From the age of seven, Suana Sookdeo’s mother would take her to visit homes for the elderly, children’s homes, and communities caring for the less fortunate.
“There is where I was first introduced to the problem of domestic violence and child abuse. It was really heart-wrenching to hear about some of the experiences and we tried to help them out in whatever way we could.”
At the time she did not fully grasp the issue but as she got older and had more conversations with survivors, she realised how much they appreciated the small act of someone visiting and listening to them.
As a teenager she learned more about domestic violence and other social issues in school. What she learned put those experiences into perspective and allowed her to internalise the issue.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! This is an actual problem. Why is this not being brought to light more?’ I started advocating because, after hearing the stories of these women and what they endured, and understanding the issue more, it ignited a passion within me to advocate for their justice.”
She recalled one 93-year-old woman who was taken from her family and brought into her future husband’s home around the age of eight where she basically worked for the family. After marriage, her husband would beat her. Her husband died and when she got older her two sons took her savings and used most of her pension for themselves. They put her in a home for the elderly, which was paid for with the rest of her pension.
“My generation would never think these things existed. More families should visit and bring their children to orphanages and retirement homes and just visit with those less fortunate. It would help them internalise that we should be grateful for the life we’re living because people have it really hard out there.”
She started distributing hampers of clothes and food items to those in need, participating in charity drives with NGOs and individuals, worked with the Sixth Formers' Association Services tutoring students through academic studies and informal guidance, and fed stray animals in various communities around her home in Chaguanas on weekends.
As a shy person, she found her voice through spoken word which she was introduced to in secondary school. She wrote poetry as a way to express her emotions but spoken word helped get her out of her shell and express her opinions as well.
She said she was very nervous at first and would “eat her words” but she continued to practise and improve.
“I feel like a speech wouldn’t have the same impact as a poem where you could infuse your emotions, perspective and point of view and ignite those emotions in your audience as well.”
She worked with the Ministry of Gender and Child Affairs and through its National Children’s Forum she and other youths engaged with children in different communities, with different backgrounds and was able to articulate child policies and programmes in collaboration with the United Nations.
She also participated in the Age to Engage as well as Children Who Inspire forums under the Office of the Prime Minister, Gender and Child Affairs Unit.
In 2015, she was nominated for a National Youth Award in the art and culture category for her poem, Violence Against Women, and in 2016 she was presented with a certificate of recognition by the OPM. She was also commended by the Chaguanas Borough Corporation for her service to the community.
“I felt a sense of responsibility and an urge to act on the concerns within my society since there exists various factors that hinder development and progress and it tends to result in problems and injustices."
Now 19, her activism led her to being awarded the 2020/21 Makandal Daaga Scholarship in Law from the University of the West Indies to pursue a bachelor of law degree.
Established in 2016, the scholarship was named in honour of the political activist and leader of the Black Power Movement and awarded by UWI, St Augustine's Faculty of Law to a student with “a record of advocating for positive social change through tangible action.”
Sookdeo said it was never her intention to get recognition for any of her activities, so she was surprised when she was first short-listed for the scholarship.
“What I do comes from a place in my heart and within my family. We always knew we have to help others in whatever way we can because we firmly believe in service above self.”
She said she and her family cried out of happiness, excitement and gratitude for the opportunity of a new avenue to help others. She is also the first in her family to receive a scholarship and pursue law. They were all proud of and happy for her, especially since law was the first career path she ever considered.
“I used to watch Law and Order and other legal shows, and I was always interested in the law. At age eight and nine I wanted to become a lawyer and I saw that evolve and come into play as I got older and now I can make it happen.”
It is her intension to make a positive impact on people’s lives by offering her services to those who need representation for equality and justice. Eventually, she would also like to form an association to give guidance and legal advice to those less fortunate.