UN Volunteers promote respect, empathy and diversity.

Overcoming intolerance and discrimination through education, respect and information

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the equality, recognition and guaranteed rights of the LGBTI+ community seems to demand constant vigilance. How can volunteers help? By ensuring the inclusion that we want to see in society. On the International Day of Tolerance, let us recognize the importance of respect, empathy and diversity.

It’s different when you have suffered from discrimination yourself and when you are part of a minority. These life experiences help you develop more empathy towards those who need assistance. --Alfonso Zabaleta, UN Volunteer Humanitarian Affairs Access Officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Venezuela

To overcome obstacles of intolerance and discrimination, Alfonso believes that education, respect and information are the keys to success. "We must work towards a civic education that discusses and integrates diversity."

Fellow UN Volunteer Johanna Tejada agrees, saying, "it is important to unlearn hate speech that doesn't contribute to an egalitarian future." Johanna serves as a Territorial Assistant for Institutional Support to the Migration Flows Response with UN Women in Colombia.

The facts are worrying. The criminalization of gender identities and sexual orientation still exists in 69 countries around the world (United Nations, 2019). In Brazil, 312 people were murdered because of homophobia in 2013 (one victim every 28 hours). In Mexico, there were 400 murders between 1995 and 2005 and in Honduras, there were 186 murders between 2009 and 2012 (World Bank, 2014).

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation. Some LGBTI+ people had to live with families that didn't accept them, while others searched for refuge. The levels of depression, anxiety and violence increased. --Johanna Tejada, UN Volunteer Territorial Assistant for Institutional Support to the Migration Flows Response, serving with UN Women, Colombia 

Johanna identifies as gender fluid and feels safe talking about gender and sexual orientation in UN Woman Colombia. She believes diversity in teams broadens perspectives, while promoting values of empathy and recognition. In her team of six women of different ethnicities and origins, the focus on gender equality is interlinked with sexuality, race, migration, and indigenous identity.

Maria Alejandra Bautista Serrano, a UN Volunteer serving as Advisor in the Points of Attention and Orientation of the UN Refugee Agency in Colombia, is one of the first faces that migrants and refugees meet on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

She shares, "During interviews, a girl and a boy arrived, both with diverse sexual orientation. The girl explained that his birth family had turned their back on him for being gay and now they accompany one another. I asked her: 'What is the problem with having a different sexual orientation? I am a lesbian too.' She then responded: Oh really? Me too! The interview flowed much more and it was possible to address their specific needs," María Alejandra stated.

Trans people are even more vulnerable. For them, "social distance is already a condition imposed by society," comments Nathan Simoes, a UN Volunteer Programme Assistant for UNV in Brazil. In Latin America and the Caribbean, between 40 and 70 per cent of transsexuals did not complete their basic education and just 3 per cent reached university (UNDP, 2021).

Nathan's role is to inform and debate. He is a member of a task force within the UN Human Resources Network that investigates ways of increasing diversity in the UN system. As part of his activities in the UNV Brazil Field Unit, he organized a session with serving UN Volunteers to discuss equality and non-discrimination amongst members of the LGBTI+ community in the UN.

"The main focus of volunteers must be to find solutions," Alfonso says. "We hope that our presence helps those who haven't dared yet to join out of fear or reservation. Let them see that the United Nations system is open to diversity, defends the rights minorities and that there are possibilities," he concludes.

This article was written with the kind support of Online Volunteer Thalita Lima.