“I am fearless. I have no relatives who would be victimised because of what I say or do. I criticise whomever, whenever it is prudent to do so. I have criticised the police for excesses; I have stuck my neck out for defenceless consumers and I nurture no fear.”
By Michael Benjamin
She has blazed a trail through uncharted territory and virgin soil, defying the odds in her drive to improve the standing of all women. Decades, characterized by unremitting perseverance and staunch resilience in consumer advocacy has taken its toll on her strong but aging shoulders yet the fiery ambition within her breast, ignited more than three decades ago, refuses to abandon a mission initiated out of necessity and pursued through concern for the well-being of ‘consumers but more importantly, her fellow women.
Today, one would have thought that after such tireless work the message would have been firmly entrenched in the minds of her detractors who in turn would have put the necessary ramifications in place to solidify women’s viability and importance, not only in the working sector but also as worthwhile human beings.
This is not to be and despite significant and somewhat positive shifts of the arc, the situation, in her mind, remains unfavourably balanced and despite being in her nineties, Eileen Cox’s desire to retire from consumer advocacy has been stalled, nay deferred, as she valiantly attempts to entrench the message in the minds of her critics and foster positive action in place of useless rhetoric.
Born on January 19, 1918, to Walter Messiah Cox and Mariam Ruth Cox, Eileen nurtured a fair-minded perspective of the sexes. She firmly believes that a person, irrespective of gender affiliation, reserves the right to upward mobility, provided the person proves to be efficient in the specified capacity. Unfortunately, during her pioneer years as a consumer advocate, this was not the case.
“Women’s mobility in the public sector was stifled because of the ill-conceived notion that they were inferior to their male counterparts,” she remembers.
This type of misplaced ideology irked Ms. Cox to the extent that she vowed to do something about it, if only to equalise the landscape and open the door for an equitable balance among the sexes. At that time she held an administrative portfolio in the Public Service Union (PSU).
She immediately set about finding the source of the problem.
“In those days most men believed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen among the pots and pans,” she reminisces. This ideology, though somewhat misplaced was widely accepted not only among the men, but some women, who were content to accept the adverse gender roles plastered on them by their male counterparts.
Ms. Cox remembers the limp rationale extended by the male folks for their stances.
“They would say to women of my ilk, ‘why are you so anxious for such changes; we love you just as you are.”
Maybe, it was not so much the men’s stances that irked Ms Cox so much more than some of her colleagues’ passive acceptance of these ideologies.
“Women possessed the academic acumen to cross the established gender barriers,” she posits. Sadly, these women were only allowed to occupy administrative positions up to that of a records clerk. She also said that in most cases, some of these women were even more qualified than their male counterparts.
Armed with the resolute belief that all humans ought to receive the relevant opportunities to realize their full potential, Ms. Cox decided to meet her male disbelievers head on. Her first move was to extricate herself from the debilitating environment that propagated such unfair sentiments.
“I decided to relinquish my position at the PSU because men were not prepared to accept the viability of women in the work environment. Therefore, they were not open to the notion of equality of the sexes,” advanced Ms. Cox.
Consequently, she took her campaign to the other women in the workplace soliciting support for what she envisioned was a just cause. She was sorely disappointed by their reaction. “They wanted to be a part of the struggle but were reluctant because they were afraid of victimisation and the loss of their jobs,” she revealed.
Then something happened that caused Ms. Cox much concern. Women started borrowing money from men that were well off. The problem with that was that the lenders demanded unrealistic interest rates. In their dismal, impoverished state, many of the women had no other alternative but to conform to the unreasonable repayment structures.
“The average salary was in the vicinity of thirty dollars per month and most women found it difficult culminating social unions in marriage based on the archaic laws at that time. “If a woman employed in the Public Sector decided to get married she was required by law to leave her job which relegated her to the status of a housewife.”
This law did not apply to the Private Sector nevertheless, it was a debilitating arrangement. Ms. Cox intimated that she was an ardent subscriber to a magazine that advocated the concept of women’s equality and offered techniques in achievement of these goals.
“Articles in the magazines instructed ways in which a woman could become liberated,” said Ms. Cox.
She decided to advocate the concept of unity among women as a means of eradicating the unfortunate imbalances among the sexes. Her efforts were stymied after the executives of the PSU ruled that any such movement would be vigorously discouraged. The PSU bosses declared that any such movement would be deemed anti-government and would have attracted swift sanctions.
Such ploys were very effective because many of the women were scared to buck the wheel. Then something happened that changed the dynamics.
“The wife of the founder leader, Viola (Burnham) convened a meeting and formed an all-women’s group that aimed to empower women,” intimated Ms. Cox. The late first lady subsequently formed an association that dealt specifically with consumer issues and ways in which women could become empowered.
The involvement of Ms Burnham, who wielded much power by dint of her status as First Lady, quelled the fears of the women and they decided to join the movement. This happened in 1971 and was the first consumer association to be formed. Ms Cox’s advocacy and vibrancy made her an automatic candidate for the position of President of the inaugural body. Her mandate was simple — educate and represent the consumer’s interest to government and industry. In order to effectively address this mandate, Ms Cox decided to liaise with the International Organisation of Consumer Union in England.
In 1971 she took her advocacy one step further when she submitted articles that appeared in the daily Graphic newspapers. She also took the message to the airwaves on a five-minute programme aired on the then Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). “This programme provided the means of educating consumers on wise shopping choices.”
Ms. Cox feels that too many business persons are becoming engaged in unscrupulous activities. These include the importation of inferior products which are passed over to the consumers as authentic stuff.
“This is a major bugbear and the Guyana Bureau of Standards does attempt to rope in business persons of such ilk, but with a paucity of adequate staff, many of these products slip into the marketplace,” Ms. Cox bemoaned. She lauded the efforts of the Jamaican consumer authorities, who she said, conduct minute checks to ensure that inferior or substandard products are kept out of the local market.
There are risk factors in almost every activity and being a consumer advocate heightens such risks and dangers. Ms. Cox is aware that there will be people affected by her advocacy.
“Haven’t you ever nurtured fear that someone may attempt to do you harm for your vociferous advocacy and inflexible stance on these matters?” I asked her.
That 92-year-old woman who appeared unable to harm a fly looked me straight in the eye and pronounced, “I am fearless; I have no relatives who would be victimised because of what I say or do; I criticize whomever, whenever it is prudent to do so.”
She further intimated that irrespective of whosoever may transgress the laws, she fearlessly speaks out against it. “I have criticised the police for excesses; I have stuck my neck out for defenceless consumers and I nurture no fear,” she boasted.
Ms Cox recited a recent episode where weekend revelers would congregate on the seawall, disturbing the peace with excessively loud music. “The neighbours sought my intervention and I lodged a complaint with the police. They wasted little time in providing relief,” Ms. Cox stated.
But what exactly drives Ms Cox to the extremes in proffering assistance to her fellow human beings? “My love for people,” she reveals, “I don’t talk down to people, irrespective of their status or standing, I talk with them.”
And what are her views on education?
“Diplomas and Degrees are merely prerequisites for attaining certain positions in the work force. If I attain a Bachelor of Science or any other fancy qualification, I would still have to obey some official or the other. For me, there’s more to life than the acquisition of academic excellence. Staunch inter-personal relationships provide solid relations and should not be sacrificed on the altar of academic qualifications,” advocated Ms. Cox.
Her favourite person is fellow consumer rights activist Patrick ‘Pat’ Dial, who, despite acute academic prowess, has not lost touch with the common folk. “He’s an intellectual but is capable of connecting with common folks without offending,” said Ms Cox.
Her parting shot to consumers was pointed and very instructive, “You have the power to change your fortunes,” she said. To strengthen her point she used a practical analogy, “If you place several sticks together it is much harder to break than if it were one stick,” she said while strengthening the unity concept.
At 92 not out, Ms Cox has every wish of raising her bat to the crowd after she would have scored that coveted century. But is that her desire?
“I would very much love to cross that hurdle, but not in Guyana,” she pronounced. She noted my lifted eyebrows and ventured an explanation.
“The VAT (Value Added Tax) might be the intermediary force between the coveted century and whether I lose my wicket,” she stated matter-of-factly.
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