27 February 2019
Last week, a senior member of St Helenian society was found guilty of sexual assault and attempted rape for which he received a custodial sentence. His actions spanned a period of 18 years. He was tried by a jury of St Helena residents. Like many others who expressed a view, I believe this is a water-shed moment for St Helena.
One of my responsibilities as Governor under the Constitution is the administration of justice and I think this moment proves St Helena’s justice system is working, and working well. It seems to me that there were a number of elements which came together, namely three women with immense courage and who were willing to speak up, a strong sense of civic responsibility in the men and women in the jury, and an effective police and judicial system. This was set against a global backdrop of increasing intolerance to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
As the trial approached, I listened to public comment about it. This is my take on the mood on the Island. It’s very much a personal view.
The first thing I noticed is that the case sparked a debate about what sexual assault and sexual harassment is. I’ve heard it said ‘that’s how things were back then’ or ‘it was probably only a hug’ or ‘a friendly touch’. It seems to me it is quite difficult to know what sexual assault and sexual harassment looks like, and to identify the difference. However, the definition for me is that sexual assault is touching that is unwanted and of a sexual nature. And sexual harassment is unwelcomed sexual attention (personal questions, suggestive comments, and persistent unwarranted advances).
The next observation I had was, once people started talking about it, there was surprise about how prevalent sexual harassment might be in St Helenian society….balanced with no surprise at all for others. I heard comments like ‘it’s been going on for years like this on St Helena’ versus others who said ‘that can’t be true’ or ‘that doesn’t happen here’. What seems clear is that one of the great difficulties of sexual harassment – here and worldwide – is the silence that surrounds it. Perhaps St Helena does buck the global trend. I don’t know. But around the world, while men also experience this too, we know that most of the world’s women have experienced sexual harassment in their life time. Indeed three quarters of the women in the world (which is about 2 billion women) aged 18 years and older, have been sexually harassed according to surveys. If that statistic was applied to St Helena this would mean approximately 1,800 women have experienced some form of sexual behaviour that was unwelcomed and made them feel uncomfortable. The figures for sexual assault are equally astounding. 35% of women across the world have experienced this.
The next comment I heard is why have these issues come up now or are being taken seriously now. I think the global context is important here. In the UK, the convictions of Rolf Harris and the like shocked society. Similarly in America, women came forward to allege they had been assaulted by Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. The more women who came forward, the more others also said it had happened to them. There was security in numbers which led many women to break their silence. On St Helena, however remote we are, these cases have raised the profile and awareness of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. It has also shown that it is possible to challenge those who were thought to be untouchable in society. I believe this global background, together with better ways to collect evidence and stronger policing and judicial systems produced a solid verdict in this case as well as the other case which appeared before the court at the same time of indecent assault of a child.
Finally, there were comments made about the women. I heard nothing but support for these women. Words like ‘brave’ were used a lot in talking about them. More often than not, in these sorts of situations, women will never tell anyone about what happened. Instead they will avoid the person who did it to them. They will down-play how serious it was or try to ignore it, forget it, or put it at the back of their mind. Even if they do reveal it, they feel ashamed and often presume it was their fault. I think the women who gave their accounts in court were more than brave. They have opened up the path for more people to talk about what has happened to them. They have shown that people will be believed and that St Helena is a society in which, however long ago, or however recently, something happened, and whoever did it, it is possible to go some way towards putting a wrong, right. We owe these women a debt of gratitude, our love, and our support.
Finally, what next? I have asked SHG to review its sexual harassment policies to see what can be done to shift the burden of responsibility more away from the victim, whether they are a man or woman. I encourage other employers to do the same. For example, I would like to see a responsibility – even an obligation – on anyone who witnesses what they deem to be sexual harassment at work, to report it. I would like to see a debate about whether this obligation should also be put into legislation. I would like LegCo to prioritise updating our legislation in these areas. I also encourage more women and men to have confidence to report sexual assault and sexual harassment to the police, and/or their employer, whenever it happened. The police have a confidential email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can call Safeguarding on: 23312.
For myself, I will re-double my efforts to make sure I treat everyone with respect. I will remember that each person who has been through a sexual assault and harassment has had an experience which is individual to them. They are likely to have experienced stress, anxiety, shame, and any number of other feelings. I will remember that this damages not only themselves but also relationships, families, society, and generations. I will remember that even though the experience cannot be erased, there can be justice and it is possible for others not to have to go through the same thing.
Governor Lisa Honan
27 February 2019