One step forward, two steps back

The first item on the 8 o’clock news on CVM TV this evening was the parliamentary committee debate on the Offences Against the Person Act, in particular, marital rape. This might seem like old news in other parts of the world, but here in Jamaica, there remain laws left over from Victorian times that are only now being updated. And to be fair, by updating the laws now, with the further development of women’s rights in the last twenty years, Jamaica has a golden opportunity to leapfrog towards more equitable and realistic legislation than might be found in other countries.

On the international stage, Jamaica seems to be an active participant in the promotion of women’s rights, ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981, and adopting the Forward Looking Strategies generated at the Third Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985. Ratifying and adopting are easy; actually implementing change is more of a challenge, as shown in the summary of Jamaica’s national action plan and strategies for implementation of the Platform for Action (Beijing, 1997) — data for the adoption and for the allocation of resources is tersely marked “NA”, meaning in practice, no adoption, no allocation.

Nevertheless, Jamaica’s ratification of CEDAW means that it accepts the following actions are criminal offences:

  • to assault, injure or wound a spouse or partner;
  • to threaten and put a person in fear;
  • to rape and force a woman to have sexual relations against her will.

Bringing these definitions into national law is another matter, as was evident at last week’s session of the committee discussing the Offences Against the Person Act, in which the Jamaica Constabulary Force, backed by government Senator Norman Grant, submitted that referral to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) be maintained in cases of marital rape. Their argument was that the intervention of the DPP would help preserve the institution of marriage. Grant suggested that this would offer a chance to “save the marriage” and a “second opportunity for the family to be restored”. Hello?! Preserving an abstraction over a physical assault? Encouraging children to grow up in an abusive environment?

In a remarkable show of restraint in the face of such idiocy, Joyce Hewitt, vice-president for Public Education and Legal Reform at Woman Inc, claimed that, “Marital rape occurs in a chronic situation where the marriage has already broken down.” In this way, she was able to deflect the argument for preserving the “institution of marriage”, and Attorney General and Committee Chair Senator A.J. Nicholson accepted that marital rape need not be referred to the DPP, but treated as any other crime.

So far, so good. Yet, by arguing that marital rape occurs in collapsed marriages, Hewitt had unwittingly set the scene for today’s debate about the definition of marital rape. After the committee meeting, the Attorney General tried to explain to the TV reporter when rape “can” occur in marriage: When a marriage is “on the rocks”, then non-consensual sex is rape; when it takes place within a “wholesome” marriage, it is not.

Compared with the evidence-based definitions in the CEDAW, such terms as “on the rocks” and “wholesome” have no place in a serious debate on criminal offences, and it is mindboggling for the government’s highest legal authority to use such terms, even if he is trying to show himself as a plain-talking man of the people. “Wholesome marriage” and “marital rape” are mutually exclusive terms: if marital rape occurs, then the marriage is not wholesome — it’s that simple.

So let’s have no more talk of wholesomeness, and keep it clear: non-consensual sex is rape, regardless of the marital status of those involved, and rape is a crime.

Update: This text was published in the Jamaica Observer on 11 March 2007.

Bank on an M-16

Bank on an M-16

Teller: I’m sorry, Sir, but this line is for Gold Card holders only.
Policeman: And M-16 holders?
Teller: … That’ll do nicely, Sir.

Gun Street Girl

Best headline of the year so far:


(source: Jamaica Observer)

It’s a fairly typical report of street crime in Jamaica, relying on unsupported interviews with the nearest person at hand, vague and incomplete police statements and victims that disappear, never to reappear.

I’d been scanning the local press since last Friday for more details about a murder that occurred near my house. It got a two-sentence mention on the television news on Friday evening but was not reported elsewhere.

I was driving on Barbican Road, just as it enters the rundown, ghetto neighbourhood of Grants Pen, and passed a single police car blocking the entrance to one of the no-name lanes lined with rusting and discoloured zincs (corrugated iron sheets). Last year the National Works Agency sent in a bulldozer and pushed out the carcasses of abandoned cars. They were neatly stacked by the roadside and left rusting in the weeds for a further six months. The lane received better treatment — a smooth, glistening coat of tarmac, the envy of all the more important roads running by, pocked with craters and erratically cambered.

When I passed the lane, there were few people on the street; police cars have that effect in this neighbourhood, despite having recently been celebrated as a model of community relations. After being murder-free for one year, the serious crimes seem to be creeping back.

I drove on down to New Kingston to pick up Mr B and came back up the same route about an hour later. By that time the traffic was crawling, the police were out in force and hundreds of people were standing round peering towards the lane. I thought about taking out my camera as we drove past, but was glad I hadn’t. The scene was familiar in any case — a corpse, police idling with their machine guns, photographer staring at the ground, blood in the dust.

The body was lying diagonally across the lane, plump round bottom in black shorts — it’s a woman! I gasped. In another place at another time she might have been stretching languorously, in a look-how-long-I-am pose. But this was how she must have fallen, running from the gunman.

Who was she? Why had she been killed? Drugs? Love? It’s hard to comprehend the ease with which guns are fired here in Jamaica. It’s hard to understand how there are so many guns in the hands of the wrong people. Jamaica’s gun laws are as draconian as those in the UK, and yet … At a street dance last weekend, the police arrested 128 men and confiscated four pistols and 69 knives. The TV camera panned back and forth over the pistols and their unloaded ammunition, carefully arranged in triangles. The camera spent less time on the knives, but to me they were even more impressive. Apart from the bad boy’s favourite, the ratchet, or clasp knife, most of the others were straight out the kitchen drawer. Can you imagine going to a dance with a bread knife stuck in your waist?

I passed the no-name lane again this morning. The tarmac was still smooth and glistening after the morning drizzle. On the nearest zinc, writ large in yellow and red, were the letters T L C .

Not much of that going around.

Gone crazy gone mad

Following the previous post about poor service, I felt I should balance it with a post about how difficult it is to run a small business in Jamaica, particularly when it comes to getting a loan. Shortly after we arrived in Jamaica last year, we considered taking out a loan to buy a car. Our bank was heavily advertising a loan promotion for buying a new car from certain local dealers. The way it was presented you’d imagine the interest rate was the lowest figure ever quoted in the history of financing. It was 18.75%.

We asked about loans for other purchases (we wanted, still want, some bookcases). In that case, the interest would be 33%! We were fortunate enough to be able to get a loan in Europe … at 6%, but few Jamaicans have that possibility.

I remember visiting a small town in Alsace many years ago. One section of the town had been the Jewish quarter. In the Middle Ages, only Jews were allowed to loan money (usury was considered sinful for Christians), and, what with the rising costs of financing military adventures overseas (plus ça change …), the local princes were all soon heavily in debt to the lenders. No problem. The princes simply banded together, whipped up some anti-semitic feeling, and slaughtered all the Jews. Debts cancelled.

And I bet they charged less than 33%.

Here is another example of high interest rates presented as if you should be amazed and grateful.

Gone crazy shopper

At this rate you can’t wait? In any case, after your “grace” period at 29%, you may freak out when you learn the normal rate is 49.5%. Ooops! Forgot to mention that, did they?

Look at that woman. She looks positively demented, or at least seriously unbalanced, judging by the way she seems to be staggering.

Gone crazy shopper (head)And what about her face?
Is she really happy
or is she actually
running away

(This is the kind of chain-mail I get in Jamaica)

This is to warn persons who intend to go shopping in the plazas this Christmas. Please be very careful, and ladies don’t walk alone. My cousin was held up yesterday (Friday, 8th December, 2006) in the Springs Plaza at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Three teenage boys came up to her, one hugged her (I guess to make it seem like they all know each other) the other two walked up to her then before she could say anything, one with a knife and the other with a bottle of acid. They took her phone and $6,000.00 that she had.

The police are saying this is the new trend of stealing in the Half Way Tree plazas this Christmas season.

Stay sharp!

I had already planned to avoid the area because of the almost permanent gridlock in the car parks at this time of year. Having suffered miserably last year while trying to do Christmas shopping, this year we did everything online. Result: no traffic jams or parking stress, no threats of violence, better quality products and much more choice. The only loser is the Jamaican economy because, apart from local shipping costs, every cent has gone overseas.

Ye have not because ye ask not

Last week’s news in Jamaica was dominated by the wage negotiations between the police and government. As with public sector workers elsewhere, the police did not actually go out on strike; instead they used a tactic, and a term, I have not heard of before: the “sick-out”. In effect, over fifty percent of the police force called in sick for three days, thus giving the beleaguered taxi drivers a break from harrassment and demands for kickbacks.

I was impressed too by the police force demands in the form of a whopping 41-point wage claim, reduced to a seemingly more reasonable four key points. But check out the minimum demands:

1) a 20 percent increase in housing allowance;
2) a 50 percent increase in service pay [wait … the salary demand is still to come …];
3) a 75 percent increase in salary; and
4) a new police security allowance, originally called “hazard pay” or risk allowance.

One wonders what the other 37 demands include …

17) a canary-yellow Hummer patrol car;
25) Beyoncé;
32) profit sharing with north coast drug runners (oh wait …)
37) the keys to the Pearly Gates.

(Feel free to suggest other demands in your comments.)

The timing of the sick-out was not fortuitous — The following day was the 68th annual conference of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP). In that sense it was a threat of future action during the much anticipated forthcoming general election. Although many hope that the political tribalism of the 1970s and 80s is no more — a period when politicians would often side with local “area leaders” (read: gangsters) against the police — the lines of what characterize appropriate behaviour in public service remain blurred and weak.

As Observer columnist, Mark Wignall, whose disillusion in his Prime Minister is almost heartbreaking, commented last Thursday,

If I were the representatives on the [police] federation’s negotiating team, I would milk it for all it is worth knowing that she dare not call an election with pressing police matters outstanding.

Today, Monday, the return to the bargaining table had shifted to the inner pages of the newspapers. On the front page were a report on the PNP conference and this …

Kidnappers killed after vehicle chase

Ross Sheil, Staff Reporter

While police were just over a week ago touting the training in the United States of two of its officers as hostage negotiators, one man in St. Ann resorted to more direct methods, crashing his car into kidnappers to rescue his ‘baby mother’ and nine-year-old daughter late Saturday night.

By Sunday morning, Errol Brown had freed the woman and his daughter and both kidnappers were dead following the crash near Fern Gully in St. Ann.

According to Claremont police, the kidnappers had earlier robbed a bar in Golden Grove of cash and goods before the gunpoint robbery and kidnap of Mr. Brown’s child and her mother from their home in Dunnsville.

When The Gleaner chanced upon the scene shortly after midnight, the body of one of the kidnappers was curled up in a police lorry while onlookers stood and watched as the other kidnapper lay still breathing on the road.

Within minutes a car containing the clearly distressed mother and daughter had sped off escorted by police. Police stood over the kidnapper still on the road, eventually bundling him on top of his accomplice in the back of the lorry before driving them away.

Mr. Brown, bloodied and shaken, claimed neighbours had telephoned to alert him of the kidnapping and that he immediately left his home in nearby Constant Gardens in an attempt to head off the kidnappers.

Quick decision

He said that after spotting the older victim’s car, which the kidnappers had also stolen, he took a decision to use his own vehicle, a Toyota Caldina station wagon, to ram the stolen Toyota Corolla station wagon off the road.

“I see it’s her car and I follow it and trail it for about two miles through Colgate and come out to Swansea. Then they start pick up speed and I decide to ram the car into them and we do exactly so,” he claimed matter-of-factly about the crash.

With both kidnappers attempting to escape, Mr. Brown claimed that, with assistance from passersby, he attacked the men. This was confirmed by witnesses The Gleaner spoke with on the scene. Contrary to other accounts, the Ocho Rios CIB reported that a licensed firearm holder had shot the men, who were both pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.

This is one of those stories that gives me more questions than answers: Why did the gunmen go kidnapping after having robbed a bar? Why did they target a policeman’s baby mother and daughter? How did Mr Brown get to the kidnappers, and deal with them, before other police arrived? Who exactly shot them? And why has the last line of the report online changed from the printed version that did not include the words, “Contrary to other accounts”? What other accounts??

Unfortunately, I doubt that the questions will even be asked officially. For example, from October 1999 to February this year, Amnesty International reported that, of over 800 police killings, no police officer had ever been convicted or even subject of an independent inquiry.

Apologists for the police talk of a few rotten apples — but as any good housewife knows, rot spreads fast, and a single apple can ruin a whole barrel. I am not a police basher by nature, but the consequences of corruption for many people living in Jamaica are that, caught between criminals and cops, they often do not know which way to turn.

To end on a lighter note, I was told yesterday of a woman caught blatantly speeding on the road to Mandeville. When she asked the police officer if there was not some other way to sort out the problem, she was told that she could go left or right. Seeing her confusion, the police officer explained: “Either I can write you a ticket … or you can left me some cash.”

Grammatical it ain’t, but she got the message and handed over a thousand dollars.

Four more days left for the musical quiz … not a single Jamaican has yet had a go. FYI, all the original tracks or the sampled songs are Jamaican in origin, so go ahead and have a bash.