On Friday, November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Guyana Equality Forum (GEF) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) hosted the second annual Zenita Temall Nicholson Memorial Event. The event took the form of a Public Discussion on Gender-Based Violence in Guyana and served as the commencement of SASOD’s 16 Days of Activism Campaign. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. In 2016, the campaign strongly emphasizes the need for sustainable financing for efforts to end violence against women and girls towards the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The official theme for this year’s Campaign is: “Orange the World: Raise Money to End Violence against Women and Girls.”
The Public Discussion was facilitated by Guyanese feminist advocate and stalwart educator, Bonita Harris. She began her presentation by underscoring that “ending violence against women begins with awareness and consciousness of why the names, nouns, and pronouns we use to call and refer to persons can violate their integrity and sense of their gender identity.”
In her presentation, Harris urged participants to “talk the talk and walk the walk”. “I want to encourage everyone here to ‘walk the talk’ … Raising money to end violence against women and girls is an important action for walking the talk or as Guyanese say, putting your money where your mouth is.” She used the opportunity to launch a fundraising initiative by producing an orange bowl to be used to raise money during the 16 Days of Activism. “See this large orange bowl; I will be passing it around for a collection to galvanize action to eradicate violence against women and girls. And I will be donating the bowl for future collections. Please give generously from whatever you have in your pockets and purses today.” She also encouraged civil society organisations to forego refreshments and use that money to eliminate gender-based violence in Guyana.
In paying homage to the late Zenita Temall Nicholson, Harris thanked the GEF and SASOD for providing her with the opportunity to declare publicly her love for the late activist. “I first met her while she was working with Merundoi and my spirit immediately took to her. When she told me she was practising yoga at the Indian Cultural Centre, I suggested she also join us at the Art of Living Centre, which she did, for training in breathwork. I mention this, because like many of her friends and colleagues who were shocked at her death by suicide, remembering her happy and inspirational personality, I too was stunned knowing that in addition to her political and social activism on behalf of others, she was also engaged in attending to her own physical and spiritual health and wellbeing,” Harris recalled.
Harris indicated that Nicholson’s death on October 26, 2015, must force us to be humble and reflect on the fact that we do not know what the face of suicide or face of a suicidal person or the face of a woman in an abusive relationship looks like. “We all have to pay much closer attention, look at and listen more deeply to the persons we know and care about.We have to start talking about our own suicidal thoughts and getting persons to talk about theirs. The idea is not to get ‘comfortable’ with thinking and talking and listening, but to get ‘comfortable’ with being uncomfortable, and talking and listening to thoughts and feelings and actions that bring no comfort; talking does not refer to pontificating or issuing guidelines about the appropriate responses to depression, mental illness, attempted and actual suicide, and gender-based violence and abuse of women and girls,” Harris explained. She highlighted that work needs to be done at creating relationships and environments where persons can feel free to talk from their heart without the fear of being judged. But Harris cautioned that “the alleged perpetrator was not born an abuser, he too was most likely conditioned to see and use violence as a solution to problems; and was perhaps even a target of gender-based violence. Violence begets violence. Violence breeds violence.”
Harris remembered the comment Zenita made in accepting the Woman of Courage Award in March, 2014 from the US Embassy, in which she said: “Today I’m being honoured for my courage, but I have no courage; not compared to those who inspire me to advocate for equality, human rights and dignity.” Bonita noted that the best definition of “courage” she knows of is the one that speaks of “standing up and speaking and sitting down and listening.” She firmly urged all attendees to work towards ending violence against women and girls by taking the time to sit down and listen, compassionately and non-judgmentally. She encouraged the representatives of organizations to advocate within their organizations to ensure that sensitization, awareness, workshop, training sessions and other meetings devote generous allocations of time for participants to reflect on and ‘sit and listen’ to one another talk about their personal experiences with being the target, and perpetrator, of gender-based violence. She advised that we should not shy away from admitting that women and girls are often also, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetrators and enablers of gender-based violence against girls and women.Ending gender-based violence begins with the self, and at home, with what we think, feel, say, and do. The participants were encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings, as well as to listen to their thoughts and feelings, with love and compassion, and begin mobilizing others to play an active role in ending violence against women and girls. A lot of sitting and listening can give us the knowledge, strength, and courage to stand up and speak up.
Issues around gender-based violence in Guyana in different and same-sex relationships
Harris devoted a significant part of her presentation to what she considers to be two major issues around gender-based violence in Guyana in different and same-sex relationships - the high levels of tolerance of general violence, violence against children and adolescents, and intimate-partner violence in Guyana and the general misunderstanding of the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ especially by those who feel their ‘gender’ matches their ‘sex.’ There was consensus around the room that gender-based violence is exceptionally normalized in Guyana; and it continues to be perpetuated and accepted because of this. Societal acceptance of bullying, shaming, stigmatizing, discrimination, disrespect, corporal punishment and other forms of violence by parents, teachers, and other adults in charge of children and adolescents is enormous. Harris noted that “there are terribly low levels of awareness and knowledge of genetic, bio-chemical, neurological, enabling/disabling, historical, and cultural factors shaping gender, sex and sexuality, and attitudes and behaviours in relation to violence, even among mental health and other healthcare professionals, educators, social welfare and childcare workers.” It has been seen many times over, how public spectacles, and dramas playing out on our streets, on local TV, on local stages, where different sex and same sex gender-based violence and the actions of mentally unstable persons are treated as entertainment and comedy and the laughter provoked as good, Harris said. To further underscore the prevalence and many dimensions of gender-based violence, she cited the recent media coverage of reports of alleged beating followed by murder, after a carpenter’s rejection of unwanted ‘feeling up,’ from a man. She went on to stress that the criminal cover-up, bribery, the application of money and power over the poor and powerless, then threats of more violence and murder, police and official corruption involving persons across the gender spectrum show how issues lead to issues which lead to other issues and future issues. This one example, she noted, illustrates the range and depth of issues around gender-based violence in Guyana, in addition to the more frequently referred to issues of depression, mental health, hopelessness, low self-esteem, self-harming, and suicide. The multitudes of issues that surround gender-based violence are situated in our relationships with one another, and in the other environments where gender-based violence arises or is created.
Also, speaking at the event was Dr. Carolyn Gomes, Executive Director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), where the late Zenita Temall Nicholson was working as Guyana Country Coordinator at the time of her passing.