I appreciate the brief introduction. Madam Chairperson, Honourable Prime Minister, Mr Moses Nagamootoo and Mrs Sita Nagamootoo, Speaker of the National Assembly Dr. Barton Scotland, Vice Presidents and Ministers of the Government, particularly our hostess, Mrs. Volda Lawrence, Minister of Social Protection, Members of the National Assembly, members of the diplomatic corps, members of women’s organisations and non-governmental organisations represented here today, women of Guyana, fellow Guyanese, members of the media: I am happy and honoured to be here to join you in not only a national but an international celebration; but let me start by going off text for a bit because I believe that beyond these conferences, beyond our constitution, beyond our international conventions, we need to have a conversation among ourselves about women’s equality.
I think beyond anything that we do here today or any laws that we could pass we need to sit down and discuss among ourselves how we would choose to change the culture, as the young man tried to explain, because so many things are embedded in our upbringing and our minds that cannot be legislated, and I think that may be one of the problems that we face. I spent most of the last week trying to correct problems which ought not to have occurred, I suppose, and, the fact that I could spend a week on correcting problems in our prison system, it struck me that maybe we could spend as much time correcting problems in our approach to this gender issue. And I take it, if the mountain of time that was allocated to the Guyana Prison Service over the last seven days was spent on dealing with women’s issues, we’d probably be a little further along the way to solving the problems facing women.
So we don’t want to deal with equality once a year. We need to deal with it without the riots, without the mattress burning, on a more continuous basis and it is something that we need to confront because last December I did something, which I’ll do again next December, because I believe in it. I commuted the sentences of eleven women. Of course, as soon as I did that somebody asked “well, why not more?” In fact there’re only eleven women who satisfied the criteria that I set and the Minister of Legal Affairs did scour the prison system to see if anybody else qualified, but I really have a serious problem with separating a mother from her children because she was trafficking a few joints of ganja; and if it’s wrong to sell ganja, I think it’s more wrong to separate a mother from her children.
So I think I will have to battle again with the lawyers. I will battle for justice, they will battle for law but these are some of the things we need to consider – how we deal with women and how young men deal with the problems of their own sexuality and how young women deal with the problems of their own sexuality and the culture of domination in our society. And I think despite what I’m going to say we still need to have that conversation among ourselves.
As you know, ladies and gentlemen, the Cooperative Republic of Guyana celebrated, in January this year, the 40th anniversary of the presentation of its State Paper on the Equality of Women to the National Assembly. This was done on the 15th January 1976, forty years ago, and this occurred in our country merely a few weeks after the conclusion of the United Nations-designated International Women’s Year. The State Paper on Equality of Women at that time broke barriers. It was aimed, among other things, at:
“… securing equality of treatment by employers, of men and women workers as regards terms and conditions of service and, generally, for the purpose of making sex discrimination unlawful in employment, recruitment, training, education and the provision of housing, goods, services and facilities to the public.”
Well, a lot happened since then and I think we were something of a trendsetter; and today I’m happy to be associated with the continuing campaign which we started forty years ago and which the United Nations has enjoined us to continue over the next fourteen years and beyond to 2030. So we totally endorse the theme of this year’s observances — Planet 50-50 by 2030. We pledge to work, assiduously, at the local, regional, national and international levels to achieve this objective over the next fourteen years.
Guyana reasserts its total commitment to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These include, of course, Goal No. 5 which intends to: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Guyana, at the Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, which took place at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 last year, we noted the strides that we had made in achieving internationally-agreed upon goals on gender equality and empowerment. At that meeting on behalf of Guyana I reaffirmed our commitment “to build a country in which women and girls can expect to live in safety, to be protected from abuse, such as trafficking in persons, domestic violence and workplace hazards.”
I intend to honour that commitment. Guyana intends to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Our ability to do this depends on our ability to dismantle the structures which oppress and marginalize women today. These structures include a societal culture that is biased against women. The task for us is to begin to remove structural impediments to greater equality and parity.
Guyana is proud of its record in promoting and protecting the rights of women and enabling equality but we still have a far way to go. We can be satisfied that some effort has been made; considerable effort has been made over the past forty years. We are confident, however, that over the next fourteen years we can achieve full equality on a fifty-fifty basis – we can over the next fourteen years achieve the parity we speak about. The constitutional, conventional and regulatory framework is well established. The Constitution of our country enshrines women’s rights, and I quote from our constitution:
Women’s participation in the various management and decision-making processes, whether private, public or state, shall be enlarged and facilitated by laws enacted for that purpose or otherwise.
The Constitution also prescribes, and I quote again:
– Every woman is entitled to equal rights and status with men in all spheres of political, economic and social life. All forms of discrimination against women on the basis of gender or sex are illegal.
– Every woman is entitled to equal access with men to academic, vocational and professional training, equal opportunities in employment, remuneration and promotion in social, political and cultural activities.
In Guyana, therefore, the legislative architecture for gender equality is intact. What is not intact is the attitudinal act and the behavioural approach to equality. What we have done so far could be considered revolutionary, compared with what existed before but, even though there’s been progress in subsequent decades, there still needs to be much work if we are to reassert and reaffirm women’s rights. We all know the plethora of laws which have been passed:
– The Infancy Act which was an Amendment to the laws governing children born out of wedlock, and this occurred since 1983, which granted the same status and rights to children born out of wedlock as to those born in wedlock, and of course at the same time,
– The Bastardy Act was repealed.
– Then we had The Fiscal (Amendment) Act of 1983, which permitted married wives to file their own Income Tax returns. I don’t know if there’s a report on their compliance.
– Then we had The Equal Rights (Amendment) Act in 1990 which outlawed discrimination in the hiring and promotion of women.
– The Married Persons (Property) Act of the same year which stipulated that any division of property must take into account women’s contributions to family welfare.
– The Prevention of Discrimination Act of 1997 which introduced the notion of equal pay for equal work and equal value.
So there are these and other laws which attempted to remove discrimination against women; and Guyana is also a signatory to a number of international conventions and declarations which promote women’s equality:
– The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women of 1979,
– The Vienna Declaration and Platform for Action of 1993,
– The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women 1994,
– The Regional Action Plan for Latin America and Caribbean Women, of September 1994,
– The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action September 1995,
– The Cairo Programme of Action of September 1996.
What we need now is the operationalizing of all of these laws, these regulations and conventions; and that is where we come into the minds of men. So the legal architecture cannot be faulted perhaps. We can make some changes here and there but what we need in addition to the adhesion to these conventions is an attempt, on our part, as members of society, as legislators, as members of the Cabinet in Government, as citizens, members of non-governmental organizations, to put into practice what we have passed into law. We must move from enactment of laws to enforcement of laws and change in attitude. So we must move into the realm of performance and tackle the task of breaking down barriers which prevent women from being treated as equal to men. We must address the structural causes of gender inequality, we must honour our commitment to these international conventions and agreements, and therefore I recommend that, first of all, we regard gender equality as something which is achievable in this period, particularly in the field of education.
I do believe that education will unlock the opportunities and potential for women and give them a better chance of graduating more rapidly to the upper echelons of many of the professions in which they are presently under-represented. The surest and quickest means of enhancing the status of women and providing them with greater opportunities for upward mobility, I do believe, is education. It will help them to compete on a level playing field with men – one that is measured by performance and not by gender; and that is why, in another way, we have encouraged the establishment of these Three and Four ‘B’s Programme, to ensure that girls are given the opportunity to get to school – and I had given instruction that girls must get priority on any bus or any boat or any bicycle that is being distributed. Let the boys walk or wait for the second bus; they’re fit and healthy but the girls must get to school and they must be given priority until the playing field is level.
So education is the top priority and I’m convinced that, if we allow young girls to complete their education, they will make decisions, perhaps which do not impede their careers. And sometimes at that difficult period of their lives – the period when we expect most of them, when most of the problems occur between twelve and eighteen – and we’re convinced that if we can keep young girls in school during that difficult, sometimes confusing period, more of them will graduate from school and eventually university. But our commitment is to keep them in schools and don’t let them be seduced into activities which prevent them from continuing their schooling…Once we keep girls in school, I’m very satisfied that we can have greater equality and happier population.
Education of course is the gateway to good employment, and we can achieve good employment if we guarantee equal access to education in primary and secondary schools, and also we could break the cycle of poverty because poverty is the greatest source of inequality. This is because poor mothers tend to produce poor children and poor children tend to produce poor children, too, and I’ve been told in certain parts of this country, which I shall not name… but I was told that the average age of grandmothers is 32. Wow! True, true story.
So what we see is a cycle of poverty that mothers who tend to get babies early in life, you know, thirteen or fourteen, tend to set a pattern for their own daughters to get babies early in life, and poor mothers tend to produce poor children who tend to produce poor children. We have to break this vicious cycle of hereditary poverty. [Applause] If there is inequality in a society, the burden of poverty invariably, if not inevitably, would fall heavily on women.
So we need to create a virtuous cycle in which women of self-esteem, women who are educated, women who seek to develop themselves professionally and otherwise expect and provide opportunities for their daughters and their children and, in so doing, we need to guarantee them employment. We need to ensure that women can work for a living wage so they can grow out of poverty. We need to ensure there are jobs to help poor women to have sustainable incomes so that they have a better opportunity to exit from the snares of poverty.
The third step, I believe, is to make sure that the wide disparities which exist in society are removed – the disparities between the haves and have-nots; poor people don’t have many choices. They cannot get up in the morning and decide which school they want to send their children to, whether they go to Marian Academy or School of the Nations. Poor people don’t have those options. They have to take what exists in their communities – and there are too many or too great disparities between the hinterland and coastland, sometimes between urban and rural areas, and sometimes the best educational facilities are concentrated in urban areas or in the coastal areas; and further away you get from Georgetown, very frequently, not always, the greater the challenges are, the greater the distances are for children to cover to get to school and that is where some of our problems exist in these unequal circumstances.
These disparities tend to exacerbate the problem of inequality, and this inequality means that poor persons would not have the opportunities, the same opportunities, similar opportunities to rich persons in other fields. So we need to close the gaps in economic inequality if we are to close the gaps in social equality. Gender parity cannot be achieved in the absence of a more equal society. We have already mentioned the measures that we intend to pursue to reduce the disparities between hinterland and coastland and between urban and rural areas. So when we speak of inequality we don’t only speak about gender inequality; we can also speak about geographical and social inequality. So people all over Guyana would be able to have equal or similar access to education and to the benefits of society.
And, finally, empowerment – Women must be empowered to reinforce their roles in political decision-making. Women must be empowered to have a say in their communities and in the institutions of the state. We will, in ten days’ time, ladies and gentlemen, restore citizens’ constitutional right to participate in the governance of their communities. We will wake up from the nightmare of not having had local government elections for over two decades – a nightmare that disempowered everyone, not only women.
Everyone was disempowered by having those horrible interim management committees implanted in communities that should have elected councils; but this will soon end. But women must take the opportunity of our re-entry into the realm of local democracy, to be empowered politically so that they could participate fully in running their councils and their communities. We cannot speak truthfully about gender equality without ensuring that regular elections at local, regional and national levels provide women with the opportunity to elect persons who could advance their rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are committed to a better educated society; we are committed to creating opportunities for full employment; we are committed to constructing a more equal society; we’re committed to ensuring a fully empowered electorate. We believe that the barriers to gender inequality – those barriers that are associated with geography, with occupation, with political affiliation, with racial differences – can be broken down in less than fourteen years.
Women’s rights, women’s equality, women’s empowerment will continue to occupy a central place in my government’s developmental agenda. Guyana will fulfil by 2030 its obligations, fully, under the Sustainable Development Goal, particularly No. 5. We can, we must and we will “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” I promised this last September and I promise it again today. I am very proud, very happy to extend best wishes to all women of Guyana on International Women’s Day 2016. The struggle for gender equality and parity will continue and may God bless you.
I thank you very much.