Sunday, July 29, 2018

Women's Right to Reproductive Healthcare

SASOD Women's Arm Coordinator, Akola Thompson speaking on the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Gender Equality panel of the Caribbean Forum on Population, Youth and Development 2018.

Greetings all. Let’s gyaff about access to information, access to services and the inequalities that exists in the distribution of these as it relates to sexual and reproductive health and rights.  

Information has the ability to shape narratives and narratives have the ability to shape culture. So, when it comes to providing information, it is important that we get it right. One of the things affecting many Caribbean countries is the high rate of adolescent pregnancy. Yet, with very few notable exceptions, the Caribbean remains a place that is resistant to comprehensive sexual education due to miseducation, religious fundamentalism and political interests. 

Currently, Guyana has the Health & Family Life program, which includes sexual education. Unfortunately, this program does not exist in a majority of schools and most glaringly, it takes an abstinence only approach and is often very useless in explaining issues of consent, body, abuse and is not inclusive of varying sexualities and gender identities. 

I became a mother at 16, a lot later than many of my friends I went to school with. We became sexually active and later pregnant, not because we were “force ripe” as we would say in Guyanese parlance, but because we did not have access to information on our changing bodies due to abstinence only sex education programs or the complete absence of them. 

We were expected to know what to do or what not to do. At every point, we were reminded that the beginning of a pregnancy meant an end of opportunities – but yet no one thought it important for us to talk about sex because of fears that talking about something somehow encourages it. I honestly do not understand that misguided line of thinking. As my friend Andaiye would say, give me a confounded chance

For many of us who got pregnant, many of our educational, economic, social and political opportunities and dreams did end. The more privileged of us were able to reintegrate into private school, opportunities were slow but they still came. There was no school reintegration policy as is currently being worked on by the Ministry of Education and the Guyana Equality Forum, most notably the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

There have been adjustments over the years to the HFLE program, but it is still lacking and even in the most progressive of schools, falls short of touching on contraception and abortion care. 

We have 20-year-old mothers with three children, all different ages because they do not have information on family planning. When we speak of inter-generational poverty and breaking the cycle of repeat pregnancies in young mothers, we must examine the role in access to reproductive services plays in perpetuating a cycle of unequal gender balance relations and economic inequalities particularly in rural communities. 

While abortion has been legal in Guyana since the passing of the 1995 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill, we continue to have abortion related complications and deaths because neither information nor services are readily available. Making these inaccessible is a tactic used by the Right to hinder women’s access to reproductive healthcare. It is just one in many ways that religious fundamentalists seek to infringe on women’s rights and bodily autonomy. 

This often results in women from far-flung areas choosing to either take matters into their own hands, or going to a “bottom-house clinic” to have the procedure done. There are too many cases of women gaining injuries, becoming sterile and even dying as a result. This was seen in 2012 in the case of 19-year-old Karen Badal who died at the hands of a hack doctor and more recently in 2016, a young woman who injected her stomach with a poisonous substance – from which she died - because she was pregnant and did not want to be. 

The stigma associated with abortion in most societies such as Guyana, remains a hindering factor to women professionally getting rid of unwanted pregnancies, even if they are able to and can afford it. This stigma has been fostered over several generations, aided on by our deep religious values that we were pounded in to us from years of colonialist teachings and writings.

We do not need long failed approaches; we need ones supported by facts and not beliefs. They need politicians who care less about political interests and power and more about ensuring we have a safe and well-informed populace. As we’ve covered and proven many times already, not talking about sex and reproductive health can be dangerous. Not being able to access it can be even more so. That is why we as advocates and movement builders should demand more and hold our leaders accountable. We have way too many spaces such as these filled with bureaucracy and inefficiency under the guise of being apolitical and separate. We need to become more radical in our approach, we have way too many policies and bodies but very little implementation. It is time that cycle stops. Leaders, you cannot keep asking to hear our voices and then silence us when we speak. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

SASOD, GRPA meet Education Minister on Bullying, Reintegrating Teen Mothers

SASOD, GRPA meet Education Minister on Bullying, Reintegrating Teen Mothers
- Discusses amending the Teachers Code of Conduct, implementing the Reintegration of Adolescent Mothers into Schools’ Policy and anti-bullying campaign for new school year

Minister of Education, Hon. Nicolette Henry, M.P. (sixth from left) along with Ministry staff and the joint SASOD – GRPA delegation at her Ministry’s Brickdam office.
 Photo Credit: Ministry of Education

The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA) met with the Minister of Education, Hon. Nicolette Henry, M.P. and ministry staff last Monday, July 16, to discuss issues of discrimination students are facing in schools, how they can support the implementation process of reintegrating adolescent mothers into schools, and the Ministry’s support to anti-bullying initiatives SASOD and GRPA are currently developing together.   

SASOD was represented by its Managing Director, Joel Simpson; and Homophobia(s) Education Coordinator, Anil Persaud. GRPA was represented by its youth leaders, Programmes Officer Jairo Rodrigues and President and Vice-President of its youth arm – the Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM) – Chelsie France and Kobe Smith, respectively.  

Updating the Teachers Code of Conduct

The civil society delegation requested that the Ministry of Education update the Code of Conduct for Teachers to expand the grounds for discrimination to include those in the Guyana Constitution, while adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

SASOD and GRPA have asked the Minister to amend the non-discrimination clause of the Code under Section B, Commitment to Colleagues, to expressly prohibit discrimination on the  basis of race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed, age, disability, marital status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, language, birth, social class, pregnancy, religion, conscience, belief or culture, nor interfere with the free participation of colleagues in the affairs of their association(s).

The groups also proposed that the non-discrimination clause under Section D on Commitment to Students be similarly updated. It was recommended that place of origin, birth status, political opinion, age, disability, marital status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, language, birth, social class, pregnancy, religion, conscience, and belief or culture be included with the four grounds currently stated: ability, race, colour and creed.

Simpson explained that the Ministry needed an updated and comprehensive policy that is in line with the Guyana Constitution, the newly-crafted National Policy on the Reintegration of Adolescent Mothers into the Formal School System and a document that supports the goals and vision of the Ministry. He recalled that the Minister expressed in the previous year at the Spirit Day reception – an event hosted by SASOD and the British High Commission to commit to working against bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students – that bullying in no way will be tolerated in schools since it hinders children’s rights to live their lives free from abuse, violence and discrimination, and their right to education.
Anil Persaud explained that SASOD has recorded cases of students being bullied based on their perceived sexualities, particularly effeminate boys. The non-discrimination provisions would fulfil an obligation to students to protect them against homophobic and transphobic bullying. He added that although the stigmatizing nature of anti-LGBT bullying precludes robust data collection on the problem, minority students also need the Ministry’s full protection at all levels.

The Minister responded that she will be guided by the professional advice of the Ministry’s Legal Officer, Ms. Kellyann Payne-Hercules, who was also present at the meeting, but indicated that she does not see these amendments to be problematic or damaging since they are in line with her vision and the Ministry’s strategic plan to ensure a safe and comfortable environment where all students can play, learn and work together for the advancement of the nation.

Reintegration of Adolescent Mothers in Schools

Just over a year ago, in March 2017 SASOD and GRPA formed part of a civil society delegation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights where they reported that the Government needs to work on reintegrating teenage mothers into the formal school system – Kobe Smith, a member of the same delegation expressed thanks to the Minister for her leadership in the development of the national policy. He spoke of GRPA’s commitment to seeing the policy implemented to which the Minister responded that orientation and familiarization is already in its planning stages and the policy will come into full effect from the start of the new school year in September.

Minister Henry said that this particular policy was dear to her since she was on Main Street (alluding to when she was Junior Education Minister responsible for Culture, Youth and Sport); “A lot of young people are left behind in a system that doesn’t cater for second chances,” she said. “On a personal level I have committed to this and as I sit here, I want to see this policy fully enforced, particularly in the hinterland,” she added.

Chelsie France of GRPA’s YAM spoke about the ongoing work with marginalized youth in vulnerable communities across the country. Jairo Rodrigues of GRPA shared how the organization’s projects can support some aspects of the reintegration policy, particularly prevention of pregnancies through education and sensitization on use of contraception and termination of pregnancies.

The Minister said that the approach to community education in these areas would have to be culturally relevant and appropriate or else it would not be accepted by the stakeholders. “What I would like to see is our communities understanding that things are changing. We need community education for social impact. This comes with strategic planning and only then will people access services and then can we change the lives of people, particularly the disadvantaged and marginalized,” she elaborated. Minister Henry stressed that the evidence-based approach is important when doing community interventions and she really would like to see meaningful interventions and collaborations which are driven by sound data and deliver solid results.

National Anti-Bullying Campaign

Minister Henry was open to partnership on a National Anti-Bullying Campaign proposed by GRPA and SASOD, organized in collaboration with other key stakeholders for Education Month in September. Through this campaign, secondary school students will be sensitized on the various forms of violence, and made aware of social support services and redress mechanisms if they are being bullied. The campaign will include a nation-wide essay competition for Grades 7 to 9 students on bullying and discrimination based on gender in schools.

The campaign will run into Bullying Prevention Month in October and culminate on Spirit Day, which is commemorated on the third Thursday of the month, October 18 this year.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

“Crossdressing” Case Raises Deep Issues of Human Rights and Social Justice for Region

The four litigants had their final day in court in a constitutional challenge lasting over 8 years

On Thursday, June 28, 2018, a five-member panel of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), chaired by Justice Adrian Saunders, President, held a hearing in the appeal by Angel (Seon) Clarke, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud (R–L), at the CCJ’s headquarters in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The audio recording of the hearing is available at:

In February 2009, four transgender women were convicted for the offence of being “a man” appearing in female attire in a “public place” for an “improper purpose.” This offence falls under the 1893 Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act section 153(1)(xlvii) and, in its application, disproportionately targets trans women. Labeling the law “hopelessly vague,” and constitutionally invalid, the litigants argued that the offence infringes on their rights to due process, freedom of expression and non-discrimination and equality. The litigants further argued that the law is not formulated with enough precision and clarity to allow the ordinary person to regulate their conduct.

It is important to note that “man” under this summary offence has been treated by state officials as including persons whose birth certificates describe them as “male” at birth and who identify as transgender persons or trans women. However, there is growing acceptance and respectful treatment by judicial officers, and others, of persons whose gender identity does not accord with the gender marker on their birth certificate. It is a common and respectful practice to refer to a transgender person in a manner that is consistent with the gender that matches the individual’s identity, which in this case is female. 

 Lead counsel for the litigants, Senior Counsel Douglas Mendes

The four litigants who were all present at the CCJ hearing on June 28, were represented by attorneys-at-law Douglas Mendes, S.C. (Trinidad and Tobago), lead counsel, C.A. Nigel Hughes (Guyana), MishkaPuran (Guyana), Clay Hackett (Trinidad and Tobago) and Isat Buchanan (Jamaica). Solicitor General Kim Kyte-Thomas, Kamal Ramkarran and Selwyn Peiters represented the State. 

In addition to the four litigants, over twenty representatives from civil society organisations and universities were present to observe the proceedings. Civil society organizations (CSOs) present included the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), one of the original litigants in this case, Guyana Trans United (GTU), Guyana Rainbow Foundation (GuyBow), Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness For Les/Bi Women (PETAL) from Belize and the Alliance for Justice and Diversity (ADJ), which is a coalition of seven organisations in Trinidad and Tobago. The Faculty of Law The UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) was also present.

Advocates from across the Caribbean at the CCJ hearing 

Ifasina Efunyemi, an educator and representative from PETAL Belize, said, “Even though this was a case coming out of Guyana, it involves issues that are relevant to the LGBT community, and other social justice movements, throughout the region.” In a public forum held in the evening of June 28 at the City Hall in Port of Spain, hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago’s AJD, on “Administrative Violence and Structural Inequality,” panelist David Abdulah, leader of the Movement for Social Justice, commented on the intersections of social justice claims. The well-known labour rights leader said that “You cannot be fighting for workers’ rights and then discriminate between one worker and another.” Highlighting the need to recognize difference and diversity, the Very Reverend Shelley-Ann Tenia, Dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, also a panelist at the evening forum, said “There is space for us, even if we are different.”

(Left to Right) Panelists, Very Reverend Shelley-Ann Tenia and Sunity Maharaj, and moderator Khadija Sinanan, at AJD’s Public Forum on Administrative Violence and Structural Inequality at City Hall  

One of the major hurdles for the appellants in their challenge to the 125-year-old law was the existence of a savings law clause in the Constitution that made it harder to use the Guyana Constitution to question laws in force before the 1980 Constitution. However, the ground-breaking decision of the CCJ on Wednesday June 27, in the case of Nervais and Severin v AG of Barbados, provides an interpretation of savings law clauses that significantly limits their negative impact in cases challenging colonial laws.The CCJ declared that the mandatory death penalty in Barbados was unconstitutional and that the general savings law clause was not a barrier to that declaration.

Substantively, both sides appeared to agree that dress consistent with one’s gender identity, even if that identity is different from the gender assigned at birth, was wholly legal. As a result, the focus of the hearing became the element of an “improper purpose.” Mendes SC in his presentation argued that criminalizing just thought—an “improper purpose”—was impermissible. And he also pointed out the thought of only some (“man” in “female attire”/ “woman” in “male attire”) was criminalized. No offence was committed if a “man” was dressed in “male attire” for an “improper purpose;” likewise if a “woman” was dressed in “female attire” for an “improper purpose.”

At AJD’s public forum of June 28, panelist and Managing Director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies, Sunity Maharaj, said that, “To one degree or another, people of the Caribbean have been living lives of improper purpose,” making reference to histories of resistance and struggle in response to colonial oppression. 

Much of the discussion earlier that day between the CCJ judges and the attorneys focused on whether the term “improper purpose” was sufficiently certain to allow persons to know what was being prohibited. In his comments and questions, Justice Wit emphasized that the test must be based not on legal experts as the standard, but ordinary citizens and charges should stem from crimes and not one’s manner of dress. 

Mendes SC strenuously argued that those applying the law specifically targeted the appellants as trans women. The State suggested that any arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of this law could be addressed through appeals and applications for judicial review. During the hearing, President Saunders commented that transgender persons who are not of great means or social influence may lack meaningful access to these procedures and thereby be at risk if the law is not sufficiently certain. Justice Wit gave the example of a rich person and a poor person, both of whom in principle could reserve a room at the fancy Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but, of course in real terms, this hotel was entirely out-of-reach to the poor person because of lack of means. 

It is important to recognize the experiences and efforts of the four transgender women leading this litigation over the past eight years. Being a part of an extremely marginalized community, they have faced significant barriers to legal representation and accessing justice due to various contributing factors such as poverty and discrimination. While they were successful in accessing partnerships and resources to help further their challenge of the law, the larger community of trans persons still face many of these barriers. This litigation is an important step towards a more progressive and accepting society but we should remain cognizant of the everyday realities of those who are still marginalized due to their identities. 

The CCJ has reserved judgment in this appeal. If the CCJ finds for the appellants, it can declare that the summary offence in section 153(1)(xlii) is inconsistent with the Constitution and therefore null and void. Alternatively, the CCJ may seek to modify the offence to bring it in conformity with the Guyana Constitution. The written decision in the McEwan appeal could be delivered during the remainder of 2018 or the first half of 2019, based on CCJ’s practice in other cases.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Transgender Guyanese Women ask CCJ to strike down colonial law

On Thursday June 28, four young working-class transgender Guyanese women will have their final day in court. In Port of Spain at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Guyana's final appellate court, justices will hear oral arguments in the final appeal of a matter filed in 2010 by Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud. The fourtransgender women are challenging the constitutionality of an 1893 post-slavery vagrancy provision under which they and three others were detained, convicted and fined by the then Acting Chief Magistrate following their February 2009 arrest in Georgetown, Guyana.


The four litigants had their final day in court in a constitutional challenge lasting over 8 years
The arrests and convictions in 2009 were under Part V: Offences Against Religion, Morality & Public Convenience of Guyana’s 1893 Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act. Section 153(1)(xlvii) makes it an offence for a man“in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose” to appear in female attire, or for a woman, “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose” to appear in male attire.Other offences in the Act include roguery, practising Obeah and witchcraft, flying a kite, beating a mat and grooming an animal on a public way.

While outlawing cross-dressing for both men and women, these small charges disproportionately affectand criminalize transgender women as they inhibit their freedom of expression in public.  The 19th century colonial law contravenes Guyana’s Constitution which affords fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. This case strikes at the heart of plantation colonial rule that sought to restrict the freedom of the individual and promote racial, religious, ethnic and social division amongst Guyanese.

The core claims being made by the four litigants involved in the case are that the 1893 law itself is unconstitutionally vague, engages in sex stereotyping, and disproportionately affects transgender and gender-non-conforming persons. They also argue that the conduct of state officials was unconstitutional. At stake is also the interpretation of sections of the Guyana Constitutionand how it applies international law to human rights.Of particular relevance to the rest of the Caribbean is the question of whether the law is “saved” from constitutional challenge.Very importantly, the litigants will argue that theConstitution’s “savings law clause” does not prevent the court from reviewing this colonial law.

The four litigants involved in the case have already had some wins. There was an important step forward in 2013 when Guyana’s then Acting Chief Justice, Ian Chang, ruled that dressing to express one’s identity is not a crime. Unfortunately, his ruling did not resolve the uncertainty surrounding “an improper purpose.” A second achievement came in 2017 when Guyana’s Judicial Service Commission said that the practice of a magistrate who repeatedly refused to allow trans women with matters before him to enter his courtroom dressed as themselves, violated their right to access the courts and access justice.

Two Guyanese NGOs are deeply involved in the case. Guyana Trans United (GTU) was formed by McEwan, the first-named litigant,now itsDirector. GTU worksto empower the Guyanese trans community to advocate for their human rights and participate as equal citizens in decisions which affect their lives. The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), a 15-year-old NGOworking to end discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity in Guyana, responded to the initial arrests and was originally also an applicantin the proceedings. One of the policy matters before the CCJ is the decision of the trial judge to strike SASOD out of the case as this precedent may impactmarginalised communities’ access to justice.

Senior Counsel Douglas Mendes will argue the case for the four women, leading a team of pro-bono lawyers from Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, convened by the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP). U-RAP’s mission is to promote human rights and social justice in the Caribbean in collaboration with Caribbean lawyers, civil society organisations and its students.



For further background information on the case, visit:

(i)                 10 Frequently Asked Questions Answered:
(ii)               Case Summary: