BRAND YOUth is a series of events by “Conversations With Selwyn” that aims to empower the youth of Guyana. The first event was titled “Emerging through Generations.” It was hosted by Sherry Ann Dixon, a Guyanese born author, communication specialist, International award-winning entrepreneur and life coach.
As a part of the event, I was asked to say a speech. This was my contribution with minor edits for clarity.
Over the past few years, “Empowerment” is a word that has become increasingly present in our politics, books and television screens. It has slithered into the worlds of advertising and consumerist culture. Finally, finally…us women and girls were being represented positively and we were bearing witness to it.
But therein laid one of the fundamental problems. We were bearing witness yes, but how many of us were actually being empowered? With increasing popularity around women’s liberation, several elements of feminism have been incorporated into popular culture and political movements.
The ideas of liberty are shrunk, filtered, mass-produced and then promoted aggressively in the media. This is not done by mere coincidence, there is vested interest in ensuring women’s movements never move past catchy sound bites and hashtags.
The word over time, began to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I was not quite sure why. Maybe, it had something to do with how corporations touting empowerment in one product, pandered to blatant sexism in another. Maybe it had to do with how women meant to represent the very concept of empowerment, upheld the patriarchal systems in which women were continuously disadvantaged- Or, maybe it was how political women are discarded or stifled when their voices become a little too loud, a little too strong.
Maybe, it had to do with the way in which the empowerment of women had become a snappy sound bite that has been capitalized upon- a buzzword whose meaning now stares back at us through depoliticized packages.
When women ascend to high positions of power, they call it empowerment- a win for feminism- a true mark of progress and how far we’ve come. Too many of these women however, are more concerned with their own ascendency, agendas and pledged political loyalties. Often, as we have seen both at home and abroad, they act in direct contradiction to the catch phrases they offer to the public.
Just note how former Minister of Social Protection, Volda Lawrence failed women and children by going to the defense of an accused sexual molester during her first year in office. She labeled the allegations as a “family matter.” Just recall how no big hoorah from women in leadership was made when- with no sense of irony- alleged child molester Kwame McKoy was appointed to the Rights of the Child Commission.
Yet, everywhere I look, I see statements that we as a collective whole are now empowered. They say there is no need for feminism. We working now, ent? We cannot be sold for three cows and some strips of nice cloth, ent? Things not as bad as it was before, ent? We does get government aid, foreign aid, all kinds of aid. We does get skills training and equal access to everything, we have so much freedom and autonomy that we’re even in charge of our own bodies, ent? What more we want?
The conditions of women have drastically improved over the last few decades. The things that I am theoretically able to do now would not have been even remotely possible had I been born in a different period.
The progress we have seen however has been anything but holistic. Significant barriers in the home, education system, justice system, business and health sector still see women being held back. Our bodies and sexuality are monitored to the point where it is often necessary to ask, “Is who body is this, man?” Progress should not make us complacent to the significant inequalities that still exist in the systems around us.
Paid domestic work- economic opportunities- educational programs- safe and easily accessible abortion services- political power and mobilization. These are just a few of the things that will truly serve to empower women.
When I say empower, I mean it in the truest, harshest, most political sense of the word because we’ve had enough shiny packages that did not take into account, the multiple ways in which women regardless of race, class and sexuality, are still being marginalized- often through the backing of the state.
When we think about empowerment, we should not think of it solely in terms of the glossed magazine images of our few female leaders- we should recognize that while things such as economic participation is good, participation is not empowerment. Way too often, participation is in direct opposition to it.
Empowerment we should remember is about-sustained resistance and progress at every level- it is not tokenism and buzzwords.