International Women’s Day: The Guyana Experience

As we embrace this opportunity to pay tribute to the women, as we recognise their roles, struggles and commitment to Guyana. On March 8, Guyana joins with the rest of the world in celebrating Women’s International Day. It is an occasion when our women folk are recognized world over, not only for their achievements in a male dominated world, but also for the emergent role they have been playing in the modern society and the numerous challenges still inherent in their daily battles for gender equality and parity against all forms of widespread discrimination which continues to challenge women.

Guyanese women play significant roles in modern-day Guyanese society as home-makers, lawyers, engineers, farmers, market vendors, teachers, nurses, civil servants, and clerks. Many Guyanese women have become senior position holders in the Government of Guyana; there had even been one Guyanese who took the role as the President of Guyana. Education-wise, women in Guyana have outperformed male Guyanese in regional examinations. There are currently more women in Guyana who attend universities and other tertiary institutions of learning.

This year, International Women’s Day comes on the heels of unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice. Sexual harassment, violence and discrimination against women has captured headlines and public discourse, propelled by a rising determination for change.

Background of 2018 observances

It is significant that this year’s celebrations, held under the theme, “#the time is now:Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives” is being held exactly 100 years after Women in Great Britain had been granted the right to adult suffrage in 1918; and, against the backdrop of a groundswell of international protest against sexual abuse and sexual harassment on the worksite. Founded by Tarana Burke, in 2017 the #MeToo movement encouraged women from all over world to share their experiences of sexual harassment. The Me Too” movement as a hashtag used to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace on social media. It followed soon after the public revelations of celebrity actresses of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

International Women’s Day 2018 is an opportunity to transform this momentum into action, to empower women in all settings, rural and urban, and celebrate the activists who are working relentlessly to claim women’s rights and realize their full potential.

Story of history makers

For Guyana, International Women’s Day, is the story of women whose contribution can be described as those of history makers, added to the perennial chronicles of the centuries old struggle by women for dignity and human rights. Though it is an occasion when primarily focus is on the more modern feminine, distinguished personalities. Many Guyanese women living in urban areas of Guyana have taken roles as breadwinners for their families, particularly in working-class families.

Early heroines and visionaries

There are many women of substance in our society whose contributions over the years go unrecognised or simply are not duly highlighted. And there are many outstanding women of Guyana’s soil who are deserving of immense recognition. Their contributions understandably cannot be adequately portrayed in the limited pages of a publication such as this, for they are so remarkable. We ought to remember and salute those of an early period of our history, there is no doubt that freed African women had a profound impact on the society of British Guiana in the period after Emancipation. whose efforts, though part and parcel of the earlier historical landscape, was as significant as any of their successors.

In this light, the names of Maria Grant, Belinda Hopkinson, Catherine Thom, Molly Archer, and Hannah Foster, are recalled as part of the visionary beginning of the Village Movement, for being among the purchasers of the historic Victoria Village in the 19th century.

The struggle for Universal Adult Suffrage is also recognized, led by Janet Jagan, and Jane Phillips Gay and Jessica Burnham were the first females elected as Members of British Guiana Parliament in May 1953 after the first universal adult suffrage elections were held in the same year.  Winifred Gaskin who was the first female president of the British Guyana Press Association whose roles in the struggle for women’s rights were extraordinary for the courage and determination displayed in the battle for women’s rights in Guyana. The name of Kowsilla deserves to be among those women, who have contributed towards the struggle for improved workers’ livelihood, synonymous with the struggle for workers. She was killed in 1964, at the Uitvlugt Estate, during a protest strike.

Their successors

There are other heroines as well, women whose roles in the positioning of their succeeding women folk on the social and political platform of Guyana should be mentioned:  owing to their unselfish and transformative contributions to Guyana. Hyacinth Godette, Claudette Masdammer-Humprey, Agnes Bend Kirton-Holder, Viola Burnham, Shirley Field-Ridley, Verna Welshman, Yvonne Harewood Benn, Sylvia Talbot, Magda Pollard, Urmia Johnson, Valerie Rodway, Dorothy Bailey, Joycelyn Loncke, Patricia David, Eileen Cox, Cheryl Sampson, Celeste Dolphin, Sybil Patterson, Edith Peiters, Olga Britton, Yvonne Stephenson, Vivienne Daniels, Sister Noel Menezes, Doris Rogers, Meighan Duke, Patricia Persaud, Hazel Halley-Burnett, Gem Nascimento, Justice Desiree Bernard, Philomena Sahoye-Shury, Rajkumarie Singh,  Indra Chanderpal, Andaiye,  and Karen De Souza.

These are just some of the notable women whose contributions to the struggle for enlightenment of women, better womanhood and dignity, inclusive of the removal of gender discrimination; domestic violence, gender-based violence, sexual violence human rights; and parity. It is upon their shoulders that their succeeding women folk, who now continue their work, stand. They are owed a great debt as trailblazers, for their light has illuminated the path of those who now follow in their footsteps.

There are other women of recent vintage, whose important efforts as women have been contributing to both the social and political spheres of Guyana, as examples for women’s rights. The names of Simona Broomes, Gail Teixeira, and Penda Guyan are among those mentioned.

Coalition government advancing cause –Women in positions of power and influence

The A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition government, recognises, “that women are the custodians of the fundamental values that sustain values and are critical for successes and are critical for success in generating social wealth and creating an environment of peace, justice, security and stability”. It has continued to advance the cause for gender equality, and improved status and empowerment of women. The women who hold portfolios as Minister of Education, Nicolette Henry, Annette Ferguson, Minister within the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, Dr. Karen Cummings, Minister within the Ministry of Public Health, Volda Lawrence, Minister of Public Health, Cathy Hughes, Minister Public Telecommunications, Amna Ally Minister of Social Protection, Dawn Hastings-Williams, Valerie Garrido Lowe, Minister within the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs, Valerie Patterson Yearwood, Minister within the Ministry of Communities, Simona Broomes, Minister within the Ministry of Natural Resources, Jennifer Wade, member of parliament, and Rajcoomarie Bancroft, member of parliament are striving to uphold and promote the dignity of all women and children within the broader society. Along with the nine permanent secretaries who manage the daily functions of their respective ministries.

Those of a matured age will recall that it was during the Burnham administration that women began to be elevated to cabinet positions, the magistracy, the diplomatic corps, the armed forces, and other senior public service echelons. The nation’s first two women aircraft pilots were also trained during this period.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Traditionally, women have a greater degree of tolerance and understanding, which persists even in the most difficult of times.  The ability to hope, to transcend political differences, to shape peace agreements, and to do what is right for the greater good of our Nation, are all the qualities we celebrate in our women today.

Women engineers are now a presence in important institutions such as the Guyana Power Light Incorporated; Ministry of Public Infrastructure and other major construction engineering firms.  Gone are the days when skills employment was seen to be the preserve of men, or beyond the comprehension and achievement of women. The Government Technical Institute GTI), whose current principal a woman Renita Crandon-Duncan is an example of their presence, seeking skills, apart from the fact that the University of Guyana has been having more enrollment of female students, and of course, more female graduates.  State boards and constitutional commissions.

There is also very strong women representation on important state boards, with many appointees being of a youthful age. This is in consonance with the government’s policy of opportunities to the younger segment of capable Guyanese.

As representatives on constitutional commissions, for example, there are four women commissioners out of the seven that are appointed members of the Teaching Service Commission; two women commissioners, of the four that comprise the Integrity Commission; and three women commissioners, of the nine that is the directorate of the Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI).

A powerful judicial women presence

Our Judiciary is illustrative of the significant improvement in the lives of Guyanese woman, in terms of gender equality and upward mobility.

It has to be a first among the CARICOM member states, and even the Commonwealth, where at any time, the distinguished offices of Chief Justice, Roxane George-Wiltshire and Chancellor of the judiciary, Yonette Cummings-Edwards, respectively, is held by women. Also, at this time of writing there are 11 women Judges inclusive of two land court Judges, and three Court of Appeal Judges. This constitutes the highest number of women Judges appointed to the local Judiciary at any time of its history. Another milestone has been the first admittances of women into the dignity of senior counsel, for the first time in the history of the Guyana Judiciary. The Director of Public Prosecutions is also a woman. There are also now four women have been clothed in silk.

High ranking women in the military

The important institution of the Joint Services has to be mentioned, for the role women have been playing in the seminal function of law and order and protecting the country’s sovereignty.

There are now more high-ranking women officers in both the Guyana Police Force, and the Guyana Defence Force.  It will be recalled that retired Lieutenant Colonel Brenda Aaron, became the first woman to be appointed to that rank in the Commonwealth.

Women who make very vital contribution to nation and family 

“#the time is now:Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”; Rural women ensure food security for their communities, build climate resilience and strengthen economies. Yet, gender inequalities, such as discriminatory laws and social norms, combined with a fast-changing economic, technological and environmental landscape restrict their full potential, leaving them far behind men and their urban counterparts. But we must not forget to herald the sterling, but unsung examples of ingenuity, industry, pride and dignity, that are daily displayed by the numerous females who are homemakers, farmers, market vendors, teachers, nurses, and clerks.

Our market vendors especially, here a trailblazer Gertude Alsopp (Aunty Gertie) many of decades standing, inclusive of those of the itinerant category must be praised for their continuous contribution to satisfying the demand for agriculture and other products.  Their labours and sacrifice, that occupy the greater part of any single day, have resulted in many of their children and grandchildren becoming lawyers, doctors, and other notable professions; have built homes, and acquired material comforts.

 There are still challenges

Much has been achieved, it must be agreed; however, formidable challenges still exist in the path of our women, not only in Guyana, but elsewhere.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse in all forms are a scourge in the lives of many of our women, of all ages. It is of endemic proportions that have been negatively impacting on the lives of the victims, their families, and on the general society.

In many quarters, our women are not given the honour and respect due, in recognition for the labours/services they give; and unfair burdens many of them are made to shoulder in their personal lives, because of uncooperative and unfair partners.

 Recognition of problem; Plan of action

The contribution of women to development cannot be ignored because it is immeasurable and for too long this has gone unrecognised in our society.  According to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, “Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.” There is still the need for many of our women and young girls to acquire the tool of education as a means towards enabling their empowerment. It is no strange coincidence, therefore, that this is the third year of the United Nations new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Gender equality, with the accent on the empowerment of women and girls.

The new Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically addresses the problem of discrimination and violence against women and girls, with the goal of eradicating both. Concomitantly, it also envisages equal participation and opportunities.

Onward march of women empowerment

Despite the challenges, the inescapable fact is that women’s empowerment has gathered momentum, is in motion, ever since and will continue to move forward. The numerous achievements of women in Guyana, and in other regions, have confounded the chauvinists, whose once secured male branded enclaves are being occupied by women who are bringing a new and much appreciated breath of fresh air to the work environment.

Not even the monsters of power can frighten them into perpetual silence, for they have endured and are rising with new vigour.

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played extraordinary roles in the history of their communities and countries.

It is also an opportunity to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Today we salute you Guyanese Women for your continued strength and fortitude may you go forward with renewed tenacity for advocacy and activism towards accelerating gender parity. Collectively, let’s all Press for Progress; the international women’s day campaign continues every day!

Valerie Rodway.

Yvonne Harewood Benn.

 

(9) Yonette-Cummings-Edwards, Chancellor of the Judiciary (ag).

 

Winifred Gaskin.

 

 

Roxane George, Chief Justice (ag).

 

Renita Crandon- Duncan, Principal GTI.

Magda-Pollard.

 

Indra Chandarpal.

Claudette Masdammer -Humphrey

 

Cheryl Sampson.

 

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