Eagerly awaiting anti-discrimination legislation

Dear Editor,

I want to extend a warm welcome to Member of Parliament (MP) Marlene Malahoo Forte and minister of the nascent Ministry of Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Despite immense public discourse on the validity, or lack thereof, of the new ministry, I certainly find value in its mandate, especially concerning the human rights of vulnerable people.

As the policy and advocacy officer at the Jamaican Network of Seropositive (JN+), an organisation that advocates for the rights and concerns of people living with HIV, I am eager to work with the new ministry in hopes of achieving meaningful legislative changes that will protect and improve the lives of people living with HIV and other vulnerable populations.

Our data at JN+, collected through the Jamaica Anti-Discrimination System for HIV and Jamaican HIV Stigma Index 2.0, shows that 33 per cent of people living with HIV experience some form of stigma or discrimination at various levels of the society. Sadly, we have collected cases of HIV discrimination and human rights violations throughout the years, and as recently as 2021, when people living with HIV were unjustly dismissed from their jobs or experienced other targeted or violent forms of HIV discrimination.

As a society, if we look beyond HIV stigma and discrimination, investigate the different forms of discrimination that already exist within our society, it will become apparent why we must enact anti-discrimination legislation. For example, there is immense evidence that shows that people living with disabilities, women, LGBTQI+ people, among other vulnerable populations are often victims of human rights violations and discrimination that impacts their opportunities to be dignified citizens of Jamaica, who are able to fully utilise their abilities to create, innovate, and contribute to the growth of the Jamaican society.

There is not much research on the full socio-economic impact of discrimination and, by extension, the lost human capital potential throughout the Jamaican society, but we can assert that Jamaica's procrastination in enacting progressive anti-discrimination legislation that ensures equal opportunity, equity, and respect for the human rights of all Jamaicans negatively impacts the socio-economic growth of our State.

It is important that we create an enabling environment that allows everyone, including people living with HIV, to contribute to our society without fear of prejudice.

The little research that exists on this matter, one of which is a study done by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) published in October 2019, The Cost of Sexuality Based Discrimination, estimates that discrimination against LGBTQ people could be costing Jamaica US$79 million annually, and the total cost of treatment of HIV due to discrimination is an additional US$424 million. That's a lot of money to be losing to different forms of discrimination.

I hope Minister Malahoo Forte sees the clear moral and economic argument for work to begin on this well-needed anti-discrimination legislation. Civil society organisations are waiting with bated breath to work with her to protect the human rights of those most vulnerable within our society. We have the data, drafted legislations, and legal experts who are willing to extend their skills and knowledge to make this legislation a reality.

But, until then, we hope the Government can at least enact the Occupational Health and Safety Bill (OSHA), 2017. This Bill was on the table prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and with the emergence of the pandemic the passage of the Bill is even more important.

The OSHA legislation would offer protections to both employees and employers in the workspace. Specific protections are tabled for those who are living with HIV and other noncommunicable diseases, which would be a big step for our country considering there are no legislative protections for people living with HIV who face discrimination.

This is the right move to offer support to the most vulnerable among us.

Kimberly Roach

Policy & Advocacy Officer

The Jamaican Network of Seropositives

policyofficer@jasero.onmicrosoft.com

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