Women in the Guyana situation
August 7, 2002
About two weeks ago a seminar was held in Georgetown on Women’s Leadership. It was jointly sponsored by the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers. The OAS sponsorship is doubtless in the context that the OAS General Assembly at its meeting in Barbados on June 5 instructed its “Permanent Council, with support from the General Secretariat to hold a special meeting on the topic ‘Women’s Participation in Political Processes’ in September 2002......”
The OAS resolution reflects growing international interest in and commitment to women’s participation in politics, perceived as crucial to democratic politics.
The UN Human Development Report 2002 notes that “around the world women are seriously under-represented in domestic politics, accounting for only l4% of national parliaments.” The report points out that in even such highly developed countries as France, Japan and the United States women account for only l0-20% of parliamentarians (page l6).
Guyana can therefore congratulate itself as women account for nearly 33-l/3% of our parliamentarians. This flows from a recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission but was ultimately the result of the long involvement of Guyanese women in political processes, dating from the reawakening of political consciousness in the later l940’s. In l946 the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO) had been formed with Janet Jagan as its President, and Winifred Gaskin as Secretary and the now forgotten Frances Stafford as a leading member. However the WPEO after a good start failed to gain momentum and was succeeded by the formation in l953 of the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO) of the PPP which included in its leadership Jessica Huntley and Jane Philips-Gay, with the latter becoming after the split in the PPP, Chairman of the PNC’s Women Auxiliary, later transformed into the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (the WRSM). It is probably not unfair to say that these women’s movements seem to have lost the force and catalytic influence they once had and have been subsumed in the respective parties.
However it is almost certainly a mistake to limit the focus on women’s participation in political processes to such formal institutions as the political parties and parliament. It is more than likely that women may have from the earliest times played crucial roles in trade unions and workers activities and in protests. Kowsilla in l964 is a heroic and tragic figure but there were surely others who do not get mentioned in the history books.
History is written here, as elsewhere, from a male perspective. In chronicling major change and upheaval there is no mention of women although it is inconceivable that half the population were merely onlookers. After one has manned and won the barricades, even the most diehard revolutionary must go home for his wounds to be bound up, for restorative meals and rest which only the women can provide. It is women who must cope, especially in the succour of children, with the effects of joblessness and hunger and inadequate shelter. Surely they must have made their voices heard either directly or through husbands and sons or lovers or friends.
It is only Walter Rodney who in his History of the Guyanese Working People reaches beneath the headlines to such political reality. He shows how the widespread strikes in November and December l905 which paralysed Georgetown were precipitated by the appalling conditions of work and wages at that time, women took a dominant part. He describes how depressed conditions led domestics to join stevedores and others in the riots. Of the l05 persons convicted in the Georgetown Magistrates Courts as a consequence of the riots, 4l were female. Of the 45 persons against whom charges were withdrawn, l9 were women (pages 206-8).
In Rodney was lost not only a political figure who might have unified the country but a great historian. At UG it is reported that more than half the student body are women. Surely those in such disciplines as sociology and history could attempt, following in Rodney’s footsteps, the painstaking research to support the writing of that social, economic and political history in which women will be seen as playing important roles.
The movement to ensure that women play an equal role is now going beyond democratisation within national boundaries to the search for roles at the regional and international levels. Thus the UN Security Council in October 2000 adopted a Resolution urging Member States to increase representation of women at all decision making levels in institutions and mechanisms for preventing, managing and resolving conflicts. It calls on all actors negotiating and implementing peace agreements to adopt a gender perspective and include women in implementing mechanisms. It is pointed out that from Burundi to Guatemala, to Northern Island to Somalia and more recently Afghanistan the involvement of women in peace processes has shown real benefits (page 98 in Report).
Why is this so? An American scholar at the Kennedy School of Government, Swanee Hunt, has drawn attention to several advantages of women’s involvement, as follows:
- Women are generally adept at building relationships that bridge ethnic, religious and cultural divides due to their social and biological roles as nurturers.
- They have their fingers on the pulse of the community where the agreement has to be lived, and
-They have a remarkable ability to cross conflict lines (as was demonstrated by the non-sectarian women organisers in Northern Ireland).
Pondering this emerging role for women in national and international conflict resolution and their historic involvement in Guyana in politics, uprisings and protests, as discussed above, there is clearly an overwhelming challenge for them to play vanguard roles in resolving or at least moving forward the Guyana situation.
One ventures to suggest three possible areas for immediate action:
- Women parliamentarians of all parties should meet to consider solutions to the problems which now deadlock parliament. It is understood that one such meeting was held in the early days of parliament before current difficulties arose.
- Women trade unionists from GAWU and NAACIE on one side should meet with counterparts in the TUC to see if present fissures and divisions can be bridged.
- Women Christian Church groups should meet with similar groups attached to Hindu temples and Islamic mosques to map out ways forward towards healing and peacemaking in towns and in and between villages.
These are proposals to be taken seriously. They provide a challenge to half the population of Guyana to save the society from growing disorder and rapidly deepening conflict.