By Nigel Westmaas and Alissa Trotz
Martin Carter, writing on the question of self-contempt in 1966, describes a small group meeting over and over again in colonial Guiana: “Sometimes no more than five of us. Five bewildered creatures on a Sunday night repeating ourselves like desperate obeahmen. Outside the world. Dog dung in the street. A black man in South Africa. Love beneath the gay stars. Firelight in cane-pieces. Degradation, absolute vomit. Same tomorrow. Tomorrow again. Tomorrow always.”
It is difficult to read those words more than forty years later, to reflect on how little we have travelled since then. The reference to ‘Tomorrow always’ also tells us that no matter how hard the challenge, no matter how insurmountable the work appears, where there is life, there is tomorrow. And therefore there is hope. So we trod on, as we must.
In a sign of how distorted and impoverished our political culture has become, Red Thread found itself writing a letter to the newspapers last week (Stabroek News, April 24) to respond to inane accusations which appeared in the Guyana Times accusing this women’s organization, among others, for not speaking out against the allegations of child sexual assault that brought CN Sharma before Guyana’s courts.
For close to a year Red Thread and Help and Shelter members picketed weekly outside the Office of the President for the passage of the Sexual Offences legislation which has finally made it through parliament. Last summer as part of the Coalition to Stamp out Sexual Violence Against Children, they carried out a quilting exercise in the middle of town, inviting members of the general public to write messages in support of children’s rights. These actions seemed to confuse and upset high government officials – references were made to this as ‘strange’ and ‘wholly uncalled for ‘ behaviour – because those picketing had participated in consultations to draft the legislation. Turning up with placards was seen as nothing less than a betrayal: How could you work with us and then pressure us in this way? This is what we are reduced to in Guyana, the narrow and partisan interpretations of loyalty to party, to government, to big ones. This loyalty requires silence and would make yes-women and yes-men of us all, when the only ones we should be proving ourselves to are the children and women who are devastated by violence.
The recent headlines surrounding the apprehension of well-known TV owner and politician CN Sharma have laid bare all the awful contradictions confronting Guyana at the present time. Amidst the allegations of drug dealing, corruption, the deformations of the Guyanese state and society at large, unrelenting reports of violence against women and children are unfolding before our eyes. The headline in yesterday’s newspaper was ‘Man stabs wife to death.’ Last month, Dayclean Global listed the stories on violence against women and children in Guyana for the month of March. The long list read like an abstract poem of horror, and these were just the reported cases. The horror is compounded by the way in which there seems to be no sense that this incessant attack on women and children is a national and public emergency, and needs to be treated as such. For the most part, the commentaries resulting from the Sharma case instead show, distressingly, how politics gets played out over the bodies of women and children, a point that the letter by Red Thread made so well. In a right-side-up world, CN Sharma’s famous motto ‘And Justice for All’ would mean something – it would apply to everyone without reservation. Horrific charges have been brought against him and they should be pursued properly and within the letter of the law. Like other accused persons, Sharma should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but if found guilty should face the full legal consequences of his actions in a court properly and fairly constituted and allowed to do its work. The children should be protected and given proper care and counsel and every effort must be made to protect their identity, to prevent their victimization by defence lawyers and to ensure their safety before, during and after the trial. All others who are accused of similarly heinous crimes should also be vigorously pursued. There should be no exceptions to this rule.
In our upside down world, however, this is not the state of play. What we see instead is sadly predictable. A government minister goes on record specifying the difference between Sharma and the allegations brought against Kwame McCoy. The latter remains on the Rights of the Child Commission with the backing of the government (according to one newspaper report, this was part of the reason for the resignation of Commissioner Vidyaratha Kissoon last week). Despite allegations that include making improper overtures to a child, there is not even an effort to have Kwame McCoy recused until an investigation is properly and transparently resolved. This is not about admitting guilt at all; on the contrary, it is about sticking to principle and creating a climate of trust with the general public, and would knock the wind out of the sails of those who want to play easy politics with this as well. We are talking about a commission whose mandate is to protect children, for goodness sake! But of course there has been no stepping down, for arrogance and self-righteousness have become virtues in politics these days. Meanwhile the Sharma case has been seized upon to supposedly make the point that this government is in step with the poor and the powerless in society. These are the kinds of double standards – Red Thread referred to it as a level of hypocrisy that would be hard to beat – that are plain as day for all to see. And with that, what we have on the other side is sections of the population coming out in support of CN Sharma, saying either that he was framed, or comparing the responses to the treatment meted out in the case of Kwame McCoy. The response from the defenders of Sharma is symptomatic of a sense of unfairness, of a playing field that is tilted to the party faithful, to the big ones.
And the casualties of this entire pappyshow are the women and children, who continue to make newspaper headlines as targets of violence, attacked, sexually assaulted, maimed, disfigured and killed predominantly by family members and men they know. In this public quarrel over McCoy and Sharma, it is the men who get the attention, who become the real subjects of discussion. It is definitely no longer – if it ever really was – about the children who the defenders of one side or another purport to be really interested in. This is what happens when loyalty substitutes for fairness and for transparency. This is what happens when loyalty demands silence, a closing of the ranks and the selective turning of a blind eye, whether to incidents of a small or most egregious nature. What we are facing is a sordid distortion of our politics, of our sense of ourselves, and of our relationships with each other. Women and children are being traded back and forth in these arguments, and are completely silenced in the process. Meanwhile the body count mounts. As Red Thread concluded in last week’s letter, this is what happens when we play political games with the bodies of our children.