Sexual Harassment Act is an important step with some shortcomings

Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hon. Olivia Grange
Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hon. Olivia Grange (Photo credit: Donald de la Haye, courtesy of Jamaica Information Service)

The Sexual Harassment [Protection and Prevention] Act, 2021 is a milestone for Jamaica in its legal protections against sexual harassment, however, the Act fails to address street harassment.

Women’s rights organisation, WeChange, says the Sexual Harassment Act does not protect against street harassment, and thus reflects a shortcoming in the legislation. The Act was passed on 13 July and aimed at providing protection for both men and women, against sexual harassment, in various institutions.

“I think a big shortcoming of the Act is that it does not protect against street harassment, so it’s limited to institutions,” says Tajna Lee Shield, advocacy and communications officer at WeChange. Shields notes that there are also limitations in the way ‘institutions’ are defined in the act, and so does not provide the range of protection that is needed in a sexual harassment act. “Institutions should include prisons, it should include children’s homes, it should include other places where people access services,” said Shields.

The Sexual Harassment Act describes institutions as including, “(a) a school, college, university and other places of learning or training; (b) a correctional institution or lock-up within the meaning of section 2 of the Corrections Act; (c) a place of safety within the meaning of section 2 of the Child Care and Protection Act or any other place for the custody of minors; (d) a nursing home within the meaning of section 2 of the Nursing Homes Registration Act or any other place for the custody of the elderly; (e) a medical facility and psychiatric facility; (f) a place for the use of any facility by members of any organization; and (g) such other place or facility as the Minister may, by order published in the Gazette, designate as an institution for the purpose of this Act.”


Professor Opal Palmer Adisa, Director of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies (IGDS), also agreed that there were some gaps in the protection provided by the Act. “There are a couple of things… street harassment, and of course we had worked with Shirley Pryce (president of the Jamaica Household Union) because we wanted to ensure that domestic workers were covered,” said Adisa. She noted that she had sent a letter to the Prime Minister to advocate for the inclusion of domestic workers in the Act. She added that social class plays an important issue in the exclusion of domestic workers from the bill. “Even though all of the people who are voting have domestic workers, we tend to be left advocating for people at the bottom. Unfortunately, that is how our society is… it’s a class issue,” said Adisa.

“Many domestic workers say they’ve also been abused, or sexually abused by other men who visit the home, so we wanted to make sure that was covered but it was not, just like the issue of street harassment,” added Adisa.

Adisa shared that the inclusion of street harassment was also important in the bill. “We do a programme in schools in which we talk to students, and one of the things that the students tell me about is the sexual harassment that they encounter on the street. And I remember that from when I was a teenager,” said Adisa. She shared that as a teenager, she interviewed 40 women and street harassment was something they had all experienced.

However, Adisa says while there was always work to be done, she was pleased with the Act. The Institute for Gender & Development Studies had been asked to make recommendations for the Act and had collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to make those recommendations. “So, overall, I am very pleased, there are areas that were not fully addressed but I think having the bill passed, because it has been lingering for almost 15 years, is an amazing and important step. In due course other amendments can be made,” said Adisa.

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