the UN's Human Rights Council.
In her End of Mission statement, Ms Šimonović found that in the Bahamas, “violence against women is hidden, denied, and even more worryingly, accepted as normal.”
This is reflected in our current legal framework, which contains many “shortcomings.”
One such shortcoming is that the law “does not outlaw marital rape — except in narrowly-defined exception circumstances.”
Ms Šimonović discussed the matter with the Office of the Attorney General and was informed, “necessary revisions (to the law) are currently under consideration.”
According to her statement, the objective of Ms Šimonović’s inaugural visit to the Bahamas (December 11-15) was to “assess both the scope of gender-based violence” in the country and “the measures taken by the authorities” to provide protection and security to women and girl victims.
Particularly, young women between the ages of 16-18 are the most vulnerable demographic in Bahamian society.
Addressing the issue of contraception, Ms Šimonović’s suggested that a new law be enacted to ensure the age of receiving contraceptive and other health services without requiring parental consent (18) is consistent with the age of consent (16).
This way “a girl can receive adequate sexual and reproductive health services, possibly reducing the risk of HIV infection.”
In terms of nationality, Ms Šimonović considers the fact that “only a Bahamian man, not a woman, having a child born outside of The Bahamas can pass on his Bahamian citizenship to his child” to be discriminatory.
The mission statement read: “this violates the human rights of women to a nationality, equality in the family and access to public services.”
Referencing the Minnis Administration’s mandate that illegal immigrants leave the country by December 31st, Ms Šimonović wrote that this results in the “detention and quick deportation of hundreds of individuals, targeting the Haitian descent community disproportionately, some of whom may be born in the Bahamas.”
“To avoid the expulsion of someone entitled to refugee status, a victim of trafficking or anyone born in the Bahamas with a right to Bahamian nationality, the Government should ensure that legal counselling about the proceedings is available.
“In particular, it is urgent for the authorities to speed up the immense backlog of Bahamian nationality applications for Bahamian-born individuals of Haitian descent . . . to guarantee their rights.”
Ms Šimonović also underscored the connection between corporal punishment and a predilection to violence in adulthood.
She told reporters, “Corporal punishment in schools is problematic. It was something that was abolished in a number of countries (world over) and it is important to see links between those that are exposed to that type of punishment at home and in school and then how they (reproduce) this violence later on in life.”
Further gender-based issues Ms Šimonović found include the lack of female political participation and the widespread lack of awareness and education surrounding gender based violence. Furthermore, violence against women is underreported, under prosecuted, and sentencing is rare.
In her statement, she called for a “comprehensive law on gender based violence against women and domestic violence that could cover all victims of violence”.
Ms Šimonović also pointed to the lack of women’s shelters, especially in Family Islands, and called for a specific shelter that would allow the presence of a male child over the age of 10. When asked by reporters about funding, Ms Šimonović noted that shelters fall under services that governments must provide. However, she also said that nongovernmental organisations and the private sector should play a role.
Other recommendations Ms Šimonović made include the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution, and a free 24-hour assistance hotline for victims of gender-based violence. She also called for more women in the police force, and for a policy that male and female police officers respond to incidents of violence against women.