A delegation of four organizations representing the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF) presented on “Discrimination in the enjoyment of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Guyana” at a thematic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) at its 154th session of hearings in Washington, DC, last Friday, March 20, 2015. The IACHR is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. The Commissioners present at the hearing were Prof. Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Chair of the Commission, James Cavallaro, Rapporteur for Guyana, and Felipe Gonzalez.

The petitioners representing the GEF were the Sisterhood of Support, Services and Sustainability (S4) Foundation, Guyanese Organisation of Indigenous Peoples (GOIP), Deaf Association of Guyana (DAG) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). The GEF is a network of local civil society groups working for equal rights in Guyana.
The State was represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett and Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States (OAS), Bayney Karran.

The main topics addressed by the Guyanese civil society included gender inequality and violence and its impact on the socio-economic life of women and girls, trafficking in persons and cultural genocide, the right to language and education for deaf persons and the discrimination and the right to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Guyana.

Imarah Radix, Executive Director of the S4 Foundation fervently reported that “women and girls continue to suffer from maternity deaths, teenage pregnancy, trafficking in persons, rape, crime and violence, sexual harassment in the workplace and discrimination based on HIV status and gender in the workplace.” She added that these issues disproportionally affect how women and girls access their economic, cultural and social rights. Radix noted that the S4 Foundation has on record reports of women not knowing their rights, numerous incidences of domestic violence, sexual abuse by the police, stigma and discrimination from police and situations of trafficking of young girls. She called on the State to develop specialized on-going procedural and sensitivity training for police for dealing with survivors, to craft a programme to hire and train counsellors in ministries and in schools that will protect the confidentially of children and women, and to strengthen both the Child Care Act and the National Child Care and Protection policy to address LGBT children whose needs are not being met.

Colin Klautky, Chief of GOIP, articulated that one issue of grave concern to his organisation and by extension indigenous peoples of Guyana is the trafficking of indigenous girls and women, particularly between the ages of 15 to 30. “One indigenous girl trafficked is one too much,” said Klautky. His first recommendation to the State is to provide resources needed to protect our young girls and women, including in the form of self-defence training. Additionally, indigenous Guyanese are at the receiving end of cultural genocide such as the loss of traditional languages. Languages such as Carib, Warao and Lokono are threatened with extinction. He recommended that the State provide resources to save these languages and also to add them to the school curriculum in their respective indigenous communities. He also called for the strengthening of the Indigenous Peoples Commission and the Ethnic Relations Commission to deal effectively with the issues of ethnic discrimination affecting the indigenous community. Klautky informed that indigenous Guyanese experience low self-esteem because of constant ethnic abuse from other ethnic groups. This he noted is an assault on a people’s human dignity.

“The right to language is inalienable as such sign language, the first language of the deaf, is their inalienable right,” expressed Sabine McIntosh, Director of DAG in her presentation to the Commission. She noted that Guyana suffers from a severe lack of data regarding the incidence of deafness in Guyana; this setback hinders the development of the deaf community. In January 2015, McIntosh visited Region 9, whilst there neither the Regional Health Officer nor the Regional Education Officer of that Region had knowledge or records of deaf children, youth or adults in their Region. Currently, deaf children are educated in public ‘special needs’ schools, which they share with children with mental disabilities, except for the Tuschen Deaf Academy, a small but budding deaf-only school established by DAG, two years ago. DAG recommends that the State provide schools with the special resources that would be needed to meet their students’ special needs – which, for the deaf, would include first and foremost the teaching in and the teaching of sign language. Important as well is the need for an official sign language programme for teachers of the deaf, or for deaf persons to be trained as teachers for their peers. Zooming in on the economic aspect, the above is a severe hindrance in deaf youth’ efforts to access vocational training and employment; and this is an ongoing and painful issue for DAG, as they seek to respond to the many requests for help in this area from deaf persons all across Guyana.

Joel Simpson, Managing Director of SASOD, opened his presentation by stating that “it is an undisputable fact that the State of Guyana discriminates against LGBT people in law and policy.” He raised the issues of criminialising of same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing and the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination in the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997. He noted reported incidences of homophobic and transphobic discrimination as a result of these laws and the State failing to offer any redress. Conversely, social stigma against homosexuality is extremely strong within the Guyanese society. Discriminatory laws and societal stigma have a profound impact on economic social and cultural rights of LGBT Guyanese. “Anti-LGBT discrimination is rampant in the labour market, in both the public and private sectors,” he said. Simpson noted that, “the State has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all Guyanese. The State violates human rights when it has discriminatory laws on the books and actively enforces them.”

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In responding to civil society, Minister Rodrigues-Birkett noted the State’s progress in a number of issues, most notably were sensitization campaigns to reduce domestic violence, current operational measures to tackle human trafficking in indigenous communities, procedures in place to preserve Amerindian languages and the creation of a special select committee in the previous parliament to address human rights issues, including LGBT issues. However, she acknowledged that further work needs to be done to protect the rights of marginalized Guyanese. As such, she expressed her willingness and enthusiasm to further engage, collaborate and partner with the petitioning organisations to effectively address the issues raised at the thematic hearing.

Prof. Belle Antoine shared how St. Lucia recently included sexual orientation as grounds for protection in its equal opportunities legislation as part of their labour laws, and encouraged Guyana to follow this good practice. Commissioner Rapporteur for Guyana, James Cavallaro, encouraged more collaboration between the State and civil society and offered the assistance of his office to visit Guyana with a team of specialist lawyers from IACHR to provide technical support in these areas.

Simpson responded on behalf of the petitioners to a comment made by Minister Rodrigues-Birkett in which he reiterated former Commissioner Dinah Shelton’s words at a previous hearing in 2013 that “one cannot put human rights to a vote,” in an effort to remind the State that it is responsible for taking leadership on human rights issues ahead of public opinion.

The GEF’s participation at the IACHR thematic hearing was funded by the Delegation of the European Union to Guyana through a grant to the London-based Equal Rights Trust, and SASOD.