Sunday, February 19, 2012

In the words of a woman who was raped as a child

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 11 February 2012)

‘I would just like to tell you a little story, my mom committed suicide when I was six years old, I’m the only girl and youngest of three kids. My older brother, who was loving, caring, and protective of me being the little girl, took advantage and raped me at age seven. Then I had a cousin who did the same thing. He claimed he loved me; I was so naive. Anyway, I never told anyone, I grew up with this pain and today I realize the damage it caused me psychologically, and psychically.’

These words are from a Guyanese woman who is very concerned about the fact that so many children and women are being raped. She wanted to share her story, anonymously, so people can understand what happens to the lives of these children who are being raped.

In short, the lives of rape victims are shattered. It is difficult to ever be normal again or to have a normal relationship. When a child is raped, the effects of this traumatic event linger on for the rest of his/her life – physically, mentally and psychologically. It touches every part of his/her life and nothing good is left untainted by rape.

In a letter to the Editor of Stabroek News on February 9 entitled, ‘Two months into 2012 and there is little change’, the women’s advocacy group, Red Thread, said “2012 is not yet 2 months old and we are already looking at reports indicating that more than 23 children have been either sexually molested, physically assaulted by teachers, or missing from home.”

And that number seems to grow each day. This is cause for great alarm and there is a great amount of distress from the citizens of the nation. Yet it seems that alarm has yet to find its way into the veins of those who lead the country.

Rape is the vilest of acts. It rips away all feeling of security, self-worth and confidence of the good in others. It takes years of proper counselling, something sorely missing in Guyana, to ever function as a normal person again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why are men pouting?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 4 February 2012)

During my work as an advocate for women, I cannot even begin to count the number of times a man has asked me, “What about the men?” Although I am a staunch believer in gender equality, this phrase always catches me off guard because it is an ironic question in so many ways.

When one considers that men have “ruled/owned” women for several thousands of years in most cultures and that women have served men in every possible (and often degrading) way during those millennia, it is indeed ironic that little more than a couple decades into a substantial gender equality movement men would pout about being left out when women address the issues they still encounter in relation to inequality.

It is a logical conclusion that as women rise up to take a place of equality in society, men will, of course, lose some standing. After all, as women take their rightful place in business, politics, religion, etc., that will translate into fewer men in those places. The “what about the men” response is the male knee-jerk reaction to this loss of “ruler of all” status.

This loss of “ruler of all” status is the compromise the men of the world must make in order to see a better world for all – not just the males. The push by women for gender equality should not be seen as a punishment for men, but a balancing of how things should have been all along. The balancing process might hurt a bit as men have to step aside and allow women their rightful place, but trust me, it will hurt no more than what women have endured for so long as the servants and property of men.

Recently, one man asked whether I blamed men for every ill that happens to women. My blunt response was that it is men who beat women, degrade women, rape women, sexually harass women, psychologically abuse women – and yes, murder women.

Last week, a Berbice man who has been living with another woman disassembled the house of his wife and children and left them and their belongings in the rain without shelter. Am I to blame the wife and children for this horrendous act?

The other day a Blankenburg woman was murdered allegedly by her husband. I post all news stories about Guyana’s women to my Facebook page to keep the consciousness of women’s issues alive. Upon reading this news story about the murdered woman, one man blamed the woman. She should have chosen a better type of man. He said, “Stella, I hope you’re not blaming men for this disease but rather the choices women make.”

What this man does not comprehend is that domestic violence crosses social and cultural lines. There are as many doctors, politicians and businessmen who beat and murder their wives as there are men who deal drugs. And yes, I do blame the men.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Abortion rights and wrongs

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 28 January 2012)

I have never written about abortion before because I attempt to steer clear of polarising subjects. However, since women are dying and allegations are circulating about the rape of women seeking abortions, now seems like a good time to address this sensitive issue.

The World Health Organization defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy that is performed by an individual lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal standards.

Abortion is legal and available in Guyana under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which became operational in early 1996. In fact, Guyana and French Guiana are the only countries in South America where the procedure is legal without any restrictions, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

That much is good for the health of nation’s women. However, there are other issues that may prevent women from taking advantage of this safer medical option.

For example, the cost of getting an abortion by a state authorised doctor in an authorised facility is prohibitive for many women. This means that some women will then seek out medical treatment from “others” and the consequences can be life threatening – as we recently saw when a young mother, who was four months pregnant, died from a botched abortion as a result of a perforated uterus and acute peritonitis.

Also, access to medical services for terminating pregnancies that are within a reasonable distance to women when needed is another problem since there are only 11 doctors in the whole country who are authorised to perform the procedure and many of them are based in Georgetown.

It is not enough to simply make the procedure available, the matter of money and accessibility (distance) must also be considered for the health of the nation’s women. Otherwise, this is just an exercise in futility.

Why can’t I buy a damn car?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 21 January 2012)

Everything was going swimmingly. I had done my research, knew exactly what type of car I wanted and was taking that car for a test drive. I was quite pleased with the salesman; an older gentleman with greying hair and an honest face. He spoke directly to me the entire test drive and when we returned to his office to talk terms.

Even when he filled out the paperwork, he did not even glance at my husband, Paul, to get his ‘permission’ to continue. I was sure this was it. This would be the first time I would buy a car for myself that the salesman did not display blatant sexism towards me because I was a woman.

I always bring Paul with me because I trust his advice on financial matters. I had done my homework on the car, but I knew my husband would not allow anyone to rip me off and I have never met a better haggler than my hubby. However, he was not the one buying the car, I was.

As the transaction was winding down and we moved to the finance department to seal the deal, everything was still going great, until they handed my husband the printed offer letter with his name on it – not mine. There was absolutely no way this salesman and his finance guy could have mistaken the fact that I was one who was the consumer in this matter.

As you can imagine, the situation turned very tense as I pointed out the name on the deal to my husband and he said, “How did they do that?” We had not even given them his name. I took the paper from my husband, scoured the particulars of the deal and said in a very stern voice, “This looks just fine, except you need to remove my husband’s name and replace it with mine.”

Both the salesman and his finance guy started hemming and hawing, babbling and apologising, but at this point I was not going to be pacified. The finance guy blamed the salesman who blamed the computer. It was pure absurdity.

Calling all men!

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 14 January 2012)

Lately, I have been reading about men around the world who are taking some dramatic steps to fight for women’s rights. This led me to wonder where we can find those men in Guyana. Unfortunately, Guyana is short on men who would raise a finger, much less a conversation, to improve the plight of the nation’s women.

I don’t want to short change those men who do care about women and do act on their beliefs that women are indeed equal. Personally, I know a handful at least. However, for the most part, Guyana’s men are usually too busy throwing around urban myths about how there are ten women to every man in the country to somehow justify their unjustifiable disrespect for women.

Meanwhile, men in other countries have already started to advocate for women’s rights (mind you, I use the word “already” loosely as it has taken thousands of years to get to this point). Some of these men are in very unexpected countries, for example, Afghanistan. Yes, I said Afghanistan.

In a Reuters report from December 23 entitled, “Afghan men: crucial advocates for women’s rights,” male advocate Fedous Samim said, “Part of the problem in Afghanistan is that most women think like men. I don’t have a sister, but I’m sure if I did, and she tried to go outside the house, my mother would be asking where she was going, what she was doing, why she was going out.”

According to the article, Samim’s goal is to be able to effect change so that women can attend Afghan markets without getting sexually harassed. Lofty goal – and I bet there are plenty of women in Guyana who would appreciate it if some men advocated on their behalf for the same goal.

Veteran civil rights campaigner Lal Gul is another male advocate for women who is working for change through his Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation. The Reuters article said Gul helped build up the number of female lawyers available to defend gender-specific cases; about a quarter of the 1,200 defence lawyers on the independent bar register are now women.

“Through our defence lawyers, we are registering the cases of women, providing legal aid to them, and protecting their rights, especially in human rights abuse cases like rape cases, forced marriage, divorce, domestic violence,” Gul said.

The same day I read the Reuters article I also read another one about a wildly popular Senegalese wrestler named Omar Sakho, known as ‘Balla Gaye 2’, who galvanized participants at West Africa’s recent regional launch of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

Violence will not stop women from being free

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 7 January 2012)

This is my first column for the year and as such, I would like to address a topic that is always close to my heart, violence against women. I am very active on the Internet as an advocate for women and I post several news stories, blogs, each day that I gather from around the world on a variety of topics of concern to women both in and out of Guyana.

Those who read posts that entail violenceagainst women are often shocked and upset at the details and the horror of the act – as they should be. I still feel that shock each time I am faced with this issue, as well.

However, after the shock wears off, I attempt to approach the problem from a more academic standpoint. If we never use our brains to address these types of issues, they will continue to wreak havoc on the human race. My major concern is with the situation in Guyana and trying to understand the domestic violence situation as it has developed over the past ten years or so.

That is not to say that that men did not beat, rape and murder women before 1990, but one cannot deny that from that point going forward there has been a noticeable increase in both volume and brutality. This causes women’s advocates to ponder the reasons for such an increase in violence against women.

My choice for Guyana’s Woman of the Year

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 31 December 2011)

I don’t know if you have noticed it, but Guyana’s women are waking up. 2011 was a year of awakening for women in the nation – and with good reason. It has finally become crystal clear that if women want better lives, they are going to have to make it happen themselves.

For example, despite all the election hype surrounding women’s issues and promises to put women into leadership positions, do you know that at this point there is less female representation in government now than in the last term? After the 2006 elections, approximately 32% of Guyana’s ministers were women; as opposed to 25% in President Ramotar’s new Cabinet.

As it stands now, with the AFC and APNU still to choose one more MP each, female participation in Parliament is as follows: the AFC went from having an impressive 40% female representation last term to a measly 14% in this term. The PNCR had a notable 45% of females in the last term, but APNU now has 32% this term despite a promise in its manifesto to bring in even more female representation than before. The PPP/C, which has always had the lowest female representation in Parliament, dropped even further from 31% last term to 28% this term.

These statistics show good reason why the women of Guyana have awakened. Women are once again positioned with their hands out hoping for patriarchal benevolence at which they will be expected to curtsey while they thank the men for their generosity in taking care of us frail women; since we obviously are still not in the position to take care of ourselves.

The problem is that these male leaders are not taking care of the nation’s women. Not at all. If anything, the situation for women is getting worse. In fact, politics is only one area where women have been shafted this year.

My Christmas wish is for the First Lady to be a First Lady

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 24 December 2011)

Christmas is the time of year when you find hope even when hope is hard to find and when you make wishes for life to be better for yourself as well as for those around you. It is with this Christmas hope in my heart that I wish for a better situation for Guyana’s new First Lady.

You see the last First Lady, Ms Varshnie Singh, really had a hard time of it while her husband was president. In fact, since there was no official “First Lady” office, she was forced to rely on benevolence from the president to fulfil what she felt was her obligation to help her fellow Guyanese.

Since benevolence is not exactly a quality attributed to the former president, one can just imagine how things unfolded for the former First Lady. In fact, in a statement she gave upon being tossed out of her home with only the clothes on her back, she said, “During our marriage I was not allowed to work and did not receive proper maintenance or care, financial or otherwise.”

She also said, “The First Lady’s office is a myth that I created because of a need. It advocates on behalf of the voiceless and receives no government funding or any type of assistance.”

Let God be the judge?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 17 December 2011)

Yet another man in a high position is accused of violence against a woman. I am so completely sick of this garbage that I might literally lose my lunch on the shoes of any of those so-called men who dare to come face to face with me.

A 34-year-old woman has accused Commissioner of Police Henry Greene of sexually abusing her after she went to him for help on a matter involving another police officer and his wife. At the time of writing this column, Greene still held his position as Commissioner of Police. This issue must be investigated and for that investigation to take properly take place, Greene must be out of the picture. If he does not step down as he should, he should be removed.

Let’s think about this logically for a moment. In any other country, if such serious allegations were levelled against the commissioner of police, that person would be immediately removed from his position until an investigation was completed. Why is it that there must be an outcry from the whole country before justice is seen against those accused of wrong-doing in high positions in Guyana?

Greene told the media, “Let God be the judge.” Nah, I think we mere mortals can handle this one. I’d rather see a human judge Greene first then karma can deal its own judgement.

It is never too late to fight for your rights

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 10 December 2011)

The feminist movement heydays were long over before I even knew I needed to stand up for my own rights. I grew up in an urban environment, single mother, poverty-ridden home.

Those who grow up in such situations are never thinking about fighting oppressive government policies, they are more concerned with just getting by from day to day. Will the electricity be turned off today? Can we eat something more than mayonnaise sandwiches? Will my overworked, high-pressured, abusive mother snap again today? The last thing on my mind was fighting for my rights as a woman.

On top of everything else, there was school to keep my urban survival skills sharp and church to make me feel small and insignificant – as if I did not have enough to accomplish that task already. One of the many things I learned in church was to be mad at the feminists. I did not know why, I just knew that I should. I was taught they were out of control male wannabes.

I married at a young age to a wonderful guy and started having children 18 months later. My focus was then on toddler chasing and house cleaning. I still did not know I should be concerned with my rights. In fact, at this point in the late 80s, feminism was an intimidating topic for me. I just knew that I needed more than to stay at home with the kids. I was in dire need of some intellectual stimulation, but instead I tried to play the role of what the church declared to be a good wife and mother.

For some women, this would be fine, but I needed more. My husband was working during the day and going to college at night. So I would care for the children all day – every day of the week. Then on the weekend, I would go to church to have them tell me how I should be happy since this was God’s design for women.

I tried to be happy and to some extent I was happy. I had beautiful children whom I adored and a good husband. Beyond that, I was bored and feeling like a slave. It wasn’t that my husband did not love me, we just both fell into the traditional roles of family life, which worked for him – but it did not work for me. After years of this, I decided I could not handle it anymore. I honestly did not know what I needed; I just knew I needed more than what I had.

I started rejecting the church’s notions on women and realising I could not possibly fit in the suffocating mould they had created for all women. It was time for me to take control of my own life. After years of discontentment, I decided I needed to go to school. This would change my life forever.

Saying all the right words

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 3 December 2011)

“It is clear that these people think women are not thinkers, we are only relegated to certain labour jobs and to bring all the mammy elements. It is sad and I find it insulting and disrespectful in this day and age.” This was just a small part of an email I received from a friend recently.

My Guyanese friend and I frequently correspond via email as she lives in one part of the Caribbean and I am always between Guyana and the US. We typically talk about life happenings and such, so I was a bit taken aback to see such a passionate statement from my mild-mannered friend.

She was writing specifically to tell me how upset she was after listening to the podcast of the presidential forum that was held at the Theatre Guild on November 16. At the time of the email, I had not yet had the chance to listen to the forum, but made a point to do so after receiving my friend’s email.