Free and Equal is a global United Nations campaign aimed at promoting equality for gay rights communities throughout the world. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on a how the Pacific version of the campaign is approaching the region.
Report – By Latifa Daud
The struggle for equality within the Pacific region continues as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities face violence and stigmatisation, according to the regional office for the Pacific of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Toiko Kleppe, associate human rights officer at the OHCHR’s regional Pacific office says the Pacific Free and Equal Campaign was launched to create a platform for communities to come together and raise awareness for gay rights in the region.
Free and Equal is a global United Nations campaign aimed at promoting equality for LGBTI communities throughout the world.
While there has been a shift towards equality and decriminalisation, there are still eight nations across the Pacific that still criminalise same-sex relations.
“We hope the governments in the Pacific will adopt laws to protect LGBTI people from discrimination and active measures to make sure attitudes change, for example by working closely with schools and health care facilities. Educating them to be respectful of the rights and needs of LGBTI people to prevent any form of stigma or harassment,” says Kleppe.
Part of the issue within the region is also a lack of data about LGBTI violence, which makes it difficult to tackle the community’s issues.
Kleppe says they are “starting to collect data or at least give an overall picture of what the situation is like across the Pacific”.
Variety of issues
Ymania Brown, co-convenor of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA Oceania) says the experience in the Pacific is varied and each nation has its own issues. Therefore, the way LGBTI issues are raised has to be within the cultural realities of different nations.
Regarding fa’afafine in Samoa, Brown says the focus needs to be on the historical roles they carried pre-colonisation.
“How the roles that were to be determined is really from division of labour. In a traditional Samoan society, the leader of the family didn’t really care about your personal persuasion in terms of your sexual orientation. All they really cared about was whether you were able to contribute as a member of the extended family. There was no pretext of ‘you were born male so therefore you only do particular tasks’”.
She also says that while the community has many issues to address, the laws of the land do not always reflect the lived experiences of LGBTI communities.
“While they say it’s illegal to perform certain acts you can see there is no animosity towards them and there is no persecution. The UN needs a method of the measuring of the acceptability of LGBTI citizens to be done in line with the lived experience of the citizens”.
Journey towards acceptance
Joey Joeleen Mataele, chair of the Pacific Sexual Diversity Network, shared her journey towards acceptance in her community as a leiti in Tonga.
“I was the first one to wear a dress to church … I had a bit of fear, a bit of insecurity, but at the same time I said to myself: I am what I am, and no one is going to change this,” she told the Pacific Free and Equal campaign website.
The Pacific Sexual Diversity Network is a region-wide group that represents the interests of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender community organisations. It was formed as a response to the threat of HIV and AIDS within MSM and transgender communities within the Pacific.
A UNAIDS report from 2013 about AIDS response in Asia and the Pacific says even though there has been a 26 percent reduction in new HIV infections since 2001, “the epidemic still outpaces the response and half of people eligible for antiretroviral treatment are not accessing it”.
Noelene Nabulivou and Lucille Chute from DIVA for Equality say it is also important to acknowledge the diversity within the LGBTI community.
“It’s important to ensure that we respect and appreciate diversity in our messages and include the voices of LGBTI who are also people with disabilities, older, younger, women, those living in urban informal settlements, rural and remote communities, and others that are less heard,” according to the Pacific Free and Equal website.
Diverse Voices and Action, or DIVA for Equality is a peer support group in Fiji are lesbian, bi-sexual women and trans-masculine people, and other marginalised women including those in non-traditional employment and sports.
Born ‘free and equal’
A report by OHCHR, Born Free and Equal, talks about sexual orientation and gender identity in international human rights law.
“At least 76 countries have laws in effect that are used to criminalise consensual relationships between adults of the same sex. Such laws, typically prohibit either certain types of sexual activity or any intimacy or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. In some cases, the language used refers to vague and undefined concepts, such as “crimes against the order of nature” or “morality”, or “debauchery”.
“The Special Rapporteur categorised the effects of criminalisation on the right to health in three ways: inhibition of access to health services, violence and abuse, and social stigmatisation. Where same-sex sexual conduct is criminalised, individuals are unable to gain access to effective health services and preventive health measures are not tailored to the needs of LGBT communities. Health professionals may refuse to treat same-sex practising clients or may respond with hostility,” said the report.
Kleppe from the Pacific regional office says access to healthcare and safety networks is an issue within the region.