Westbury is a small community juxtaposing Dartmouth, along the public road on the Essequibo Coast. Its residents are predominantly Guyanese of African descent, with a minority of East Indians, Amerindians and mixed.
The poverty stricken community is a hub for drugs (mainly marijuana), and is affected by a high level of alcoholism. It is also known for its high school drop-out rate, despite there being primary and secondary schools within walking distance.
Just as troubling are the numerous accounts of sexual offences, domestic and other forms of physical and verbal abuse perpetrated against women, reported to and documented by social services and the Police.
Drug and alcohol abuse
GEPAN conducted a house-to-house survey in an attempt to assess the situation of women in Westbury, but broaching the issues of drugs, alcohol, teenage pregnancy, sexual offences and domestic abuse with participants,revealed to be much more difficult than expected. Most participants were reluctant to provide information on what appears to be an entrenched taboo within the community. Based on information provided by the local authorities, tackling the issues of abuse and consumption of illicit substances continues to be difficult because victims and residents, for different reasons, “cover for each other” or refuse to act.
50% of the households interviewed were affected by drug consumption and 40% by alcoholism, involving males of the family.
Sexual and physical abuse
Confirmed cases of incest affected 20% of households surveyed, although none of the mothers interviewed were willing to broach the issue.
Large households are common in Westbury where children do not always live with their parents, but instead take up shelter with their grandparents (often grandmothers), aunts and other relatives. Incest and sexual abuse of minors in Westbury, are suspected to be well above the few reported incidents.
Abuse also comes in the form of domestic violence where women are the primary victims of their partners. But as in most villages GEPAN visited, domestic violence remains a taboo and victims are reluctant to share their experience. Sentiments of shame and fear inhibit traumatized victims who, in Westbury, are often mothers.
Physical abuse however, is not limited to children and mothers in Westbury, but also can affect the elderly. During our visit to the community, we encountered a case where an elderly woman is the victim of verbal and physical abuse from her son who is in his late 30s.
78 year-old widow, Sanchari Duncan, houses her son, his partner and their 5 children. She suffers from diminished eyesight due to advanced cataract and is forced to feel her way around the house and yard. She explained that she has no other income but the pension she receives from the State, and does not benefit from the income her son, who is a labourer, makes.
Mrs. Duncan explained that the entire household suffers the consequences of her son’s drug addiction. His violent temperament results in domestic violence within the household. She also related that she is a victim of his beatings despite her fragile health. At the time of our visit, Mrs. Duncan explained that she had just recovered from a severe attack from her son, who she claimed doused her with kerosene before threatening to light her afire. Mrs. Duncan’s immediate neighbours are also her children but do not intervene.
Most women in the households surveyed are unemployed and depend on the income of their husbands or partners, and/or son (s). The men in the community are heavily dependent on seasonal employment, mainly in rice farming which is the main income generating sector on the Essequibo Coast, along with gold mining, cash crop farming and to a lesser extent logging.
The recent turbulences which rocked the rice sector however, have increased the precariousness of workers who depend on seasonal employment for income. This dependence was identified as the principal reason for the overall stymied development in Westbury.
Only 10% of the women interviewed were employed, leaving the remaining 90% without independent sources of income.
This article is an extract from “Insight into Guyana’s Rural Communities – Struggles of the Essequibian Woman“, a GEPAN report. The report is available for consultation and download here.