New Social Cohesion Minister Commits to Leading Anti-discrimination Law Reform

On Thursday, January 9, a team from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) met with the new Minister of Social Cohesion, Honourable Dr. George Norton, M.P. and his Technical Officer, Pamela Nauth, at his Ministry of the Presidency office.

SASOD’s Managing Director, Joel Simpson, Social Change Coordinator, Jairo Rodrigues and Advocacy and Communications Officer, Schemel Patrick attended the meeting to discuss their partnership with the Ministry of Social Cohesion and the Ministry’s public education work which is pivotal in the prevention of violence and discrimination and is at the heart of SASOD’s work with sexual and gender minorities.

Opening the meeting, Simpson outlined SASOD’s approach to social cohesion. He discussed a combination approach which give a “sandwich effect” to achieve social cohesion.  Simpson described the top-down approach which includes law and policy reform, especially constitutional reform to protect minority groups from discrimination. He stated that constitutional reform is paramount to sanction discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He then described the bottom-up approach which engages communities and educates citizens to curtail their prejudices. “SASOD believes that both approaches need to be taken together to achieve social cohesion in Guyana,” Simpson said.

Patrick elaborated on the need for constitutional and law reform. Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) are not expressed grounds for discrimination in the Guyana constitution. She also noted that with the absence of specific prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and health status within the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, as well as people living with HIV and other stigmatized illnesses are subject  to discrimination with impunity in the labour sector. Patrick urged Minister Norton to commit to amending the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997 to include “sexual orientation, gender identity and health status” as grounds for discrimination. In her presentation, she also called for the repeal of laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing. Referring to the recent incidents before a city magistrate, Dylon Bess, where transgender women were denied access to the courts and thereby justice, she noted that the existence of the colonial-era law is being misused to violate constitutional rights.

SASOD Social Change Coordinator, Jairo Rodrigues; Technical Officer in the Department of Social Cohesion, Pamela Nauth; Minister of Social Cohesion, Dr. George Norton; SASOD Managing Director, Joel Simpson and SASOD Advocacy and Communication Officer Schemel Patrick. 

The Ministry of Social Cohesion is currently engaged in delivering “Diversity and Inclusion” training education programmes to various communities across the country as part of their public education mandate. SASOD’s Jairo Rodrigues asked that the Ministry to extend this work, not only in communities, but also in schools. He noted the importance of education and how information and knowledge can shift attitudes and behaviours. “Education is a fundamental prerequisite for social cohesion, in order to prevent violence and discrimination against marginalised groups,” Rodrigues stated. Rodrigues also presented SASOD’s most recent publication titled “Fact Sheet on Social Cohesion and LGBT Communities” to the Minister and his Technical Officer for further reading on community engagement.

In concluding, Simpson raised the issue of Guyana’s voting record at the recent 71st Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in a failed attempt to rescind the creation of the UN mandate of Independent Expert on violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He urged Minister Norton to invite the UN Independent Expert, Professor Vitit Muntabhorn, to Guyana, noting that social cohesion is a fitting portfolio to lead state action to prevent anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.

Minister Norton expressed his delight to meet with the delegation and commitment to working with SASOD in achieving mutual objectives. He committed to exploring a possible visit by the UN Independent Expert, Prof. Muntabhorn, and requested that SASOD prepare a draft amendment bill to the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997 for his Ministry to consider. Nauth expressed her gratitude for the support SASOD has given to the new Ministry, as a member organization of the Social Cohesion Peer Group and active partner in their work, and requested the organization’s continued support as Ministry strengthens its relationship with SASOD, to achieve a common goal of building a Guyanese society which is cohesive, just and equitable.