Civil society and human rights activist and the 2014 winner of the US Embassy Woman of Courage Award Zenita Nicholson died yesterday morning at the St Joseph Mercy Hospital in an apparent suicide, but following reports of domestic violence the police have since launched an investigation.
The 37-year-old mother of two was well known for fighting for the rights of the vulnerable but more for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and was once the secretary to the board of the Sexual Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). At the time of her passing she was still a very active member of the organisation. SASOD – shock at her sudden passing yesterday. Nicholson was also the Country Coordinator for the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities/PANCAP Global Round 9 Vulnerable Groups Project at the time of her death.
Speaking to this newspaper, a distraught Joel Simpson, Executive Director of SASOD and close friend of Nicholson, said he received the shocking news around 4 am yesterday through a mutual friend. Simpson said he rushed down to the hospital immediately where he met the friend and Nicholson’s live-in partner who hails from the island of Mauritius and is a student of one of the off-shore medical schools in Guyana.
According to what he was told by the mutual friend, Nicholson called him at around 2 am yesterday and said she was unwell and needed to be taken to the hospital urgently and she believed it would be quicker if he transported her. The friend quickly picked her up and while driving her and her 29-year-old partner to the hospital he enquired what was wrong. He told Simpson that Nicholson told him that she had drunk ten carbon tablets. The use of Aluminium Phosphide, which is known locally as ‘carbon tablet’ is restricted in Guyana. It had been used in the past as rat poison, but the Pesticides and Toxic Chemical Control Board has warned against its use as it is lethal and dangerous even in small quantities.
Nicholson was taken to the emergency room of the hospital and she was pronounced dead at around 3.15 am.
Simpson said while her death was shocking Nicholson did confide in him about a week ago that she was experiencing domestic violence and he had encouraged her to report the abuse. He recalled receiving a message from her last week Sunday about wanting to move out urgently and the following day she confided that her live-in partner was being abusive. She has been living with the man since February and Simpson said from what she shared there was a pattern of abuse.
The two lived at D’Aguiar Park and Nicholson had indicated that she would have moved back into her South Ruimveldt home. Simpson said he encouraged her to report the abuse and she did so at the Providence Police Station but ranks there told her she had to make the report at the Ruimveldt Police Station since the jurisdiction of the area she lived fell under that station.
Simpson was unsure as to whether she followed up with the report at the second station but said Nicholson later told him that she had spoken to her partner’s brother about it and he had instructed her partner to move from the home.
Simpson said Nicholson told him she would have remained in the home until her house in South Ruimveldt was repaired. They spoke last week Tuesday at which time Nicholson assured him that all was fine. Simpson said she rang him on Wednesday to wish him a happy birthday and even sang the birthday song for him. Simpson left the city on Thursday and was out of phone contact until Sunday and had planned to check in on his friend yesterday, but this was never to be.
Following her death, Simpson said, another mutual friend spoke of having been in conversation with Nicholson on Thursday at which time she reported that her partner had been counselled and that they were working things out. The friend attempted to dissuade her but she appeared to be in a good frame of mind and said all was well.
Simpson yesterday said that the police are involved and because of the circumstances of Nicholson’s death and the reports of domestic abuse are treating the case as a possible homicide and a post-mortem examination would be performed on the body. He said he, the partner and the mutual friend who took her to the hospital visited the police station and gave statements. He said he told the police of the alleged abuse but the partner denied this saying that the two had arguments like normal couples.
Simpson yesterday said that because of Nicholson’s death the organisation would be making mental health a priority and putting it at the top of its agenda. He pointed out that Nicholson had been an active member of the organisation and except for the report last week of domestic violence there was no real warning sign that she was in trouble. He said they had always been in regular communication and Nicholson had attended all of the organisation’s meetings and recreational functions and there was never even a hint.
“What is hitting home for us is that mental health now needs to be a priority for us,” Simpson said adding that according to the WHO, Guyana is the suicide capital of the world and there are not enough services in Guyana to effectively address the growing problem.
He said too that the LGBT community has a heavier burden because of homophobia.
“If we can’t keep our own people from taking their own lives [then there is a problem] if we can’t empower even an activist then how do we really achieve equality and help people to meet their full potential?” he questioned.
A later statement from the organisation described Nicholson as being “passionate about human rights and a fearless defender of the rights of vulnerable people.” It said that she applied this drive and commitment to her work, delivering exceptional results at SASOD to raise awareness and strengthen advocacy for LGBT people.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in a statement said it was saddened at the passing of Nicholson.
“Zenita worked tirelessly in her quest for equal rights for all people regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Zenita’s advocacy with the government, local politicians, and the UN Human Rights Committee was vital in advancing the national dialogue,” the statement said.
It also said that as an active lead member of the Global Fund Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM), Nicholson worked closely with bilateral and multilateral donors to help Guyana reach its national goal of sustainable HIV epidemic control. Her work, according to the statement, reflected her unwavering commitment to justice and equality for all people. “Her passion has inspired many, both in Guyana and throughout the Caribbean to continue this struggle. While Zenita’s life has been tragically cut short, it is our hope that her legacy will endure and that Guy-ana and the Caribbean will build societies free from the homophobia and transphobia against which she so effectively fought,” the statement further said.
Meanwhile, the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP) said it was deeply shocked by the sudden passing of Nicholson.
According to a press release, Director of PANCAP Coordinating Unit Dereck Springer said he was numb and heartbroken since the loss was very personal. He said, “We have lost a true champion and a friend.” He described Nicholson as full of life, energy and insight and someone who approached her work with great passion and enthusiasm.
The release said PANCAP hailed her work and recognized her significant contributions to Merundoi Incorporated and SASOD in Guyana, the PANCAP Regional Stigma and Discrimination Unit and the strides she made in advancing the regional human rights agenda.
The Partnership extended sincere condolence to her children and relatives.
Nicholson leaves to mourn her two children, Dmitri and Daria Nicholson, her mother Kamanie Singh, her brother Andrew Temall and countless relatives, colleagues and friends whose lives she touched.