Guyanese Women in Non- Governmental Organisations: The period before 1975
By Cecilia McAlmont
November 14, 2002
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The World Bank defined NGOs as “groups and institutions that are entirely or largely independent of government and characterised primarily by humanitarian and cooperative rather than commercial objectives” additionally, “they pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, or undertake community development.” By the above definition, NGOs have existed in Guyana since the 19th century during the Colonial period. Then, primarily due to the fact that they were mostly organised and run by women (as they still are) they were called women’s organisations. How-ever, women, especially feminist writers, have shown how women’s involvement in these organisations and their implementation of their activities have themselves been expressions of political activism and a method of political participation. The focus of this article is on the nature and scope of the involvement of Guyanese women in NGOs especially Non Governmental Women’s Organisations (NGWO) in the period prior to the United Nations Decade for Women.
There are several categories of NGWOs operating in Guyana today. These include regional, umbrella, sub-national, political, Trade Union affiliated, social/service/welfare, professional, religious and education/training/development NGWOs. Guyanese women first became involved in the religious, service and welfare NGOs. These were established in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century by upper class women, wives of the predominantly white ruling class, especially Governors’ wives and the wives of Colonial civil servants and the coloured elite. The social welfare organisations were established by these women at the end of the 19th century, during a period of appalling social conditions, to provide aid to the less fortunate and help to improve the environmental and living conditions of the urban working class. For example, in 1890, there was the Children’s Protection Society which was concerned with prevention of cruelty to children and to raise funds to provide nourishing meals for needy children. One of its members, Lady Chalmers, wife of the Chief Justice also became involved in raising funds to build ‘model homes’ for the working class. These activities and supporting the careers of their political husbands were clearly forms of political action.
Governors’ wives were particularly active. According to Peake, the social welfare organisations were the most popular with white women because the women’s roles were seen as natural extensions of their caring role in the family. This unpaid charity work allowed them “to make forays into the public world and to see themselves as the “moral guardians of Colonial society.” However, by the first decades of the 20th century, the country’s elite became affected by race and class differences and white women could no longer lay claim to being the moral guardians of the era. As a result, there was a new type of organisation which, in addition to aiding unfortunate individuals also sought to improve environmental conditions. While the women who founded them continued to come from the upper class, they were now from different racial groups but their aims emulated that of white women’s groups. These women “did not work to change the status quo, nor even to question or change the role of women within it.” This was not surprising given the patriarchy of the society and the current notions of women’s place within it. Peake however suggested, and the writer agrees, that these organisations were important because they provided a new social space in which women could manoeuvre for power within the society.
At this point in time, colonial legislation not only deprived women of the right to vote but also to participate in the political institutions of the colony. That writer continued that because of their position between the public and private spheres, these organisations did not threaten male dominated institutions where men exercised official authority. It can be contended that women’s involvement in these organisations also did not threaten the male dominated power structure. However, because they were networks of neighbours and kin familiar to women, the organisations helped to break down the barricades that had confined women to the private sphere. This issue of male/public and female/private sphere has been cited as one of the main barriers to women’s greater political participation worldwide. The influence of these organisations not only helped to set new standards of education, health and welfare, but also allowed women to introduce these issues into public debate. Peake further opined that the Victorian zeal with which members of the colonial elite campaigned for the education of women less fortunate than themselves, was their greatest contribution to the future participation of Guyanese women in the political development of their country. The result of their efforts was that within a few decades a number of educated Guyanese women were potentially ready to emerge on the political scene.
This readiness was evident during the war years. In 1940 the British Guiana Women League of Social Services was established as the first umbrella organisation. This was a new departure. Not only did it coordinate and rationalise the efforts of the women’s organisations, it also ventured into the non traditional fields of civic affairs and social advocacy. Their contribution in areas which could make an impact on improving poorer women’s working conditions, whetted their appetites to do more than just charity work. They were spurred on by the enactment of the 1945 Ordinance which reduced the franchise requirements and permitted women to become members of the Legislature. This opened up the possibility of, according to one of its members, bringing about meaningful change through the legislature through the joint efforts of benefactors and beneficiaries. It was therefore not surprising that it was the members of the League, Janet Jagan, Jessica Huntley, Frances Stafford and Winifred Gaskin, among others, who established the first women’s political organisation, the Women’s Political and Economic Organization (WPEO). Two of them, Janet Jagan and Winifred Gaskin, drawing on the skills and experience gained in that organisation were later to participate at the highest level of politics.
Emboldened by their success, the women were prepared to test their new militancy by involvement in political advocacy. According to Kilkenny, the purpose of the WPEO was to ensure the political organisation and education of the women of British Guiana in order to promote their political and social benefit and emancipation and betterment. During its brief three-year existence, its main success continued to be in social advocacy. In fact, the organisation fell apart when it attempted to become involved in mainstream political activity. This attempt exposed the fatal flaw of the divisions within the society by class and race that still plagues our political culture. It also exposed the fact that women, for whatever reasons, often do not support each other’s candidacy for higher political office.
The vacuum left by the demise of the WPEO was filled by the political NGOs organised as the arms of the two major political parties. These were the arm of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO) in 1953 and the Women’s Auxiliary of the People’s National Congress (PNC) in 1957 later renamed the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM). The women who led these NGOs were the backbone of their political parties. They were particularly active at election time. However, the women of the WPO and the WRSM now the National Congress of Women (NCW) have over the years had little more than token membership on the Central Executive Committees, the highest decision-making forum of their political parties. Even though, as in the case of the PNC, more women than men usually attend the Biennial Congress of the party where the elections take place. This can only be explained by the factors already alluded to in addition to continued gender inequities and the negative impact of women’s own issues such as childhood socialisation and role conflict.
In addition to the above, the establishment of “Cooperative Socialism” in 1970 acted as a significant constraint on the activities of all NGOS. The state now arrogated to itself the sole responsibility of taking care of all the needs of the citizens of the country. The activities of more militant NGOs were viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. Many NGOs including some NGWOs lost their vibrancy and kept a low profile in order to survive. Some like the religious NGOs continued their charity and other activities among their parishioners. The beginning of the United Nations decade for women in 1975 changed the international climate and played a significant role in “recasting the objective of bringing women into the political forefront as part and parcel of the process of development.” The momentous events of 1975 and the conventions later signed and ratified by the government of Guyana acted as a catalyst for NGWOs to re-emerge. Additionally, more militant NGOs were established by women for whom the new more facilitating environment acted as a spur to fight for women’s equality.