Thursday, December 18, 2008

Violence against sex workers must also be confronted in Guyana

"Soon as the sex was over, this man started slapping and cuffing me up and he empty my purse and take away all my money, not just what he pay me,” recounted a female sex worker based in New Amsterdam, who had been assaulted and robbed by a client, to an advocate at United Bricklayers, a local AIDS-prevention, community-based organization, less than two months ago. “Now how could I go to the police and make a report when sex work is not legal,” she added.

Sex workers in Guyana , and other parts of the world, face disproportionate levels of violence which is often unreported. The assault, battery, rape and even murder of sex workers, which is all too common in the industry, goes unnoticed because of the existing legal framework around the profession which prevents sex workers from reporting violence. The stigma and discrimination perpetuated by sex-work related offences has made violence against sex workers acceptable.

Last month, sex workers from across Guyana came together for a national consultation and decided to join their peers around the world to stand against violence committed against sex workers as the 6th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is observed on December 17, 2008 . First commemorated in 2003, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is the brainchild of Dr. Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker herself who left the industry after two decades and later went on to earn a PhD in Human Sexuality. Dr. Sprinkle was moved when “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgeway confessed to having strangled 90 female sex workers to death and having “sex” with their dead bodies in Seattle, Washington. Originally conceived as a memorial and vigil for the forgotten victims, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers has evolved into an annual international advocacy day to protest human rights abuses against sex workers, demand an end to all violence and the right to work safely.

With the genesis of the Sex Work Coalition – Guyana (SWCG) as one of the outcomes of the November consultation, this is the first time December 17 is being observed in Guyana. SWCG brings together female, male and trans- sex workers, their advocates, human rights defenders and organizations which work with these stigmatised groups in Guyana. It is supported by four local organizations – One Love, United Bricklayers, Guyana Rainbow Foundation and Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination – working in partnership with two regional coalitions, the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition and the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

SASOD Statement : International Human Rights Day 2008

December 10, is observed as International Human Rights Day 2008. This year’s commemoration is an important milestone as it marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), under the theme “Dignity and justice for all of us.” On this historic occasion, States from every region of the world will join together to deliver a statement next week recognizing human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations General Assembly. The statement deals with human rights abuses, directed against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including violence, criminal sanctions, torture, threats against human rights defenders and discrimination in accessing economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health. This joint statement will affirm that human rights truly are the birthright of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Over the past year alone, the region has made significant strides in advancing the Inter-American human rights system to respond to violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. On June 3, 2008, the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States adopted Resolution AG/RES. 2435 (XXXVIII-O/08) on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” with the consensus of member states. On October 24, 2008, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) held a thematic hearing on “Discrimination based on Gender, Race and Sexual Orientation in the Americas” - for the first time in its history - in its 133rd Period of Sessions where SASOD Co-Chairperson, Joel Simpson, presented on the impact of laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy between consenting adults in private intersecting with socio-economic and cultural conditions in the context of the English-speaking Caribbean. Just last week, December 1 – 5, 2008, IACHR visited Jamaica to observe the human rights situation in the country, at the invitation of the government, and included focus on persons suffering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, strongly condemning homophobia in its preliminary observations.

These progressive developments at the regional level have taken place against a backdrop of human rights violations escalating in our own country: the state is accused of torture; sexual and gender-based violence have reached pandemic proportions; while wanton violence, triggered in part by socio-economic disadvantage, threatens every citizen’s security; among other abuses. Even in a local context of such widespread violence, we, as a nation, still have not learnt that until all of us are protected, none of us are. How can we expect our youth not to nurture violence in a system that retains corporal punishment under the Education Act as a form of ‘disciplining’ children? When will we liberate our country from that destructive ethos of our colonial past?

The situation of human rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity at home is no better either. Over the last two weeks alone, there has been an unprecedented spate, perhaps, of murders targeting persons thought to be of a different sexual orientation, whether real or perceived, in circumstances which suggest that homophobia maybe the primary motive. What is even more troubling is that vital information, which could bring the perpetrators to justice, is not reaching the police because of lack of confidence and fear that some law-enforcement officers may hold similar anti-gay prejudices which may be at the root of the recent killings. A lot more gender-sensitivity work with the police needs to be done to inspire confidence among stigmatized groups, victims of violence and the general public.

Even amidst public outcries, violence continues to escalate in our society and we, as a country, must ask ourselves why. Our analysis should lead us to examine whether there are cultural factors which endorse violence and, undeniably, we will find aspects of our popular culture which glorify violence. While the government has taken a stand, although after the fact, by banning ‘Bounty Killa’ and ‘Movado’ because of their pro-violent lyrics, and should be commended, is enough really being done to prevent and curb the proliferation of such dangerous lyrics in our society? One need only live in the country to know that these insidious lyrics denigrate public spaces and airwaves: from transportation to bus parks; from live shows to other entertainment events; in restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs and on television. We must also question whether it is sufficient to simply block out words in a context where the intended meaning is obvious, as seems to be the practice in sections of the broadcast media.

The state of our society today implores us to urgently reflect on these issues as we take stock, 60 years after the signing of the UDHR. Government, state managers and policy makers alike, must confront these challenges if we, as a country, are to live up to the aspiration on which this universal value system is premised. Article 1 of the UDHR says it best: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008

Guyanese AIDS-service and human-rights organisations join with our regional partners in the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition to commend leaders of marginalized groups. These groups carry a disproportionate burden of the AIDS epidemic and yet they are often not given adequate attention in national AIDS programmes. As World AIDS Day 2008 is observed under the theme of “Leadership,” we recognize the invaluable contributions of our ‘everyday leaders’ from across the Caribbean who represent and serve these vulnerable populations, even in the face of stigma and discrimination. We salute them for their vigour and valour as they work tirelessly to protect the human rights of those infected and affected by HIV. They are true promise keepers to stop AIDS in Guyana , the rest of the Caribbean and the world.

Local Co-Sponsoring Organisations:
Guyana Sex Work Coalition (GSWC)
Juncata Juvant Friendly Society (JJFS)
Guyana Rainbow Foundation (Guybow)
Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD)
The Network of Guyanese Living with and Affected by HIV and AIDS (G+)

World AIDS Day Celebration of Community Leadership
“Lead – Deliver – Empower”
IN keeping with the World AIDS Day theme of “Leadership,” we are celebrating the
leadership by members of vulnerable communities who are part of the Caribbean
Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) family. Mindful that it is ideal that leadership
comes from the groups we work with, in our context this is not easy and means the leaders
risk stigma and discrimination by taking a stand for their community. This World AIDS Day
we are therefore commending their bravery and commitment to a world without AIDS and a
Caribbean where social justice is a reality.

Elias Ramos – Leadership for Youth
Addressing their vulnerability is not easy for young people, but especially for young people
from marginalised groups. In the Dominican Republic, 24-year old Elias Ramos is a leader of
a new youth strategy by and for young people. “Jovenes de la Vida Real” (in English,
YurWorld or Youth in the Real World) is a project by COIN in the Dominican Republic that
targets marginalized youth to increase their resilience to HIV.

Elias explains how the young people at YurWorld are finding solutions:
Marginalized youth are a vulnerable population with complex needs. In light of this,
sustainable prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS amongst marginalized youth
requires empowering them to act and bring about change in their own terms at the
individual as well as the collective level.

He believes that an effective response takes more than disease specific interventions and
includes broader development strategies. This approach is championed by YurWorld which
encourages change through employment and cultural values, ownership of assets, and
political and civil opportunities that empower marginalized youth.

Ionie Whorms – Leadership for Drug Users
It is an early morning and the film crew is setting up their equipment in the neighbourhood
of Fletcher’s Land, Kingston, Jamaica. Residents come out to hail and support a woman who
has become their heroine doing yet another television interview. She has become Jamaica’s
leading advocate for crack cocaine users, herself in recovery for the past 15 years. This time
she is on set for the filming of Complex Problems, Simple Solutions, the documentary on
access to HIV treatment for women and men who are homeless substance users. Complex
Problems, Simple Solutions, a collaboration between CVC and the Caribbean Treatment
Action Group produced by the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC),

is also released as part of the broadcast media package for World AIDS Week, distributed
throughout the region by the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership. This is yet another
one of her avenues for advocating for the rights of this vulnerable community.
She is Ionie Whorms, whose work is built on the conviction that she would not want anyone
else to go through what she went through when she was on crack cocaine.
“It really bothers me to see lives been wasted away in this manner” she confesses
“and so I must do anything possible to stop it.”
That “anything” about which she speaks ranges from taking a meal to those who are
homeless to transporting others to health centres, being part of a civil society response to
substance use and advocating for policy change. She considers these to be simple solutions
to complex things.

Nigel Mathlin – Leadership for Gay Men
Men who have sex with men in the Caribbean region are said to be invisible and hard to
reach for HIV interventions. Nigel Mathlin has engaged the response to HIV in a manner that
proves that does not have to be the case.
He is engaged in arranging activities for the gay, lesbian and bisexual population in his home
county of Grenada through GrenCHAP, the local AIDS-prevention community-based
organisation of which he is a co-founder. But his work has not stopped at home. He is also
integrally involved in the sub-regional and regional movements through the OECS-based
Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership (CHAPS) and CVC respectively. No longer can it be said that
leaders for this community cannot be found neither can it be said that this population is not
taking its own action.

Miriam Edwards – Leadership for Sex Workers
“This is our profession, we must stand up and protect our rights” boomed the
confident voice from across the room to the applause of the thirty other male and
female sex workers gathered for a national consultation of sex workers in
Georgetown, Guyana.
The speaker is Miriam, sex worker organiser and a leader in the Caribbean sex work
After seeing many persons die from HIV infection and nursing her own sister on her death
bed, Miriam is intent that HIV awareness among sex workers must be heightened in the
region. That led her to found a local Guyana organisation called “One Love” and later to co-
found the regionally-based Caribbean Sex Work Coalition and then Guyana’s national
organisation of sex workers, Guyana Sex Work Coalition. At any given time Miriam can be
seen in training session for sex workers, distributing condoms and safer sex material, visiting
those living with HIV in the hospitals or their homes and advocating at the national, regional
and international levels for the rights of sex workers and other marginalised groups in the Caribbean.

Donna Snagg – Leadership for Involuntary Remigrants
Throughout the Caribbean there is a profound misconception of members of our societies
who have experienced deportation, to the point of them now being labelled and
depersonalised as “deportees.” This label overshadows who these persons really are and
their potential to contribute to society. Often lost in a system that is unaccommodating and
hostile, the associations with the label “deportee” in many respects deflects attention from
the violations of their basic human rights that are commonplace.
Human rights activist and stalwart Mrs. Donna Snagg had the experience of being deported
from the USA approximately ten years ago but has used that encounter to mobilize other
persons with similar experiences in her home country of Guyana. So important are these
issues to her that she founded the Juncata Juvant Friendly Society, an NGO that caters for
the needs of involuntary remigrants. The organisation’s focus is also to assist this population
to reintegrate into Guyanese society and empowering them to be self sufficient. Added to
that, Donna and the other members of Juncata Juvant recognize the challenges this group of
persons encounter and their vulnerability to HIV. This inspires their activities and the
conviction that with the right support they can overcome these hurdles with dignity and

Nicholas Morgan – Leadership for Vulnerable Children
For Nicholas Morgan the maxim “we are all living in a world with HIV” has a new and
different meaning. From as young as 11 years old he accompanied his mother on her
volunteer efforts with a Jamaican AIDS organisation. What he saw then was so deeply
imprinted on his young mind that he immediately busied himself with providing support to
orphans and other children living with HIV.
Defying the age barrier, his early efforts were centred on baby-sitting children living with the
virus. He helped them with their homework and with such ordinary tasks as learning to ride
a bicycle, playing computer games and just general things that children like to do. It is those
“ordinary” tasks that gave way to extraordinary ones such as becoming one of the Panos
Caribbean youth journalists and being editor of their newsletter called “Our Own Voices.”
His voice is stamped on their public service announcements for radio and he is also one of
the mentors to other children in the programme. All this is in determined fulfilment of his
desire to make lives better for orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV. To
Nicholas, we are all equal, we are all affected. He believes firmly that:
it is up to those who have the power, the influence to make a difference in the lives
of young people, to help not only those who are infected or affected but to those
who we can help to remain aware and to make informed decisions.