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ALICIA WALLACE: We need more than laws

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Alicia Wallace

LAST week was tough. The conversations taking place in public and private spaces were difficult. Reading the news was a chore. The constant barrage of video clips, audio snippets, and sensational quotes were intrusive and exhausting. Comments from the other side were not just “different points of view,” but in defence of rapists and accusatory toward survivors of grooming, sexual predation, sexual exploitation, and rape. These conversations and media moments were not just cringeworthy; they were harmful. They hurt people who have struggled and continued to struggle to survive violence against them, and they discouraged people from using the judicial system, and they perpetuated rape culture.

The same can certainly be said about other weeks and other recurring issues. The public discourse is difficult to even see in passing, and much more challenging for those of us who must directly engage and witness or personally experience the impact they invariably have on people in situations of vulnerability. People often say, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” That may or may not be true, but we definitely have to pay attention to more than the conversations we have; we need to be thoughtful and intentional about how we have them. Many times, people are just talking. They read a comment, they reply to the comment. They hear a soundbite, they respond to the soundbite. They hear what someone says, they challenge what they have said. What we all end up having, in most cases, is not a conversation, but a series of responses to responses without thinking about the outcome. The main actors are not developing strategies and allowing them to guide engagement. They are also not often thinking about the unintended consequences of the haphazard exchange of comments.

We have been responding, over and over again, to ignorant, unhelpful comments about the sentencing of a 40-year-old man and the suggestion that the 14-year-old girl was somehow at fault for the sexual violence perpetrated against her. This case has been used to highlight issues in the law and in society regarding sexual violence, sexual predators, and at-risk young people. Most of the responses to responses — which really cannot be called conversations — failed to point to solutions. We have to spend time and allocate resources to solutions.

We regularly look to the law for answers. We have come to depend on law enforcement and the judicial system to make a wide range of decisions and find our positions. We expect the law to be a moral compass. We expect it to be correct. We expect the people who studied the law and use it to mete out punishment to not only interpret it accurately and use it well, but to be, through their work, shining examples that dictate the way we see each other and respond to situations. We could talk about whether or not we should look to the law to do all of this, but we cannot overlook the weight it has and the need for reform.

Our laws are not perfect, and they are not meant to stay the same forever. In recognition of this fact, there is a process for making amendments and for drafting new legislation. Still, there are several issues with the way we approach legal reform. They include the way bills are prioritized, and we can look at the marital bill as an example. In 2018, then Attorney General Carl Bethel said it would be dealt with in the following year, laws relating to financial services were of greater priority. Many bills are passed quietly, with no public notice given. There are also many amendments that need to be made, but various administrations believe taking such action would lead to a decrease in party support. There is little regard for human rights and insufficient pressure from the public.

Even when laws are enacted, situations often remain the same due to lack of public education and implementation. Look, for example, at the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities) Act, 2014. Section 20 says, “Every person with a disability shall be entitled to a barrier-free and disabled friendly environment to enable him to have access to buildings, Information Communication Technology (ICT), roads and other social amenities, and assistive or adaptive devices and other equipment to promote his mobility.” Section 13 (1) says, “A proprietor of any building to which the public is permitted access shall adapt it to suit persons with disabilities in such manner as may be specified by the Commission including provision for parking of vehicles by persons with disabilities.” Section 13 (2) further states that compliance is required within two years. It is now 2022, and it is not possible for a person using a wheelchair to access the gallery of Parliament. This is a clear indication of the commitment of the government to ensuring that people with disabilities have equal opportunities. It is also an example of what happens when laws are passed, they are expected to magically transform the country to match the text.

There are now calls for legal reform to address gender-based violence and, in particular, sexual violence against children. We have, for years, been saying that we need to make amendments to the Sexual Offences Act, and we need to work on the gender-based violence bill among others. There are calls, now, to look at laws concerning minors. There is growing concern for young people who are being sexually violated, and the adults who suggest they are responsible. People want stronger laws with higher penalties. The Minister of National Security has already told us how criminals and their defense attorneys manipulate the law for their protection and benefit. It is obvious that we need more than the law to address this issue. Sexual violence is occurring in society, among and in the presence of people who do not know the law or the context of its contents.

People are quick to blame girls for their experiences of being sexually violated. They say girls invite sexual violence, or take the ignorant, harmful position that they are not being violated in cases where they are not physically forced, completely ignoring the imbalance of power, the difference in cognitive development, and the law.

We can make amendments to the law. We can increase legal protection of children. We can increase penalties for perpetrators. These are all important, and we need to take action quickly. At the same time, how much of this will positively impact the lives of children by preventing sexual violence? These laws will not transform themselves into policies, programmes, services, or practices to protect children. We need more than the law, and we need to recognize that when we call for the government to take action. The law must come, for example, with systemic and practical changes within government ministries.

Where young people are concerned, we have to turn to the Ministry of Education. This is the most obvious route to reach and teach young people and the people who engage with them on a daily basis. Comprehensive sexuality education is critical to the health and wellbeing of young people. They need to learn the proper names for body parts, know the difference between good touch and bad touch, receive age-appropriate information about sex and sexual abuse, and be equipped with tools and resources relevant to their sexual and reproductive health. Resistance to comprehensive sexuality education is ridiculous. There are no benefits to withholding information and, in the case of sexuality education, it increases the risk of harm. It is irresponsible to leave young people to take a trial and error approach.

Ministry of Health ought to be involved in the effort to provide information to young people and their parents and guardians. This should include resources for parents on having conversations with their children about sex, age-appropriate material for young people, and healthcare providers asking questions, recommending resources, and making referrals and reports as appropriate. It must also find ways to address discrepancies in the law, including the age of consent being 16 and the age at which a person can seek healthcare without a parent or guardian being 18. People who can consent to sex need to have access to contraceptives and STI testing. This access has numerous benefits, including preventing unwanted pregnancies, preventing STIs, diagnosing and treating STIs, and data collection and analysis which can inform us, for example, of high rates of particular diagnoses and trends in sexual behaviour. This can also be helpful in identifying sexual predators.

The Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health ought to be partners in addressing the issue of sexual predation and sexual violence against children. They, through schools and clinics, have direct contact with the people we need to reach, and they have the ability to collect data, share information, and make recommendations.

Parents and guardians need to talk to children about sex, and ensure that they know the difference between sex and rape. To do that, they need to have the information themselves, and they often need guidance in having these conversations. Resources need to be produced and widely disseminated through traditional and social media to equip parents and guardians to not only provide information, but create a safe, comfortable environment for sharing. They need to abandon scare tactics and use honesty and curiosity in their conversations with young people. They need to talk about bodily autonomy, sex as a positive, good experience, ways to be safe, and the importance of consent. They also need to be able to talk about sexual violence. They need to know the risk factors, be able to assess the risk of the children in their home, and talk about it in a way that does not cause fear, but encourages vigilance, critical thinking, and comfort in reporting anything strange or uncomfortable.

Parents — mothers in particular — often get the blame when something goes wrong. People expect everything to be taken care of at home, but many people spend most of their time outside of the home. This is just one of the reasons we need institutions, especially government entities, to step up. Change the law; then be sure to follow it up with action at the level we, the people, are being reached.

Comments

ohdrap4 2 years, 3 months ago

Don't read it! Gal been on zoom call with megan markle and harry the handbag.

Observer 2 years, 3 months ago

Perhaps the man, and all males need basic education in morality.

bahamianson 2 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, a mother and father present to teach proper home training and a good cut hit! Advocates against spanking need to rethink. What do we want , young men dead on the streets or a child whining about the countless cuthips I got and am still standing to admire and appreciate the tale. Need to stop and sometimes resist Americas folly. America has certainly not hot it together , even in all of their progressive thinking.

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