By Rehana Ahamad
Gone are the days when women were forced to marry at a young age and become nothing more than housewives.
Instead we witness days like yesterday, International Women’s Day when the evolved role of women around the world can be celebrated and recognized.
Yesterday, March 8, saw a number of organizations extending congratulatory messages to women from all walks of life who have been able to overcome struggles to follow their dreams and become something more than what society told them they had to be.
Gone are the days when women are refused job opportunities just because of their gender. In some parts of the world, like Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive.
Thankfully, Guyana is not among countries like those, and today, women are afforded just as many freedoms and rights as the opposite sex. Road users would realize that independent women are also dominating the roads with their posh vehicles, and it has been duly noted that females make the safest drivers.
But those are not the only advances that women have been making, as their strides in all areas of Guyana’s development are evident. From only producing babies and doing chores, women are now afforded the opportunity to dominate the professional arena, becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians and even presidents, including our very own, Mrs. Janet Jagan.
I managed to catch up with an interesting young lady over the weekend, and after listening to her story, I have begun to understand that women are surely stronger than their struggles. Onica Charles, during our brief chat, explained that although not in the very midst of it, she did grow up during the time when some societies didn’t approve of women wanting to turn their dreams into reality.
Those were the days that followed the ones when women did exactly as they were told. Their role back then centered on getting married and taking care of a family, and in some cases an extended one.
However, 30-year-old Charles recalls that growing up, she knew that such a life was not for her, and with the motivation of strong and determined female characters of the past, she knew that she was going to at least fight to live the life she wanted to. That was the life of an independent woman.
“As a young woman who was born and raised in a third world country, I wasn’t expected to have high aspirations. I was expected to get married at a young age, have babies, be a house wife, and take care of my family while my husband is the provider for the home. After all, that was the role of the majority of women who surrounded me.”
Charles said that it was only until she moved to the United States of America at the age of 13 that she met women who had already come out of the “yesteryear” isolation.
“I watched women own their own businesses and did jobs, which according to our culture back then, was not properly suited for a woman.”
“Of course as a woman I have aspirations of being a wife and a mother but that wasn’t all that I wanted to be,” Charles maintained.
Deemed as the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” Charles was motivated by the kind of women she had been associated with in the United States.
“I know that I could have become anything I wanted…as long as I stayed focused on my goals and aspirations.”
Years later, Charles said that she found herself doing exactly what she was told not to do- become independent and follow her dreams.
“I knew the only way I could have done that was by becoming an educated woman. Education is one of the most powerful tools that anyone can have, and I knew that in order for me to succeed, I had to become more than just an average student.”
As such, she, with the support of her parents, left no stone unturned as it relates to obtaining knowledge and credentials. She recalls however that “By no means was I the most intelligent, but I was extremely disciplined and I did what I had to in order to succeed, but I did it all the right way,” the young woman posited.
“I remember while in college my friends would go out partying and I was stuck at home writing papers at 3am in the morning, but it was a sacrifice that I knew I had to make in order to set myself apart from the rest of my peers who did the bare minimum in order to get by.”
Charles boasted that today, she is the second person in her family to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree and the first to obtain a Masters Degree.
“It was a big accomplishment for me and I knew I was setting a precedent for the generation after me. My mother had to drop out of school because her parents couldn’t afford it, so she stayed home and helped with raising her younger brothers and sisters. That’s why she made sure I took my education seriously and did extra by sending me to lessons in the evening so that I can excel in my studies.”
Amidst many challenges, Charles said that at age 25, she started working with the US Government. She declared proudly that at that time she was the youngest black woman to hold a management position at the municipality.
“I started out as an intern, but then I was offered a permanent position.”
She said that, “in college, we learned about the glass ceiling and I always say that my goal is to break that glass ceiling because as women, being treated less than our male counterpart simply isn’t fair.”
According to Charles, she started her own business in the United States at the age of 27. This was in the form of a fully recognized and nationally approved day care center.
“I did this without any knowledge of child care, and I employed caretakers. I remember telling a few people about it and they told me it was completely impossible. People even went as far as to laugh in my face, telling me that I had too many big dreams.”
Charles pointed out though that while the harsh words did hurt her, she was not prepared to have negative people influence the way she wanted to live her life and the things she wanted to do in order to make a difference.
Although she was already successful in her business career, Charles said that somewhere “deep down inside,” she wanted to do something more. Not something to which would gain her money and professional recognition (as she already had that), but something that would change somebody else’s life for the better. Especially since the former St. Joseph’s High School student knew what it felt like to grow up in poverty.
“I then decided that charity was what I had to embark on, so I chose to believe in my abilities, and I had mentors who guided me along the way, always imposing a saying that ‘wherever there’s a woman, there’s a way.”
“Trust me, it wasn’t an easy road, many times I would just sit and cry because I thought I took on too much on my plate, I thought I’m just another little poor girl with high aspirations.”
But, Charles said that she always resorted to remembering the words of powerful women like the great Oprah Winfrey who said that “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.”
“Those were the words that kept me going, even though I felt like giving up, I didn’t. I stuck through all the trials and tribulations and kept on believing in myself and in the power of the women before me.”
As a result of her perseverance, and example set by women all across the world, including Guyana, Onica Charles has been able to grow into a massively ambitious young woman who is well known as the founder of the International Children’s Outreach (ICO). This is a US-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that has been helping children from all across the world. Feeding them, clothing them, and empowering them, especially young girls. Emphasis is also placed on Charles’ homeland, Guyana.
Charles is currently constructing a community centre for the children of Craig/ Grove East Bank Demerara, where children will be given free extra lessons and modern library facilities along with healthy meals and a place to conduct sport related activities.
Asked about her opinion regarding International Women’s Day, the day set aside to honour the successes of women in all walks of life and almost every field of work and society, Charles believes that over the past decades, women have come a long way; from not being able to vote to now becoming Presidents.
“I think as women we need to support and uplift each other and then it would be guaranteed that we can accomplish great things in the future.”
The young entrepreneur added “I think International Women’s Day is a great time to reflect on the progress women have made and to celebrate the acts of courage and determination by not just female celebrities, but also by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of our communities.”
To this end, Charles said that she is extremely proud that today, the women of Guyana are those of substance who make great role models.
“I applaud them.”
It is true that International Women’s Day is observed once a year, but the gender continues to contribute significantly to the growth of countries worldwide. And apart from their invaluable roles to the development of economies, the majority of them still continue to maintain their roles as homemakers and the greatest one of all- motherhood.
In reflecting the growth of women and their strength, one must remember the word of renowned Philosopher Charles Malik- “The fastest way to change a society is to mobilize the women of the world.”
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