Mary Francis is a name not unfamiliar to any St Lucian and when it comes to down to it, the real question isn’t who she is, but how she continues her quest to promote the human rights agenda consistently despite the negativity that always seems to stand in her way. Her battle is not an easy one, plagued with ignorance, oftentimes threats and hidden agendas of some of those she fights for and against, yet she perseveres. She’s a super woman in her own right and it’s hardly surprising some readers thought her deserving of honourable mention in our search for the person that most made an impact last year. For her efforts, Mary Francis is our second people’s choice for Person of the Year 2012—the first of course is Darren Sammy!
“It’s a new year and I’m hoping to continue the work I’ve been doing, provided I have the strength and the National Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights Inc. can grow in membership and resources to allow us to continue in terms of ensuring the rule of law is well and alive in St Lucia in regards to the question of the justice system and human rights,” the human rights activist tells the STAR. Francis serves as programme coordinator of the National Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights Inc (a community based non-profit organization), which was launched in 1998.
She notes that since inception, the organization hasn’t really grown in terms of capacity and numbers and at this point funding is crucial. Looking past the challenges, Francis sees progress. “I get the impression from the voices I hear on the street that the misunderstanding and the labelling of human rights as support for criminals and so forth is beginning to diminish. I think people are beginning to understand it is not the support of criminals, but the rights of persons who have violated the law to be respected in terms of what the constitution provides.”
In the words of the human rights activist, human rights is all embracing, and rightly so. “It consists of civil rights, political rights, cultural rights, social rights, economic rights . . . we want to broaden our agenda and look at other areas which are very pertinent to persons in St Lucia including health rights, housing rights . . . all of these things,” she explains. “We can only do that if we can strengthen the capacity so we want ensure persons become involved.”
As far as Mary Francis is concerned, there’s no such thing as giving up. “We have to continue,” she says firmly. “I believe in what I’m doing. I’ve always been so inclined to believe in those issues. These issues really give me a cause for living. “I cannot live in a society where there is no justice, especially when it involves state officials not behaving in a fashion compatible with the law and what the law provides. I cannot live in a society where there are gross transgressions and violations of rules and feel happy. I’m part of the society and it’s my responsibility to ensure it’s a just society and we don’t do things that actually will affect or reduce the so called civilization that we know, which is under siege already. “Human rights will always be there as long as there are citizens. As long as there is the state which has the power to affect the rights of citizens there will always be a need for human rights,” she emphasizes.
“Having done political science as a first degree I’ll always be involved in those issues. “You have all the people out there who have fought struggles for democracy,” she observes. “Those great upheavals of the world, civil movements . . . I’ve always been influenced and impressed by persons who have been struggling for human rights and the advancement or the freeing up of the human spirit. Trying to better society; my whole life has been based on that.” For the purposes of this article, this reporter posed the question: “How did it feel to be working for the people, pushing the human rights agenda, only to find some of the very same people you’re lobbying for are against you?” “Sometimes it really discourages me and I think, what’s the point? I’m just wasting my time, but looking at it overall . . . sometimes the seed is sewn and it takes a number of years before it really catches up,” she responds.
“Years after you begin to see the fruit of your labour, the changes you were canvassing for. If you believe in the righteousness of your cause and you’re convinced, your commitment grows by your conviction and you can see the results.” “It’s been quite a lonely stretch,” she sighs. “I’ve been involved in this for awhile.” Lonely, yet she’s not alone. Delicately pasted to the walls of her office are the faces of historical movers and shakers including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
They serve as a tremendous source of inspiration. “When I get discouraged, something always happens and my interest peaks and I would start to do what I have to do because I believe certain principals should not be compromised,” she maintains. “As long as you have the strength and you are not malicious in what you’re doing, you keep on keeping on.” How great are those who boldly stand up for what they believe in, particularly in a small society with the propensity to rush to judgment? Ostracism she understands and victimization she knows all too well. “As the registrar of the high court I suffered a lot of ostracism there, victimization to the point where my job was just taken away from me. I know what it is to be standing up for what you believe and to suffer victimization. My experiences are the reason I really want to help other persons who might similarly suffer victimization.”
“I believe in what I believe and I’ve been this way from my days at the St Joseph’s Convent,” she expresses, paying tribute to the late Francis Theresa, “one of the greatest principals who ever lived.” “She was admired by people because she exuded authority and so forth. I was taught in my encounters with her to stand up for what you believe. Never mind who opposes it, stand up. Earn your respect. I had some run-ins with her, stood my ground and at the end of the day I learnt that when you stand up for what you believe in you’re respected for it. I’m telling you without that lady I would not be where I am today.” History tells that Francis Theresa, former principal of the St Joseph’s Convent died after being attacked with a cutlass in Vieux Fort by a mentally unstable man in the late 1970s. “I was so shocked; she was the person who inspired me so much,” Francis retells.
“She taught me to stand up for what I believe never mind the consequences.” What were some of the more unexpected sources for inspiration? Things that added vigor to her steps in those moments where doubts threatened to cloud her perspective? “Human beings,” she responds without missing a beat. “There is good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us. There’s always the possibility that things will not be going right or that persons might not be acting justly. Because of that sort of belief in human nature I’m always thinking along those lines. The helplessness of people, the powerlessness of people . . . A political system that I have become really disenchanted about, the need for changes, the whole question of participatory democracy, the whole question of vicious partisan politics… all those things concern me deeply.”
“People might say you have to evolve with the times and so on but certain principles and so on are basic. Fairness . . . always. Justice and so forth. As long as I am here, those concerns, principles and beliefs must be defended. There is a price to pay but at the end of the day, if you think you are helping the underdog out there, somebody needs to stand for them because… no man is an island. If you don’t take care of the needs of those people out there eventually it comes back to haunt you.” Thoughts on being nominated for person of the year: “I feel humbled, a bit surprised knowing the criticism out there incessantly… but at the same time I’m happy,” she puts forth.
“What it tells me is that the message is being absorbed and persons are beginning to appreciate the importance of having oversight of government and having fairness and balance in the society. I’m happy because it strengthens the work I’m doing and I intend to carry on. I hope those who figure I deserve to be a runner-up would consider becoming involved, join with me and join the action!”