By Ravin Singh
RED Thread Guyana is calling on the Government to take disciplinary action against Minister of Social Protection, Volda Lawrence, for making “excuses” and not addressing a situation involving an alleged paedophile recently.The coalition Government had, last week, faced criticism for fielding in the Local Government Elections (LGE) a candidate who, since 2012, has been repeatedly accused and charged for child molestation.
Winston Harding, who was contesting in Constituency 13 (East and West Ruimveldt), had campaign posters bearing his photograph and text which read “Child Molester” plastered at places within the constituency in which he was contesting.
Minister Lawrence, who was responsible for the APNU+AFC campaign in Georgetown, subsequently told Stabroek News: “This is a family issue that has been going on and on and on and on for whatever reason.”
But after outcries had been made public regarding Harding’s candidacy under the governing coalition, the APNU faction issued a statement retracting its support for Harding in his elections bid.
“In light of the alleged behaviour of Mr Winston Harding and the pattern of accusations over the years, his candidature cannot be supported at this time,” APNU said in the statement.
And while Minister Lawrence’s comment did not appear to do any damage at that time, Red Thread Guyana, which has been in the fight for women and children’s rights for a number of years, took umbrage at her remarks. To express their condemnation of what had appeared to have been a “contradictory” statement made by the Social Protection Minister, members of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) on Friday staged a protest opposite the Ministry’s Lamaha Street building, where the Minister is stationed.
Speaking to the media during the peaceful picketing exercise, co-founder of Red Thread and women’s and children’s rights activist, Karen De Souza, called on the Government to indicate very clearly that it is serious about child care and protection.
She related that she could not understand how the Minister of Social Protection, who has responsibility for child care and protection, could say that the incident of child molestation is a family issue.
Referring to the Sexual Offenses Act, which stipulates that every report of sexual abuse must be investigated, De Souza noted that the police then have limited time to file charges or to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP). According to her though, in this specific case, this did not happen.
And given that the Minister has said the issue was a “family issue”, the activist opined that the Minister was attempting to give excuses for the person accused.
“You can’t, on one hand, make excuses for not addressing a situation involving a paedophile in a legal way, and on the other hand say that you take child care seriously; it is contradictory. And so the Government has to hold her responsible, as we are holding her responsible. The Government has to indicate to us very clearly that they are serious about child care and protection, because at the moment it looks like hypocrisy,” De Souza declared.
The situation appears to have set a precedent, she said, adding that friends are apparently involved, and they will be sheltered whereas they should be prosecuted. And should this be the case, a firm De Souza said, “We are not accepting that.”
Her call was not limited to “not accepting it”, as the rights activist seized the opportunity to call on the Government to take disciplinary action against Minister Lawrence.
“They [Government] need to find someone who is qualified to head this Ministry, because we can also say that very little has happened in terms of policy movement on domestic violence, sexual offenses, and child care since she has been minister,” De Souza said.
One of the justifications for the slow process in policy implementation has been the fact that the coalition Government has been in power for only 10 months, but De Souza is not buying that. According to her, 10 months is long enough to make “some move”.
“I’m saying that the moves have not even begun. There may be a view that things are happening internally and that they’re doing stuff [at the Ministry], but they’re not doing stuff if you don’t know about it. They’re not doing what they need to be doing,” the activist contended.