Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI), Ltd., has proven to be a leader among financial lending institutions in Guyana and South America. Through programs such as the Women of Worth microloan system, GBTI works with Guyana’s government to help individuals fulfill their dreams as entrepreneurs, which in turn, strengthens the country’s economy.
GBTI’s Women of Worth program is available to women between 18 and 60 years old who head single-parent families and who meet other income and eligibility requirements. This program is particularly well suited to filling the needs of Guyana’s indigenous women, many of whom struggle with poverty and lack of access to resources.
A large and diverse group
Guyana is home to some 78,000 indigenous people. These Amerindians, who make up more than one-tenth of the entire population, descend from the first groups known to have inhabited the lands that are now Guyana and its neighbors in northern South America. Guyana’s indigenous population numbers are, in proportion to those of its non-indigenous citizens, the highest in the entire Caribbean region.
Many Amerindians lived in Guyana’s sprawling interior—in the rainforest, in mountainous regions, or on the savannahs. Relatively few indigenous people live along the coasts, where the majority of non-indigenous people tend to cluster.
There are nine recognized indigenous nations, with most of these Amerindian communities now holding legal title to their peoples’ historic lands.
Welcomed but excluded
Over the last few generations, Guyana’s indigenous people have, to a large extent, become culturally integrated with other populations. For example, indigenous communities living along the coasts share many cultural resonances with the ethnic majority Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese populations. In particular, Afro-Guyanese and indigenous peoples have intermarried with increasing frequency. Even so, discrimination toward indigenous children and adults is not uncommon.
While Amerindians have also become part of the country’s economy, they mostly participate in it at the lowest levels. By contrast, they have achieved renown and respect for their skills in traditional economic activities such as hunting, farming, and the preparation of plant-based medicines.
The knowledge of how to live well off the land has been handed down from one generation to the next, and indigenous peoples still derive much of their food from the rivers and jungles.
In addition, people living in Amerindian communities have achieved a reputation as talented artisans, crafting sophisticated and color-rich jewelry, pottery wares, utensils, housewares, and boats.
Inequities in health and employment
Health challenges continue for indigenous women. Many become teen mothers, and maternal mortality is higher overall. Meanwhile, their babies are statistically more likely to have low birth weight and diseases caused by poor nutrition.
To date, most indigenous women are not employed in a formal sense, and well over half of those working do so in agriculture or children’s education. Many of the women who stay at home working to care for their children also engage in basic subsistence farming to meet their family’s food needs.
While many young indigenous women have expressed the desire to become teachers or medical professionals, it would require moving to more urban areas in search of opportunities. For those dreaming of careers in engineering, law, or Guyana’s burgeoning aviation industry, it would likely mean relocating to Georgetown, the nation’s capital.
One particular social and economic knot that affects the lives of Guyana’s indigenous women is the fact that few economic opportunities exist in the remote “hinterlands” where most of them live.
Male out-migration in search of well-paying jobs in the mining or logging industries is thus widespread. But this leaves wives and children behind on their own for months at a time. Sometimes, men do not return to their families, placing women in the position of becoming the sole breadwinner for their children. Numerous indigenous women, as well as social policy experts, have noted the large number of social burdens that result.
Addressing the problem of violence
In 2017 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report on issues affecting indigenous women and their children in Guyana. The first of its kind to provide in-depth information on this population, the study noted that the Guyanese government remains committed to using practical knowledge and evidence-based information to improve quality of life for everyone in the country, in particular those who are most at risk.
There is a persistent problem of violence and physical abuse of indigenous women. Jean La Rose, the program administrator at the Amerindian People’s Association, spoke at a recent National Amerindian Women’s Conference, excoriating the perpetrators of such violence and pointed to the lack of access to vital legal services as a central part of the problem. Additionally, indigenous women often cannot find reliable counseling services that they can trust to help them deal with the consequences of violence against them.
According to La Rose, in many cases, it is miners in indigenous-populated areas of the country who perpetrate the violence. Compounding the seriousness of the problem, police are sometimes unwilling to hold attackers criminally accountable.
A path forward
In 2019 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published a set of observations on Guyana. These observations build on and incorporate several points advanced by the South Rupununi District Council, or SRDC, which represents the interests of the indigenous Wapichan territory in the country’s southwest. The Wapichan, or Wapishana, are one of six groups into which scholars divide Guyana’s Amerindian population.
CEDAW has urged Guyana’s political leaders to change laws to guarantee human rights for indigenous women and girls. These rights include the right to be consulted and to give informed consent to any new regulations that might impact their lives; to gain access to a greater depth of social services, particularly those that assist women who have experienced gender-based violence; and to access opportunities that can help them improve their financial situation and better provide for their families.
Solutions that have begun to make inroads into solving the problems of inequity and violence that indigenous women face include increased access to high-quality education, job training, and financial support for women-owned businesses, such as what is available through GBTI’s Women of Worth program.