Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ignorance persists in absence of options

I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore when I read a story not too long ago in one of the Honduran papers in which the leading medical expert on mental illness in the country described bipolar disorder as a "split personality," with one personality prone to committing violent acts. 
Yesterday, there was a column in La Prensa defending the government's 2005 decision to prohibit gay people from adopting children. The writer noted it was a well-known fact that if gay people raise children, the children often turn gay themselves.
Uh-huh. Such blatant falsehoods have started me reflecting on how other countries managed to grow past similarly uninformed and harmful points of view. You need the will, of course, but you also need the mechanisms for combating ignorance. Honduras is really lacking on that front. 
In Canada, we like to gripe about our governments and their lack of attention to the things we care about. Admittedly, virtually any social progress requires much pressuring of the government of the day and a dogged determination to keep an eye on them forever lest they backtrack as soon as you're not looking. But at least it's possible in Canada. In Honduras, not so much. 
Take the examples of mental illness or gay rights, for instance. It wasn't so long ago in Canada that many people thought about those issues with the same level of ignorance that's common in Honduras. 
So how did that change? As representatives of those groups can attest, it's a long, slow process that is at constant risk of being subverted by even a single high-profile event that sidetracks a nervous public (the tragic beheading committed by a mentally ill man on a Greyhound bus a couple years ago comes to mind ). Eradicating stereotypes and prejudice even in progressive countries like Canada will always be something of a work in progress.
 But having governments that are at least a little susceptible to voter pressure and persuasion is critical to such efforts, as are public forums where you can safely raise a contrary opinion. Here in Honduras, you won't even find a letters-to-the-editor section in the newspapers, let alone anything resembling a responsive government. How do you get traction for social change in the absence of mechanisms for broadening the public conversation and ultimately turning up the heat on government?
I don't know where things like mental-health awareness and gay rights fall on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but almost 70 per cent of Hondurans exist at the bottom of that hierarchy. It could be that the struggle for survival simply doesn't leave enough time in the day for worrying about human rights and seriously flawed views on mental illness. And like I say, there's nobody to complain to anyway.
But if life is incredibly difficult for the average Honduran, I can't even imagine what it must be like for those living with mental illness. The death rates must be phenomenal. 
 I'm told there's a big asylum in San Pedro Sula where people are locked up for what is often probably a lifetime. What must conditions be like inside there? That comment about split personality made by the Honduran bipolar expert was in reference to a story about a mentally ill man who had killed his father and was about to be jailed for life in an iron cage so small he couldn't even stand up in it. 
As for being openly gay in Honduras, forget it. People live deep in the closet,  rightly fearing the violence and public vilification they'd endure otherwise. In 2005, Honduras even went so far as to amend its constitution to ban gay marriage and specifically prohibit gay people from adopting or having custody of a child. 
I wish I was naive enough to still believe that international sanctions on things like this would be enough to bring a country around. 
But such fights are never won from the top down. Canada recognizes gay rights because thousands of brave Canadians risked it all over many decades to speak out, and an independent judiciary and eventually a reluctant government pulled alongside. Canada has (mostly) humane and research-based strategies for the treatment of mental illness because millions of families endured and endured and endured, and courageously told their stories so that others would understand.
Maybe the day will come for Honduras, too. Until then, it's the dark ages. 

1 comment:

Jan Arlene said...

So true in varying developing countries. But surely, countries that can adopt N.American lifestyles in terms of fashion, watching dvds and other trends can learn a thing or two in other arenas? The world is slowly changing as we continue to be global, and maybe, just maybe this won't take another 50yrs to change...