Prime Minister Davis’s Contribution to Parliament on The Protection Against Violence Bill (2023) Debate

Madam Speaker:

Right now, not far at all from here, there is a mother doing her best to raise young children. 

She is trying her best to navigate the challenges that life brings, but she is struggling.

She is in trouble.

Because in addition to facing the usual trials and difficulties, she is a victim of domestic violence.

And what is so terrible, what is so tragic, is that we all know she is not alone.

There are so many more, just like her, across New Providence.

And throughout our country.

Too many.

Victims of domestic violence in our country have for too long faced a harsh reality. The powers that be have not always stepped up to protect them, or to protect their children.

Protection is what every Bahamian struggling to survive violence deserves – protection, and help – so that they may live free from the shadow of violence. Home should be a haven, a place to retreat – not a place of fear, or abuse. Such a simple hope – but one that has seemed out of reach for too many Bahamian women, children, and, yes, sometimes men, too.

Madam Speaker:

An epidemic of violence has been spreading, for far too long, throughout our communities.

Gun shots fired in the street may make the headlines, but behind closed doors, there is yet more violence.

And what is sickening, to tell you the truth, is that too many have become acclimated to violence.

For them it is so familiar, and so ordinary, that instead of condemning it, they shrug their shoulders.

There are those who are so indifferent to the immorality of abuse, who have strayed so far from decency, that they film acts of violence to be shared on social media for entertainment.

Madam Speaker:

Despite the best intentions of a network of NGOs, support care professionals, and activists, violence continues to plague our people.

As I rise today to open the debate on the Protection Against Violence Bill (2023), my heart is with those struggling to survive, as well as with the loved ones of those who, unfortunately, did not survive. I am thinking about all those who never had a chance to tell their stories – their heartbreaking silence speaks loudest of all.

There is no question that we can all do more. We must do more. To have it in our power to do more and not act would be immoral, inexcusable. And yet that has been the reality. For decades, concerned women and men have shared stories of families torn apart by violence and the need for society to step up and do more to protect victims of violence.

Today, we are putting in place a legal framework that represents important first steps to protect our people from violence and abuse. What we want is for people who now feel alone in their nightmare, to know that they can come forward. I want them to know that yes, your fellow Bahamians do care about your safety, and your dignity.

Madam Speaker:

These are the first steps, but they won’t be the last.

After the passage of this Bill, we will need to make a tremendous effort to generate and allocate resources, to hold training sessions, and to update our systems and processes to meet our goals.

We also acknowledge that we are dealing with entrenched views about violence that may take some time to change. In fact, some of those holding these views about violence work in law enforcement, healthcare, social services, and other places that survivors of violence rely on for support.

It is our hope that as we put in place new resources, and as we enforce this new law, that in our churches and in our communities there are heartfelt conversations happening about the need for empathy and support for those struggling to survive violence.

 Today, as we debate the contents of this Bill, what we have before us is the culmination of decades of advocacy, community work, activism, research, and systemic change that has allowed us to arrive at this point.

We are standing on the work of so many passionate Bahamian women and men, so many who stand in the gap and work without ceremony, without proper recognition, and often without adequate compensation commensurate with the value of the work they do each day.

They are national heroes.

I want to pause here, to acknowledge with gratitude the very important contribution of women’s groups who have advocated for progress.

They have raised awareness about the harm caused by cycles of violence. They have worked tirelessly for change.

I hope they can join us in celebrating progress, even while we acknowledge that more work lies ahead.

This Bill provides many elements of needed support – unprecedented actions taken by the government to prevent and respond to violence, protect victims of violence, and provide relevant support services.

We acknowledge the need for data collection and measurement across systems to standardise the inputs that inform the work we do to reduce violence and support survivors.

This Bill is not about imposing unnecessary bureaucracy or toothless policies onto existing structures. The focus is on taking action by coordinating efforts, standardising and enforcing standards, and providing targeted support to protect and uplift victims and survivors.

Madam Speaker:

The Protection Against Violence Bill (2023) allows for the establishment of the Protection Against Violence Commission, which will work with the responsible Minister to ensure that victims are treated with compassion and dignity and have access to justice without unnecessary delays and impediments.

The work of the Commission will inform policies, promote awareness of human rights, allocate resources for specialised services, promote education and sensitivity training, and promote programmes and policies that are gender-sensitive, equitable and lead toward greater gender equality and improved gender relations.

The proposed law is comprehensive and multi-sectoral, coordinating efforts and resources to promote education, improve standards and protocols for police investigations, review and reform all laws related to sexual and domestic violence and assess the effectiveness of measures to prevent and eradicate violence.

The Bill addresses the need for healthcare and other support to be given in safe, private, and comfortable environments. This should be the default approach by professionals in the field anyway, but now we are establishing it as a standard, because survivors of violence deserve dignity and respect.

The Commission will also contribute to guidelines for respectful media reporting. Once again, dignity and respect are paramount here.

What we seek to accomplish is a coordinated and integrated response across government, national institutions, and community organisations as we improve the quality of care and support services and take action to protect Bahamians, especially our women and children, who have gone without adequate support for far too long.

This legislation will serve as a turning point, Madam Speaker; it represents the point in which the government, rather than lagging behind civil society, is finally stepping up and putting the necessary resources behind this work in a way that only the government can. Not only will these measures have the force of the law behind them, they will have the resources and machinery of government behind them as well.

The composition of the commission reflects this fact. The Commission is comprised of representatives from the Ministries of Health, Local Government, Education, Science and Technology, the Attorney Genera’s Office and Legal Affairs, Youth, Sports, and Culture, as well as the Department of Social Services, the Commission, its Foundation, and Divisional Heads, as well as three other appointed stakeholders with active involvement on these issues.

We will compose a team capable of moving the machinery of government to tackle various facets of these issues.

The Commission will not only advise on policies, it will also oversee the implementation of a National Strategic Plan for Combatting and Responding to Violence.

The Commission will serve as the gathering point for collaboration and coordination of all stakeholders who work to combat and respond to violence.

This is critical.

For far too long, those who are passionate about this issue, whether in governmental departments or in NGOs, have mostly worked in silos. And while their passion drives  them to do the best they can, we know that we are strongest when we work together.

I believe there is no problem in this country so big that we cannot work together to solve.

Madam Speaker:

In keeping with our objective of creating action-based policies, the Commission will not just advise, it will have the capacity to appoint an advocate to provide support to victims of violence. This well-trained and experienced advocate will accompany victims for medical assistance, as well as to court hearings. Every step of the way, they will ensure that the dignity and respect we are striving for is preserved. Those who work on the frontlines providing services to victims and survivors of violence will be aware that the advocate is there to represent and fight for the rights of survivors.

The advocate is there to be the eyes, ears, and voice of the Commission and its mission to uphold this legislation and all of its objectives.

They will play a critical role in protecting and guiding those who step forward. This work will be supported by robust educational campaigns speaking to the process of coming forward, reporting violence, and all the requisite needed to receive support and justice. This includes very necessary education on the urgent need for cooperation in time-sensitive instances when the collection of viable evidence is critical.

The Commission will also keep the government abreast of the need to maintain an adequate number of shelters. Where there is consistent overflow, the Commission will have a direct line of access to the responsible Minister and other stakeholders who can take action.

As you may know, plans are underway for the construction of a new shelter to provide a safe haven for survivors of domestic violence. It has been a long time coming, and I know there are members of the community who want to see real progress on that initiative right now. The need is great. They don’t want to see the government dragging its feet when it comes to protecting women and children. We are moving aggressively on the shelter, and we will begin expediting necessary processes to ensure that it is operational as soon as is feasible. This is a major priority for us that will be initiated during this fiscal year.

The Protection Against Violence Commission will have direct access to funds to support community programmes and projects of support services providers. Standards will be established based on best practices for the funding of relevant organisations who are doing great work in our communities. We know that the government cannot do it all nor are we minded to reinvent the wheel when there are already passionate leaders doing amazing work in our communities right now.

It was very important that the Commission, as a dedicated group focused on this issue, would have the direct ability to drive change through funding. As I said, this is not a talking commission, this is an acting commission. While the research, policy and advisory work is essential to building a foundation, we know that access to resources is a major hurdle, and it would be a disservice to all involved to not go all- in on providing support.

Madam Speaker:

A major function of the Commission is to provide appropriate care and support services for survivors of violence, especially women, through public and private sector support. This includes access to shelters, counselling services, and care and custody support for any affected children.

The mobilisation of resources and the technical and systemic support necessary to facilitate this undertaking is critical to effective implementation. It would not have been enough for the Commission to simply engage in consultation or promote awareness of the need for these services. It has to play an active role in funding, coordination, support, and strategic development of services.

Our communities need safe spaces, survivors need support to recover and become self-sufficient again, and affected children need opportunities for social development, wellness support, and personal growth.

Our frontline service providers need education and sensitisation training. They need consistent communication and engagement on the changes and what is expected of them. This applies to police officers, social services staff, healthcare workers, those working in the justice system, and anyone else who works directly with survivors of violence.  

These efforts all fall under the responsibility of the Commission.

The work of the Commission is about providing immediate support and access to justice, and it is also about being there in the aftermath, because the need for care is ongoing and often requires long-term support.

Madam Speaker:

The work of the Commission will be funded by the government. But the Bill also allows for the establishment of the Protection Against Violence Foundation, which will be used to raise funds to support the Commission.

All activities will be in accordance with the Public Finance Management Act, the Public Debt Management Act, and the Public Procurement Act, inclusive of all reporting and transparency requirements.  This is not the case of an entity being rushed without proper controls like we may have seen with the previous administration.

Every dollar will be accounted for, because it is critical that all funds are used to maximise the amount of support we can give to those impacted by violence.

The Bill also includes the stipulation that the funds can never be used for the personal benefit of any directors, officers, or private persons.

Madam Speaker:

In addition to the Foundation, this Bill allows for the establishment of the Protection Against Violence Secretariat, the technical division of the Commission. The Secretariat will coordinate, formulate, publish and implement protocols and procedures, manage applications for funding and assistance, as well as oversee negotiations with regional and international bodies and assist the Commission with matters of importance.

The Commission will oversee the establishment of a Federation of Community Organisers Against Violences, which will be the apex body  for community organisations actively involved in providing care and support services to victims of violence.

This federation will be the glue tying all the various NGOs and other community organisers together and ensuring that their input plays a major role in the Commission’s work.

Madam Speaker:

When an act of violence occurs and is reported, it will typically lead to interactions with the justice system. We are aware that there are many people who lack the awareness of the necessary steps involved and feel confused, afraid, and ashamed to come forward. In addition to advocates, the Commission will engage legal services to assist with complaints, liaise with police investigators to ensure that they are upholding their obligations, and provide legal guidance as necessary throughout the process.

The legal element will play an even more important role with the introduction of a slate of protected rights under this Bill.

There will be  a Right To Be Treated With Compassion And Dignity, which means that every victim of violence has the right to be treated with compassion and dignity by EVERY person who comes in contact with them in a professional capacity. That applies to police officers, healthcare professionals, social services professionals, and all others who work on the frontlines providing professional or support and care services.

For affected members of the public, I want to make this clear: if you are not treated with compassion and dignity that will officially be an infringement on your rights under this law. Anyone who treats you with a lack of compassion or with indignity will be breaking the law.

You will have the right to be informed of your legal right to care, and support services and how to access them.

You will have the Right to Confidentiality from all people who provide any kind of relevant service or support to you, including members of the commission itself and persons acting on behalf of the Commission. That confidentiality will apply to your identity, the offender’s identity, the identity of witnesses, and the circumstances of the offence.

To infringe on this right will be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to one year of imprisonment, or both.

The same penalty applies to infringements on the Right to Privacy. There will be no publishing of reports except with leave of the court. And those publishing information must protect the identity of all parties.

Trust is such a critical element in empowering survivors of violence and encouraging others to step up. Through the establishment of these rights, we are taking the necessary steps to protect all parties involved.

Confidentiality is the root of care and helps to reduce the distrust and fear victims face. The safety and confidentiality of all parties involved will be an ongoing priority in the Commission’s work.

Under this Bill, members of the public, and in particular victims of violence, will enjoy access to a telephone hotline to offer support and direct assistance to victims of violence.

The Commission will be charged with publicising and educating the public on their rights, and widely promoting the telephone hotline to increase awareness and accessibility for members of the public.

Madam Speaker:

A major element of this Bill is focused on Procedures for the Making and Handling of Complaints, which allows those directly impacted by violence, as well as those with information about an act of violence, to make a formal complaint.

Any formal complaint will be made in-person to a police officer, which will be signed and dated inclusive of all relevant details. The officer is expected to produce a detailed written report of the allegation.

Any general data regarding age, gender, time, location, and nationality will be referred to the commission.

Police officers will be required by law to investigate such complaints, and in the course of that investigation will be expected to assist the victim with obtaining treatment, getting to a safe space, accompanying the victim to remove personal belongings, informing the victim of necessary details and procedures, including the importance of preserving and collecting evidence, and connecting them with the Protection Against Violence Commission.

There is an expectation that the objectives and intent of the legislation will be upheld.

I know there are many police officers who do their job to the best of their ability each day. Notwithstanding shortages in manpower and resources that often frustrate processes, there are those who approach each case before them with the seriousness it deserves. They take their duty to protect, serve, and secure justice very seriously. I applaud these officers for their service and encourage them to keep on serving as ambassadors for the professionalism and dedication emblematic of the Royal Bahamas Police Force.

However, we are all aware of the other side of the story. There are some who allow their biased and archaic views to get in the way of the execution of their duties. There are some who allow their frustrations and the stressors of the job to lead to subpar service. There are some whose attitudes and treatment of victims of violence are simply unacceptable and have no place in a modern police force.

I want to be clear, if any officer believes they may be among that potentially non-compliant group, I encourage them to submit to the training and sensitisation process and fully embrace what we are setting out to achieve with this law. Every officer is expected to uphold the law and protect the rights We are not playing when it comes to protecting our women, our children, and our men who fall victim to violence and the rules apply to everyone.

Madam Speaker:

In addition to general provisions relevant to all victims and survivors of violence, the Protection Against Violence Bill has provisions speaking specifically to sexual violence and abuse and expected related care and support services.

As a husband and father, I believe I speak for all Bahamian women and men when I say that sexual crimes are particularly heinous. We stand with survivors of sexual assault and we do so not just with our words but with our actions.

Survivors will now be supported in seeking urgent medical treatment, noting the responsibility to take urgent action to facilitate stronger investigations.

The Commission will be obligated to provide safe housing and shelter for women who are victims of sexual violence and any accompanying children.

The Commission will make any necessary accommodations for the arrangement of psychological, medical and legal assistance. There is also an obligation to provide safe spaces for victims in addition to age-appropriate counselling, group sessions, and alternative means of resolution and restorative justice.

There is an obligation to provide what the legislation terms “readjustment programmes,” which are essentially programmes to support recovery and the pursuit of a productive public, private, and social life.

It was very important for the Bill to directly support victims of sexual violence as a group that specifically requires support that is not always available in the way it needs to be. Thankfully, we are providing for those specific needs through this Bill.

We understand that escaping sexual and domestic violence is an act of bravery that is not only associated with a great deal of fear related to stepping forward but is also associated with financial and legal challenges that often leave survivors feeling trapped.

Through our efforts, we will provide more avenues for the safety and well-being of this population.

Madam Speaker:

In instances when violence results in death, the Violent Fatality Review team comprised of a retired Supreme Court Justice and representatives from Social Services, Public Health, and the Public Health Auhtority, in addition to two other appointees recommended by the Commission, will make recommendations to the Minister regarding potential legal changes based on their research and their review of closed cases.  The objective is not to respond to individual cases, but to take a big-picture view of the situation and provide recommendations to respond to identified trends in ways that are likely to directly address any emerging contributory issues through legislative and policy change or specific initiatives and actions. They will report to the commission on their findings, including the number of deaths by violence, the rate of women being killed, and other relevant data.

Madam Speaker:

The Bill before us addresses the needs of offenders, including the process for psychiatric recommendations and admittance into health facilities, as well as the provision of programmes to provide mental health support, advice, and promote self-discipline and improved decision-making.

Many people who commit violence are often victims of violence themselves. The work of the commission in this regard is not about making excuses or avoiding accountability but acknowledging the reality of crime: it is contagious and spreads from one person to the next. Even those guilty of committing violent acts need support. In fact, it is in our best interest to provide that support for the benefit of society. When we make the recidivism rate lower, we create a safer society for everyone.

Madam Speaker,

We intend to create a safer Bahamas by empowering survivors demonstrated through our commitment to protecting everyone who has fall victim to violence, especially women and children whose plights often go unaddressed.

Through the Protection Against Violence Bill (2023), we will establish a reliable and culturally relevant framework for all stakeholders to provide evidence-based interventions and support supported by the machinery of government.

This Bill breaks ground by responding to the nuanced, often overlooked realities of victims.

It takes into account how a general culture of violence, inclusive of gender-based violence, permeates society and directly responds to this issue by establishing standards, protecting rights, providing support, and supporting the work of the network of community organisations that save lives each and every day.

This Bill is about far more than just enacting or implementing a law. We will produce the kind of cultural and systemic change that truly makes a difference.

The government must now continue to lead by example and drive this change.

That mother and her children who experience violence can now live in this country knowing that protecting survivors is a major priority. They can live knowing that they are not alone, that there are people who care, because of real, accessible, accountable provisions supported by resources put into place for them to find help when they need it the most.

The Protection Against Violence Act (2023) is an important step, but it is just the beginning.

 We must work together across party lines, across cultural divides and throughout communities, churches, and NGOs to ensure the successful implementation of this monumental policy.

Thank you to the Office of the Attorney General, the Ministry of National Security, the Department of Gender Affairs, the Bahamas Crisis Centre and all others who played an instrumental role in bringing this legislation to fruition. It was at the request of Gender Affairs and the Crisis Centre that this Bill was broadened to include the protection of vulnerable men and children in recognition of the need to protect all Bahamians. 

Today marks the beginning of the next phase in our journey toward a safer Bahamas for everyone.