Equal Opportunities Bill: Putting Discrimination On Notice

The Equal Opportunities Bill has been in the headlines all month and this morning the National Aids committee in partnership with the Office of the Special Envoy held a breakfast meeting to sensitize the media to the draft of the bill. They claim will improve the lives of all Belizeans, but public opinion is polarized.

As we've told you the bill was created to address the social ills that result from 19 different forms of discrimination. But the National Aids Commission says that it was very much inspired by the stigma long experienced by Belizeans with positive HIV statuses.

That's because the data shows that 50% 0f Belizeans living with HIV don't know their status. They live in fear of testing due to stigmatization. Additionally, 50% of Belizeans living with HIV-AIDS refuse to access life-saving treatment for fear that it may expose them to discrimination.

And this morning Crown Counsel Randall Shepard told us that the bill aims to create a level playing field where every Belizean will be able to exercise freedom of expression free of discrimination.

Randall Shepard, Senior Crown Counsel, Attorney General's Ministry
"Under the constitution of Belize there are several rights so there's freedom of expression, freedom of religion but also to prevent discrimination and I think what is important is for persons to understand is that what the legislation is doing is trying to create that balance to make sure that everybody's rights that are existing under the legislation we're on a level playing field and you're able to exercise your freedom of expression but also ensure that other persons are not discriminated against."

Cherisse Halsall:
"So here was a question raised this morning about...does it indeed do that?"

Rashad Brathwaite, Attorney-At-Law
"Just in the interest of clarity, we've provided specific protection on the basis of HIV positive status recognizing that much of this state with the legal assessments coming out of the national AIDS commission."

"There is no reason in 2020 that the Caribbean ought to continue to be amongst the highest regions affected in terms of the prevalence of HIV and so we address that. but more significantly we've moved from the core of the CARICOM model build which has as its focus HIV prevention and looking at how do we best fulfill the constitutional promises in Belize. So the right to equal protection of the law, the right to protection of the law, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of particular characteristics."

Cherisse Halsall:
"What's one reason that you would say that a religious woman should still support this Bill?"

Rashad Brathwaite, Attorney-At-Law
"This legislation protects religious women whether it's in the exercise of their religious freedom so that if you work at a facility and you require because you worship on Saturday you require an accommodation to allow you to have that time of this legislation provides an accommodation where if you make a reasonable request on the basis of your protected characteristic so in this case religion and it can be reasonably accommodated by the employer then the employer has an obligation to do that. So good employers already do this and the legislation for those employers does not affect that but they aren't unknown cases where people have been fired because they've changed faiths or because they're pregnant or so."

Cherisse Halsall:
"In your experience what is the main problem that religious bodies have raised about this law and try to dispel that."

Randall Shepard
"It's definitely going to be the idea that person's think it's going to affect marriage and so there's a provision in the legislation and it was brought up here today where it says that it will prevail against any other law and so persons believe that it will affect the marriage act but what we've said and we're trying to make clear over the past couple of days is that this legislation doesn't address anything about marriage and so it will only prevail over another legislation that deals with what is in the equal opportunities bill marriage is not included and so it doesn't affect marriage any at all."

In response to criticisms raised in ongoing nationwide consultations on the bill presenters made a point to highlight that the Equal Opportunities bill does not amended or otherwise affect the marriage act, does not include or establish abortion, does not create new crimes, and does not regulate hate speech.

Channel 7