Post 334.

“Vote for we and we will set you free”, sings David Rudder in the Madman’s Rant, parodying election-time sloganeering.

So said, so done. The campaign trail keeps it simple and typical: promises of more police car, to take the country far, to put the bandits away, to make criminals damn well pay, to abolish the tax, and to give we the facts.

It’s an easy myth to swallow because the alternative requires more of our attention and responsibility. We show up at rallies to nod at our heads at good speech, but don’t follow a story far enough to know when we are being hoodwinked, when we need to intervene, or when not everybody will be set free.

Take the National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Symbolically laid in Parliament on International Women’s Day 2019, Senator the Honourable Jennifer Baptiste Primus stated, “For far too long, victims of Sexual Harassment in the workplace have borne pain and suffering in silence as the perpetrators of this disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour have utilised intimidation, victim shaming and abuse of power to get away with it, without facing any sanction or penalty. However, Madam Speaker those days are over”.

There’s much to celebrate about a policy, long called for by feminist activists, finally being drafted and publicized, but what about the details? Employers must keep a sexual harassment log documenting all incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. The grievance procedure guidelines emphasise the role of a complaints committee and change management teams.

Now think of all the low-income women – young women, mothers, primary breadwinners, those supporting aged parents, illegal migrants – working in shops, restaurants and malls in Port of Spain, Chaguanas and San Fernando, or working as domestics cleaning and providing child care in homes, for whom the employer is the real perpetrator, as is so common.

To whom do they turn without losing their job? In this precarious economy, Madame Speaker, are their days of sexual harassment really over? Keep in mind that, despite parliamentary speeches, this policy is not yet approved by Cabinet, constituting more smoke than fire.

Take the recent legislation for the Sex Offenders Registry. Containing much that is useful for protecting society from specific kinds of sexual offenders, the Registry as it currently stands could further stigmatize groups of women, such as sex workers, who already come from the most vulnerable categories of women: the young, poor, sexually abused, under-educated, migrant and trafficked. Civil society groups made this otherwise overlooked and undervalued point to Honourable AG Al-Rawi.

Should good legislation do harm? When the bill becomes an Act, we will see whether this group is liable to further long-term penalty, entirely defying the purpose of a register, which is to protect the vulnerable, in the first place. Organisations such as CAISO have also pointed out that if the buggery law is upheld by the Privy Council, which the state is seeking, consensual anal sex would also not only remain a crime, but absurdly require such criminalized citizens also be registered.

Take the 2012 Children’s Act. As the age of consent to sexual relations is now set at eighteen years old, sexual and reproductive health service providers, such as the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago, now have to report incidents of penetration of minors sixteen and seventeen years old, even by others within three years of their age, even when it occurs by consent.

This means that providing confidential counselling services to teens over sixteen without reporting those cases to the police can now be a crime. This risk to service providers means that FPATT no longer provides the youth counselling it once used to, leaving a vast need now unmet. This same act, it should be noted, also decriminalized heterosexual penetration between minors while extending the punishment for such same-sex sexual relations among minors to, of all things, life imprisonment. So much for child rights.

NGOs will tell you that real transformations, rather than empty slogans, most matter. When politicians hit the platform to wax about their accomplishments, remember it’s easy to convince a population of a government’s successes when we are not bothered to follow details and when headlines are all corner block-talk seems to need.

Political participation and power mean paying attention to the fine-print of legislation, policies or budgets even when splashy campaigns deliberately distract. Vote for them, by all means, but know that only a madman would believe anyone but yourself is going to set you free.

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Post 232.

Regrettably, it is uncertain whether Tuesday’s Senate vote on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 will actually lead to protection of girls from too-early marriage. The Bill has to be passed by the House of Representatives before it becomes law, and it will likely be passed now that the AG has framed it as only needing a simple majority, which the PNM can provide.

However, having been passed, it is likely that a constitutional case will be kick-started to establish whether or not constitutional freedoms were violated and whether or not the AG was correct to tactically switch from a 3/5 to simple majority passage.

No one can tell at this point whether such technical considerations regarding constitutional law will lead to the amendments being overturned or upheld. In the end, it will become about a battle between UNC and PNM, and religious patriarchs versus the state. The best interest of girls, whether or not they represent a minority of marriages, will disappear from priority.

The UNC, under Kamla Persad-Bissessar, helped to create this disgusting situation. In government, the party courted and relied on religious conservatives, and was unwilling to risk ire of this small but vocal segment for a more progressive approach to women’s and girls’ rights. In last Wednesday’s debate, they brought in temporary senators to present perspectives, clearly vetted by the party, which the wider population found shocking and partially misinformed, particularly in terms of why the Children’s Act’s (2012) “Romeo Clause” rightly decriminalizes adolescent sexual relations.

The UNC’s approach was to friend up all sides simultaneously, thereby showing only supreme self-interest. On the one hand, Persad-Bissessar has said she herself supports raising the age of marriage to eighteen years old. On the other, the party brings in men who oppose that position, under the guise of inclusion and representativeness. Such mixed messaging sparked concern, certainly in the women’s movement, that sending the Bill to a Joint Select Committee would lead to it being buried there or watered down to assuage patriarchal interests.

Keep in mind that the legal age for girls to marry is eighteen years old in India and Iraq, and sixteen years old in Pakistan and Egypt. So, let’s be clear that there is no single Hindu, Christian or Muslim perspective on the legitimacy of marrying girls at fourteen or sixteen years old.

It’s in this context of the UNC’s unwillingness to do the best thing for girls that the AG may have wrongly made his tactical switch. The fact that the need for a 3/5 majority was included in the December 19, 2016 version of the Bill is itself a sign that he and the drafters recognized that there were constitutional implications.

The expediency with which those paragraphs were removed was bound to be seized on by the UNC as the AG playing politics with law. So, the AG may have to take his chances in court, at taxpayers’ expense, risking having this key amendment overturned on a technicality, at girls’ expense. I applaud his willingness to push through this legislation, and here the UNC has not one moral leg to stand on, but the AG’s decision has made the process more politicized and messy.

Speaking of messy moralities, the UNC is now using language of “respect for family life” in its constitutional counter punch, showing instead no respect for globally-established, detrimental effects of early-marriage on girls, and global conventions to which we are a signatory. It is unbelievable that girls’ individual life chances are still being subordinated to those of the “family” in a way that is not applicable to boys, with party leadership ignoring such legal inequality.

The Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 simply seeks to raise the age of marriage to eighteen years old. Women’s organisations have argued that possible amendments should have included an exception allowing both girls and boys to marry from sixteen years old, with counseling and parental permission or, instead, a magistrate’s permission given with these adolescents’ capacity, choice and best interest in mind.

As this debate moves to the House, the nation must insist that girls’ self-development and rights are our priority. If you agree, make those 41 MPs represent you. This legislation is overdue.