(Originally published in Wired 868)
Merely promising legislation will not stop sexual predators in their tracks. The promise of sexual harassment legislation is welcome news but it is insufficient to impact behaviour change. We know only too well that legislation alone has not solved our problems; we know only too well that effective law in Trinidad & Tobago is about what you can get away with, especially if you have deep pockets.
So, unless the goal is merely to pave another piece of the road to Hell, the government must move beyond the promise of legislation and in short order implement sexual harassment policy throughout all ministries, State enterprises and businesses where the people are significant shareholders.
Between now and when the government delivers on its promise of legislation—if it ever delivers on that promise—several women will be sexually harassed by men who are confident that nothing will be done; in the public and the private sectors, the indiscipline, the exploitation, the abuse will continue.
Those who are in the Public Service and are senior enough will now be comforted by the precedent that their victim can be paid off—with public funds, taxpayers’ money—and maybe even bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement. Precedent is a powerful thing in a country where the effective law is what you can get away with.
Those whose victim(s) work(s) in a State enterprise or at a company where the GoRTT is a major shareholder will be comforted by the precedent that the company might spend more than TT$3.5m to defend the harasser, especially if (s)he is Chairman. And there is always the additional possibility that someone will orchestrate the firing of the victim, who dared to become a complainant.
All of that notwithstanding, if there is legislation and a clear policy, that will create the opening for a free and frank national conversation that can clarify expectations and define expected behaviours. It will also provide many of us women with the psychological security and the peace of mind that come from knowing that, even if we can’t avoid future face-to-face encounters with the worse kind of predator, someone in authority has our back.
Finally, it will help men and women refine the language needed to compliment without offending.
But the recent announcement by Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy simply does not inspire confidence that either satisfactory legislation or satisfactory policy will emerge soon. What I have seen of the document out of which, I assume, the announced policy is to come simply does not pass muster.
Here is a sampling of the gobbledegook that is currently floating around:
- “Various support services such as the Employee Assistance Programme are available for victims or complainants.”
- “National Policy on Gender and Development has been laid in the Parliament as a Green Paper for further comment.”
- ‘The policy document clearly highlighted the importance of the development of a Gender Just Society to attaining our Vision 2030 goals.”
- “Sexual harassment could lead to a hostile work environment and can make the victim feel humiliated or intimidated. Therefore, all employees must conduct themselves in an appropriate manner.”
Really, Madam Minister? Do you really think that stuff will cut it? I say that it won’t. I say generously that we would need all the refining capability of Petrotrin, Petrobras and PDVSA combined—and then some!—to be able to begin to transform that anodyne stuff into anything with the kind of oomph we shall need if we are to slow the advance of this sexual harassment juggernaut.
So if the Minister wishes us to take her announcement about action on sexual harassment seriously, her first step has to be advising her Cabinet colleagues to remove the Chairman of Angostura. She can do that tomorrow.
Tomorrow will be too soon to move against the former minister of sport and youth affairs, who must still benefit from the presumption of innocence. But once the all-female committee has reported and the facts are in the public domain, if the ex-minister’s name is not cleared, the Minister of Gender Affairs must throw the book at him. Publicly.
That is how we shall know that she means business, not merely because she announces that legislation is coming; talk, particularly in politics, remains cheap.
I also invite the Minister to keep both the former minister of sport and youth affairs and the Government-appointed chairman firmly in her sights and ask herself the following questions: What protection do alleged victims currently enjoy? What is likely to happen if an alleged victim goes to the Equal Opportunities Commission for redress? What are the resources an alleged victim must have at his/her disposal in order to be able to put up any kind of fight against the GoRTT, which has such a vast quantity of resources?
But the real question that the Minister must answer to give context to any talk about legislation is this: Are there any laws that will help if Government is going to use taxpayers’ money to fight taxpaying citizens and/or pay off victims?