In The News

Poor people suffering tremendously from impact of Covid-19

By Red Thread

Dear Editor,

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people all over the world, some more than others, but we want to focus on what is happening to us in Guyana. We are concerned about  a number of issues affecting poor people in our daily lives in  Guyana and we need answers and clarification from the relevant authorities, including and especially from those who have been elected to represent us.

We remain unclear about what measures have been put in place to deal effectively with this pandemic, but what we do know is that poor people are suffering, especially families with children, people with disabilities and the elderly. Meanwhile the politicians point  fingers and try to score points off each other.

Frontline workers are now in negotiations for improved working conditions, including increased salaries, risk allowance and more personal protective equipment which we know that they deserve. There is no way we can fight this pandemic and other illnesses without them so it is unfair that they should be threatened for protesting for support that they should have received months ago.

They have been working tirelessly, risking their own lives and the lives of their families to save others.

Many of us have lost jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic (domestic workers, bartenders, barbers, hairdressers, to name a few), and have no other sources of income. The Government’s recent announcement of an allocation of $25,000 dollars to be given to every household is a welcome initiative, but we have further questions:

Is this $25,000 dollars a one-off payment, or assistance that will be provided on a weekly or monthly basis (and if so, for how long)?

What is the basis for determining if households qualify for support?

We ask these questions because twenty-five thousand dollars is not adequate to offset the financial disaster facing the poor at this time. This amount can’t even begin to buy food much less pay rent, mortgages and other utility bills. If we break it down, it amounts to $807 – $833 dollars per day in a month of 30 or 31 days.

This is enough for one pack of Natura milk, a loaf of bread and three eggs on any given day.

Meanwhile the Budget includes the purchase of new vehicles for Ministers. It’s hard not to conclude that everything else always takes priority over the well-being of poor people. The problem we continue to have with Governments, irrespective of who is in office, is that poor people are always offered pennies while those who already have much, can expect to receive more. 

Many people are homeless or are on the verge of becoming homeless as a result of not being able to pay their rent (and we recognize that this is a difficult situation for many landlords who also have mortgages to pay). We have seen this play out with the situation of settlers in Success on the East Coast of Demerara. In the face of contradictory government responses to their plight, our position is that  a rank abuse of power was committed by the police who shot settlers with rubber bullets. We are not condoning illegality but at the same time we cannot close our eyes and ears to the fact that people are suffering, and not just in Success.  Many are in desperate need of somewhere to live. Some have said that they applied for house lots since 2011 and some as early as 2008 and are still waiting. We in Red Thread can relate to that, because we have also been waiting for many years. 

Poor people are continuing to lose confidence in the law enforcers of this country. Over the years families are still awaiting justice for the loss of the lives of their loved ones. They are now joined most recently by the loved ones of the three young men of West Coast Berbice, Joel Henry, Isaiah Henry and Haresh Singh. It has now been over one month since they met their gruesome deaths and not one person has been charged for those murders. But when poor people stand up for their rights, they are teargassed, shot with pellets or live rounds, as we have seen in Berbice, Success and most recently at the Lusignan Prison. At the same time, we are not seeing enough attention being paid to the increases in domestic violence, femicides and abuse of children; where is the justice for these victims and survivors?

When it comes to education, schools have been reopened (not physically) and online learning is in effect. However, many children are at a big disadvantage. Many have no access to electronic devices or internet, and this is especially the case for hinterland communities. Some schools provide printouts or work books for their students, which is very thoughtful, but children need guidance to get their work done and in many households, parents are hardly able to work with their children due to the long hours some of them work just to earn a few extra pennies (like security guards), while some parents and guardians complained that they don’t know the work and therefore cannot help their children. How is this being taken into consideration?

In the 2020 budget presentation the de facto Finance Minister promised  that all Guyanese will be afforded a good education, decent work, be able to start their own businesses, raise and provide for a family , own their own homes, live in a safe secure environment and retire with dignity.  He also said the budget “embodied a no -nonsense, no frills, no fluff, people centred, pro-poor, results-oriented approach to launch this nation back on its positive development trajectory”.  But the bottom line is that the reason people are poor and suffering is because we have an economy that does not cater for us. We make up the majority of the population across geography and race and gender, but we are made to feel the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic because of decisions that are made that do not centre the voices of poor people at the decision-making tables.

Yours faithfully,

Wintress White,

Susan Collymore,

Joy Marcus,

Halima Khan,

Vanessa Ross

For Red Thread

In The News

Moving Forward forum hears calls for racism to be addressed

By Stabroek News Staff

Stating that racism needs to be addressed in order for the country to move forward, participants of a virtual speak-out hosted on Friday by Red Thread called for justice for Joel and Isaiah Henry and Haresh Singh, the three teenagers who are believed to have been killed on the basis of their ethnicity.

Joel and Isaiah Henry, both Afro-Guyanese, were found dead about 600 feet from each other in clumps of bushes near a coconut farm last week Sunday. The brutality of the killings, including the mutilation of the teens’ bodies, has fueled suspicions that they were the victims of a hate crime and this led to persons taking to the streets in protest to demand justice. However, the protests turned violent and another teenager, Singh, who is the grandson of the suspects held by police, was killed in what is suspected to have been a retaliatory act.

As a result, the Red Thread group hosted the virtual speak-out, dubbed ‘Moving Forward Better,’ to explore the ways racism in Guyana can be address-ed. Participants included Karen de Souza, Joy Marcus, Susan Collymore, Vanessa Ross, Sherlina Nageer, Andrew Campbell, Laura George, and Delon Moffett.

In The News

Virtual speak-out on Moving Forward Better

By Red Thread

Dear Editor,

Red Thread extends condolences to the families and loved ones of Josh Henry, Isaiah Henry, Haresh Singh, Prettipaul Hargobin, and joins those calling for an end to violence in our beloved Guyana.

We are organising a virtual speak-out, Moving Forward Better, to bring Guyanese together to reflect on what living together means and requires, the need to listen, hear and empathise with each other. To disagree without insult and slander, viciousness and bitterness. To care for each other and to demonstrate that in our words and actions.

The virtual speak-out will take place on Friday September 11, from 6-7:30 p.m.

It will be streamed live on our Facebook Page

Please join us.

Yours faithfully,

Karen de Souza, Joy Marcus, Halima Khan, Susan Collymore, Vanessa Ross, Wintress White, Sherlina Nageer, Alissa Trotz, Nesha Haniff

In The News

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.

In The News

Police meet Red Thread reps on domestic violence report

By Stabroek News Staff

Police meet Red Thread reps on domestic violence report

Yesterday, Senior Members of the Guyana Police Force including Crime Chief, Assistant Commissioner Paul Williams met with Karen De Souza and other representatives of Red Thread on a domestic violence report.

A release from the police said that the discussion surrounded the preliminary report of a two-year project which began in 2016 focusing on “Engaging communities for improving implementation of Domestic Violence laws”.

Communities targeted were: Plaisance/Better Hope, La Parfaite Harmonie, Bartica, Lethem and Anna Regina.

During the research, the police said that police stations within the stated communities would have been observed as it relates to how members of the Force are dealing with domestic violence and other related matter.

From the discussion, both positive and negative behaviour and action would have been observed but during the meeting those issues were addressed. The release said that the officers in attendance pledged to continue to focus on strengthening their collaborative efforts, in addressing Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, Sexual Offences and other aspects of crime prevention.

Domestic violence particularly against women has continued to be a major problem for the country and has seen many women murdered even after complaining to the police.

In The News

Women and Children’s rights in Guyana: Rhetoric and reality

By Wintress White and Joy Marcus

Women and Children’s rights in Guyana: Rhetoric and reality

Protecting the rights of women and children is always an important obligation of any government. In Guyana, violence against women and children has been a serious problem for many years. In addition, women’s equality overall remains lacking; there are still strong cultural and religious traditions in Guyanese society that promote male domination over women and prevent women and girls from fully enjoying their human rights. In this context, the government has a responsibility to play a leadership role in terms of re-shaping harmful societal attitudes, promoting gender equity, and protecting women and children. This obligation however, remains largely unmet.

The current government of Guyana – like the previous one – has several female Ministers and does claim a commitment to women’s rights; however, the reality for women and children on the ground remains largely unchanged. Laws on the books and lip service to empowerment and equity aside – Guyanese women and children remain extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged, compared to their male counterparts. Specifically, serious flaws in the judicial system remain – although women currently hold the top positions of the Guyanese judiciary. Sexual violence matters remain under-reported, inadequately investigated, and conviction rates woefully low.

Although there is a Sexual Offences Act and a National Task Force designated to assist with its proper implementation, the fact is that that entity is largely non-functional. In addition, law enforcement officers are themselves often perpetrators of violence against women and children and also regularly collude with victimizers to thwart the course of justice. This has created a culture of distrust among women and children of the systems that are supposed to protect them. Other constitutional structures that are supposed to be in place to protect women and children such as the Human Rights Commission also have not yet been set up by the current government.

In other areas such as health and employment, the rights of women and children remain significantly unmet. Maternal and infant mortality rates in Guyana remain among the highest in the world, with little progress made towards improving these outcomes and consistent failure on the part of public healthcare facilities around the country to safeguard the wellbeing of women and children. In the hinterland regions in particular, pregnant women are not even receiving regular antenatal HIV testing – something which has been the gold standard of care for over two decades in other parts of the world. Hospitals are routinely out of stock of basic medications like saline, Panadol, and oral rehydration solution – key for treating diarrhea among young children- a major cause of infant mortality. That such crucial yet basic supplies and standards remain lacking in Guyana in 2017 point to deep and systemic failures on the part of government entities to function in ways that protect and safeguard women and children.

In terms of employment, the present government has not embarked on any real job creation; instead their main focus has been on entrepreneurship and micro-enterprise – areas in which Guyanese women have long engaged but which have not provided enough resources to lift generations out of poverty. Women in Guyana are routinely overworked and underpaid, and face regular harassment (sometimes sexual) and exploitation – on the streets as well as at their workplaces. Recent attempts by Junior Minister Scott to protect women security guards instead further entrenched notions of paternalism and female victimhood; instead of implementing systems to halt and hold the perpetrators of abuse and harassment accountable for their actions, the Minister suggested that the women should not do night work. Attitudes like this from government officials highlight the fact that women and children are still seen as second class citizens in Guyana, and that male perpetrators of abuse and violence against them are not held accountable – fueling a culture of inequity and impunity. Employed mothers are also not provided with any consideration such as affordable and accessible childcare facilities or breastfeeding breaks at their workplace, and children are regularly left alone in unsafe situations by parents (often mothers) who have no other alternatives. Instead of supporting families in ways that would strengthen and keep them intact, governmental agencies instead regularly remove children from their parents, without regard for the additional emotional trauma they are thereby inflicting. The case of the George brothers who burnt to death while at the drop-in center run by the Child Care and Protection Agency – a government facility – highlights this lack of true consideration for vulnerable women and children by the entities that are supposed to be protecting them. Lack of affordable housing remains another major problem affecting women and children in Guyana – especially those who are economically marginalized. Failure of the land allocation system to provide house lots to families in a timely and affordable manner has led to widespread squatting and confrontations between families – often female headed households – and government entities, most recently, the demolition crew from the Ministry of communities in A Field Sophia.

Groups such as elderly women, women and children with disabilities, and non-gender conforming women (members of the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community) are also underserved by government agencies. There are no specific legal protections for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women and stigma, discrimination, and violence against these individuals remains widespread in Guyana. There is little to no recourse to justice for victims of such hate crimes, and many suffer in silence. Poverty, depression, suicidal ideation, and other negative mental health states are common in this community, with many persons struggling to survive economically. Although this current government has increased the old age pension, it is still a pittance and totally inadequate to meet living expenses, especially since the subsidy on water and electricity has been removed for elders, adding onto their costs. A similar situation exists for women and children with disabilities – while public assistance for them has increased, it does not reflect the true cost of living and is largely insufficient to meet persons’ daily needs. Women (and men) who are elderly or on public assistance are unable to access good medical care when free public facilities lack needed medications or testing facilities.

The minimum wage of $44,000GYD – also slightly increased by this government – is still not enough for a small family of four persons to live on, and it is the women who have to do the work of stretching the money. That the government points to these slight increases as proof of their caring for and commitment to providing a better life for all Guyanese would be laughable if insult had not been added to injury by the Parliamentarians giving themselves a significant salary increase six months after they came into power.

In some of the hinterland communities there are no police stations, magistrates’ courts , schools and health centres. Women who are abused by their husbands/partners have to suffer and sometimes die because there is no police station in the community and the nearest one is sometimes quite a long distance away with lots of bushes where the abuser could lie in wait for them. Some children have to walk distances away to go to school and when they are housed in dormitories there is sometimes lack of food and proper supervision. Hinterland regions often have just one child welfare or child protection officer for the entire area.

As Guyana is a signatory to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, we can also use the concluding observations /recommendations made by the expert committee in response to the State’s report to measure our progress on a number of fronts. The most recent observations, responding to the 2012 report submitted by the previous administration are still a useful yardstick since little has been done to improve the situation of women in a number of areas. Some selected recommendations from the committee are:

“….9. The Committee calls on the State party to:

(a) Take the necessary steps to ensure the adequate dissemination of the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendations among all stakeholders, including Government ministries, parliamentarians, the judiciary, law enforcement officers, and religious and community leaders, so as to create awareness of women’s human rights and establish firmly in the country a legal culture supportive of women’s equality and non-discrimination; and

(b) Take all appropriate measures to enhance women’s awareness of their rights and the means to enforce them, including through providing women with information on the Convention in languages accessible to them in all regions of the State party, in particular in hinterland and rural areas and among the Amerindian communities, emphasizing ways to utilize the available legal remedies for violations of their rights. …

  1. The Committee encourages the State party:(a) To clearly define the mandate and the responsibilities of the national machinery for the advancement of women and to expeditiously strengthen that machinery by providing it with adequate human, financial and technical resources for it to coordinate and work effectively for the promotion of gender equality and gender mainstreaming;(b) To provide training on women’s rights to women and men working in the national machinery for the advancement of women; and(c) To strengthen its impact assessment of measures taken so as to ensure that such measures achieve their goals and targets…
    1. The Committee urges the State party:

    (a) To accord high priority to the full implementation of the Sexual Offences Act and to put in place comprehensive measures to prevent and address violence against women and girls, recognizing that such violence is a form of discrimination against women and constitutes a violation of their human rights under the Convention and a criminal offence and ensuring that women and girls who are victims of violence have access to immediate means of redress and protection and that perpetrators are prosecuted and punished, in accordance with general recommendation No. 19 of the Committee;

    (b) To provide mandatory training for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials in procedures to deal with women victims of violence; (We should note that the judiciary have been very active in this regard)

    (c) To encourage women to report incidents of domestic and sexual violence by destigmatizing victims and raising awareness about the criminal nature of such acts;

    (d) To provide adequate assistance and protection to women victims of violence by strengthening the capacity of shelters and crisis centres, especially in hinterland areas, and enhancing cooperation with non-governmental organizations that provide shelter and rehabilitation to victims;

    (e) To collect statistical data on domestic and sexual violence disaggregated by sex, age and relationship between the victim and perpetrator; and

    (f) To provide effective protection against violence and discrimination against all groups of women through the enactment of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that includes the prohibition of all forms of discrimination against them and the decriminalisation of consensual adult same sex relations as indicated in the oral statement of the delegation. …”

    In conclusion, the Guyana government continues to fail the women and children of Guyana – especially those who are economically marginalized- on multiple fronts. With all the talk in their manifesto about women’s rights and equality, they are yet to submit a report to CEDAW due since 2016 on the current state of women and children in Guyana.

    This article was submitted by the Red Thread organization

    October 11 2017 , Stabroek News

In The News

Protests over VAT measures question promised good life

By Dreylan Johnson 

Members and supporters of Red Thread gathered outside of the Ministry of Finance yesterday. “No new taxes, we already pay and punish enuf!” and “[No] VAT on human rights” were among some of the statements written on their placards. (Photo by Keno George)

Two separately organized protests in front of the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) yesterday saw protestors questioning the concept of the “good life” that has continuously been promised by the Government of Guyana in light of recent Value-Added Tax (VAT) measures.

“I think the range of new taxes that the government has introduced over the last two years are extremely burdensome for the majority of the population and I think they need to rethink, they need to review the impact of these policies on working class people and even middle class people and see whether this really fulfills campaign promises, manifesto promises, promises of the good life, because certainly from my perspective the burdens are heavier and they need to reassess,” protestor Melissa Ifill commented during the protest in front of the ministry.

The demonstrations, which occurred simultaneously, started midday yesterday and lasted one hour. The group that met in front of the MoF was led by NGO Red Thread, while businessman Roshan Khan was responsible for mobilizing the group that congregated in front of the GRA.

Members and supporters of Red Thread gathered outside of the Ministry of Finance yesterday. “No new taxes, we already pay and punish enuf!” and “[No] VAT on human rights” were among some of the statements written on their placards. (Photo by Keno George)“The good life that we were promised, we are not feeling it, we are not seeing it. And we would really like to be able to enjoy it,” Red Thread member Joy Marcus, who was a part of the protest held in front of the ministry, stated.

Marcus called for the reversal of the institution of the 14% VAT on water and electricity, as was rumoured would be done for education. The woman stated that the burden of these taxes is felt mostly by the small man, the single parents and the pensioners. She related that shops have already started to raise their price, the excuse being that they need to cushion the additional costs they incur from the tax implementations.

“So when these things happen it’s the poor man or the poor woman and their family who are feeling the squeeze. And we would like these people to know that you need to think about your economy from the household and not from a national level,” Marcus stated.

There was no one issue for which the protesters had gathered. Filmmaker Kojo McPherson, being father to two children, expressed deep concern at the notion of taxing private education, while stating that parents oftentimes would sacrifice to get the best for their children.

McPherson opined that if the government’s position is that public school is available as an alternative to the private system, there is need for investment in the public school system so that students can actually be absorbed and their needs effectively catered to.

“It’s not easy to send your children to private school but this is something we do for our children and to be punished for that, it doesn’t make sense. I think the ministers’ comments were just callous and that’s the reason I’m out here,” McPherson said.

Some of the protesters who came out with businessman Roshan Khan yesterday to protest the VAT measures. All the placards called for education to remain VAT-free. (Photo by Keno George)

Khan, who had alluded to the taxes proposed in the sectors of private education and healthcare, had shared similar sentiments during his protest, calling the situation of the tax additions “unfortunate,” “depressing,” and “demoralizing,” and alluded to the possibility of brain drain as a result of the move to tax private education.

“People make sacrifices. I know employees can’t go and join lines for a day, 12 hours, 24 hours to get medical attention. I know people want some good education for their children so they sacrifice tremendously of all the important necessities of life in order to give their children an education and to have the compunction and to my opinion, the moral immaturity to impose VAT on this is very unfortunate and very depressing,” Khan said. He had also stated that the taxes were imposed on the populace without consultation or education.

Private education became subject to VAT on February 1, following the removal of zero-rated items, a measure of the 2017 Budget. An online petition started by the Sixth Form students of the School of the Nation’s Sixth Form College for the removal of the 14% VAT on private education, which got 14,000 signatures, was distributed to various government ministries last Friday.

In The News

Red Thread has three priorities, including protection and justice for women in violent situations

By Karen de Souza

Dear Editor,

I write in response to a Demerara Waves news story which came out on August 4 that at the just concluded PPP Congress, Mr Shyam Nokta reported from his group that there is  opposition party influence in the General Registrar’s Office, Gecom, and the military. He then added:

“The group further observed that the opposition was accessing international donor funds through organisations like the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), Red Thread and the Guyana Women Miners Organisation (GWMO).”

For the record, Red Thread does not pass on any of the funds it raises to an opposition party and to say otherwise shows a really reckless disregard for the truth.

I assume that this is the old story about Red Thread being WPA, so let’s state what we’ve said many times before. Red Thread was founded in 1986 – over 26 years ago – by seven women who were then all members or supporters of the WPA but who wanted to create a women’s group that was autonomous of the party. Of these seven women, two – myself and Andaiye – remain active in Red Thread. We stopped being members of the WPA at different times but in both cases, more than 15 years ago.

We have heard quite high-ranking PPP members say before that this was a clever ruse to appear independent, but they think this because they cannot conceive of any political ground on which women can stand other than as an arm of a political party.

If Mr Nokta has something he thinks is evidence of his group’s accusation he must publicise it.    I assure the public that there can be no such evidence. Instead, the evidence will show that since we ended the period where we focused on income generation (1986 to 1992/93) we’ve spent funds received mainly to pursue three priorities:

1. Protection and justice for women and children in violent situations; activities here include a drop in centre, court  and police support, home and hospital visits, referral for legal advice and assistance and follow up, representation, advocacy for improvements in the law and/or its implementation, training workshops, community visits and workshops/ discussions to build active support for women and children in violent situations in those communities, training with magistrates, police and prosecutors on the Domestic Violence Act  and the Sexual Offences Act, workshops with other groups including teachers, and facilitation of a Domestic Violence and Rape Survivors Self Help Group. Our training often uses research that we’ve conducted on domestic violence, women’s reproductive health and sex work, as well as material that we’ve produced including video and household guides to the law which have also been used by other groups working against violence, community groups, the police and the Women’s Affairs Bureau. We’ve also attempted (and encountered difficulties with) research into the racial/political violence of the early 2000s.

2. A living income for unwaged and low-waged women; activities in support of this priority have included advocacy for the removal of VAT from essential items,  increases in wages for  low-waged women workers including domestic workers, security guards, and shop assistants,  and  increases in old age pensions and public assistance. The advocacy has been backed by research including a time use survey.

This area of work is now to have an increased focus, including via a drop in centre for women workers to get information about their rights and towards this end we’ve begun training in labour legislation.

3. Increased visibility and voice for grassroots women; activities include extensive training with sectors of grassroots women and speak-outs designed to provide a forum for grassroots women to address issues that they identify as critically important, for example, after the flood of 2005 when women who had suffered from the flood presented their experience and demands to representatives of the media, parliament, trade unions, government units, local NGOs and international donor agencies.

As part of addressing this aim we also use other popular forms, including street theatre and in the 1990s, a radio serial and a play called Every body’s Business.

Almost all of our main projects of work related to our three priorities have been carried out in parts of the interior as well as along the coast and we try to ensure that what we do always crosses race divides.

Back in town, for 13 years, we also ran free reading and computer classes with over 80 students from schools in South Georgetown (and a few adults) and we continue to run a library, workshops and camps for youth. The literacy classes included a feeding programme three times a week for which we received donations.

Finally (and here’s the problem for Mr Notka and his group, no doubt), we picket and speak out in defence of the rights of grassroots women, children and sometimes men, but we don’t pay for those: issues have included calls for justice for several victims of violence, especially at the hands of the powerful, and solidarity with the people of Linden and with various other sectors and communities defending their rights.

Yours faithfully,
Karen de Souza
National Coordinator
Red Thread

In The News

Let us all stand with Linden

By Andaiye, Joycelyn Bacchus, Karen de Souza, Joy Marcus, Alissa Trotz

It is now five days since the deadly events in Linden, in which three men were shot dead by the police during a day of community protest. The last time protestors were shot at and killed by police was sixty-four years ago, when sugar workers were cut down by colonial officers acting on behalf of the sugar planters who ruled Guyana in those days. In The West on Trial, Cheddi Jagan offered us the following analysis of what happened and what it showed about relations between the rulers and the ruled:

“Without consulting even their company-dominated Manpower Citizens Association, they (the sugar planters) changed the system of work from cut-and-drop to cut-and-load…this action led to a 4 ½ month strike in 8 sugar estates on the East Coast of Demerara with its main slogan: ‘Sit and starve rather than work and starve.’ The response of the ruling class was characteristic – the resort to force.

On June 16th, 1948, the police opened fire at the rear of the sugar factory at Pln. Enmore, killing 5 and injuring 12 persons. Thirty-year-old Lalla Bagi was shot in the back; nineteen-year-old Pooran had a bullet through his leg and a gaping 3-inch wound above his pelvis; Rambarran died from two bullet wounds in his leg; Dookhie died in hospital the same day; Harry died the next day from a spinal injury.

This whole sordid and tragic episode could have been avoided. But the plantocracy was contemptuous of the workers, whose lives were regarded as expendable.”

Just last month, on June 16th 2012, many Guyanese, led by the PPP, rightly commemorated the Enmore martyrs, and their supreme sacrifice for the liberation of all Guyanese from colonial rule and arbitrary force.

But sixty-four years after Enmore, the PPP is in power in independent Guyana, and without Cheddi Jagan, who we believe would have fought against the degeneration that resulted in the police unleashing deadly violence on Lindeners on the evening of July 18th, 2012. As we all now know, on the first of five days of action organized by the people of Linden to protest steep increases in electricity rates imposed without consultation with residents and to bring attention to the economic realities their community faces, the police used teargas and shot into a crowd of hundreds of women, children and men amassed on and in the vicinity of the Wismar-Mckenzie bridge.

Three men were killed: 46-year old Allan Lewis; 18 year old Ron Somerset; and 18 year old Shemroy Bouyea. Another 20 women and men were sent to hospital nursing blunt trauma wounds and shooting injuries to the back, face, legs and chest: 34 year old Alice Shaw Barker; 47 year old Michael Roberts; 23 year old Hector Solomon; 33 year old Ulric Michael ; 56 year old Reuben Bowen; 38 year old Dexter Scotland; 52 year old Janice Burgan; 35 year old Yolanda Hinds; 45 year old Brian Charles; 26 year old Collis Duke; 35 year old Cleveland Barker; 25 year old Dwight Yaw; 39 year old Marlon Hartman; 24 year old Troy Nestor; 35 year old Jermaine Allicock; 39 year old Malim Spencer;  29 year old Shandra Lyte; 34 year old Andy Bobb Semple ; 24 year old Collin Adams; 21 year old Trelon Piggot. Two people are in critical condition. One woman was shot as she tried to rush young children to safety.

And in 2012 as in 1948, there is an attempt to whitewash the atrocity. Writing about the murder of the five Enmore workers in 1948 in his book, A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana, 1900 to 1961, Ashton Chase noted: “the police claimed justification for the firing on grounds that a riotous mob at about 10:30 a.m. on ‘massacre day’ rushed into the factory compound and right into the factory building itself, and were overpowering the police who felt compelled to open fire so as to save the valuable property of the factory from destruction or damage and to protect the lives of those engaged in work therein.” In The West on Trial, Cheddi Jagan described official explanations of the Enmore murders that were circulated before the setting up of the Bolland Commission of Inquiry as follows: “…the government had whitewashed the shooting of workers at Pln. Enmore. The police, it said, had been attacked and had opened fire in self defence.”

Today, in response to the murders of Allan Lewis, Ron Somerset and Shemroy Bouyea, and even as the government has agreed to a Commission of Inquiry into the Linden shootings, a news story in the July 19th issue of the state-owned Guyana Chronicle had this to say: “Kudos to our police which did their duty at great risk to the lives of ranks. You stood your grounds in the face of much provocation and danger and you did your duty to protect the peaceful citizens of Guyana and Guyanese once more say “thanks.”

The commemoration of the martyrdom of Enmore workers in 1948 is a refusal to accept that the workers, not the police or the state of which the police are a part, were to blame for their own deaths.  So too, today, we must categorically reject the efforts to whitewash the use of deadly force against women, men and children at Linden.  Those responsible must be held accountable.

We must also reject the government’s line that the opposition parties are to blame for the protests and the casualties of July 18th.  We must reject it whatever we think of the opposition parties because it is insulting to the people of Linden, a product of a political view disrespectful to “ordinary” people and an attempt to isolate Linden by making this into a party issue that can divide Guyanese. Linden has a proud history of self-organising. In the 1970s the Organisation of Working People, independently of party or trade unions that answered to the government of the day, organized bauxite workers and led many of the strikes that shut down the industry. Less well known is that Linden women have a history of organizing as mothers/carers, that housewives and children took to the streets in their thousands in 1983 at the height of the food rebellions, facing down riot police and forcing the release of twenty-four bauxite workers arrested for participating in a one-day-a-week strike. Both the OWP and the housewives allied with others across race and party and outside of Linden, most notably in the formation of the Sugar and Bauxite Workers Unity Committee.

Rising up against the electricity increases comes out of this proud history that holds many lessons for us today. In particular relation to women, what the history of their actions in 1983 shows us is that no mothers in Linden (or anywhere else) have to be led by political parties to protest: what leads them to protest is what they know from their daily lives – that the work of making ends meet is theirs, and that anything that increases that work is something that they must rise up against in defence of themselves, their children and their families.

The media, in their reporting and coverage of efforts to demonstrate solidarity with Linden, also have to do better. For the most part reports have focused attention on what either the government or political opposition are saying and doing. The protests in Georgetown on Thursday and Friday were organized by Red Thread to say what we have said before, that the struggle in Guyana is not about government and opposition parties. It is about we the people, starting with mothers and other carers, those who are always left to mourn their dead, comfort the ones left behind, and nurse the injured back to health .

Challenged about why we’re organizing protests against the violence in Linden we point to the sign outside Red Thread’s centre that reads “Solidarity with Linden mothers.” We are in solidarity with all Linden; the banner says “mothers” because our starting point is always mothers and other carers, the foundation of the whole society and economy. It is what we said in the statement we issued after the 2008 Lusignan massacre, in which we called on Guyanese to begin with ”those who continue to pay the highest price of all” and added, “It is time we learn to listen to the anguish of a mother’s cries, to recognize that her grief knows no race, no politics, no camp, only unspeakable loss and love.”

Violence of the powerful against those with less social power is always criminal and to be condemned – and there is too often no condemnation except when it directly concerns us or “our race”. The tendency of too many of us to respond to injustice only in relation to race, not to race as it interacts with class, and gender, and other social relations, always works in the interest of those with more social power. It keeps us divided from each other, and makes us all losers in the end.

The violence unleashed on the protestors by the state on July 18, 2012 has carried Linden and the country beyond the question of electricity tariffs. Violence is not violence is not violence. Whether in 1948 or in 2012 the violence of the state must be seen for what it is. The violence of the colonial state in 1948 carried that struggle well beyond the issue of cut-and-load to the central issue of how we will organize to live. It fuelled the nationalist movement that began in the late 1940s, led by working people across race. The violence of the state in 2012 demands the same courage – that we stand up and answer the question: How will we organize to live?

This moment is about Linden but it is about more than Linden. As the placards held in the GT protests by women of different races proclaimed – in hope and determination –  “We are all Lindeners”.

In The News

Parliamentarians should be nothing more than the people’s representatives

By Alissa Trotz

On Friday last, the Jamaican newspapers covered a performance by Sistren Theatre Collective, a 32 year old grassroots women’s organization in Jamaica. The play, ‘A Slice of Reality,’ dramatized the lives of poor women in order to make the argument for the legalization of abortion (Sistren’s executive Director, Lana Finkin, said it was a depiction of actual experiences drawn from two inner city communities in Kingston). What was striking about this story was that it was part of Sistren’s presentation to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament that has been hearing submissions since July of last year on the Report of the Abortion Policy Review Advisory Group (a group set up in 2005 to address, among other things, concern over the role of unsafe abortions in adolescent and maternal deaths).

As I watched excited e-mails fly up and down about the importance of Sistren’s intervention into parliamentary considerations, I could not help but think of the very different and recent experience of Red Thread and Grassroots Women Across Race on February 20th, when they attempted to attend the closing debate on the 2009 budget after picketing outside of Parliament against the decrease in the size of the promised single parents’ fund. I was at Red Thread that day, and was present for the discussion that took place before the women left for Parliament. We talked about who could go into Parliament in the context of what is deemed appropriate attire, as well as who might remain outside with the placards once some women went inside to hear the debate. Both actions made perfect sense together: to first stand in peaceful protest outside Parliament to remind the public of what was at stake; and then to witness the budget debate, as grassroots women whose lives are fundamentally affected by this issue.

Sometime after they left, the phone at Red Thread began to ring, at which point we learned that the police were preventing the women from entering Parliament. The reasons given were untrue and/or foolish: inappropriate dress (not true); following orders (“because I said so”). You have to ask yourself, aren’t parliamentarians the people’s representatives? What does it mean that grassroots women were denied entry on this most crucial of issues, or that a businessman was at the same time allowed to enter?

On February 24th, Red Thread member Andaiye wrote the Speaker of the House Ralph Ramkarran, requesting that he  “publicly affirm the public right to enter Parliament to listen to debates”, explain “what limitations, if any, the Standing Orders provide on that right,” and “take steps to ensure that the Guyana Police Force is aware of this right.” In a response three days later, Speaker Ramkarran replied that under Standing Order 108 (1), the public can observe parliamentary debates “under such rules as the Speaker may make from time to time”. He noted that the Guyana Police Force is responsible for the security of the Parliament Building and for ensuring that no breach of the peace occurs in the Parliament Chambers. Ramkarran closed by recognizing Andaiye’s contribution to the struggle to restore democracy in Guyana, and inviting Red Thread to visit the Parliament Chamber as his guest for a future debate of its choice. In certain ways a welcome response (particularly the Speaker’s ready invitation to make his response public), one wonders whether an invitation is the only way that one can be guaranteed access to parliamentary debates? Surely the struggle for democracy entails more than that?

In his letter Speaker Ramkarran said that – as a layperson – he could not comment on whether there was a specific policy by the police with respect to picketers seeking entry into Parliament once the picket was completed. Another letter was sent on March 2nd to Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee, requesting clarification on three questions (the Minister acknowledged receipt of this letter, but Red Thread is still awaiting a full response):

1. Do the police have a policy of preventing people who have picketed the Parliament from entering Parliament to hear debates after picketing?

2. If yes, is this a blanket policy applying in all such circumstances or are the police to use their discretion?

3. If there is such a policy, how does it match up to the promise of increased openness of the National Assembly and the long-established right in Guyana to sit in the gallery and listen to the proceedings, as in the courts?

Elder Eusi Kwayana has offered his own take on this question, reminding us that these are rights we have fought for and earned, not favours to be withheld or distributed unevenly. I close this week’s column by reproducing Kwayana’s comments in full below:

In 1952, a young woman poet in the East Coast Demerara Youth Rally (DYR) wrote in a poem:

“If the big things need attention
the little things need still more”

That young poet was a philosopher. She moved away perhaps with her husband to do farming elsewhere. I have never forgotten those lines. The DYR was a Youth organisation that some of us founded in those days.  Most but not all of us were PPP, and we were not an arm of the party. We had our programme and our own song, I was not an official and no one tried to tell us what to do. The DYR was banned by the Governor in 1953.

I want to remind readers of my recent recommendation for a Commission to investigate the abuse of women. I believe that an open and malicious abuse of women took place on February 20th when the police barred some women who had been picketing the budget debate from entering the chamber to listen to the people’s representatives. I now know that the women were Red Thread members and others, and that they had left their pickets outside with a woman who did not try to go through the sacred gates. Several issues arise out of this “little” thing.

1. The act of the police was a serious breach of the freedom of citizens to enter the Assembly and listen to debates without exception. In the past, Speaker Sase Narain even had to deal with hecklers, whom he suppressed without any expulsion that I can recall.

2. Mr. Christopher Ram’s refusal to agree to enter when the women were denied, highlights the discrimination against the activist women who had been picketing. They could not go into the place that had passed brave laws about their freedom and equality.

3. If the Speaker knew of the incident, it would have been a good opportunity to tell the country that the exclusion was purely the work of the police and to affirm the citizens’ rights of listening from the gallery, a space provided precisely for this purpose. He could have spoken of the citizens’ access to the deliberations he conducts in the name of the people

4. Members of the National Assembly certainly have the right to raise this issue by one means or another. Will they?
There were days when we called the police, behaving as those ranks did on February 20, “Burnham Watchman”. Now are they “Jagdeo Watchman?” In both cases they uphold not the law, but the President’s head!

Some will say that it is not discrimination against women. If not, it is equally unacceptable if it is discrimination against those who raise questions about the impact of the 2009 budget on poor people.