“[…] For what it’s worth, [pepper spray] seems to be a best choice self-defence arsenal, particularly in the climate of impunity that prevails and where perpetrators rarely face justice.
“[…] Is the approval really T&T solution to this unbearable violence? At a minimum, it is a short-term necessary life-saving guard that must pave the way for longer-term redress—where that violence has evolved as habits rather than crimes…”
The following Letter to the Editor on the potential benefit of pepper spray to women in Trinidad and Tobago was submitted by Ula Nathai-Lutchman, former war crimes prosecutor for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, The Hague:
Pepper spray is now approved as a ‘device for safety’ in Trinidad and Tobago. For years, the spray was not generally permitted by the public. In fact, it was unlawful for a member of the public to have it.
The approval is a double-edged sword according to the Hon AG. He says this is because in the wrong hands it can be used against you but ‘we’ deserve a fighting chance.
The ‘we’ in this are women and girls to fend off human attackers that hang over them every single day. As matters stand, that is a tragedy and one which reflects a deep-set crisis in the society.
Pepper spray approval is a bold approach. For the wider Commonwealth Caribbean, it is illegal for one to have in their possession and use pepper spray. Not so in Jamaica since the Supreme Court ruling in 2011 (Future Services Ltd v AG) where the law permits the use of pepper sprays for personal protection, but individuals must obtain a licence.
In the face of the persistence of gender-based violence and such a litany of failed leaders to diminish its prevalence, pepper spray is a potential deterrent, convenient and effective non-lethal form of protection. The brutal honest truth is day in, day out, women in T&T are fighting the ‘war’ for staying alive.
In this 21st century, women ought to be living their fullest lives without fear. But in this society, part of a woman’s reality is the elusive ability to protect herself. Whilst a can of pepper spray appears ‘so simple’, it can be the ‘magic bullet’ that makes all the difference on the life-and-death terrain of violence against them.
The unintended consequence is that in the wrong hands, it can be a recipe for disaster. By their very nature pepper spray carries inherent risks.
We know it is extremely painful if it gets into the eyes causing severe pain and closure that incapacitates its victim. In the perpetrators’ hands therefore, that desired safety effect and impact disappears entirely; and the only thing you will achieve with it is to put yourself in a much more dangerous and vulnerable position.
Rather than for defensive purposes, it turns into an offensive weapon, and with that, the violence can escalate against you. But that argument has to be balanced with the very real issue of women’s safety in T&T, and their right to feel safe, whether in public or in private life.
Even when in the wrong hands where risks outweigh benefits, women do not have the luxury of choice to defend against and fend off violent encounters. For what it’s worth, it seems to be a best choice self-defence arsenal, particularly in the climate of impunity that prevails and where perpetrators rarely face justice.
For all of the women violently killed and assaulted who made headlines in the years gone, would being armed with pepper spray have saved them? It is a question we will never know the answer to.
Is the approval really T&T solution to this unbearable violence? At a minimum, it is a short-term necessary life-saving guard that must pave the way for longer-term redress—where that violence has evolved as habits rather than crimes.
Of course, pepper spray alone cannot solve T&T’s ills, but it can play an important and central role. Violence against women and girls is a global epidemic that preys on women and girls of all nations, of all cultures and it is growing.
Where then is pepper sprays legal?
It is almost completely banned in the UK. Its ownership, carry and use by common citizens is banned under Section 5(1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968. It is considered a firearm and carries the same penalties as carrying a gun does.
If you are caught with pepper spray or import it, you will face arrest and find yourself with a criminal record. It is also illegal in most parts of Australia. Contrast that with Europe where it is legal to buy certain formulas, in France, Spain, Italy for example. As for the US, freely available, no questions asked.
The laws for purchasing and/or to use pepper spray have to be tightly regulated. The process to obtain a licence must be extremely rigorous and emphasise that the use of it against any person generally constitutes assault.
Therein lies another unintended legal consequence for using pepper spray without that requisite legal approval. That is, a device which is ostensibly designed to help, can land you in a troublesome situation, facing criminal charges despite being a victim of a perpetrator with violent intentions.
Beyond the many actual and potential problems of pepper spray, life for women in T&T depends on it given violence against them shows no signs of abating. There is no other ‘magic bullet’ on the horizon yet.