By. Dr. César Núñez
The Zero Discrimination Day 2019 theme is “act to change laws that discriminate”. Of course this is an opportunity to think about what we can do to address the indignity, violence and exclusion that so many among us face. But first let us reflect on triumphs of humanity and progress in our region.
Notwithstanding the ongoing challenges, thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees have been welcomed into neighbouring homes, communities and countries. Many have been offered legal status, dignified work, access to healthcare, education and social support. We are thankful to the governments, organizations and individual citizens of this region who have generously welcomed their neighbours.
Courageous litigants in Belize, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago have successfully challenged the constitutionality of colonial laws with a disproportionate impact on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We recognise their personal sacrifice, as well as the commitment of the organizations that supported their efforts.
Parliaments have also acted to create more equitable societies. Two dozen countries in the region have domestic violence legislation. In the last five years, eight countries took steps to outlaw child marriage. Fifteen countries have explicit, constitutional or legislative protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
So while we recognise the ongoing challenges, we also note our people’s resilience and capacity for positive change. We must draw upon that energy and hope as we address the ways in which our societies abuse or neglect the most vulnerable and marginalized. From our perspective at UNAIDS, there is a clear link between this discrimination and HIV.
One-third of new infections in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2017 were among young people ages 15 to 24. Yet many countries impose the need for parental consent for young people below 18 years to access HIV testing services.
Too many Indigenous people have inadequate access to healthcare, education and economic rights. In Venezuela the HIV prevalence among Warao Amerindians, for example, is 9.55%.
Same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in nine Caribbean countries. HIV prevalence among gay men and other men who have sex with men in the region ranges between 1.3% and 32.8%.
Transgender people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have very little legislative protection from extreme levels of violence, marginalization and exclusion.
It is no coincidence that among countries in our region, HIV rates for this community range from 7.4% to 34.8%.
The fact is that experiencing prejudice and exclusion for any difference—socio- economic status, race, age, sex, nationality, sexual orientation, health status or gender identity—makes people more vulnerable to HIV. They might be blocked from accessing support or opportunities made available to others. Or they may feel uncomfortable or ashamed using services even when they are available.
That is why it is imperative that communities and legislators play their parts in reforming or removing harmful laws, while introducing and implementing laws and policies that protect and empower. We also invite people, in the absence of such legal changes, to exercise their sense of solidarity, non-discrimination and respect for their neighbours. The good news is that we already have what it takes to get the job done!