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The Gavel: Time for gender-neutral laws

Published:Tuesday | May 5, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The tabling of the DNA Evidence Bill in Parliament must be seen as a positive step in the investigation of crimes and the administration of justice.

Now that the bill is before the House, after a protracted gestation period, one hopes that a joint select committee will be established forthwith to examine it before it is put on the table for debate. I will await the input of those more learned in criminal law, particularly, those appearing in front of the committee, before making any pronouncements on the extent to which it will achieve its objectives while not impinging on fundamental rights.

However, by the time those discussions would have taken place at the committee level, one hopes that the chief parliamentary counsel would have had sufficient time to use gender-neutral language in the bill before it is passed.


language is important


To borrow the words of former British MP Megg Munn, who, in 2007, said: "It may seem a small thing in one sense, but language is important."

This was 2007 when the House of Commons announced that it would be moving towards gender-neutral language in lawmaking. The House acknowledged that the use of male pronouns to apply to both sexes was potentially confusing and widely perceived as reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Locally, Jamaica's Senate deliberated on the same issue of gender-neutral laws and Justice Minister Mark Golding said gender-neutral language in bills brought to Parliament had become a "pretty fundamental issue".

At the time, Golding said that the chief parliamentary counsel was transitional and incorporating feminine terms. That was 2012.

However, an examination of the DNA bill gives a different picture. The male pronouns are dominant, if not exclusive. One would have to be forgiven, for example, for thinking that the offenders from whom DNA samples will be taken will be all male.

While it is true that males dominate the crime statistics and the prison population, it is important that gender neutrality not continue to be a substitute for women empowerment.

Although to some it may seem insignificant, the drafting of laws must reflect balance and fairness. We can ill-afford to tell an already marginalised male that the law is written primarily to keep you in check. The language used in our laws, especially new ones like the DNA bill, must send the same signal to both sexes.

Our advocates for gender balance in the society should join this call for equality on the law books. It could go a far way in convincing most of us that their existence is not solely the promotion of equality for women only.

Our society is riddled with enough negative energy radiating at the male species. These negativities come very early in life through subtle nursery rhymes and memory gems such as the one that says "little girls are made of sugar and spice and all that's nice" while little boys are made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails.

Countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa, as well as Britain, have moved in the direction of gender-neutral laws.


gender status quo


The DNA bill, while an effort is made to use the word 'person', instead of a gender-specific pronoun, betrays the extent to which drafting is done with the male viewed as the offender. For example, the section of the bill which creates the offences is replete with the phrase, "a person commits an offence if he ... ".

Another example can be found at Section 40 (4) A, which relates to the taking of DNA samples. This clause allows for the court to authorise the commissioner of police to cause a sample to be taken if "by the evidence of a registered medical practitioner that the unknown person is suffering from a serious illness, or has sustained a severe injury, by reason of which HE is unable to identify HIMSELF ...".

As it relates to taking samples for elimination purposes, which is used to determine whether a person was at a crime scene, the old gender status quo is again evident in the bill. The provision states that a sample shall be taken from any person if "HE consents, in writing, to have samples taken from HIM".

It seems that males are the subject of this new bill.

Aside from making bills gender neutral, the Government should seriously consider doing a version of all new bills in plain, simple English.

Note, I didn't say Patois, because in as much as I appreciate its place as a language, I am unconvinced that it is something that can be easily read. A Patios version would be confusing to those who are educated, let alone the illiterate members of the population.

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