Tomorrow is the first day of the Global 16 Days Campaign, also known as 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. This year, it comes on the heels of several upsetting new stories about gender-based violence against women and girls. Some of the stories were accompanied by video, clearly showing acts of violence and the responses of people nearby.
Videos, photos, and graphic accounts draw more attention and result in more outrage than the numbers. Somehow, we can know that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner and still go on with our lives as usual.
For too many people, it takes witnessing violence or hearing a horrific account to prompt them to actually say anything about it. Getting people to take action is even more difficult. Is so much energy expended on performing outrage that there is none left for change-making work? Or are we too busy assigning that work to other people we deem responsible or better suited to it?
Members of Parliament, as our representatives and the people responsible for legislation, are one of the groups of people we turn to when things go wrong and when wrongs become more apparent to us. When we want change, we put our attention and demands on Members of Parliament. They need to do something about it! Fix the problem. Make our lives better. And do it now. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works.
If they are pressed, we usually get statements from MPs in response to the issue being discussed. Sometimes they say what we want to hear and sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they get very close to what we need to talk about and the position we need them to take, but something is a bit off. By then, the statements are out and the public is buzzing about the content.
Most of the conversation about these statements is basic, surface-level observations on their positions either for or against whatever it is we think needs to happen. This one says yes to this action, this one says no. We need more than that. MPs need to offer more substantive comments and we need members of the press to ask better questions.
Last week, a reporter asked MPs, starting with the women, for their positions on marital rape. Should it be criminalized? The responses were being quoted, posted, shared and discussed for a day or two as we all waited for more of them to respond. It was clear they learned from the unforgettably terrible responses from the previous administration.
At least one MP specifically said that marital rape is not a private issue, making it clear they do not take the position of former Minister of Social Services Lanisha Rolle. When the answers were all presented in a graphic, it really did not amount to much. What we saw was a list of people who said they believe marital rape needs to be criminalized. This is not to be confused with willingness and preparedness to advocate for the legislative amendment. It also does not respond to the real issues we encounters with the draft amendment bill a few years ago.
Asking better questions and framing them to encourage substantive answers would actually give us clear understanding of MPs’ positions and intentions. Great, they know marital rape is wrong and they believe it needs to be criminalized. What else? It would be helpful and instructive to know whether or not they have had conversations about it. Is everyone on the same page? Do they plan to work with the draft amendment bill that was put on the back burner so that the last administration could deal with “more important” matters, much like the current Prime Minister suggested is the case now? Is anyone prepared to draft a new one? When will it be tabled? Who is going to support it? When will consultation with true stakeholders take place? What is the timeline?
A position on an issue is not enough. We can all yell from the rooftops that sexual violence is unacceptable. Who is going to intervene when they witness sexual harassment? How will people safely report family members who are abusive? When will all schools include comprehensive sexuality education in their curriculums? Where can people go when they need to leave their homes, fleeing sexual violence?
We need to know what legislators and policymakers are prepared and able to do. We do not get that information when reporter ask closed questions. We do not get that information when MPs are only engaged on these issues when there are attention-grabbing stories in the news. We will not get a full understanding of this administration’s commitment to women’s rights and children’s rights by taking a piecemeal approach.
Reading and watching the news over the past few weeks, you might think we have to start from scratch. You may think we need to start writing on policies, strategies and draft legislation immediately. While there is certainly quite a lot of work to do, we already have a start. Remember the National Development Plan? There were consultations, the draft was prepared, there were presentations on the plan, the plan was printed in book format, it was clearly connected to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and it felt like we were going somewhere. When did you last hear anyone mention it? It is still there. Waiting.
Much like the National Development Plan, there is a National Strategic Plan to Address Gender-based Violence. It dates back to August 2015 and was developed by the National Task Force for Gender-based Violence which was chaired by Justice Rubie M. Nottage (Ret.) along with Deputy Chairs Dr. Sandra Dean-Patterson and Dr. Robin Roberts. The Task Force adopted the slogan “Up the awareness, better the access, push the justice: Let’s end the violence in The Bahamas,” and this is a good summary of what needs to be done at a national level.
The report by the Task Force included assessments of the judicial, psychosocial and medical sectors. Its recommendations are specific to multi-sectoral coordination, institutional strengthening, psychosocial and health services, advocacy and awareness, education training, research and surveillance and cross-cutting areas. It includes an implementation strategy and outlines ten “low hanging fruit” which include the creation of a unified family court system, a gender-based violence prevention programme and a sexual assault response team project. The report is available on The Government of The Bahamas’ website, so members of the public can read it, make note of the recommendations, share it with each other and use it in engagement with MPs who ought to know it exists and needs to be implemented.
In 1993, The Bahamas ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which is a women’s bill of rights. In 2018, The Bahamas submitted its sixth periodic report and went before the CEDAW Committee in Geneva to review its progress toward full compliance with the Convention. The Committee recognized the progress made since 2012, specifically noting the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2014, the establishment of the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, and the Establishment of the National Task Force for Gender-based Violence. Its recommendations included that The Bahamas “accelerate the adoption of the comprehensive draft bill on gender-based violence and the draft national strategic plan to address gender-based violence.” It also recommended The Bahamas “adopt, without delay, a draft gender policy implementation plan and an associated comprehensive strategy that include proactive and sustained measures targeting discriminatory stereotypes and harmful practices in school, the mass media and public spaces.”
We are not lacking in reports. We are not doomed to drift aimlessly. We have documents that have been developed by experts and practitioners from various sectors. We know the legislative amendments that need to be made, and we know where we need policy, strategy and implementation. There is no confusion on these items. It all needs to be done.
The questions posed to MPs on the horrific stories of violence and their positions on issues need to, at the very least, be put in the context of our international obligations and the tools and mechanisms we have create for ourselves, then let rest on a sheet. Their responses need to remind the public of our commitments and the relevance of next steps and priority actions to those commitments. They are, after all, not ceremonial nor for the benefit of the treaty bodies themselves, but for us.
Our response to the recommendations from, for example, the CEDAW Committee, is evidence of our commitment to the protection of women and girls and the recognition and expansion of their rights. Our use of the plans and strategies that have already been developed are evidence of our respect for the work already done and our commitment to creating a violence-free future for The Bahamas. As you attend and observe events during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, keep this in mind. It is not about talk, talk, talk, but about making people aware of where we are, where we need to be, and the work that has already been done and still needs to be done to get us there.
Equality Bahamas has planned ten events, all virtual, during this 16 day period. Visit tiny.cc/16days21overview for the full lineup, bios of planned participants, and links to register. All events are free, will have live closed captions and will bring regional perspectives with a focus on solutions.