ALICIA WALLACE: Government’s duty is to protect and promote human rights; it’s not a gift


Alicia Wallace

WHILE it is not news to me that there is a fundamental lack of understanding of human rights, particularly the human rights of people in situations of vulnerability, it continues to be both frustrating and offensive when it is made obvious by people in positions of power and people who claim to be supporters of human rights. This happens far more frequently than one might imagine, and for many reasons. One of them is that many people are not in community with those who are the most impacted by inequality and injustice, and another is that some people are only concerned with their own rights and the rights of the people who are most like them. Some people simply do not have complete information and do not regularly engage with people who are experts, practitioners, or dedicate time and energy to learning.

Recently, a former senator, commenting on the lack of action by the government to make legislative amendments for gender equality, said that the government should pass the gender-based violence bill and amend the Sexual Offences Act to criminalize marital rape “as a gift to the women of The Bahamas.” This framing is not just problematic; it is a problem. Rights are not a gift. Safety is not a gift. They are not earned, and there is nothing we need to do to deserve them. We have human rights because we are human beings. Human rights are universal and inherent to every single person. There is no identity marker that should prevent or limit any person’s access to their human rights. Even when rights are not accessible, they exist. They do not need to be acknowledged to exist, but they do need to be acknowledge to be accessed and enjoyed.

I know that I have stated this numerous times in this space. I am repeating it here both because it is important as a counter to what the senator said and because it is obvious that the repetition of these facts is necessary.

Rights are not a gift. Women are not asking for a present. We have rights. One of the main functions of the government is to protect, promote, and uphold human rights. It is responsible for ensuring that people have access to their rights, and not just people in the most general sense, but people as in individuals with different identities, experiences, and needs. A gift can be compared to a favour, a kind gesture, a symbolic act, and a deliberate extension of something for the enjoyment of another person. Rights, as should be apparent, are none of these. Rights are a requirement. Rights are necessary. Rights belong to us. Our demand is not for the government to be kind to us, to humour us, or to perform a grand gesture. We are demanding that government do its job, that it meets its obligations, that it follows through on its commitment to us. We cannot, must not, and will not have the government obligation to facilitate access to human rights for women or any other group of people reduced to a kindness, a whim, or a benevolent act.

In reporting on the (then pending} session of The Bahamas before the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a media outlet decided to lean into sensationalism by bringing up an advanced question submitted to The Bahamas by Spain about the protection of LGBTQI+ people. It asked the former senator about this, and the response was, “That battle must be fought, but it must not be fought a [women’s rights] matter. The women’s issues have yet to be resolved and if they are [conflated] with those issues, given the kind of disposition of the population of The Bahamas it is highly unlikely that women’s rights will be addressed, and we may find ourselves, for another 50 years, wandering in the darkness. So yes, we must fight for those rights, but they must be fought for as a separate right. Not mixed in with women’s rights.”

This is a complete mess of a statement. It is wrong, and it is dangerous. There are many ways to respond to this kind of inaccurate and uninformed statement. Among the most important is to make it clear that people have different identities, and they cannot be treated as separate from one another. Some people are black and elderly. Some people are black and elderly and experiencing poverty. Some people are black and elderly and experiencing poverty, and have disabilities. There is no way to isolate the blackness from the experience of poverty from a person in that group. Each identity affects a person’s experience of the world and the way they are perceived and treated.

LGBTQI+ people’s rights are, in fact, a women’s rights matter. A very easy place to start is by acknowledging that there are LGBTQI+ people who are women. There are women who are LGBTQI+ people. Does a woman with women’s rights have full access to them if LGBTQI+ people do not have rights? Does, for example, a law against domestic violence between partners who are one man and one woman work for a woman who is living with a partner who is a woman? We cannot choose the parts of ourselves that we want to be on a particular day or that we want to invoke in order to get access to a right. In very recent US history, white women got the right to vote, due in no small part to the work of black women, and readily left black women behind, happily accepting access to the right to vote when black women were explicitly excluded. We had our own experience of this kind of dynamic around the 2016 referendum when people were ready to define “sex” with very limiting and incorrect terms, locking one of the groups most vulnerable to sex-based discrimination out of the intended protection from sex-based discrimination.

It is lazy and discriminatory to push for a separation of women’s rights from LGBTQI+ rights. We cannot decide that women are more important than LGBTQI+ people. We cannot decide not to talk about LGBTQI+ rights because we want to have success with women’s rights. Human rights, by virtue of what they are, are indivisible and interdependent. None of them is fully accessed without one another. We can acknowledge that all of our human rights are not going to become accessible at the same time without creating a false narrative about separation of rights or framing LGBTQI+ people and their rights as disposable. In addition to all of this, the UPR is not specifically focused on women’s rights. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the treaty that is focused on women. UPR is about human rights. All human rights. For all human beings. It is completely in keeping with the purpose and function of the UPR process to discuss the rights of LGBTQI+ people along with other communities.

Human rights are not a finite resource. People are diverse. We all have many identities. We all have specific experiences and needs that emerge from our identities. We all have human rights. We all must have access to our rights. No one can simply decide that our rights are less important or less achievable than others, and relegate them—or us—to a corner. The UPR process makes that clear, and the written report will add to the evidence of these facts. We have to wait to see how the media will choose to report on it, and who it will contact to make reporting more robust, factual, and productive.


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