Last week, the Equality and Justice Alliance (EJA) held the Commonwealth Equality and Justice Forum on Mahé Island in Seychelles, closing its two-year programme of support for countries working to reform laws that discriminate against women, girls, and LGBT+ people. The forum opened with a welcome from Dr Linda Yueh, Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a short speech on the importance of human rights and fully participating in the forum which I delivered, and a keynote by President of the Seychelles Mr Danny Faure.

Alicia delivers a speech at the opening reception for the Commonwealth Equality & Justice Forum.

Attended by representatives of non-governmental organisations and governments from Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Mauritius, South Africa, Vanuatu, and Tonga among other countries, the three-day forum was a space for peer learning as participants shared their experiences in working toward legal reform and people had the opportunity to engage one-on-one outside of the sessions.

Linda Yueh highlighted some of the successes over the past two years. Six Commonwealth governments have benefited from the EJA’s technical assistance programmes including Belize - an indication of their commitment to acting to reform discriminatory laws. Civil society coalitions have been formed across countries and evidence-based reports have been published – including the research on marital rape produced by Marion Bethel – and made available in print and online.

Dr Linda Yueh, Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society opens the Forum.

Yueh emphasised the importance and benefits of sharing information, experiences and good practices, pointing to India’s reference to Belize when it decriminalised same-sex acts. This has, perhaps, been the most impactful part of the programme – bringing government actors, non-governmental organisations and advocates together and creating opportunities for them to share expertise, successes, challenges and ideas.

A panel discussion on legal reform in Belize was particularly insightful. The country’s Supreme Court ruled the criminalisation of same-sex relations unconstitutional in 2016, and it is now working on its Equal Opportunities bill which will help to create a more equitable society. The bill is championed by the National AIDS Commission and the Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation and the Office of the Special Envoy for Women and Children.

Kim Simplis Barrow, First Lady of Belize and Special Envoy for Women and Children joins a panel discussion.

The panel included a legal drafter from University of the West Indies, an LGBT+ rights advocate, representative of an LBT women’s organisation, the Special Envoy for Women and Children, a campaign expert, and a criminology professor. It was easily one of the most valuable sessions for me as it brought so many perspectives to the central theme of legal reform and, while specific to Belize, addressed issues burdening many Commonwealth countries. It allowed for a productive conversation about the challenges Belize has had and how they are working to overcome them. The participants were able to share their thoughts on the process, be critical of systems and positioning, and takeaways that could guide other countries embarking on similar journeys.

The Belize session was the picture of what has been missing from conversations about legal reform in The Bahamas – buy-in from multiple stakeholders, collaboration across sectors, willingness to learn from others and commitment to a single message. We need these elements in order to work more effectively toward to a more equitable society.

This blog was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, 19 February 2020 as part of 'The Alicia Wallace Column'. 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.


Alicia A. Wallace is a human rights defender, public educator, and non-profit consultant with expertise in gender. She is the Director of Equality Bahamas - promoting women's rights as human rights through advocacy and community engagement - and a Caribbean Advisor for FRIDA Young Feminist Fund.