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Visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, to The Bahamas, 11-15 December 2017

End of mission statement

Introduction

I am grateful to the Government of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas for inviting me to undertake an official country visit from 11 to 15 December 2017.

I am the second human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to be invited by the authorities to undertake such a mission; the first one being the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons in 2013.

In this regard, I note the measures that were taken following that visit, including the strengthening of the national Trafficking-in-Persons Committee/Task Force, and I hope my mission and mission report will also be followed up by the Government with concrete measures.

In light of Government’s bid for a seat at the Human Rights Council, I trust this will be the first of many steps in continuing engagements with international human rights mechanisms.

In this context, I also congratulate The Bahamas for the appointment of Bahamian national, Ms. Marion Bethel, as an expert to the CEDAW Committee, which demonstrates a commitment to supporting the work of UN international independent human rights mechanisms.

Country visit

Thanks to the support of the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, which organized my government meetings in New Providence and Grand Bahama, I met with a wide range of State officials, including the Minister of Social Services and Urban Development and her staff from the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of State for Grand Bahama, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, the Ministry of National Security, the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Attorney General. Additionally, I had the opportunity to attend a standing meeting of the Royal Police Force. I also visited the Carmichael Road detention centre and a safe house for women and children deprived of their liberty. I also met with judges from the Supreme Court and with members of the Parliament and Senators.

I am grateful to the Government for the collaboration prior and during the visit. I would like to warmly thank every authority and every individual I have met for their hospitality, their commitment to make this visit a success and their efforts to eliminate violence against women in the country.

During my visit, I also had the opportunity to arrange private meetings with representatives from civil society, including from the Crisis Center, who play a crucial role in addressing gender-based violence, and I would like to express my sincere appreciation for them taking the time to meet with me and providing me with their invaluable contribution to this noble cause.

I also wish to express my gratitude to members of the National Task Force for Gender-Based Violence for the fruitful discussion we had on these issues. I also thank UN agencies for their support and assistance prior and during my visit.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, I look into the human rights dimension of violence against women, according to well-established international human rights law.

This includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which The Bahamas acceded in 1993, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (also known as the Convention of Belem do Para), ratified by The Bahamas in 1995, as well as pertinent resolutions and jurisprudence from human rights bodies and mechanisms.

Based on this international framework, my work is meant to support the Government in implementing the provisions contained in the international treaties it has freely entered into. I believe my visit should be an opportunity to enhance awareness of the extent of the challenges related to violence against women in the country and provide appropriate and realistic recommendations for the Government to follow up with.

The objective of the visit was therefore to assess both the scope of gender based violence against women in the country, and the measures taken and needed to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators and provide protection and remedies to women and girls victims.

My work in this regard is notably guided by CEDAW General recommendations No. 19 and 35 on gender-based violence against women, adopted last July, which define gender-based violence as any form of “violence which is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”.

Today, I will present a preliminary set of observations. I will highlight some of the main issues I identified this week, and I encourage the Government to share with me all relevant data and documents as I requested during various meetings as I continue working on this visit report to be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2018.

Positive steps

First, I would like to welcome the upgrade of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs into the Department of Gender and Family Affairs within the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development and all work done related to CEDAW reporting.

I would also like to welcome the lifting, in 2011, of CEDAW reservations on Article 16 (h) on marriage and family relations.

Further, I commend the important work done for the elaboration of the National strategy on Gender based violence and its multi-sectorial implementation plan.

During my visit, I have been impressed by the dedication, professionalism and sensitivity of a number of service providers and law enforcement officials in addressing violence against women.

In particular, I commend the work carried out by the Division of Youth which does a remarkable work in raising awareness on gender social norms and stereotyping that can result in gender-based violence. The Division’s Youth Leaders Certification Programme provides youth between 18 and 25 with a useful opportunity to engage in thought-provoking and inspiring discussions on the meaning of key human rights principles and values, such as equality, non-discrimination and mutual respect.

Challenges

The Bahamas has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go to eliminate violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, that are entrenched into a broader framework of different forms of discrimination against women.

For instance, with regard to women’s participation in politics, only one woman currently holds a seat in the Cabinet and only 5 out of 39 members of the House of Assembly are women, while there are 7 women senators out of 16, though I note the latter are appointed by the Governor-General. Gender balance should be improved especially at high level positions and, in this regard, I refer to the CEDAW Committee recommendation No. 5 on the use of temporary special measures.

Despite an undeniable solid commitment in addressing violence against women, it is my view that greater efforts are necessary to tackle the root causes of violence against women in The Bahamas.

In fact, violence against women is interpreted narrowly and there is simply no clear linkage between violence against women and sex-based discrimination.

The varying and intersecting forms of discrimination against women I have identified this week have an aggravating negative impact on the perception of the roles of women and men in the society, which in turn may be used as an excuse to justify violence against women and girls.

Violence against women is deeply rooted in persisting gender stereotypes and patriarchy, often justified in the name of religion, culture or tradition.

Given the central role played by the Church in Bahamian society, its voice is greatly needed to promote, not undermine, gender equality and non-discrimination.

In my view, violence against women is hidden, denied and, even more worryingly, accepted as normal.

In the report submitted by the Government to the CEDAW Committee earlier this year, as part of its international reporting obligations, reference was made to a survey conducted by the College of The Bahamas which revealed that “many men feel that the male sex is superior to female and that they have the right, even a responsibility, to dominate the female”.

Further, the corporal punishment of girls and boys alike in school environment was also repeatedly brought to my attention this week. As we know, there is an increasing factor for children who have been abused to resort to violence when they are adults.

In other words, a culture of acceptance interrelated with strong traditional gender norms is prevalent in The Bahamas, which can lead to failures in the response of state entities.

While these are tremendous challenges to address, I believe some immediate legislative reforms could be promptly taken to help achieve non-discrimination against women in private and public life, and ultimately protect women and girls from abuse.

Gaps in legislation

First, The Bahamas Government should take steps to put its legal framework in line with international law and standards, in particular, it should examine its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, especially those related to Article 2 (a) and Article 9 (2) on nationality, with a view to their withdrawal.

The CEDAW Committee considers Article 2 to be the very essence of the obligations of States parties under the Convention and considers reservations to Article 2 to be incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention and thus impermissible.

Lifting reservations to the CEDAW Convention is all the more necessary as there are some serious constitutional deficiencies in regard to the equality of men and women.

Currently there is no enshrined principle of equality between women and men in line with Article 2 of the CEDAW Convention.

While the prohibition of sex based discrimination is provided in Article 15 of the Constitution on fundamental rights and freedoms, it is not included under Article 26 of the Constitution which defines discrimination.

I am aware of the results of the two referendums and I regret that they were not successful, but I would like to suggest the Government works on other possible ways to bring its legal framework into line with its international obligations.

In my opinion, the discrepancy between Articles 15 and 26 of the Constitution should not be an obstacle for the Government to enshrine the principle of equality between women and men in the Constitution or any other appropriate legislation.

I would recommend that the authorities adopt a comprehensive law on gender based violence against women and domestic violence that could cover all victims of violence as already proposed by the National Task Force for Gender-Based Violence in ”The National Strategic Plan to Address Gender-Based Violence”, unveiled in 2015. This Plan has to be fully implemented.

During my meetings, I learnt that a bill on gender-based violence had been prepared about a year ago and is currently under review by the new administration. In this context, I recommend that the Government uses the newly adopted CEDAW General recommendation 35 as a general framework for the elaboration of this law.

I would also like to support the Task Force proposal for the establishment of a high level coordination authority on gender-based violence against women that would oversee the implementation of the law and national strategy.

The current legal framework contains other legal shortcomings. In particular, it does not outlaw marital rape – except in narrowly-defined exceptional circumstances. I understand from my discussion with the Attorney General Office that necessary revisions are currently under consideration, so I would encourage the Government to pay due consideration to CEDAW general recommendation no. 35 which calls on States to “[e]nsure that the definition of sexual crimes, including marital and acquaintance/date rape is based on lack of freely given consent, and takes account of coercive circumstances.”

A new law could also ensure consistency between the age for sexual consent – that is 16 – with that for receiving contraceptive and other health services without requiring parental consent – that is 18 – so that girls can receive adequate sexual and reproductive health services, possibly reducing the risk of HIV infection.

Moreover, I am concerned that provisions related to nationality allow for discriminatory treatment of women since only a Bahamian man, not a woman, having a child born outside of The Bahamas can pass on his Bahamian citizenship to his child. This violates the human rights of women to a nationality, equality in the family and access to public services. From my discussion with high level officials this week, I understand the Government takes this issue very seriously and I am hopeful it will remove its discriminatory nationality provisions in the near future so that women are able to transmit their nationality to their children under the same conditions as men.

During my visit, I was also informed about the implementation of measures purportedly aimed at curbing irregular migration, according to which “illegal” migrants must leave The Bahamas by 31 December 2017.

This results in the detention and quick deportation of hundreds of individuals, targeting the Haitian descent community disproportionately, some of whom may be born in The Bahamas. While The Bahamas acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it has not yet enacted asylum or refugee legislation, which means that asylum-seekers and refugees are managed by the authorities on an ad hoc basis. I would like to call on the authorities to develop, enact and implement a new law on refugees consistent with international standard and to consider adding gender-based violence against women as a ground for granting asylum. Until a new law is adopted, I urge the authorities to duly ensure a careful individual assessment of each migrant that may be impacted by these measures. In order to avoid the expulsion of someone entitled to refugee status, a victim of trafficking or anyone born in The Bahamas with a right to Bahamian nationality, the Government should ensure that legal counselling about the proceedings is available and that the principle of non-refoulement is duly respected and in line with CEDAW General recommendation No. 32 on gender related dimensions of refugees status asylum nationality and statelessness.

In particular, it is urgent for the authorities to speed up the immense backlog of Bahamian nationality applications for Bahamian-born individuals of Haitian descent so as to guarantee their rights to nationality, education and healthcare and to improve their living conditions especially that of women and children including their access to services to prevent gender-based violence against women.

Lastly, I encourage the Government to establish a National Human Rights Institution in compliance with the Paris Principles as a step to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights and women human rights including gender-based violence against women.

Key priorities

Let me now briefly turn to the prevention of gender-based violence, protection of victims and prosecution of perpetrators, which should all be implemented in an integrated manner.

Prevention: Education and Establishing a system for data collection and analysis

On prevention,   I believe the authorities should focus their efforts in a more aggressive manner on education and awareness raising.

Improving public awareness and outreach efforts that are victim-centered, including the dissemination of information regarding available services, is important for women and girls to claim their rights. In fact, all interlocutors have recognized that gender-based violence against women is under-reported. I welcome public education targeting women and girls, but I would also like to encourage the authorities to target men and boys in awareness raising campaigns and to engage men in changing and eliminating stereotypical and patriarchal stereotypes portraying women as inferior to men.

Adopting and implementing appropriate preventive measures is necessary to address structural inequality between women and men.

This includes setting up a system to regularly collect, analyse and publish statistical data on the number of complaints, prosecutions and convictions of violence against women.

The true extent of violence against women in The Bahamas is unclear due to a lack of statistical information with common indicators and disaggregated information.

In turn, the dearth of statistics prevent the authorities from adopting comprehensive initiatives, including targeted preventive actions.  Lack of appropriate data is a challenge that needs to be overcome.

An Observatory on violence against women, domestic violence and femicide or gender related killing of women  should be set up  with a view to collecting and publishing data and  analyzing individual cases of femcide, rape and other forms of sexual violence for focused prevention.

Protection: Fulfilling’s the human rights obligation to integrated services

Beyond New Providence, the population of The Bahamas is extremely dispersed. This may make it difficult to set up programs and shelters for those exposed to violence. There are currently only three shelters for women victims of violence in The Bahamas, so there is a clear need for more shelters and safe houses  for women and their children including boys older than 10.

Given that the community in The Bahamas is small and interconnected, a safe and discreet place where victims can be protected and empowered is highly necessary. I lately published a report on integrated services with focus on shelters and protection orders from human rights perspective, which provides useful guidance in that respect.

There is a high level prevalence of teenage pregnancies.  Girls that are pregnant are placed in a special school operated by the Providing Access to Continued Education Foundation (PACE) until after the birth of their children so as to avoid stigmatization. Yet, there are no special shelters for pregnant girls or special care for children when they return back to school and pregnant teens or young mothers were unable to access to receive services without a parental consent because they are still considered as children. In the absence of family support, they may be left isolated without resources and therefore at great risk.

Further, while I call for more shelters, I also encourage the authorities to look into the efficiency of protection orders. In particular, the Government may consider removing administrative or judicial burdens, such as the need to summon perpetrators to serve her with protection order.

I warmly welcome the setting up of a 24-hour hotline for women and girls victims run by the Bahamas Crisis Centre and other help lines organized by social services. In this context, I would like to recommend the establishment of a full 24/7 free of charge hot line and free legal aid for victims of GBVAW.

I further encourage the Government to strengthen its collaborations with civil society organisations that play a key role in providing services to victims of gender-based violence against women. However, funding and sustainability of funding are a major issue for CSOs in The Bahamas, including for the unanimously recognized Crisis Centre. I recommend that the Government ensures that sufficient financial resources are provided to women’s organisations and crisis centers in all family islands in order for them to more effectively contribute to the elimination of gender-based violence against women.

Prosecution: Expediting judicial processes

I would commend the Royal Bahamas Police Force for efforts made to increase cooperation across islands, for instance through the Police’s standing CompStat meeting which I had the privilege to attend, and for employing special protocols for dealing with children who are sexually abused. I would like to recommend the Government continues to increase the number of women police officers and to deploy men and women police officers when dealing with cases of domestic violence.

Regarding prosecution, I am gravely concerned that according to data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, three of the top ten recorded rape rates in the world occur in the Caribbean. According to the information I received this week, only a limited number of cases related to sexual violence against women reach the court for redress and a few rape cases have resulted in the sentencing of perpetrators.

 In fact, delay in the judiciary response has, on occasion, resulted in victims abandoning the proceedings, leaving the crime unpunished and victims being re-victimised during the lengthy process.

The underreporting of human rights abuses of women and the delay in prosecution seriously undermines the rule of law and impedes accountability. I am aware of a number of steps taken to address the significant backlog within the court system. 

I recommend the establishment of family and specialized courts such as a sexual offense court to alleviate judiciary backlogs. The Government should also work to secure greater and speedier access to justice, including by ensuring that the proceedings may continue even if the victim withdraws her complaint.

Finally, I would like to urge the authorities to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW Convention as this would provide the CEDAW Committee with the ability to receive and consider communications from women and girls victims.

These are my preliminary findings. I will continue to develop them in more detail in the months to come. My conclusions and recommendations will be presented to the Human Rights Council later this year, in June 2018.