Stephanie Joseph de Goes, Guyana’s Country Coordinator for the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief – PEPFAR, a United States governmental initiative to address the global HIV epidemic with her office based at the US Embassy in Georgetown, spoke on the dire need for Guyanese to come together to fight against stigma and discrimination for those living and infected by HIV.
Her remarks made at Guyana’s 7th Annual AIDS Candlelight Memorial held at the Catholic Life Centre by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) Sunday last gave an uplifting charge for the future. “This year’s theme, to engage, educate, and empower, emphasizes the need for each one of us – not just people living with HIV or gender minorities –to join forces in the movement for human rights and zero discrimination. We must put an end to the disease of stigma and discrimination,” she said. “Stigma and discrimination eats at the soul of a society. We know that eliminating stigma and discrimination will positively affect a nation’s progress, well-being, and public health for things like HIV prevention, care and treatment.”
“I ask you what is holding us back from zero discrimination. From ensuring human rights, equal rights for all no matter a person’s health status, gender identify or sexual orientation. When it comes down to it, I think it’s our personal judgments about difference,” Joseph de Goes remarked. She went on to say that we use belief, religion, culture, etc. to judge others for difference; be it one’s skin color, sexual identity, health status. “Whatever the difference might be that does not fit into our worldview. Then we focus so much on those perceived differences that we forget our ‘sameness’. We forget what unites us – our ‘humanness,’” She pleaded.
She continued, “Why do we all deserve the right to health, dignity, justice, safety and employment? Why do we all deserve human rights? Seems like a silly question, right? Well, we must ask because legal and social environments are still failing to address stigma and discrimination against those most vulnerable to HIV and people living with HIV.”
Joseph de Goes expressed that it is hard to get to zero discrimination because we are so busy judging the differences instead of recognizing the ‘strengths in our individual identities.’ “How can we deny human rights, compassion and love?” she questioned.
The US diplomat remarked that in this 50th year anniversary of Guyana, the country can truly make history by amending the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997 to include sexual orientation, gender identity and health status, and repealing other laws that perpetuate stigma and discrimination.
“Each one of us can play a role. Let us work to make history in the Caribbean. Let Guyana lead the charge. Let us transform our silence into action – collective action. We are here, today, because we share a commitment to creating a world where people do not become infected with HIV, or die of AIDS or endure the dehumanization of stigma and discrimination. Let me repeat – the dehumanization of stigma and discrimination. We know what happens when we dehumanize one another, it breeds injustice,” the PEPFAR lead explained.
According to the US diplomat, “we cannot afford to say, we cannot support amending the Prevention of Discrimination Act because of religion, beliefs, culture, etc. “We know what has been done in the name of belief – human atrocities and ‘man’s inhumanity to man. Will we continue to allow injustices in the name of belief and ‘difference’?”
She charged the Guyanese society to work together for equality and recognize that denying any one of us the right to justice, equity, access, security, education, health and employment – human rights – is denying all of us.
“Let us decide to work together towards a Guyana where laws protect the human rights and the dignity of all. Guyana’s time is now. We are at the 50-year mark. Let us join forces to support the amendment of not just the 1997 Prevention of Discrimination Act but also all other punitive laws,” Joseph de Goes said.
“In the next 50 years, Guyana can be a nation with zero discrimination and 100% human rights so that every person whether HIV-positive, HIV-negative, heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, lives in dignity with the rights to employment, health, safety and security because all lives really do matter,” she concluded