Last Friday, the University of Guyana finally launched its own Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies.
Working at a gender institute myself, I could anticipate its limitations and opportunities. There is only so much small staff with activist passions, but with priorities of teaching and research, can do in a society with big gender problems. However, such an irreplaceable space also provides the kinds of consciousness-raising, mentorship, and commitment to women’s rights and progressive men’s movements that our societies surely need.
Having once joined at the beginning of a graduate programme that changed my own life, it was a reflective moment to be in Guyana, almost twenty years older, and hoping that as many students as possible will have the empowering experience I did.
I felt the same respect and awe for the work ahead as I got to know Renuka Beharie, coordinator of the fledgling Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She did not even have a full time secretary, but, after many hours and much sacrifice, I could only imagine how many would think of her the way I do about the pioneers in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and beyond who similarly built the gender studies institutes that generations of us will inherit.
Sometimes people wonder about the point of spending money to travel to events that seem to achieve little or signal only an uphill battle, but I was struck by the sense of regionalism sparked each time we meet up and connect to our work across borders and seas.
I had heard Hazel Brown talk many times about wanting the government to establish a Commission for Women and Gender Equality, and found a 2010 pre-election newspaper clipping where the PM promised she would. Yet, it felt so much more real when I met the commissioners in Guyana, who continued to hope to bring women together across party lines, who were pushing the government to approve a national gender policy, and who spoke openly about the fact that the new government’s appointment of only 30% of women to state boards, with some boards having no women at all, wasn’t good enough.
On the flight there, I sat next to a young woman, twenty years younger than me, who was so passionate about her work with the Trinidad Youth Council, and who said all the right things about good organizing, that my heart lifted, and I self-consciously felt myself filling the shoes of those older activists who go to civic meetings and talk about how nice it is to see all the young people there.
Having been nurtured by a progessive youth movement, and seeing how many from there continue to exercise leadership however we can, I was certain of the passionate possibilities for a young woman interested in social change, the guidance available, and the power of her oncoming experiences.
As we talked, it turned out she had never heard of this person, Hazel Brown, something I didn’t think was possible for any activist, youth or not, in T and T. Here was a wake up call for women’s and youth movements, a reminder we must make an extra effort to reintroduce every generation, especially of young women, especially of activists, to the makers of our too-quickly forgotten history. I wondered if you asked fifth form students around the country to name one women’s rights activist, who they would name, and if no one, why. What would that say about the value of such women’s work in our country?
I invited the young woman to an evening gathering of NGOs, hoping that being in the room with women like Vanda Radzik, Jocelyne Dow, Karen de Souza and other Guyanese stalwarts in the struggle for Caribbean women would in turn spark her connection to Caribbean feminism’s regionality.
That one day in Guyana rested on my mind throughout my first class at UWI this week. How did you end up here I asked? Students wanted to understand feminisms, their rights, themselves and power relations in their families. Gender studies institutes were founded, and continue to be, to provide precisely the knowledge that each generation, discovering injustice, finds that they need.