In this era of social media, coronavirus and organisations such as Cambridge Analytica, we have come to a new understanding of the pervasiveness of fake news and its pernicious influence on individuals and societies. What is perhaps less well known is that fake history is almost as pervasive and, by distorting truths and facts, can also have the same negative influences as people lose sight of what is true and what is actually false. It is particularly problematic when governments involve themselves in the dissemination of both fake news and fake history.
A few years ago, I saw that a press release on the government website had incorrectly stated that Rita Frett Georges was the first head of the territory’s Women’s Desk. I had expected that the then-head of the Office of Gender Affairs would have corrected the error, but when I realised that it remained on the site, I sent an email to Government Information Services pointing out that the information was, in fact, false.
The Women’s Desk was created in October 1992, and I was the first person appointed to head it. I include a copy of a BVI Beacon editorial noting my appointment and making suggestions for possible initiatives.
Some readers may think it’s not important or that I am tooting my own horn as the saying goes, but truth is important. Not only was I the first holder of the position, but I remained in that position for about eight years, and in that time I embarked on several programmes and initiatives to improve women’s lives for the better.
These included a women-in-politics workshop that was attended by two of the women who would then go on to win their races — a first for Virgin Islands women — in the subsequent elections. Indeed, Ethlyn Smith later told me that she felt the workshop had made a difference, not just in giving her and the other potential candidates more confidence but also in changing people’s attitudes to women in political positions.
The first woman to come to see me seeking my help was a victim of domestic violence, and I made that issue a central feature of the desk’s activities: establishing regular workshops (in collaboration with the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix) for police officers to sensitise them to the issue; working with the Family Support Network to organise legal and other assistance for victims; and embarking on a mass public education programme to raise awareness and let both victims and perpetrators know help was available.
A law reform committee I created recommended wide-ranging changes to civil and criminal legislation which, had they been implemented, would, for example, have created stiffer penalties for rape and indecent assault as well as giving men the right to paternity leave. The one law that was adopted was the Caricom Model Legislation on Domestic Violence.
Other achievements of the desk during my first tenure (I left the post in 2000 but returned in 2004 when it was renamed the Office of Gender Affairs) included the creation of a report on women in agriculture to draw attention to their challenges; outreach to domestic workers; public education on HIV and other health issues; gender sensitivity talks at various government agencies, including the fire department; and the establishment of the Women’s Studies Unit at the Road Town Public Library.
I also represented the VI at international fora including at the United Nations’ CEDAW Committee in Geneva.
These achievements were accomplished despite the fact that, throughout my tenure, the Women’s Desk remained a one-woman operation and despite the tremendous resistance to even the idea of the desk from many quarters in the society.
Indeed, within mere weeks of my appointment I found myself charged for contempt of court for publicly questioning why a judge would allow a defence lawyer to raise a rape victim’s sexual history in court, pointing out that the trial had put on trial our stereotypes and the gains women had made.
In other words, I faced very real repercussions for the stances I took on behalf of women, and it is disheartening to realise that there is a concerted attempt on the part of some to erase that history and pretend it never happened.
I hope that this letter will serve to set the record straight, but I realise that the purveyors of fake news and fake history are often very determined and not easily deterred by the truth. The fact that the public library has been closed for several years, purposely or not, helps to make fact-checking difficult, but unless more people take the trouble to bring the truth to light a society will find itself drowning in lies.
Correcting the record
In my book From the Field to the Legislature, I did not make it clear when I wrote about the Women’s Desk that I was writing from first-hand experience as the officeholder. I’d thought that would be perceived as blowing my own horn and I also thought that VI people reading it, in my lifetime anyway, would remember and realise that I was referring to myself when I spoke of the experiences of the office holder.
I call on the present office holder, GIS, and senior civil servants in the Ministry of Health and Social Development and the Premier’s Office to set the record straight. The perpetuation of this falsehood dishonours both my hard work at the desk and the ideal of the integrity of government information.