(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.”
After helping a young boy who needed help to go to Trinidad to remove a tumour from his brain, Ms Singh said, “It dawned on me that there must be many people who need expensive medical treatment but can’t afford it.” Thus came the idea to start Kid’s First Fund, a charity to help fund medical treatment for those who could not afford it.
However, when the former First Lady presented this idea to her husband, Guyana’s former president, she said, “he was angry and said it was a slap in the face of his government as he had invested so much money in the health sector. I could not see it that way; I felt it was badly needed and beneficial to the country. So I continued unsupported.”
In other words, Guyana’s last First Lady received no support to help others in her role as the nation’s First Lady, and she did not even receive proper maintenance and care for herself as a wife though she was not “allowed” to work to make her own money. It is a horrible travesty and an embarrassment to the country that Guyana’s First Lady can be treated with such dishonour.
Which brings me to my Christmas wish. The disrespect and abandonment experienced by the nation’s last First Lady should never be allowed to happen again. It is my hope – in this season of hope – that the office of the First Lady becomes an official position sanctioned by the State and funded by the people.
The First Lady of a country should not have to go begging for clothes money to attend official functions or an allowance to travel to invited events or even, as was the case with Ms Singh, for the funds to eat each day.
It is time to rectify this sad situation by giving the new First Lady, and every spouse afterwards, the respect and dignity deserving this position by making it official and giving it the proper funding.
The example set by those in leadership positions filters down to the rest of the nation. The demeaning and abusive way in which Ms Singh was treated most certainly became normality throughout the nation and the situation for women in Guyana has become so cruel that women are ready to take to the streets, as they have in Egypt this week, to demand the respect they deserve.
However, the demeaning behaviour of the last president toward his wife does not have to be passed on to the new First Lady. I have met President Ramotar and I have heard him speak of his wife with much respect. I believe he is genuine in his affection and esteem for her. Likewise, I have two colleagues whom I respect who have spoken with Mrs Ramotar and they assure me she a genuine and caring person who reciprocates that affection and esteem from her husband.
It is within this atmosphere of mutual regard and admiration that a natural outgrowth of protection and support for the office of the First Lady can and must be birthed. The women of Guyana must know they are regarded as valuable citizens who can make significant contributions to the world – and it all starts with this very important position of First Lady.
The nation simply cannot stand by and watch as another First Lady is made to beg for food and clothes while she is forced to sleep on yard furniture, which can happen again if no steps taken to rectify this situation. It may not happen with this new President and his wife, but it could happen with the next one or the one after that. This station must be given the reverence it deserves.
Mrs Ramotar is already making good use of her position to help other Guyanese. Why not give her proper tools and funding to help her to help others without feeling the humiliation of needing to beg for those tools and funding?
This is my Christmas wish – respect for the women of Guyana – starting with the First Lady. It is bad enough that as a woman I must entreat the male leaders of this country to finally do right by the First Lady (this nation is still ruled by men, as are many others). But I am willing to do this if it means that it will provide all of Guyana’s First Ladies with at least this measure of respect, protection and support, which sets the tone for the rest of the nation’s women.
However, it would be unconscionable if the First Lady were put into the position of once again begging for every little thing she wants needs and wants to do. Think of your own mothers and realise that Mrs Ramotar is now mother to all of Guyana.
I am hoping my Christmas wish comes true. I am dreaming of peace on earth and goodwill toward women.