The Women's Affairs Bureau: Twenty years of attempting to eliminate discrimination against Guyanese women By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
March 1, 2001

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The establishment of the Women's Affairs Bureau (WAB) on January 1, 1981 in the then Ministry of Labour, resulted from a deliberate government policy that was given greater impetus by the international sensitizing on issues of concern to women created by the beginning of the UN Decade for Women. In his address to the first Biennial Congress of the PNC, August 1975, shortly after the first UN Women's conference in Mexico, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham admitted his Party's and government's failure to do enough to fight discrimination in all its forms. He pledged his government's determination to remove from the statute books all legislation, which gave inferior status to women. In January 1976, not only was a State Paper on the Equality of Women laid in Parliament but also co-education became the declared policy in all schools. The rights of women were enshrined in articles 29 (1) and (2) of the 1980 "People's Constitution". Additionally, in the same year as the Bureau's establishment, the Desiree Bernard Committee was established to recommend amendments to the Laws of Guyana that discriminated against women. About 35 of those were eventually identified.

Three women's organizations, the Women's Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM), Conference on the Affairs and Status of Women in Guyana (CASWIG) and the Guyana Federation of Women's Institutes (GFWI), all of whom had been represented at the Mexico conference, made representation for the establishment of the Bureau. They recognized that the lack of a focal point in the government structure, would be a serious constraint to effective implementation of any programmes. This focal point was needed to act as a clearing-house for information and documentation channelled from international organizations and non-governmental agencies, to the government and local agencies, to facilitate the implementation of the wide-ranging activities envisaged in the Plan of Action. A joint proposal for the establishment of such a focal point was made by the organizations to government and was accepted by Cabinet. However, despite the laudable motives for its establishment, it was the brainchild of mainly two government organizations associated with one ethnic group, the one from which the government of the day, drew most of its support. In our racially and politically polarized society, that connection proved to be a severe handicap to the WAB as it attempted to fulfil its mandate. That mandate was "to work towards the removal of all forms of discrimination against women, to promote development of their full potential and to ensure their integration in the national development of the country."

Early structure and work

The early structure of the Bureau included a Director who was a minister of government with responsibility for formulation and implementation of policy. The Director was supported by an Administrator, Coordinator and assistant Coordinator. There were five sub-committees - planning; research and economic; education, training and public relations; social services and public welfare and foreign and legal affairs. Additionally, NGOS, including those not affiliated to CASWIG, would also share in the operations of the Bureau.

The Bureau began its existence when the economy had already started to deteriorate and when government found it necessary to curtail expenditure. Remuneration for the Director, a government minister and the Secretary, a serving officer of the Ministry of Labour was assured. However, no budgetary allocation was made for the additional staff and for the operations of the Bureau. It was clear that in the tight economic circumstances, the work of the Bureau did not rank high enough on the government's list of priorities, despite its stated commitment. This led to poor allocation of resources for the work of the Bureau. It was a weakness that has not yet been corrected.

The first responsibilities assigned to the Bureau included among others

1. To provide services for coordinating developmental programmes for women in Guyana.

2. To impact on policies and programmes of relevant Ministries to ensure that they were designed to cater for the needs of women.

3. To support the establishment and development of women's organizations, especially those whose objectives were in conformity with the stated objectives of the UN Decade for Women.

4. To give technical and other assistance to projects and activities that contributed to the economic, political, social and cultural advancement of women.

5. To assist the relevant organizations and agencies in designing and organising training courses to impart and upgrade skills of women and to enable them to fill positions at all levels in established agencies of all types, as well as organise them for employment

6. To liaise with governmental and non-governmental agencies and promote functional coordination for accelerated progress in the areas of employment, health and nutrition, education, legislative measures and social welfare that are identified in the World Plan of Action for women.

7. To ensure that general education objectives and curricula support the development strategies aimed at enhancing women's participation in political, economic and social development.

8. To initiate research and embark on the collection of statistical data in an effort to obtain information on the participation of women in the areas such as educational institutions and in various sectors of the labour force.

9. To initiate research, and embark on the collection of statistical data and other information for training purposes and to facilitate and determine action for resolving problems.

10. To collaborate with the Mass Media personnel in promoting programmes, publications, songs, plays, etc., for the eradication of the derogatory allusions and unflattering images connected with women.

11. To foster and maintain contacts, and exchange information plans and ideas with national and international organizations and agencies concerned with the Affairs of Women.

12. To collaborate with international agencies and institutions which have relevant objectives for Guyana's thrust in an effort to secure financing for projects for groups of women, who will be involved in income generating programmes.

It was an extremely ambitious programme given the Bureau's limited resources and unsettled state. In the first three years of its existence, the Bureau had three changes of location. Fourteen months after its establishment in the Ministry of Labour and Housing in 1981, in May 1982, it was transferred to the Ministry of Cooperatives. A year later, in May 1983, it was transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister. Then in 1984 the Bureau was transferred to the Ministry of National Mobilisation. These changes reflected the moves made by its Minister/Director within the government decision-making structure. Nonetheless, within those first three years, the Bureau managed to achieve some of the objectives stated above. It represented over 50 women on a number of welfare matters. It set up a food-processing factory and offered technical assistance to three umbrella organizations to start income-generating projects for their members, initiated steps to set up sub-committees to work in the regions and compiled reports dealing with its responsibilities.

The Bureau soon recognized that given its limited human and financial resources, it would not be able to effectively implement development programmes for women in the l0 regions of Guyana. This recognition caused the Bureau to request the establishment of Regional Women's Affairs Committees within the Regional Democratic Councils (RDCS) in 1986. Their function was to help the WAB achieve its mission. It was expected that these committees would:

1. Function as focal points on the RDCS with the responsibility for promoting development programmes for women.

2. Act as the nuclei for the evolution of regional development programmes for the political, social and economic development of women, arising out of the needs assessment conducted with women and women's organizations.

3. Function in each region like other sectoral committees (health, education, agriculture and cooperatives) and would be accorded similar status on the RDCS.

4. Propose programmes, like other sectoral committees at the annual programming and budgeting period, for funding annually from government's financial resources allocated to those regions.

It was also expected that the WAB, sectoral agencies and the Regional Councils would provide implementation, technical and monitoring support for the programmes. Unfortunately, these committees commenced their operations with the same weakness as the Bureau itself. The Director was unable to negotiate the necessary budgetary allocations for the emoluments of Women's Affairs officers who should have been appointed to each region. Their presence was essential if the committees were to function effectively. In 1989, just when it was beginning to reinforce the mechanisms it had put in place to help achieve its mandate, the Bureau had a fifth administrative change. On this occasion, it was to the Ministry of Culture and Social Development.

Thus by the end of its first decade of existence, the structure, the focus and the scope of the work of the WAB had changed significantly... It had taken several initiatives on mainly welfare matters of concern to women. However, it had not made any significant headway in respect of the main purpose for its establishment. In the next article, the focus will be on the activities of the Bureau in its second decade of existence and will conclude with an evaluation of its achievements.


Although the Women's Affairs Bureau (WAB) had been formally established on January 1, 1981, it did not actually begin its work until May 1982 under its female Minister/Director in the Ministry of Cooperatives. By the end of its first decade of existence, it had had five administrative changes and had faced significant human and financial constraints that had forced it to focus on the secondary aspects of its mandate, that of programme implementation rather than policy formulation and monitoring. However, despite its constraints, the Bureau played an important role in the unprecedented legal reforms of Guyanese women's rights during the decade. These included, among others, the repeal of the Bastardy Act and the passing of the Infancy Act in 1983 to the Family and Dependants Provision Act and Equal Rights Act in 1990.

Activities of the second decade

The WAB started its second decade under circumstances similar to that of its first. Firstly, in 1991, it was transferred to the Ministry where it was established, the Ministry of Housing and Labour. This proved to be both a physical and administrative change. Secondly, the economic circumstances of the country were even more precarious. It was a little over two years into the implementation of the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), and the devastating impact of the Structural Adjustment Programme, an integral part of the ERP, on women, who were among the most vulnerable groups in the society, were clearly manifested.

Consequently, before it could turn its focus on its substantive mandate, the Bureau first had to deal with the pressing social needs of its target group. It was forced to continue to use a large portion of its resources on the implementation of welfare programmes and projects. For example, between 1985 and 1993, with a staff of four officers it had to monitor 29 projects. In 1992, while it accounted for 1.9% of the total estimated budget requested by the Social Welfare Agencies of the Ministry, it actually received only 0.4% of the money allocated to those agencies. But the Bureau was also involved in consciousness-raising programmes to sensitise individual women and policy makers and planners about gender issues that were important to the positive development of women. It also spent time in the counselling and referral of women and in seeking funding for its projects. As a result of the above, there was less time, and fewer resources than needed to implement its policy formulation, monitoring and evaluation functions.

The Bureau was not helped by its position in a social ministry. Its Minister/Director, a woman, was not part of the decision-making process which determined the allocation of resources. A more positive consequence of the ERP must be noted here. Its implementation led to the involvement of the international donor community in its activities. This caused organisations that had earlier questioned its impartiality and neutrality to start participating in its activities.

The change of government brought about by the October 1992 General Elections, did not bring any change in the status quo for the WAB. It remained in the same Ministry and its Minister/Director was until 1997 a Minister within the ministry. She therefore had no more power and influence than her predecessors had. The Bureau continued to implement the programmes that had been started under the previous administration. However, starting in 1994, by virtue of the obligations under the international conventions that Guyana had signed and ratified, the Bureau was forced to use more of its resources on one of the substantive elements of its mandate. The bureau prepared a fairly in-depth, statistical and written report on the Changes in the Situation of Women in Guyana: 1980-1993, for inclusion in the World Report on the Situation of Women for the UN fourth World Conference on Women.

Over the last eight years also, the WAB has produced two reports in respect of Guyana's adherence to article 18 of CEDAW. Another significant achievement in respect of the goals of its mandate was the completion and enactment in 1996 of a National Policy on Women. One of the serious weaknesses of the Bureau was the lack of such a policy to give its work greater vision, focus and clarity. This is already paying dividends. The Bureau has continued its consciousness-raising programmes that now address the question of equality and discrimination. They target the general public. There are also conscious-awareness programmes which target the recipients of discrimination to develop their self-esteem as well as their knowledge of agencies that can support and give them assistance.


The Bureau itself has been among its harshest critics. In its report to the 1995 Beijing Conference, it acknowledged that given its structural location within the government's bureaucratic structure, and limited participation in central decision-making, it had not been able to significantly impact on policy formulation. It also admitted its lack of success in Research and Documentation commitments due to lack of adequate human resources and the reluctance of both public and private agencies to compile gender specific data. It pointed out that it started with a setback for its institutional development through the excessive shifting of its administrative functions. Then, in addition to inadequate staff and resources, its ability to function was further exacerbated by, among other things, an absence of inter ministerial linkages or focal points in technical ministries. There was also the fact that the goals of the Bureau as they relate to the goals of the UN Decade for Women were largely unknown to the ministries.

These concerns were reiterated in the chapter on Gender Issues in the latest draft of the National Development Strategy (NDS). There it was stated, among other things, that the objectives of the WAB were made difficult to achieve by its weak institutional capacity. Additionally, its effectiveness was undermined by its inadequate staffing and its location within the government structure.

In the report of CEDAW, for example, it was stated that the Bureau needed to adopt as its primary function, policy and programme formulation in an effort to establish mainstreaming of the issue of gender. The Bureau required further institutional strengthening in numbers as well as in its capacity for policy and programme formulation across all sectors of government. It was also essential that the WAB receive a higher position within the organisational structure.

In an evaluation which was made of two RDCS, it was recommended that the WAB should pursue measures to strengthen its programme delivery capacity, strengthen its national/regional as well as sectoral linkages. It should place greater emphasis on streamlining policy initiatives and mainstreaming gender interests into sectoral and regional planning in preference to its present focus on programme implementation. It cautioned that if the WAB were to provide technical support, it must be strengthened with financial resources and additional staff to improve its programme and planning capabilities.

In the chapter on Gender Issues earlier cited, it was stated that one of the objectives of the NDS, would be to ensure that the WAB had the capacity to carry out its functions with the greatest possible efficiency and effectiveness through mainstreaming of gender issues. In terms of the strategy to achieve this, it is stated that the WAB will be headed by an officer of "appropriate status" for the purpose of liaising with permanent secretaries of ministries relevant to the formulation and implementation of its policies and programmes. It would be adequately staffed with competent professionals and will be located within the ministry which has responsibility for National Development Planning. Most important, however, it would be given semi-autonomous status so that it could fulfil its mandate.


The Women's Affairs Bureau has not fulfilled its mandate. This is the clear conclusion that can be drawn from the above discussions. This is further reinforced by the escalating violence against women, despite the enactment of important pieces of legislation. Add to this the inadequate numbers of women in the high echelons of public life and the decision-making, parliament, the cabinet, political parties, trade unions, the disciplined services, on public and private boards and commissions, all attest to the fact that the Bureau's work has only just begun. The reasons for this have been discussed in some detail above.

However, the question is whether the recommendations in the NDS, the potential blueprint for our future economic development, adequately address the issue. For example, it is stated that part of the Bureau's problem was its location within the government structure. Yet, the proposals indicate that it will continue to be within the governmental structure albeit in a more influential ministry. If it were placed within such a ministry, it is quite likely that its female Minister/Director will be a junior Minister and it will be back where it started. The promise of semi-autonomy would be little more than window dressing. Indeed the notion of semi-autonomy sits uneasily with a location within a ministry.

Perhaps, as envisioned by its administrator, the Bureau may really begin to fulfil its mandate when it is transformed into a ministry in its own right, with a senior minister as its head. She will have the authority to use the bottom-up approach to programming and have the influence and the clout to ensure the mobilisation of adequate resources for it to achieve its mandate.