Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Editorial | Learning from The Bahamas

Published:Sunday | June 12, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Jamaicans, even those concerned with matters relating to gender equality, paid almost no attention to last week's referendum in The Bahamas and its astonishing outcome.

Yet, what transpired holds lessons about how, in a polarised environment, people can be enticed to sublimate their best interests in favour of partisan concerns. It is a matter to which we would advise Prime Minister Andrew Holness to give thoughtful consideration if he is serious about the constitutional plebiscite his Government has on its legislative agenda.

What happened in The Bahamas is that Bahamians, for the second time in 14 years, rejected proposed changes to their country's constitution that would give women the same rights as men in the transference of citizenship to their spouses and children, especially those born outside the country. They also defeated a proposal to add sex, as in gender, to the list of grounds on which it would be unconstitutional to discriminate against people.

Such rights are well established in Jamaica.

In the case of The Bahamas, a foreign wife of a Bahamian man has the right to citizenship, without having to renounce her nationality. Yet, there is no automatic path to citizenship for the husbands of Bahamian women. And if the man becomes a citizen he has to renounce his original nationality. Additionally, a child born abroad in wedlock to a Bahamian father, once registered, is automatically entitled to citizenship at birth. In the case of an unmarried Bahamian woman, that child would have to wait until age 18, and before 21, to exercise a right to citizenship. Further, an unmarried Bahamian man can't pass his citizenship to his children born outside of the country, even if he proves paternity.

 

CASTING BALLOTS

 

It is these inequalities that most 21st-century societies - and especially one with 51 per cent of its population being female - would consider particularly abhorrent, that the proposed constitutional amendments were aimed at addressing, but rejected, it seems by up to 60 per cent of the electors who cast ballots. Women would be among those who voted 'No'.

But as is too often the case with referenda, this one was not only about the issues on the ballot. Many externalities were in play, including, many analysts believe, an opportunity to give a bloody nose to Perry Christie's Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government. So, while Hubert Minnis' Free National Movement pledged initially to campaign in favour of a 'yes' vote, it was less than enthusiastic in embracing the reform agenda.

In a way, the Opposition saw it as payback for 2002 when, as the government, it put a set of seemingly reasonable ideas - including removing gender discrimination from the constitution - to the people in a referendum, the PLP dithered after initially indicating support. There were, too, the religious fundamentalists who conjured supposedly moral frailties in these reforms, including, they claimed, that constitutional protection against discrimination based on sex could lead to same-sex marriage.

Mr Holness has proposed a referendum on removing the Queen as Jamaica's head of state, and for the governor general, as the Queen's representative, to be replaced by a ceremonial president. Having frustrated the previous administration's attempt to have the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica's final court, without going to a referendum that isn't required, he can expect attempts at payback. In that regard, the prime minister, if he's really intent on the changes, should quickly begin talks with the Opposition on the requisite issues and the trade-offs the Government may have to make.