By Sharmain Cornette
“…It is all well and good for a party to say we are taking on the grand, national agenda, but the fact remains that there is no national agenda if you do not address the agenda of the individual.”
Driven by the passion to see women rise above societal challenges, primary among them domestic violence, Karen de Souza, has over the years remained a force to be reckoned with.
As one of the founders and dedicated members of Red Thread, a local Non-Governmental Organisation, de Souza has for more than a decade dedicated her time and energies towards helping to give grass-root women a voice, as well as economic stability.
Simultaneously, efforts were being made by the organisation – which had its genesis in 1985 – to dispel racial myths that were permeating the society, and consequently, causing a discomforting ethnic divide.
With no little effort on de Souza’s part, Red Thread is today closer than ever to achieving its ultimate goal, one which is so designed to have the survivors of domestic violence verbally fight back in an effort to emphasise that the unacceptable practice need not persist, at least not aided by the silence of women.
Although it is headquartered at the junction of Princes and Adelaide Streets in Georgetown, Red Thread has a presence in several communities across the country, which according to de Souza, serves as a means of enlightening women about their rights provided under the law.
The indefatigable de Souza recently helped spearhead the formation of a Domestic Violence Survivors’ Group which holds fora for abused women who are allowed to share their experiences.
“One of the missing elements in the domestic violence public fight is that of survivors being able to speak out and so that is the direction in which we want to go. So in addition to just supporting women by going to the police and the hospital with them, we are also discussing with them about the law; helping them to understand what their rights are and what the various agencies are supposed to do.”
This new introduction to the Red Thread agenda, according to de Souza, has now taken women to a point where some of them are confident enough to support other abused women.
And it is her expectation that this development will evolve further in the coming years whereby survivors will be seen and heard even as programmes are modified to further decentralise services and information sharing.
“We continue to work as much as possible in communities where we already have a presence to try to develop a unit of people, usually women, who have information and who are prepared to go and negotiate with the police and the various authorities so that something can be done on the spot in the case of an abuse, just so they don’t have to wait on a call from Georgetown.”
And the measures that are in place have served to help a number of abused women despite the fact that Red Thread has been working with meagre resources, de Souza related.
“We know that we do not have the resources to deal with the actual percentage of abuse that arises on a daily basis. It is unbelievable… the level and the amount of abuse that surface in our local societies, so any assistance to Red Thread is always welcomed.”
But was this dedicated activist abused into embracing this modus operandi of fighting for women’s rights?
De Souza reveals she most definitely was. And perhaps she is listed among the worst of the abused having been deprived of employment, unjustly arrested in 1979 and tried in a court of law, simply because of her affiliation with a political party.
Although she was arrested on suspicions of burning down a public building, de Souza was charged and held for a few days for possession of a Guyana National Service kit.
Though a very young woman then, she was eventually able to adequately represent herself and even saw the case against her being dismissed.
But it was not until 1986 that the case would be dismissed, and by then her name had become tarnished, causing every possible door of employment opportunity to be slam shut in her face without even a crease for her slender frame to slip through unnoticed.
“No one would employ me. It was like they were afraid of me. I had to depend on my sister and friends, too, for support.”
Prior to her arrest and subsequent court battle, she was employed as a librarian at the then Prime Minister’s Office. She was just 16 years old at the time, but was even then very ambitious and had plans of elevating herself to a higher office.
This saw her taking leave to join the Guyana National Service and then the University of Guyana to boost her academic eminence. At the institute of higher learning she studied English and Geography, and it was during this time that she became acquainted with Political Activist, Rupert Roopnaraine, of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA).
It was not expected that young Karen, who was born to parents of middle class standing, Mary and Denis de Souza, would have become politically stimulated in her early days.
The second of three offspring, she was born on January 19, 1958, in the city, but grew up a simple lass on the small island of Leguan, on the Essequibo Coast. Her family would eventually move back to the city where she was able to secure her first and only employment which ended two years later.
“It was dealing with that court trial which saw me defending myself and becoming acquainted with the law that led me to become involved in demonstrations…After that first arrest I was arrested frequently, maybe even for just being alive.
The trial ended and the charges were dismissed, but out of just stubbornness I continued with demonstrations for any just cause, once the need arose. It was clear that I was expected to beg pardon and not be involved with the WPA.”
De Souza would remain a committed member of the WPA, up until about six years ago, although she still maintains camaraderie with its existing members.
She recalled that although Red Thread was spawned by some of the women folk from the party, it was from the inception intended to be an independent and separate body. According to her it was in 1985 that a number of women from within the party held an earnest discussion about women in the society, a move which was prompted by the problem of food shortage which was prevailing at the time.
A number of demonstrations were organised by the WPA as a result to emphasise the need for essential items. However, following the demonstrations some of the women, including de Souza, were arrested and incarcerated – a development which created much fear and confusion, according to de Souza.
“The women had become frightened of the politics business, they didn’t want to associate with party politics, they simply wanted food and to be able to take care of their family,” de Souza noted.
It was in recognition of this dilemma that the committed activist – with the support of a number of other party women – commenced discussion to organise a meeting with women outside of the party.
This would lead to the formation of Red Thread which had as its initial agenda to serve as an avenue to foster income-earning activities for women.
It was at first referred to as the Women’s Development Project and was even able to attract the support of financial donors. But yet to some it remained the women’s arm of the WPA.
“When we started we were very clear that our women’s group was separate from the WPA; this was a woman thing and it had nothing to do with the party.
We met as party women, but when we decided to start Red Thread at that point there was no women’s organisation that was not an arm of some organisation. All women’s organisations were the arms of something, so we decided and dared to start Red Thread as an independent body.”
It certainly did not receive the blessings of all the men of the party at first, recounted de Souza, who revealed that “a lot of men in the party were not very happy.”
And why would they be? De Souza and some of the other women who formed Red Thread were in fact among the centrally active women in the party and according to her “this was pulling a whole lot of energy out of the party into this other thing.”
It was even expected that the grants that were awarded to Red Thread would have been turned over to the party to help boost its capacity. In defiance, de Souza and her fellow members, all middle class women, would use the acquired funds to initiate embroidery projects in target communities on the West and East Coasts of Demerara, and even in Linden.
Yet in an infantile state, the group continued to subscribe to WPA principles, which saw it working with women across race and against poverty, incorporating various money-making ventures for the women along the way.
Although she was determined to see the organisation progress, de Souza revealed that she had harboured some thoughts of uncertainty about delving completely into the new arena.
“I was quite reluctant to engage with Red Thread to the exclusion of the overt party work, but I think after working with the women in the communities for a while it became clear to me that that was the thing to do…It is all well and good for a party to say we are taking on the grand, national agenda, but the fact remains that there is no national agenda if you do not address the agenda of the individual.”
It was with this in mind that she was able to shed all doubts and accepted her mission to champion the rights of women in the society, even though through a small organisation. Even if there was no way that the organisation was going to receive much needed support to expand, de Souza was eager to see it become efficient enough to bring about some measure of change in the lives of but a few women.
“I realised we were not going to claim any of the power relations in the society, except it was through the way individuals deal with their relations, and that is not something we can legislate. So I guess it made sense for me to be a part of Red Thread.”
Red Thread would gradually evolve over the years catering to other needs in the society as directed by its membership which was drawn from all communities. In creating its distinct identity, Red Thread received much needed support from Sistren, a vibrant women’s group in Jamaica.
There was support forthcoming from other organisations as the local women’s organisation tread the path to maturity.
But according to de Souza, Red Thread’s sustenance over the years has been hinged on the enormous commitment of the women who formed the core of the entity and have sought to not only embrace the policy of anti-racism and to work against poverty, but also to denounce abuse against women and children.
Perhaps the most important policy that de Souza has come to appreciate over the years is that of respect for those at grass root level. She revealed that “a lot of what Red Thread has done was through the efforts of grass root women, not women with high education.
If we have proven anything it is that the certificates and so forth are not a measure of ability to make a difference.”
It is for this very reason she believes that there are probably hundreds of women throughout Guyana that identify themselves with Red Thread and by extension, a woman who dared to use her daunting life experience to help transform the lives of many.
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