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About two years ago I was sitting alone at one of my favorite watering-holes, eavesdropping on a conversation between two unemployed young men who were both planning to have children that year. What caught my attention was the declaration by one of them that he intended to have two children with two different women. Looks are deceiving but these future dads did not give the impression that they could even take proper care of themselves, and while at first I was somewhat amused, the possible tragic implications of my perception of them and their intentions soon registered and the inadequacy of the child maintenance regime came to mind.
The prevalence of maintenance delinquency is a threat to the independence of women in Guyana. In 2002, Stabroek News reported on the perennial concern. ‘A helpless woman wrote about how an arrest warrant was issued for her child’s father because he was in default of more than six months’ support payments. He did turn up in court, but she said that the magistrate called him into his chambers and spoke to him. When he came out he had a smile on his face and then he left. Despite proffering a letter from the Collections Office indicating that the child’s father was a constant defaulter, he was still given two months to pay’ (https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/ricsm_v2-emifpae_v2/p9.html).
In 2016, the problem was still very much alive and Minister of Social Protection Ms. Volda Lawrence warned that ‘Everyone will face the consequence of the law. The State cannot be burdened when a parent or parents have the means of taking care of their children and they choose not to do so. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, we’re going to come after you.’ Administratively, nothing much has changed since her threats, but, importantly, she did observe that ‘there were many instances where women were afraid to seek financial support owing to the ‘abusive behaviour’ of some men.’ Indeed, there are many cases where women are afraid to leave abusive relationships because of the weakness of the child maintenance system (https://www.inewsguyana.com/warning-parents-who-neglect-their-children-to-face-law-especially-delinquent-fathers/).
Last week I argued that providing public and domestic safety for women requires a multi-dimensional approach that focuses on the economic empowerment of women. Norway is ranked number one on the Women Peace and Security Index (WPS Index) and its high ranking can be partly attributed to public policies that promote a dual-earner model – a social and economic arrangement in which men and women engage symmetrically in both paid work in the labor market and in unpaid work in the home (https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/WPS-Index-2021.pdf). In all of the six countries at the top of the rankings, women were almost 100% financially independent and made up at least 50% of the work force. Jamaica at 43, with women 77% financially independent and over 50% of the workforce, is the top ranking Caricom country. Guyana is ranked at 56 with women being 59.3% financially independent and 35.7% of the workforce.
Guyana mirrors what takes place in Jamaica. In October 2019, the Jamaican Gleaner reported that a woman who was owed $1 million in child support and took the defaulting parent to court, complained that the system is broken. ‘I took the issue back to Family Court to let them know he wasn’t paying, and each time there was a date to show up he was missing. … A warrant was issued but he was not on the island and was not served. On his return, he was arrested. It took him two years to pay off over $200,000 owed at the time, but while he was paying off that overdue amount he should have been making his regular payments. He hasn’t been doing that, and so now owes about two years in child maintenance fees. I would want a fairer system. How is the system helping my kids? The justice system is not working; it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. What happen to some other women who don’t have it? That means their children won’t go to school, that mean seh food nah go eat? No, that a stupidness’ (https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20191006/no-point-jailing-deadbeat-dads-if-theyre-broke-chuck-justice-minister).
The Norwegian Advance Payment of Maintenance Act of 1989 takes much of the hassle out of maintenance delinquency. Based on a means-test, the state can advance payments of unpaid support to the receiving parent living in Norway. It is an amount that can be paid on certain conditions when the child support is not paid on time, or when it is less than the receiving parent would be entitled to in social benefits. The parent can receive such support until the child is eighteen. (https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/ricsm_v2-emifpae_v2/p9.html).
Both parents are responsible for the maintenance of their child, who has a right that should be protected by the state to be nurtured in a comparatively decent environment. But women also have a right that the state should protect them so that they can live without fear and in safety. Almost everywhere the state has accepted this responsibility, but unfortunately in places like Guyana enough has not been achieved, largely because, notwithstanding the enormity of its power vis-à-vis the contending parents, the state leaves the burden of collection largely upon the parent – usually the woman. And as noted, the permissiveness of the system encourages men to paternally irresponsible.
To fulfill these obligations, the state should adequately assess the cost of supporting a child and based upon their income, maintenance should be divided equitably between the parties. Where payment delinquency is legally established, the state should in a timely manner pay the support to those guardians who need it and take full responsibility for recovery from the defaulter. And, as is done here and elsewhere imprisonment should be the last resort but in the intervening period the state must use the raft of measures at its disposal; refusing driving and any other forms of licenses and passports; taking a lien on salary, bank accounts and property in or out of Guyana, to ‘encourage’ defaulting parents to meet their obligations and repay the state.
For the government, a robust child maintenance regime that helps to improve the safety of women and the welfare and education of children will be an appropriate New Year present. Of course, other forms of social interventions, such as those that focus on ‘families at risk’, and a universal basic income as a financial floor beneath which no Guyanese should go to bed are, at this time, essential additional elements to a comprehensive social protection system.
Happy New Year