In Guyana, a gender-based violence survivor finds purpose helping others
We highlight this piece as part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which runs from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) through 10 December (International Human Rights Day).
GEORGETOWN, Guyana - From the outside, the de Florimontes looked like an average, well-to-do family. Mr. de Florimonte was a well-respected senior journalist, his wife was a nurse, and they had nine children together. But Mr. de Florimonte had a habit of consuming alcohol, which would often lead to conflict at their home.
As the youngest child, Wemyss de Florimonte recalls reciting a prayer which was taught to her by one of her sisters, who used her faith to comfort her siblings. “To this day, I can’t hear that thing without getting upset,” says Wemyss. “That cycle continued throughout my childhood.”
Wemyss is now is 49 years old, and is a former Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Guyana. She reflects back on some of the factors that drove her father's aggressive behaviour during her childhood.
“My father’s ideology was deeply rooted in patriarchy,” she says. “He also served in the Guyana National Service. When he came home, the whole house had to be clean. Food had to be on the table. If not, everybody had to be uncomfortable.”
Wemyss had a challenging childhood, often feeling invisible in a house of 11 people. At 15 she became pregnant, soon after the relationship ended. As a single, teenage mother, Wemyss then entered a new relationship that resulted in abuse.
“Abuse doesn't happen 24/7. There are beautiful days or months with love and affection and then there's the abuse, and when that happens, we know that it's going to end; we look forward to the next phase,” she says. “And so, oftentimes, our brain tends to block out the bad parts.”
After several attempts, Wemyss finally left her partner for good following one particularly violent episode. She says that her father was instrumental in giving her the courage to leave by letting her know that she was always welcome to return home if she was unhappy.
Finding purpose through social work
Wemyss dropped out of school to take care of her daughter but decided to complete her high school education at the age of 30. She later gained a degree in social work and says her studies helped her heal from her trauma.
“I told myself, ‘I am going to study social work, and it will heal me. I want to understand how to be a better parent, how to get over this [trauma] and the way that I respond to situations. As a parent, I sometimes used to lash out at my children,” she says, “I recognized I was traumatizing my children because of my trauma.”
What started as a journey toward self-healing turned into a passion for helping others. She quickly became a pillar of support for the other women in her course. “So many women have gone through these things, and they're still going through it,” she says. “I think because of my [outspoken] personality, they found it easier to talk to me, so I started being the unofficial class counsellor.”
Since graduating, Ms. de Florimontes has worked as the Head of the Women of Worth programme with the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, providing small business financing for single-parent women at low-interest rates, among other roles.
Changing the culture
“Gender-based violence is systemic. It's rooted in all of our practices, our norms, our institutions, so addressing gender-based violence requires a multi-sectoral, multilayered as well as a community-centred approach,” says Wemyss. “We can make a difference with Spotlight Initiative because it addresses gender-based violence or violence against women and girls from all these different angles.”
Despite some progress, she says more must be done to create cultural change so that women can come forward, share their stories and have the courage to leave violent situations.
“I am a fighter, always,” she says. “And I was always taught to speak out and not be afraid. But [society] denigrates women so badly. [It’s] as if we don't understand that this is something that all of us might have grappled with - whether personally or through interactions with a survivor. [We need] to talk to survivors. Let us support them, let us work with them, let us remind them that many of us went through this but came through. Support is everything.”
The Spotlight Initiative in Guyana
To address the challenges of violence against women and girls (VAWG), the European Union (EU) and the United Nations have embarked on a multi-year programme - the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative. The Spotlight Initiative in Guyana is being implemented through four UN agencies (UN Women, UNFPA, UNDP and UNICEF). It has recently published its Annual Programme Report 2021, which lays out how this joint initiative has strengthened collective efforts by stakeholders to create an environment for women and girls to live free of violence, harmful practices, and intersecting forms of discrimination.
Originally written by Jasmaine Payne, writer, editor and public relations consultant for The Spotlight Initiative. The Guyana Chronicle published a longer version of this story. This version was edited and adapted by UNDCO.
To learn more about the UN team's work in Guyana, please visit: Guyana.UN.org.