What’s in a hashtag? For women logged into the Caribbean blogosphere it’s the means to segue from silence and shame, launch a crusade via social media and transition from trending on Facebook to treading through streets of a commercial capital in defiance of sexual harassment and normalisation of rape-culture and to agitate against all forms of gender-based violence (GBV). For Feminist blogger and activist Ronelle King, who along with her friend Allyson Benn coined the #lifeinleggings hashtag on Facebook in November 2016 in response to being persecuted on the streets of Barbados, the hashtag is all about advocacy and creating a space to be heard. King explains that it represents “the desire to resist misogyny masquerading as culture […]. The refusal to suffer in silence another day and the need to re-educate society that women have a right to exist in public spaces without fear of sexual violence.”
King’s use of the social media platform to share her experiences quickly went viral with women across race, class, religion and ethnicity in the region and beyond breaking the silence on sexual harassment and abuse and saw women sharing their own testimonies of GBV. A town hall meeting to debate the social scourge in Barbados was held at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill campus a month later, featuring a panel made up by the group’s organising committee and chaired by young feminist scholar Dr Tonya Haynes from the Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) and founder of the Code Red for Gender Justice blog. It was well attended by both men and women from the cis-gender as well as the LGBTQI community. By March, in celebration of International Women’s Day, women’s advocacy groups across the region, bestirred by the social media movement and the high levels of GBV in their own countries, took their agitation to the streets in simultaneous demonstrations. #Lifeinleggings had by this time evolved into a registered gender advocacy group: Life In Leggings: Caribbean Alliance Against Gender Based Violence.
The popularity of the movement has re-engineered interest in feminist advocacy, which is certainly not new to Barbados or the region. To date, there are about 35 NGOs, including charities, civil organisations and trade union outfits on the island, some more active and public than others, mobilising around different intersectional aspects of gender justice, including, HIV/AIDS awareness, sexual harassment in the workplace, climate change and gender, LGBTQI rights, and others.
Some of the more vocal on social and in the traditional media within recent times have been: Jabez House, which offers a safe space to female sex workers, facilitating their transition from sex work through vocational training, with special focus on entrepreneurship; the Save Foundation, which focuses on and decries intimate partner violence; Barbados—Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals against Discrimination (B-GLAD), Join the Conversation/Equals- that focus on dismantling prejudice and homophobia against the LGBTI community; and the National Union Of Public Workers (NUPW) Gender Affairs Committee that address GBV, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, workplace violence, sustainable development goals, climate change and gender, female empowerment, gender equality, disability in the workplace, LGBTQI rights in the workplace and workers rights; National Organisation of Women (NOW), an umbrella of women’s groups used to mobilise the combined efforts of organisations in Barbados for the mutual benefit of all; and the YWCA, a platform for the psychological and financial empowerment of women, providing them with access to resources and opportunities conducive of such.
This work in the wider community is set against the backdrop of a sexual harassment (prevention) bill to be laid in Parliament and the much anticipated implementation of a national gender policy, which was developed by the Bureau of Gender Affairs in conjunction with stakeholders across civil society, including the IGDS (Cave Hill), and submitted to Cabinet for consideration since March 2016.
A common trend threading through each of the organisations, whether civil, government affiliated or trade union related, is recognising the intersectional nature of gender discrimination and advocacy, a philosophy grounded in Black (American) feminist scholarship. For Shari Inniss-Grant, co-director of Join in the Conversation and consultant with IGDS, Cave Hill, the rapport between scholarly discourse and grass roots activism is a crucial one:
“For people who have been marginalised in some way, whether as a result of race, sexuality and gender identity, class or ability the marriage between academia and activism is powerful. Academia offers the opportunity to investigate the way in which society is structured to empower or disempower different individuals and community—it allows us to question the status quo and investigate the way in which power is operating, how it has been used in the past and how it can be reshaped in the future. This knowledge fuels activism. When I look at the Black Lives Matter Movement and the work of [Civil Society Organisations] like Equals and initiatives like Join the Conversation, I see how the investigation of institutional discrimination (ie the work of intersectionality scholars) allows activists to understand our societies, the problems it faces and the potential solutions in new ways.”