Caption: Gillio aka Gigi Baxter. Photo: Nicky Kuautonga via sista.com.vu
Women and girls across the Pacific region experience some of the highest rates of sexual, physical, psychological and economic rates of gender-based violence (GBV) in the world. Also subjected to high rates of GBV are lesbian and transgender women, although they receive the least attention. In most Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs), the equality and rights of all citizens are enshrined in constitutions however, significant inequalities continue to exist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) persons. While some of our cultures recognise gender diversity, others uphold the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
In Vanuatu, Gillio (also known as Gigi) Baxter is a transwoman leading the LGBTQI movement. She is the executive director of VPride Organization - set up to empower and advocate for people’s human rights to express and to live safely and peacefully with their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Registered in 2017, VPride was supported by the Pacific People Advancing Change (PPAC) project, implemented by the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) division, in the development of its strategic plan. “We work closely with gatekeepers such as police, healthcare workers, nurses, community and youth leaders to understand more about sexual orientation and gender identity. This couldn’t have been possible without the funding support of PPAC. It is through this activity that recommendations emerged for a sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) booklet which is currently a work in progress,” said Baxter.
The SOGIE Booklet is a planned publication for VPride under the current PPAC phase. The booklet will serve as a guide to expand understanding and knowledge of SOGIE terminology, definitions, affirming approaches and expansive practices, and will be developed and printed in Bislama as a resource for partner organisations and government departments to increase SOGIE knowledge and awareness in the country.
Despite the work done in the last three years, Baxter says the work around GBV and human rights continues to demand a lot of work yet. “Policies and reports are still not inclusive of LGBTQI or persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Therefore, a lot of work still needs to be done by policymakers and institutions that needs to be inclusive. Communities are demanding more of our work to be implemented in their respective areas,” she said.
During an outreach in May this year, Baxter says they were overwhelmed by the support shown to them by the community at West Coast, Santo. “There was the utmost level of respect shown towards the LGBTQI. Even though the community lacked understanding of SOGIE, we educated them and taught them how to be inclusive in decision-making in homes and at community level,” she said.
“Identifying and sharing common interests, missions and goals. Specifically addressing issues that they face and how we can address human rights and sexual health among youth. Addressing youth issues was our best approach as we described and advocated ways in which youth can be empowered.”
Baxter says understanding the context of the community and how to adapt was instrumental in making the outreach a success. “It’s also important to establish an effective relationship with community leaders through networking in other spaces and platforms. This could be an enabling process to a step of understanding SOGIE.”
The empowerment of LGBTQI persons is critical to the achievement of sustainable development goals, however Baxter says gender-based and human rights movements usually do not have an easy start when it comes to breaking new ground and barriers. To help get past these challenges, her advice is, “One, know your context. Two, be true to yourself and align your vision, mission and goals. Three, be passionate and innovative with your work. Four, establish networks and learn from others, and lastly, mobilise your people and support.”
VPride’s aspirations for Vanuatu is to strive for access to services, acceptance, freedom, human rights and legal protection for all people in Vanuatu regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
*This article is part of a series that reflects on the challenges and accomplishments of partner organisations of the Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) division in the work to eliminate gender-based violence. The series is an initiative by HRSD as part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign 2020. VPride is supported by the Pacific People Advancing Change (PPAC) Project which is implemented by HRSD. VPride was also supported under the project “Addressing Pervasive Discrimination Faced by LGBTQI Persons in the Pacific” implemented by RRRT from 2017 to 2019 and financed by the US State Department.