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The women of Pedro Cays

... Life offshore presents unique challenges for females

BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Environment editor williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 16, 2012    

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WITHOUT running water and proper toilets, life is difficult for all the inhabitants of Pedro Cays — especially the women who call it home for months at a time.

"We need proper facilities," complained Karen Samuels, who has been visiting the cays for the past 10 years.

The three public toilets constructed on Middle Cay — one of the three tiny islands comprising the Pedro Cays — are not fit for use.

All of them have suffered a battering from various weather events over years, including Hurricane Dean in 2007, which — according to a 2007 report prepared by D Brandon Hay for The Nature Conservancy — also left in its wake beach erosion, flattened structures and over-washed garbage from the central dump.

The result has been that the more than 400 residents on the Middle Cay, an estimated 150 or so of them women, have had to designate an area in the vicinity of those structures as their own public toilet.

Human filth can be seen in small piles, complete with toilet paper, while the stench wafts through the air.

"We cyaan de guh down de [public toilet area] wid the man dem," Samuels, the mother of six children, continued, disgruntled.

She was speaking to the Jamaica Observer during a visit to Middle Cay organised by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) last Wednesday.

Quizzed as to how she had come to be at the cays, Samuels, 41, said she was invited by an old boyfriend to the Northeast Cay — the other inhabited island of the Pedro Cays.

By the time the relationship ended, she said she had grown accustomed to life close to the sea from which she was able to make a living for herself and family. She subsequently moved to Middle Cay and has been visiting for two to three months at a time ever since.

"Mi find way weh mi could come and sell mi clothes. Now mi have a bar on this cay," she said.

Samuels will not consider leaving and wants the authorities to make the necessary improvements at the cays, which birds, such as the Masked Booby, also call home.

The cays also hold significance as nesting sites for other birds, including breeding species such as the Laughing Gull and the Royal Tern, and migratory species, such as the Palm Warbler and the Barn Swallow — in addition to turtles.

Addressing their toilet woes, Samuels said, must be the first order of business, since without them, women, in particular, have a very tough time, especially when they are having their periods. They currently wrap and store used sanitary napkins in plastic bags, before placing them in the garbage dump to be burned.

The pile-up of garbage is another of the problems she wants solved.

"We light it regular, but after it burn out, the bottles and zinc still lef' so it look like we never clean it," Samuels said of the dump.

But even more serious than its unsightliness is the rat and fly infestation it has promoted, putting the health of all residents at risk.

"The insect, the rubbish and the toilet [need to be addressed]," insisted Samuels' friend, Nicola Scott.

The 30-year-old mother of five, who has been visiting the cays for three years, added that insects and rodents from the dump were a particular nuisance as they invaded the ramshackle homes of those on Middle Cay, where she, too, lives for weeks at a time.

"The insect spray nuh have no effect on the fly them," Scott said.

As though on cue, flies buzzed about unrelenting as she and Samuels had a breakfast feast of fried eggs and ripe plantain with bread.

Despite the challenges, Scott, like Samuels, cannot readily wave goodbye to life on the cays. The father of her children — aged 13, 10, eight, four, and two — was a fisherman who lost his life deep-sea diving two years ago.

"A just me alone wid the kids," she said, noting that without Pedro Cays, where she buys fish to sell on mainland Jamaica, she would not be able to care for her young.

However, Scott admits to missing her children, who she leaves with a sister at her home in Rocky Point when she is on the cays.

"Mi miss dem, but when mi not here, them don't go to school properly," she said. "But mi try fi correspond with them. So dem nah see mi, but mi correspond with them."

Trecia Banton has a similar story. The mother of two children, a boy aged 17 and a little girl, 12, said she has been going to the cays — where she sells a variety of items, including cigarettes — for five years.

On top of the challenges with water, toilets and the garbage, she said women on the cays also have to cope with stigma.

"Is mi little sister who come and tell me bout the cays, but mi used to fraid fi come because dem seh woman come sell p..... But mi come and realise seh a nuh suh it stay," Banton said, noting reports of occasional prostitution on the island.

Once there, she realised she could make a few dollars and soon paid little attention to other people's perception of the people on the cays.

"Mi have mi kids to tek care of. Dem cyaan guh to school [if I don't work] and you cyaan get work on the mainland," Banton said.

Still, she admits that there are days when the water, garbage and toilet challenges threaten her resolve, forcing her to contemplate staying on the mainland.

"But nothin' nah gwaan a land so mi haffi come [back]," the 31-year-old said, noting that she pays to have her daughter stay with a sister while her son stays at her home.

Since the Observer broke news of the prevailing conditions on the island Wednesday, the authorities — as in the past — have weighed in on the possible solutions, some of which have already been attempted.

Chief public health inspector with the Kingston and St Andrew Public Health Department Everton Baker has suggested:

* the regulation of items allowed on to the cay to help deal with the garbage and associated rat and fly infestation problem; and

* the introduction of comprehensive licences that take account of those who require, for example, food handler's permits, given the absence of running water on the cays.

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Donovan Stanberry said a team approach will have to be taken, while making the point that his ministry had been doing what it could in the interest of a sustainable fisheries sector there.

JET boss Diana McCaulay and Commander David Chin Fong of the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard, which has a permanent base on Middle Cay, have both noted the need to limit the number of people allowed on the cays. That way, they said, there will be less stress on the natural resources from human inhabitants.

Some residents have themselves pointed to the need to reduce the foot traffic on the cays; one of them has gone as far as to suggest that the authorities begin with the women.

"Right now, me would a love all seh the woman dem fi cut and leave the man dem," the fisherman said.

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