Around midnight on Saturday the 5th of August Varnika Kundu, a 29-year-old female Indian DJ based in Chandigarh alleged that she was involved in a motor car chase with the son of a politician and his friend who tried to abduct her. Apparently such incidents are not unusual but upon hearing of the case the prominent Bharatiya Janata Party vice-president, Ramveer Bhatti, responded in a manner that essentially blamed the victim. ‘Parents must take care of their children’ he advised, ‘They shouldn’t allow them to roam at night. Children should come home on time, why stay out at night?”
With comments such as the following the story went viral on social media (#aintnocinderella). “A woman has equal rights to go out in the night, just as men do. Cops or politicians have no right to police us on grounds of our morals, attire or time. Their duty is to ensure safety and not tell us what to and not to do.’ ‘A cop ignoring a woman’s complaint on grounds of her being on the road late is not justified. Pune is called a safe city but so many times I have been chased by men on bikes, and there was no police patrolling.’ ‘Travelling or wandering on the roads late at night is our choice. … I am working in a field where I have to work till late hours in the night. If I am in trouble, it’s not the cops business to ask me why I am on the road late.’
Coming upon reports of the story I placed the Vice- President’s response in the context of the still very conservative nature of Indian society and thought that no Guyanese politician would dare publicly express such archaic views. Then Minister Keith Scott made his not so ‘noble idea’ to ban single women from doing night security work! Yet it would be wrong to throw out the baby with the bathwater for he touched upon a very important social issue which his party should have an interest in solving and upon which we should encourage it to focus.
The Minister’s proposal contains two ideas: the primary one having to do with the ultimate goal of ‘repairing the moral fabric of our society,’ beginning with eliminating one of the dysfunctions associated with the single parent living. What has been very surprising to me is that located in a ministry that is responsible for protecting the interest of women, he came to believe that he could achieve his primary goals by way of his secondary idea: preventing single women from doing security work at night. However given this differentiation, the primary portion of his idea could indeed be said to be ‘noble’ because properly repositioned and implemented, in a comprehensive framework which includes the family, the single family and poverty, it could be aspirational; directed towards solving an important and generally agreed social deficiency which the evidence suggests exists.
‘Children brought up in single-parent households typically do not have the same economic, social and human resources available to them as children reared in two-parent families. Consequently, children in single-parent families are generally more likely to experience poverty, drop out of school and have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties than those in two-parent families’ and single parent families have been increasing world-wide. As of 2016 320 million children live in such families ranging from some 40% of families in South Africa to less than 10% in India where less than 1% of children are born out of wedlock (http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/10/320-million-children-in-single-parent-families/) About 25% of Afro-Caribbean families are headed by women and not surprisingly the figure is much smaller for Indo-Caribbean. (Caribbean Families, International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, 2003).
Explanations for the proliferation of single families in the Afro-Caribbean community can very well find expression in human nature and the institutionalization of such separation under slavery which gave rise to a general cultural of tolerance even after slavery was abolished. For example, rather than strongly and perennially condemning the bearing of children outside of some stable and certain economic environment the culture tend to uncontextually sell to young people child bearing as a blessing; an achievement. Whatever blessing it may be it is in the same category of achievement as being able to walk. Notwithstanding the physical and psychological hardships that befall those who cannot walk, being able to walk cannot be considered a great achievement when all humans are expected to and 95% of them do so effortlessly. Both man and women are responsible for the current outcome but since it is the women who have historically been left with the ‘bundle’ so to speak, I put greater emphasis upon her taking care of her interest.
Make no mistake I am not here conflating sex with having children. In the only lecture I can remember ever having from my university Vice-Chancellor was his introductory talk to freshmen where he pointed to the sufficiency of condom machines on the campus and suggested that quite disproportionately pregnancy ruins the careers of young women and should be avoided at all cost. At one level then, it is for our cultural opinion makers to drive this point home and refrain from glamorizing child birth outside of an adequate material context.
It is now widely recognised that ‘Governments and civil society need to adopt policies and establish programs providing the necessary assistance, support and opportunities to ensure that children in single-parent families are not penalized or disadvantaged, but can lead lives permitting them to develop successfully to their full potential, and thereby contribute meaningfully to overall societal wellbeing’ (ipnews, op. cit). Minister Scott’s has not been the first attempt to confront the issue of intergenerational poverty rooted in this expression of the family structure which disproportionately affects the African family.
Perhaps because the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gave comprehensive protection to children, was ratified in 1990, discourse around this area began in the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security around that time. The general idea, which may still have some merit, was to find some arrangement to break the intergenerational nature of poverty by focusing on children. At its base this idea was to be a collaborative approach with the ministries, education and health for example, to restructure the social service sector to identify, positively intervene and monitor all at-risk young people from birth onwards.
In my view, the fact that nothing significant materialised from this initiative had much to do with the nature of our politics and the political direction the extant government ultimately set itself. The present administration has a vested interest to deal with this social problem which affects all Guyanese but is of fundamental importance to its own constituency.