Wonderful Women: Viola Burnham

Viola Victorine Harper (1930 – 2003) attended the All Saints Scots School, from which she won a Government County Scholarship to the Berbice High School. After the family decided to move to Georgetown, she once again won a scholarship and went to Bishops’ High School. After taking her Advanced Levels, she started to work at the Argosy newspaper alongside legendary figures in the annals of Guyanese journalism. Confined to editing the women’s pages, she found journalism stimulating but unsatisfying. So she quit reporting and switched to teaching. She taught for four years and applied for a conditional scholarship, which took her to Leicester University College, UK, where she obtained her BA (honours) in Latin. Four years later, she read for her MA in Education at the University of Chicago, USA. In between her university studies, she taught Latin at Bishops’ High School, the position from which she was swept into a much-anticipated marriage by Guyana’s new Prime Minister, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. From then on she served in many positions: when the United Nations declared 1975 “International Women’s Year” and the first world Conference was held in Mexico City, Ms. Burnham – the then Vice-Chairman of the PNCWA and Prime Minister’s wife – led the Guyana delegation to Mexico. As a Women’s Rights advocate, she championed equal opportunity for women. She led the fight to reform the legal system in relation to the laws of Guyana which affected women (and) through her work, the Desiree Bernard Committee was established to make the laws a reality. She was instrumental in the formation of the National Women’s organization, the Conference on the Affairs and Status of Women in Guyana (CASWIG) and the establishment of the Women’s Affairs Bureau (WAB). On the International scene, Viola was remembered for being instrumental in the formation of the Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA), of which she served as its first Vice President. She was the recipient of many awards for her contributions including awards from the Republic of Guinea and Bulgaria. She was awarded Guyana’s second highest award, the Order of Roraima.

This is part of a series I did for S4 Foundation during Women’s History Month. 

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