Karen de Souza and (Red) Threads that bind

The Guyanese advocacy group Red Thread began in 1986 to help women at a time of economic problems. Thirty years later, the collective is a major force in the region advocating for the rights of women and young people. Lisa Allen-Agostini talks to co-founder Karen de Souza and learns about the power of grassroots activism

Red Thread’s Karen De Souza. Photograph courtesy the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence

Today, the Guyanese women’s advocacy group Red Thread is one of the Caribbean’s best known in the area of gender justice and equality, and earlier this year co-founder Karen de Souza was named the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence laureate for public and civic contributions. But the collective — begun by seven women in October 1986, with the “underlying aim to bring grassroots Guyanese women together across race to work in their common interests” — started with women being locked up for political demonstration, says de Souza.

“Our initial focus was on income-generation,” says the collective in an email interview, “because of the expressed need of poor women for increased income during an acute economic crisis. One of the income-generation programmes was embroidery, and there was a time when we couldn’t get any red thread to buy in Guyana. So one of the women jokingly said we should give the organisation this name, since we used up all the red thread.”

But gender advocacy in Guyana — and the wider Caribbean — is no joke. Since its founding, Red Thread has gone on to work in the areas of domestic violence, rape and child abuse, violence in communities, ethnic and other forms of interpersonal violence, and juvenile justice. And they have seen some significant successes. “There’ve been some changes in laws,” says de Souza. “For example, after lots of lobbying, we have a very new Sexual Offences Act . . . the struggle now is to get it fully implemented.”

Among its other achievements, Red Thread counts the Guyanese government’s zero-rating of a number of basic items when a sixteen per cent value added tax was imposed in 2007. “We knew it would not have been poor-people-friendly, so we began campaigning against it. We put together food baskets with a list of food items that poor families use, to show how the VAT would affect us, and publicised same through print and electronic media.” But that wasn’t the end of it. “When we realised the government was not going to abandon the VAT, we stepped up our campaign: prepared lists of basic food items which are essential to the survival of poor women and their families, and demanded that they be zero-rated along with all education materials, and medical supplies. We succeeded in winning that.”

Red Thread describes itself as “an organisation of women, by grassroots women, and for grassroots women.” The collective adds: “Gender issues are always on the front burner for Red Thread.”

In the Caribbean, “gender” can be seen as a bad word. Conservative groups in the region often argue the term “gender” invites consideration of homosexuality and disrupts the traditional family structure, to the detriment of the region’s morality. “Whenever we engage in political lobbying or advocacy, it is inevitable that gender is the frame through which we speak — that is simply our reality,” the collective says. “It is not always easy, and we don’t always succeed, but our commitment to the work is first and foremost on our minds. Even when we feel defeated, the importance of this work fuels us to pick ourselves up, refocus and go forward.”

The bedrock of Red Thread’s work has been “reducing violence against women and children; winning a living income and affordable access to goods and services for grassroots women and their families; and strengthening the political visibility, voice, and influence of grassroots women.” It has done academic research as well, such as studies on Guyanese women’s unwaged work and on domestic workers in Guyana’s coastal and interior regions.

And the group’s programme includes practical, hand-on activities as well. Since 2002, Red Thread has run a women’s centre in Georgetown, staffed by members who work full-time on a wholly or partially voluntary basis. The centre also draws on members of the Red Thread network Grassroots Women Across Race. It is “an invaluable resource for the women of our network, who use it as a base for self-help activities and to plan campaigning,” the collective says. The centre has wheelchair access and a child-friendly space, to accommodate women with family duties. “It is the first centre in Guyana owned by grassroots women, who raised the money both internationally and locally, including by foregoing their stipends.”

Among its other projects is a drop-in/outreach service started in 2013, “providing not only information and support to women facing particular work exploitation, but training in the labour laws and international conventions.” Not many women know, for instance, that International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189 outlines and protects the rights of domestic workers. Red Thread plans to continue lobbying for the implementation of this ILO Convention, and and for Guyana’s domestic violence and sexual offences legislation. It is also working towards organising a campaign to reduce school and gang violence, and to work with youth to better their social and literacy skills.

De Souza’s Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence comes with a TT$500,000 (US$79,000) grant, which will go towards Red Thread’s programmes. But money isn’t the only necessary resource. “Skills are always welcome.”

“We believe that when grassroots women in any part of the world come together in their own defence to fight systems that are not poor-people-friendly, and win, all grassroots women win, regardless of their location,” the collective explains. “Readers in their various places can be aware of the social ills which affect women, children, and youths, be aware of the types of changes that are necessary across the region, and commit themselves to the work of bringing about that change.”

To learn more about Red Thread or contribute to their programmes, contact them by email at red_thread@gol.net.gy or by phone at +592 227 7010 or 592 223 6254.