SASOD, APC Push Dialogue, Law Reform, on Intimate Partner Violence in LGBT Relationships

On Monday, November 30, 2015, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and the USAID – Advancing Partners and Communities (APC) Guyana Project hosted the third in its series of monthly Lunch Talks at the APC office in Oleander Avenue, Bel Air Park, Georgetown. The session was held as part of SASOD’s observances of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), which kicked off on November 25 – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – and runs until December 10 – Human Rights Day. SASOD is holding daily activities, both on its social media sites and in-person events.
 
The “Lunch Talk” had a special focus on “Barriers Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People Face in Accessing Services for Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)”. The event featured a panel which consisted of Attorney-at-Law Ayana McCalman, who is Assistant Secretary on the Board of Directors of the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA), Vanda Radzik, renowned human rights activist and Commissioner on the Women and Gender Equality Commission (WGEC), and Joel Simpson, SASOD’s Managing Director. The discussion was moderated by SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator, Chelauna Providence.
 
Panel and Moderator (l-r) Vanda Radzik, Commissioner on the Women and Gender Equality Commission (WGEC); Attorney-at-Law Ayana McCalman; Joel Simpson, SASOD’s Managing Director and SASOD’s Social Change Coordinator, Chelauna Providence. (Photo credit: Nekete Forde, GYNC)
 
Presenting first, Radzik stated that Guyana has a number of progressive laws; however, there is a serious problem with the enforcement of these laws. She noted that there are still high levels of violence in Guyanese society generally. “Violence affecting LGBT persons is particularly horrendous because there is no legislation that specifically protects LGBT persons from the onslaught of discrimination, verbal abuse and targeted violence that in some cases leads to death,” Radzik said. She highlighted that though the Domestic Violence Act is intended to be gender neutral, she was unsure of how it was being applied in practice in LGBT settings. Radzik also urged the faith leaders to be progressive in their teachings. In her recommendations, she noted that the WGEC has been calling for the establishment of a Special Victims Unit within the Guyana Police Force with fully trained practitioners to provide services to survivors of GBV.
 
McCalman noted that there are two key pieces of legislation that deal with issues related to IPV in Guyana: there is the Domestic Violence Act 1996 and the Sexual Offences Act 2010. She highlighted that it is critical to note that both sets of laws are not about the prevention of violence, but rather, protection from violence. The legislation comes into effect after the act of violence has occurred. She stated that the threshold for the reporting of violence is very low, although there was been increased awareness and educational campaigns. She noted that there is a lack of data on IPV in LGBT relationships. She stated that this is also part of the problem because dealing with the issue begins with being aware of the extent of the problem. She added that while SASOD and its partners might be most aware of IPV in LGBT relationships, that the general public is severely unaware of this issue because it is not being recorded by government agencies. However, McCalman noted that the underlying problem for LGBT persons is not the legislation or its application. When accessing legal, social or health services, the real challenge for LGBT persons is stigma. “There is the stigma of saying that your partner abuses you and then there is also the stigma of being LGBT in Guyana,” she said.  “Stigma hinders access to services, protection from violence and other forms of discrimination,” she added. McCalman concluded by addressing the issue of healing for the survivors of violence.  “I have been researching the topic of law as a healing profession. How do we create a society with the relevant laws and rules that do the least harm or no harm at all? The conversations on healing are important, in doing so we can address issues of compassion, tolerance and respect. In turn we will begin to have a conversation about both ends of the spectrum of violence: prevention and protection,” McCalman related.
 
Panel and attendees. (Photo credit: Neketa Forde, GNYC)
 
Simpson’s presentation focused on community experiences with using the law to address IPV. He noted that in his experience one of the main challenges with regards to this issue is the conflicting laws. “There are laws on the books that criminalize same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing but there is a gender-neutral Domestic Violence Act and a Domestic Violence Policy which clearly says that homophobia is an impediment to service provision for homosexuals in abusive relations,” Simpson said. Simpson termed this a “schizophrenic legal framework.” “In terms of protection, the state recognizes that the laws need to serve persons of all genders, but at the same time, we have these archaic laws which don’t help to prevent bias violence. In fact, these laws further propel the stigma and discrimination which lead to targeted violence and hate crimes.
 
Joel Simpson, SASOD making a point. (Photo credit: Theresa Campbell, APC)
 
Abusive persons in LGBT relationships are emboldened by the fact that there partners will not go to the police to report the violence because there are laws which criminalize the very nature of their intimate relations,” Simpson posited. He then stated that ”on the prevention side, we face a key challenge: firstly, the laws around same-sex intimacy are indirectly enforced and the laws on cross-dressing are directly enforced, and therefore LGBT persons are reluctant to go to the police to seek any sort of recourse.” He also highlighted the need for sensitivity training for police officers and healthcare providers and social workers, in a sustainable way. He posited that the resources are available to deal with these problems, but our leaders lack the political will to address them. He highlighted that “the APNU+AFC administration clearly stated in their 2015 elections manifesto that they were going to address all forms of discrimination including those related to people suffering discrimination based on sexual orientation.” He called on the administration to deliver on this commitment.
 
The discussion with the attendees, which included representatives from civil society, government ministries, international agencies, media and the police, interrogated the need for more data and research on LGBT persons’ experiences with IPV, greater collaboration with key government agencies, the need for the media to play a more pivotal role in  educating the public on mechanisms to prevent and protect themselves from interpersonal violence, the need for comprehensive sexually education in schools, working ardently with faith communities to cultivate a culture of compassion, respect and equality for all, and a call for the introduction of gender-based budgeting with resources for planning and sustainability of the response to GBV in Guyana.
 
A section of the attendees - from the Guyana Police Force, civil society and the media. (Photo credit: Theresa Campbell, APC)
 
SASOD and APC recognize that dialogue pertaining to GBV often neglects LGBT people, particularly transgender persons. These conversations are however critical, particularly in ensuring that barriers to attaining the highest standards of physical, sexual and mental health of all Guyanese are removed. It is also important to note that the likelihood of contracting HIV or a sexually-transmitted infection is amplified for persons who are in abusive, violent relationships.