Thursday, February 09, 2012

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.

The portion of the forum to which she referred was when some women from the audience asked the then presidential candidates – Khemraj Ramjattan from the AFC and David Granger from the APNU – some questions pertaining to women’s issues. (Donald Ramotar chose not to participate in this debate.)

One woman asked, “How significant is the role of women in Guyana’s economic development?”

In his response, Ramjattan said, “Women have a huge role in Guyana’s economic development through the education process [and] becoming skilled workers, as is mentioned by all the parties. But also because they bring to the communities a caring attitude that we would like to see in our rather robust, boisterous, aggressive Guyana. They also bring to the fore a certain calmness about them, a tranquility, when dealing with political affairs and they must get more involved.”

The very next question at the forum also came from a woman. She put this to the candidates, “Women today are advancing in different technology sectors such as electrical and engineering and others. I would like to know what would you do to enhance that sector for women?”

After mentioning education in the technology field, Granger said in part, “…So we see women playing a more important role in agriculture particularly, and in the new agriculture technologies.

If you go to [inaudible], you will see women producing peanut butter, you will see women producing cashew nuts, you will see women in the northwest producing cassava bread.

Lots of these products you find in the shops are produced by women and if we can give them a leg to stand on through micro-credit, we will enlarge our agro-sector particularly by the use of women.

You don’t see many men making guava cheese, you know.”

Concern about the message being sent to women is what prompted my friend’s comments quoted above, which were prefaced by the following remarks: “Are you kidding me? This is sexist and so 1950s. Is this really the message that should be out there?” She goes on to say, “I find the comments made by Ramjattan and Granger appalling!”

The sad truth is that many men in Guyana would read the candidates’ responses and think, “What is wrong with those answers?” I am not even sure that Ramjattan and Granger would understand what it was about their answers that upset my friend so much.

Donald Ramotar falls into the same oblivious company with the other two as is evident by the way he responded to questions I posed to all the presidential candidates this past summer.

When Ramotar was asked if it was discriminatory against female workers when mothers are forced by their employers to return to work soon after giving birth, Ramotar said, “I would say yes that it is discrimination.

And we should insist on the law in this regard, that the women would have a certain amount of time to be allowed to be home to be better prepared with their children and so forth.” (Good marks for saying the right thing.)

He then went on to say, “Even though it is not always [necessary]. I have a personal experience. When my son was born, my wife was… working at the hospital and she had to do a certain amount of delivery in a certain amount of time before she could qualify. So, she went to work three weeks after she gave birth because she didn’t want to have to do the exam all over again.”

He was totally oblivious to the fact that he acknowledged that preventing legislated maternity leave was discriminatory behaviour against women, yet at the same time justified that inequitable behaviour.

I calmed my friend who wrote the email by telling her that many of Guyana’s leaders are not yet ready to speak intelligently on women’s issues.

There is still so much ingrained sexism in Guyana’s social makeup that even the leaders who think themselves “enlightened” are barely making a passing grade on understanding the constant bombardment of misogynistic statements and actions women field every single day.

The leaders are saying all the right words in the manifestos and on the campaign trails, but the underlying patriarchal disposition is still dominant, as can be seen by the knee-jerk responses of these three leaders.

I also told my friend that this is a long road, but I have noticed that when we take the time to point out missteps, like those she mentioned, the leaders who truly want to change make the necessary adjustments.

I was very encouraged to see the amount of attention given to women’s issues during the election season.

I hope that attention translates into continued attentiveness to the issues impacting the women of Guyana during the next five years. We really need to see some tangible solutions to the many problems facing women, and soon.

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