Human trafficking and gender-based issues – More awareness needed in the media

By Marion Ali, Assistant Editor

More than a dozen media representatives, from as far south as Punta Gorda, were on hand for a media training workshop focusing on proper reporting of human trafficking as well as gender-based issues last weekend.
The workshop was held on Saturday at the Institute of Technical, Vocational Education Training (IT-VET) Centerin Belize City. It sought to point out the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking, as well as what roles and concepts define gender identity.

Facilitator, Ann-Marie Williams explained the importance of being able to tell the difference, for example, between a transgender person and a transsexual individual.
A transgender woman is someone who identifies as a woman but was classified as a male at birth; while a transsexual individual is someone whose gender does not correspond with his/her biological sex assigned at birth and he or she undergoes medical treatment, including hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery, to change his/her sex to match the desired gender.

Williams said it is important for everyone, media workers included, to appreciate the different categories of gender identity as Belize enters an era when people’s human rights come more into focus.

“The purpose of the exercise is to give journalists the opportunity to know the right names to call certain things (lifestyles) so that they are in a position to use these words to inform the populace,” Williams later explained. “How else will people be educated on the issues if you constantly call things by the wrong name? We’re behind. We need to get with the times and we need to realize what’s going on,” she continued.

Williams used, as an example, the case of Vanessa Champaigne Paris, the transgender person who, when remanded to prison on an aggravated assault charge in 2015, could not be placed in the male or female sections of the prison because the facility did not have a section to house transgender persons.

Human trafficking, on the other hand is defined as the exploitation of an individual for one’s personal gain (also known as present day slavery). This is another area where Belize needs to improve in defending people’s human rights.

Belize was downgraded to tier 3, the lowest level, in the Trafficking in Persons Report of 2015, which means we lose funding for social programs because we have not done enough as a country to fight this problem. Belize has been advised of the measures it needs to take in order to upgrade its efforts in this regard.

Human trafficking, because of its clandestine nature, is difficult to prosecute successfully. But the law governing Trafficking in Persons was amended, to no longer include fines as penalties. Perspns convicted of human trafficking offences can get only custodial(jail) sentences.

The recent court case of 65 year-old Estela Gonzalez, found guilty of human trafficking of a 14-year-old girl, forcing her to sleep with men for $25, provided a chance for Belize to step up its efforts. The accused person, however, was fined instead of being confined to prison – a decision Williams described as a “missed opportunity”.

“It sort of pains my heart because she has done so many people wrong. To have heard that …, she has diabetes and she might die in prison for want of a better expression, well, I might sound harsh but probably that’s part of the unintended consequences….We have to ensure that when we really get somebody, that they don’t get away,” Williams said.
Williams recently completed a one-year post-graduate fellowship in Washington D.C., and is the only trained person on the subject in Belize.

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