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Mia Mottley

how to change Caribbean Culture

By By Cedriann J Martin

"She played with my love and I stab she," Anthony Atwell admitted during his murder trial.

Presumably juries wouldn't be inclined to sympathise with men who killed their wives for leaving them. But Atwell's attorneys argued that Gail Auguste infected their client with HIV and left him for another man. The virus amounted to part-provocation.

Atwell met Auguste on King's Wharf in San Fernando: "I throw my line, and she take bait… so I took she to see my aunt. When my aunt bless she eye on she, she told me 'Tony, carry she for an AIDS test'."

Atwell didn't take advice. And he didn't become murderous when he got his own test result some time later. It was when Auguste turned down a reconciliation that he took her life.

Not only did this telling secure Atwell a conviction on the lesser count of manslaughter but it moved Justice Anthony Carmona to call for laws to address the "reckless and conscious transmission" of HIV.

Ahead of her presentation at the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago's (FPATT) Annual General Meeting last month, Barbadian Member of Parliament and former Attorney General, Mia Mottley, squarely dismissed the judge's idea.

"That is the wrong direction. If you seek to criminalise all you will to do is drive it underground. What do you want to do? Punish people or stop the spread of AIDS?" she demanded. Mottley said we shouldn't pander to a sense of retribution. Instead there should be more focus on the forces that undermine personal responsibility.

"What are the behavioural traits, attitudes and issues that lead people to be disposed to at-risk behaviour? Is it a poverty of spirit? A lack of self esteem? What are the things we can do to strengthen people's ability to take responsibility for their lives?" she asked.

That's one of the vast questions she was invited to address at FPATT's meeting which was themed "Building tolerance and empathy: eradicating stigma and discrimination". From the Crowne Plaza's buzzing lobby Mottley explained that the Caribbean's human rights assignment requires much more than new laws.

"There is no doubt that we have to set the gold standard below which behaviour should not fall as a matter of law but legislation does not change behaviour. Therefore you have to have an approach that speaks to both formal and non-formal education in the schools, community, culture and churches," she said. "It's not rocket science… it's the basic things we were taught as children. Empathy is doing onto others as you would have them do onto you. Tolerance is to live and let live. It is a question of helping people to respect others and to understand that everybody has intrinsic human dignity that has to be respected."

She said that our high HIV prevalence rates and patterns of transmission undermine the idea that only prisoners, sex workers and men who have sex with men are at risk. While females comprise half of the region's HIV positive population (up from 35 per cent in 1990) young women between ages 15 and 24 are at least three times more likely to be infected than men. Here in T&T for example, HIV rates are five times higher in girls than boys aged 15 to 19. Heterosexual sex, early sexual debut and the pattern of younger women having sex with older men—all normative in the Caribbean's sexual culture—are drivers of the epidemic.

"HIV has grown over the years because the mainstream behaviour of our populations makes them more vulnerable. People think about HIV and their minds go to sex work and the exchange of money but there are many other people who see sex as a currency. The consideration is not always cash. It might be a desire to have somebody treat you affectionately… something that you don't get in the home environment. We have to explore and address what people value, what they don't and how they are prepared to treat themselves and their bodies," said Mottley.

Is it a little bit odd to hear a politician weigh in on our innermost motivations rather than wade into taxes, infrastructure or another politician? Mottley said there has to be a shift in regional politics that allows us to prioritise our biggest challenges and address them in a spirit of unity.

"Leadership is more than being in government. It is about how to build a nation and raise a people. That requires conversations and resolutions that don't necessarily fit into the election cycle. Substance abuse, domestic violence, violence and HIV AIDS can't be solved overnight," she asserted. "Unless you can root a people and make them feel good about themselves and respect who they see in the mirror, they can't respect and love nobody else. That is a process that requires all players to come on board."

And by "all players" she means the entire spectrum of forces and institutions that touch our lives—artists, educators, communities and religion. Mottley said the region has done "a reasonably good job ensuring that the conversation includes the church".

"The fact that something is a sin does not give you the right to discriminate against somebody," she reasoned. "That is what we should be emphasising and that's why I keep going back to the golden rule."

Politicians, she added, have to become "change agents".

"We have to evolve new mechanisms for governments that are relevant to our existence and reflective of our personalities. Why do we feel we can't work together when we get inside the parliament? We need to apply a consensual approach to all those development issues that undermine society," Mottley said.

The Queen's Counsel became Barbados' first female Attorney General in 2001 and its first female Leader of the Opposition in 2008. For her, representing people, whether in law or in politics, seemed like a "natural process".

"I am passionate about the Caribbean," she reflected. "I think we represent the best of every part of the world but can be tainted with the worst. It's up to us whether the best or worst wins out."

Notwithstanding all that, the cut and thrust of politics isn't lost on her. Last October she was suddenly replaced as Opposition Leader by former PM, Owen Arthur, on the grounds that she no longer had "the confidence of the majority" of Barbados Labour Party members. Asked how she rationalised the ouster months later, Mottley's response was at once surprising and progressive.

"I don't really know," she confessed. "We haven't discussed it. I have suspicions but I don't talk about it. You can choose to become obsessed about that or to be focused on the agenda. I didn't come into public life to determine that I should be the leader. I represent people. There are times you have to put personal views on the side and focus on the larger issues."

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