United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall has identified the scarcity of employment opportunities for women, particularly from Afro-Guyanese and indigenous communities, as a major concern.
In the report of her mission to Guyana, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in February, McDougall said that both young and older women are being forced by poverty into crime, drug use, trafficking, and prostitution. “Afro-Guyanese women spoke of the failure of many men within their community to fulfil family responsibilities,” she noted, while adding that high numbers of single mothers subsequently face an extremely heavy burden of care. Child neglect is a problem within Afro-Guyanese communities, McDougall also observed.
McDougall, who visited Guyana between July 28 and August 1 last year, has expressed concern about the stigmatisation of young Afro-Guyanese males and entire communities in her report, noting that they reported feelings of being excluded, discriminated against and victimised. However, the government has accused McDougall of failing to incorporate its views adequately into her report, misleading it about her mission and of being susceptible to the wiles of extremists. Through its Permanent Mission to the UN, the government has submitted an official response to the Human Rights Council, registering its “profound concern” about the scant regard with which it was treated, while arguing in detail against her conclusions. It has also questioned McDougall’s focus on the Afro-Guyanese community to the exclusion of others that constitute real minorities.
In addition to the scarcity of employment, McDougall said women also spoke of the disturbing culture of domestic violence, often fuelled by poverty and unemployment and exacerbated by alcohol. “It is simply true that as a society we believe in beating women and children,” one woman told her. She said women called for greater attention to tackling root causes and to long-term initiatives rather than more funding to a justice system that consistently failed them. Indeed, the courtroom was characterised as a “hostile environment for women” in which domestic violence and abuse cases are not treated seriously if they reach the court at all. “Some women noted a lack of consistency and focus in policies to address access to justice for women generally, in spite of the Domestic Violence Act,” McDougall noted.
She did, however, advert to the government’s report of a number of initiatives taken to reduce violence against women and children. It consulted countrywide and passed the Domestic Violence Act in 1997, while a new comprehensive policy document-“Stamp It Out”-on violence against women and children has also been taken throughout the country for examination and improvement.
Noting the findings of a high number of single mothers, the government said the social phenomenon of female-headed households is not new and also is not limited to one ethnic group, religion or geographic area in Guyana. As a result, it said its safety net programmes recognise and attempt to assist such families. Additionally, it noted that the National Stakeholders Forum in November 2008 was dedicated to tackling violence against women and children. Further, the religious community recognizing the destructive impact of domestic violence and female headed households pledged to be more aggressive in working with males in their congregations to be more responsible to their women and families and to offer help to victims of domestic violence.
Though acknowledging that “chauvinist attitudes still exist,” the government with the support of civil society instituted active campaigns to reduce domestic violence. Last year, it financed the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic in order to assist it in expanding services to seven of the country’s ten regions, “thereby offering legal services to the poor and needy.” In the area of political participation by minorities, McDougall pointed out that women in all parties are grossly underrepresented. “Notwithstanding constitutional provisions and legislation setting quotas for the number of women on electoral lists,” she said “women’s participation in political processes remains generally well below acceptable levels despite notable senior government appointment of women.”
Although the law requires that 30% of candidates on electoral lists be women, it does not stipulate a quota for actual appointment.
The government noted that the number of female Members of Parliament number 20 out of a total 65 members. In world ranking, it said, Guyana is 30th of 170 legislatures. It also referred to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women report on Guyana at its 20th Session, which praised Guyana for achieving an impressive level of representation of women in the highest political offices of the land.
The government said too that the first woman in the world to become Deputy Speaker of the Legislature was in Guyana in 1953. Also, the second woman in the hemisphere to become President was in Guyana in 1997, while the first female Chief Justice and Chancellor of the Judiciary was Justice Desiree Bernard in 1999 and 2002, respectively. The Director of Public Prosecutions is a post that is held by a woman. Currently, in the National Assembly, the Deputy Speaker and the government’s Chief Whip are women.