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A Bill to end discrimination in Belize soon to come

The National Aids Commission is leading the charge in bringing about the Equal Opportunities Bill 2020.  Collaborating with the commission is the Government of Belize and the Special Envoy for Women and Children.

The National Aids Commission is leading the charge in bringing about the Equal Opportunities Bill 2020.  Collaborating with the commission is the Government of Belize and the Special Envoy for Women and Children.  Our News Director looked into the Bill earlier today and filed the following report.

Several agencies in Belize are collaborating on the drafting of the Equal Opportunities Bill that seeks to protect citizens from discrimination in public spaces, the workplace and schools. Discrimination comes in various forms including, gender, physical appearance, sexuality to name a few. What the bill seeks to do is create a legislation that will ensure that individuals are not deprived of opportunities due to unjust judgments. Randall Sheppard of the Attorney General’s Ministry is one of the key partners in putting together the Equal Opportunities Bill.

 Randall Sheppard, Crown Counsel, Government of Belize:We’re looking at protected groups so there’s a list of protected characteristics. So we’re looking at race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, other areas would have persons who are suffering from domestic violence so these are all captured under the draft bill that we have. 

According to the group people experience discrimination on a daily basis. Giving a basic example of how persons are deprived of equal opportunities is Richard Brathwaite, a legal consultant on the bill.

Richard Brathwaite, Legal Consultant: “A woman for example may be discriminated against on the basis that she is young and married and therefore likely to have children, the bill therefore prohibits discrimination on that basis so it’s one of the characteristics and nineteen characteristics are prohibited grounds of discrimination under the legislation subject to exceptions.”

In the process of drafting this bill, several research papers and statistics were taken into consideration. Laura Tucker Longsworth the Chairlady of the National AIDS Commission explained that the team has been thorough in addressing all aspects of discrimination. 

Laura Tucker Longsworth, Chairlady, National AIDS Commission: “This process has taken over a year and even before that we conducted quite a bit of studies to make sure we have data, that’s the first thing. The bill, the process has been inclusive, very comprehensive. The team has met with over 22 different groups of persons, civil society, business and so on-  religious groups and despite what you hear all sectors were involved the religious community and they were informed about what is taking place and now we’re doing the consultations. 

Once brought into law persons would then have legal grounds to fight against discrimination. Sheppard noted that an investigative committee will engage with the complainants. 

Randall Sheppard, Crown Counsel, Government of Belize:  “What has been established under the bill is a commission that deals with investigation and so if an individual goes somewhere and feels that there has been discrimination regardless of if the characteristics is based on sexual orientation, religion, sex, gender whatever special characteristic that person has recourse to the commission who then has the ability to do certain investigations, make recommendations and provide that recourse that is needed.”

One key concern in the drafting of the Equal Opportunities Bill is the rights of the employer. If there is a prerequisite that the business place, albeit gender or sexuality does the bill not deprive the employer of his rights ? Brathwate addressed this concern.

Richard Brathwaite, Legal Consultant:  “There are exceptions and exemptions in the legislation. So in the first instance the legislation does not apply to religious bodies in the first instance. Secondly the legislation proposed an exemptions framework where an individual may apply for an exception for a particular provision of the act in relation to their operations which would require approval on the part of the commission- so this is a balancing. You raise the question of balancing so that this has to be a careful balancing exercise but it is not one that is unknown to the Belizean legal landscape or to the Caribbean landscape.”

Consultations will begin countrywide at the weekend where the public will be able to weigh in on the bill as it is still in its draft stage. Tucker Longsworth noted that discrimination is real in many pockets of society and the time has come to ensure that the bill is passed through the National Assembly. 

Laura Tucker Longsworth, Chair, National AIDS Commission: “Through all the studies and research papers and evidence that has been collected over the past two or three years we realize that we were ready to move towards such a bill because many times stigma and discrimination have been identified as key issues. These are real down to earth things that exist so you ask me what motivated it,  we thought that based on the best evidence we had we needed to take it to another step.”

The bill is expected to the tabled in the House of Representatives within the first quarter of 2020.

As we noted the Bill is in its draft stage and consultations are set to begin on Saturday in San Pedro Town.