1 January 2011

Discrimination and sexual orientation

The current IFSW statement on ethics (which is shared with IASSW) was agreed in 2004. It acknowledges that there was some debate about some of the sections, it was eventually accepted as representing agreement about our ethics world-wide. Within this document, section 4.2.1 addresses the ethical requirement for social workers to challenge negative discrimination and within that identifies sexual orientation as an area in which such discrimination should be challenged. Whilst it is understand that this was the subject of debate at the time, it was accepted as the shared view by the vast majority of colleagues and stands as the ethical statement. It is in that context that the following observations are made in the capacity as chair of the ethics committee.

In the current debate in Uganda there appears to be a very strong connection being made between homosexuality and child sexual abuse. This is extremely unfortunate, as it goes against all of the available evidence from many countries. The great majority of sexual abuse against children is heterosexual – that is, men abusing girls and young women. Such abuse is a key factor in human trafficking and the foundation of a lot of organised crime, for example. The scientific evidence and argument that was cited by some of the correspondence in this current debate actually addresses child sexual abuse (not homosexuality) in its critique of Kinsey and other early work on human sexuality. (The other argument was not scientific, but took a particular stand on moral grounds and then offered a specific intervention.)

In every respect whether in terms of human rights or social justice, social workers must join together to act against child abuse. But in doing so we have to recognise that this concerns the responsibilities of everyone for their sexual conduct, both heterosexual and homosexual alike.

With regard to the role of homosexuality in the spread of HIV/AIDS, in countries where this spread has been brought under control, to some extent there has been an element of this being helped by people taking responsibility for their sexual conduct. But again this concerns both heterosexual and homosexual conduct. The spread of HIV is actually less in those countries where homosexuality is no longer criminalised, because it is possible to involve people more effectively in looking at their actions when this can be done openly. This has also involved targeted attention to heterosexual transmission of HIV as well as the role played by intravenous drug users sharing needles. While HIV is a virus, there is truth to the claim that a major factor in its spread in some parts of the world is poverty, because this affects access to health education and knowledge and other factors that have a negative impact on people’s behaviours. Limited access to medicines and other health technologies is also a significant issue here. These are issues that social work should be concerned about on ethical grounds, as they reflect great injustices and a challenge to human rights globally.

The call for the death penalty as part of the Ugandan legislation also raises ethical concerns for social work. While there are many countries that have the death penalty in their legislation, the issue here must at least be seen as that of proportionality (the severity of the crime fitting the severity of the punishment). The IFSW/IASSW statement of ethical principles is clear that as a way of upholding human rights and social justice we should not contribute to inhumane treatment of people (section 5.2). (This section specifies torture and terrorism as examples, not as an exclusive list.) For that reason our immediate concern should be about whether it is appropriate for social workers to be supportive of the death penalty on the basis of homosexual acts. If the argument is that when acts are perpetrated against children and this leads to HIV infection, then surely all people who commit such an act should be addressed (heterosexual as well as homosexual). The arguments for and against the death penalty then are a separate matter. (Several countries now have strong legislation about the responsibility of someone who has HIV not to infect others, although none of these go as far as the death penalty – but, in principle, these are laws that are congruent with our statements on ethics because they do address all people.)

With regard to the questions of particular religious ideas and positions in this debate, our ethical statement (section 4.2.1) also identifies spiritual beliefs as an area in which we must not discriminate. But in a multi-faith profession (reflecting our multi-faith societies and, indeed, a multi-faith world) this can only be achieved on the basis of respect. Finding ways of communicating with respect is often very hard in relation to religion, as this concerns our most deeply held values and beliefs. However, there are major differences of views within as well as between our different faiths and this should lead us to speak with some humility. (And in case this should be heard as an attack on religion, I should make the point that I say this as someone who is myself a member of one of the major world faiths, not as someone who rejects the value of spiritual belief and practice.) The implication of our ethics, as contained in the IFSW/IASSW statement, is that we should seek to find common ground in the way regard all humanity in looking at any specific question.

The comments made by the IFSW President, Dr. David Jones, are entirely consistent with the IFSW/IASSW ‘Ethics in Social Work: Statement of Principles’ and reflect consultations with colleagues in the executive. So, as chair of the ethics committee of IFSW, I would like to ask that as this debate unfolds we respond to his and to other contributions with respect, with an acknowledgement that the position set out by David has the authority of the Federation.

With kind regards,
Richard Hugman,
Chair, IFSW Ethics Committee