Sunday, January 30, 2011

You might know a paedophile

 (Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 30 January 2011)

This week we found out about four children who were said to have been sexually molested by “trusted” adults. The good news is that all of the alleged perpetrators have been stopped and will now face justice. However, one cannot help but wonder how many more situations such as these exist and whether there is anything else society can do to protect children.

Here are excerpts from the Kaieteur News reports on the alleged sexual assaults (all are from the January 28 edition):

“Ronald Forde, a 25-year-old teacher of the Fort Wellington Secondary School on the West Coast of Berbice, was charged…with having carnal knowledge of one of his students, aged 14, fully knowing that she was under the age of 18.”


“The 33-year-old teacher, who bit a first form schoolboy of Saraswat Primary School on the pretext that he was inflicting love bites, was released on station bail from the Leonora Police Station.
Since the incident that occurred on [last] Sunday, the child was removed from the home that he occupied alone with help from two female neighbours and installed at an institution in the city.
Vigilant teachers, on noticing the marks on the child, called in the police who learnt of the sexual assault on the child. They arrested the teacher.”


“A 42 year-old man from Parika has been remanded after being charged with incest of an 11-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. The accused made an appearance…at the Vreed-en-Hoop Magistrate’s Court before Magistrate Nyasha Williams-Hatmin. It is alleged that during December last year the man repeatedly sodomized the lad, and repeatedly had sexual intercourse with the girl. The court was told that the matter was brought to the attention of the police by neighbours.”


In May of last year Guyana passed the Sexual Offences Act of 2010. This Act was a comprehensive measure taken to protect against sexual predators and will certainly help to put prosecute the perpetrators from the media reports this past week.

I have mentioned before that I volunteered briefly with a rape crisis centre in my area and although every case was heart wrenching, the cases with children were particularly disturbing. My job was to be the victim’s advocate. I would be with the victim at the hospital, ask vital information that could be used to prosecute the perpetrator, make sure the victim sought counselling and offer a shoulder on which to cry should it be needed.

Of course, as a volunteer, I was trained to view each case clinically and I did just that – until I left the hospital. The reason my volunteering stint was so brief is that I simply could not deal with that feeling in the pit of my stomach on my drive home – especially when the victim was a child. Therefore, I left that job for others who were better suited.

Still, when I hear of stories about children being sexually assaulted, I remember the eyes of those children who I worked with personally. I remember the fear and mistrust. The sad fact is that many children who are sexually violated are victims at the hands of someone they trusted.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in the 2000 Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement report, “Ninety-three percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker, 34.2 percent of attackers were family members, 58.7 percent were acquaintances and only seven percent of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.”

I would theorise that the numbers in Guyana would be very similar. The incidents from this past week would certainly point in that direction.

Victims of sexual assault face a very trying time as they attempt to heal from their traumatizing assaults and there are long-term effects on survivors of childhood sexual assault and/or abuse.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in the U.S., survivors of sexual assault may experience severe feelings of anxiety, stress or fear, known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a direct result of the assault.

Victims of rape or sexual assault may turn also to alcohol or other substances in an attempt to relieve their emotional suffering. Or they could inflict deliberate self-harm or self-injury. Victims could subconsciously develop Stockholm Syndrome, which is described as a victim’s involuntary emotional “bonding” with their abuser.

There are many emotional and psychological reactions that victims of rape and sexual assault can experience. One of the most common of these is depression and some even consider suicide. Many survivors of sexual assault suffer from sleep disturbances and disorders. Victims and survivors with eating disorders often use food and the control of food as an attempt to deal with or compensate for negative feelings and emotions.

Victims may also experience body memories, which is when the stress of the memories of the abuse experienced by an individual take the form of physical problems that cannot be explained by the usual means. There is also the chance of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and pregnancy.

According to the World Health Oraganization (2002), victims of sexual assault are: three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.

These are some startling statistics and each one of them a good reason to find ways to better protect our children. Since 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker – it stands to reason that we need to protect them even from relatives and friends.

No one likes the idea that their neighbour or cousin could be a paedophile, but it is far better to be safe with our children than sorry.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A terrifying story of domestic violence in Trinidad and Tobago

(Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 26 January 2011)

The fight against domestic violence is a global struggle – and that includes other parts of the Caribbean. I want to share a story from Trinidad and Tobago that is particularly disturbing in both brutality and the continued terrorism faced by the victim, even after she left her abuser and as she is attempting to build a new life for herself.

Shaliza Ali’s first violent encounter with her abuser came very early in the relationship when he tried to prevent her from coming to Guyana for a singing engagement. The physical altercation terrified her, but her situation left her vulnerable and she returned to him. The physical, verbal and psychological abuse continued.

In her own words from a written statement that will be read today in Trinidad and Tobago, Shaliza said, “I endured several episodes of physical violence. He would often enter into severe mood swings and abuse my teenage daughter and myself. On many occasions, my father would have to rescue me as I would either be thrown out of the house, or left stranded in the middle of the highway. My father counted 27 individual times he had to intervene and rescue me from his violent outburst. I faced several embarrassing public outbursts and humiliation in front of employees, clients, business associates and my lawyer and his staff.”

(Shaliza honoured me with an early copy of her statement to write this column.)

Shaliza was feeling broken and fearful. She said, “The final straw came when he placed his licenced firearm to my head and thumped me in my abdomen; I was recovering from surgery at the time. He locked me inside of the house leaving me trapped inside, wounded and suffering from internal bleeding.”

Shaliza discovered as she was leaving the relationship that the abuser had already transferred their business funds out of their joint account and into his account. The statement said, “I left penniless and flat broke. I walked out on assets which included lands, a fleet of high profile vehicles, a well furnished house in Lange Park, several heavy duty tractors, trucks, excavators, rollers and other earth works equipment.

I left all jewellery, books and personal belongings and walked away with the bare necessities.”
Shaliza went into hiding for a period of time, but when she finally re-emerged, the abuse continued. Her abuser continued to stalk her and make violent confrontations – even in public. Law enforcement offered little or no protection.

She also discovered her abuser was not honouring the contractual obligations with their business clients. “I left all assets to him and I expected that he would have done the honourable thing and complete infrastructure works to the outstanding land development projects,” Shaliza said.
She was wrong and yet when lawsuits were made, only she was held accountable. “I did not enjoy the proceeds of these sales nor did I use any of the funds, they were converted and invested by my abuser and he knows what he did with the funds.”

Even without enjoying the proceeds of the sales, Shaliza maintained, “Nevertheless, I … state that I do not intend to leave my obligations unattended. I have been struggling to get back up on my feet financially and I have promised as soon as [I can] I will honour the commitments to those clients who invested in developments where I was the recipient of proceeds from sales.”

However, her abuser continues to terrorise her and attempts to sabotage all her business ventures. Shaliza’s statement said this concerning a restaurant she started, “On two or more occasions, he placed a chain on the two aluminum doors of the restaurant, claiming that we were not opening the restaurant today unless I returned to him. During preparations for a Valentine Day dinner, he barged into the restaurant and started shouting obscenities at my employees. He took a chafing pan filled with hot water and threw it at my daughter. An employee had to restrain him as he brandished his firearm in the air.”

Shaliza walked away from the restaurant in fear of her life and started working in real estate again, but according to her statement, “This has been an uphill struggle, as I have had to face and endure his continuous stalking and predatory behaviour. He has contacted several of my new clients and discouraged them from doing any business with me, making up stories to produce doubt in the minds of several customers.”

However, Shaliza is a strong woman. She has written a book about her experience with domestic violence entitled, “Built by Brokenness.” It is an inspirational journey that would be particularly encouraging for Christian women who need to escape their abuse, as Shaliza uses biblical scripture throughout the book during each phase of her walk through and out of the abuse. I hope Austin’s Bookstore can get some copies.

In spite of Shaliza’s strength, or perhaps because of it, her abuser will not relent. He has used his connection with a Trinidad and Tobago television host to wage a smear campaign against Shaliza and call for a ban on her book from all the bookstores in her country.

The ironic part of this story is that the “offensive” material being used against her is that she did not live up to the contractual business obligations – the very same ventures for which her abuser took the money and never completed. Not a word is being said about his contractual responsibilities though.

Her abuser has done anything and everything to make her life a living hell. But Shaliza is a fighter and today she will be holding a press conference to respond to the ban on her book and the accusations made against her. Will Trinidad and Tobago continue to allow her abuser to inflict harm on Shaliza or will they finally hold him responsible for his abuse? Time will tell…

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ending a relationship should not mean ending a life

 (Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 23 January 2011)

As you read the following news reports for January, try to find the common thread:

On January 3, a man hanged himself after murdering his estranged common-law wife in Zeelugt, East Bank Essequibo. On January 4, a Guyanese man beat his estranged Guyanese wife in Bom Fim, Brazil (close to the border with Guyana), resulting in her being hospitalised. Also on the 4th, a man was accused of going to his ex-girlfriend’s workplace and threatening to kill her.

On the 7th, a 20-year-old woman was attacked by a total stranger, who mercilessly banged upon her with what appeared to her to be a crowbar. She is now fearful for her life since she believes the beating she received was prompted by her ex-lover, who is a close relative of a senior government official.

On the 17th, a Bush Lot, West Coast Berbice man, who tried to save his sister during an attack by her estranged husband, ended up being stabbed. She was also injured. On January 20, a man’s body was found in a septic tank on the property where his reputed ex-wife still lived. The woman has been arrested.

Did you pick up on the common thread? Yes, all of these reports concern domestic violence, but they do not cover all of the domestic violence cases from the start of the year. There is yet another parallel in these reports – all of this violence was inflicted on women and men after the relationship was ended.

The month of January has not yet come to a close and already there are several cases of domestic violence for the New Year. However, what concerns me is the extremely high rate of those cases in which one or both of the partners left the relationship. According to the Guyana media reports I have been tracking since the start of the year, there have been ten cases of domestic violence.

Remember this is not the total sum of the domestic violence incidents in the country; it is only what has been reported by the media in Guyana. There are likely numerous more incidents that go unreported to the police and/or by the media.

Of the ten cases of domestic violence reported by the media, six involved relationships that had been severed. This is not an uncommon trait in abusive relationships. Once an abusive partner realises the other is going to end the connection, the violence often escalates.

According to Susan G. S. McGee’s article, “20 Reasons Why She Stays, A Guide for Those Who Want to Help Battered Women” on, “For battered women who leave the violence is often just beginning. Batterers oftentimes escalate their violence when a woman tries to leave, shows signs of independence or has left.”

The article continued, “Assailants often stalk their partner both during the relationship and after it ends. The batterer’s pursuit rarely ends until he has found a new victim, the victim relocates or the consequences for the stalking are too great. However, some assailants return years later to re-assault or to kill their partners. Assailants are most likely to kill their victims when they believe that she is actually going to leave them.”

Indeed, two of the ten cases reported by the media in Guyana during January ended in death. Three of the ten cases resulted in hospitalisation. Both deaths and two of the three hospitalisations involved relationships that had already been severed. There were also beatings and threats, in which law enforcement and the judicial system were involved.

My point is not that anyone should stay in an abusive relationship, but one must be very smart and plan ahead. Make a safety plan that will arrange a way for a safe exit that does not involve more violence.
Here is a safety plan from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence ( located in the US:

If you are still in the relationship: Think of a safe place to go if an argument occurs – avoid rooms with no exits (bathroom) or rooms with weapons (kitchen). Think about and make a list of safe people to contact. Keep change with you at all times. Memorize all important numbers. Establish a “code word” or “sign” so that family, friends, teachers or co-workers know when to call for help. Think about what you will say to your partner if he\she becomes violent.

Remember, you have the right to live without fear and violence.

If you have left the relationship: Change your phone number. Screen calls. Save and document all contacts, messages, injuries or other incidents involving the batterer. Change locks, if the batterer has a key. Avoid staying alone. Plan how to get away if confronted by an abusive partner. If you have to meet your partner, do it in a public place. Vary your routine. Notify school and work contacts. Call a shelter for battered women.

If you leave the relationship or are thinking of leaving, you should take important papers and documents with you to enable you to apply for benefits or take legal action.

Key to the success of protecting those who are leaving abusive relationships is a system of shelters in which the victims can find safety. This is yet to be developed in Guyana, though the need for it is obviously overwhelming. Perhaps in revamping the Domestic Violence Act of 1996, we will see the introduction of more shelters.

Until then, victims should be ready to find a safe place on their own. The statistics in just the few short weeks of this year are too high to leave your safety to chance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bulldozing the people

(Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 19 January 2011)

A January 15 Kaieteur News article entitled, “La Penitence Market vendors face dislocation”, said this concerning Minister of Transport and Hydraulics, Robeson Benn, “When asked about the availability of space between Broad Street and Sussex Street to facilitate the construction of a four-lane road Benn said, ‘Everything that is necessary ultimately to get four lanes going through here to accommodate the growth in our country will be done.’”

When I read these words, it was quite clear to me that regardless of the amount of people who will suffer, the government will do what it takes to accomplish its desired goals. Regardless of the amount of people put out of business or the number of lives crushed in the process – the government intends to bulldoze the country in the name of progress.

Let me be clear, I believe most people want to see progress in Guyana. There are very few people who would argue with the need and desire to see a more progressive Guyana. Everyone wants to see four lane roads and a nice Stabroek Square. On this point, you will get no argument from me either.
However, it is how this progress is being implemented – by sacrificing the well-being and livelihood of the people – that I take issue.

When the lives of the people are put at risk for the sake of progress, this is not truly progress. Instead this is regression. It is regression into a condition that forsakes the superior notion of governance of the people, by the people, and for the people.

To bulldoze the people for the sake of progress is the manifestation of logic without emotion, capitalism without compassion and governance without empathy for the people.

In the past few weeks, countless vendors have had their businesses closed, minibus drivers have been displaced, sugar workers were told they would likely be replaced by machines and GAWU was threatened with being derecognised.

Moreover, there have been numerous people arrested and held without proper cause – including some visiting Venezuelan singers just last week – and there has not been a peep from the government about the injustice of these acts.

It seems there was a general announcement to unleash the bulldozers and the more people who are destroyed in the process, the better. Yes, it is unmistakable that “Everything that is necessary ultimately…to accommodate the growth in our country will be done.” The message has been received.
Meanwhile, the people have begged and pleaded to be treated with the respect they deserve, and those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Bulldozers have no ears and no hearts. The obvious indifference for the people is becoming more and more apparent as time goes on. With each tick of the minute hand, another person is losing her or his business or employment. Tick tock.

Sometimes I truly do not understand the reasoning of the current government. This is yet another situation where it could have been heralded as a hero if only it had found a way to implement these plans for progress without inflicting so much harm on the people in the process. Instead, it tramples on the people and declares itself a hero when it is instead a villain.

Now that the message has been received – loud and clear – what should be the response to the cold-hearted way in which the people are being treated? Keeping in mind that any government is only in place to enact the will of the people and when it instead turns on the people and inflicts harm – that government becomes a detriment to the nation.

I would like to call upon Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Priya Manickchand, and Minister of Labour, Manzoor Nadir, to stand up for the people during this very difficult time. Minister Benn and others are hell-bent on progress without due consideration of how many people are being impacted. This is where the Ministers of Human Services and Labour should step up for the people.
The government – with checks and balances – should function in a way that one sector consults other sectors as to the overall well-being of people of the nation. There is little balance in the way the Stabroek Market and La Penitence Market vendors are being shuffled and discarded.

If Ministers Manickchand and Nadir do not act now to help these people, their Ministries will be inundated with these people very soon, when there are countless vendors and their families without jobs, food or housing. Why not intervene now when their lives and businesses can still be salvaged instead of waiting until everything is completely lost and they have no place to turn but to these Ministers?

I implore Minister Manickchand and Minister Nadir to consider these vendors and work to find a way they can keep their businesses. There must be viable solutions to this situation that do not require putting so many people out of business. There are so many lives at stake and so many futures that could crumble. What is taking place with the vendors is the exact opposite of progress. This is not advancement. This is the worst of the human capacity, not the best.

Progress for tomorrow’s Guyanese cannot be made by sacrificing the welfare of today’s Guyanese. Again, this is counterproductive and illogical – not to mention cold-hearted. There MUST be a way to bring progress without hurting so many people.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Displacing the vendors is counterproductive to Government’s programmes

 (Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 16 January 2011)

Life is so cruel sometimes. Imagine going to work one day to make money to feed your children and a bomb going off nearby that kills some people, injures others and scares everyone in the nation. And that is not the end of the story. Next you are told you cannot work anymore – your work is being shut down – and it is obvious that everyone in the area where the bomb exploded is being punished for what the bomber did.

How will you feed your children? It is not like you make tons of money selling your goods at the market, but you try to make that money go far. You have been a vendor for years and do not have another trade to fall back on if you cannot vend. You have invested a substantial amount of money into your little business only to be told that a cruel twist of fate – of which you were not the least bit responsible – has stolen your only source of livelihood.

Moreover, you are a single mother with no other form of income. One day’s earnings lost from your vending means in all likelihood that you would not be able to buy food for your children. It has been several days now and the safe life you built for you and your children is now falling to pieces. Will you be able to pay your rent? You are scared and desperate. Where do you turn and how do you get your safe life back?

This story is just that – a story. However, it is likely the story of many of the displaced vendors of Stabroek Market. The truth of the matter is that a majority of humans all over the world would be in the same dire financial strait if told they could no longer ply their trade. Likewise, a day or more of missed work – for a majority of people around the world – could mean the loss of home, missed meals and a family without the financial means to survive.

For a single mother, this is a living nightmare. It puts the woman and the children at calamitous risk. At a time when, as a society, there is a fresh outlook on protecting women and children, the circumstances surrounding so many single mothers who are vendors at Stabroek Market is counterproductive to the effort being made to help women make their own way in life.

After spending so much time, effort and money to establish the Women of Worth (WOW) program (a micro-credit loan scheme to help single mothers start and run their own businesses) and to increase the focus on training single women on how to find their way in the workforce, this unsound decision to put so many single mothers out of work in one fell swoop completely undermines all of the hard work to promote their financial independence.

Surely there is a way to allow these vendors to continue their work and provide for their families while providing a safe environment for shoppers. I have visited countries throughout Central America and I always make a point to visit the markets in each country. This is where the culture of the nation can be found. And yes, each city in those countries has a market.

In fact, in many of the smaller inland cities, these markets are where one would buy groceries because there are no grocery stores. When I lived in Guatemala for a few months, I shopped at the local market several times a week because I lived two hours outside of the main city and I had no refrigeration. Today, I shop at the outdoor markets in Texas as well because it is well known that those vendors have the freshest fruits and vegetables.

My point is this, why shut down a thriving part of the Guyanese culture because some criminal-minded person caused death and havoc? The vendors are not responsible for the bomb. Why punish them for something a criminal did? Moreover, is it not giving the criminals what they want when the lives of ordinary citizens are disrupted by their crimes? This situation could and should be handled in a way that causes the least amount of trauma on the vendors.

If crime flourishes in the area where Stabroek Market exists – the problem of fighting that crime lies with law enforcement. The answer is not to shut down the market and put so many people out of work. The answer is to find a way to allow the market to function and eliminate the criminals at the same time. If one vendor is found to be committing criminal acts, shut that one vendor down – not all of them.

This is a major setback for Guyana. It is impossible to have so many working single mothers lose their financial means and the nation not feel the effect of it. If we think this through, what will those single mothers and their children do for money now? How will they feed, clothe and house themselves? This situation actually creates potential for even more lawlessness.

No matter how one approaches the displacement of the Stabroek Market vendors, the action is counterproductive to the very programs and stated desires of the administration. The administration cannot promote the betterment of women by putting them out of business. Likewise, the administration cannot battle crime and at the same time create the potential for more crime.

Imagine the helplessness of watching a government bulldozer knock down the walls of a business that you spent years of toil and sweat building. Imagine the fear of the future – one that had been planned out and looked adequate and respectable, but now you do not even know from whence your next meal will come. It is a bleak future.

That the people’s own government is the one who imposed this bleak future is the saddest part of the story.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

She asked for it!

(Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 12 January 2011)

Just before the “Break the Silence, Stop the Violence” rally last November, I was on television almost daily to promote the rally. As a result, many people would come up to me and tell me their thoughts on the subject of domestic violence. I was more than a bit surprised by the number of women who would insist that if a woman marries a man who she knows is violent or stays in a relationship with a man who is violent – then she deserves the violence.

Do women who stay with abusers deserve the abuse? Let me say up front that this is the wrong question to start with, the questions we should be asking are: Why do assailants terrorize and torture their partners? Why is it that the vast majority of batterers are men and the vast majority of survivors are women? Why does society allow the abuse to continue?

However, for the sake of addressing this widespread belief – that the woman asked for the abuse – let’s list some of the many reasons why women stay in abusive relationships. Many believe that if an abused woman really and truly wanted to leave an abusive relationship, she would pack up her things and go. However, this conclusion ignores the environmental barriers that prevent women from leaving the abuser.

The following information is by Susan G. S. McGee and located on

Separation Violence – Many, perhaps most, people believe that battered women will be safe once they separate from the batterer. Batterers may, in fact, escalate their violence to coerce a battered woman into reconciliation or to retaliate for the battered woman’s perceived rejection or abandonment of the batterer.

Psychological Terrorism – Some battered women are held prisoner in their own homes. Assailants use psychological terrorism and brainwashing techniques to keep them in the violent relationship.

Hope that he can change – If he can be cured, she reasons, then the violence will end and their relationship can resume. However, most experts believe that a man must be violence-free for two to three years, before marriage counselling is safe or appropriate. All women want the violence to end; many do not want the relationship to end.

Cannot afford justice – Some battered women are forced to stay because they cannot afford to pay the legal fees to separate from the abuser.

Battered women stay for their children – Battered women fear that their partner will get custody of the children.

Some battered women stay because there is no place for them to go – Shelters do not exist everywhere. They are often full. Most women cannot find or afford safe housing. They become stuck in emergency shelters, unable to find a place to live.

Some battered women stay because they are not given accurate information about battering – They are told (by professionals, family, friends and the batterer) that alcohol or other drugs cause battering. Women then endlessly attempt to modify their behaviour only to watch the violence worsen. They are sent to mediation or couples counselling, and told that if this does not work out, it is their fault.

Some battered women stay (for varying lengths of time) because their assailants deliberately and systematically isolate them from support – People who are in trouble need support. They need the aid of family, friends, co-workers and professionals to weather the crisis and make the best decisions for themselves. Assailants commonly force their partner to account for every minute of their time.

Some battered women stay because they believe in love and they still love their partners – This is often one of the hardest phenomena for people who have not been battered to understand. However, many people have been in difficult relationships or jobs that they knew they should leave, but either couldn’t, or needed time to be able to depart. Love is glorified in our culture.

Some battered women stay because they believe what their assailant is telling them, such as – You’re crazy and stupid. No one will believe you; You’re the one that’s sick. You need help. You’re hysterical; I know the judge; he won’t put me in jail; The police will never arrest me; It’s not serious. You’re not really battered; If you leave, I’ll get custody because you’ll have abandoned me and the kids; If you leave, I’ll find you and kill you. I’ll kill your family, your kids, and your pets; You’ll never escape me.

Drugs and Alcohol – Some battered women stay because they are addicted and their addiction prevents them from taking action on their own behalf. Some battered women stay because their assailant encourages or coerces them into using alcohol or other drugs, and/or sabotages their recovery.

Some battered women are trapped in battering relationships because of sexism (unequal treatment of women) – Barbara Hart: “The most likely predictor of whether a battered woman will permanently separate from her abuser is whether she has the economic resources to survive without him.” Women do not have economic resources equal to or approaching men. The poverty rate in female-headed households is much greater than that of married families.

Some battered women stay because institutions are helpless or unwilling to offer them protection or assistance – In every institution, there are those who are allies to battered women and actively search for ways to be helpful. Others are well intentioned, but have no training or knowledge about domestic violence.

Some battered women stay because they believe what women have been taught to believe about both women’s roles and men’s roles (gender socialization) – Gender stereotyping and enforced adherence to it play a major role in battering. Certainly, girls are taught to be passive, to smile, to be nice, to be accommodating, to take care of others and to be sensitive to others needs. Beyond “teaching”, our culture actively punishes girls who violate those rules. The facet of gender roles that directly contributes to domestic violence is the concept of entitlement. Men are taught entitlement. Men are trained to believe that they are entitled to the attention and services of women. When men don’t get these services, some may try negotiation, some pressure, and some may leave their partners. Some men choose to use violence to obtain those services.

Some battered women stay because they are afraid that if they try to leave, they or their children will die – They should fear death. Battered women are in real danger.

These are just some of the reasons why we cannot say that women want to stay in abusive relationships. They do not “ask for it.” Women do not ask to be abused, but are often trapped in abusive relationships and cannot see a way of escape. It is then our responsibility to help these abused women to find a way to a happy and safe life outside of the reach of violent and abusive hands.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Guyana’s 2010 Woman of the Year

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 09 January 2011)

My male colleagues have made their choices for those they admired in 2010. Peeping Tom chose Glenn Lall as Man of the Year and Freddie wrote of a list of people from 2010 that he admires. Therefore, I would be remiss if I did not name my own selection for a female who deserves to be recognised.

I have met so many wonderful Guyanese women this year – women who have persevered through the most difficult of circumstances, women who are still struggling and doing it with valour and women who dedicate their lives to helping others. Each one of these women has made a significant impact on me.

That being said, my choice for Woman of the Year 2010 is Varshnie Singh. When I met Varshnie in September of 2010, we met at my hotel and her easy-going demeanour put me at ease from the very start. To be sure, we were both probably a bit wary of the other since she came from a life of politics and me being a journalist. The first thing she did was ask the taxi driver (she did not have a car to drive at this point) to drive me around town as she showed me sights that no one had yet taken the time to show me.

Then we picked up some lunch – cook-up for me and a veggie dish for her. We ate in the Promenade Gardens and talked for a good long while. My wariness was put to rest when I saw how willing she was to be honest about the questions I asked. I was not interviewing her for a column, but I was curious about her life. She was kind enough to appease my curiosity.

However, what really struck me was that she greeted every single person who crossed her path. The greetings were genuine and given with a smile. In a country where class lines are still so very prevalent and where those with power and money treat the average person with contempt, it was refreshing to see the Former First Lady greet each person. I would end up spending a lot of time with Varshnie and those greetings to strangers on the street never stopped.

The traits I have spoken of to this point are interesting, but do not make one a Woman of the Year. What makes Varshnie stand out is her selfless and tireless work for others. Day in and day out, she is helping others. She helps those who are sick and cannot afford medical treatment. She helps women who are victims of domestic violence. She helps anyone who asks, and does so with a smile on her face.

After Varshnie and Dianne Madray (another great candidate for woman of the year) successfully pulled off the “Break the Silence, Stop the Violence” rally and subsequent workshops, it would make sense that she (Varshnie) would stop and take a breather, but instead she organised a senior citizens Christmas luncheon, where each attendee received a new shirt if they were a man and a piece of material to make a dress if they were a woman, a hamper of goodies and a great lunch.

It did not stop there, she then organised an event for kids to get a photo with Santa and a present from him. There were around 900 children who came to the event. Varshnie could have been recouping from the months of planning that she and Dianne spent on organising the rally. Instead, she continued to give and to give some more.

The information I am giving of what Varshnie is doing for the people of Guyana only encompasses the last three months of the year – from the time I met her in September – and does not include the many other good deeds she does like finding doctors who will help the poor who are sick, getting medication for those who cannot afford it and so many other little things that mean the world to those she helps.

Varshnie is the type of leader that I would follow. She is humble and smart; she is kind-hearted and willing to help others. She does not use her position in life to hold others down; she uses it to lift others up. She does not look down her nose at anyone because she sees each person as having value. I have seen this with my own eyes on numerous occasions.

I have even watched her closely (being the journalist that I am) when she was exhausted and hungry because our schedule would not allow us to sleep or eat, and she still saw those who other leaders would look right through as if they did not exist. This tells me that her generosity toward others is authentic, it is how she believes she should live – and she does live it every day.

I have been so very inspired by this woman who could easily go to London, get a nice paying job that correlates with her education and live a comfortable life. She does not have to do spend her time helping her fellow Guyanese, she is doing it because she truly wants to do it.

I am going to be honest, I used to be like Varshnie years ago when I was younger, but I lost my way when confronted by ingratitude, suspicion (no good deed goes unpunished) and lack of perseverance. Varshnie is a better woman than I because she does not give up, even when faced with all of the same obstacles I encountered. I have seen it with my own eyes.

One cannot be around Varshnie for very long without being inspired. She has triumphantly worked through the hurt and emotional turmoil life has doled out, and the beautiful woman she is today is a testament to how strong and loving she is inside.

For all the good she symbolises in Guyana, this why I have chosen Varshnie Singh as Guyana’s Woman of the Year.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The futility of only teaching abstinence to our teens

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 05 January 2011)

In a December 15 report in Kaieteur News, Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, said that in the New Year his Ministry would be accelerating its prevention efforts against HIV as it affects adolescents. The Minister said that his approach will “likely see a combination strategy being embraced.”

The report said, “If you test a 15-year-old positive for HIV you can be certain that that young man or young woman has been having sex for some time before, and we need to recognise that. In recognition of the fact that abstinence is an approach that has not been adopted by some young people, efforts must be made to address this situation, said the Minister.”

My interpretation of this statement is that the abstinence only policy does not work. This is what I have been saying for years. In March of 2007 I wrote about how young women in the US were being pressured by parents to “remain pure” until they were married when they attended a Purity Ball, where they would take a vow of chastity.

Remain pure? As if the natural act of sex makes one dirty.

That philosophy, that sex is dirty, is exactly why sex is still such a taboo subject in so many homes. Parents do not talk about sex with their children, therefore, the children learn about sex on the streets and feel guilty about what they have learned, because their parents are so adamantly silent on the issue they feel there must be something wrong. It must be bad.

Whispers, secrets and sneaking around behind parents backs is how a majority of children learn about sex because parents cannot seem to muster the courage to have a frank conversation with their children about one of the most important decisions a young person will face. Is it any wonder the HIV rate and teenage pregnancy is so high? Worse yet, is that those adolescent sex lessons given by friends are taken into adulthood and adult relationships.

As I said in that 2007 column, I have no problem with teaching abstinence to our children as a way to avert them from the pressures and dangers of a sexually active life until they are ready to assume the responsibilities that accompany such a weighty decision. However, we all know that young men and women will explore those feelings and urges developing at an alarming rate during puberty. It is a natural and biologically-driven desire that pushes teens to want to see what their rapidly developing bodies can do.

Ramsammy said there has been “great advocacy” in the international community for Guyana to endorse the abstinence strategy. This is true in the education system in the US as well. I have always given my teenagers a more realistic lesson after they received the schools’ abstinence lesson. I told my daughters that abstinence is great, but if they decide to have sex I want to know so I can make sure they are on birth control. I also talked with them about practicing safe sex.

Ramsammy also said, “With the young people, we must recognise that while we continue to encourage them to abstain, we have been doing so – not for the last year, not for the last ten or 20 years, but for decades, and in spite of our encouragement and our advice, and in some cases instruction for them not to be engaged in sex, a significant number of them are sexually active.”

This is reality and when we pretend to be oblivious of this reality, when we allow our young people to get their sex education from the streets and friends no older or experienced than they are, we set them up for teenage pregnancy, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and a distorted view about sex.

How can we expect our young people to grow up to have healthy sex lives when we do not give them the tools to do so? Making young people feel guilty about a natural biological function is counterproductive.

The sooner we recognize that our teens are having sex, the sooner we can start acting like conscientious parents.

As such, would it not be more practical to teach young people about responsible sexual conduct instead of placing unreasonable expectations on them that create feelings of failure and guilt about sex? Would it not be socially proper to create an atmosphere at home that is open for teens to talk to their parents about their sexuality rather than leaving their teens to explore such an important part of their life as a trial and error experience?

We can be such prudes sometimes with our own sexuality that we shy away from the important task of educating our teens about sex. Their friends will not teach them about safe sex, STDs, pregnancy prevention, the mutual respect that should accompany the act or how to fend off unwanted sexual advances.

I am glad to see the Ministry of Health move to take a more logical approach concerning sex education, but I believe this responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents. It is because so many parents have absconded from this responsibility that the government has been forced to step in and do it for them. This is true worldwide and it is a damn shame.

Where abstinence alone teaching has failed, I posit that learning about sexuality from parents is the answer. Perhaps the Health Ministry needs to educate the parents on how to educate the teens.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Domestic Violence: The 2011 Agenda

 (Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 01 January 2011)

I cannot help but joyfully note that articles in the newspapers about domestic violence cases are substantially lower. Compared to the situation six months ago, when there seemed to be an article about a woman being beaten and/or murdered almost every day – the apparent scarcity of those stories as 2010 came to a close is like a breath of fresh air.

It seems the campaigns (by both the private and public sectors) to educate men and women on the evils of domestic violence have made an impact. However, I am only cautiously optimistic because I know there is still so much work yet to be done. I know that since domestic violence has not yet been eradicated in Guyana, we must continue to speak against it and find a holistic approach to eliminate it.

There was much effort in the last part of 2010 to bring awareness to this issue. Some of which included the “Break the Silence, Stop the Violence” rally (held by local NGOs), workshops held throughout the country, government- and privately-sponsored television discussion panels and commercials, a march organised by ROC, 14 religious bodies signing a joint communiqué taking a zero tolerance stance against domestic violence (I hope they remain true to their commitment), the Skeldon Declaration being initiated, house-to-house awareness visits were conducted, training sessions held by the government for community leaders and a White Zone being established in Berbice.
Also, the media did an excellent job in highlighting this issue and getting the word out about the various events.

In other words, a lot of work went into making Guyana safe for women in 2011. It was well worth the effort, too, when we pick up a newspaper or watch a newscast and no woman has been beaten or murdered. It is what we do not see that is important. However, as I have already said, there is still so much work yet to do. All of the labour of 2010 was just to lay the foundation for the real work that must now be done in 2011.

Now that we have brought awareness to the issue, now that we have established that it is wrong to beat your wife, we must now ensure a strong infrastructure to keep women safe if they need to remove themselves from a violent situation; establish counselling centres for victims, survivors and perpetrators; continue to address the social and cultural practices that encourage domestic violence; offer counsel on how to communicate in a way that does not lead to violence; educate young people on better communication practices; create a friendly law enforcement environment in which women feel that can safely – and without ridicule – ask for protection and seek justice; and offer training courses for survivors so they can make a living for themselves.

The chore before us for 2011 may seem daunting, but is essential to the well being of the women of Guyana – and the nation as a whole.

If we are to preclude another case like Neesa Gopaul, we must be vigilant to take the necessary steps to wholly correct this matter and keep it under control on a permanent basis. We cannot drop our guard and pretend that all is well now. All is not well yet. However, it is my hope that by the end of 2011, we can indeed say – with good conscience – that all is well.

My promise for this year is that I will continue to do all I can possibly do to end violence against women in Guyana. Still, I am just one woman and I can only do so much. It has been a privilege for me to work with a dynamic team in 2010 that included Dianne Madray, Varshnie Singh, Sukree Boodram and Luke Daniels. As a team, we have plans to continue our fight against domestic violence in 2011.

It is my hope that Minister Priya Manickchand and the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security intend to continue their efforts as well. I do believe that the combined efforts on many fronts have saved the lives of women in the past few weeks. I also believe that if we were to stop right now, the beatings and the killings would resume. Which is why we cannot stop.

Moreover, the fight against domestic violence must involve more than just the group with whom I work, the Ministry of Human Services, community leaders and organisations like Red Thread and Help and Shelter.

I have said this countless times, but it bears repeating, if we truly want to see an end to domestic violence it is the people who have to make it happen. I have seen a dramatic change in attitudes concerning domestic violence, but I have also seen remnants of the old way of thinking, too. This proves we still have more work to do to eliminate this bane of society.

It is heartening to read newspaper reports about neighbours calling the police when a woman is being abused – as recently happened in the case of Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Shamdeo Persaud. It is little adjustments like this that make a world of difference concerning this issue.

Just this week I saw an exchange on Facebook where one man was taken to task for insinuating a pregnant woman from Barbados – who was beaten till she lost the child – somehow deserved the beating. The overwhelming response was made that there is never a circumstance where a relationship should become violent. Yes, change is happening.

The single most central obstacle that I see that now stands in the way of convincing women to get the help they need is that they are afraid that if they leave the abusive relationship, they will not be able to feed and care for themselves or their children. This is Guyana’s most pressing barrier concerning domestic violence and it must be addressed in 2011. And address it, we will.

Have a happy and safe 2011!