Magda Pollard: A trailblazer for women’s rights

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At the height of the second wave of feminism the world saw, Magda Pollard emerged as the face of Guyana and the Caribbean in the struggle to end all forms of discrimination against women, and created a legacy that remains unrivalled.

The world operated on the psyche of men, she believed, acculturated to the view that men are the boss. But there has been progress in fighting this mindset, though women are yet to hit the glass ceiling as they should.

In 1993, it was the recognition of her work to create a liberating and sustaining environment for women that earned her the Caribbean Community’s Triennial Award for Women, which she shares with other Guyanese greats such as Justice Desiree Bernard.

At home, she received two of the country’s highest national awards – the Cacique Crown of Honour and the Arrow of Achievement.

It was in 1980, one year after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly, that Pollard was appointed the first Women’s Affairs Officer at the CARICOM Secretariat and worked to get Caribbean government to agree to sign on to and ratify the international bill of rights for women.

Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, the Convention defines what constitutes discrimination against women and set up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

It was Pollard’s task to get governments in the region to put in place such national action plans.
She moved into the arena of women’s rights after a similarly admirable career in another area – home economics.

BISHOPS’OLD GIRL

Magda Pollard was born at Buxton, East Coast Demerara, in 1931, to parents Fitzgerald and Muriel Pollard. Both her parents were teachers, with her father being the head teacher of the Buxton Congregational School.

When she was seven-years-old, the family moved to Georgetown when her father was appointed head teacher of Smith Congregational School in Hadfield Street. By that time, her older sisters were at the elite Bishops’ High School while her brother was at Queen’s College.

In 1941, she enrolled at Bishops’, the same year the family moved into a Victorian style house on what is now Bourda street. Her tenure at Bishops’ would prepare her for the future.

“It stood for a high level of academia as well as a full understanding of one’s social responsibilities,” she said.Music, drama, religion, and community service were all part of the life at Bishops’. In fact, music is still part of her life. She joined the legendary Woodside Choir and participated in the first British Guiana Music Festival, which was held in 1952. Even in her old age, she continued as a choral singer with the Woodside Choir.

At Bishops’, discipline was fairly rigid, but not inhumane.

“All you needed was a look…nobody had to say to you that you were misbehaving.”

Pollard began to demonstrate a penchant for loyalty, discipline and for influencing the status quo and this elevated her to the status of Head Girl (Head Prefect) in the last two years at Bishops’.

She would leave school with the coveted Fidele Collier Medal, which was given to students who had contributed significantly to the ethos of the school.

She wrote the Oxford and Cambridge Exams in 5th form and the London Higher School Certificate offered by the University of London, which gave exemption into university.

When she left school in 1950, Pollard followed in the footsteps of her parents and became a teacher, having the status first of Untrained Teacher at the Broad Street (now Dolphin) Government School.

After four years of teaching, with the financial backing of her parents, she went off to Scotland to attend the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science, to receive training as a Grade 1 Teacher.

The foundation she received at Bishops’ prepared her for college.

“It was a case of everything had to be perfect that you produced,” she related. If a biscuit was burnt or slightly tinged with the wrong colour, you had had it.” While there, she earned two special prizes.

She later pursued the Postgraduate Certificate Course at the Queen Elizabeth College, London University, in Home Economics related to Community Development, gaining a distinction
She enjoyed a close relationship with the girls at the college, and right up to two years ago, 11 of a group of 16 attended a special meeting.

SHAPING AN INSTITUTION

After college, she returned to Guyana and started out back in the public education system. Shortly thereafter, she took up a post at the Carnegie School of Home Economics and was in 1962 appointed Principal and had the task of shaping the direction of the institution which was created to prepare girls to learn all the skills and attitudes essential for a good home, family and community life.

The first edition of the cookbook “What’s Cooking in Guyana” was initiated by Pollard. In 1971, under her stewardship, a separate catering section was created to give more specialized training in food preparation and service.

Pollard said that not too many people pay attention to the questions such as: What are you cooking? How are you cooking it? Why are you eating?

“Food is a chemical substance and when you move from rawness to cooked, processes take place which have scientific implications,” she pointed out.

For example, you could spoil a good cup of tea if you don’t know how to make it. She said you can’t boil the water when the tea is in, because it changes the flavour. “It tastes stewed.” Once the water stops boiling, you then put in the tea, pulling the flavour out of it.

After 16 years at the Carnegie School of Home Economics, Pollard was interviewed by the CARICOM Secretariat to work on a regional food and nutrition project.

At that time the women’s movement was at its peak. The United Nations had researched the situation of women and found that there were serious inequalities and that the status of women needed to be improved in a variety of ways.

Recommendations were used as the basis for a conference in 1975 in Mexico that all governments were invited to. There, priority areas were identified to improve status of women and member states agreed to so function.

At the conference, the UN designated 1976-1985 the decade of women with the themes of equality, development and peace, and sub-themes of education, health and employment. Another goal was to prepare the CEDAW, referred to at the outset.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, which was funding the food and nutrition project Pollard was working on, gave the CARICOM Secretariat the task of finding out whether CARICOM governments should engage in this programme for the welfare of women. The NGO community was actively supporting the move towards the elimination of discrimination against women and was lobbying the Secretariat to put a desk in place with which they could go through.

As a result, in 1980 the Secretariat received funding for the post of Women’s Affairs Officer. Pollard came into the picture.

“I decided that I had spent my whole life in Home Economics and that it might be interesting to make a change.” And this she did.

Her initial task was to discuss with governments the suitability of setting up a national plan of action and to convince them that it was the good thing to improve the status of women and have a “situation” in the public service to manage the issue.

“My responsibility was moving around requesting governments to accept and ratify the Convention (on the Eliminating all forms of discrimination against women) and to establish viable units,” Pollard noted.

From there, a series of tasks were launched with each government having its own programme. There was also a regional programme, which was Pollard’s responsibility to implement.

“It turned out to be a very serious, extensive task to improve status of women,” Pollard stated.

At the time she took up the job of Women’s Affairs Officer, women earned far less, and they were discriminated even in the types of jobs they had; “men were this, men were that.”

In terms of their legal status, women couldn’t just go to the bank and get a loan, the husband had to be there.

She said the reproductive health of women was also a problem.

“Pregnancy is a tricky nine-month period, and lots of women are still dying in childbirth,” she points out.

NOT HITTING THE GLASS CEILING

In terms of leadership, men headed everything.

She said that the election of a woman Prime Minister in Trinidad and Tobago was a big deal, but when looked at from the perspective that she was only one woman among 14 men Prime Ministers in CARICOM, it highlighted the fact that women are not in leadership roles.

“Women are not in managerial roles in keeping with their size in the population. At the time it was all beginning, women were the larger section of the population. Just look at Guyana, almost every unit is headed by a man. I don’t know that they are all bright and coming out of UG and all of that,” she posited.“They (women) are not hitting the glass ceiling,” she says.

She said there continues to be the dominance of male management and it has nothing to do with what women are capable of doing. Society has framed men in the light of boss and power.

“You’re grown up with the fact that the male is the person doing the outside work,” she said.

“The only thing that men can’t that the woman does is maintain the child in the womb and breastfeed; the males have to be there to help to participate in training and upbringing of the child, but I am afraid they are walking about and misbehaving,” she declared.

Even now with women stepping out, there is still discrimination in terms of earnings.

She said it is not necessarily just the question of who gets what amount of money, but rather a question of “equal pay for work of equal value.”

“Does the value of an engineer equate with the value of a matron of a 600-bed hospital?” she asked.

“Nobody would say the matron could equate with the young engineer.”

She insisted that it is the work that is important and valuable; “nobody can grasp that concept and I don’t know why.”

“We all have a brain. We should all be free to participate in the areas where we have expertise. The men dominating are the ones that are well paid.”

GENDER EQUALITY

She said of recent there has been the change from women to gender, but she says this still has to be defined.

“The whole point about gender is that it must be viewed as a social construct; it is how you behave in social terms, recognizing that social behaviour can change if we want men and women to be equal, we have to adapt the attitudinal part of it.”

“So you have no problem of staying home and looking after your son and daughter if your wife is the person who is employed. Why can’t a man lift up a baby?”

“The whole thing about gender is to arrive at gender equality,” she maintained.

Pollard retired in 1991, but she did not let up on her advocacy for equality for women in all spheres of life.

She said  the big challenge facing women in Guyana is built into “the equality thing.”

“We have persons who are achieving, but the climate is not always supportive. I suppose most people would have to say you have to have a tussle, nothing comes easy, but there is no need for unnecessary obstacles. Individuals have a human right and all the things we want to do must recognize that.”

A significant part of the work of the Women’s Affairs Desk was the production of model legislation on issues affecting women, including domestic violence, inheritance, and sexual offences. This brought to the fore, she says, excellent cooperation with the Legal division of the Secretariat.

Her work at the CARICOM Secretariat was instrumental in the setting up of Women’s Affairs Bureau all over the Caribbean. She also spearheaded a three-year programme – Management for Development: Effecting Change whose target included senior women administrators.

Over the years, Pollard has served in many capacities, including as President of the Guyana Girl Guides Association and a director at Republic Bank Guyana. She also served as Secretary to the Anne Blue Scholarship Programme and on the Women and Gender Equality Commission.

She previously served as the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Chairperson of the National Task Force on Domestic Violence.

Pollard was the recipient of numerous awards in Guyana and abroad for her work in advocating for women’s rights and her unswerving and distinguished contribution to the success of the Carnegie School of Home Economics. She also received a special award from the Caribbean Association of Home Economists, of which she was a founding member. Pollard was proud of what she has been able to achieve.

“It has been very worthwhile. I am very grateful to all the people that have been supportive at one stage or the other. We managed to have a very good relationship all over the Caribbean. I think we have done fairly good work. It is the recognition we are looking for. The convention speaks about ‘No’ discrimination.

“It is a tall order, you know, because we are fenced in sometimes, but you soon recognize people are people and sometimes you get support from channels you least expect. The better thing is to recognize the human rights of everybody.”

(Magda Pollard died on Thursday, May  09, 2019. This article was written by Neil Marks and was first published on June 13, 2010 in the Kaieteur News; with their permission, it is re-published here.)

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