Education Minister Priya Manickchand, facing a barrage of criticism for the CN Sharma remark she made in Parliament last week, questioned when it is a convenient time to expose rape and paedophilia. If she could be castigated for raising the issue of rape in Parliament then we, as a society, continue to collectively fail the victims of sexual violence – or so she says.

20140104ianaBut there are of course a number of issues at play here, not simply the zero tolerance approach of Minister Manickchand against persons who victimise children or in this instance, her stance against, “The sex abuse stories of CN Sharma.”

There is the issue of timing, which she raised, and whether the opening she took during the budget debate when APNU MP Volda Lawrence was on the floor was an appropriate time to throw a remark about CN Sharma’s ongoing rape trial. Was this a suitable time?

It could not have been. The fact is, and the Minister knows this, CN Sharma’s rape charges are still engaging the attention of the court and while the judiciary’s track record of convicting sexual offenders is poor, the system is still functioning. In due time, the court will decide CN Sharma’s fate and even if he is unable to show up for the judgement due to an illness or an unrelated matter, this day is coming.

What’s more, the Minister, who is a trained attorney, also decided to restate in detail the allegations against CN Sharma in a statement she released on Facebook. How could this be helping the victims in this case? The matter is sub judice – before a court of law – which prohibits us from making public statements about it. This rule also applies to statements made by MPs in the legislature.

Secondly, there is the issue of whether the CN Sharma remark in the Assembly advances the struggle to change our attitudes towards sexual violence, child abuse etc., and helps in any way to break the culture of silence which permeates these issues.

“Ask your member Sharma”, is what Minister Manickchand is reported to have said when Ms Lawrence was on the floor making her contribution to the 2014 budget debate. At the time, Ms Lawrence was speaking about the victims of rape and the discouraging prospects for justice which many of them face.

But the question is, ask Sharma what? Ask him whether he committed the brutal acts against the children he is accused of harming? Ask him why he is accused of the crimes alleged? Ask him why he has not been attending court? Ask him why he is not in Parliament to answer because Minister Manickchand has questions?

The culture of rape and sexual violence, which Minister Manickchand says she is fighting to change, and the rights of the victims, which she is championing, cannot be advanced by taking on one alleged offender, as prominent as he may be, inside the National Assembly, where he is not an elected member. Even if he were, throwing remarks at him about the allegations, doesn’t help the struggle.

As Ms Lawrence pointed out, the statistics bear out the realities of the failing justice system.

The system is so broken and dysfunctional that the victims it should protect have no defence whatsoever from those who seek to rape, abuse, exploit and assault them. In fact, the Sexual Offences law is not even working for victims right now.

It’s no surprise then that activists on the ground were swift in calling out Minister Manickchand for her “grandstanding declarations”.

“Rather than use Mr Sharma as a vehicle for her commitment not to betray victims of rape and paedophilia, we would urge the Minister to use her good offices and considerable influence and knowledge of the sexual offences laws within her party and government to ensure that the Sexual Offences Act is enforced fully throughout Guyana.”

“The victims of rape and paedophilia in Guyana urgently need to have the backlog of sexual offences cases which fall under both the old and new sexual offence laws fast tracked,” activists said in a letter to the press.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the Minister Manickchand’s attitude a few years ago while she was responsible for Human Services and allegations of sexual misconduct were levelled against her appointee to the Rights of the Child Commission. That same year, she was notably silent when former first lady Varshnie Singh complained about “high tech” domestic violence and had accused then President Bharrat Jagdeo of using his office to disadvantage a woman.

As writer Ruel Johnson so aptly summarised recently: “Ms Manickchand’s rationale that her excuse to MP Sharma would be a betrayal of the victims of rape and paedophilia against this backdrop of her own government’s failure to proceed on implementing the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act, and her “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach to allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against members of her own party, prove that the Minister is hypocritical at best, and at worst has no problem using the issues of rape and paedophilia for narrow partisan political interests.”

And finally, there is the issue of Jaipaul Sharma and the Minister’s refusal to apologise to him for the remark she made about his father.

As the younger Sharma reasoned, his father is not a member of the House but he is, and the rape allegations remark about CN Sharma is likely to both affect and offend him. In fact, he said that Minister Manickchand has made similar remarks before. He was offended, understandably so, and he simply asked for an apology.

“We must shout it from the roof top when someone rapes. We must expose him whoever he is. We must be willing to suffer a little a snicker here, a reprimand there, people avoiding us even, to do what we must to change this culture of treating rape and child sex abuse as private business between the perpetrator and the victim and her family,” the Minister had said in her statement.

But Parliament is not our roof tops or our street corners or any other places she referred to. It is our legislature and the statements that are made there ought to be within the parameters of what is acceptable and respectful. While it might be okay for us to expose CN Sharma for his alleged crimes, Parliament is hardly the place where we would be calling him out and doing the “naming and shaming” with all the details provided.

But all considerations aside, this latest incident which has led to the younger Sharma resigning from the Assembly could have ended in a matter of minutes – a simple apology would have ended it but Minister Manickchand, not even in the name of civic engagement, cannot bring herself to apologise to the Sharma she had no intentions of offending–or so she says.

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