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From saving stray dogs to fixing Sando: ‘Don’t judge me’

Sunday, September 7, 2014
Animal activist Jowelle De Souza receives the Humming Bird Medal (Bronze) from President Anthony Carmona, during last Sunday’s national awards ceremony, in commemoration of the 52nd anniversary of Independence at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Even in the face of public ridicule over her lifestyle changes, animal rights champion and national award recipient Jowelle De Souza is not afraid to run for public office. Last week, De Souza, 41, of Palmiste, announced plans to contest the San Fernando West seat on an independent ticket.

De Souza, who owns the posh South Spa salon, believes she has the edge over her two possible opponents—PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi and incumbent Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan. She is hoping to capture the votes from the poorest region of the constituency, the PNM-controlled Embacadere. De Souza is a member of a social pressure group called Democracy Watch, led by former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, which is expected to be officially launched today in Chaguanas.

For many years, De Souza has been teaching struggling single mothers hairdressing skills and even encourages many of them to start their own businesses. In return, some residents of Embacadere have been helping De Souza to take care of stray dogs at the pound. 

At 6 am on weekends, De Souza crawls through a hole in the wall of the Roodal Cemetery to get to the dog pound to feed the captured strays before they are euthanised. The pound is locked up on weekends and from 11 am on weekdays, so crawling through the fence is her only option. De Souza said the impounded dogs are left to starve and those that survive eat the carcasses of those that die. 

Despite the demands of her business and social work, De Souza also finds time to rescue stray dogs which roam the streets. These are kept at the Animals Alive sanctuary at South Oropouche, where they are nursed back to health before being put up for adoption. 

Her love for animals has led to clashes with San Fernando City Corporation officials, including its former CEO Marlene Coudray. She has also been engaged in an ongoing battle with the corporation over the killing of stray dogs, destruction of heritage sites, and poor drainage at Independence Avenue. 

In this candid interview, De Souza revealed why she decided to get into politics. She also outlined her plans for San Fernando, her squabbles with the city corporation officials, and the trials she faces as a transgender woman, as well as her vision of equal rights for all citizens of T&T.

Q: You have faced public ridicule because of your sexuality. Are you afraid that you will be attacked if you run for public office?
A: No. I will never change anything that I have done in my life. Whatever I did in my life, I did because it was what was necessary for me to be happy. I don’t regret it, and I do not care what people say about it. I have done it for one reason—I did not feel comfortable that way and I am perfectly happy now. I will tell parents and those whose children are inclined to be that way to support them. We are headed for first-world status and this discrimination should be a thing of the past.

Do you think your lifestyle will affect your political chances?
Not at all. People like myself have risen to extreme levels and there are presidents and prime ministers who have taken steps to have a better life, whether it is having their sex changed from man to woman. They are elected into very high offices. In many first-world countries, there are members of government like myself. 

I don’t care what they say about me. I don’t care if they don’t like me—just respect me. I want them to understand that I am a person who fights for the rights of people and fights for equality and justice. I fight for animals and I help the unfortunate. Look at those qualities and judge me by that, not by anything else.

What made you decide to join the political race?
I made this decision because of the state of our city. I think San Fernando is a dying city, and it hurts me that we have to leave south and go to Port-of-Spain for entertainment and restaurants. 

I decided to get into politics because I want to bring back business to San Fernando. I have a vision to develop our waterfront so that San Fernando could be the hub of tourist attraction with duty-free shopping, nightlife, hotels and restaurants. We can develop the waterfront without taking money from the Treasury. We can borrow a loan and the money we make from renting the waterfront can be used to repay the loan.

What else can you offer as a candidate?
I want to make San Fernando a pleasant place to visit. I want to improve healthcare. One of the biggest problems here is the hospital. I want to develop health centres. Our hospitals are overcrowded.

I will also lobby for legislative changes and constitutional reform. The Westminster model of governance has to change. The Constitution cannot work the way it is. I am supporting the change for the Constitution to be amended so that the Prime Minister will not have all the power. I have noticed that the Prime Minister and the executive has control. “Independent” institutions are controlled by the executive. That has to change. 

Did you have a physical fight with Marlene Coudray when she was the CEO?
When Marlene was the CEO, I begged her to stop the electrocution of animals. We had a fight, not much physical. We had challenging words, and I behaved in a way that brought me to almost a breakdown when I saw how dogs were being electrocuted. It is the hardest thing in the world to see an innocent animal wagging its tail and being put into an electrocution chamber, alive, healthy and happy.

It broke my heart, so I will not tell you what were some of the words I used to describe Marlene Coudray at that time. I would walk through that cemetery every morning at 6 am to feed those animals with food on my back because they were left to starve.

The animals are still starving under this Government. On weekends, animals are not fed, they are left to starve and eat one another. I have photos where animals are eating one another in that pound. 

We have asked the mayor—past and present—to let us help them by giving them food for the dogs. All they have to do is to supply us with a worker. We have asked them to allow us to get vets for the animals. There is no excuse for letting an animal starve. I will not forgive them for this.

If you become an MP will you lobby for legislative changes to end inequality?
Yes. Fixing San Fernando is my first mission, and my second purpose is education. Hats off to the PM, she is a woman of inclusion. She doesn’t judge you. The last prime minister was a man who never included anyone who was different. He never included disabled people, much less for gay people. 

That is why the current Prime Minister is a successful Prime Minister. She does not care what you are or who you are. She is going to find a place for you. Her shoes will be hard to fill.

Has the Equal Opportunity Act not offered protection?
Not at all. I want to fight for legislative changes. When I am elected an MP, I will bring business back to San Fernando. I believe I have an edge over other candidates. One of them is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He says plenty but does little. I think he would have a hard fight for San Fernando West because he does not live here. 

The incumbent candidate has tried to implement certain things but she says she is being stifled. If there is a better candidate than myself, with my same views, I will work with them.
Did you ever believe you would get a national award?
No. Never. I found out two weeks ago. I felt very happy about it. I was notified by the Office of the Prime Minister and then the Office of the President.

Do you support the Constitution (Amendment) Bill ?
No. I don’t support this bill because I do not think it will work for our country. I believe in power-sharing. If I become an MP, I will put country first. We must follow what (Basdeo) Panday has always said...we will become a strong government if we share power. I cannot understand why both sides of the House cannot look towards power-sharing.

What is your role in Democracy Watch?
I am an ordinary member of Democracy Watch. We are a pressure group which has joined with other groups to discuss disturbing issues in the country. We carry these issues to the Government, and we try to come up with solutions.

What will happen to South Spa if you become an MP?
I will not close my business. It is my first love. I will go up as an MP and I will work both offices.

You are in the business of making women look beautiful. Could you share a few beauty secrets?
I want to tell women that the less you do, the better you look. Wear the right foundation and wear the right clothes for the right occasion. Be yourself, love yourself, and smile a lot. Never let people put you down. Be free.


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