IN less than six months after the kidnapping and murder of court clerk Andrea Bharatt, 23, both Houses of Parliament acceded to a public outcry to do more to protect women as the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to allow members of the public to use pepper spray for personal protection.
Following the lead of the Senate last month, the House unanimously passed the Firearms (Amendment) Bill 2021, piloted by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi who hoped it would give the vulnerable “a fighting chance” against predatory criminals.
The House passed the bill without amendment from the Senate and without any need for proclamation by the President of the Republic.
The abduction of Bharatt, on the heels of the murder of schoolgirl Ashanti Riley the month before, triggered a wave of national angst and prayers, with even the Prime Minister publicly imploring anyone knowing of her whereabouts to tell the police so as to find her. Alas, it was not to be.
Bharatt, who vanished after entering a taxi in Arima with a friend on January 29, was found dead down a precipice in Aripo on February 4. Her fate eerily echoed that of Riley who disappeared after entering a taxi on November 29, only to be found dead on December 4 in a bushy area of Santa Cruz.
The two women’s deaths prompted national outrage and mourning, plus calls for women to be allowed to be safe.
At a march through Port of Spain held by women’s groups the rallying cry was “Walk free!” a call for women not to have to be told to live carefully but rather for a curb on male predation.
Alternatively, nightly vigils organised by the Candle Light Movement (CLM) at the Red House and other venues called for specific measures to empower women, including access to pepper spray plus the regulation of PH cars, private cars which informally offer taxi services.
The nation embraced Bharatt and Riley as its two lost daughters and vowed no more must succumb.
The result was the passage of the bill to allow adults of good character to apply to the police for a licence to own a pepper spray device for their protection.
Al-Rawi told the House there was no unanimous view globally on the use of pepper spray which some countries have allowed but others banned.
He listed new laws and judicial processes recently enacted to protect the vulnerable and said he was now taking forward pepper spray legislation following calls by various organisations.
Al-Rawi said, in the past five years, Trinidad and Tobago had 2,537 reports of rape and sexual assault.
He described how pepper spray worked.
“It is designed to cause a disruption to the eyes, to breathing, to breathing, so that you have a fighting chance but this weapon in the wrong hands has been the balance we have had to achieve.” He warned the device could be used as an offensive weapon in the wrong hands.
“We have to also decide how it is best delivered into the care and custody of people lest we end up in the Denmark experience which gave pepper spray then promptly took it away because criminals ended up being the persons who used it more than the victims.”
Al-Rawi explained the bill, namely the application, permitting, and dispensing processes; eligibility and prohibition of of individuals; and the establishment of a TT pepper spray register, similar to the TT Firearm Users Register.
Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy said children 16 years and older could become crime victims when going to school or work and so should be allowed to use pepper spray. However she also urged people to behave well in their daily lives as a way to curb crime.
“In TT we need to do the right thing. We need to hold each other and our sons and daughters accountable.
“We have to change our mindset, we have to do what is right. What is required is not only legislation but for us to change our mindset.”
Reflecting on the passing of the bill, Andrea Bharatt’s father Randolph Bharatt, contacted by Newsday, said he was glad it had been passed.
“I am glad, once it’s doing something that could help people, I glad. I’m happy with that.”
(With reporting by Paula Lindo)