A report by Rebekah Kebede for Reuters.
A Caribbean-wide movement to fight violence against women started in a truly pedestrian way – with one woman’s walk to work.
Ronelle King was on her daily commute in Bridgetown, Barbados, when a man tried to pull her into his car after she refused his offer of a ride. She reported it to police, only to have them shrug it off.
That’s when King decided to share her experience publicly and encourage other women to do the same. She posted on Facebook, using #lifeinleggings as a social media hashtag for her campaign.
Within a day, #lifeinleggings took off, with women in Barbados recounting stories from street harassment to sexual assault. By the next day, #lifeinleggings island-hopped to Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.
On Saturday, women in seven Caribbean countries linked by the #lifeinleggings movement plan to hold marches for women’s rights.
The #lifeinleggings women say their online movement provides an accessible and safe way to express their feelings about violence in a region where it is all too common.
“You had a sense of feminist solidarity,” King said.
“You had women that never met each other, like Trinidadian women reaching out to Dominican women saying, ‘Thank you for sharing your story. It helped me. It touched me. It let me know I wasn’t alone.'”
The hashtag is a reference to leggings popular among urban women in Caribbean. Although they are practical, the leggings are skin tight and women wearing them are often accused of “asking for it” if they are harassed, King said.
“We were debunking the myth that women attract this behavior because of the way that they are dressed and that men have the right to approach you in this manner,” King said. “You deserve respect regardless.”
Violence against women and girls is rife in the Caribbean.
Three of the world’s top ten countries with the highest incidence of rape are the Bahamas, Jamaica and Barbados, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It also found nearly a third of women in the region have suffered domestic abuse.
The University of the West Indies’ Institute of Gender Studies estimates 30 to 50 percent of murders in Caribbean countries are related to domestic violence.
More than 30 percent of women in the Caribbean report high rates of fear of sexual assault compared with 11 percent of men, according to a U.N. Development Programme report.
And those are just the few statistics available.
There is a gap between official data and reality, said Taitu Heron, a gender and development specialist for U.N. Women in Jamaica.
Hospital data, for instance, may show a greater incidence of assaults against women than do police reports because women may seek treatment but not report being assaulted.
“AFTER 12 IS LUNCH”
Acceptance of harassment and assault is also widespread.
Colloquial sayings in the region reflect that statutory rape is taken very lightly, Heron said.
For instance, the idea that any girl over puberty is fair game is expressed in the saying, “Anything after 12 is lunch.”
The #lifeinleggings organizers say the casual attitude extends to harassment and physical violence.
“We have this culture of violence where even if people are aware of you being abused, they still encourage you to stay,” said Akola Thompson, a 21-year-old student and human rights activist in West Bank Demerara, Guyana.
Thompson, who is organizing the #lifeinleggings march in Guyana, said she was in an abusive relationship until three years ago.
“My family encouraged me to stay, and so I did,” she said.
Nadeen Spence, 44, said she never talked about being molested by strangers as a child but found strength in telling her story through #lifeinleggings.
“It’s feeling as if you’re not the only voice in the wilderness,” said Spence, director of residential life at the University of the West Indies’ Kingston campus.
While #lifeinleggings is hardly the first feminist movement in the Caribbean, it is perhaps the first to resonate with a younger generation, Amanda McIntyre, who is organizing the #lifeinleggings march in Trinidad and Tobago and a director of Womantra, a Caribbean feminist organization.
Marches are set for Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, the Bahamas, Guyana and Jamaica.
“I’m 35 and I can’t remember when a march of this magnitude took place,” she said. She suggested that social media has helped spread feminism in the Caribbean.
Many women are speaking out for the first time about experiences such as street harassment that used to be considered “little things,” said Abby-Sade Brooks, a 29-year-old student and organizer of the #lifeinleggings march in Kingston.
“For too long, we have been too quiet. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect the different results,” Brooks said.