On Thursday 9th August, 2012, the Guyana Parliament approved a motion to establish a Special Select Committee (SSC) which will determine whether the country's long-standing laws on sex between men, cross-dressing and sex work, should be removed. According to a statement from Prime Minister Samuel Hinds' office, "the public will be invited to make oral and written submissions to the SSC which, in due course, will submit a report to the Parliament. This report will be made available for public perusal." Hinds declined to comment on the issue until after the SSC’s report has been issued.
Word of the initiative first came from Agriculture Minister, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, during a regional session at the International AIDS Conference held in Washington D.C. in July. Speaking from his Georgetown office the following week, Ramsammy said that the major motivations for tackling these famously hot button issues are the “public health scourge” of HIV and a mandate to address human rights.
“Despite vast improvements in our HIV response the Caribbean remains the second most affected region in the globe. There is evidence in all our countries that one of the drivers of the epidemic is the fact that the system works against certain people by restricting their use of (healthcare) services,” he noted.
Access to HIV testing and treatment are receiving renewed emphasis in the worldwide AIDS response. New evidence shows that early and full management of the disease drastically lowers the chance that an HIV positive person will pass on the virus to a partner. The rate of HIV among Guyanese adults is now one percent. But a 2009 survey found that 17 percent of sex workers and 19 percent of men who have sex with men (MSM) are living with the virus. The former Health Minister said that while service providers are generally more sensitised about the need to provide all people with non-judgmental services, stigma and the fear of being treated differently persist.
“There are significant numbers of people in vulnerable groups who keep themselves away from (HIV) services. Whether it is true or perceived, they believe that they are not going to get the same quality of service as others. It is still a major barrier that we need to overcome if we are indeed going to attain the zero goals (zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination) that we have set,” he said.
The mechanism for the law review—a combination of nationwide community consultations and this latest appointment of a parliamentary committee to consider arguments from a spectrum of stakeholders—has worked for Guyana in the past. Last year the parliament rejected a proposal to criminalise the transmission of HIV and in 1995 the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed after a historic vote of conscience.
Photo Caption: Guyana Prime Minister, Samuel Hinds (Credit: Caribbean American Forum).