On the evening of Monday, June 6, representatives from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), on behalf of the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF), met with the Minister of Public Health, Hon. Dr. George Norton, M.P. ahead of the United Nations High Level Meeting on HIV (HLM), that is set to take place at the UN Headquarters in New York, from Wednesday June 8 to Friday 10, 2016.
The GEF representatives attending the HHLM are Miriam Edwards of the Guyana Sex Work Coalition (GSWC) and the Caribbean Sex Workers Coalition (CSWC), Devanand Milton of Guyana Trans United (GTU) and John Quelch of SASOD. The three local groups led by key populations are also members of the regional Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC).
SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson, Projects Coordinator, John Quelch and Advocacy and Communications Officer Schemel Patrick, attended the meeting with the Minister Norton to discuss the important opportunities the HLM presents for both government and civil society in the global AIDS response, particularly as it relates to setting bold new targets for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, human rights and the legal framework, young people, women and girls, key populations, financing and investment.
Simpson indicated that the GEF thought it pertinent to ensure that Minister Norton as Guyana’s representative responsible for negotiating the outcome document of this week’s meeting, have the relevant information, tools and support on issues affecting key populations to contribute meaningfully significantly to the process at UN headquarters this week. SASOD representatives presented the GEF’s policy positions on the 2016 Political Declaration on HIV to Minister Norton.
Quelch in emphasising the groups’ points noted that key populations – specifically, men who have Sex with men, transgender people and sex workers - are denied equal access to HIV prevention and healthcare services because of the structural barriers that exist in the public health system in Guyana. The punitive laws and policies that criminalise and discriminate against these marginalised groups impede proper HIV prevention and treatment, and effective care and support services. The GEF reiterates the call for the repeal of these punitive laws, which violate human rights and heighten vulnerabilities, so that key populations can have equal access to HIV prevention and other health services.
Quelch noted that the GEF is also advocating for the relevant decision-makers to recognise the importance of the involvement of key populations and People Living with HIV (PLHIV), in programme development and implementation at the national level. Greater involvement of these groups will provide platforms for their voices to be heard and their issues to be addressed at a policy levels.
Quelch also underscored the need for the full implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in the school system, so that young people and children are informed on issues of their sexual and reproductive health and rights and thereby equipped to make informed decisions. Young people, especially between the ages of 15 to 24 , account for more than one-third of the cases of new HIV infections. He related that most young people have do not have access to good quality social and economic services, including sexual and reproductive health programmes that provide the services and commodities, skills, knowledge and capability they need to protect themselves from HIV.
SASOD Representatives in conversation with Minister Norton
Minister Norton took his own notes continuously throughout the meeting and engaged the advocates for clarifications where needed. He thanked the representatives for sharing the relevant and timely information and resources with him. He also underscored that he understands the important role that civil society plays in the HIV response, providing a grounded perspective and access to key populations which is invaluable to the national programme. He commended GEF member organisations for the work they have been doing and for how organised and informed they are. Minister Norton reiterated his Ministry’s commitment to partnering with the groups to advance human rights protection for marginalised communities. He emphasised that, “If I am serious about health care in this country, then I must be ready to work with all groups.”
Founded by SASOD in 2011, the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF) is a network of local civil society groups working collectively and cohesively for equal rights and justice in Guyana. The GEF is chaired by Red Thread while SASOD serves as the network’s secretariat.