Barbados MP Mia Mottley proposes a far-fetched social experiment. Time travel to the nineteenth century, she says, and you might find that the people who supported slavery and the slave trade sound very much like those who perpetuate stigma today. “Our forebears were being told they weren’t worthy of being treated like human beings,” she reflects. “How do their descendants perpetuate the same arguments? We don’t look in the mirror.”
What is the starting point for addressing stigma and discrimination in the Caribbean? Is it legal reform or do societal attitudes need to change first?
There needs to be a far more holistic and synergistic process. There is no doubt that we have to be able to set the gold standard below which behaviour should not fall as a matter of law. But legislation does not change behaviour and therefore you have to have an approach that speaks to education both formal and informal—in schools, the community, the culture and the churches. It’s not rocket science. They are the basic things that we were taught as children. Empathy: do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Tolerance: live and let live. It is a question of helping people to be open, respect others and understand that everybody has intrinsic human dignity that has to be respected.
In the region there isn’t lots of political leadership on some of the human rights issues that are seen as risky or taboo.
We don’t accept that leadership is more than being in government. It is about how to raise a nation and build a people. That requires conversations and resolutions that don’t necessarily fit into an election cycle. We happen to have parties but that doesn’t mean issues like substance abuse, domestic violence or HIV/AIDS can be solved overnight. Unless you can root a people and make them feel good about themselves and respect who they see, they can’t respect and love nobody else. That is a process that requires all players to come on-board. You need the media, the curriculum in school, the church and art.
Isn’t part of what perpetuates the stigma surrounding HIV the idea that only “at risk” populations are vulnerable?
In my nation women in the 15 to 29 age group have the highest rate of HIV/AIDS and it is the main cause of death among young women between 15 and 21. It’s women at the height of their reproductive capacity and men over thirty. What do we know instinctively about older men and younger women? Transactional sex is very much reflective of what we see in our day to day experiences in the region. There is also a high incidence among MSM and sex workers but HIV has grown over the years because the mainstream behaviour of our populations makes them more vulnerable to it. It boils down to how we as a people treat ourselves, what we value, what we don’t and how we are prepared to treat our bodies.