Holding the balance while educating women

Guyana Chronicle
August 16, 2000

SPEAKING at a 1997 Commonwealth Colloquium on the promotion of human rights of women and the girlchild, held in Georgetown, Caribbean jurist Ms Joan Sawyer implored women to take hold of their destinies, to prevent acts of violence against their persons and to promote themselves.

Ms Sawyer, who happened to be the Chief Justice of the Bahamas, conceded that she did not know the answers to some of the problems affecting women. In a philosophical summing up to her colleagues in the justice system, Ms Sawyer said, "We can all do our best as judges to try and hold the balance, and take time to educate women."

The admonition to educate women has to be one of the main planks of any programme aimed at assisting abused and battered women in breaking the cycle of violence in which they may be trapped, and empowering them mentally and economically to take charge of their lives, and in the process reclaim their dignity as human beings.

While this advice may not be considered radical or spectacular, in an age when the incidence of gender violence seems to be rising, it has the potential of transforming a cowering, diminished woman into a confident and assertive female who can be a contributing member of society as she pursues her own self-development.

In the past, many women accepted physical violence from their spouses as if the regular or occasional beatings were a condition of married life.

They also experienced a sense of shame believing that if their husbands hit them, it was because they were somehow at fault in their discharge of domestic or wifely duties. What was worse was the thought of fending for themselves and their children, especially if they possessed no marketable skills.

However, with the new consciousness of women's rights after the groundswell of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and the landmark United Nations World Conference of Women held in Mexico in 1975, more and more women were encouraged to speak out against acts of violence perpetrated on their persons.

Since then, three world conferences of women have been held with the result that women generally have been imbued with greater self-confidence and an improved sense of their human rights.

In fact, it was at the last conference held in Beijing, China in 1995 that American First Lady Mrs Hillary Clinton made women's human rights a rallying cry. In her brilliant presentation at that meeting, Mrs Clinton, while denouncing the forces that kept women in poverty, the practices of bride-burning and genital-mutilation, and the concept of rape as an instrument of war, called for the recognition of women's rights as human rights, and human rights as women's rights.

Five years after that resounding moment, it would be an intrepid feminist indeed who would venture to claim that violence against women is on the decrease. Despite the reality of a Domestic Violence Act in the Guyana's laws; despite the fact that the law-enforcing agencies are supposed to be more sensitive to the instances of gender violence; despite there being more centres where adequate and even professional counselling can be accessed; and in spite of the many public service admonitions broadcast on the electronic media, violence against women is on the increase in this country.

As we have noted before in this column, we accept the fact that it is impossible to legislate human behaviour. We can only continue appealing to men who are prone to resorting to physical violence against their partners to resist this vehicle as a means of resolving conflict.

In the meantime, we will encourage the many women's organisations to continue the task of educating and empowering women to take control of their lives.

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