Youth MPs call for tougher laws to deal with ‘sextortion’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Opposition leader and MP for Siparia Renee Atwell contributes to debate on a motion to introduce legislation within 12 months to make sextortion a criminal offence during the Women Parliamentarians of TT, Young Women Empowered to Serve (YES) Leadership Programme mock debate at the Red House, Port of Spain, on July 9.

FEMALE “youth MPs” in the guise the government and opposition on June 9 unanimously called for a tough new law to prohibit and punish the sexual exploitation of women in jobs and other situations, abuses collectively known as sextortion.

The event was held in the Red House chamber by the group Women Parliamentarians of TT, under its Young Women Empowered to Serve (YES) Leadership programme.

Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George was present to congratulate participants afterwards. On the chamber floor to view proceedings was Deputy Speaker Esmond Forde and Senate President Nigel de Freitas. In the public gallery sat Tabaquite MP Anita Haynes-Alleyne, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadbsy-Dolly, Senator Hazel Thompson-Ahye and former MPs Hazel Manning, Ramona Ramdial, Sophia Chote, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Tina Gronlund-Nunez, Christine Sahadeo and Joan Yuille-Williams.

Renee Atwell, as opposition leader, moved the motion, lamenting sextortion as the abuse of power to get a sexual benefit.

The motion said sextortion deprived women of jobs; promotions; and access to public utilities, social services, and financial and social opportunities, if refusing to render sexual favours. Sextortion can inflict tremendous psychological harm on victims coerced to give sexual favours for a benefit.

Saying anti-corruption laws do not cover sextortion and Trinidad and Tobago has no laws against sexual harassment/sextortion, the motion said, “Be it resolved that legislation be introduced within 12 months to make sextortion a criminal offence.”

Atwell cited Transparency International to reveal one in five citizens in the region and 19 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago have either experienced sextortion or know someone who has.

The sitting of Young Women Empowered to Serve (YES) mentorship programme at the Red House, Port of Spain, on July 9. – Photo by Roger Jacob

She said, “Sextortion is an everyday reality of women and girls.”

She lamented a “cultural normalisation” of this abuse, and alleged the government had failed to put measures in places to protect TrTo’s females.

Atwell asked aloud how many more women and girls must endure sextortion, or have their careers derailed and lives destroyed.

“We are calling on the government to make sextortion a criminal offence within 12 months.”

She lamented that an immigration officer has a list of criteria to issue visas for migrants but might instead request sex. “That is what we are saying is prevalent in TT.”

Atwell called for a sextortion law by saying sexual abuse is now prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act and corruption under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

“But sextortion combines these two elements (sexual abuse and corruption).

“That is why we are calling on the government to implement a unique kind of legislation, a standalone legislation, to deal with this issue.”

While sextortion does not only affect women and girls, it disproportionately affects females, thereby reinforcing gender power imbalances and systemic inequality, she said.

“When you have threats of extortion happening, what you are seeing is that this will deter women and girls from wanting to take part in education, from wanting to get jobs, from wanting to take part in public life.” Atwell lamented sextortion curbs women’s participation and gender equity.

She said the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women urged states like TT to enact laws against gender discrimination.

Atwell said sextortion breaches people’s rights under the Constitution, namely the rights to security of the person, privacy of family life and equal treatment by public authorities.

“How many more women and girls must suffer before they decide to implement legislation to deal with this issue? I beg to move.”

Andiesa Weste, as the attorney general, responded, relating the list of females whom the government has appointed to high office up to the level of president of the republic.

While boasting that the real-life government had brought a Sexual Offences Bill to penalise voyeurism, she said the real-life Opposition had recently opposed the Whistleblower Protection Bill, raising questions about their commitment to curb corruption.

Vowing to bring a sextortion bill within 12 months, she hoped the opposition MPs would recall their fancy speeches from this sitting and support the bill.

She said TT’s sexual offence and corruption bills alone each don’t cover sextortion.

“The International Association of Women Judges as well as the International Bar Association recommended bespoke legislation on sextortion.

“It is on that note that we the government see the need to identify the target, identify the impact and identify the way forward.”

Vowing to review laws in Peru, Chile and India, she promised to bring a comprehensive sextortion bill.

Past women parliamentarians, from left, Hazel Manning, Tina Gronlund-Nunez, Christine Sahadeo and Joan Yuille-Williams seated in the public gallery during the July 9 debate. – Photo by Roger Jacob

Weste said female victims of sextortion included socially vulnerable women, migrants, children and tertiary level students. Citing Transparency International, she said sextortion could also include gender non-conforming individuals, transgender people, children and men.

She lamented victims face social stigmatisation, revictimisation and victim blaming.

Weste promised further research by consulting local NGOs such as the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD). Sensitivity training on sextortion would be provided to the judiciary, police and attorneys, she added.

Caroni East MP Malena Mohammed said sextortion could be not only direct, but also indirect, such as a prison officer demanding sexual favours from a relative wishing to send medicine to an ill prisoner. She urged a new bill to plug gaps in the law that allowed perpetrators to continue to abuse victims.

Government MP for Tunapuna Jochelle Lootawan lamented hearing dialogues in maxi taxi suggesting people accepted sextortion as a reality.

“The maxi taxi driver and the passenger then laughed and dismissed the ordeal, saying, ‘Well, ain’t you know the only way for women to move up in the business is to sleep with the boss? All of them doing it.”

Princes Town MP Resheda Ramkhelawan lamented the alleged rape of a Venezuelan woman by a Coast Guard officer at the migrant detention centre at the Heliport, Chaguaramas, in June 2023. It was a stain on the security forces, a breach of the UN Refugee Convention, and a breach of trust of vulnerable individuals.