The executive of the Guyana Women Miners’ Organisation is very concerned about being perceived as “the enemy” by officials and is calling for the organisation to be recognized as working to improve the lives of women and young girls in need of protection in the country’s interior.
“My concern is the way in which we are being treated; we are being treated as though we are the enemy and we are not,” Vice-president of the organization Carol Elliot-Fredrick told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview, which included another executive member, Judith Blair. Elliot-Fredrick stressed that the organisation is not “trying to take away anything from the ministry,” but is simply trying to help. “We are on the ground and… know what is happening [so] it is so upsetting…” she said.
The organisation which is the first of its kind, is only months old, and Elliot-Fredrick said it is here to stay. Even though they came in for some harsh words for publicising a recent alleged prostitution ring in the Oko Backdam in Region Eight which is now being investigated by the police, she vowed that they will continue to fight for the rights of women.
People in the interior know the members of the organization and trust them, she said, and this is the reason they are the first point of contact for some of those needing help, although she acknowledged that they had been getting a lot of calls which they could not respond to owing to a lack of finance.
Shortly after the publication of the incident relating to the alleged prostitution ring, Elliot-Fredrick said they received further reports about young girls being taken advantage of in other backdams, but they first have to raise the funds before they can make visits.
Elliot-Fredrick said that she would interact with many of the young women in the backdams and some of them are there against their will, as they were taken for one purpose and then forced into sex work. She recalled a recent incident in a shop where she found a young woman who had her one-year-old son with her, crying, and when she enquired she was informed that she was being forced to work as a prostitute.
“The girl had some problems with her child father and needed a job, and the shop-owner told her that she would take her to work in the shop. When the girl got there the lady told her she has to work for her money and she has work as a prostitute,” Elliot-Fredrick related. She said after she was informed that the girl wanted to leave she told the shop-owner that she was removing the girl from the location and the very next morning she sent the girl out with the driver of a vehicle she had hired. She gave the girl the money she needed for transportation and she happily left the location with her little son.
“These are things that we see every day; she has a one-year-old child and she would have been left in there to work as a prostitute and would have never been able to get the money to come out,” the miner said.
Blair, a former PNCR parliamentarian, said when the girls involved in the recent alleged prostitution case were brought out from the interior it was members of the organisation who took them to the hospital at Bartica, as it was suspected that they had malaria. Two of them were indeed diagnosed with the disease, while all three were given saline because they were weak and dehydrated. She said the executive members used their own resources to accommodate the girls for the night, see that they were fed, bought clothes for them and paid for their journey to Parika where they were handed over to a ministry official.
The two executives took exception to the organisation being “summoned” to a meeting by Minister of Human Services and Social Security Jennifer Webster, whom they said was upset that they had made the issue public in the press. The executives attended the meeting and they were happy that an initial fiery encounter ended on a conciliatory note, and that the minister had promised to issue a joint statement to the media outlining the discussions and how the two had agreed to work together.
“Today is Thursday and we have not seen anything in the papers,” Blair remarked. She said the minister accepted that the members of the organisation were on the ground and would be in a better position to seek out any cases of trafficking. She also agreed to work with them, but they were now wondering if she would follow through on her commitment.
Blair said as long as cases of young girls being taken advantage of in the interior are brought to the organisation’s attention they would publicize them, as they see this as a way of forcing the authorities to investigate and ensure that justice is served. She feels that if the matters are not publicized the authorities may drag their feet on taking action, observing that the Human Services Ministry is “ineffective when it comes to trafficking in persons…” She queried when last a workshop was held in Bartica – one of the gateways to the interior – on trafficking in persons.
The women are angry that the couple allegedly implicated in the prostitution case have been placed on bail and they asked why the police at Bartica had not immediately taken statements from the girls instead of waiting till they were brought to Georgetown. Blair called this “gross nonsense,” and suggested that the police could have released the couple after the 72 hour period and then rearrested them.
She said the carnal knowledge aspect should be investigated as one of the girls, who is below of the age of 16, was allegedly chosen by the couple’s adult son after his father was alleged to have invited him to pick one of the girls to have sex with. The son, she said, should have been arrested, but from all reports he was still in the backdam at his parent’s location.
According to Blair following the report they received they immediately contacted the welfare officer at Bartica, but no action was taken, and it was left up to the organization to work along with the police to get the girls out. She said they would have been happy just to receive some “professional guidance” from the officer on the way forward, but instead they were obliged to “go ahead like blind mice and do what we think was right to do.”
Meantime, the women were upset that since Saturday they have been denied access to see or speak to the girls involved. They pointed out that they are concerned and the girls trusted them and opened up to them, and they wanted one or two of them to be able to interact with the teenagers, but their request was denied.
Elliot-Fredrick also added that there are persons who had contacted them to inform them about the alleged prostitution ring who are now enquiring about the wellbeing of the girls.
“When we asked they said that we cannot see them…we cannot talk to them,” she said with a sad shake of her head.
The organisation, she said, just wants to know that the girls are being properly taken care of since they are “just concerned people.” She said they were also concerned that the girls were at the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) headquarters for almost the entire day giving statements even though two of them had been diagnosed with malaria.
“They are not well because malaria is not any nice thing, because even though when you finish using the treatment you need other stuff to build up your body,” she said.
Contacted, Director of the Child Care & Protection Agency Ann Greene told Sunday Stabroek that she had no issue with the women seeing the girls even though they were initially denied access following a mix-up.
She said that her agency is working with the girls – two 15-year-olds, one sixteen and a 17-year-old – as they need a lot counselling and assistance. While the three younger girls will remain in the custody of the agency the elder one was released into the custody of her mother, since she has a one-year-old child. She has to visit the agency for counselling sessions.
Greene said that the Counter Trafficking Unit is dealing with the alleged offence committed, but her agency will be working to help to empower the girls. “They need a lot of help and I will be doing this myself… one of them seems completely lost and we have to help her,” Greene said.
She said that she would also be doing some work with the women miners’ association as she wants them to be the agency’s partner in its work.
Meanwhile, the Vice-president said she was shocked to learn that the girls are not sensitized about HIV/Aids and she said this hurt her, and she hopes that following this experience the girls can be helped to become productive citizens.
She said that in its relatively short lifespan this is the second case the organisation has brought to the attention of the authorities. The first had to do with a 14-year-old from Itaballi who was living nowhere and was being taken advantage of by grown men. She is now in the custody of the ministry.