By Oluatoyin Alleyne
in Washington DC
Caribbean countries do not have the capacity to deal with the organised crime “that has crept into their societies…,” Organisation of American States (OAS) official Yasmin Solitahe Odlum, has said.
While countries focus on dealing with the gangs there is a “whole set of white collar crimes” taking place that they cannot tackle because poverty will be exacerbated.
For the politicians, she said, it is a “hydra-headed monster” that they don’t know how to deal with and still have their constituents vote them back into power for another five years.
It has long been stated that the drug trade in Guyana makes a huge contribution to the country’s overall economy.
Odlum, who has links to the Caribbean as she was born in St Lucia and is a Sir Shridath Ramphal, Sir Hugh Springer and Ulric Cross Caribbean Scholar from Warwick University, is a specialist with the OAS’s Inter-American Commission for Women (CIM).
She made these comments during a frank and open discourse with a group of visiting Caribbean journalists at the US State Department Foreign Press Centre (FPC) on Tuesday.
Odlum–a diplomat in the past and journalist–feels that the involvement of women in gangs in the Caribbean is being ignored and it is an issue she is fighting to put the spotlight on. According to her, she is “tired” of attending conferences on crime and gangs which exclude women as it is assumed that women in the Caribbean are not being impacted and are not agents in the perpetuation of crimes.
“The multifaceted role that women are playing is not being necessarily recognized, we are being made invisible again and that is why I have been devoting a considerable amount of time to collecting information on the role that women are playing in gangs,” she told the journalists who are on a FPC funded women’s empowerment reporting tour.
Odlum made mention of a study done in Trinidad & Tobago–one of the Caribbean countries with a serious gang problem–which found that women comprised 40% of gang membership; a high statistic. She said women are playing many roles in gangs either on the fringe or in the heart of criminality and as a result it is a serious issue that has to be addressed.
It is hoped that there will be donor support for this in order to conduct research on the issue.
Meanwhile, she opined that women turn to crime for very “basic reasons” and not to “protect their turf and things like that”.
“They have children to feed. They have families dependent on them. A lot of your drug couriers are mothers with children in the Caribbean. So I think there is space for all aspects of gender discrimination to be addressed,” she said.
And while women continue to suffer in the Caribbean, Odlum said, unfortunately, following the peak of the women’s movements in the 1980s, there is now a struggle between the academics producing research on one hand and the activists who are getting older. She said there is not that sense that there are young active feminists, who are not in academia, to take on the struggle.
Speaking to the struggle, she said it is important to understand that an empowered woman does not translate to a disempowered man. But in many cases in the Caribbean, men have retreated from the homes in such a way that they have left a “preponderance of female-headed homes”.
“I don’t want to stigmatise the female-headed homes but … the fact is that men are taking the backseats instead of engaging this gender struggle that we are having. The gender advocacy that we are proposing does wonders for democracy, for development and security,” Odlum said.
She said the secret lies in the fact that when women are empowered then families are empowered and if men join the struggle there will be more prosperous societies.
Her colleague at the CIM, Hilary Anderson, added that the problem is not unique to the Caribbean as it is seen in other parts of the world and men need to go through the process of how they would fit into the new society and how they “engage with these new women… and I think men are still confined to a very limited view of what a man is: he is the provider, he is the dominator, he has to be strong and if you are not doing that then you are not a man…”
Touching on a sticky subject for Caribbean countries–human trafficking–Odlum said the heads of many Caribbean countries attempt to ignore that this issue exists for fear of repercussions on their tourist-driven economies.
“There is a sort of confusion in the region as to what is trafficking…[and] the OECS governments are the most resistant to the notion of embracing human trafficking… and that has to do with the fact that they are so tourist dependent…,” she said.
She said it is a fact that a lot of exotic bars in the region are cover-ups for some “very, very brutal existences that women are undergoing as sex workers as exotic dancers, as people who are in massage parlours and things like that.”
Odlum suggested that there is need for an honest discourse—which should be done sensitively.
She said there is resistance and reluctance in the region to deal with the extent of the problem.
Many Caribbean countries–including Guyana–have been rankled over the past few years by the annual US State Department Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report. In 2010, Guyana had angrily protested being placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for the fourth consecutive year, but last year there was muted protest as the country was given a better ranking. Had Guyana been given the same ranking as last year, the country would have lost funding. But while the report gave Guyana a better ranking it criticized the administration for minimizing the potential scope of the issue and not taking action against complicit officials.
The report found that the Government of Guyana made limited progress in preventing human trafficking in the preceding year that resulted in its Tier 2 ranking. That ranking is given to countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Anderson pointed out that women become vulnerable to human trafficking fundamentally because they lack economic empowerment and as a result become vulnerable to a network of people who promise them a better life.
“Many women become vulnerable to trafficking because they are living in situations of violence already So in order to escape that violence they might be more vulnerable to trafficking…[which] involves an extraordinary amount of violence against women…,” Anderson said.