“We really cannot move forward on the issue of human rights if we really do not look at the impact of religion and this whole question of morality and law making and we need to have a separation of that,” said Veronica Cenac, a human rights lawyer in St Lucia and member of the AIDS Action Foundation as she addressed the topic “The Social and Cultural environment: Human Rights and HIV.”
Cenac was among a panel discussion at the UNAIDS sponsored Regional Consultation for Caribbean Universal Access to HIV Prevention, Treatment, Care and Support at the Hyatt Regency last Wednesday.
She said “the reality” was HIV/AIDS was prevalent among sex workers, Men who have Sex with Men, women, young people. She said prison populations and drug users were also affected.
Cenac said studies done in St Lucia showed a prevalence rate of 10.5 percent among crack cocaine users while the national prevalence rate was estimated at 0.5-1.8 percent.
She said the “preservation of public morality” and preventing society from “sinking into moral decay” was at the basis of the argument for legislation which criminalised consenting sex between males, HIV transmission, imposing travel restrictions, and disclosing HIV status for work permits, police abuse of the gay, transgender community, sex workers, substance abusers.
She questioned whether society had the right to pass judgment on all matters of morals and if this was the truth, if it had the right to use the weapon of law.
“Do we use morality as the guide for law or do we use a more objective guide? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves,” Cenac said.
She observed society’s tolerance of deviation from moral standard varied from generation to generation and new rights developed. She argued human rights should be used since it always sought to protect the minority in society.
Cenac said the State is obligated to make laws which respected and protected the rights of individuals. “You have to separate your morality from your public duty to ensure protection,” she said.
Colin Robinson, of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation TT, said laws can institutionalise social exclusion and vulnerability. He referred to Government’s plan to expand death benefits to new beneficiaries including common-law partners of deceased workers but it specified that the beneficiary must be “of the opposite sex.”
Robinson said actions must be taken to build the country’s inclusiveness and respect for the humanity of people with HIV and those becoming infected. “Social vulnerability is at the core of why people get HIV.”
Leela Ramdeen, chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice said current culture had to be taken into consideration. She referred to sexuality and a “new breed of young women” who were “calling the shots.” Drugs and guns also impacted and girls would boast about boyfriends with guns. Ramdeen said single women were left holding the baby and sometimes contracting AIDS when they got into relationships with different men with the hope of a stable relationship. She said women had to be empowered to stand up for their rights and know they can achieve without relying on a man to take care of them and their children.
Ramdeen said religion formed an integral part of culture in the region and the views of religious groups may not be in sync with all the views expressed at the conference. “In spite of this it is clear faith-based groups have a role to play in influencing behaviour and combatting HIV and AIDS,” she said.
She referred to the work being done by groups in lending support and care to persons with HIV/AIDS. Ramdeen said more than 50 percent of service delivery worldwide in responding to AIDS was done by the Catholic Church. She said Catholic Diocese across the region had as part of their pastoral priorities thought, care and advocacy for persons with HIV/AIDS to promote their “inherent dignity and we see the church offering compassionate non-judgmental care to those living with and affected by AIDS”.