Trade unionist Gillian Burton sits on the Women and General Equality Commission (WGEC) to “make right the wrongs” being perpetrated against women in the society, and this past year she has seen enough to say that too little is being done for women here.
There seems to be a paucity of solid, focused policies and programmes targeting women, she said that would not only enhance their status in the country, but also keep many of them alive.
Burton has concerns about how effective legislation and/or programmes aimed at changing the status of women have been, citing the Domestic Violence Act and, more recently, the Women of Worth (WOW) programme.
“I have some issues with WOW. How many hairdressers, cake decorators and seamstresses can be produced?” she asked. She frankly stated that WOW’s fixation on a few areas–mostly female dominated–is no recipe for success.
Burton said WOW cannot aim to train women in one set of areas and expect that those brave enough to accept the loans are going to break into the already crowded space. She argues that training should be expanded to areas where there are obvious openings despite the heavy male presence. She pointed to engineering, carpentry and electronics.
Burton said people cannot talk of gender equality and not encourage women to take on new professions and or recruit them into new fields, “opening a whole new world for them.” The issue of the WOW applicants being single-parent mothers provides an even greater opportunity for the women to take on new roles and diversify their portfolios, she added.
The WOW programme aside, Burton told Stabroek News in a recent interview that she was particularly disappointed in the Feminition women’s expo, which was organized by the Ministry of Human Services.
“What did Feminition do for women of Guyana? I looked around and saw negative messages and an event which are largely politicized,” Burton said.
In addition to the huge bill spent on the event, Burton criticized the mega-concert, saying it did not focus on positive messages or “the beauty, worth and inner value of women.” She said the carnival atmosphere seemed out of sync with the intention, but added that those behind it probably had other goals.
“If we are going to talk about fashion, less experienced designers should have been on the show, the budding designers. Feminition should have been about the women of Guyana who are looking for opportunities, the women who are looking to break out and need assistance,” she added.
Still on the issue, she argued that Feminition ought to have been planned one year in advance, noting women should have had adequate time to prepare.
not being handled
Burton declared that domestic violence is not being tackled in the correct way, noting the women are still dying at the hands of abusive partners. She said that there were murders during the weekend Feminition was held.
“These men were sending us a message when they killed these women that weekend and I am not satisfied with how we are handling this issue,” she said.
Burton said much of the work ought to focus on preventive measures, adding domestic violence should be included in the school curriculum. “Domestic violence is not just social it is cultural… it is part of the psyche of some people.”
She said too that there is an economic aspect to domestic violence which rarely comes up in programmes. She questioned how effective the Domestic Violence Act has been since it has passed, arguing it continues to fail women.
“We need to review legislation to see how effective they have been after we passed them and many of the [laws] they passed for women have not translated into real changes. We need to look at them again and see what is working and what is not working.”
Burton decried the conditions under which many young, unqualified women are working in city stores, saying it is an issue she hopes to advocate for more strongly while on the commission.
There appears to be a culture in the labour community, she said, where many of those women work for “next-to-nothing” wages and fall prey to sexual harassment.
The commission heard of one case where a young woman was told that if she was nice to the store owner, he was going to be nice to her. Burton said many young girls are subjected to such treatment on a daily basis, while adding that they also work under deplorable conditions.
From long hours with no over-time to working on holidays without additional pay, she said, this has been the situation facing many unorganized workers in the country. “I intend to address this issue and I will call on my fellow trade unionists to see if we can somehow help these people who are unorganized… there must be a way,” she said.
Burton also intends to lobby for increased maternity benefits for women and benefits for people whose children are sick and cannot work. She said that the maternity benefit currently paid by the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) is paltry.
She argued that women need official paid time-off to deal with domestic violence and related matters, since many opt out of court cases because of time.
Burton said she has raised many issues before the commission, noting they are still in discussion.
However, she intends to continue to speaking and will press for the Family Court to be operational. “The time has long passed for this court to be and running,” she said.
Burton is a former President of the Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC) and has grown up in the ranks of the movement. She has held many portfolios at various unions and was also the President of the Guyana Telegraph and Postal Workers’ Union.