Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Does Jennifer Webster have the courage to make a difference?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 10 March 2012)

The new Minister of Human Services, Jennifer Webster, addressed the issue of violence against women and children this past week as the world recognised Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. As I always do with any news concerning women in Guyana, I posted the Stabroek News article on my Facebook page.

I highlighted a quote from the article for my Facebook friends to read, “Under the theme ‘Access to Justice for Women,’ some of the issues that were highlighted are the need for networking and the sharing of inter-sectoral information, jury duty, the need for counsellors in the judicial system, gender sensitivity, improved reporting procedures, investigations, and addressing victims/survivors’ needs.

“A Government Information Agency (GINA) report said the justice system was the focal point of discussions as it resonates in the society where cases of abuse, which are sometimes the result of injustice, are frequently featured in the daily newspapers and news broadcasts.”

If this is the focus of the new Human Services Minister, she is headed down the right track. The law-enforcement and judicial process has long been a deterrent in the reporting aspect rather than a help.

This is my feeling on the matter, but I couldn’t help but notice that there are some who had questions right off the bat about what persons in power or with connections did. These are relevant questions and questions such as these have been floating around for years as it pertains to this ministerial position and high-profiles cases that really should be addressed by those who occupy this position.

Many were frustrated about the fact that the former Minister of Human Services did not address allegations of abuse connected to those who were in high positions or had money, power or connections. In the eyes of many, when a minister in this position does not take a firm stand on issues relating to violence against women and children, it compromises that minister’s credibility when she/he stands up to say these issues must be addressed.

After all, one must wonder whether the law applies to everyone except high-profile persons. In Guyana’s highly political atmosphere, it is certain that most citizens know that people in power are cognizant of the skeletons in various political closets throughout the nation. As a result, everyone watches to see if those skeletons will buy a “get out of jail free” card for powerful offenders.

If Minister Webster wants to see justice for women, it would be wise for her to start with the high profile cases that everyone is watching right now. I say this because it is quite clear that after the men of Guyana saw leading figures of the nation set a precedent of abuse against women, domestic violence almost immediately skyrocketed in Guyana.

Likewise, if powerful and well-connected men can get away without so much as a trial for sexual assault or violence, just watch and see what will then happen to the women and children of Guyana.

Justice should never be tainted by political favour. Let’s be honest, the well-known prevailing view is that those with money and power in Guyana can do what they wish to the citizens and not face justice. This view must be challenged if Minister Webster wants to see the success of her “Access to Justice for Women” programme.

I long to see the success of this programme. In fact, I believe every woman in Guyana would want to see the programme’s success. Yet, if the cases of the powerful and well-connected are swept under the rug, the Minister’s programme is dead on arrival.

I have seen men with money and power walk away from abuse cases. Witnesses don’t show up or disappear. Police reports disappear. I have even seen the women disappear, never to be heard from again. The women and children of Guyana desperately need for Minister Webster’s new programme to work.

However, if the minister pretends high-profile cases do not matter in the big scheme of things, if she turns a blind eye and refuses to demand justice be served to even the top of the political food chain, she then becomes part of the problem and not part of the solution. The people will see her as yet another political pawn.

I have heard stories about what it is like for ministers who in the past have tried to push for the good of the people despite the demands of their political seniors. I have heard of communications being monitored and even cut off when there is an unwelcomed connection. I have also heard there is pressure to stay within party boundaries and to reject partnerships with “outside” parties or organisations.

If the stories I heard are true, Minister Webster will find it difficult to stand her ground and demand justice for women and children. She will also find it problematic to form alliances with members from other parties or organisations that truly care about the nation’s women and children. It is my hope that she does not break under the pressure and become irrelevant to the very issues the citizens need and expect her to address.

There are some things in life that are far more important than playing petty politics – one such thing is the safety of the nation’s women and children. Now is the time for the games to stop and for us to all get serious about protecting women and children. I know many people in Guyana who would make significant sacrifices to help just one woman or child. For the future of Guyana’s women and children, I am hoping Minister Webster has that same type of courage and determination.

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