Before Ms Simona Broomes and her colleagues launched the Guyana Women’s Miners Association, the average Guyanese would only have known about a few women miners, one of them being Ms Cyrilda DeJesus, who for years had been the face of women miners in Guyana. Indeed, women who say they work ‘in the gold bush’, as the interior mining areas are colloquially called here, are unfairly all branded as loose and are stigmatized. But Ms Broomes, the members of her executive, Ms Carol Elliot-Fredricks, Ms Donna Charles, Ms Candy Charles, Ms Anne Hopkinson and the 70-odd women who have joined the association and work in the interior as miners, cooks and those who own their own dredges are in the process of changing this perception.
It is obvious from what Ms Broomes said during an interview with this newspaper, that working in the interior is a million times more challenging for women than it is for men; and men freely admit that it is hard work. But the physical challenges aside, there is abuse, exploitation, stigmatization, discrimination and bullying, among the other things women encounter on a daily basis.
The interior has long been virtually a no-man’s land, where much of what takes place remains unseen and goes unregulated. Over the past few years, as the price of gold climbed, so did the crime rate, with murders, suspected murders, disappearances, armed robberies, rapes and abuse – many of which go unreported or remain unsolved.
Ms Broomes described a particular case of abuse, where she personally got involved and helped a woman, who was not a miner and had not gone to the interior to work, escape her captor. She also referred to instances where women are forced into sex work by their male partners or by other women who exploit them. Women are also forced to become partners of men they do not want because the option would be rape with total impunity. When this happens, other miners turn a blind eye; there is no condemnation, no support for the victim, no ostracizing of the rapist/abuser. There are no police stations or outposts close to many of the mining sites and no one bothers to call the police unless the crime involves the loss of life, gold or money. Other crimes are met by a wall of silence from men and women who do not want to get involved, but are nevertheless condoning the obscenities by their inaction.
As Ms Broomes tells it, the gold-mining interior is a place where people, mostly women, have no rights. The rest of the country has progressed and become modernised, but the ‘gold bush’ is “a world by itself.” She reveals that no accommodation is made for bathroom facilities for women by some business and dredge owners, yet they travel to the coast and recruit women to work as cooks and shopkeepers.
Women like Ms Broomes, Ms DeJesus, Ms Fredricks, Ms Charles, Ms Hopkinson and others have proven that women have strengths that could be ably employed in the gold mining sector. They have started changing the industry from being a man’s world to a place where people with the right skills and business acumen can make their mark. These women and others who have gone before them are pioneering women. And if it has taken them this long to be properly recognized as such, it is because as in every other industry women have broken into, it has been and still is an uphill task. The pork-knocker is still depicted as a man with a warishee on his back and a batel in his hand and the miners association has always been male dominated. The Guyana Women’s Miners Association has set about to ensure that women have the right to do whatever jobs they are able to, whether its diving for diamonds, spinning a batel, driving a truck or operating earth-moving equipment, and that they are allowed to work in an environment that is free of fear and exploitation.