Kingston, Jamaica. November 30, 2012 – A seven member Jamaican delegation recently travelled to Canada and participated in a Vancouver/Jamaica knowledge exchange initiative to share experiences regarding discrimination and stigmatization against Men-who-have-Sex-with-Men (MSM) and the links between gay men’s health and HIV/AIDs.

The participants in the delegation were Collin Virgo, General Secretary, Generation 2000 (G2K); Dr. Hamlet Nation, Physician and member of the People’s National Party Youth Organisation (PNPYO) and journalists Naomi Francis, Dervan Malcolm, Ingrid Brown, Carol Francis and Kathy Yetman.

The project was a collaborative effort among several organisations – Panos Caribbean, World Learning, Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the Vancouver Initiative with support from the United States Agency for International Development.

The activities surrounding the exchange, which took place November 26 to December 2, allowed the participants to see how members of Vancouver’s gay community are supported by businesses, churches, health care and justice systems and the government as well as how British Columbia is addressing the issues of HIV/AIDS.

The one-week exchange initiative took the delegation to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, where they met with representatives who gave them an overview of current human rights and legal issues in Canada.

Members of the team also visited British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and held meetings with various stakeholders, including members of the media and representatives of all levels of governments, United Church of Canada, Vancouver Police Department, Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, and other groups.

In assessing the lessons learnt during the project exchange, Dr. Hamlet Nation said that political leadership was critical in the positive strides made in Vancouver, especially when dealing with issues of stigma and discrimination as well as HIV/AIDS.

“Leadership fosters debate about issues and that is what the focus should be on in Jamaica,” he said.

He added that presence of a legislative framework, funding and access to information, which are present in that city, were some of the elements lacking here when dealing with gay men’s health and HIV/AIDS.

Journalist Naomi Francis said the project offered the opportunity to “look boldly and honestly on a society that demystifies myths about a certain lifestyle”. She noted that Vancouver is “a gold standard for care and development of treating people with HIV/AIDS.

“This initiative is an important way for SFU and Vancouver to highlight and celebrate what we have done right, and to explore some areas we’re still struggling with,” said Shanti Besso, who coordinates Simon Fraser University’s Community Education Programme.

“Homophobia still exists here in real ways. This knowledge exchange opens up opportunities to explore the distance that we as an institution and a city still need to go while showcasing some effective strategies for strengthening responses to issues that have impacted gay men’s health, especially stigma and discrimination,” she explained further.

According to Jean-Claude Louis, the Panos Caribbean representative based in Canada who accompanied the delegation, while Canada still had some areas to tackle re homophobia they had made some progress that could be helpful to Jamaica.

“Vancouver is not homophobic free, but there are policies in place, if a gay man or MSM is being bashed, he can go the police and there will be a follow up,” he said. “Gay bashing is punishable and applied like any other offences whereas in Jamaica,  discrimination, stigmatization, homophobia, though declining remain a serious obstacle that prevents health officials from effectively addressing HIV/AIDS amongst the most vulnerable groups.”

He further stated that Canada did not reach that level of tolerance and acceptance in a day, as it took over sixty five years of activism, dialogue, debates and public opinions to reach its present stage.

The Vancouver/Jamaica Exchange Project follows on earlier exchange between Haiti and Vancouver, conducted in 2008. (END/12/12/12)

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