Women's Issues In Guyana


Women remain in the backseat – says report

Posted in Gender Equality by wiig on July 12, 2005
Tags: , , ,

Stabroek News – July 12, 2005

Guyanese women continue to take a backseat to men at the highest level of decision-making in the country and also in the male-dominated labour force, while it is estimated that almost half of the female population lives in poverty.

And while there is a predominance of behaviour at all societal levels supporting male superiority, women are challenging those beliefs by adopting roles as household heads and family providers.

These were among the disclosures made last Saturday when the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met to consider the combined third, fourth, fifth and sixth reports of Guyana, covering its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women since the country’s previous report in 1998. Among other areas, the reports review developments in legislation, gender stereotyping, political representation, education, employment, health, rural women and family life.

Human Services Minister Bibi Shadick represented Guyana before the committee, which heard that although there are laws in place to ensure gender equality, scarce human and financial resources and minimal civil society interest have resulted in a lack of enforcement.

It was noted that there has been an increase in the amount of women represented in the parliament since the last general elections in 2001, including four female ministers. Also, the Deputy Speaker of the House is female, as was the Chancellor (That is until Chancellor Desiree Bernard demitted office earlier in the year to take up a seat on the Caribbean Court of Justice.), while there are also three female judges out of a total of eight.

“However,” the combined reports state, “women are insufficiently represented in top-level decision-making positions relative to their numbers, high levels of academic achievement and increasing participation in the labour force.” Similarly, they added, they are underrepresented in the private sector, with only one female member in both the Private Sector Commission and the Board of the Consultative Association of Guyanese Industry.

In the education field, it was reported that career choice patterns continued to reflect gender stereotypes as women opted for traditional female-dominated fields. For example, at the University of Guyana from 1998 to 2000, females made up 77.6 per cent and 70.4 per cent of first-year social science students, but only accounted for a mere 6.8 per cent and 7.6 per cent in the technology faculty. Also, of 2,256 students graduating from the Cyril Potter College of Education between 1998 and 2002, some 306 or 13.6 per cent were male and 1,950 or 86.4 per cent were women.

Meanwhile, it was also disclosed that men in the workforce outnumbered women almost two to one according to the 1999 Guyana Survey of Living Conditions, which recorded labour force participation for men at 76%, as compared to 39% for women.

Additionally, female unemployment stood at 14%, compared to six per cent for males. The same year, it was estimated that 50 per cent of women in Guyana lived in poverty, and 29.7% of women household heads were enduring absolute poverty. These estimates were reinforced in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and the National Development Strategy Paper, which both recognized that women account for most of the poor in Guyana.

In its assessment of women’s health, the reports note that anaemia (iron deficiency) is a major problem in the country. Also, the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases among women of childbearing age (15 to 45) increased from 49 in 1998 to 118 in 1999, according to the reports. In 2001, females comprised about 45 per cent of all HIV positive people, although in the 15 to 24 age groups many more females than males carried the virus. Some 7.1 per cent of pregnant women tested positive for the virus in 2001, up from 3 per cent in 1995.

On prostitution, it was pointed out that legislation exists for charges under the Criminal Offences Act, but prosecution remains minimal. Of concern, however, is prostitution among young hinterland Amerindian girls in coastal areas, particularly urban centres. The reports say many are subject to exploitation and abuse from employers and clients and have little recourse in environments that they are often unfamiliar with.

Moreover, it was reported that the social issues affecting Amerindian women include the illegal sale of alcohol in their communities, and traditional production and consumption of alcohol. Other concerns include under-age prostitution among Amer-indian girls and lack of equal educational opportunities, inadequate access to land, low economic status, inadequate access to health services in emergencies, poverty, poor diet and nutrition, rape, and access to potable water.

The general assessment of rural women notes that many of the rural poor occupy land leased from the Government, and are unable to obtain loans because the property cannot be used as collateral. Land reform is, however, expected to allow lessees who have beneficially occupied the same plot of land for more than 15 years to convert to freehold.

And as for family life, no direct measures have been taken by the government to prevent forced or arranged marriages, which have traditionally been a characteristic of rural East Indian families. The phenomenon appears to be declining, the committee was told, which may be a result of re-acculturation of East Indian families and their incorporation into the mainstream culture. Arranged marriages are also driven by economic reasons, or for migration and residency/citizenship, which are found among all races.

What Guyana has been doing for women

Minister Shadick informed that the country’s focus on achieving gender equality has seen the enactment of laws to ensure women enjoyed their full rights to economic freedom, that there were better ways of eliminating violence against women and of eradicating the feminisation of poverty. She also said that there has been a continued effort to increase women’s participation in politics and decision-making, although here she acknowledged that challenges remain.

“Patriarchal norms, and stereotypical and discriminatory cultural practices towards women were not easily changed, requiring constant monitoring, advocacy and dialogue,” she told the committee, adding that the huge debt burden and the unfavourable terms of trade for commodities internationally has continued to negatively impact the full implementation of the National Plan of Action for Women.

She also noted that roughly 30% of the 65 Members of Parliament were women, while participation in Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs) increased from 21% in 1997 to 30% in 2001. However, although there was an improvement in women’s representation at some levels of senior public office between 1993 and 2003, the numbers are still relatively low. A more positive development was observed at the middle management level, where, according to statistics from 2003, women have been overtaking their male counterparts and account for 52% of the positions, as compared to 42% in 1993.

Shadick also told the committee that her ministry’s Women’s Affairs Bureau (WAB) had been extended to include the Guyana Women’s Leadership Institute, which was responsible for capacity building and skills training. It includes, as well, the National Resource Documentation centre for Gender Development that provided information support for all initiatives to improve the status of women.

The minister also reported that the country has completed a new National Policy on Women, and is currently updating its National Action Plan for Women to cover the period 2005-2007. The new plan outlines a comprehensive approach to critical issues affecting women in areas like health, education, employment, leadership, gender-based violence, trafficking in persons and HIV/AIDS.

In the education sector, the minister said, there has been a special focus on educational programmes in rural and hinterland locations and the necessary measures have been put in place to enhance the delivery of these programmes. Measures include distance education, dormitory facilities for children, and increased allowances for teachers, and financial support for hinterland teachers to train outside their communities. It was also noted that there was a gender disparity in the rural school population, compared to the national population, which was almost gender equal. In this regard, the Women’s Studies Unit of the University of Guyana has just begun a study on reasons for early school dropouts.

Meanwhile, to help women living in poverty, Shadick said the ministry has provided financial assistance for small “cottage” projects and cash crop ventures. It has also provided sewing machines and other equipment to support small, income-generating ventures pursued by women, she said. Additionally, to assist poor rural women, the government had set up a revolving loan scheme with a minimum interest rate in Moruca, a predominantly Amerindian populated area. It has also provided financial assistance to women’s and youth groups to initiate and improve income-generating activities, especially in agriculture.

On violence against women, the minister conceded that it was still a significant issue, explaining that while the Domestic Violence Act of 1996 offered some measure of protection to women, its implementation had not been as effective as had been expected. As an example, the report notes that violence against women persists as a physical manifestation of males imposing their perceived superiority. Police records indicate 627 reports of domestic violence during 2001 and 591 in 2002, with the majority of complaints coming from females and from rural communities, and the majority of abusers being husbands or reputed husbands.

Shadick added that her ministry led an intergovernmental and broad-based approach to address trafficking in women, in which the victims were primarily women and children.

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