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The pandemic’s economic fallout has left many people struggling to make ends meet and some landlords are capitalising on this to coerce tenants into sexual acts or face eviction.

The revelation came from the Centre for Non-Violence, Research and Development’s founder, Sherna Alexander Benjamin, during yesterday’s fifth sitting of the Special Select Committee (SSC) on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill, 2021.

“During this present period where COVID-19 is undermining so many issues and lives and also amplifying and exacerbating the same in our society, we have had individuals whose landlords have said to them (that) because they have lost their jobs or have reduced employment, have said to them that is either they go on the street right away or they participate in some type of sexual act,” she said.

“In those moments we have had women say to us and men, also that ‘we have children, our families aren’t able to take us in’…some of them consented in a coercive way because the threat of being homeless was used against them in that manner.”

She subsequently told Guardian Media her organisation has received around 14 such reports for 2021 and approximately 10 referrals.

“Those numbers are those individuals who were violated who felt they had no other recourse but to reach out to an organisation or individual that they have some type of connection with,” she said.

She noted reports were coming to her organisation with increasing frequency.

During the SSC sitting, Benjamin asked that these scenarios be addressed in the amendments to the legislation.

However, attorney Ravi Rajcoomar explained it is already a crime in the eyes of the law.

“Consent must be free. In other words, it can’t be tainted by any sort of threat, any sort of fraud, any sort of misrepresentation. If a person is subject to sex in return to stay in your house – that’s rape. Make the report (to the police),” he said.

While Benjamin shared Rajcoomar’s sentiment that these incidents need to be reported to the police, she said this is only one element towards a solution.

“There are a few things that are needed. One, we need to have a trauma-informed, client-centred police service where users of that service feel as though they are being heard, they are being respected and, in that moment, they are being treated as human,” she said.

She said all the cases that came to the organisation were reported to the police.

Guardian Media reached out to the Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob for comment, however, none was provided by press time.

Gender expert, Marcus Kissoon, said that, unfortunately, it’s not a new occurrence.

He said research done by the “Break the Silence” campaign revealed that women experiencing economic distress are at the highest risk for sexual abuse.

“What Sherna Alexander did was highlighted one category of sexual abuse that is taking place. The idea that men, most times, will use opportunities where women are seen as vulnerable…for exploitation. What Sherna did is she highlighted one of the ways in which women experience exploitation and what we are asking is that the Sexual Offences Act account for all of these types of experiences,” he said.

“We have to see sexual abuse as on a continuum, experiencing (it) different ways, different spaces by different people and who is it being perpetrated by?”