An audio recording of a disturbing exchange between a women's activist and Guyana's health minister was making the rounds on social media earlier this week, leaving many netizens scratching their heads over the region's attitude to women and politicians’ posture towards the people they have been elected to serve.
Dr. Bheri Ramsarran, who belongs to the ruling People’s Progressive Party, was verbally abusive to women's rights advocate Sherlina Nageer, who challenged him on his performance, based on her opinion that under the current administration, maternal and child mortality rates have been too high. Ramsarran retorted by telling her to “shut up”, calling her an “idiot” and a “piece of shit”. After the minister summoned police to remove Nageer, he continued his tirade, telling reporters that he “would slap her ass […] just for the fun” — a threat that did not go down well with many Guyanese, especially in the context of the high level of sexual and domestic violence against women in the country. Women's groups have recently been very outspoken about the issue, and Nageer is widely recognised as one of the more active and vocal advocates for women's rights.
This account of the incident on news website News Source noted that despite the minister's attempts to humiliate her, Nageer stood her ground:
She continued to challenge him on his record and when she reminded him that taxpayers like her pay his salary, Ramsarran could be heard telling the woman to ‘eff off’ as he called her a ‘piece of sh%t’ and said she should not be interrupting his private interview on the roadside to two Berbice based reporters.
Ironically, the Health Minister was outside the Whim Magistrates court to lend support to former President Bharrat Jagdeo who is facing private criminal charges for an alleged racially divisive speech that he made at Babu John back in March. Jagdeo had been accused by his ex-partner and former first lady Varshnie Singh of domestic abuse. He has always denied those allegations.
The post also found it interesting that the current government has put forward a woman as its Prime Ministerial candidate:
Ms. Elisabeth Harper has been calling for more respect for women and promising that a new PPP government would do more to fight domestic violence and clamp down on abuses against women.
Code Red, which dedicates itself to highlighting feminist issues in the Caribbean, was not convinced about any intention to further the cause of women; the blog was stunned at the position that the minister continued to take, even after the story broke:
A statement sent to the press by the Minister of Health subsequently claims that he was provoked to such misogynist violence after Sherlina Nageer interrupted a press interview. Sherlina can be heard demanding state accountability for Guyana’s high maternal mortality rate, which is the highest in the English-speaking Caribbean.
The minister, in his altercation with Nageer, insisted that “less women and children dying than under the PNC [People's National Congress, the other major political party in Guyana]”. Code Red pulled apart the minister's defense by saying:
The Minister invoked the language of ‘provocation’ to justify his act of violence. The invocation of ‘provocation’ is frequently used to justify and rationalise men’s fatal violence against women and has crept into state and activist responses to violence. The language of provocation, just like the denigrating language and threats the Minister directed at Sherlina, is the language of misogyny.
Code Red named several instances of women's rights being trampled upon throughout the region, calling on “state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur” and “politicians throughout the region [to realise] that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women”:
Women are 51% of the population and our governments must be accountable to us.
We will not be intimidated into silence as silence means death. Literally.
The blog started an online petition in solidarity with Sherlina Nageer and all women's human rights defenders.
Nageer eventually spoke out about the incident, saying that she has “never been cursed in such a manner” and bringing up several instances of the Ministry of Health's failings when it comes to public healthcare:
I was truly taken aback. All I was trying to do was get some answers to what I believe are legitimate issues, from a public official, in a public setting. This is election time and we the citizens of Guyana are being encouraged to engage with the politicians, to ask questions, and to share our ideas and views with them. It seems as if this cannot be done in a civil manner in Guyana and that only those who do not challenge the status quo are acceptable. It is truly a sad state of affairs we are in when ex-presidents, current ministers of government, and others holding positions of authority feel free to spew racist rhetoric, encourage hatemongering, curse and abuse the citizens of the nation, instead of calmly, rationally, and respectfully engaging with them. […] As citizens we deserve better.
The minister's apology, in which he stated that he regretted his actions (which he claimed were provoked), did not go over well. Protests have been happening both on the ground and online in support of Sherlina Nageer.