Religious Leaders in the Caribbean: Unlocking the Barriers of Stigma and Discrimination?Read Now
Since its inception in 2001, the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) has engaged Faith Leaders in its accelerated approach to prevention, treatment, care and support for people infected and affected with HIV. PANCAP has been conscious of the important work of religious groups in pastoral care and guidance and the widespread respect and impact that religious leaders command from their varying communities. Since its Champion for Change Conference in St Kitts/Nevis in 2004 and the follow up regional consultation of religious leaders in 2005 in Guyana, PANCAP has convened fifteen (15) national and four (4) other regional consultations involving Faith Leaders under the auspices of its Justice for All (JFA) program initiated in 2013. These activities have resulted in a JFA Roadmap, as a living document, with fifteen (15) actionable recommendations around the following five (5) principles:
♣ Enhancing family life and focusing on those in need.
♣ Increasing access to treatment and affordable medicines.
♣ Reducing gender inequality including violence against women and girls.
♣ Promoting prevention with special reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights including age appropriate sexual education.
♣ Implementing legislative reforms for modifying AIDS-related stigma and discrimination.
Among the most significant outcomes from the JFA process has been the Caribbean Faith Leaders Declaration, resulting from the Port of Spain consultation (February 1-2 2017) with ten (10) actionable recommendations. The most pertinent include:
While Project Equality developed by the Caribbean Judiciary (Global Frontier Blog June 14) is based on evidence produced by socio-legal concepts of equality and non-discrimination, Justice for All is predicated on the scientific 90-90-90 targets developed by UNAIDS in 2016, and on eliminating stigma and discrimination as fundamental to human rights. In the first instance, the biomedical-scientific conclusion is that AIDS can be ended by 2030, if by 2020, 90 percent of people living with AIDS are tested and know their status; 90 percent of those tested are on treatment; and 90 percent of those on treatment have the virus in their blood low enough as not to transmit the disease. Secondly, the results of behavioral studies illustrate that the persistence of stigma and discrimination is a major barrier to achieving the 90-90-90 targets.
In addition to the consultations, Faith Leaders across the Caribbean have undertaken a series of studies to inform actions intent on responding to the both scientific and behavioral tendencies required to end AIDS.
In Jamaica, a 2017 Mapping exercise by the Jamaica Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches had been undertaken to determine the nature of the response to HIV among churches and other religious groups. The exercise, provides a model for other countries and has led to several recommendations including:
In Barbados, a 2006 survey on awareness of pastors and youth leaders (including Sunday School teachers) in the Evangelical denomination showed that the attitudes and practices to sex and sexuality of church goers vary only slightly from the general population. The conclusions, all still relevant , pointed to a series of suggested actions to be considered by religious leaders:
In October 2017, The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Anglicans for Decriminalization hosted a two-day conference in Jamaica examining the role of the Church in anti-sodomy laws across the Commonwealth. A book, titled Intimate Conviction was published as a report from this engagement that brought together activists, church officials, and politicians from around the world. One of the main features of this volume is a biblical survey by Dr. John Holder, former Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies. It illustrates that ‘homosexuality’ is addressed only five times in the Bible and they provide the context and driving force of its interpretation. In all cases it is treated as ‘nontraditional sexual encounters’ that are not condemned. Hence, the conviction of the writers of the Bible is that there is space in God’s relationship for the non-traditional. Dr Holder’s conclusion is that “our journey through the Bible does not provide us with any overwhelming rejection of homosexuality. Given the varied contexts within which the practice is rejected, it is difficult to treat these as providing any universal condemnation” .
In 2013 Sir George Alleyne and Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antione edited HIV and Human Rights: Legal and Policy Perspectives on HIV in the Caribbean, that grappled with answers to the outstanding issues of human rights. Their conclusions were the outcome of a pathbreaking symposium of legal, public health and civil society practitioners. They illustrated that HIV attracts a wide variety of human rights abuses and the social and legal issues faced by protagonists in the HIV challenge and viewpoints of policy makers. They recommended that these contending views could lead to new and more rights sensitive laws, but required that consideration must be given to societal prejudices that militate against transformational change.
Looking to the Future
What has emerged is that faith leaders and FBOs are by no means a homogeneous group. There are many contending ideas, different responses, levels of understanding and manifest convictions especially around the issues of abolishing discriminatory laws. As a result, efforts within the PANCAP JFA programme have attempted to foster an aura of respectful dialogue on the essence of human rights among factions within the national religious organizations and between religious leaders and other stakeholders. PANCAP Forums bring together various combinations of stakeholders — religious leaders, key 'LGBTI' populations, youth, and parliamentarians. These have mainly achieved the objective of reducing tensions and challenges that impede progress to end the AIDS epidemic. A joint forum between religions leaders and key populations in Trinidad and Tobago (April 2018) led Faith leaders to identify priority areas for action and issues that require clarification. Since that time, PANCAP has been involved in clarifying terms in common usage, updating the Justice for All Roadmap and examining the proposals for rolling out Comprehensive Sexual Education in accordance with the concerns of faith leaders and in line with CARICOM’s Health and Family Life Education.
Another joint forum between Faith Leaders and Key LGBTI populations in February 2017, agreed that Faith Leaders should “create spaces of hospitality” and welcome “the other in their otherness” while making efforts to reach out to the marginalized. At the same time, key populations are required to show appreciation for differences among religious leaders and denominations and engage in respectful dialogue. In short, the PANCAP JFA programme has evolved with due regard for the differences within the religious communities and in recognition of their vital role in reducing stigma and discrimination.
Indications are that litigation in the courts based on the principle of equality for all is most likely to rule that criminalizing same sex relations between consenting adults is unconstitutional. This has already been the case in Belize, and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and increasingly in Africa and recently, India. The Judicial process may yet act as a catalyst for either accelerating factionalism among religious denominations or reconciling these differences through the principles of Justice for All. Can Parliamentarians contribute to unlocking the barriers to stigma and discrimination? This is a question that will be tackled next.
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Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.