Sexism — and its ripple effects of discrimination and sexual harassment on a scale that reaches sexual assault, gender-based violence and even murder — is an all-too-common phenomenon in most Caribbean societies.
Whether it is tone-deaf parliamentary utterances about rape and breasts in Jamaica, the region's pervasive “blame the victim” mindset, its propensity to “rape culture”, or the hundreds of stories of sexual violence that went viral the year before the #MeToo movement exploded, there is no doubt that the Caribbean has issues to address when it comes to the perception and treatment of women.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has begun an educational campaign on street harassment, which aims to inspire behavioural change.
In an interview with the Trinidad and Tobago Express newspaper, ECLAC’s associate programme management officer Amelia Bleeker said the initiative will involve going to 30 secondary schools across the country to educate students about gender-based violence.
Bleeker referred to catcalling as a “gateway offence” into other forms of violence, such as sexual assault — and with increased numbers of Venezuelan asylum-seekers in the country, migrant women are also at risk, since many local men assume they will entertain the idea of sex in exchange for money.
The timing of the announcement of the ECLAC initiative falls in line with the annual observance of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence — the international campaign that speaks out on violence against women and girls that takes place from November 25 (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10 (Human Rights Day).
There have, of course, been other attempts to draw attention to the problem, like the WomenSpeakProject, which offers women an online space to share their stories. However, there is hope that the ECLAC project, which has greater resources at its disposal, will have a broader effect — especially when it comes to educating males.
“When street harassment is tolerated, it fuels harmful attitudes toward women which create a fertile environment for other forms of gender-based violence,” Bleeker explained in the interview, adding that recent surveys on intimate-partner violence show that one in three women and girls have experienced abuse at the hands of their partner, of which 29 percent was a combination of physical and sexual assaults.
In Jamaica, for example, various US Country Report on Human Rights Practices noted that violence against women is perpetuated by “[s]ocial and cultural norms” and that “many women were reluctant to acknowledge or report abusive behaviour”, while a 2013 Amnesty International report noted that “sexual violence against women and girls remains a concern.”
In Barbados, one report that mapped key issues surrounding domestic violence in the country noted that statistics pointed toward children in the Caribbean experiencing early sexualisation.
Of the 494 murders recorded in 2017 by the website TTCrime, which logs violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago, 52 of the victims were women; of those deaths, 43 were deemed to be as a result of domestic violence.
While online accounts of street harassment might offer a fair amount of quantitative data, quantitative data on the phenomenon is lacking. The fact that this type of abuse is considered a social norm — in fact, some men (and women) view it as a compliment — does not help. It is precisely because of this widespread social acceptance of the practice that Bleeker says the ECLAC team will face a challenge in shifting the narrative from street harassment being perceived as a harmless pastime to it being understood as an issue that has a direct impact on women's safety and human rights.
The news was mostly well received by social media users. In a thread on the public Facebook group Breaking News T&T, Renee Camps-Campins said:
[…] I’m sick and tired of women being told how to AVOID this or that. Men and boys have to be taught (apparently) that it is wrong. Have to be Taught that this behavior from them is not acceptable Taught that they can and should do better, and simply to NOT DO IT!!!!!!! It's despicable behavior that society [has] to stop accepting as a norm!
Anessa Douglas, who like most Trinbagonian women has been catcalled, agreed:
This accepted negative culture of ours is so disgusting and when we women reject it we are treated like an outcast; followed by comments that we cannot take a compliment. […]
There's nothing complimentary about unwanted sexual attention, it leaves you feeling violated and disrespected and far too long there have been long lists of what women should do to avoid this and it's high time men are taught to do better.
Interestingly, Facebook user Gemma Robinson found the initiative a bit unnecessary:
The whole thing sounds like paranoia to me. Now, I have no excuses for men who behave themselves stupidly. What I am displeased with are these unbalanced feminists coming to tell us how to govern our society. I will tell you as a woman, I do not feel afraid on the streets of T+T even when I experience catcalling.
Bleeker maintains, however, that gender inequality, impunity, and silence have allowed gender-based violence to become one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world, saying that one in three women worldwide currently experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
This is not a campaign about encouraging women to challenge street harassment … It’s about men and boys educating themselves and others from inflicting fear on women and girls and allowing them to enjoy their right to equal enjoyment of public spaces.
Thus far, via Facebook, ECLAC has posted powerful testimonial videos, as well as layouts for the campaign's digital billboard and poster designs, the latter of which will be displayed in secondary schools and police stations all over the country.