Jamaica’s Gender Laws Put to Test at the CEDAW Session

Published on July 24, 2012

Jamaicans had “broken the glass ceiling” by elevating a woman to the position of Prime Minister, said Ms. Sandrea Falconer, Minister with Responsibility for Information in the Office of the Prime Minister, as she addressed the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women at United Nations’ North Lawn Building in New York.

The Committee met to take up the combined sixth and seventh periodic reports of Jamaica. She asserted that the country’s women had seen considerable progress ever since the last report was presented. Jamaica was represented by an eight-member delegation led by Ms. Falconer. The delegation reiterated the country’s commitment to provide women their due rights and status. It told the UN that conditions of women in the country, in terms of legal reforms, public education, government policies and programs have improved. However, the delegation quite frankly admitted that their country wouldn’t be able to meet some of its Millennium Development Goals.

Jamaica must be commended with some of the legislation and legal procedures that it has adopted to provide women their rights and eliminate inequality. There is good news for Jamaican women that the country would ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention. Jamaica is also working on legislation to prioritize treating cases of violence against women. The country’s delegation spoke of many legal mechanisms in place to support and help women their way forward. However, in the realm of law making, there is still much to be done for Jamaica’s commitment to international conventions and providing women their equal rights.

Jamaica’s laws still discriminate between the sexes and the matter was debated at the session as well. The recently enacted Charter of Fundamental Rights makes separate references to “male” and “female” sexes in section 13. (3)(i). Furthermore, its some articles subsume feminine gender in the masculine gender and render women invisible. Ironically, the Charter itself prohibits such discriminations as its section 13.1(b) & 13. 3(g) prohibits all laws that are discriminatory in nature even on the basis of sex and holds all sexes equal. The Jamaican delegation held that such laws are liberally applied and it is aims and objectives that are important in application.

Implementation of laws is also a challenge that the country is facing. There is much credibility in the fact that Jamaica is still a source, transit and destination country for sex trafficking. This trafficking also takes place from rural areas to the urban neighborhoods. The delegation stated that the government has provided sufficient legislation and mechanisms to deal with the issue. The country passed Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Suppression and Punishment) Act in 2007 and there is a multi-agency National Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons (NATFATIP) within the Ministry of National Security to monitor and coordinate Jamaica’s response to the situation of Human Trafficking. However, these measures and mechanisms do not seem to have rendered the desired effects. Prosecutions still seem to be quite low under these legal instruments. From 2008 till 2011 only 7 victims of trafficking have been reported and five people have been charged under the aforesaid law.

The Sexual Offence Act is a legal achievement of the Jamaican government for preventing violence against women. The Act is not without shortcomings though as it fails to deal with some of the most pertinent issues. Section 5 of the Sexual Offences Act establishes marital rape as an offence. However, section 5(3) provides a list of circumstances that must exist in order for the marital rape to have been committed. This list is restricted to certain scenarios and the protection from marital rape is severely limited. The law negates the notion that non-consent is the key factor in establishing whether rape has occurred. In cases where spouses are not separated or in the process of separation, the wife has not sought a protection order or similar under the Domestic Violence Act, and where the husband is not suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, women have no protection from marital rape.

A woman Prime Minister is a great achievement for the country. Nevertheless, Jamaican women are under represented in legislatures and political parties. Twenty-two constituencies were contested in the December 2011 General Elections out of the total sixty-three seats. The Jamaica Labor Party had only thirteen (13) female candidates while the People’s National Party and the National Democratic Movement had six (6) and three (3) female candidates, respectively. Currently, women represent 12.7 per cent of the members in Parliament, 20.0 per cent of the Cabinet, and 25 per cent of the Senate. These statistics show that the participation rates of women in politics are significantly low and thus the subsequent representation. Jamaica’s delegation held the position that it is the choice of the parties and voters whether to elect women or not. Although in a democracy, it is the parties or voters that decide, many countries have reserved seats for women in legislatures to balance gender representation. Jamaica should consider such a quota since its women are marginally represented in the country’s Parliament. It might prove to be a step towards changing the political mindset of the population.

The Jamaican government needs to deal with outmoded and inefficient laws in the country. One such example are its laws on reproductive rights. Abortion is not legal in Jamaica but it is available privately. The delegation said that the law is not being enforced in full spirit and discussions are taking place on the issue. Women in Jamaica have access to such services including adolescent girls. Between the period January and December 2008, only adolescent girls accounted for 22.4 per cent of antenatal and 19.8 per cent of postnatal visits at the health centers across the country. The Jamaican government should get done with these ambiguities in law to make the availability of such rights more precise and accessible.

The government of Jamaica affirmed at the United Nations that it is committed to the repealing and amendment of all discriminatory legislative provisions without delay. The Jamaican government is under commitment to fix these legal complexities and enact other laws necessary to bring the country’s legal framework fully into compliance with the provisions of the Convention. Besides closing these legislative gaps, mechanisms for implementing the laws need be strengthened. There are little signs that the initiatives are actually making an impact on society and its women. Jamaica has taken steps in the right direction to deal with the gender related laws but there is still much to be done to fulfill its obligations and commitments to the world and its women.

The Author

Rehman Azhar is a freelance journalist based in New York and currently associated with School of law at Fordham University, New York.

He writes mostly on legal and constitutional issues and also focuses on gender laws in different countries. He wrote this article as he attended the CEDAW Committee Review session at United Nations where the Jamaican delegation presented its report.