In 2014, Brij V Lal, an Indo-Fijian historian, at a Fiji Day of Remembrance said: “One of my life’s ambitions has been to remember what others have forgotten or chosen to forget—to give our people a voice and a modicum of humanity, to give them a place at the table of history.
“We need to remind the new generation about our history: history doesn’t only belong to the victors but to the vanquished as well…to give voiceless people a voice—a sense of place, a sense of purpose.
“[…] Ordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances…people who travelled thousands of miles in difficult circumstances but never gave up.”
While Lal was speaking about the issue of indentured people, the essence of his comment can be applied to women everywhere. The death of Tina Turner reminded us of the depths of spousal abuse among all races. Violence against women causes physical injury and undermines the social, economic, psychological, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the victim, the perpetrator and society.
It is easy for some to point to the benefits that the indentured immigrants and their children have received, but that represents a glossing over the hardships they endured under the systemic abuse present. While they and their descendants may have enjoyed superior life chances in Trinidad than were they still in India, they suffered much pain on the journey and the estates.
When the Fatal Rozack brought the first 227 Indian immigrant labourers to Trinidad on 30 May, 206 were men and 21 women. Most of the Indian women who came to the Caribbean came not as wives or daughters but as individual women who were frequently characterised to be shamelessly immoral.
While the realization of men’s life potential was seen in terms of their labour and work, for women who were also workers, it was seen in the necessity of controlling their sexuality (Reddock, 1985). Robert Mitchell, the government–appointed protector of immigrants, described the recruited women as “hardly removed in some districts from ordinary beasts of burden”. The recruiters were perceived as “schemers, liars and kidnappers”.
Bahadur (2014) itemises the sexual and physical abuse on the ships, meted out by both the white and black seamen. She describes the rape of a seven or eight-year-old child and the apparent complicity of her father.
Verene Shepherd’s Maharani’s Misery (2002) depicts the fatal rape of an immigrant set in the context of power struggles aboard a ship. Life on the boats was no bed of roses.
Women were paid lower wages on the estates and received fewer food rations. Sexual violence was not counteracted since the plantation and court systems did not care for them. They had to make themselves unattractive to evade the ever-present sexual abuse (Roopnarine, 2015).
Physical violence, with the use of machetes, was not unusual. Specific marriage laws were introduced to control these women. They survived. Yet, our society continues to suffer from this legacy.
The Mahdia tragedy in Guyana demonstrates that the outrageous treatment of marginalised women continues. The indigenous people account for approximately 10% of Guyana’s population but are spread over 80% of its land mass. Almost 44% of their homes do not have electricity.
Transportation is poor, and young people have little means of knowing about the world. They grow up speaking one of the indigenous languages but are confronted with English and unfamiliar cultural experiences when they go to school.
School dropouts are typical in the hinterlands and happen at two points: at the transition from primary to secondary school and during secondary school. Poverty is endemic: there is no money to buy medicine, and children go to school hungry. One in every four indigenous children is stunted, creating real risks to their cognitive and physical development.
The indigenous people are the Dalits of Guyana. They are handy as a vote bank but little else. Successive governments have done little to improve their lot in life.
In this context, it is difficult for the children to benefit from the schools and dormitories. The CSEC failure rate averages 70%.
While the Guyanese authorities may breathe a sigh of relief with the charging of the 15-year-old for her classmates’ deaths, significant questions remain unanswered. Have we noted the complete silence about the man she allegedly was communicating with?
Is he allowed to slip into the darkness while she bears the brunt of the charges? Is this not like the woman brought to Jesus for allegedly committing adultery? No man was brought then, and now the same is happening.
This child needs counselling and assistance to overcome the trauma. To charge her is to absolve everyone else of their shortcomings that contributed to the disastrous fire.
The government has promised a commission of enquiry, but to focus on the event of the fire is ludicrous. The larger question is: “How do we improve the lives of the women and children in the hinterlands?”
We already know of the fundamental direct shortcomings in this horrible situation. We already know how officialdom can hide the truth. A plan is needed to avert the ongoing social and economic tragedy plaguing life in these places.
When will we speak up against the gender-based violence happening all around us? Are we prepared to leave our women in unsafe places and relationships?