Women's forum urges peace for elections

Guyana Chronicle
April 20, 2001

REPRESENTATIVES at a women's political forum yesterday called for peace and justice before, during and after Monday's elections and urged women to remain calm, because they suffer the most in these circumstances.

At the forum at the Hotel Tower in Georgetown, a joint statement was issued by political parties including the Peoples' Progressive Party/Civic; People's National Congress/Reform; Justice For All Party; Guyana Action Party/Working People's Alliance; Guyana Republican Party; The United Force and the National Front Alliance.

It was read by Mrs Lisa Thompson, Director of the Help and Shelter group and stated that Guyana is a country with serious conflicts between the two largest race groups, which becomes sharper and more visible during the election periods.

"In this rising conflict, women can play three roles: we can contribute to the conflict, we can turn a blind eye to it, or we can speak out against it. We choose the last option", she stated.

Thompson said it is very unfortunate that not much investigative journalism is conducted in Guyana, because every day the relevant authorities receive and accept two completely opposing versions of what is happening with regards to violence against women.

The bodies issued demands for during the pre- and post- election periods: ** Find out what is small, normal hitch in the electoral process and what is not; and that the actions of citizens in defence of their rights do not contribute to tension between the races.

"Above all, we ask women who decide to engage in protest action, not to encourage or even permit sexual or other abuses of other women, including women of other races."

** On the side of the police and those who command them, that they protect the rights of citizens as citizens to peaceful protest, whether their protest is quiet or noisy, and that they resist targeting women for violence.

** On the side of the Elections Commission, that in place of assurances that are often insufficiently informative, they provide timely and full details, as often as necessary, on how the concerns of voters are being addressed, so that voters can gain confidence that they will not be disenfranchised or frustrated by inefficiency in their efforts to exercise their franchise.

"Women want peace; peace in our homes and in our streets, peace inside our country and with our neighbours, peace in our communities on election day and on the days before and after.

"And for there to be peace, there must be both justice and the assurance that there will be justice", the statement added.

Thompson referred to the treatment of Maria Benschop when police arrested her during a street protest Wednesday and said this was a regular occurrence.

Mrs Benschop and her husband Mark Benschop, the alleged protest leader, and 23 others, were arrested when police blocked demonstrators from going towards the Guyana Elections Commission building Wednesday.

"Every day women are being violated in some way or the other and especially leading up to our elections which is on Monday. We're afraid if we don't come out as one to say something against violence and to do something and to let other women know that (it will continue)", she said.

"They (women) can play their own part to maintain peace; without that, who knows what can happen, but it is certainly not about her (Maria Benschop) but as well as other women.

"Any other woman whether they are beaten by the police or raped by their husbands because they want to vote for another party - whatever the reasons are, it's violence to women", Thompson declared.

Ms Cheryl Sampson, of the PNC/R said there is an organisation which oversees the Guyana Police Force and their treatment towards women, but there seems to have been some breakdown in the system.

She said the message has not been filtered down to the lower ranks.

"For some reason I feel it is not getting down to the lower ranks or it is not registering".

Sampson added that even though the enactment has been passed against violence against women, "there are some members of the police force who feel that they can do whatever they like and those are some of the things we are not going to stand for."

Women's activist Andaiye remarked that the issue of domestic violence is not a simple matter in Guyana nor anywhere else.

"The kind of work that has been done in relation to the Domestic Violence Act that was started under the previous government and women of all the parties have been committed to that kind of work, which is getting legislation passed.

"We've also done work to popularise the legislation. What we wanted via that act is really at variance with what our culture accepts".

She felt there is acceptance of "a certain kind of violence between men and women, and therefore there is work to be done at the level of changing that culture".

Andaiye said the women's organisations are not in support of breaking the law, "but we cannot demoralise women just because we have an image of what women ought to be, if they want to get out on the road and defend their rights."

She stressed that women have a right to protect their rights, as long as they don't break the law.

Women from political parties and other groups attended the forum.

The representative of the PPP/C was absent from the meeting. (STACEY DAVIDSON)