Empowered communities push for anti-discrimination laws

gay and transgender leaders lobbying
MSM and transgender groups lobbying for anti-discrimination legislation at the Pink SONA. (Photo: Samuel Genita, Jr.)

Sometime in the early part of 2000, while studying and working as a researcher in one of the major universities in the Philippines, Bemz Benedito was sexually harassed by a male colleague. As a transgender woman, however, Benedito had difficulty getting legal protection and retribution from this outright violation.  “I couldn’t file a complaint because I’m still legally considered a man, and same-sex rape does not exist (in the country),” she explained.

Benedito’s case highlights how the Philippine society may appear tolerant towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, but stories of stigma and discrimination against members of the population abound. So much so that, according to the report by civil society and human rights groups to the UN Human Rights Committee, “widespread and systematic human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation (and) gender identity… persist in the Philippines.” 

The prevailing stigma associated with sexual diversity and the actual discrimination experienced by members of the community drive LGBT people to situations that place them at greater risk. “Experience has shown that when people are stigmatized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are less likely to access the HIV services they need,” said Luiza Carvalho, UNDP Resident Representative. “Therefore, this leads to new HIV infections and AIDS deaths.”

Highlights

  • Widespread and systematic human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity persist in the Philippines putting LGBT people at greater risk, including HIV infection;
  • UNDP helped train a total of 18 community-based groups and about 200 MSM and transgender leaders and advocates on sexual health and rights and organizational and programme development;
  • With wider advocacy and community engagement, anti-discrimination legislations including on the basis of sexual orientation and discrimination were passed in three cities in the Philippines (i.e., Cebu, Davao and Angeles).

Already, the Department of Health reported the growing epidemic of HIV among men having sex with men (MSM) and transgender people in the country, with the proportion of same-sex transmission of HIV rising from 56% in 2007 to 86% by the end of 2011. At present, about eight out of 10 reported cases of HIV each day are acquired through male-to-male sex.

Cognizant of these realities, UNDP teamed up with Health Action Information Network (HAIN) and TLF-SHARE Collective to help strengthen response for the MSM and transgender populations. “The UNDP Programme was able to give opportunity for MSM and transgender groups and organizations to be capacitated in terms of governance, advocacy and organizational development. Moreover, it helped create an opportunity for stakeholders and duty bearers to come together towards greater and cooperative approaches to halt and reverse the HIV and AIDS epidemic affecting MSM and transgender Filipinos,” said Anastacio Marasigan, Jr., Board Member of TLF-SHARE Collective.

To promote an enabling environment for the response, UNDP supported a national campaign to combat stigma and discrimination against MSM and transgender people. The advocacy campaign brought awareness to the issue, engaging community members and building support for national and local anti-discrimination legislations. The greater awareness of the specialized needs of MSM and transgender populations served as a basis for an expansion of cooperation between local MSM and transgender groups and local governments. It resulted in a deeper understanding of the unique development challenges that face the communities in relation to HIV, and increased participation of MSM and transgender groups in local government activities.

Consequently, in 17 October 2012, Cebu City set a historic precedence in the country with the passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and health status (i.e., HIV), among others. “Discrimination is an existing and serious concern in our society that robs others of human dignity and respect,” said Councilor Alvin Dizon, the main author of the anti-discrimination law. Consultations with various sectors made him see “the wide extent and seriousness of the problem.”

“The LGBT rights serve as our platform to voice out, to assert for our equal rights to equal protection of the law” said Magdalena Robinsons, a transgender leader and Programme beneficiary in Cebu. “I know that Cebu can set (an) example, and lead the way for other places in having a culture of respect, social justice and equality.” Similar legislations are enacted soon after in the cities of Davao and Angeles.

In the 2013 national elections, Benedito vies for a congressional seat in the country under the Ladlad partylist, the only political group for LGBT Filipinos. Being the first transgender person to run for an electoral office, she is pushing for the eventual passage of the national anti-discrimination bill in Congress.

UNDP helped train a total of 18 community-based groups and about 200 MSM and transgender leaders and advocates on sexual health and rights and organizational and programme development. It laid the foundation for the development of a national network for MSM and transgender groups, which oversees the AIDS response for the community.