Fifty-three-year-old Ann Charles has been a miner for almost 30 years and for many of those years she has carried a heavy burden, one which grew heavier as the years went by. Many times she threw her hands up in despair as she felt powerless to fight the growing problem.
That growing burden is the continuous maltreatment of women who brave the interior to make living either by mining, cooking or even commercial sex work.
Charles said most of her time is spent in the interior, and daily she sees womenfolk being taken advantage of, and many times she is unable to help. However, now she feels that there is hope with the birth of the Guyana Women’s Miners Association which she said is not only a timely association but one that could give a voice to the voiceless women of the interior.
“When this organisation came I said I need to get on board, because you need to see things happen and unless you engage yourself you would not get results,” Charles told the Sunday Stabroek, adding that she has since joined the association and is now a committee member.
A passionate Charles, whose concern was visible on her face as she spoke, told Sunday Stabroek that unlike what many think it is not just men who take advantage, because a lot of the maltreatment is actually perpetrated by women, and this Charles said, hurts more. It is even sadder that some mothers are involved in the exploitation of their young daughters whom they force into a life of sex for sale.
While the interior is seen as a place where quick money can be made, many women are sometimes forced to journey home without any cash in hand because of unscrupulous employers. Charles said a woman may be hired with the understanding that she will earn $100,000 and would not collect her money monthly. After about five months she will be ready to collect and go home and then “it is so heartrending to know that they don’t pay them.
“Then they would want to say that we ain’t mek gold and the man guh gaffa drop and all dem things… so sometimes a woman would go into the interior leave her children make that kind a sacrifice and when she ready to go now she cannot go home and do something profitable fuh she self or she children.”
It is owing to such situations that many women are forced into prostitution because they do not want to return to their sometimes hungry children with no money.
An emotional Charles described poverty as an “ugly thing” which destroys families and a person’s morale, as many times young girls are taken into the interior with the promise of working in shops, but are forced to work in the sex trade by persons who own the kiamoons (brothels) in the interior.
“From the minute they reach, you guh see some men going and talk to the shop owner because they gat fresh, that is what they call new girls, ‘fresh,‘ and then you would see the men going and bully dem for sex and some of them ain’t condition the mind for that,” Charles said.
“And then some a the shop owners would hear these men beating these women and dem kind a thing; I talking about women like you self, and they would never look out. And when dem girls collect the money… they leave it in the shop and at the end of the quarter if they spend two months or so when they finish, lo and behold the shop owner telling them how dem don’t have money and the gold lost and all kinds of things,” Charles told the Sunday Stabroek.
Charles, her voice rising by now and near tears, said that you should see what women do to each other in the interior in the name of money, and she said many times the police station is not far away and there are other authorities who could look into some of the situations, but nobody cares nor “hear the voice and cry of these women.”
But what makes Charles particularly distressed is young mothers forcing, or in some cases encouraging their daughters to sell their bodies. She described the kiamoons as just small crudely built rooms joined together, their only furniture being a bed and sometimes not even a curtain at the door.
“Sometimes the mother deh over here and the daughter in another room and she would even collect the money from the man and she daughter going to blows; you know she don’t care once she get that money,” Charles recounted.
She said some mothers would pack their daughters and take them to Parika to get a boat or truck into the interior, and wave them off “just for them to go in the bush and send back money.” And sometimes the women have their partners at home “doing nothing” while they and their daughters are being degraded in the name of money which is used to support the entire family.
The Bartician, who became involved in mining following her marriage to a miner when she was in her twenties, said in the mining industry even if women had a husband they still had to be careful “about the way they carry” themselves to avoid disrespect. In the interior, referred to as ‘no man land,’ men sitting in the front seat of a truck would not give their seats to women who are forced to climb into the back where the engines and drums are packed.
“Some of them wouldn’t even stretch their hands and give you, because the minute they see you as a woman they say ‘oh she is a bad woman.’ Some of them want to urine; you sit down right here and they will just throw out and urine right there with no respect, nothing at all,” she said.
And Charles said both men and women in the interior are “so heartless” that they don’t care how they damage another’s life once they make money.
According to Charles many women and men also find themselves renting portions of land from landowners and should they strike it lucky and find gold they are forced off the land with no means of seeking redress.
“It is like you become a prospector for them, and when you find the gold they would put you out; you find somewhere else to go and when you find somewhere else this thing just keep going on and going on…”
The bigger miners, she said, frustrate the small miners and while some people honour their agreements many don’t, and according to President of the association there is no recourse under the laws governing the Guyana Geology & Mines Commission (GGMC), and the most the commission can advise is for persons to take the issue to the courts.
Those miners without excavators are also at a disadvantage, because if someone with an excavator wants the piece of land they are on, there is not much they can do, because when they are asleep the excavator will work through the night and next morning there is no land for the small miner to work on.
The woman said it took too long for her to become an activist for women’s rights, but that now it is a fight she would not give up, since the organisation with the right commitment could be of benefit to women. She said they would be touching all locations in the interior looking into the well-being of all women.
Recently some of the executive members of the association went into Mahdia and Charles said even though she knows what happens in the interior, some of the stories they heard were upsetting. What was obvious is that women in that area are crying out for help. The plight of one particular woman left both Charles and Broomes almost in tears. They revealed that the woman has been moving from camp to camp working, and whenever it is time to be paid she is chased and she has her children to support.
“She said you know how much years she ain’t gat teeth in she mouth and she can’t put any in because even if she get a lil money is to feed she children and she moving from one camp to the next…if you see she condition she say she ain’t gat no teeth; she mouth is just like when she born,” Charles said.
Broomes added that the woman complained when the miners don’t want to pay her they would tell her “move she empty mouth” and she feels so rejected because of no teeth and she cannot get her money to look after herself and provide a proper shelter for her children.
“When some women go to work with these dredge they want sleep with them and when they don’t want sleep with them they will cuss them and talk to them anyhow.”
On the flip side, Charles and Broomes said some of the women will fight it out in the interior and in the end own their own dredges or open a shop. Sadly, though, some will in the end turn around and exploit other women and they said this is something they are addressing as they attempt to sensitise women and let them band together to help each other.
On this Broomes said she knows that the association will meet major resistance from women themselves who see the association as a hindrance to their way of living. But the two women have vowed to continue fighting and if the war has to be waged against women they said it is a war that they will fight regardless.
Charles noted that many women are security guards on the coast and the money they are paid cannot even buy food for their families much take care of their other needs, which is why the interior will continue to pull more and more women who yearn for a better life. She said some dredge owners would treat their female employees well and would look out for their children by checking on them, but the association will fight those who want to exploit women.
Charles has three children and two of them, including a girl, are also miners. She said she plans to continue working in the interior as long as she has good health, because that is what she knows.
Meantime, Broomes said since the association came to life they approached the GGMC to ascertain how many women own dredges in the interior and how many own shops.
She said they were surprised when they were provided with the names of 269 women who are registered with GGMC as dredge owners and more than 200 others who own licensed shops and other businesses. These numbers do not include the cooks, salesgirls and commercial sex workers. She was grateful to the GGMC for providing these figures, since no one previously had taken the time to ascertain how many women really worked in the interior, which is known as a man’s community. A database for women who work in the interior is what the association is working on, as while worldwide many countries recognize women as being involved in mining, Guyana is not listed among them. Of concern to them is the many young women who work in the interior and they are hoping that some day it would be accepted that no female below the age of 18 should be employed there.
“We intend to bring the real revelation and to point out clearly the contribution of women in the sector and that is why we are starting this research,” she said.
The membership of the association has now grown to 100 women and Broomes said they continue to receive more requests to join, and in Mahdia they ran out of membership forms. She said they were heartened by the response of the women there, and while some men were obnoxious in their behaviour because of their presence, many expressed support for the association. And while the association is self funded, Broomes said they would welcome any assistance in the furtherance of their work as they plan to reach women in all the mining camps in the country and also providing training programmes for women to improve their lives.
“We are committed because we are in it, we are not an organisation that is trying to find out what is happening, we are in it and we know… and that makes a big difference in this organisation,” Broomes declared.