NGO Activity in Guyana: The Police Wives Association
By Cecilia McAlmont
July 19, 2001
In this continuing series of articles on NGO activity in Guyana, the focus has been mainly on NGOs that have been formed by concerned citizens or had their origins in the efforts of international organisations. In this International Year of the Volunteer, this article salutes one of the unsung heroes. It salutes a woman who most likely never heard the word volunteerism much more knew its meaning. Nonetheless, for many years she gave unstintingly of her time and energies to improve the quality of life of and empower the women with whom she came into contact.
Juliet Serena Mitchell, born April 5 1905, at Golden Fleece West Coast Berbice, was the only surviving daughter in a family consisting of five boys and five girls. She was educated at St Albans Church of England school. At age twenty-one, she married Constable Joseph Griffith of the British Guiana Police Force. During the 1940s as she moved around with her husband on his different postings, she observed that while many junior ranks of policemen were improving themselves academically and gaining promotions, their wives `were left standing on the sidelines as mere onlookers' in that developmental process. Additionally, families of policemen lived 'cheek by jowl' in cramped compounds and there were often misunderstandings among police wives, which sometimes broke out into open quarrels. This distressed as did the penchant of our policemen to father many children who had to be supported from their meagre salaries. This often left their wives with the onerous task of trying to stretch the dollar to feed and clothe the family. She loved children and felt that assisting their mothers would be a positive step towards helping the children and eventually ensuring a more positive domestic atmosphere.
She was unable to realise her dream until her husband became the first local Snr. Superintendent in the British Guiana Police Force. With her new status, she was able to get the support of the wives of more senior officers, all of whom were expatriates. On April 27, 1953, the first meeting was held at her home in the Central Police Station compound at New Amsterdam. 24 persons were present and an executive council was formed to oversee the organisation's smooth functioning. Its objectives were:
* To develop a friendly atmosphere among wives of policemen.
* To equip wives to improve conditions in their home through home improvement classes.
* To assist in the development of the children of policemen.
In keeping with its mission, meetings were held on the first and third Tuesdays of every month. There were adult education classes, cookery, tailoring, dressmaking, artificial flower making and other types of craft. These were taught by wives who were proficient in such skills. Additionally, secondary school scholarships and bursaries were awarded to children of policemen. Many of the awardees did well and made significant contributions to the labour force in many fields.
Two years after its formation in Berbice, the Georgetown branch was formed and the headquarters of the organisation moved there. As the founder members of the association moved with their husbands to different locations in the country, other branches were formed. Unfortunately, many did not survive the departure to another location of the police wives who started them. Also, branches were never formed in interior locations, because generally, the policemen sent to these locations were single or did not choose to take their families with them. In August 1960, with the assistance of the Schools Cooperative Officer, Ms Thelma Gaskin, a Police Wives' Credit Union was formed. The women saved 24 cents each month. This credit union is said to have kept the association alive during the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s when only the Georgetown branch continued to function and members, even if it were two of them, continued to meet every month.
The first Police Commissioner to show an interest in the work of the association was Police Commissioner Carl Austin. He supported the association in its work and his wife became the first President. This position is now held automatically by the wife of the current Commissioner of Police. She is also the association's patron. She, together with a Chairwoman, Vice-Chairwomen, Secretary, Treasurer, Assistant Secretary/Treasurer and a management committee of five members manage the association. Three of the members act as Trustees. Although it has been in existence for 48 years, the organisation was only registered in the year 2000 under the Friendly Societies Act and interestingly enough as a Workingman's club.
This is a rather unwelcome reminder of the extent to which, despite greater awareness of gender issues that men still predominate in the scheme of things. Membership of the association is opened to the wives of policemen in active service, retired or deceased and other women including policewomen and other women who are interested in the work of the association. The association is financed by the membership fee paid annually by its members, their fundraising activities, and donations from public and private sector organisations. The donor community and other NGOs provide some funds for special projects and a subvention is received from the finance department of the police force for the operation of the Juliet Griffith Day Care Centre.
In 1990, a youth club was established as the Youth arm of the Police Wives Association. It targets underprivileged youths between the ages of eight and fourteen. Its purpose is, amongst other things, to develop a sense of responsibility and discipline, to inculcate good values and to develop skills beneficial for leisure as well as future endeavours. Its activities peak with an annual week-long youth camp when members of the club and other underprivileged children are involved in craft, reading, writing and speech training. The opening on October 3, 1994 of their day care centre, fittingly named the Juliet Griffith Day Care Centre, was the fulfillment of a twenty year dream to bring to fruition one of the things that had been very dear to the heart of their founder. 1994 was also the year of the launching of their magazine Wives Alive.
Over the past decade and a half in particular, the Police Wives Association has certainly achieved its founder's desire to assist the children of policemen. However, it seemed to have lost its way in respect of its vision for the wives of policemen. This portion of the vision needs to be refocused. A start can be made through implementation of the recommendations made by the guest speaker at its 48th AGM last May. These included the need to undertake programmes that would help to empower its members so that they can improve the quality of their own lives and make a meaningful contribution to the country'' development. With an average membership of about 25 women, steps should be taken to attract new members especially from among the female ranks of the police which has increased significantly in recent years. Many of these women are single parents who can certainly benefit from education programmes that would help to improve their status but more importantly build their self-esteem. This task should be made easier through networking with other NGOs. It would also be useful if the association vigorously pursues its decision to resuscitate former branches and open new ones in other regions of the country.
In the changing perception of gender issues, perhaps the time has come to, through the association, open to spouses of all police or at least permit male spouses to become associate members. Such a move might help to provide the male role models needed in the lives of the underprivileged youths who attend the youth club and youth camps. If ever there was an association with the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of women throughout Guyana, it is the Police Wives Association. However, it will need tremendous support from government, the donor community but more particularly other women's organisation with expertise to guide and nurture it.