It is good that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has gone on record to say that her government is giving “due consideration” to issues of discrimination raised by the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community.
It is also encouraging that after numerous false starts – which have gone on literally for decades – a government seems prepared to bring forward a gender policy, which will cover issues that arise in just about every sphere of national life and, hopefully, do much to ensure greater equity among citizens.
In a letter to the head of a British-based NGO, which campaigns internationally against gender discrimination, the prime minister articulated her personal position on a critical starting point on gender issues to the effect that: “I do not support discrimination in any form against any individual, regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar was, however, careful not to identify her stance as government policy.
Nonetheless, a strong personal position adopted by the prime minister is likely to have a major impact on cabinet discussions on the long-awaited gender policy. It is therefore reasonable to expect that proposals to end the discrimination which now exists against the LBGT community will feature in the draft document when it emerges for public discussion.
Public discussion is underlined as the Government must understand that perspectives on the matters involved in a gender policy must have the input of the widest possible population groups before any final set of decisions can be arrived at on such far-reaching societal values.
The policy has already been examined, revised and discussed by both a cabinet-appointed committee including representatives of government agencies and NGOs, and a wider circle of civil-society groups. These included trade unions, faith-based groups, youth groups, the media, business organisations, the people of Tobago, and others.
Nevertheless, further discussion will be called for, and such discussion is expected to be heated and contentious. This is neither surprising nor a sign that the policy is misguided.
It will, after all, involve considerations such as: The human rights of individuals to make a range of determinations about themselves, their lifestyles; their interactions with others; issues of equality before the law; sexual and reproductive rights; traditional issues surrounding family and a range of other human activities which have taken on a 21st-century flavour.
These are matters which have been shaped by hundreds of years of tradition, religious beliefs, human values and laws inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries. It would therefore be folly to believe that change is going to be easily accepted.
Likewise it must be expected that there will be a measure of stridency from individuals and groups who, by contrast, will be insisting on change from the status quo.
Moreover, there will be contention over spin-off pieces of legislation to ensure that policy decisions taken are complied with, including the decriminalisation, if that is agreed upon, of outlawed sexual practices. Largely silent on gender policy matters, the incumbent minister, Marlene Coudray, should start preparing the stage for the discussion by telling the national community where the policy document has reached.
There have already been misunderstandings about what the policy includes and continued silence on the matter is unhelpful. The public is not even clear about what point the policy has reached and what needs to happen next before it is put into practice.
The communications strategy and plan should also include information on the expected time frame and the process for achieving the objectives of the policy. The principles, benefits and advantages need to be explained to the population — after all, this policy, if put into effect, will influence many aspects of their lives.