Sexual legislation reform was unanimously passed in the National Assembly yesterday, almost three years after countrywide consultations on the laws, which were previously criticised for being archaic and failing to protect victims.
The legislation offers a comprehensive overhaul of the laws and includes a string of new offences that were tabled to expand protection, particularly for young children. The reform is wide-ranging and includes new offences, and at the same time definitively spells out the rights of victims of sexual abuse—raising much needed awareness. It mentions too the establishment of a National Task Force for Prevention of Sexual Violence to address implementation.
The Sexual Offences Bill was at a Select Committee since August 2009 and was passed yesterday with added amendments; new provisions which Human Services Minister Priya Manickchand, who piloted the legislation through Parliament, called timely and critical. She said women and children in this country have waited long enough and charged that every Member of Parliament is obligated to get the word out that the laws have been reformed.
Opposition speakers, who vigorously endorsed the bill, hailed Manickchand for a consultative process, which they said demonstrated how a democratic society functions. PNCR-1G parliamentarian Basil Williams said Manickchand involved the citizens of this country prior to tabling the bill and he praised her for “excellent work” throughout the entire process, including her chairmanship of the Select Committee. “I suspect is it because she has not been hardened yet,” Williams said of Manickchand’s approach to the legislation.
The debate on the bill yesterday was harmonised, as every speaker who took to the floor noted the need for stronger laws in the society to curb rampant sexual violations. The continued abuse of women and children was high on the agenda and the speakers zeroed in on the number of cases as recorded in newspaper reports and at agencies such as Help and Shelter and Red Thread. But GAP-ROAR MP Everall Franklin commented that many of the cases which are reported only begin to “scratch the surface of how deep the problem is”.
Speakers called the new legislation revolutionary saying it will effectively protect the rights of every women and child in the country, but there were also calls for the necessary training to be rolled out in an effort to sensitise stakeholders across the country as to what the new provisions are in the law, in addition to raising awareness in the society. Manickchand was firm on this, saying the legislation can only work if persons within the system are trained and are aware of the kind of service they are expected to deliver within the provisions of the new laws.
Manickchand spoke of the ‘Stamp it out’ consultations, declaring that the legislation owes everything to the countrywide discussions. She said people were very involved in the process, from professionals to mothers and according to her, the comments and feedback informed the legislation. She said the passage of the bill is an achievement the people can claim. Manickchand noted too that the laws have been amended to include maximum penalties for many offences; however it is within the discretion of the courts to apply penalties in a specific case.
The new legislation includes many reforms. One of the more critical aspects of the bill is that it has made the criminal offence of rape gender-neutral, to include sexual assault on boys and men, bringing the offence of rape in line with reform around the world and therefore maximising protection by widening the definition. Section 3 of the legislation says that a person commits the offence of rape if that person engages in sexual penetration with another person (the complainant) or causes the complainant to engage in sexual penetration with a third person. It is also rape if the complainant does not consent to the penetration, and if the accused does not reasonably believe that the complainant consents.
The law also states that a husband can be accused of sexually assaulting his wife because she is now recognised as having to consent. This particular provision triggered a string of responses when Manickchand referred to it with many parliamentarians sounding off on it. “She is not your property after marriage anymore,” someone heckled. Previously, a husband could not be found guilty of raping his wife.
Williams, speaking on the legislation, said the provisions of the new law must operate within the justice system and he noted that the investigative capacity of the country is currently weak. He praised the new provision of the legislation which removes the need for the evidence of young children to be corroborated saying “this was long overdue.” Williams said his party fully supports the legislation because of how critical it is to the society. However, he questioned the aspect of the law which makes the provisions for paper committals, saying the justice system currently lacks the “teeth” to effectively implement this provision.
Alliance For Change member Latchmin Punalall called for a register of sexual offenders. She said the authorities need to know the location of sexual offenders so as to “keep an eye” on them. PPP/C member Dr Jennifer Westford went further, saying sexual offenders should face mutilation. This particular comment triggered a semi-ruckus in the assembly as persons questioned what exactly she meant and Westford clarified it much to the amusement of the assembly.
PPP/C member Anil Nandlall declared that sex is used as a weapon of exploitation in the country, noting that those with economic power use it against those who are less fortunate.
The new legislation follows sustained calls for urgent reform of the legislation. The Coalition to Stamp out Sexual Violence Against Children had routinely picketed the Office of the President calling for swift passage of the legislation and yesterday the group was again present at Parliament.