Women’s Rights - What Future

by Eddi Rodney, MP
Guyana Mirror
March 10, 1999

March 8, International Women’s Day, again coincided with increased discrimination and state-sponsored violence practised against women. Feminist movements all over the world retain an expectancy. And this trait further sentitizes the acute crisis faced by women who are forced to exist as refugees, as ‘illegals’ as they seek to enter the United States from Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere.

The rapid deterioration of the conditions faced by women in Russia, parts of Central Asia as well as in the more severely affected Asian Tiger countries, has compounded the difficulties and hardships of these women.

In the decades since the end of World War II women’s organisations have sought to advance, espouse and capture wherever possible, social rights.

Social rights and gender objectives have not always had the same or identical significance for both women and men.

In Guyana for example, women during the colonial era were subjected to a multiple "sexual exploitation" that was synonymous with the dictatorship of an arrogant White overseer plantocracy, as well as caste patrimony. The legal statutes did not and indeed could never extend rights to the women of the settler-planters - whether these were European or drawn from among the Creole sector.

It was the same in the other West Indian colonies. Women only made gains as a consequence of direct action or strikes against the ruling class.

These partial gains equated concessions based on reforms made during the period of either Crown Colony rule or the ‘usurpation’ of the colonial governor’s powers by the British Secretary of State for the colonies.

This is a feature that was typical of colonialism and was demonstrated by the tactics of divide and rule as well as the eco-social requirements associated with accommodating a class of acculturated locals and their womenfolks. Women’s emancipation predated the struggle and recognition associated with human rights as defined by the United Nations.

Women waged various kinds of resistance against the rising bourgeois system throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Amongst these campaigns forged by women were initiatives to have hospitals that offered health care to women that were adequate for the needs of working-class and poor people. In England the voluntary hospitals that catered for the poor were established by charities or formed by religious orders. These hospitals were "not for the rich," the landed aristocracy or the capitalist class even in the 19th century."

Women over the centuries then were part of a ‘primary coalition’; and this social formation materialized as women struggled to survive, to avoid death in childbirth and in pre-natal ailment conditions.

In the colonies hospitals similar to those established in Britain and France were constructed for the use of medication dispensation to the military battalions and also the planters. Hospitals of a more rudimentary nature were set apart for use by ‘attendants’ charged with treating the sick and wounded slaves and later indentured labourers.

In the most acute way, therefore, women have had to confront racism internal to her physical and human personality - a racism that dominated all realities in the colonies as well as a class arrogance sustained by colonial supremacy in the European societies.

The recent case of the arrest of a group of West African women in France who were part of a ring practising female genital circumcision has created a furore. Apart from the grave suffering imposed on women who are subjected to this mutilation, women have had to confront multiple forms of oppression wherever they are within the environment of tribal, class and gender exploitation.

The Nairobi Women’s Forum may have been the first to focus on this problem affecting women in political Africa. Whether so or not, the facts are that this antropological or ‘cultural’ trait subjects women (or young girls as most often is the case) to an inhuman practice that arose in Africa and parts of Asia as a reaction to wars and the incidence of rape in pre-capitalist societies.

The fact that Rwanda has categorised rape as a "statutory war crime" only illustrates the enormity of the problem. But what about Kosovo and Myanmar (Burma) where women are violated by fascists in the military with almost total impunity?

Here in Guyana, women’s organisations more or less constitute a regional entity. Four years ago the Beijing Conference set out principles for the attainment of women’s rights.

It has been argued that these can best be achieved through joint or partnership actions directed towards project objectives and the securing of funds. A further position that focused on women in governmental functions as a means towards sub-elite empowerment, has not mobilised the majority of women who live in countries such as Sri Lanka, Dominica or even the Philippines during the administration of Mrs Cori Aquino.

Policy issues can be influenced by non-governmental rhetoric and programme agendas, but in the final analysis these policies have to be structured in an overall agenda designed to sustain women as part of nation-building and national democracy.

At Beijing and in the period since then, the estimate of women living in poverty all over the globe was alarming. Seven of every 10 persons are categorised as poor women.

It is not surprising therefore that Singing Sandra has won the Calypso Monarch title of the 1999 Carnival with her "Voices From the Ghetto." All the vices and discrimination encountered by women in the slum situation must be abolished if Caribbean societies are to develop and attain greatness.

As Sandra sings her song of resistance against brutality and the criminals:

‘One night is sleep

you sleeping

Next night is wake

dat you keeping

Next year 2000 could mark a dramatic turn for women in Guyana, but that development cannot occur by waging a struggle against men. Women must mobilise against racism as well as fascist state violence.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples