The Commonwealth is a network of diversity. From the difference in size between the giant of India and the tiny Nauru to the multitude of religions and cultures that Commonwealth people follow, the Commonwealth binds all together. The Commonwealth has long prided itself on fostering respect, understanding and tolerance between states, groups and individuals alike. The Royal Commonwealth Society plays a role throughout many areas of its work. As part of its commitment to supporting equality in the Commonwealth last week the RCS hosted The Commonwealth Equality Network at its offices in London.
The Network was established in 2013 as a coalition of Commonwealth civil society organisations working to challenge inequality in the Commonwealth, where it is based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Network was set up with the aim of giving a voice to vulnerable Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities across the Commonwealth and of supporting joint advocacy in identifying a Commonwealth solution to a Commonwealth problem. The meeting at the RCS last week saw network members fly in from all corners of the Commonwealth: Sri Lanka, Tonga, Kenya, Nigeria, Belize and Malta, the next hosts of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
As human rights and gender equality-related issues take their place on Commonwealth policy agendas, the Commonwealth Equality Network gives advocates from the wider Commonwealth a chance to participate in these discussions. First on the meeting’s agenda was to gain an understanding of how the modern Commonwealth operates in the 21st Century. The RCS gave a presentation outlining the Commonwealth Secretariat, governments and other Commonwealth organisations work and interactions with one another. The following discussion explored how CHOGMs function and the opportunities for the network to connect with policy makers and governments during this year’s meeting in Malta. The afternoon’s session provided a chance to connect with UK Parliamentarians through a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights. Members of the network were able to give evidence on how violence and discrimination, on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, affects the lives of their communities in the Commonwealth.
Day two of The Network’s visit saw a focus on building alliances. Members met with several Commonwealth organisations due to attend the Commonwealth People’s Forum alongside this year’s CHOGM. The concept of resilience, a guiding idea for discussion during the programme of the People’s Forum, was brought up repeatedly throughout the day. Network members and allies from other organisations articulated how the concept of resilience helped to focus minds on the physical, social and economic well-being of the individual, but also how diverse communities helped to make societies more resilient. Discussion contributors agreed that homophobia, transphobia and discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion and other grounds could undermine the resilience of people and countries. Members looked forward to continuing discussions with other Commonwealth organisations at the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Malta.
The final day saw discussions continue in different settings. Firstly, Network members met with a range of Commonwealth diplomats to discuss LGBT rights in the Commonwealth. This conversation followed in the wings of the RCS’ success in convening diplomats to discuss this issue respectfully and constructively. The evening saw a change from boardroom roundtables as Network members represented their organisations on a public panel event held at the offices of international law firm, Baker and McKenzie. Key themes of the discussion included the devastating impact of excluding LGBT communities from countries’ economies, the role of faith and religion in supporting LGBT rights and the work of network members in supporting other LGBT people in their communities, despite scarce resources. The discrimination LGBT people face in Commonwealth countries has a devastating impact on their lives, however for one Network member the struggle to have their human rights realised was simple, “we want to be part of the country we come from. We are not aliens”. As the Network demonstrated over the last week, the Commonwealth can be an avenue for ensuring this becomes a reality.
This blog first appeared on the Royal Commonwealth Society website.
Photo credits: menu page Ms Joleen Mataele, blog page Mr Alistair Stewart