Fostering a safe environment
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Fostering a safe environment

People have a right to feel safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination. However, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, this is not the reality for individuals who make up part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) community.

Education and employment are two areas where such discrimination, harassment or bullying takes place. According to this survey, the majority of the Maltese respondents aged 18 or over and who identified themselves as LGBT had witnessed negative comments or conduct.

This year’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is commemorated today, is focusing on LGBTIQ youth and providing an opportunity to collectively amplify the message that what young people really need is to be protected from homo/trans/bi-phobia.

All young LGBTIQ people have the right to grow up in safe and welcoming environments where they can develop their personalities and talents irrespective of their individualities. This is because exposure to homo/trans/bi-phobia often leads to other serious consequences.

Examples of homo/trans/bi-phobia can include offensive jokes, language, innuendo and mockery; insulting or abusive behaviour and gestures, graffiti, damage and threat to property, refusal to co-operate because of sexual orientation or gender identity; deliberate exclusion from conversation and professional and social activity; physical threats and assault.

Fighting sex/gender-based violence in schools is essential to improve learning achievements for all. Creating an environment safe from homo/trans/bi-phobia is an investment in society and in the future of children and young people who spend most of their time at school during the compulsory years of education.

A discriminatory and unsafe environment can have a huge impact on learning achievement and dropout rates. The psychological damage, including low self-esteem, leaves permanent marks on children’s and young people’s lives. To deal with such concerns, schools should have an anti-bullying policy addressing homo-transphobic bulling or harassment and provide peer counselling and inclusive sexual and relationship education. Schools can also have effective complaint procedures concerning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Malta has registered a number of breakthroughs in LGBT rights

Today, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or potential employee on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. Unfortunately, sometimes discrimination still occurs, leaving victims facing harassment, uncomfortable work environments, being denied opportunities for advancement or even losing their jobs.

To address such discrimination at the workplace, employers can establish a policy promoting equality and condemning harassment as well as providing training to employees on this subject matter. Diversity workshops can help to send a message of equality. Moreover, the workplace should have effective internal procedures in cases of harassment or discrimination. Organisations can also appoint equality representatives as a point of reference for employees and to ensure equal treatment at the workplace.

Malta has registered a number of breakthroughs in LGBT rights. Through the Civil Unions Act, passed in Parliament in April 2014,couples in a civil union are granted the same rights enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. Hence, it establishes equality on the basis of sexual orientation in all social and legislative spheres, including the right to apply for adoption.

Another very important milestone that happened at the same time was when Malta, as the first European State, enshrined gender identity in its Constitution. This gives more legal weight to the prohibition of discrimination against trans people in all spheres of life and sends a strong message to Maltese society that unfair treatment on the ground of gender identity is unacceptable.

The third development in this regard is the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (April 2015) that introduced a right to gender identity by providing for amendments of gendered characteristics on all official documents and certificates without requiring the individual to undergo any medical interventions.

An issue of concern is under reporting. In fact, the FRA survey shows very high non-reporting rates among respondents. The most frequent reasons for not reporting discrimination were a belief that ‘nothing would change’, as well as a lack of knowledge about how or where to report an incident or fear of homophobic or transphobic reaction from the police.

The critical issue of under-reporting was also identified in a research study by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality in 2010, which highlighted the importance of measures to empower the victim to stand up to discrimination.

The NCPE encourages people who feel discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, education and vocational training to seek help and lodge a complaint with the Commission for further investigation. The NCPE can provide assistance in this regard.

The NCPE also provides training sessions to students, educators and employers on diversity, equality and non-discrimination. Such sessions raise awareness on equality and related areas and sensitise the audience for the need of an equal environment for all individuals.

Renee Laiviera is Commissioner of The National Commission for the Promotion of Equality.

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