The tragic circumstances surrounding Andrea Bharatt’s abduction and murder have shone a light on our society’s sensibilities toward a number of issues.
And whilst our attitudes toward the value of women, the pursuit of justice, crime and punishment and scepticism of authority are by no means monolithic, the discourse surrounding this event has been revelatory in its rawness, and anger. An utter frustration seems to hang in the air and, for me, it is refreshing—because it means we still feel.
We are united in our outrage and there seems to be a real sense that something has to be done for real this time. This solidarity is inspirational.
At the same time, this raw anger has exposed an ugliness and bitterness in us that I am having a hard time grappling with. I want to comment on it, but will this focus on the suspicious deaths of Andrew Morris and Joel Belcon dishonour Andrea’s memory?
There is a fine line before a call for justice spills over into a thirst for vengeance. But on the flip side, will tempering righteous anger create apathy and blunt the impetus for change?
Maybe now is not the time to ponder such things. Or maybe I am afraid of being unnecessarily targeted by our nation’s Top Troll—erm, I mean Top Cop.
Whatever the reason, I have resolved to focus my energies instead on seeing where I can positively contribute to potential solutions to the gender-based violence (GBV) issue.
One short-term, actionable solution that seems to have gained currency across the population—no matter one’s ideological leaning—is the legalisation of civilian access to pepper spray. By no means a silver bullet, but a common-sense measure that seems fairly uncomplicated.
Consistent advocacy by civil groups across the political spectrum resulted in an accelerated reconsideration of this measure by the Cabinet and a commitment by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley that the regulations for its use and sale would be drafted with alacrity. Score one for democracy and the power of the people to put politicians to work!
However it remains to be seen what these regulations entail, and this will be the true measure of the policy’s effectiveness.
A consistent theme of my writings has been that our political class lacks imagination and its policies are copied and pasted in from other jurisdictions, with little thought toward adapting them toward our local cultural context or maximising their potential in addressing our problems in a holistic fashion.
I fear that this may be the fate for our pepper spray ambitions as well, resulting in a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective policy measure at best. Or, at worst, making our public realm even more unsafe and hostile for the most vulnerable.
As such, here are some humble suggestions for the ‘gods of Parliament’ to consider when approving regulations for its use. As always, constructive criticism of these ideas is more than welcome.
Pepper spray is a curious case. If we were to regulate it as strictly as say we do the legal firearm industry, it will never get into the hands of the persons who need it the most.
Too many hoops to jump through; an onerous, expensive bureaucratic process inaccessible to the ordinary travelling Jane Doe. Make the regulations too lax however and, combined with our capacity for corruption, access to this potentially lethal yet inexpensive self defence tool becomes a potential free-for-all.
Beyond hardened criminals, quite frankly it may be a bad idea for some ordinary ‘trigger happy’ citizens among us to have this device—and, more than likely, those same persons would be first in line.
So how then do we solve this quandary of prioritising the most vulnerable and preyed upon amongst us, while at the same time keeping it out of the hands of everyone else?
Well, what I see here is a unique opportunity to go beyond the mamaguy and empty gestures of sympathy, and actually empower women in a meaningful way. In short, the sale and regulation of pepper spray devices should be to women only.
In one fell swoop, you halve your potential applicant pool, yet importantly, still capture a majority of the citizens who genuinely need this intervention the most. All through a simple initial screening process—the eye test, in essence—that adds no further bureaucratic burden.
Of course, women should not be granted permits to carry pepper sprays by virtue of their gender alone. But the self-defence training required to properly administer pepper spray is nowhere as rigorous as that for the safe operation of a firearm.
Again here is an opportunity for our interventions to be specific and targeted. Youth and community centres all over the country are currently being outfitted with gym spaces through an IADB loan.
I am sure that between our Police and Defence Force, we can muster up an adequate pool of trainers. Why not have targeted training programmes in each community?
Again, these classes will be open to women only. Only upon satisfactory completion of the course and certification will anyone be granted a permit to purchase and carry pepper spray.
Imagine the enthusiasm you will engender among our sisters knowing that the government has engineered a programme specifically for their protection, which will help to somewhat level the physical playing field between the sexes.
Perhaps the sale of pepper spray can also be facilitated by the Police Service themselves, which will be an extremely useful additional stream of revenue. All pepper spray sold can have a unique identifier registered to a known person on the police database.
An army of women from all walks of life will no longer be the lowest hanging fruit when a criminal considers his next target.
So how do we keep pepper spray out of the hands of men under this new regime?
Criminal record or not, the penalty for a man in possession of this device must be harsh. Perhaps, at the discretion of the magistrate, a maximum sentence can be as harsh as the one for being in possession of an illegal firearm.
The message must be clear: we men have no business carrying pepper spray. If it is late at night and you are afraid for your life, travel with a woman for protection!
At the same time, ladies must remember that permission to carry pepper spray is a privilege. If your pepper spray is lost or stolen, it must be immediately reported, and depending on the circumstances of the case, upon further investigation, your permit may be revoked or worse.
The system described above is by no means perfect. But I think it maximises the potential benefit of introducing this measure into society, while at the same time minimising the potential risks.
Just because it has never been done quite like this elsewhere doesn’t automatically disqualify an idea or mean the approach is inherently flawed. Let us for once do something for us, and do it right.