In her recent, lengthy letter published in Stabroek News, Kaieteur News and the Guyana Chronicle, Minister of Education Priya Manickchand weighed in on the conflict of interest issue involving Audit Director Geetanjali Singh and her husband, Minister of Finance Ashni Singh. In defending Ms Singh’s right to keep her job, she called “for every women’s rights group and every person who believes in the equality of women and promotion of their rights and freedoms [to] rise up against this.” As women and as members of a women’s organization we say clearly, not in our name. We will not allow ourselves to be used in this way. Whether or not any of those who have spoken out on the issue are sexist, this is not a simple issue of women’s rights.
We want to go to former president Bharrat Jagdeo’s earlier accusation that critics of the nepotism that the PPP is practising are racist to make the point. In a public comment on the libel case he brought against Freddie Kissoon’s allegations of racial discrimination against African-Guyanese, Mr Jagdeo reportedly stated, “What is the message to people of East Indian origin? If you’re PPP or PNC, if you are Christian, Hindu or Muslim, if you’re a sugar worker or a professional, once you’re of Indian origin, you should keep your children home… because, if, heaven forbids, they become qualified and they get a job and the PPP is in office, then it has not to be because of our merit but rather our race.” This is seriously cheap politics. There are not too many PNC candidates and not too many sugar workers either in the top ranks of government. What we see is an obscene preponderance of top PPP party members and supporters and their family members in top positions; a few are not Indian-Guyanese but most are. Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon gave the game away when he said on the witness stand that the reason that African-Guyanese were not to be found in senior foreign service positions was not because of racial discrimination but because they were simply not qualified to hold such jobs, a statement so clearly untrue as to raise the question of whether Dr Luncheon was trying to sabotage Mr Jagdeo. There are other countries where this kind of nepotism is rife – though none close by where it is quite as rife – but here and in other countries with serious race divides, race colours everything.
Or so we thought until here came Minister Manickchand to the rescue with her argument that what we’re really seeing is sexism. Yet there is a disturbing line of continuity between Mr Jagdeo’s accusation of racism and Ms Manickchand’s accusation of sexism. In each case the accusation sidesteps the real issues: nepotism and conflicts of interest.
We must call both what they are, vulgar attempts to use the struggles for racial equality and gender equality as a cover for vested interests, and to silence legitimate criticism about the deformities in our political culture that sacrifice the interests of the majority of Guyanese people across race to the self-interests of a few.
Minister Manickchand’s letter also defends a very privileged notion of gender equality. There are two broad currents in what people call women’s rights activism. One is about revolutionizing economic and human relations, and so begins with where working class women are and necessarily confronts the issue of the distribution of resources between rich and poor. The other is not concerned with challenging and transforming unequal class relations but with figuring out how women can get a slice of the pie, however unfairly the pie was baked. The Minister’s argument falls completely within that second current; it is about how a relatively small number of women can build careers and join the ranks of the gatekeepers while most women (and most men too) stand outside the locked gates.
There is, however, one point on which we might agree with Minister Manickchand, and that has to do with the way in which the discussions on the Ashni Singh/Geetanjali Singh conflict of interest issue seem to hinge on whether or not Geetanjali Singh “must go as her being in the Audit Office is a conflict of interest because her husband is the Minister of Finance.” There certainly seems to be unequal attention being paid to her position and what she should do. We therefore would like to put on record our view that Ashni Singh should go as his being the Minister of Finance is a clear conflict of interest because his wife holds a senior position as Audit Director at the Audit Office of Guyana.
Karen de Souza