Rising up in consciousness

16 Aug

A year ago, I sat at a lecture, organised by the Cuffy 250 Committee, where a series of questions about the state of African Guyanese communities were raised. The questions mostly concerned marginalisation, unemployment and inequitable policies. They were not particularly new but recurring, as are the ongoing struggles identified in black communities.

Fast forward to a few days ago and the Cuffy Committee was again addressing the issues confronting African Guyanese communities, and calling for inclusive economic development efforts that create pathways and help to build and sustain prosperity in them.

These conversations are relevant and it is encouraging to see that the Committee is pressing ahead with its agenda to raise the level of consciousness in our communities.

Dr Norman Ng A Qui, a member of the Committee, made reference to the fact that some people have disparaged the work it is doing and have encouraged stakeholders to stay clear of the forums. I had a similar experience a year ago when I attended the first forum and I cannot believe that people are still peddling the untruths about the Committee’s work.

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We should be having regular conversations across our country about what is happening in our villages, whether we are taking stock of our own lives, and whether we are being afforded equal opportunities to meaningfully participate in the state’s economy.

Increasingly, people are tuning out from what is happening around them and are brushing issues aside with a casual, “I ain’t got time for politics” or “That ain’t concern me,” when, in fact, every decision the State makes concerns us. For example, what is happening with the forestry sector and the revelations in the local press regarding how national resources are being managed or mismanaged ought to be a major concern to every citizen.

During his address at the recent Cuffy 250 Committee forum, APNU’s spokesperson on financial matters Carl Greenidge made a salient observation about state resources and equitable distribution. “…What I am saying here is that the economic policy in the post-2005 period is an economic policy that is geared not so much to building a human resource base that can take you into the third millennium but one that is geared to satisfying the need of a group that is running the country, that sees its interest as control, exercising tight and expansive control over whatever [industries],” Greenidge was quoted as saying in a Stabroek News report. The thrust of his address centered on our national assets and how current policies see them parceled off and handed out to privileged foreign companies, with cuts for a small group of nationals. Of course, the welfare of the population then becomes a back burner issue.

And according to Greenidge, these damaging policies have negatively impacted all Guyanese, including both Indian and African Guyanese communities. This simply reinforces the argument for why we need to have certain conversations in our communities, and not once a year when a forum is organised.

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Raising awareness of the wealth gaps in our society and evaluating what is happening in some communities is important if we are going to strengthen equitable and inclusive economic efforts and better govern poverty.

What the Cuffy 250 Committee is publicising through its forums and community meetings–which are unfortunately poorly attended–is information that has been floating around for a long time.

In 2007, the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) consulted with the African Guyanese community and the issues raised then were identical to the ones being raised now. During a hearing, presenters singled out economic conditions, the political system, and the state of education in certain communities as being among the serious issues confronting African Guyanese. Elton McRae, one of the presenters at that hearing, decried the level of education being offered in African Guyanese communities and he zeroed in on the ongoing social struggles, such as crime and poverty. The following year, the ERC released a report that listed political non-representation, marginalisation and internal conflicts as being among the perceived issues affecting the development of African Guyanese.

Since the ERC report, the issues appear to have remained the same, based on the discussions at the recent Cuffy 250 Committee forum. It was difficult to read educator Deon Abrams’ contribution to the forum. When he spoke about the state of education in the African Guyanese community, it was reminiscent of McRae appearing before the ERC seven years ago. But Abrams emphasised another issue that ought to be of major concern to not only the African Guyanese community but to government. He opined that one of the biggest problems in the schools is that children seem not to understand why they are there. He had no qualms saying that the attitudes of Black people’s children, whom he described as “Bad Johns,” is worrying because they appear more conscious about how they dress than their education. Clearly, he meant some Black people’s children but this distinction is minor. What is important is this group of children who are falling through the cracks; they leave school functional illiterates and the system happily reports that “no child has been left behind.”

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“It is for us to rise up in consciousness, recognising that which belongs to us and to engage in the process of revitalisation, using our history as an example as to how it could be done. We have been there before and we can witness a rebirth 50 years after into 50 years beyond,” University of Guyana Registrar Vincent Alexander said during his keynote address at the forum.

This particular quote resonated with me because of the words, “rise up in consciousness.” That he was speaking to the African Guyanese community hardly registered at the time of my reading it. I read it and immediately thought about how important it is for Guyanese to rise up in consciousness, for us to pull together, and develop strategies to fight back against systematic oppression.

As Alexander pointed out, the State also has an obligation to play a part by virtue of the institutions it may put in place to aid and abet the process of revitalisation in our communities. Unfortunately, one of the more serious threats to our democracy is the existence within our own institutions of conditions, such as centralised political power and imbalanced economic policies, which have given victory to inequality, indifference, and the enduring hopelessness in some of our communities.

 

Human trafficking and official neglect

14 Jul

The trafficking, exploitation and imprisonment of women and girls in our country’s interior is real. The everyday violations they face are real, and though the national data might appear minimal, this problem is anything but trivial.

Just last month I sat across the room from a young human trafficking survivor who was sharing her story. She “took a chance” and went into the gold bush but found that she had no choice in determining whether she worked as a shop attendant or a sex worker. For months she was powerless, voiceless and a victim of frequent violence and before she was rescued everyday presented fresh opportunities for her to be violated.

Photo courtesy of TakinguptheCause

Photo courtesy of TakinguptheCause

She was one of many victims trapped in an arrangement they had neither the means nor the resources to get out of, not unless someone intervened. Girls her age, and some much younger, were trading sex for money and gold they never saw. They had no freedom to move around and were restricted from communicating with people, with the exception of potential male customers.

Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is a grave violation of human rights and sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking. The lack of localised data and specific research makes it difficult to understand the real scope of the problem, but based on the cases which have been documented the majority of local victims are girls no older than age 20. In fact, some are children, still too young to consent to sexual relations.

Indeed, there are older girls over age sixteen and women who are consensually working in the interior as sex workers but they too are abused and exploited. There are women in the commercial sex industry with very little personal power who find it difficult to escape exploitative situations.

These are crimes we downplay on the assumption that these girls are “hustling in the bush” and can get out anytime. It’s no surprise then that Human Services Minister Jennifer Webster so indifferently referred to them during her budget debate speech back in April as “alleged victims.”

But the teenager I met recently was no alleged victim. She was a real victim with a real story—a young girl who was exploited because she is poor, without adequate education and vulnerable.

While we sit around and debate whether these girls and women have willingly agreed to engage in sex work or whether they were coerced into such activities, a large majority of them remain exposed to numerous acts of brutality every day in mining communities.

For years, the US government has reported on the hidden devastation of human trafficking in Guyana and has called on the administration to step up the fight to combat TIP. Just as importantly, many local NGOs and activists have repeatedly shone a light on the terrifying abuses being perpetrated against the victims of human trafficking. But the official response has always been the same: the prevalence of human trafficking is low and the US government’s data is false.

On Tuesday, Minister Webster repeated the line about prevalence saying that repeated assessments have shown that “there is a low prevalence” of TIP. A few years ago Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee made a similar declaration. In a report published by the TIP Ministerial Task Force in 2011, he made the following statement:

“The reports over the years have been clear that as a country Guyana does not have significant numbers of victims of trafficking in persons and the country’s authorities have made significant strides in increasing efforts aimed at preventing and addressing the phenomenon including protecting victims and vulnerable persons and in prosecuting perpetrators.”

But aside from the statements about low prevalence and the reported strides in increased efforts, there is hardly ever any new information on TIP from either minister and or the task force they are a part of. By law, Minister Rohee is required to publish regular figures on TIP and to keep the public informed on what is happening but no such reports have been forthcoming. How then are people supposed to get a sense of what is happening locally with TIP?

Previously, we waited every year for the US Statement Department to publish its global TIP report with country findings. More recently, we have been following the important work being done by the Guyana Women Miners Organisation (GWMO).

In its 2013 TIP report, the US State Department downgraded Guyana from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List for failing to demonstrate evidence of increasing efforts to hold trafficking offenders accountable. The administration rejected the findings and announced that it would no longer be cooperating with the US authorities.  This means that when the 2014 report comes out later this year, the administration’s input would be missing.

It matters not whether two or three girls are rescued a year, one human trafficking victim is one too many. But we have not had one or two victims a year. In 2012, the GWMO was still in its early days and without any system in place to document evidence, but it had reported that four girls were rescued from the interior.

But in 2013, the organisation reported that 25 human trafficking victims were rescued from mining communities–of this number, 16 were under the age of 18. The cases were all reported to the authorities and the girls would have been interviewed and processed by the police, officials at the Child Care and Protection Agency and the Human Services Ministry.  Similarly, information would have been passed on about the offenders and their last known whereabouts.

Yet only a few of the cases have reached the courts and as recently reported in the Stabroek News, many of them have collapsed due to the absence of the victims. But as GWMO President Simona Broomes pointed out, the girls are not appearing in court because they lack the resources to attend hearings.

Broomes has repeatedly condemned what she describes as a non-responsive criminal justice system that is failing TIP victims and she has accused the administration of being in denial about the problem. Her organisation has and continues to expose the harsh reality of human trafficking in the country and their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

While the government has not heeded Broomes’ call to partner with the GWMO to improve its response to human trafficking, the organization has been increasing its work and stepping up its advocacy. It’s because of them that we are aware of what is happening.

It’s because of the GWMO that public awareness is growing and the plights of trafficking victims are being highlighted. They have single-handedly exposed the denial and as Broomes would often say, “neglect.”

The GWMO is doing tremendous work and has made human trafficking numbers a reality but we can’t reasonably expect these women miners to fight this scourge of human trafficking alone. They have unearthed sufficient evidence to trigger concern and outrage, and it’s about time we move beyond the “prevalence assessments” and acknowledge that serious human rights violations are occurring in our mining communities.

 

The right thing to do

16 Jun
Guyana's Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh

Guyana’s Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh

The Finance Minister’s recent vehicular accident is not the sort of news you would easily dismiss on a hectic day at a newsroom, even if the write-up is just to report the basic facts. But as it turns out, there is more than the basic story to be told from the Republic Day collision, insofar as it calls our attention to how power serves to shield those in the power elite from the law and accountability, in ways hardly imaginable for the rest of us.

On the account of his public status, Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh’s conduct is going to be scrutinised during and after official working hours. The political responsibility he has accepted extends beyond his budget speeches in Parliament, official press conferences and scheduled appearances–Dr Singh is, until his portfolio changes, a public official who we have entrusted with power and it’s in our interest to know how he uses it, whether on official or unofficial business.

Many of us have certain expectations of the conduct of Dr Singh and every other public official, though these continue to be eroded with every new example of their disregard for due process, their unbridled entitlement and their bald abuse of power.

That being said, I still expect Dr Singh to live above and beyond reproach because this country has a massive deficit for that kind of leadership and he may have once been counted among the qualified.

So, what happened? Two vehicles collided around 9pm on February 23 at the junction of Garnett Street and Delph Avenue, Campbellville. In one vehicle was taxi driver Jageshwar Hira and the passenger he was ferrying, Parbattie Shivcharan, while in the other was the Honourable Minister of Finance. From all accounts, Dr Singh lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the taxi. It was also reported that he “appeared intoxicated” and within minutes of the crash he had vanished from the scene, leaving a bewildered Hira and Shivcharan.

Hira, in interview with the press, mentioned the name of a close associate of the minister who appeared at the scene with the same swiftness with which the minister had vanished. The associate offered to “take care of things” and promised to be in contact then he too left. The accident and the fallout, including the police reports and media interviews, were left to Hira as he stood alone, slightly injured and no doubt in shock and confusion on a darkened city street with the smashed-up car he used to earn his livelihood.

Hira, in a Stabroek News interview, said: “I was coming down this street [west on Garnett Street, Campbellville] and this vehicle was coming out of this road [Delph Avenue] and just jump the major road, slam into me, sending we into that gutter…. The man come out then we see is the Finance Minister but he ain’t even offer help. He just jump into another vehicle and drive off leaving we hay….”

What followed was equally shocking. The Minister, as was expected, sought medical attention but he made no direct attempts that night to ascertain how the other people he crashed into were doing. How was the driver whose car he had just wrecked? How was the passenger he was ferrying? He made no attempt the following day—it was as if he had no culpability in the matter, and this should be of concern to us all.

What should also be of concern to us is the fact the Minister failed to submit himself to the police in the hours following the accident, to say nothing of the fact that a breathalyser test was not administered.

We should also be concerned that the Minister lost his capacity for speech when approached by the press on the matter, likely on the advice of his attorney, who in this instance happens to be our Attorney General. But out of respect for the citizens of this country and, more specifically, out of respect for the people he smashed into, Dr Singh ought to, at the very least, address the issue publicly. Even more, he should have apologised before the media approached him.

The power we have entrusted Dr Singh with does not shield him from culpability in this matter, and we certainly did not empower him to treat any of us in the manner he has treated Hira and Shivcharan.

And as observed by lawyer Raphael Trotman, in an invited comment published in Stabroek News this week, failing to render assistance once an accident has occurred and failing to report an accident to the police can and should result in charges. Trotman, also Speaker of the National Assembly, also pointed out that even if private compensation were to be worked out, persons were still required under the law to render assistance if they were in a position to do so.

Hira has met with the Attorney General and was informed that they are working on a settlement but the figure is way below what he is asking for. Hira is requesting a $6 million dollar settlement but the figure being mentioned is according to him, “way below one million.”

In the struggle for more responsible leadership, it is incumbent upon us to communicate our concerns and frustrations with the political elites. The usual silence which pervades the atmosphere when we expect them to account for their actions has become too entrenched in our democracy and, as demonstrated by this recent case, is growing increasingly blatant.

This is not an isolated case of political power shielding elites and their relatives, associates even, from law enforcement and our justice system. There are documented reports of a minister’s son battering his partner; there are several reports of ordinary citizens being run over from those behind the wheels of government vehicles, and the the infamous case of former Minister Kellawan Lall running over an officer attached to the courts, resulting in serious injuries. To date, the officer is unable to walk without support and he was forced to quit working. When I saw him recently, he said, “Nothing ain’t the same child and things rough.”

These cases somehow never attract police investigations and result in criminal charges. With our own eyes we have seen how they’ve bent the “abuse of power” dictum beyond recognition.  What happened with Dr Singh is a “police matter” not something the Home Affairs Minister would dare comment on, but the Home Affairs knows when to criticise the police for their shabby work.

The problem for me though is not so much the obvious attempt to sweep this accident aside, it is Dr Singh and what is expected of him while he holds office. He’s had time to recover from the crash and it must have occurred to him that there is a wrong approach and a right approach.

To Dr Singh, I say, think it over and if things still seem a bit blurry simply ask yourself this question: What’s the right thing to do?

Out of the rabbit hole

16 Jun

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Victims of violence

27 Feb

The words “child abuse,” with their unsettling overtones of physical, sexual or emotional maltreatment of a child, are triggers for rage. Reading about the caregiver who recently assaulted a baby and pleaded guilty easily evokes anger but not only for the child who was mistreated – anger also for a teenager who was rendered defenceless by a judicial system which rarely protects the poor.

While the case might appear simple—a baby was abused and the aggressor was punished after admitting guilt—it is anything but. There are several important issues to consider, including the mental state of the young caregiver, the unequal power relations between domestic workers and their employers, and the dysfunctional judicial system that offers little or no protection to the poorest in this country.

Every story has at least two sides and this story is no different. But in this country one side of the story usually gets shut down, and often that is the side of the less fortunate, the people in our society who drop out of school to work in the informal economy as cooks, cleaners, caregivers, delivery boys, shop attendants and handy boys etc. These are the citizens who live and work in a dark, unseen and discriminatory side of our society.

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In Guyana, we talk about violence, its prevalence and how we have become immune to it, but we say very little about economic violence. The very poorest in our society are desperately vulnerable to all forms of violence simply because they are poor and they have no defence whatsoever from those who seek to rape, abuse, exploit and assault them.

To some, the young caregiver is shameless, violent and a danger to society. She beats up on defenceless babies left in her care and is therefore deserving of the five-year prison sentence she was slapped with. But to others, she is poor, a victim of economic violence and one of the voiceless citizens from the disadvantaged side of our society.

Without question, this young woman, Fatima Martin, deserves to be punished for abusing one-year-old Sanjana Edmond. As published in the press, the medical report was detailed and the contents very alarming. It disclosed that the child received medical attention for injuries most likely caused by a series of blunt traumas. It also noted that the injuries on such a small child could have serious intracranial consequences. These are serious injuries and any parent, in this instance Magistrate Geeta Chandan-Edmond, would be horrified.

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But have we considered why Ms Martin would have beat up on a defenceless child? The story she told the parents after reportedly being dishonest on two occasions was that the baby refused to let her put on a diaper. Subsequent to this, she said in court that she was “vex.” Rather than sounding like an unabashed child abuser, she paints the picture of a teenager who is not only easily frustrated but also lacks the skills required to care for children, especially a one-year-old baby.

The truth is that she is a teenager and should not be caring for babies or more so be paid to do so. Ms Martin might be legally empowered to vote and work in our country but she is still a young girl who is crossing over from adolescence to womanhood and can in no way be assumed to possess the skills required to care for a baby in a professional setting. This cannot be lost on Magistrate Chandan-Edmond and her husband, Joel Edmond. Though Mr Edmond has come forward to say that they employed her out of sympathy, they could have also been sympathetic enough to enquire about her circumstances, what led her there and why? Not rescue her in exchange for that kind of work.

According to Mr Edmond, the teenager was desperate. I might add that she was also vulnerable. There she was, a young girl, begging for a job and out of kindness they hired her. But she did not simply represent the young and desperate group that is job hunting out there, Ms Martin also represents a vulnerable group of young women entering the informal economy who are exposed to exploitation, abuse and assault. How could this escape the magistrate and her husband?

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The painful truth is that she also characterises what we call “cheap labour” in our country–the group of people who we could easily tap into when we need work done for cheap. The group of people who we could pay an unliveable wage to because they have no social and legal protection, and because the majority are desperate. How could this also escape the magistrate and her husband?

Even more important, did the magistrate and her husband consider how caregivers like Ms Martin who live-in and are considered “on call” usually operate in highly unequal relationships with their employers and easily become domestic slaves with very little rights and even less personal agency? This work is unregulated, isolated, out of sight and ought not to be offered to a teenager, especially a desperate one.

There have been many calls in our society for Ms Martin to be “punished severely” and there has been a chorus of calls saying, “Jail she!” Some have argued that the law is finally working for victims of child abuse. In this same camp are the people who say that one cannot support Ms Martin and advocate for a violence-free society. But we certainly can if we listen to Ms Martin’s story and accept that she too is a victim of violence.

If we accept her story that she worked long hours with low wages then she is a victim of economic violence. If we accept that the magistrate physically assaulted her after she admitted responsibility for the child’s injuries, as Ms Martin has alleged, then she was a victim of physical violence. This story is not only about the violence against the child which is punishable, it involves other forms of violence and lest we forget, those also matter.

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In short, it is difficult, prejudicial even, to say jail her for five years without considering the distinct disadvantages she faced. Do we know whether Ms Martin was fortunate to acquire a secondary education? Can she properly articulate her frustrations and grievances? If we could walk for one day in her shoes then we might have a tiny bit of latitude to say how long she should be jailed for, but just a tiny bit.

What’s even worse the judicial system chewed up Ms Martin then spat her out with a harsh prison sentence after her admission of guilt. The presiding magistrate concluded that she was unremorseful and went ahead and slapped a severe prison term on the teenager who was standing before her unrepresented and very likely, nervous.

The teenager was a first offender by all accounts but charged with a serious offence committed against the child of a sitting magistrate and an attorney-at-law, both of whom stood in court alongside an attorney retained to look into the child’s interests.

If ever there was a time for the judicial system to operate in a manner above and beyond scrutiny, it was then.

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But the magistrate said the teenager was unapologetic after hearing her speak briefly. Maybe it was what she said or how she said it. Maybe it was because of what she didn’t say. Maybe it was her inability to communicate properly. Whatever it was, she did not deserve a quick judgment.

Is it unreasonable to expect that the magistrate ought to show some concern for the teenage caregiver standing before her on a serious offence? Is it unreasonable to expect that she would have deferred the ruling and asked for a probation report on the young Ms Martin? No it is not.

The hasty trial that Ms Martin received was one-sided even without taking into account her allegations of being assaulted by Magistrate Chandan-Edmond. But we have seen this time and time again. The judicial system offers no protection to the poor and vulnerable, and this case, like so many others, exposes how the system aids in damaging the lives of the poorest.

The New Link Show is a Must-See!

21 Feb

2014-02-21 07.38.33The Link Show, the country’s most popular annual satirical revue, opened last night and if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud-funny, I can tell you it won’t disappoint.

The Link, which runs until February 24, takes a swing at everything this year – from the ‘Presidential backball’ and the First Lady’s never-before seen reaction (which is a must-see!) to the Presidential decision not to include Opposition Leader, David Granger in Guyana’s contingent which flew to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Though he has left office, former President Bharrat Jagdeo continues to be a staple in the Link—perhaps a canny commentary on his continued influence in the halls of power—while local journalist Michael Younge can now count himself among public figures on the receiving end of the classic Link treatment and it’s a must-see.

The creative energy and forces behind the Link continue to set the standard for local satirical revue and for that I say a huge thank you! The cast this year includes a solid line-up of veterans and newcomers, including Ron Robinson, Sherry Ann Dyal, Tashandra Inniss, Nuriyyih Gerrard, Raymond Persaud, Sean Budnah, Mark Kaim, Mark Luke-Edwards, Simone Dowding, LaVonne George and Kijana Lewis.

For the first time in 30 years, the Link is no longer being staged at the National Cultural Centre but the new venue, Parc Rayne (Rahaman’s Park) was a suitable alternative. So, if you can get your hands on a ticket, go ahead, treat yourself!

 

 

 

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