By Malcolm Strachan
WHEN the Privy Council handed down its ruling on the citizenship of children born out of wedlock to Bahamian men and foreign women, there was a great deal of celebration.
This was a step forward, many said, though plenty of other voices spoke up about the need for that step to be matched by those to bring equality to Bahamian women when it comes to the right to pass on citizenship.
Still, there was much delight, and rightly so.
Shannon Tyreck Rolle was the applicant in the action, and he deserves to be lauded for taking his case to the highest court in the land to secure a ruling.
Once there, the Privy Council dismissed the Office of the Attorney General’s interpretation of the law – article 6 being the crucial one in question – as “faintly absurd”.
That article says: “Every person born in The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 shall become a citizen of The Bahamas at the date of his birth if at that date either of his parents is a citizen of The Bahamas.”
That’s straightforward – but another article, 14 (1) says: “Any reference in this chapter to the father of a person shall, in relation to any person born out of wedlock other than a person legitimated before 10th July 1973, be construed as a reference to the mother of that person.”
The OAG suggested that the reference to father in that article should apply when interpreting the word “parents” in article 6. The Privy Council was not impressed.
In fact, they went on to say that if a discriminatory approach was intended, the framers of the constitution would have used easier and clearer ways to indicate this, adding: “The Board can see no possible justification for reading into the constitution such an approach reflecting, as it does, values which have long been rejected.”
For Mr Rolle, he said that “this was something that I could get to make a change for everyone in this alien status”.
He pointed out how life was different for him from those he grew up with. He talked of “not being able to open a bank account, not being able to licence a vehicle in your name, not being able to start a business. There was a lot of things you are deprived of when you don’t have citizenship”.
The response came right from the top – Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis saying that he is committed “to ensuring that the country’s laws and policies are fair and just for all Bahamians”.
He added: “As Prime Minister, I am dedicated to building a more inclusive and equitable Bahamas.”
Those are all good words. Good words are great to hear. But they have to be followed by action.
Since the ruling, all the talk has been about DNA testing to prove paternity. I scratch my head as I read these stories as no one has taken the time to explain why only Bahamian men in this particular situation will be required to take a DNA test and no one else.
Are those men somehow not as Bahamian? Do we trust their word less – or their name on the birth certificate – than men married to foreign women? Or men married to Bahamians. Do we think that all children of those other relationships are absolutely, definitely the child of the father who says it is? And somehow we trust the word of the Bahamian man in this situation less?
Are we not taking one unjust situation, finally resolved by the courts, and substituting another?
I cannot fathom it. Each time I hear these learned people talking about how DNA testing is necessary now to prove paternity, I just see the future court case where a person in this position argues that it is a breach of their rights to require them to take a paternity test when no one else has to. No one. But with these men, sorry, the state doesn’t trust you in particular.
Take two men – both Bahamians in relationships with foreign women, one married, one not. The unmarried one has to take the paternity test, the married one does not. How is that equality?
Worse still is that while there have been hints and insinuations, no one has come right out and said what is the problem that DNA testing will be solving?
Introducing it, of course, will have costs. What is the capacity of testing we have to do it? How long will it take given our present capacity? Who will bear the costs?
There are suggestions that we would be able to ramp up our testing to meet our needs – but there is a dollar value attached to that, so what will it cost?
As I listen, there seems such a suspicion against these men – even after a court victory has been won. The ink is barely dry on the Prime Minister’s letter about being inclusive and equitable.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and as I stood in church and listened to mothers being celebrated, I could not help but wonder that if this is how the first wave of people affected by a change in citizenship rulings have been treated, how will it be when changes are made to benefit women when it comes to having the same rights as men with regard to citizenship?
There is an ingrained sexism in The Bahamas – and by that, I must be clear, that is no different to the rest of the world. How else are women’s rights so far behind?
So if these are the barriers being presented immediately after the victory in this case, then how much worse will be the barriers put before women?
As we approach the 50th anniversary of our independence, is it really too much to hope that our nation might finally give people full and straightforward equality. No ifs, no buts, no differences between any of us who can call themselves Bahamian.