By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
BAHAMAS Christian Council President Bishop Delton Fernander said yesterday he was shocked by the government’s international commitment to criminalise marital rape, calling it a “terrible” move that did not demonstrate good faith.
Bishop Fernander’s criticism was echoed by civil society groups, who questioned why the announcement by Attorney General Carl Bethel at the United Nations was not first made locally.
Other organisations, such as Equality Bahamas, yesterday slammed the proposed changes as an attempt to placate rather than address the issues of sexual violence and dehumanisation of women.
Bishop Fernander said his group was not due to meet with Mr Bethel and review a draft bill until January 30.
“Whoever he consulted with I guess he got the green light,” Bishop Fernander said. “I find it shocking if we were supposed to have a consultation, but I guess that’s the approach. We were going to have a going through with the legal team, so now when we talk about the 30th, it’s more or less tell us what you plan to do, as opposed to get some input to us.
“I find it terrible, I would have hoped that this was leading to consultation but the move to go to Geneva, especially when you go to an international organisation and say this is what we plan to do.
“I don’t know if we need to meet anymore, for our own edification we can go through it and say our position. I really wish it was done another way.”
The issue of spousal rape was reignited in December after United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Dubravka Šimonović said it is the most pressing gender-based issue facing the Bahamas.
Earlier this month, Mr Bethel told The Tribune an amendment to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act had been drafted in response to widespread calls from the public for the Minnis administration to criminalise marital rape.
However, Mr Bethel said, there were two changes – the statute of limitation period and who should have the right to order that prosecution commences – which needed to be finalised before the amendment is passed on to Cabinet.
At the time, the attorney general stressed it was a matter for the Cabinet to determine how and when the amendments would proceed, or whether it would proceed at all.
In Geneva on Wednesday, Mr Bethel unveiled plans for marital rape to be criminalised as “aggravated spousal sexual abuse,” during his national report at the third cycle of the UN Human Right Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) working group.
It will stipulate that complaints must be made within one year following the cause of the incident, he said, adding that such a complaint cannot be prosecuted without consent of the attorney general.
Mr Bethel told the UN the drafted amendment to the Sexual Offences Act for the new offence of spousal sexual abuse had already been circulated to religious leaders and civil society, and up to late Tuesday responses had been supportive.
Matt Aubry, executive director at the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), confirmed yesterday that his group were given confidential access to the bill, and had forwarded the bill to relevant community stakeholders in their network for feedback.
He expressed disappointment over the government’s international announcement, noting that the approach did not augur well for rational local debate.
Mr Aubry said: “Announcing internationally before you widely publicly distribute it seems like you’re setting the stage for an emotional and not rational discussion. We continue to advocate for a public policy process that’s clear at every stage.
“Of the feedback we received, most of it was very specific focused on the language, and some later feedback we received after we already submitted was that it is not up to international standards.”
Equality Bahamas director Alicia Wallace yesterday slammed the proposed changes, stating that “aggravated sexual assault by spouse” is not synonymous with rape.
She said the use of such language, and the failure to amend the definition of rape in the Sexual Offences Act is a direct refusal to recognise the personhood of women after marriage.
The Sexual Offences Act, in section 3, currently limits the act of rape to “another person who is not his spouse.”
Ms Wallace said: “Among issues with the draft amendment bill are the refusal to call rape by its name, the one year limit for reporting, and the consent of the attorney general to prosecute.
“We know that, for various reasons including financial standing, intimate partner violence is not always reported immediately. Such a narrow timeline to report rape within marriage is an unacceptable limitation and denial of access to justice.
“It would better serve us all to work together in drafting such amendments, the expertise of advocacy and service organizations contributing to necessary legislative advancement,” she added.