In Jamaica women’s groups react to Senate passing Sexual Offences Bill
The landmark Sexual Offences Bill, which reforms and amalgamates various laws relating to rape, incest and other sexual offences, was finally passed by the Senate last Friday.
The Bill will repeal the Incest (Punishment) Act, as well as several provisions of the Offences Against the Person Act. It also provides for the establishment of a Sex Offenders Registry, which will maintain a register of sex offenders.
It was passed in the House of Representatives on March 31, tabled in the Senate in April and the debate started in May. However, over a lengthy process in the Senate, 28 amendments were made before the Bill was passed.
These amendments cover a number of crucial provisions, including: violation of persons suffering from mental disorders; procuring violations by threats, fraud or administering drugs; abduction of children to have sexual intercourse; unlawful detention to have sexual intercourse; living on earnings from prostitution; and protecting the anonymity of complainants and witnesses.
The Bill also provides a statutory definition of rape, as well as provisions relating to marital rape, specifying the circumstances in which such rape may be committed.
It was piloted through the Senate by Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Senator Dorothy Lightbourne, who is also the leader of Government business.
Lightbourne noted that the Bill was examined rigorously by the Senate and that the members had, in large part, made useful comments on the provisions.
Senator Navel Clarke who spoke on behalf of the Opposition members, welcomed its passage. He described the Bill as being “in the interest of the people”, and expressed the hope that the Senate will continue in that direction.
Gender experts weigh in
Executive Director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs (BWA), Faith Webster, said the Bill would go a far way in protecting the women in society who are often times victimised.
“It has been a long time in coming, but we have reached there; and I think now in Jamaica we are even ahead of some of our other Caribbean counterparts. They have been watching closely too and commending us to know that we have reached this stage now, and now we are looking forward to the drafting now, and the finalisation of this Bill, so that it can be implemented,” she said.
She said she was especially pleased with the fact that consultations had taken place on all levels before the bill was passed and that parliamentarians were able to work with other stakeholders to ensure that it was okay.
“I was heartened to see the level of discussions, and the dialogue also that took place even at the parliamentary levels. That showed that there was keen interest in what was happening,” she said.
She said while there were reservations on some aspect of the bill, it was able to capture most of the essential issues that Jamaican’s had to grapple with.
“I can’t say that any piece of legislation is ever fool-proof or perfect and the laws to me are not static. This is why we have a mandate as a country at large to constantly review and to assess, and to analyse and to see what’s happening in the law, what’s happening in the courts with the piece of legislation, to ensure that if it is not working as it should, what it is that we need to amend,” she said.
Former president of Woman Inc and attorney-at-law Dundeen Ferguson, said she was especially pleased with the fact that the Bill dealt with the issue of marital rape, which has been a major concern for persons who worked in gender-related fields.
“In terms of our working with women and the increases in sexual assault against young girls and women who are being abused by their husbands, I think the legislation would work very well,” she said.
“We are very happy that it’s now coming into law. When you talk about almost 15 years of advocating for amendments to the Incest Punishment Act and amendments to various sections of the Offences against the Persons Act, looking at the central issues regarding women and sexual offences, we are very happy that it has passed,” she said of the bill.
Director of the “men’s desk” at the BWA, Dave Williams, said he too was in support of the Bill.
“Anything that protects the rights of women, we feel that it is a victory for men as well, because we believe in gender equality, and so if it protects one, then it will protect all. Anything that empowers women, we are happy for that and we welcome that,” he said.
Meanwhile, women’s activist and chairperson of the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC), Linnette Vassell believes the legislation was gender neutral. Furthermore, she noted that, “When women’s rights are advanced, it provides a wake-up call to men on a whole to allow them to know about what is permissible within the law.
“It is a family law and healthy families mean healthier communities and nations on a whole,” she said.
“FINALLY! There are still a few provisions that could have been less restrictive/more liberal but perhaps on a next round when can expect (more) enlightenment. Big up to the Bureau, the women’s NGOs, the concerned ministries and individuals who really pushed this through from start to finish. Now for implementation and monitoring – and training of course – so the work will continue.”
– Taitu Heron, manager, Social Development & Gender Unit, Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ)
“Aaaaat laaaast! We have come a long way. Congrats are in order for all who truly hold on to the dream, that one day we will reach the mountain top.”
– Lana Finikin, SISTREN Theatre Collective
“Remember that several amendments were made to the Bill by the Senate which now need to be studied carefully. These amendments also mean that the Bill goes back to the House for approval before it is law, therefore the celebrations may be a little too soon.”
– Nancy Anderson, IJCHR