Guyana’s First Lady Sandra Granger believes that “rights are rights” and in order to build a cohesive society we must respect and value each other regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation, even as she suggested that at the level of Caricom, a model legislation be drafted and adopted by all countries to ensure that member states conform to the many international conventions they have signed.
The First Lady has made it clear that Guyana cannot go the way of Animal Farm and “impose the belief that some animals are more equal than the others.”
Mrs Granger was at the time responding to a direct question from the Sunday Stabroek as to her position on government’s suggestion in an official letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that a referendum might be the way to go to address the matter of decriminalising same sex relations.
The suggestion, which Minister of State Joe Harmon later clarified that the administration had not decided on, was presented as an option and had triggered widespread condemnation by many organisations and individuals.
In an interview with this newspaper, the First Lady was also asked about her personal view on how the buggery-law issue should be addressed by the government and she had this to say:
“My personal view is that if two men engage in consensual sex and they harm no one, that is their right and their business. The government has no place in their relationship.” However, she declined to send a specific message to the LGBT community in Guyana when asked.
Recently, the First Lady was recognised by the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) for the ‘Every Caribbean Woman and Every Caribbean Child’ initiative, which she said is a regional initiative that evolved from the ‘Every Woman Every Girl’ promulgated by former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon.
At the presentation, Mrs Granger pointed out that the laws in the Caribbean are lagging behind the commitments the countries have signed on to, in respect of the rights of the LGBT community, sex workers and stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV and AIDS.
“We have signed and ratified several international conventions relating to the rights of these groups, but I have heard the argument that they cannot be implemented because our laws are not in conformity with those agreements,” she told this newspaper
She believes this reasoning is a “delaying tactic” since for her the Caricom Chief Parliamentary Counsel can draft a model legislation, if they have not done so yet, which can be adapted by each member state operating under English common law.
“We cannot use the argument that we lack expertise to draft the legislation necessary to amend our laws in adherence with our commitments,” she posited.
Asked by the Sunday Stabroek if she was comfortable with the plight of women and children, Mrs Granger said that her head would have to be “buried in the sand if I were to express comfort with the plight of women and children in Guyana.”
As to whether there are new initiatives that she may be pushing for the government to implement in this regard, the First Lady said the administration has laid out its policy of affording a “good life” for all and that it would “presumptuous” of her to assume that she should be “pushing” initiatives at the government. However, her office works closely with the ministries of Public Health and Social Protection to achieve the administration’s objectives as they relate to women and children’s health and well-being.
As to some of the pressing issues faced by women and children in Guyana that she is most concerned about, Mrs Granger said all Guyanese, regardless of race, religion, class or gender, are entitled to a good life. “Anything that infringes on that right… [such as] domestic violence, rape, incest, human trafficking, must be of concern. To this, I would add stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS.”
It should be ensured as well, she said that children have access to quality education and this is the reason she began youth development initiatives at four schools in Buxton/Friendship and Lusignan areas where children who are struggling are provided with remedial classes and a nutritious snack thrice weekly during the school year.
“We are slowly reaping the benefits of this. One of the schools in the programme reported an increase in literacy from 57 to 83 percent since the inception of the programme. I also fully support my husband’s thrust for STEM education because three quarters of the jobs in the twenty-first century will require training in computer science. This has influenced my interest in, and active participation in STEMGuyana, which has caught on very quickly and is exciting our young people,” the First Lady said.
According to Mrs Granger, as a woman and a mother she is very concerned about the damage done to our psyche by the banality of domestic violence, where every day mainly women being brutalised or viciously murdered by their partners and where women and young girls are victims of rape, incest and trafficking.
“I believe that the perpetrators of these crimes must be met with the full force of the law. If charges are laid, the crime must be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Charges must not be dropped when the abuser pays off the victim or her (it is usually her) family, or the victim decides not to proceed with the matter,” Mrs Granger said, while noting that counselling and support must be provided for the victims
Meantime, Mrs Granger said she is already involved in several activities to improve the lives of women and children in Guyana.
She is the patron of and works with Women Across Differences (WAD) to educate and empower teenage mothers. She explained that after funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) ceased due to the organisation’s diminished resources, WAD was able to continue its comprehensive empowerment programme for teen mothers with sponsorship from Republic Bank (Guyana) Limited. Girls are counselled and taught life skills, how to care for their children, craft and a trade, such as hairdressing and cosmetology.
Further, girls who want to complete their secondary education are assisted and some choose to go on to tertiary education. In addition, those teen mothers who wish to do so, participate in the workshops organised by the First Lady’s office.
There have also been ‘Glam Days’ for persons in senior citizens’ homes, and both the teens and the seniors have enjoyed the interaction.
According to the First Lady, the teens who have graduated from the programme have formed a group, Young Mothers for Change, who talk to their peers about their sexual and reproductive health and urge them to avoid repeat pregnancies.
Then there is the Self-Reliance and Success in Business Workshops for Women coordinated by the Office of the First Lady in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Protection.
“Workshops have been conducted in all ten administrative regions of Guyana and, to date, nearly 650 persons have been trained. We worked in collaboration with community leaders in selecting the participants. Some men asked to participate in our workshops and were welcomed,” Mrs Granger said, adding that they are to conduct two training of trainers’ workshops before the end of the year.
In an effort to ensure that women are educated and empowered, Mrs Granger said, her office has also been involved in workshops on Child Care and Caring for the Elderly, which include an intensive First Aid programme conducted by the Guyana Red Cross Society. There have also been ICT workshops for adolescents and out-of-school youth.
Every Caribbean woman and girl
Talking about the initiative for which she was honoured by PANCAP, Mrs Granger said that the ‘Every Caribbean Woman Every Caribbean Girl’ initiative by was introduced by Mrs Kim Simplis-Barrow, spouse of the Prime Minister of Belize and that country’s Special Envoy for Women and Children, with support from UNFPA, the Caricom Secretariat, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Also, several UN agencies, regional and local organisations and institutions participated in the first meeting, which was held in Belize City in 2015. At that time, the First Lady said, they focused on the high rate of teenage pregnancy in the Caribbean, which is second only to that obtaining in Sub-Saharan Africa.
During their discussions, it was recognised that teenage pregnancy was not a cut and dried issue, which could be addressed without looking at health, and other social and economic problems that contribute to teenage pregnancy.
“These girls not only had to cut short their education, they also had their childhood cut short and could be trapped in a cycle of poverty because they were unemployed or underemployed. If they were very young, they would have high-risk pregnancies,” she noted.
Also in cases of rape, incest and human trafficking, Mrs Granger said, it was noted that the victims would have been at risk of exposure to HPV, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and would not only have been denied their rights as human beings, but would also have had their self-esteem and self-confidence battered.
“We, recognised, too, that we needed to address domestic violence and cervical cancer – the second leading cancer cause of women’s deaths in Guyana,” she pointed out, adding that boys were also recognised to be vulnerable, and it was felt that they had to include men and boys in their campaign to address these burning issues.
The group met again in Belize in 2016 and in Guyana, on the margins of the Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Caricom Heads of Government in February of this year. At the latter meeting, Mrs Granger revealed that they agreed to establish a network of Spouses of Caricom Leaders to champion issues relating to the agreed priorities for Every Caribbean Woman Every Caribbean Child. It was agreed that under this initiative a pilot study would be launched in Jamaica and then rolled out to other countries in the region with amendments in keeping with respective national priorities.
The Caricom Heads of Government, at that same meeting, endorsed the decision of the first ladies to establish a proactive network.
This network, named Spouses of Caricom Leaders Action Network (S-CLAN), was launched in Belize City in early September with the aim of promoting and advocating for the health and well-being of our women and girl children.
Mrs Granger was elected Vice-Chair of the network and she said she was honoured.
The meetings of the First Ladies are sponsored by Gilead Science, whose policy aligns with our belief in everyone’s right to access to health care.
Mrs Granger said she was also honoured to be asked to be part of the Caricom delegations led by Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis Timothy Harris, which made presentations to the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2016 and to donors brought together by the Clinton Foundation last July.
Sense of humour
On a lighter note, asked how she managed to shoulder the responsibilities of her office, Mrs Granger said she did so with a sense of humour and the “valuable support of my family, friends and staff.”
As to whether the populace may expect too much of her, the First Lady said she has never thought of it and since she will never seek elected office it does not matter.
“But I must confess that I am always humbled and honoured by the kindness and generosity of ordinary Guyanese of all ages and from walks of life as I have travelled throughout the country and engaged in my various activities,” she said.