Justice system ‘failing victims of sexual crimes’ – Human Services Ministry formulates rigid reform programme
Kaieteur News – October 6, 2007
Recognising that victims of sexual violence are crying out in vain to Guyana’s failing justice system, the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security has formulated a comprehensive programme of reforms to improve prosecution, increase conviction and restore confidence in the judicial process.
The consultation paper “Strengthening protection against sexual violence and reforming the law on sexual offences” was launched Thursday by Human Services Minister, Priya Manickchand, at a media briefing held at the Ministry’s Water and Cornhill Streets office.
Among the key proposals are the establishment of a Sex Offences Court with a specially-assigned judge/prosecutor; forensic medical examination; mandatory High Court trial on paper committals (written PIs); ban of cross-examination of victim by accused and in-camera sessions.
Minister Manickchand said that the proposed reforms are based on a comprehensive review of the law in other countries including Trinidad , South Africa and Namibia , as well as the local experience.
“Sexual violence is the most widespread and unpunished of crimes. It destroys lives, families and communities, hampers society and the economy, and spreads HIV/AIDS and other STDs…”
“Sexual violence, like any other form of violence, has no place in society and we aim to stamp it out,” Minister Manickchand said.
She noted that Guyana ‘s laws are centuries out of date, and the system is failing to deliver justice or support to victims, which is very unacceptable.
“Society has changed over the century since our existing sexual offences laws were drafted. Discrimination on the grounds of sex, like discrimination on the grounds of other differences, including race and disability, is no longer defensible and violence in relationships can no longer be seen as acceptable or unchangeable,” Minister Manickchand added.
A 1998 Caribbean study reported that one in eight women who sought professional help at rape crisis centres reported the crime to police.
This, the Minister said, is indicative of the victim’s frustration, mistrust in the justice system and their doubt at chances of a conviction.
In fact, a 2005 study on Guyana found that approximately one per cent of rapes reported to the police resulted in a conviction.
In addition, Minister Manickchand said that a 2007 study found that an alarming 92 percent of the victims were women and girls, while 69 percent were below the age of 16.
Three out of four accused are known to the victims while one in five of the perpetrators is related to the victims, the study found.
“We know much more about sexual violence; that the vast majority of offenders are known to their victims and that those victims are overwhelmingly women.
“The links to domestic violence are strong and in this area we can build on the work already underway in Guyana ,” she said.
The Minister pointed out that while the Consultation Paper intends to respect the right of the defendant to a fair trial, its aim is to toughen protection and to improve support services for victims.
“We are committed to ensuring that the reforms are not just made on paper but are put into practice across Guyana so training will be critical to the success of our efforts,” she stressed.
Minister Manickchand explained that the proposals are made against the background of Guyana ‘s wider justice sector reform strategy, a substantial investment programme which should have a major impact on access to justice.
However, the Minister said that the paper not only deals with prosecuting sexual offenders but also the prevention of sexual violence in the first instance.
She added that since Government’s action alone is insufficient, protecting people from sexual violence is a collective effort involving all sectors of society.
“We want to mobilise local communities to tackle the sexual violence that is taking place in their midst. Changing attitude towards women and sexual violence in our communities is vital if we are to achieve real change in practice,” Minister Manickchand commented.
She remarked that since serious sexual offences are also committed against men and boys, the Ministry has not overlooked this important aspect of violence in its proposals.
“Reports suggest an extremely worrying rise in sexual violence against young children. We know that people with certain mental and physical disabilities can also be vulnerable to sexual abuse and recent studies have suggested that Amerindian women and girls are suffering disproportionately,” the Minister said.
According to her, in order to garner contributions and attract debate, the ministry published a consultation paper instead of a draft Bill.
“We want your comments and suggestions to make sure that the final programme of reforms is as practical and effective as possible. We want to hear from those involved in the criminal justice in Guyana including police officers, prosecutors, magistrates and judges.
“We want to hear from academics, health and welfare service providers, NGOs and community groups, but most of all we want to hear from survivors of sexual violence, their families and communities,” she noted.
Minister Manickchand said she is of the belief that these simple target reforms can significantly impact sexual violence while reducing costs and increasing benefits to the criminal justice system.
“These reforms are a first step on what will be a long road but together we can stamp out sexual violence in Guyana . We are committed to taking action quickly but we also believe that it is more important to get the action right,” Minister Manickchand added.