Strengthening the legal and law enforcement framework in Jamaica to protect women and girls

Posted February 28, 2021

By Denise E Antonio, UNDP Resident Representative

Originally published in The Gleaner as part of the Spotlight Initiative Op Ed series

The work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) takes me and my team to boardrooms and ball fields; to powerbrokers at the pinnacle of policymaking, to unsung heroes influencing change in marginalized communities. Now, when I walk into a room, I am more conscious that among the women and girls I rub shoulders with, are those who have been, or are likely to be, abused by a  partner.

From the hills to the inner cities, violence against women and girls (VAWG) is no respecter of class, colour, creed or political affiliation. It diminishes mental, physical and emotional health and productivity across all barriers, while holding the power to undermine families, communities and national development aspirations. Heightened awareness of these simple facts in our day to day engagements, is a powerful reminder that violence is not a distant problem because me and mine are fine. Violence against even one spells compounded negative impacts to us all.

The data tells one part of the tale: Jamaica has a high prevalence rate of 27.8 per cent or 1 in every 4 women in Jamaica have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to  the first national survey on gender-based violence in Jamaica 2016. The data confirms higher prevalence of physical and sexual violence experienced by women in urban areas and that women 18 years and younger when they entered their first union, are twice as likely to experience severe violence compared to older women.  The high incidence of violence against women and children, especially girls remains a major obstacle to the achievement of gender equality, the empowerment of women, and national development.

As UNDP and other UN agencies work under the leadership of the Government of Jamaica and the European Union funded Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, we recognize that we must strengthen the evidence base by engaging the people who experience these lived realities, and those whom they trust and work with. We must work with civil society on applying this dynamic body of evidence to fix the legislative and policy framework, thereby restraining perpetrators from their worst inclinations, convicting those who break the law, and offering victims significant recourse to justice.  

A sound legislative and policy environment must form part of an evidence-based holistic approach to address the discriminatory gender power dynamics within families and society that adversely impact women and girls.  Through the Spotlight Initiative, UNDP is working with the Gender and Development Studies Regional Coordinating Office (IGDSRCO) of the University of the West Indies and hardworking members of civil society in support of Legislative Reform to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls. We commend and continue to partner with the Government of Jamaica on efforts being made to strengthen key pieces of legislation including the Sexual Offences Act, the Offences Against Persons Act, Domestic Violence Act, Child Care and Protection Act and the Sexual Harassment Act.  

Spotlight Initiative assessments conclude that while Jamaica has a strong local legislative and policy framework addressing family violence and gender-based violence, implementation is lagging and there still remain significant legislative and regulatory gaps. The regulatory framework for domestic violence is a case in point.

Spotlight Initiative research found that available remedies for victims under the Domestic Violence Act were inadequately enforced and that victims had no immediate relief if Orders made under this Act were being breached. Recommendations for a specific definition of Domestic Violence, expansion of the categories of persons who can apply for a Protection Order on behalf of a victim of abuse and the need for the establishment of a Joint Select Committee of Parliament to consider comprehensive changes are indeed timely.

Similar to the previous acts, clauses in the Sexual Offences Act, Offences Against the Person Act, and the Childcare and Protection Act are not expansive enough to fully protect our vulnerable population. Additionally, there are vague definitions and omissions which could allow for misinterpretations which enables harmful acts or for willful circumvention of the law.

We are particularly hopeful for a groundbreaking Sexual Harassment Act as these acts of aggression are gateways to more violent acts of GBV. Our Spotlight team made a comprehensive presentation of recommendations to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament with a view to strengthening its provisions. We called for: Including children’s homes, faith community, Sports Programmes, Clubs or Teams and their Facilities to be explicitly included under the definition and scope of institutions covered by the Bill; defining the work environment so it explicitly covers informal work environments and casual labour; expanding the range of persons protected (workers and residents) to also include clients, customers, beneficiaries, visitors and other users of a workplace or institution; expanding definition of public and community spaces to include community centres, parks, sporting facilities, public transportation hubs, youth and community development facilities and facilities run by non-governmental and charitable organizations. Our submission also called for removing the requirement for consent in relation to a child victim; including a Child Psychologist and/or other Paediatric Expert in the Tribunal; and a 6-year time limit for submitting a complaint. The experts advise us that there are many psycho-social reasons why a delay in reporting may occur including the age and developmental capacity of the complainant at the time of the incident, or their ignorance of the protection provided by the law. We believe a fit for purpose Sexual Harassment Act can be foundational to addressing VAWG before it escalates into more violent acts. That is why we urge the Government to consider a robust resocialization public education programme that changes notions of gender power dynamics.

Concomitant policy work will also be required to reinforce the protective environment. To this end Spotlight will review and update the 2011 National Policy on Gender Equality to ensure alignment with the National Strategic Action Plan on GBV and other relevant policies and legislation.

These snapshots of our ongoing analysis and contributions to legal and policy reform with respect to VAWG underscores that a multi-level, multi-sectoral approach that hinges on key partnerships among a variety of stakeholders is crucial.  The interventions under the SI reflect the collaboration between UNDP, UN Women, UNFPA and UNICEF to advocate for legislative and policy reforms, and a network of Civil Society Organizations (CSO) who are being supported and empowered to support the legislative reform process. We recognize that the flexibility, dynamism, and ability of CSOs to connect with and represent local, community and at-risk groups are essential to ensure that policy and legislation and development planning frameworks meet the requirements of the target groups and the general population.  We also recognize that we need Parliamentarians to seize the vision and to become allies in advancing the necessary amendments and resource allocations.

Our preliminary assessments tell us that we must apply key lessons learnt in forging the way forward. We must strengthen laws to be more evidenced-based and gender-responsive; eliminate discriminatory dispositions and implicit bias in existing legislation - including in criminal proceedings and sentencing, and ensure adequate resources are allocated to support effective implementation of legislation and policies.

By strengthening policy and legal frameworks through dynamic engagement with those who know the issues intimately, we are confident that together we can contribute to more comprehensive protection of the most vulnerable - particularly women and girls, decrease levels of discrimination and foster an environment conducive to the elimination of family violence.