There will be “zero tolerance” for domestic violence, promised Jamaica's prime minister Andrew Holness on Wednesday. He wants police to have powers for preventative detention when bloodshed threatens.
His attorney general, Marlene Malahoo-Forte, gave some details. She says that when the police receive a credible report of violent threats, they should be able to lock up the potential perpetrator for a 24-hour cooling-off period without a court hearing, once they use a fair procedure. That would be extendable to three days on the say-so of a justice of the peace.
Strong words; but putting them into action may not be easy. Violent threats are currently classed merely as a misdemeanour says Bert Samuels, a well-respected Jamaican lawyer. The bail act would need amending – and probably the constitution as well. Holness has a wafer-thin single-seat majority in parliament.
Any of that sound familiar?
Unscrupulous police, says another Jamaican, could misuse the preventative detention procedure to harass their own romantic rivals.
Meanwhile, it's not at all clear that police make full use of existing powers to control domestic violence. As in T&T, there's a long history of ignoring abuse. Novelette Grant was appointed acting police commissioner in December, initially for 90 days. If she gets the job full-time, that's a task for her to tackle.
It is all too easy to tout simple solutions to problems like domestic violence or child abuse. It's much harder to develop a realistic, broad-based strategy, and follow it through.
Jamaica's murder rate—like T&T's —is up again. There were 87 killings in the first three weeks of January. That is 52 per cent more than in the same period last year.
Gangster feuds are routine; but when young women are killed, there is real shock, even in Jamaica.
On Sunday, two young children found the body of a 23-year-old Burger King employee, stuffed in a barrel. Her hands were tied, and she had been strangled; it is not yet clear who killed her, or why.
Out of last year's 1,350 reported murders, 61 were linked to domestic violence; that is around 4.5 per cent. Reducing domestic killings would knock a dent in the murder rate.
But prayer comes easier than real-world reform.
Said Holness last month: “There seems to be an Evil Spirit possessing some of our men … The only protector of the community must be the Government of Jamaica, the police force, and Jesus Christ the Almighty Saviour.”
His predecessor Portia Simpson Miller added: “We need more parents to send their children to Sunday school.”
That might not always be wise.
Three ministers from Jamaica's Moravian Church were charged last month with sexual offences with under-age girls. They include the president of the church, who was also chairman of Jamaica's Teachers' Services Commission. Also last month, a Pentecostal pastor was convicted of a similar offence. An elder from Holness' own ultra-strict Seventh Day Adventist Church was pulled in for questioning.
A parliamentary select committee on sexual offences started work on February 1. That's an important initiative. It plans to complete its work within six months.
At its opening session, the head of the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, Enid Ross-Stewart, said the two main perpetrators are “the church and police.”
Jamaica has a whole set of cultural hang-ups on sexual issues and the law. Rethinking needs to reach far and wide.
A UN representative told the select committee that the definition of rape should be extended to include anal as well as vaginal penetration. That spurred fury from a church lobby group, the Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society. They argued that criminalising same-sex rape would inevitably lead to legalising same-sex marriage. I'm still trying to work that one out.
Dr Herbert Gayle is an anthropologist at the University of the West Indies' Mona campus. He has completed extensive studies of crime and violence in Jamaica;in T&T; in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, St Kitts, Antigua and St Lucia; in Britain and in the US.
He says domestic violence is not simply a matter of violent men terrorising their female partners: “In Jamaica, domestic violence affects boys, girls, elderly and disabled, women and men—in that order in terms of frequency and/or intensity.”
He says that in 28 inner city neighbourhoods studied in Jamaica between 2004 and 2014, an alarming 45 per cent of 2,316 young men endured extreme physical abuse, including torture, during childhood. As adults: “Some of them have unleashed hell on us and on our women.”
He asks: “How can you police a state where there are communities where more than half of the boys are not in school?”
He says: “While boys suffer in the public, many girls are traded like cattle and are quietly enslaved in houses run by people they call “auntie” and “uncle” because of our child-shifting practices.”
“We see children as property – and their abuse is ‘people's private business'.” Changing that is no easy fix.