‛Choose to challenge’, not just for a month but all year
This year, “I choose to challenge” was the theme of International Women’s Month. In the spirit of this, I have elected to challenge our government to work to improve the protection of women and others who are harassed and abused, and to ban the non-disclosure agreements that companies and people of power hide behind.
We don’t know to what degree the rates of abuse went up in Bermuda during the shelter-in-place period: the lack of baseline numbers — which, in itself, is suggestive of our government’s failure to pay attention — means that it is difficult to quantify the increase. But, nevertheless, we know that it went up.
We know that it went up because we know it rose in other countries around the world.
We know it went up because we know that abuse rates rose in Britain by 9 per cent during lockdown.
We know that it went up because, day in and day out, we have heard the stories of victims of abusers who felt that they had no relief, no escape from their torture.
In Bermuda, it costs a victim $250 to escape the pattern of abuse and feel protected
Abuse can be both verbal and physical; both emotional and sexual. It does not need to result in bruises, cut lips, and broken bones. Abuse can be rape, but it can also be mental and emotional torture.
Abuse — “a pattern of behaviour used by one partner to maintain power and control” — is hidden and insidious. It’s a corruption that is sneaky, slippery and often invisible. It is a subject rarely spoken about out loud, even within families. It is the hidden secret that no one talks about — until it is too late.
Two hundred and fifty dollars is the price that a victim of abuse will end up paying by the time the protection order is issued.
Two hundred and fifty dollars is the price for a victim to simply get the reassurance to know that their abuser can’t come near them.
The Centre Against Abuse helps to raise the money for women to receive these important protection orders, but this isn’t enough. It’s obscene that there is a price to pay for this simple and essential protection, and that the victim is forced to pay it.
I call on the Government to make it free of charge with no costs at all associated with it by covering the legal fees under legal aid.
A victim should not have to pay to get a protection order to ensure their safety. International Women’s Month may be over but I choose to challenge the Government of Bermuda to take action to change this.
Hiding behind NDAs
Harassment is the “unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated”.
Most women have heard the comments, the inside jokes, received the looks, but when do they cross the line to become harassment? When do the jokes, looks and comments turn into something more, becoming behaviour that is offensive?
The truth is that it is different for everyone, but when a woman comes forward with an accusation of harassment, why does the offender — individual or company — look to conceal the bad behaviour behind NDAs?
Non-disclosure agreements: that “magic” term is a slippery one. An NDA is a way for an individual to hide what they’ve done, or a company to suggest that they are OK with what was done, to passively condone the harassment by silencing any reference to it.
Rather than reprimanding, charging or firing the harasser, the company issues the victim with an NDA. But NDAs serve only to reinforce and normalise the bad behaviour, to sweep it under the carpet.
If we allow people in power to continue to hide behind a shield of an NDA, then we continue to allow the behaviour to persist.
Of course, NDAs don’t have to be about something bad. Businesses use them all the time to protect intellectual property and confidential business practices. But those aren’t the NDA’s that I’m talking about here.
Potential employees, particularly women, have the right to know, deserve to know, need to know, about any history of harassment at a company before becoming employed by them. We need to know about someone’s history of harassment before putting them in positions of power, such as in business, education, religion or in politics.
Actions, not words, lead to change
During International Women’s Month, I chose to challenge the Government to take action to ensure that NDAs relating to abuse and harassment of another person are banned in Bermuda.
Every case of abuse and harassment should be heard in the courts, where victims are not further victimised by the process, and following which a public record of what took place would exist.
We cannot allow those in power, particularly our politicians, to hide behind NDAs.
We deserve the right to have them recalled and taken out of their position of power, regardless of whether or not an election is called. We should not have to rely on a party leader to force them to step down.
I, like many women, watched the great and wonderful video that the Premier and his wife did for International Women’s Day. But videos are easy to make. Words without actions don’t lead to change. I challenge our premier to take action and to make real change in our government to protect women and to challenge the status quo.
Until the next International Women’s Month, I ask everyone to continue to challenge, continue to question and continue to demand better.
• Catherine Kempe is the chairwoman of the One Bermuda Alliance, a registered nurse case manager for a leading health insurance company, a wife and mother of two boys