What seemed to come through loud and clear during the conversations about sexual abuse during last week’s public hearing by the Special Select Committee on the Sexual Offenders (Amendment )Bill 2019 was lawmakers disconnect from local reality. Some of these misperceptions are the result of people from the upper echelons of society applying their perspectives and life lessons to the experiences of an underclass who do not share them.
It's fortunate that people working closer to the ground were there to challenge those assumptions, specifically representatives from the Child Welfare League, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), Vision on Mission, the Women's Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) and Womantra.
Those representatives made it clear that putting people who fail to report sexual offences on a sex offenders registry was "an overreach." Such positions proceed from a fundamental misunderstanding of a family and social dynamic that's likely to be alien to such notables as Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and Independent Senator Dr Varma Deyalsingh.
Children’s Authority chairman Hanif Benjamin expressed enthusiasm in February for mandatory reporting provisions in the act. Expressing “excitement” about the introduction of such reporting, which is a critical element of the amendment from the perspective of those tasked with managing cases of abuse, the authority saw great benefit in pressing frontline practitioners, including medical professionals and teachers into compliance.
It’s unclear whether the more pervasive instances of “mothers not reporting stepfathers or uncles” is an aspect of the law that the authority is willing to take an equally hard line on. Deyalsingh criticised mothers who failed to report that their children are sexually abused.
CCHR president Diana Mahabir-Wyatt explained that some people do not report sexual offences in legitimate fear of being killed by the accused. WINAD's Leslie Robertson-Tony urged the committee to explore ways to encourage the reporting of sexual offences against children before seeking to emphasise draconian punishments.
On what information are these measures being pursued?
EU Ambassador Arend Biesebroek lamented at a workshop hosted by the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action in May 2018 that gender-based violence is not only under reported, the data that is gathered is not systematically recorded and agencies dealing with the problem do not pool and compare the information that exists.
Data from 2018 suggests that there are as many as three reports of crime against a child in TT every day.
As these amendments are being discussed, the committee should be listening closely to those with experience in making a change where abuses happen, and work to design law that uses foot soldier knowledge and hard information to encourage better outcomes while acknowledging a very thorny reality.