Combatting the many social ills affecting the Amerindian community of Baramita, in Region One, requires a national effort, according to PAHO/WHO representative to Guyana Dr. William Adu-Krow, who insists that government cannot take on the humongous task alone.
PAHO, he informed, has been assisting in its own way, which has yielded some progress.
During a recent interview with Sunday Stabroek, Adu-Krow said that the organisation decided to step to the front after hearing horrifying stories of girls being raped and in some cases being offered to men as gifts by their families.
“One resident said that there would be cries in the night from young girls. ‘Please help! Please help!’ Actually being raped and no one dare go near!” Adu-Krow said. This information was given during a town hall meeting several years ago, which he attended with then Health Minister Dr. George Norton, health officials and PAHO staff.
He said that the group was informed that a man attempted to present his daughter as a gift after receiving a television set from a “coastlander.”
“That should never happen… A father who is sane would not [do] that,” he said, before adding that this resident also informed of girls being raped.
The PAHO rep recounted a teacher describing how he took a torch light and went to investigate the origin of the cries he heard, only to hear a voice warn, “You better leave or we will kill you.”
Adu-Krow’s accounts mirror similar stories heard over the years. A report released by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) last year painted a horrifying picture of the community, where it was said that the incidence of sexual and physical violence is so high that young girls are forced to walk with broken bottles in their bosoms as a form of protection. “Sexual abuse of young girls and women is rampant, beyond anything the GHRA has learnt about in other parts of the interior…,” a section of the report states.
“Sexual abuse of young teenage girls… by adult miners, police and others is rampant, with parents permitting sexual abuse of daughters in exchange for liquor,” it added.
The report noted that the idea of linking up with coastlanders as the way to a better life was ingrained and often encouraged by mothers, but it also paved the way for exploitation becoming a way of life.
Frighteningly, the report said, girls as young as 14 were being raped and this rampant abuse has caused girls to walk with the “tops of broken bottles in their bras, which they pull out to defend themselves.”
Government, in response, had said that it is aware of the many ills in the community and had started an urgent intervention that has already seen a reduction in suicides and gang rapes. A taskforce was set up to look at the various issues.
Adu-Krow, a Ghanaian national, has visited the community almost annually since his appointment here four years ago. He is set to visit again in the next two weeks.
He pointed out that excessive alcohol consumption is the main plague of the community and it is leading to suicides, interfamily/gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy. He said that the latter issue is a major concern as the rate in Baramita is way above the national average of 22.3% or one teenager in every five pregnant females. Noting that it is criminal to get a 12 or 13-year-old girl pregnant, he reminded that often the perpetrators are not held accountable because families don’t want them to be prosecuted.
The PAHO rep recalled that when he visited for the first time, he was told that the culture is that if a man is drinking, the entire family, inclusive of spouses and children, would join in.
Since making the decision to step in and assist, Adu-Krow informed that PAHO has been collaborating with the police and health authorities, while also executing its own initiatives.
During the upcoming visit, three nutrition-focus-ed television programmes, targeting mainly children, will be shown to the residents.
PAHO, he said, has so far successfully executed training sessions in gender-based violence and as part of an empowerment exercise, had transported almost 30 boys and girls to the city to visit the Parliament Buildings and meet the president. He said that the aim of that visit was to encourage the youngsters to work hard to make something of themselves.
He informed too that PAHO had facilitated a session for girls on managing their menstrual cycle but there were some male leaders who described this as the girls being “poisoned in satin.”
With regards to collaborative efforts, he said this started with the police. Adu-Krow related that just recently, a 55 inch monitor to help with community training and service was handed over to the ranks.
He also noted that the ranks themselves have their own challenges. He told Sunday Stabroek of the efforts made by a female rank to assist underage girls found in mining camps near Baramita and of the resistance she got from their families.
Adu-Krow informed that the idea was for the girls to be taken out of that environment and enrolled into a year-long programme spearheaded by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs. Parents, he said, approached the policewoman and objected.
While access to health care has improved, he said, the language barrier remains a major obstacle to all those who are willing to help.
Regarding what needs to be done to rid this community of its problems, he opined that there should be a “wholesome” approach, which not only involved the ministries of Health, Communities, Education, Public security but “everybody”.
“I think with Baramita we need to do a lot,” he said, while noting that the work that PAHO is doing is paying off but not as much it would like. To make changes, he said there needs to be a critical mass of people who think the same way.
Adu-Krow informed that PAHO plans to visit other indigenous populations across the country. This has already started as last year a team visited Lethem, in Region Nine, and it is hoped that a similar visit this year to another location will be possible.