My first problem with Feminition was not the fact that alcohol would be available there. No, it was actually with the cost of the event and what it purported to accomplish. I know, some may say that $15 million is not a huge sum of money, in the grand scheme of things, but it sure is to me and most of the people I know.
I think about all the other, more truly significant things that could have been done with that money instead – the youth camp in dire need of support, all the women hustling for their daily bread who could benefit from a little bit of that $15 million. Women like my friend S – a domestic, who’s left with a mere $500 spending money at the end of the day. Women like my seatmate on the bus the other day – a security guard with seven children who has no choice but to leave them alone as she works 12-14-hour shifts at a time. Two of her girls, she told me, had been abused by the man in whose care she had left them. Women like K – who joked about having ‘gone foreign’ when really she ran to her sister in Canal #2 when the abuse from her husband got too bad, leaving her three young children behind. Women like L – terrorized by her husband every time he drinks, unable to keep the little bit she earns from selling phoulorie and potato balls by the roadside from him when he wants to buy more rum. How would this event help these women, I asked myself?
It won’t, I immediately realised. A concert, fashion show, and three day expo will have absolutely no impact on these women’s lives. Sure, they can attend (those who can afford the transportation cost and who can take the time away from their daily child-minding, housework, and other tasks, that is). For a few hours, they can enjoy the music, ooh and aah at the fashionable models, get their blood pressure tested, browse the exhibits, etc. But it is unlikely that S, K, L, and many other women like them would have much ‘spare change’ to actually buy most of the products showcased at the expo. K and L will still face abuse from their husbands when they reach home (if not that day, then the next). Will Feminition make their self esteem higher? Will it make them feel more self-worth? Maybe. Do these women already know about the harmful effects of inequality, and that they deserve better? Of course. They’re not stupid. The reasons they stay in abusive situations are complex and it will take long, hard, work to change the conditions in our society that dis-empower women. Transformation does not come in days and a concert, fashion show, and expo just won’t do it.
So why waste $15 million on something that will have a negligible impact at best, I wonder? Well, that is patently clear – it is an election year, and the dog and pony shows are in full session. I expect nothing better from the politicians. But I do expect more from Minister Priya Manickchand. Which brings me to a point about expectations.
Minister Manickchand said that she expects “responsible use” of alcohol at Feminition. Well, you can “expect ‘responsible use’” all you want, but by permitting alcohol sales at Feminition, the fact is that Priya is giving anti-domestic violence efforts a blow. There is clear, irrefutable evidence of a strong link between alcohol abuse and intimate partner violence in Guyana and you cannot work against domestic violence and promote alcohol use at the same time – by choosing to do the latter, you are inevitably undermining the former. That Minister Manickchand seems not to realise this, that she makes absurd, illogical excuses and
tries to deflect the well-deserved criticism with a silly narrative about women’s ability to make responsible decisions and companies’ ‘moral redemption’ is very disturbing. I expect someone in the position she’s in to know better. But as I have learned with expectations, they are often unmet.
We expect a lot of things all the time. I expect to see the sun shining every day. I expect my partner to not be violent towards me. I expect the Minister of Human Services to actually advance the cause of women’s empowerment in Guyana, not just pay it lip service. I expect her to help a mother trying to get justice for her three-year-old daughter who was raped and given a STI. I expect abused women to get protection from the court from their abusers. I expect working mothers to earn enough money to feed, clothe, and put a roof over their children’s heads. I expect children to get a proper education in school. I expect all pregnant women to make it through childbirth safely.
Sometimes we get what we expect (yes, the sun will rise every day). Other times, we get smoke blown in our eyes, a patronizing pat on the head, a concert, a fashion show, and a presidential photo-op. And too often, we get blows from our drunken partners. A $15 million dog and pony show will do absolutely nothing to prevent that. Susilla Latchman and Verone Patois might be dead and gone, but the children they left behind and the many more women who will face beatings and maybe even lose their life in coming weeks and months deserve more.
Those who do anti-violence, empowerment work should speak out against Manickchand’s hypocrisy and clear lack of integrity. Do not be afraid and do not let yourself be co-opted and used to advance obvious business and political interests – at the expense of the very real work that we have to do. In the meantime, party on, Priya. Hold onto your cup and party on. While it lasts.
S. Nageer, M.P.H
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