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Women’s Day Feature: Hazel Thompson-Ahye

Photo source: Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago

Today, March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global observance celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It is also a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. This year’s theme is: Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow. The Catholic News features Hazel Thompson-Ahye, attorney-at-law, mediator, child rights advocate, Independent Senator and more.

Q. Who is Hazel Thompson-Ahye?

I am a wife, mother, grandmother, Independent Senator, lawyer, teacher, mediator, researcher, author, calypsonian, consultant, and restorative practices trainer, but my husband says I am the Energiser Bunny, and constantly reminds me that even the good Lord had a day of rest. I get a great deal of joy from nature. Every morning I feed a number of birds that congregate outside my bedroom window, and I love plants—foliage and flowers. I have to find time to replant my kitchen garden. I love the sea but hardly get a chance to enjoy it. My happiest childhood memories were of Easter and August vacations in Mayaro, where my mother was born. I love children and the elderly. I never knew any of my grandmothers, so I used to adopt my friends’ grandmothers. My godfather, Oswald Wilson, who lived close to where I was born in Petit Bourg, San Juan, was a lawyer and so, also, his elder brother, JB Wilson. They were my Dad’s first cousins and sister to my godmother and their other sister was my brother’s godmother and their other brother, Max Wilson, was my sister’s godfather. As the families were so close, so I knew about lawyers from an early age. My mother used to say that I was asking her barrister questions since I was four years old. I loved teaching and I still do, but I saw so many children in my class who were experiencing emotional problems that I wanted to be a guidance counsellor. In the 1970s I met two persons in the legal field, the late Justice Aeneas Wills, and Mr Hamilton Johnson, then a judge in the Industrial Court, who both strongly suggested that I should study law. I applied for a scholarship in social work as it was expensive to go to Jamaica. I also applied to the Faculty of Law. I got the acceptance letter on the same date that my novena to St Jude ended, so I decided that my fate was sealed.

I was also thinking of studying theatre arts, but my godmother told me to keep that as a hobby. I won a motorcycle on Scouting for Talent many years ago for acting and was a member of Derek Walcott’s Theatre Workshop and later Players Workshop on campus, where I acted as Jestina in Lovelace’s ‘Jestina’s Calypso’. I also acted on stage in Barbados when I was studying there.

Q. You began as a teacher. What made you decide to switch career paths and pursue law?

I attended Mausica Teachers’ College right after I left Holy Name Convent. I did Advanced Levels while I was teaching. When I decided to leave teaching to do law, I remember a school supervisor, Phyllis Mitchell, and the principal of Sacred Heart Boys’ RC School, Vernon Mitchell, who was my Principal at Mayaro RC, where I had my first teaching appointment after Mausica, tried to persuade me to reconsider my decision. They told me that I was a natural teacher and badly needed in the profession. Little did I know that one day, I would return to teaching lawyers at two Caribbean law schools. I graduated from Hugh Wooding Law School in 1982 and was in private practice with Wilson & Co, when a dear friend encouraged me to apply to the Hugh Wooding Law School. I was already an Associate Tutor there and was offered the job as Director of the Legal Aid Clinic in 1988. It was a very challenging position, but I met all the challenges and after my first contract, I was granted tenure. I remained there for 14 years, then went to the Eugene Dupuch Law School in The Bahamas where I spent ten years. While there, I received an award for outstanding service to the Council of Legal Education. I enjoyed all my years of teaching law students. I loved my students and am very proud of them. Shortly before I left the Bahamas, I was at a party and a lawyer, whose son I had taught, told the gathering that, “Mrs Thompson-Ahye’s students think that she walks on water.” It was the first time I had heard that expression. I have kept all the beautiful ‘thank you’ letters written to me by my past students over the years. Some of them are on the Bench, some in parliaments around the region as Attorneys-General, or other Ministers. Others are Senior or Queen’s Counsel (QC) and one is a Chief Justice. I returned to teaching at law school a few years ago and finally left in 2019.

ON RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

Q. You decided to specialise in family law. What prompted this? Also, what’s your interest and pursuit of training in restorative justice?

I am interested in people and their lives. Family law impacts all of our lives. Laws relating to birth, your care as a child, your paternity, maternity, marriage, maintenance, custody, access, adoption, guardianship, divorce, are all family law issues. I had never heard the term ‘restorative justice’ until I was invited by Baroness Vivien Stern to come to London University and talk about child justice. She had attended a symposium in Trinidad on our new Mediation Act and had heard me speak and decided to invite me to London to speak at the Penal Reform International Conference. On the panel with me in London was Fr Jim Consedine from the New Zealand Restorative Justice Network. His presentation on restorative justice blew my mind. He was the author of two books on restorative justice and he made me a gift of them. I began to research the area and speak on it. I learnt that restorative justice was another way of thinking of justice and crime. It teaches that crime should be viewed as a violation of relationships, rather than law-breaking. I was invited by the Commonwealth Bar Association to address them on the subject at their annual meeting at Hilton Trinidad. Some months later, I was invited by Archbishop Lawrence Burke of Nassau to speak at a symposium on restorative justice. It turned out to be a training session on restorative justice and to our mutual surprise, the trainer he had hired to conduct training was none other than Fr Consedine, who was as shocked and delighted to meet me again as I was to meet him. In 1999, Baroness Vivien Stern came to Trinidad to open the Hugh Wooding Law School Legal Aid Clinic Mediation Centre and told the distinguished audience, which included our then Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide, that I had come to London and received a standing ovation at the Royal Holloway Hall of London University, for singing a Calypso I had composed, entitled, ‘Prisoners Are People Too’. Two persons at the conference offered to be my agent for a career as a Calypso singer. I also wrote a Calypso at the end of a course in Gender and Development Studies at UWI, Barbados and dedicated it to the recently retired principal who had it framed. She told me that Vice Chancellor, Rex Nettleford had read it and had become very excited by it and wished to hear it sung. I also did a Calypso titled ‘Now for Now

Court’ for the Lawyers Under Lights concert of the judiciary and the bar and it had brought the house down. It was a very provocative Calypso about the then Chief Justice de la Bastide and he loved it. He later introduced me as his favourite calypsonian. I attended a number of conferences and have delivered papers on family law issues in 30 countries and on every continent. I also did a Talkalypso or a poem at the end of international conferences of the International Society of Family and the Institute of Restorative Practices. I was at a regional conference in Northern Ireland and two British QCs told me while I was at lunch that they were looking forward to my poem at the end of the conference. When I told them I had not planned to do one, they protested and told me I had to do it, so I missed the first afternoon session to do it. The last one I did was at the Commonwealth Law Conference in Nassau in September 2021. The President has since asked me to record it so they could use it to advertise the next Commonwealth Law Conference in Goa, India, in 2023. I have had many blessings in my life for which I am eternally grateful. in 1992, I was privileged to travel to various States in the USA through the United States Information Agency International Visitors Programme studying ‘Equal Opportunity and Legal Protection for Women: The US Experience’. In 1995, I received a fellowship from the Dutch Government to study Development Law and Social Justice in the Hague, and in 2001, I was invited to be a guest of the British Government at the first World Women Lawyers’ Conference in London and was later hosted by Baroness Stern to private tea at the House of Lords and introduced to all the Law Lords present. In 2018, I received a National Award from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, namely, the Hummingbird Medal Gold for loyal and devoted service to Trinidad and Tobago in the spheres of Public Service and Youth Development. Over the years, I have acquired several certificates in restorative practices, as well as certification as a trainer in restoratives justice and a Masters’ degree in Restorative Practices from the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 2018, I attended a restorative justice conference in Padua, Italy, and was thrilled to meet the grandfather of restorative justice, Howards Zehr. I had taken with me to Italy two of his books which he graciously autographed with some very kind words. Zehr defines restorative justice as “a process to involve to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

Q. How does restorative justice help the victim and perpetrators of crime?

Restorative justice brings about more healing than traditional justice systems and reduces the risk of future offending. During a restorative justice conference, the victim has the opportunity to explain how the offence has affected him and his family and the offender has an opportunity to understand the impact of his actions and take responsibility for his actions. Supporters of both victim and offender are present. The parties discuss how to repair the harm caused and the offender’s family members or friends are there to support him in his efforts to make amends. Community members are present to support the offender’s reintegration into the community. There is usually a breaking of bread at the end of the conference. This signifies the acceptance of the wrongdoer back into the community. The opportunity to participate restores some control to the victim.

ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Q. We continue to hear about women being murdered by strangers, partners, family members. There was a huge outcry with Andrea Bharath and Ashanti Riley. What is it we are not getting right in our responses to this social issue?

To break the cycle of domestic violence we must change how we socialise children. From early, children must be taught that women and men are equal. They are different, but neither is superior to the other. They must be taught that violence is not an acceptable way of getting what one desires and be discouraged from using violence. Corporal punishment is violence and must not be used as a means of correcting children. It must be abolished from homes. Caregivers, parents, teachers, the media, advertisers, and the entire community must get this message. The research shows that mothers are the chief offenders in this regard and must be called out on this.

Patriarchy must be dismantled but it is a long-term process as a number of factors perpetuate the system. All of us, including the media, must scrutinise the messages that we send: that women are objects for the sole pleasure of men, that women are available for sex at any time and at any place, and by anyone who desires to use them, once they can pay the financial price. Women and men must be taught to show respect for themselves and one another. Men must be taught to be compassionate, and to be kind is to be human and is not a sign of weakness or unmanliness. Stereotypical roles for men and women must be abandoned and each sex should be

able to receive the required education and training to fulfil their God-given talents. There must be education and training on how domestic violence manifests itself. All must be taught the Power and Control and the Equality Wheels. Men must be taught empathy to understand the effects of domestic violence on their wives and children. Family members, mothers, sisters, aunts, employers, and co-workers of perpetrators must call out perpetrators on their violent behaviour. Violence is never justified save it is necessary for protection against self or others from the threat of or actual violence. There should be safe spaces for men to get counselling for behaviour change. There are men who want to stop their violent behaviour but do not know how, and they should receive all the help they need. Sometimes men are hurting and need to be listened to, rather than be condemned. The behaviour must be condemned, not the person. I have worked with men in the past with some success. A man told me once that I reminded him of his primary school teacher. I gave him some good buff, told him that his behaviour did not make sense and he must do better, and he listened as I made suggestions to him about how he could handle the situation. I once had a very challenging client who told me once, “I cool down plenty, since you are my lawyer.” He had changed lawyers four times. There is a great need for dialogue in the society. Couples need to talk to each other, rather than at each other. Talking to friends may make things worse, especially a friend who has gone through a bad situation. Many counsellors are available, so both domestic survivors and perpetrators should find one that they are comfortable with.

Everyone should be trained to recognise triggers for violent situations and danger zones and seek to avoid them. There are a number of groups and various agencies who are service providers in domestic violence, but I am not sure if they are all properly equipped and sufficiently experienced and qualified to perform in this volatile and potentially dangerous area, save for an advocacy role. Persons performing services to victims should learn the risk factors for severe and fatal violence to help potential victims understand the probability of their being killed or suffering serious harm.

Q. You have been an independent Senator since 2018. Has this role enabled you to help shape law beneficial to women and children? And as we celebrate International Women’s Day what are some successes you think have been made to improve the life/status of women and girls?

I have contributed to many Bills, including the amendment to the Domestic Violence Bill, which has improved the situation of women and not only girls, but children generally. I do not always get what I ask for but merely raising the issue assists to build consciousness about gaps in the law. I tried to get a provision to protect same-sex people who live together in situations of violence. This is not advocating for same-sex unions, but about human rights for all human beings. I feel strongly about sexual harassment and have raised a motion for a law to be brought on the issue. A policy is not enough to protect women in the workplace. I am consistently advocating for the age of criminal responsibility to be increased from age seven years. We are the lowest in the Caribbean region and in the world and it is a source of shame to me. It is fight I will not relinquish. The Attorney-General is wrong on this issue. Recently, I raised a question in Parliament about the non- functioning of the Adoption Committee, which was awaiting a nomination from the Tobago House of Assembly. It had been brought to my attention that a child was going to be age 18 in 11 days’ time and would lose the chance to be adopted if the application was not heard urgently. After I raised the question in Parliament, the relevant parties responded swiftly. The application was granted a few days before the child’s birthday which was on February 27. The parents were extremely joyful, and their lawyer was very grateful. He wondered how I had learnt about the case, but I did not reveal my source.

During Budget debates, I have paid careful attention and have raised my voice in protest when I perceive that children’s homes and organisations that work with children are not treated reasonably well. I also look at the impact of Bills on women and children, even though, at first blush, the relevance to their needs may not be apparent. In addition to speaking on Bills, asking questions, and raising Motions, I also sit on Joint Select Committees, such as Human Rights, Equality and Diversity (JSCHRED) and Chair the Finance and Legal Affairs Committee, during which we inquire into various issues. I participated in the JSCHRED Enquiry on Sexual Exploitation in Trinidad and Tobago with Specific Focus on Child Pornography and Child Prostitution. I conceptualised and chaired the enquiry into the Right to Equal Access to Education with Specific Focus on the Underachievement of Schools in Port of Spain and Environs with respect to Performance in Terminal Examinations.

I also participated in the enquiries on sexual harassment in the workplace, and the current provisions for children who require special needs education in public and primary schools





 

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