Members of local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) gathered in Kingston, on Wednesday May 11 to discuss the implications for Jamaicans, including members of different vulnerable population groups, as the country takes steps to amend its constitution. The session was convened by Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) in collaboration with Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC), National Integrity Action (NIA) and the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP). The discussions were aimed at gaining civil society consensus on key areas the constitutional reform committee must address and those where the amendment is starkly opposed.
The primary objectives of the event were: (1) to have discussions about the general expectations of Jamaica’s constitutional reform committee, and (2) understand the areas of focus for constitutional reform and the implications for human rights.
In explaining the need for the consultation, Executive Director at Jamaicans for Justice Mickel Jackson says bringing CSO stakeholders together now, to discuss the issue is important. “When we look at the role civil society organizations play, it is quite critical. Civil society must ensure that it holds the government accountable on the (constitutional reform) process, in terms of making our recommendations on things that are perhaps not very popular, and on things that governments perhaps would not have the political will to advance. So, we (have to) push the envelope and make our asks on behalf of the groups that we represent,” she noted
The Constitutional Reform Committee which was assembled by the government has already started deliberations; made a few recommendations to Cabinet and has had at least one town hall session so far. It is not clear how expansive these consultations will be. As such, Ms. Jackson noted that CSOs must also play a critical role in ensuring that the constitutional reform process is transparent. “The role that civil society also plays in terms of accountability and transparency from the process is to ensure that the constituents we represent are informed on the issues. Where possible, we engage them, seek their feedback and then we represent their feedback,” she pointed out.
Meanwhile Eve for Life’s Director of Development and Training, Joy Crawford, noted that it was critical for her organization to be a part of the conversation. “The conversation around constitutional reform and civil society is very important, particularly for Eve for Life as an NGO which serves vulnerable populations of girls. One particular issue for us is around sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls, which in Jamaica has several nuances. One of the key things that we’ve been advocating for around their sexual health, is for them to have access to safe and legal abortions when rape occurs and in cases of incest. This particular issue has been very difficult to navigate when it comes to Jamaican laws and where their rights to their sexual and reproductive health and their decision making power as women and young girls are concerned, as entrenched in the Jamaican constitution. So a conversation like this is very important for us,” she said. The Eve for Life Director added that she hoped with enough advocacy, CSOs can impact the decisions of the constitutional reform committee. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve already heard in the public arena that this (constitutional reform) process will not entertain the issue around abortion. We’re hoping that that can change with advocacy and public dialogue. So being involved at this level and as we move forward is extremely crucial. We don’t want to have the lives of our people just left up to the willy nilly of administrations. Considering the fact as well that constitutional reform will govern over a long period of time, it’s not just this generation but the next, we want to have a say in that. So we welcome the opportunity,” she argued.
Meanwhile CVC’s Executive Director Ivan Cruickshank in framing the discussion about human rights in the constitutional reform process, said facilitating dialogue among local CSOs will help to ensure that critical advocacy steps are taken to represent the interests of vulnerable population groups. “We want a seat at the table to represent the views of the members of the vulnerable population groups we serve. We want a constitution that is as inclusive as possible and one that helps to prevent stigma and discrimination against our constituents. The only way to do this is to make representation on their behalf, and as CSOs we have a responsibility to them to make sure that their voices are heard and their views are at least considered by the constitutional reform committee. So this meeting which brought CSOs together was very important as it allowed us to analyze the constitutional reform process and discuss, in a frank and open way, what steps need to be taken to get our voices heard,” he said.
In the meantime, concerns are being raised about the swift pace of the reform and the relatively short period in which the overhaul is being undertaken. “The agenda at the moment as laid out is wrong. I’d want to think that if you are going to do something that hasn’t been done for sixty years and then to have it last for another sixty years, it really could not be done in less than 12 months at least, and that’s concerning. Understand as well that people understand information at different levels and different pace so if you really want everybody in Jamaica, and particularly for a lot of our clients who are teenage mothers who didn’t pass secondary level education, they might be left behind if the process is too fast or complex,” Joy Crawford argued.
Mickel Jackson agreed saying, “We’re going to be asking that the constitutional reform committee relook at the timeline they have established and ensure that that timeline transcends an election cycle and is one that the opposition can agree to in principle. And if the opposition were to win the next election at least that process would continue without being tied to an election outcome. We also want to ensure that there’s a rethinking of the public education process, where IEC materials, short videos and so on are developed so that the average Jamaican citizen can understand.”
It was agreed that the various CSO groups will take steps to inform and educate their constituents about the Jamaican constitutional reform process. Participants also agreed to continue the dialogue and to have subsequent meetings to ensure that as a group they are prepared and equipped to make relevant representation on behalf of members of the groups they serve.