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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Wed May 24 18:42:02 2000
Date: Mon, 3 Apr 2000 21:48:35 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: PROFILE-ST- LUCIA: Helping Women in Crisis
Article: 92767
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Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Helping Women in Crisis

By Peter Richards, IPS, Women as Leaders Series,
2 April 2000

PORT OF SPAIN, 31 Mar (IPS) - The three words, "I need money," are likely to come up in any conversation with Iona Erlinger-Ford. And she says those words like a beggar who has not had a meal for days.

But as the conversation progresses the "I" is replaced by "we".

However, Erlinger-Ford, does not need the money for herself or her family. In fact, she could have had a very comfortable life, with little concern for the disadvantaged, but she chose otherwise.

Her family has worked in the tourism industry for years and Erlinger-Ford gave it a try for 16 years before deciding that this was not her "destiny".

Most people in St. Lucia know her as 'the little woman'. But size is no indication. Barely five-foot tall, her dogged determination to stop gender-based violence spans over two decades.

"I think I inherited this from my father. He belonged to a number of friendly societies and as a result you get involved in helping people a lot," she says.

"Erlinger-Ford has been a champion for women in the fight against domestic violence. She is deserving of the highest accolade from women in the Caribbean and indeed St. Lucia," says Lorraine Williams, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Women.

"She has single handedly fought the issue against all odds, including financial support," says Williams, who is also St Lucas former Attorney General in St. Lucia.

Twelve years ago, Erlinger-Ford along with a small group of women, opened the St. Lucia Crisis Centre for victims of domestic violence.

The Centre is in the process of expanding and first on the pipeline is constructing a home for girls. This would act as a refuge for "pregnant teenagers, school drop-outs because of the abuse at home, victims of incest, prostitution and other forms of abuse".

The Voice newspaper, the oldest media organisation on the island, said in a recent editorial that the Centre has made "its presence felt as a pressure group for social change in the society".

In a document prepared for the ninth Conference of Spouses of Heads of State and Government of the Americas held in Canada last year, the Centre outlined its successes but said it was hamstrung by lack of funding.

"We need funds urgently to continue the operations and we are looking for support from some international agencies. Violence, especially sexual assault and gang rape, is on the increase and support from government, because of economic reasons, is very limited," Erlinger-Ford said.

The Centre currently receives a monthly allocation of 1.100 US dollars from the St. Lucia government.

But Erlinger-Ford says the Centre needs much more than that to keep its doors open to the many victims of domestic violence and abuse in need of counselling and other forms of support.

And while she is quick to talk on issues affecting women, she is reluctant to give out any information about herself.

But some of the older persons in St. Lucia know that she is the third of eight children, born to a successful business couple, Phillip and Paulicia St. Helene.

Asked about her age, she responds, "I don't give that out because of the rudeness and insults I have had to endure from people here about my age and involvement with battered women and children."

But many of her contemporaries say " she is in her late 80s" despite her "youthful appearance".

Educated at the St. Josephs Convent, one of the prestigious secondary schools in St. Lucia, Erlinger-Ford was one of the first recruits for the British Army's Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). She managed to attain the rank of Orderly Room Sergeant and was in charge of the Detachment on the Victory Parade when the Second World War ended in 1948.

After the war she joined the St. Lucia Civil Service until 1958. One year later she married Canadian engineer, John Erlinger- Ford, whom she met at her mother's hotel. The marriage produced two sons, Peter and Bernard and later four other boys were adopted.

In 1975 she launched the Business and Professional Women's Club in St. Lucia, advocating better conditions for women in business, politics, "and all other concerns involving women".

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s for 16 years she managed a Hotel, before migrating to Canada where she got involved "in all kinds of social work".

"When I left St. Lucia in 1977, the government had just signed the United Nations Declaration against the discrimination against Women, but when I came back in 1985, I found that nothing had been done about the elimination of discrimination against women," she says.

This lack of progress sent Erlinger-Ford back "into the business of social work in St. Lucia".

Williams recalls Erlinger-Ford's determination to get the John Compton administration to enact legislation providing for closed door court hearings for any crime of a sexual nature and the establishment of a Family Court to deal with issues of domestic violence.

"If there is one thing she had that was courage. Lots of courage. She almost single handedly ran the fight and was instrumental in getting the legislation passed," recalls Williams.

But Erlinger-Ford's biggest fight now is to get the authorities to go along with plans by the Crisis Centre to construct a shelter for battered women and children, although the last government approved the proposal for the project which is estimated to cost 250,000 US dollars.

It is a fight she is determined to take to the authorities since she is convinced that the shelter "doesn't seem to be a priority for this government".


Origin: Harare/PROFILE-ST- LUCIA/

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