By David A. Granger
The publication of the State Paper on Equality of Women in 1976, was meant to usher in a new era of equality for women. It is evident, however, that despite visible and measurable improvements over the past four decades, the State Paper’s ambitious objectives have not been fully accomplished.
We have seen, over the past century, how the status of women has moved from the stage of blatant ‘discrimination’ in which they were denied the right to vote in colonial elections; to one of ‘agitation’ in the post-World War II struggle for Independence; to one of ‘representation’ in the post-Independence period to one of intense ‘legislation’ subsequent to the launch of the State Paper. These changes were all necessary, but not sufficient. We must now move forward to the fifth stage, that of full ‘realization’ of gender equality.
The enforcement of enabling legislation is often ineffectual; momentum for change has slowed and the economic and political gap between men and women is still too wide. Women and girls, despite a few remarkable exceptions, are being left behind and are still relatively disadvantaged.
Your government aims, in the first instance, at designing, along with its social and political partners, a national policy aimed at ensuring that five principal objectives are met – equality of women in politics and society; eradication of extreme poverty; enhancement of employment opportunities; elimination of violence against women and enhanced access to education, especially in the sciences and technology.
Equality of women
Firstly, your government aims at making Guyana a more equal society. Equality for women is essential if everyone is to benefit from this country’s bountiful resources. Women have made some significant strides over the past four decades and there is now, much more awareness of women’s rights. There is, however, still a long way to go for women to achieve full equality.
The gap in economic, political and social achievement between men and women remains wide. Inequality persists. Episodic initiatives to promote women’s rights and offer them greater opportunities have failed to bring about full equality.
A comprehensive, long-term gender policy aimed at opening opportunities, promoting empowerment and providing protection to women is needed. The new National Gender Policy should aim to eradicate discrimination against women. It should be used to safeguard the emotional and mental integrity and physical safety of women. It should result in women having a greater say in decision-making at all levels of society.
There is no shortage of legislation to protect women and promote their rights. Official interest in the condition of women was recorded from the time of the adoption of the World Plan of Action in 1975 at the UN Conference on Women in Mexico City. The commitment of various administrations and Guyana’s official participation in the numerous conferences, since then, have been reflected in this country”sadhesion to several international conventions and agreements.
Attending conferences, signing conventions and passing laws are good. Enforcement and compliance are something else. Your government will work more assiduously with women’s organizations. We must do more together to ensure greater equality, to eradicate extreme poverty; to enforce the law and to enable everyone that everyone to be treated as equal before the law.
Eradication of poverty
Secondly, your government aims at eradicating extreme poverty. A major obstacle to equality is the prevalence and persistence of poverty. Poverty impacts significantly on the wellbeing of mothers and babies across the country. It is a well-known fact that children born to mothers living in poverty – among whom are mothers who head single-parent households – face the greatest challenges to everyday survival. Poverty reduction ought to be an important means to lift the living standards of women and children in the poorest communities. This aspect of government policy, however has not had its intended effect.
Measured against five indicators – poverty level, cost of living, household income, children’s formal schooling and children’s post-schooling employment – the quality of life of many mothers and their families can be described as low. It is a modern-day miracle that many mothers manage their families on their meagre earnings in the face of massive impediments in Guyana today.
Poverty is spreading, not shrinking. The number of homeless and destitute persons continues to rise. The solution is to reduce poverty, rather than increase the number of institutions such as drop-in centres for street children, night shelters for the homeless and the hopefully-named ‘Centre for Rehabilitation and Integration’ for the destitute, to house the poor.
Women tend to live longer than men. They are most likely to spend a great part of their lives as pensioners today. The increase in old-age pension, at a stage of life when medical costs are highest, will ensure that they will be more likely than men to live in poverty in their mid-60s and beyond.
The task of running impoverished households falls disproportionately on women. The sole breadwinners of households in many instances are women. These burdens must be lightened if we are to have happy families and happy households. Women must be provided with greater opportunities if they are to escape from poverty.
Your government proposes to consider various measures to assist women to lift their families out of poverty. We will encourage greater entrepreneurship by women. Micro-credit and access to small business loans can have a positive impact on poor households headed by women. It can increase their incomes and improve their quality of life.
Your government is also prepared to negotiate concessionary financing for micro-credit organizations for lending to women. In addition, it is prepared to expand existing micro-credit schemes targeting women and single-parent households. Thousands of our women can lift their families out of poverty and join the numbers of happy families and happy households through such measures.
Thirdly, your government wants more women in the workforce. Many women cannot find satisfactory jobs. Young mothers in increasing numbers have been travelling to the Eastern Caribbean and near abroad – Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil – in search of work. Their contribution of ‘remittances’ to support their families and as an element in the gross national income is substantial. This, however, is not necessarily a satisfactory solution to long-term joblessness. It can also be a symptom of serious social problems which, as a result of prolonged separation could have an adverse, long-term impact on their children’s upbringing.
Young female school-leavers might have been given academic education, practical skills and a social orientation. The economy, however, does not provide employment opportunities for them. The relatively high rate of teenage pregnancies aggravates the ‘motherhood’ problem. Schoolgirls who become pregnant and bear children are likely to find it more difficult to get satisfactory jobs and to earn enough to educate and nourish their offspring. The jobs crisis is real and is getting wider and deeper. Working mothers, once they receive their wages, have to stretch and spread their earnings thinly just to afford food as expenses rise.
Children of poor mothers are more likely to do worse at school and to become involved in juvenile delinquency than youngsters whose mothers are comfortable enough to be able to stay at home to bring them up. They are more likely to drop out of primary and secondary school and will be at greater risk of unemployment as young adults after their partial or interrupted schooling.
We shall establish employment centers in coming years in all administrative regions to allow for persons seeking jobs to be matched with available employment opportunities. Through this process, we anticipate that women will find jobs closer to their homes and would not have to work far away from where they live.
Your government also recognizes that many women are unable to take up full-time employment because they have to take care of their children. These responsibilities require them to remain at home. Your government is prepared to consider offering tax rebates to companies which establish day-care facilities so that women do not have to leave their children unattended when they are at their workplaces. We want to make our women happy when they are at work. If they are to worry about the well-being of their children this will affect their work. We want happy women, because happy women will head happy families and happy households.
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