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The dignified life in Guyana – Respecting women, gays, young people, migrants and keeping the oil in the ground?

By Vidyaratha Kissoon

This article is an edited version of his blogpost that appeared on August 19:

Afternoon of a Sunday which started with a lot of rain and there is a gathering of people to talk about the right to dignified lives in Guyana.  Dignified life far from my mind as I choose a minibus with loud music so as not to be late – those of us who don’t like noise often have to give in to those who believe noise with a deep pounding bass is part of the good life. But I choose my oppression for the short journey.

Gays and the dignified life

The Faculty of Law – University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) joined with Red Thread and other organisations to host the conversation “Living Good : the right to dignified lives and just communities” on Sunday August 18, 2019 at Moray House Trust. The constitutional challenge to Guyana’s cross dressing laws provided the background to the discussion. In 2010, transgender citizens, Candacy (Gulliver) McEwan, Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, Pheches (Joseph) Fraser and Angel Clarke with SASOD filed a constitutional challenge to the cross dressing laws in Guyana.

In 2018, the Caribbean Court of Justice struck down the laws, stating “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

The transgender litigants, the ‘gays’, in their quest for justice, have been able to widen the discussion about human rights, and what “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” means for all of us.

Tracy Robinson, one of the lawyers of U-RAP, presented on the case and the connection of the judgement of the CCJ to the dignified life for all. One slide summarised what a dignified life means…

being treated with respect, not as second class citizens or animals

recognising differences among us and out right to choose to lead out own life

addressing the social and economic rights to health, education, decent work among others

ending discrimination, violence and injustice which compromise our life project

Discrimination, violence and injustice

Kobe Juwan Smith is President of the Youth Advocacy Movement of the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association. He asked for a minute to reflect on the lives which have been lost to gender based violence. He called the names of some young women. Men who were supposed to love the women killed them, even after oil was discovered in Guyana. He talked about the access to sexual and reproductive health services for young people.  He spoke about the need to involve men in the discussions to deal with gender based violence. He talked about an interaction with a duty bearer who did not believe that there have been no improvements in women’s experience of violence and abuse. 

Melinda Janki is a lawyer who has been active in protesting Guyana’s poor management of its oil and other natural resources.  She talked about the death penalty first, and reminded the audience that the presence of the death penalty in law is a violation of the right to life. She went on to talk about the risk to the dignified life, with the destruction of the natural heritage and environment through global warming.  She talked about oil, and the potential destruction to the environment for future generations. I learned about “intergenerational equity”, the concept in law in which the current generation has to be responsible for protecting the environment for future generations.

Sondy Elyseeceran is a Haitian migrant who has been living in Guyana since 2015. He has been providing support to other migrants from Haiti. He spoke about the experiences of Haitians in Guyana. Nation states like Guyana have to consider the dignified life for all human beings. He spoke about how the stories triggered the fears of another attack on Haitian migrants like what happened in the Dominican Republic. I listened and thought of LGBT Guyanese who have migrated to other countries, sought asylum in some cases. Guyanese have migrated, some of them commit crimes in other

countries, some are deported. We forget the golden rule – do unto others as we want them to do unto us.

Norma Adrian is a survivor of domestic violence. She is a member of Red Thread and is involved in the work to monitor the police response to domestic violence. She talked about surviving domestic violence and the needs of a survivor. She asked for adequate housing for the women who are trapped in abusive relationships because of lack of housing. She talked about the justice system and the way it oppresses people who are trying to use it. She talked about abusers who are supported by family and friends – the reality that many people encourage abusers by not holding them accountable.

Changing hearts and minds

Candacy (Gulliver) McEwan reflected on the journey since the arrests in February 2009 and the filing of the Constitutional challenge in 2010. She talked about Guyana Trans United and the work they are doing to provide decent work opportunities and access to health care and services for the trans community in Guyana. She noted that changing laws are not enough, that changing hearts and minds is a process as everyday living is far away from court and legal systems.

The elections in Guyana bring out the racism which props up the shaky power structures. The other forms of discrimination and violence are forgotten under the threats of civil war and the energies in winning and losing. The dignified life is forgotten since it seems only the winners will have one by taking revenge on past winners and the losers in the elections. On Facebook, someone posts that they heard again ‘is bess we suffer under we own than suffer under the last one” – choosing the lesser of all evils and not changing anything… like me in the minibus with the loud music and not saying anything, but with the good fortune to be able to get out at the end of the journey.

I come home after the discussion. I talk to one of the Constitutional duty bearers, a young man living in a rural area.  The man has spent more time and mental energy struggling with the other constitutional bearers over the destructive power dynamics than in attending to the duties and advocating for the improvements he wanted to be involved in.

I have stopped telling him to quit, in my mind thinking that it should be possible to step outside of a Constitution and a legal system to advocate for the dignified life – that some law makers like the status quo of discrimination and violence.

Sour on the pine tart

“I like the channa with the sour,” a young visitor told me. In fact, he liked the sour so much that he was having some with the pine tart.

I was like oh no, what, no man, how he could do that to the pine tart…but difference is as natural as breathing, his enjoyment of the pine tart with sour does not affect my enjoyment of pine tart without sour.  And we should be able to live in the same place.