The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) says urgent reform of the sexual offences laws is needed to curb escalating crimes against women and girls and a task force is required to steer it.
The GHRA said parliament needs to make this issue a priority. In its message commemorating International Women’s Day, the group said Women’s Day 2009 finds Guyanese women in an embattled position as the first two months of the year witnessed a spate of deaths, wounding and maiming of women mainly by former or current boyfriends, husbands and lovers. “Vigorous assurances from all quarters that violence against women is high on the political and legal agenda abound, but the reality suggests otherwise,” the GHRA said, adding that men inclined to do violence continue to have little to fear from the law.
In a 2005 GHRA study the human rights group said statistics revealed a conviction rate of less than 1% in a range of sexual offences cases. The underlying reason pointed to outdated laws and practices which re-victimized the victim with the slowness of the legal process and untrained police personnel. Other facts have emerged to still further frustrate the justice system working in favour of women victims.
Additionally, the GHRA said that statistics released earlier this year indicate an average of 1,000 new cases per month being introduced to the court system, all of which are handled by seven permanent and two temporary magistrates along with a backlog of cases accumulated over years. They range from cases generated by traffic violations to offences such as using threatening language and account for about 60% of the new cases.
“Even without having to wade through these matters, which surely need not be there in the first place, procedures in the magistrates court are literally medieval, in requiring everything to be conducted orally, rather than processed by paper-based methods”, the group said.
Police efforts to mediate neighbourly and similar disputes have led to them attracting blame for not taking matters to court when no resolution is reached therefore they “now tend to the side of caution, referring everything to the courts.”
The additional delays caused by the amount of new matters engaging the courts often undermines the resolve of even the strongest of women victims. “Turning up at Magistrates’ court for two and three years only to be told, after wasting several hours each time, that the matter has been again put down for a future date, is soul-destroying,” the GHRA said.
Further, it said the list of cases for the current assizes in the High Court shows that from a total of 94 indictable cases 34 are for sexual offences.
“The combination of factors surrounding sexual offences contribute to a strong argument for a court dedicated to address sexual offences,” the release said. Moreover successful implementation of reformed sexual offences legislation requires an effective strategy to ensure its major aims are achieved and the focus of the reforms remains firmly on sexual offences against women and girls and not diluted by other matters.
The GHRA asserts that successful reformation of the sexual offences laws and procedures implies internal reforms within the major agencies responsible for the administration of justice. “In order to secure the cooperation of the Bar, the Bench, the Office of the DPP and the Guyana Police Force, these agencies should be systematically engaged within an over-all strategy,” the release said.
The GHRA reiterated its conviction that a Task Force is required to develop and implement such a strategy as outlined above. It also contends that all the legal and civil society agencies affected by or engaged in reform of the legislation should be invited to be members of such a mechanism.