Assuming the accuracy of the statistics provided (in another section of the media on 10/1/17), Demerara High Court trials are in a state of serious dysfunction. Of the 167 cases listed on the docket only 28 cases made it to trial of which six ended in a jury verdict. Of the six, one murder and one rape case ended in conviction with the jury returning not guilty verdicts in the other four. The rest of the cases reaching court were disposed of administratively, either by changing pleas from murder to manslaughter (7), formally stopped by the Judge (5), withdrawn by the Director of Public Prosecutions (8) and withdrawals by complainants (2).
The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) is particularly concerned that of the 17 sexual offences/rape trials, 10 were withdrawn either because the complainant could not be found or had informed the court they were not pursuing the matter. This speaks to inordinate delays in High Court trials exposing victims to a variety of stressful experiences involving police, families of the accused, or simply moving on with life.
The disturbing story behind these statistics is that women’s access to justice in the most vital area of their lives, namely bodily integrity, is diminishing. Greater awareness of sexual violence, improving counselling services and better vigilance over young children of both sexes mean little if not backed up by legal action. The speed at which reforms of Sexual Offences laws and procedures are implemented lags far behind the forces encouraging violence.
Lessening of legal protection is the local reflection of global trends. Readily-accessed fantasies of pornography and lewd music are encouraging a male demeanour of dominance. This hostility is most readily evident in what women endure for expressing themselves on the internet or in social media settings and is manifest also in the rolling back globally of legal protection on reproductive rights.
In a widely-quoted study issued in 2005 as the first in a three-part series undertaken by the GHRA, it was revealed that conviction rates in sexual offences cases was less than 1% of all reported cases. The study also indicated that the chances of a conviction rose substantially – to almost 50% – if the cases actually made it to a High Court trial. The experience of the last Assizes indicate this is no longer the case and that the situation has worsened substantially to less than 20% of high court cases reaching a conviction. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the campaign initiated in 2005 which achieved fundamental renovation of the Sexual Offences Act remains far from ensuring justice for female survivors of sexual violence.
The habit of looking backwards to proclaim how far women have progressed is a well-honed technique to disarm women’s rights activism. The more appropriate human rights stance, however, is to look forward to ask how long will we tolerate the systematic and pervasive abuse of women that constitutes the most serious of any human rights challenge across the globe.
More specific to the legal system, when will the experience of taking sexual offences to court become more intimidating to perpetrators than it is to survivors? Despite female appointment to high office the judicial process continues to be steeped in chauvinism more likely to re-victimize survivors than punish perpetrators. Juries, unschooled in legal niceties for example, feed off the dominant culture and are quick to identify with demeaning attitudes too frequently communicated by legal professionals. Recent harrowing newspaper accounts of what victims experience in their own villages following ‘not guilty’ verdict are sufficient to attest to this.
Changing the judicial culture with respect to rights of women is not simply a matter for Judges. It imposes obligations on all actors in the justice system, both male and female, the private Bar, Prosecution Services and the Guyana Police Force. It also challenges the complacent permissiveness across the society with regard to sexual explicitness in films, music and uncensored access to the internet by immature people.
Guyana Human Rights Association