Equal Rights and Justice for All Guyanese

Tiffany Barry is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and the Women’s Studies Unit, both in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Guyana. She is also Social Change Consultant to the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD).

by Tiffany Barry

In recent years, Guyana has witnessed an upsurge in violent crimes leaving our citizens feeling very insecure, but also creating an atmosphere where we almost expect and accept the news of yet another murder, yet another child being abused, yet another case of police brutality, and even another report of a police officer being gunned down in the line of duty. In 2013, 29 persons were victims of domestic-related murders. There were steady reports of children being abused, molested or neglected; in fact, the Childcare and Protection agency received 2925 reports of child abuse for 2013 with 574 of them being cases of sexual abuse. In 2013 as well, there were at least two reports of hyper-violent homicides against homosexual and transgender persons: Delon Melville of Mocha, East Bank Demerara, and Nandkumar Punwassie, also known as Darshanie, of Tain, Berbice.

One often wonders why it is that our society seemingly cannot escape the grip of violence and why we seem to be so passive in the face of it. However, a fair evaluation of our society would reveal that this violence cannot be separated from the violence of social and economic inequalities. Iana Seales in her February 8 Stabroek News column titled “The Inequitable Distribution of our Progress,” rightfully points out that despite some economic growth, a large portion of the Guyanese population continues to live in poverty with little or no access to adequate healthcare, education, housing and protection under the law.

While most people are busy struggling to survive, more and more murders are occurring and they remain unsolved. The Guyana police continue to abuse their powers with impunity; torturing and killing our young men and our people are not calling for them to be held accountable and for reform of the Guyana Police Force. Our silence in 2003 when Yohance Douglas was murdered led to the 2012 murder of Shaquille Grant. Our silence in 2009 when Twyon Thomas was tortured by the police and his genitals set ablaze, led to the alleged abuse and rape of Colwyn Harding in November 2012 and the alleged rape of a teenage boy by police ranks this year. While some of us voiced our outrage when these incidents occurred and vowed never to allow it to happen again, as time progressed we lost momentum, or we decided it was too difficult to challenge the powers that be to address these matters, and these stories were lost with time.

It is in speaking out, standing strong, demanding justice and keeping the stories alive that we start the movement to demand change. However, as a people, this is a discipline we are yet to master. We only need to look at the revolutions occurring in the Arab Spring from 2010 in Tunisia to see that citizens coming together and demanding change can force governments to be held accountable. In Guyana, we can learn from the example set by Paula Niles, aunt of Tiffany – Wesley Holder – who boldly demands justice for her deceased relative who was murdered a year ago, and refuses to let her story be forgotten. In a society where Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons face rampant discrimination, and anti-LGBT laws exist, this Guyanese woman, who boldly declares that she accepted Tiffany just as she was, continues to demand justice for her.

The tide does seem to be turning in Guyana however. This year, 2014, is shaping up to be one where people are ready to speak up and call for change. Members of the Guyana Trans United (GTU) organized a march on January 11 in memory of Tiffany, on her first death anniversary, and all the other LGBT persons who were victims of hate crimes. The GTU march was a bold step to call for justice in a country where the laws criminalise LGBT people for being who they are, and who they love.

Concerned citizens also came out and called for justice for Colwyn Harding after the allegations of physical and sexual violence at the hands of the Guyana police. Organizations such as Red Thread, Justice Institute Guyana, Guyana Human Rights Association, Guyana Bar Association and SASOD all condemned this latest case of police brutality and called for independent investigations because no one has faith in the police to be impartial in an investigation into allegations against its own ranks. Efforts to ensure justice for Colwyn Harding are ongoing and will continue until justice is served.

On Sunday, February 9, the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF) – a network of civil society groups working for equality and human rights – organised the Walk for Equality under the theme “No to Violence!” Over 300 persons from all walks of life in Guyana came out to call for an end to violence, and justice. We will no longer sit in silence as our citizens are victimized on a daily basis. We called for justice for the victims of domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic violence, police brutality, child abuse; all forms of violence which have fastened their grips on the shackles of inequality in Guyana

At the closing rally after the Walk for Equality, Red Thread’s Wintress White, a survivor of gender-based violence pointed out that many times the violence occurring in our society stems from state violence. She noted that when the state refuses to enact economically sound policies that will enhance the livelihoods of its poor citizens, then it is creating a situation where violence will occur. She was referencing the government’s refusal to raise the minimum wage from $35,000 per month and that this decision leaves many living in poverty – a form of economic violence in Guyana.

Incidentally, February is very much a watershed period in the Guyanese social justice movement. On February 9, 2009, Quincy McEwan, Seon Clarke, Joseph Fraser, Seyon Persaud and others appeared before then Chief Magistrate – now Judge – Melissa Robertson to respond to answer to the offence of “being a man, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in female attire.” They had been picked up by Guyana police in a series of crackdowns against ‘cross-dressing’ between February 6 and 9, 2009. Unrepresented and completely unaware of their rights, the defendants were detained, physically and sexually abused while in police custody over the weekend and then hustled through the legal system. When they appeared before Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson on February 9, 2009, they were further ridiculed and told that they are men not women, before being fined by the learned Chief Magistrate. Seon Clarke, also known as Falatama, one of the persons arrested, spoke at the closing rally at Walk for Equality, recounting the ordeal as was one of the most humiliating experiences of her life, making her feel less than human.

A year later, on Friday, February 19, 2010 – the eve of World Day for Social Justice – the four-named transgender persons and SASOD, supported by local and regional human rights attorneys, filed a constitutional motion challenging the validity of the colonial-era law against cross-dressing. Last September, the Honourable Chief Justice (Ag.) Mr. Ian Chang, sitting as the Constitutional Court, delivered his ruling that cross-dressing in public is only an offence if it is done for an improper purpose. The learned Chief Justice however did not clarify what the term “improper purpose” means or what improper purposes gave rise to arrests in the February 2009 police crackdowns. Dissatisfied with the uncertainty and lack of clarity in the decision, the litigants have filed notice to the Court of Appeal to challenge this and other aspects of the Chief Justice’s ruling.

Last Friday, February 14, 2014, the Stella’s Sisterhood of Service and Support (S4) Foundation held its second annual One Billion Rising event, this year under the theme Justice – to call for an end to violence against women and impunity in cases of gender and sexual violence, and to promote gender equality. About 40 civil society organizations all across Guyana joined the call for justice for the many victims of gender and sexual violence and human trafficking.

Indeed, 2014 is shaping up to be a year where Guyanese will no longer suffer in silence; we are mobilising our communities and calling for an end to all forms of violence and discrimination in Guyana. Guyanese are calling for social and economic justice. This is a significant step in the right direction and on February 20, Guyana should join with the rest of the world in observing World Day of Social Justice, to promote inclusive development and human dignity. The Day should remind our government that they must take a people-centred approach to Guyana’s development.

On February 20, let us also remind the Guyana government that they have to recognize the struggles of the poor. They have to ensure that the laws governing economic, social and political institutions are being enacted equally to enhance our citizens’ capabilities to contribute to socio-economic development by focusing on education, healthcare, housing, expanding employment opportunities and improving access to justice.

Campaigning for social justice therefore requires a collective call by people everywhere to speak up against social, economic and political injustices, to call for reform and to demand change. Civil society organizations in Guyana are answering this call by collectively raising our voices against many forms of social injustices plaguing our society. We are speaking out against economic injustice by calling on our elected officials to raise the minimum wage. We are speaking out against state violence by demanding that the police are held accountable for criminal acts. We are speaking out against discrimination and violence directed against women, sex workers, racial, sexual and gender minorities. Guyanese civil society is calling for justice, not just on February 20 to mark World Day of Social Justice, but every day, until equality and justice become a reality for every Guyanese across the length and breadth of this diverse nation.

by Staff Writer
Source – Stabroek News