Today, Guyana joins the rest of the world in observing International Women’s Day. After 107 years of global action for recognition of women’s rights, there is no question that this observance is still necessary and there is no shock or outrage that it is. This is because, despite extraordinary accomplishments by some, too many women are still struggling for gender parity and, at a basic level, respect.
The world has seen women climb to the top in politics, business and entertainment, today more than ever before. But, and there is always a but, a disproportionate number of women and girls still suffer; the numbers at the top are very thin. A huge setback to women’s development everywhere is the astoundingly high rate of abuse, including domestic violence, which in some cases is also perpetrated against women who have achieved much in public life. And as if that were not enough, countless women have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace and in other aspects of their lives. This is still very rampant today as evidenced by the global #metoo and #timesup movements, which are calling for men who perpetrate these acts to lose their jobs and be prosecuted, and are supporting women who speak up so as to encourage all those who have been thus violated to end their silence.
According to the statistics from the World Health Organisation, up to November 2017, about 1 in 3 women (35%) worldwide have experienced either physical abuse or rape, often by their spouses/partners or by others. Almost ⅓ (30%) of women who have been in a relationship, have reported that they have been physically abused by their spouses/partners. In addition, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a spouse/partner.
Meanwhile, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), its Global Gender Gap Index in which it compares data from 144 countries on four “pillars”: economic participation and opportunity, education, political empowerment, and health and survival, has shown a decrease in parity in 2017 as against 2016. The WEF described the data as depressing, since this is the first time in the 11 years it has been doing the comparison that the figures have shifted backward. Unfortunately, also, it is the economic pillar, which looks at salaries, workforce participation and leadership that has one of the fastest growing gaps. Overall, it said, the gap is growing because “women are more likely than men to do unpaid work… be out of the workforce… [or] work in industries with lower average pay and less likely to be in high-paid senior positions.”
The figures do not lie. And while there might be less stringent compliance to data keeping in Guyana, there is surely enough to affirm that there has been no diminishing in the incidents of physical and sexual violence committed against women and girls. One only has to look at recent newspaper headlines to be reminded that these twin scourges have not been conquered. One such publication is this newspaper’s Women’s Chronicles column, where they can share difficult experiences without fear of condemnation, discrimination, victim blaming or shaming.
In one conversation published in February last year, a single mother of 12 children related that she had run from abuse at home at the age of 13 to live with her boyfriend. That was the beginning of a life of spousal abuse for her, on and off for the next 25 years at the hands of the fathers of her children. In another, published in November, a 42-year-old mother of three who was in the throes of ending her 14-year marriage related, “And then the licks start, you can’t talk, or you get your face buss up. Till one night he hold me down and try to put poison in me mouth but a close me mouth and the poison run down me face.” She eventually made a report to the police, but not all women do.
As regards women who work in industries with average lower pay, there is a particularly disgusting ongoing situation involving women who clean the schools in this country. Their given job title is sweeper cleaner and they perform the very important task of maintaining or attempting to maintain a clean environment for children to learn. They earn meagre wages and are often not paid for months on end. They lack job security and in some cases are bullied by those in charge. Anyone who has ever been in a public school in any part of Guyana, must appreciate how difficult their work is; it often verges on horrific. This is not the only industry in which local women are mistreated, but it is without a doubt the worst. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that this is a job that has ever been applied for by any man.
As recently as last month, a sweeper cleaner based in Berbice vented in Women’s Chronicles about not being paid since December and about her terrible working conditions. “[It] is not just the money, the working condition is terrible you would not believe it. If you see the condition of the toilets and we don’t have no long boots, no gloves, no face mask nothing to work with. At the end of the day the toilets does be so terrible, some a dem does flush and yet the children not flushing…” she lamented.
Furthermore, this month, a 27-year-old mother of one recounted the appalling circumstances that led to her being peremptorily fired from her position as housekeeper at a hotel. She was forced to rebuff sexual advances – and witnessed other women on staff being assaulted – while working very long hours and suffering verbal abuse. While she and one other woman were subsequently compensated after filing a complaint with the Labour Ministry, others remain voiceless in similar situations. The #metoo and #timesup movements might be trending on social media, but they have not become as widespread as to create the desired impact all around the world.
In some societies, today is being celebrated. In too many others, International Women’s Day will remain an observance because as long as women are still being oppressed and abused every other day of the year, a celebration is not quite apt.