Women work. They work in all spheres of life. Consider the economic activities women engage in throughout this country then ask, as I did, “Why has Minister Keith Scott singled out female security guards working night shifts for special attention?” Women are cane cutters, labourers, cleaners, security guards, market vendors, police officers, gas station attendants, shop workers, cooks.
The list could go on to encompass a whole host of jobs, economic activities which not only sustain (often barely or at all) them and their families but also drive the economy in immeasurable ways. Many of these jobs require women to work night shifts and expose them to sexual and physical violence. I have not mentioned women who provide unpaid work in the home. Childcare obligations fall disproportionately on women. It impacts their ability to receive or further their education. Poverty is a reality for many of the women involved in the type of work I have mentioned above. Single parent families are particularly vulnerable in an environment of insecure, low paid work.
In an editorial carried in the Kaieteur News (September 13, 2015) titled ‘Women in Guyana- The unfinished business of achieving women’s equality (Part 1)’ President Granger was reported as acknowledging some of the challenges facing women:
“The task of running impoverished households falls disproportionately on women. The sole breadwinners of households in many instances are women. These burdens must be lightened if we are to have happy families and happy households. Women must be provided with greater opportunities if they are to escape from poverty”.
So how do we, as a nation, help women escape poverty and protect them from violence? How do we reconcile the competing obligations of work and the family and the role of women as mothers and workers? Are the solutions to be found in ad hoc offerings which are at best perhaps well intentioned and at worst chauvinistic, or do we seek holistic solutions which recognize the right to work (Article 22(1), Constitution of Guyana), solutions which create an enabling environment for women to achieve the aspirations of the Millennium Development Goals and ensure they receive the protection of the vast array of International Conventions which form an integral part of our Constitution (see, eg Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women).
There is much work to be done and it involves far more than female security guards working the night shift. That’s not even a start; it’s a panacea for an ill that has its origins in patriarchy.
Women don’t need paternalism and the wisdom of old men; they need solutions grounded in the everyday realities of their lives. If the administration is serious about equality and poverty reduction it can start by removing VAT on private education fees, VAT on utilities, VAT on necessary household items. It should consider a social welfare system that provides a basic minimum living allowance for the most vulnerable.
It should consider a reliable, safe public transportation system. I have not even touched on physical/sexual violence, and rape culture. I could go on but there is too much unpack in a single letter.
Preventing one group of women from working night shifts runs counter to all the commitments we have made both locally and internationally to protect and enhance the lives of women and will only serve to set us back on the path to development.