Monday, April 27, 2015

Marginalised Groups Prepare to Engage Next Government on Rights Policy Issues

The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, on Thursday April 16, 2015 hosted the Civil Society Stakeholders Consultation for the Guyanese Vulnerable Communities Capacities Strengthening Project, funded by the delegation of the European Union to Guyana, which aims to build civil society capacity to better engage policy decision-makers at all levels of government. The two-day conference, held at the Grand Coastal Hotel at Le Ressouvenir, East Coast Demerara, marked the end of the first phase of the project. Chaired by SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator, Chelauna Providence, the conference’s opening was attended by representatives of civil society groups working with marginalised communities, members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of the United Nations and other special invitees.

John Quelch, Project Coordinator, opened the ceremony highlighting the objectives of the project and the intended outcomes that will benefit the work and advocacy of civil society organisations (CSOs) representing marginalised communities. Quelch outlined the three phases of the project and the relevance of each to its eventual success. The first phase concludes with this consultation with members of civil society, on the findings of Baseline and Mapping Studies, conducted by the three consultants drawn from the Commonwealth, Gordon Floyd; Caribbean, Deborah Nurse; and Guyana, Kesaundra Alves. The Baseline Study measures the current level of capacity among Guyanese civil society to engage in public policy advocacy on behalf of vulnerable groups. The Mapping Study describes the processes by which policy decisions are made in the Guyanese context and highlights key opportunities for civil society to intervene and participate. Quelch related that the project is timely in light of upcoming elections. “Guyanese civil society will now be more equipped to engage the engage the next government and twelfth parliament on behalf of the marginalized groups we serve. We are preparing to take collective and pro-active action to have human rights issues addressed now – both during the campaign and when the next government and parliament takes office after the May 11 polls. We are no longer waiting. Our issues must be addressed now,” Quelch said.

Photo 1: SASOD’s Project Coordinator, John Quelch, delivering opening remarks

The project’s Caribbean consultant, Deborah Nurse, shared a brief synopsis of the two studies and the findings of their interviews with key stakeholders among government, civil society, religious communities, private sector, media and other opinion leaders. “What we found was that there was consensus among all interviewees that a ‘rights-based approach’ was an absolute imperative for policy reform with respect to social change towards vulnerable groups,” Nurse reported.

Photo 2: SASOD’s Caribbean consultant, Deborah Nurse, presenting findings.

The feature address was delivered by Ambassador Robert Kopecky, Head of the Delegation to the European Union to Guyana, who said “One of the main tenets on which the European Union's work is pillared is the defence of human rights.” He stated that civil society performs a vital role in bridging the gap between the general populace and policy-makers. He closed by applauding “SASOD and all of the organisations present in the relentless fight to rid this beautiful country of the scourge of child abuse, domestic violence, discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and all forms of human rights abuses.”

 Photo 3: Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Guyana, Ambassador Robert Kopecky, delivers feature remarks.

SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson, delivered the vote of thanks expressing gratitude to the European Union in Guyana for their continuous support of its works, and to its civil society partners in the Guyana Equality Forum for working with the organisation.

Photo 4: (From left to right) SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator, Chelauna Providence; Commonwealth consultant, Gordon Floyd; Guyana consultant, Kesaundra Alves; Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Guyana, Ambassador Robert Kopecky; Caribbean consultant, Deborah Nurse; SASOD’s Project Coordinator, John Quelch; and SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson, after the opening session.

The feedback from the two-day conference will inform the development of a tailored, specialist training programme on public policy advocacy for Guyanese civil society which is slated to be delivered in July. The Guyanese Vulnerable Communities Capacities Strengthening Project is funded by the Delegation of the European Union to Guyana.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Local Civil Society Groups Raise Discrimination with OAS Human Rights Body

A delegation of four organizations representing the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF) presented on “Discrimination in the enjoyment of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Guyana” at a thematic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) at its 154th session of hearings in Washington, DC, last Friday, March 20, 2015. The IACHR is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. The Commissioners present at the hearing were Prof. Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Chair of the Commission, James Cavallaro, Rapporteur for Guyana, and Felipe Gonzalez.
The petitioners representing the GEF were the Sisterhood of Support, Services and Sustainability (S4) Foundation, Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), Deaf Association of Guyana (DAG) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). The GEF is a network of local civil society groups working for equal rights in Guyana.
Petitioners representing the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF):, SASOD’s Joel Simpson, DAG’s Sabine McIntosh, GOIP’s Colin Klautky, S4’s Imarah Radix and SASOD’s Schemel Patrick 
The State was represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett and Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States (OAS), Bayney Karran.
The main topics addressed by the Guyanese civil society included gender inequality and violence and its impact on the socio-economic life of women and girls, trafficking in persons and cultural genocide, the right to language and education for deaf persons and the discrimination and the right to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Guyana.
Imarah Radix, Executive Director of the S4 Foundation fervently reported that “women and girls continue to suffer from maternity deaths, teenage pregnancy, trafficking in persons, rape, crime and violence, sexual harassment in the workplace and discrimination based on HIV status and gender in the workplace.” She added that these issues disproportionally affect how women and girls access their economic, cultural and social rights. Radix noted that the S4 Foundation has on record reports of women not knowing their rights, numerous incidences of domestic violence, sexual abuse by the police, stigma and discrimination from police and situations of trafficking of young girls. She called on the State to develop specialized on-going procedural and sensitivity training for police for dealing with survivors, to craft a programme to hire and train counsellors in ministries and in schools that will protect the confidentially of children and women, and to strengthen both the Child Care Act and the National Child Care and Protection policy to address LGBT children whose needs are not being met.
Colin Klautky, Chief of GOIP, articulated that one issue of grave concern to his organisation and by extension indigenous peoples of Guyana is the trafficking of indigenous girls and women, particularly between the ages of 15 to 30. “One indigenous girl trafficked is one too much,” said Klautky. His first recommendation to the State is to provide resources needed to protect our young girls and women, including in the form of self-defence training.  Additionally, indigenous Guyanese are at the receiving end of cultural genocide such as the loss of traditional languages. Languages such as Carib, Warao and Lokono are threatened with extinction. He recommended that the State provide resources to save these languages and also to add them to the school curriculum in their respective indigenous communities. He also called for the strengthening of the Indigenous Peoples Commission and the Ethnic Relations Commission to deal effectively with the issues of ethnic discrimination affecting the indigenous community. Klautky informed that indigenous Guyanese experience low self-esteem because of constant ethnic abuse from other ethnic groups. This he noted is an assault on a people’s human dignity.
“The right to language is inalienable as such sign language, the first language of the deaf, is their inalienable right,” expressed Sabine McIntosh, Director of DAG in her presentation to the Commission.  She noted that Guyana suffers from a severe lack of data regarding the incidence of deafness in Guyana; this setback hinders the development of the deaf community.  In January 2015, McIntosh visited Region 9, whilst there neither the Regional Health Officer nor the Regional Education Officer of that Region had knowledge or records of deaf children, youth or adults in their Region. Currently, deaf children are educated in public ‘special needs’ schools, which they share with  children with mental disabilities, except for the Tuschen Deaf Academy, a small but budding deaf-only school established by DAG, two years ago. DAG recommends that the State provide schools with the special resources that would be needed to meet their students’ special needs - which, for the deaf, would include first and foremost the teaching in and the teaching of sign language. Important as well is the need for an official sign language programme for teachers of the deaf, or for deaf persons to be trained as teachers for their peers. Zooming in on the economic aspect, the above is a severe hindrance in deaf youth’ efforts to access vocational training and employment; and this is an ongoing and painful issue for DAG, as they seek to respond to the many requests for help in this area from deaf persons all across Guyana.
Joel Simpson, Managing Director of SASOD, opened his presentation by stating that “it is an undisputable fact that the State of Guyana discriminates against LGBT people in law and policy.” He raised the issues of criminialising of same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing and the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination in the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997. He noted reported incidences of homophobic and transphobic discrimination as a result of these laws and the State failing to offer any redress. Conversely, social stigma against homosexuality is extremely strong within the Guyanese society. Discriminatory laws and societal stigma have a profound impact on economic social and cultural rights of LGBT Guyanese. “Anti-LGBT discrimination is rampant in the labour market, in both the public and private sectors,” he said. Simpson noted that, “the State has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all Guyanese. The State violates human rights when it has discriminatory laws on the books and actively enforces them.”
In responding to civil society, Minister Rodrigues-Birkett noted the State’s progress in a number of issues, most notably were sensitization campaigns to reduce domestic violence, current operational measures to tackle human trafficking in indigenous communities, procedures in place to preserve Amerindian languages and the creation of a special select committee in the previous parliament to address human rights issues, including LGBT issues.
 Minister Rodrigues-Birkett responding on behalf of the State
 However, she acknowledged that further work needs to be done to protect the rights of marginalized Guyanese. As such, she expressed her willingness and enthusiasm to further engage, collaborate and partner with the petitioning organisations to effectively address the issues raised at the thematic hearing.
Prof. Belle Antoine shared how St. Lucia recently included sexual orientation as grounds for protection in its equal opportunities legislation as part of their labour laws, and encouraged Guyana to follow this good practice. Commissioner Rapporteur for Guyana, James Cavallaro, encouraged more collaboration between the State and civil society and offered the assistance of his office to visit Guyana with a team of specialist lawyers from IACHR to provide technical support in these areas.

 Commissioners Felipe Gonzalez, Prof. Rose-Marie Bell Antoine and James Cavallaro
 Simpson responded on behalf of the petitioners to a comment made by Minister Rodrigues-Birkett in which he reiterated  former Commissioner Dinah Shelton’s words at a previous hearing in 2013 that “one cannot put human rights to a vote,” in an effort to remind the State that it is responsible for taking leadership on human rights issues ahead of public opinion.
The GEF’s participation at the IACHR thematic hearing was funded by the Delegation of the European Union to Guyana through a grant to the London-based Equal Rights Trust, and SASOD.

YouTube Video of Thematic Hearing:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

SASOD receives Red Ribbon Award Cheque and Debriefs on Melbourne AIDS Conference

On Thursday, January 22, 2015, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in collaboration with the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) hosted a debriefing session on the 20th International AIDS Conference and received the cheque for winning the Red Ribbon Award in the category of Human Rights and Advocacy at Moray House in Georgetown.

The session, chaired by SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator Chelauna Providence, provided a platform for representatives from the national delegation who attended the conference to present and share how they are implementing the lessons learnt from the conference, discuss their progress with other key stakeholders, including the media, and allow an opportunity for questions and feedback from stakeholders.

The panel discussion was moderated by SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson, and featured four panelists who formed part of the national delegation attending the conference in Melbourne, Australia last July: Royston Savory, Prevention Officer at Family Awareness Consciousness Togetherness (FACT) in Corriverton, Berbice; Antonio Paul, Transgender Community Advocate from Region 3; Dr. Ruth Ramos, Director of the National Care and Treatment Centre, Ministry of Health; and Dr. Shanti Singh-Anthony, Programme Manager of the National AIDS Programme Secretariat, Ministry of Health.

 Panelists (l-r) - Dr. Shanti Singh-Anthony, Dr. Ruth Ramos, Antonio Paul and Royston Savory 
Antonio Paul shared that the Conference gave him a broader perspective on the challenges facing transgender communities. Even in countries where laws protect transgender individuals they are still faced with a plethora of issues. He reiterated the importance of advocacy to put a spotlight on these often-forgotten groups. “It is essential that minority groups have a voice, one that is heard and in a positive way; a voice that consistently demands rights,” Paul stated to nods from other stakeholders in attendance.

Dr. Singh-Anthony in her presentation shared that the International AIDS Conference renews hope and optimism that an end to AIDS is possible. “It provides an opportunity for learning about key developments and for sharing important progress,” she said. Dr. Singh-Anthony found the conference insightful as it made her aware that more often than not in our care and treatment programmes, children and young people are being left behind. “Greater emphasis is being placed in the pediatric and adolescent programmes to include and ensure the adequate and appropriate management of children who are eligible for anti-retroviral treatment. The National AIDSProgramme Secretariat (NAPS) also intends to factor in the dynamics of working with adolescents to ensure better services and better quality of life,” she explained. Dr. Singh-Anthony noted that NAPS will continue to think of innovative ways of reaching key populations.She expressed particular gratitude for the information that is coming forward about transgender persons as this will help NAPS to understand and better serve this long-neglected and stigmatized minority group.

Dr. Ramos shared that the ultimate goal of the National Care and Treatment Centre is to target and test everyone. She noted that they are also working assiduously on not just decreasing, but eliminating, mother- to-child transmission. Dr. Ramos highlighted one of the greatest challenges that the Centre faces is adherence to medication and keeping patients on care. As we move forward, Dr. Ramos encouraged everyone to be more aggressive, more enthusiastic and to place more emphasis on tackling the issue daily.

The panel discussion was followed by questions from the gathering. Dr. Yoran Grant – Greene, Country Director of the US Centre for Disease Control in Guyana asked the panelists to pinpoint, if any, any peer-to-peer strategies or methods for working and reaching key populations discussed at the conference. SASOD’s Simpson mentioned the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) as a platform for interventions to reach key populations with HIV prevention information. He also called on the donor community to support more of these kinds of innovative initiatives that would enable community groups to use ICT in their work. FACT’s Savory also noted the use of social networking in the Berbice area.

UNAIDS Country Director, Dr. Roberto Brant Campos, delivered special remarks and presented SASOD with a cheque of US$ 10,000 for winning the Red Ribbon Award.  Dr. Campos, noted that “in a world where, as we all know, LGBT communities are castigated as third-class citizens, having their humanity and dignity frequently denied, and their rights not respected, is an honor to present this prize given to SASOD. It is more than recognition of its excellent work; it is a symbolic prize to all LGBT communities, not only in Guyana but in the whole Caribbean region and a stimulus to them to pursue in their quest for a better world for all; and, specifically, for a world without AIDS.” On behalf of the Red Ribbon Award programme and UNAIDS, he thanked and congratulated SASOD for its exemplary work. He also exerted all LGBT communities to keep the fire burning and be inspired towards a world free of the HIV epidemic.

Mr. Joel Simpson receiving the Red Ribbon Award Prize Money for Dr. Roberto Brant Campos, UNAIDS Country Director

The prize money from the Red Ribbon Award will go towards SASOD’s LGBT Community Centre Fund. The multi-purpose LGBT Community Centre will serve as the secretariat for SASOD, provide office space for other LGBT groups and provide temporary housing for LGBT youths facing homelessness and other services LGBT Guyanese. The public was encouraged to donate to SASOD’s LGBT Community Centre Fund either at its Charlotte Street office or directly through Scotiabank Account Number 10024548.

To see photos from this event click here

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Red Ribbon Awards Acceptance Speech: Advocacy and Human Rights

His Excellency the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, Minister of Health of Indonesia, Dr. Nafsiah Mboi, Vice-Minister of Health Surveillance of Brazil, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Former Member of Parliament of Paupa New Guinea, Dame Carol Kidu, UNAIDS Deputy Director, Jan Beagle, GNP + Executive Director, Dame Suzette Moses-Burton, PANCAP Director, Dereck Springer, National AIDS Programme Scretariat Programme Manager, Dr. Shanti Singh-Anthony, international media, fellow awardees, human rights and AIDS researchers, activists, students, service providers, distinguished delegates; good afternoon to you all. And thank you for joining us at this special session  for the presentation of the 2014 Red Ribbon Awards at the 20th International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. I am Joel Simpson, speaking on behalf of the two award-winning community-based ogranisations from Indonesia and Guyana.
While we are happy to be here to accept this excellence award for our work, we  remember and pay tribute to our peers and colleagues who lost their lives traveling here on Flight MH 17. May their souls rest in peace, and their work not be in vain.
On behalf of the Indonesian Drug Users Network (PKNI) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), we extend our heartfelt gratitude to the Red Ribbon Awards committee, programme and funders for honouring our work with this excellence award in HIV advocacy and human rights. In Indonesia and Guyana, PKNI and SASOD, represent and work with marginalised groups who are treated like outcasts because they use drugs, sell sex and have diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Our communities are castigated as third-class citizens; their humanity and dignity is denied, and their rights are not respected. It is often difficult in this sector which is obsessed with data, numbers, monitoring and evaluation, and return on investment to make the business case for investing in human rights and advocacy programmes for key populations. But this Red Ribbon Award category for advocacy and human rights recognizes that we are “stepping up the pace” by putting pressure on state and non-state actors alike to end criminalization, prohibition and discrimination which create barriers to access for our communities. If we are to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, then we must protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our societies. We know 'getting to zero' is only possible if there is zero discrimination, zero new infections and zero AIDS-related deaths. But we cannot 'get to zero' if donors do not invest in community-based organisations who represent and work with key populations to advocate and improve human rights protections for these disadvantaged groups. Human rights is prevention. Human rights  is treatment. Human rights is care and support. Invest in human rights now!
And today as we celebrate our work with this most prestigious Red Ribbon Award, we are reminded that the struggles for human rights, dignity, equality and justice are far from over. Yesterday Sunday, July 20, two transgender youth, Jada and Tyra, were brutally murdered in Guyana's capital city, Georgetown. Both Chelauna and I know Jada and Tyra personally as vibrant and talented young advocates in the Guyanese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender  (LGBT) movement. Our work is not complete until every human being in our countries – every drug user, every sex worker, every LGBT person – can live their lives freely and openly without fear, hatred or stigma. We dedicate SASOD's Red Ribbon Award  to the loving memories of Jada, Tyra and countless other LGBT Guyanese whose lives have been snuffed out, due to bigotry and prejudice in our beautiful country.
Jada and Tyra, may your souls rest in peace. Your bravery will not be in vain.
Thank you.
Joel Earl Simpson
SASOD – Guyana
Red Ribbon Awards Special Session
XX International AIDS Conference
Melbourne, Australia
July 21, 2014