Culture of silence on domestic, sexual violence in indigenous villages must be broken

-Head of Gender Institute tells toshaos conference

Breaking the culture of silence on domestic violence and sexual offences, including incest, in Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities could be aided by the training of toshaos and councillors, says Director, University of Guyana Gender Institute, Dr Pauline Bullen.

“We have to empower every child. We have to everyone with the ability to take care of themselves, and this can only be done through sex education, so they can walk away from their abuser or potential abuser,” she said.   

At a session held on Tuesday at the 12th National Toshaos Council Confer-ence underway at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre, Liliendaal, Bullen said, village leaders need to be trained and to have adequate knowledge of the Laws of Guyana so they can deal with the issue of domestic and sexual violence and how women are valued and regarded. Training must also address the lack of respect afforded by police officers to the authority of the toshao and the village council. They both need to understand their roles and responsibilities, she said.

Based on the 2017 UNICEF Report on Indigenous Women and Children in Guyana, she said, violence against women and children in IP communities were deeply rooted in how women were perceived and how they perceived themselves.

The recent election of 14 women toshaos, she said, was important to enable men who historically held the leadership positions to share them with women because of the need for women leadership in this generation.

She said the study, which found that incest – a taboo subject – that took place in IP communities not only among father and daughter but also among siblings and stepfathers and stepdaughters and that are not reported to the police, “must be broken.” One in every four pregnancies in IP communities is to a child below 16 years, the study found, she said.

Because sex is being introduced to children at an early age even though parents do not want the subject of sex education to be taught in schools, she said, being empowered with the knowledge of the consequences of sex will empower them to walk away from their abuser or potential abuser. 

On the issue of poverty in IP communities, she said, it was found that the poverty rate was 74 per cent in 2006 and extreme poverty was 54 per cent compared to coastal areas where the poverty rate was 19 per cent and extreme poverty was 7 per cent. A 2014 study did not show much difference in the figures, she said.

Unemployment and the lack of employment opportunities was a major problem for both men and women. Some 67 per cent of the men who are employed, were in agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying.

Women are generally employed in

education, food and agricultural sectors, representing 55 per cent of the employed, she said. Most of the women do not have formal jobs and engaged in the care of the children and small scale subsistence farming.

There was forced migration for men and women seeking tertiary education because professional opportunities are not closer to their homes.

The migration of men seeking jobs outside of the communities and leaving women to take care of families on their own up to three months at a time or not returning to support the family, she said, cause communities to become depressed in many ways and families to suffer.

In terms of trafficking of persons, she said, the then Ministry of Human Services and Social Security reported that of 158 human trafficking victims between 2013 and 2015, one in every four persons was an Indigenous Person; most of them women.

Most of the trafficking was based on promises of good jobs in urban areas and between countries. “You need to demand that your government provide better opportunities for your families, right here,” she advised.

According to the UNICEF study, she noted there were many health concerns that need to be addressed including maternal and child mortality, low nutritional status of women and children, and elevated incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS which is often not detected and is passed on to the newborn.

On education, she said, the lack of qualified teachers, lack of learning and teaching resources including computers and internet, and infrastructure need to be addressed.

The study found that in many schools the washrooms were in dilapidated condition, were without running water and most of the students preferred to use the bush than the sanitary blocks.

The study also found there were language barriers despite the fact that English is Guyana’s official language and is being taught in all schools.

Many IP students struggle to write and to speak English in many communities, she said, noting that the curriculum still needs to be addressed because of its content and the fact that it is centred on topics that are not part of the realities of indigenous children.

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