On International Women's Day, Trinidad & Tobago citizens #ChooseToChallenge gender-based violence

Women at a protest at Woodford Square in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2016. The protest came after then mayor of the city, Raymond Tim Kee, victim-blamed Japanese steel plan player Asami Nagakiya, who was found murdered on February 10, 2016. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

On International Women's Day, as people the world over focus on striving for equality by celebrating women's achievements and calling out gender bias, Trinidad and Tobago is focused on women's safety in the wake of concerning rates of gender-based violence in the country.

As many as 15 local civil society groups, including feminist, human rights, LGBTQ+ and social justice organisations, conducted a “Walk-Out for Women” on March 8.

An editorial in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian noted:

This country has seen women soar in all spheres of life, from media, politics, law enforcement and business, all the way to the Presidency. […]

But many women in this country have also been suffering in silence […] many have endured and still endure violence.

The country's two most recent high-profile femicides, those of Ashanti Riley, who was abducted by the driver of a Private Hire (PH) car and Andrea Bharatt, who was last seen alive as she and a friend got into a vehicle bearing false taxi plates, have made people that much more aware of the urgency of the problem.

In the wake of these two murders, Trinbagonians advocated for tangible steps to be taken to protect women. Thus far, parliament has passed the Evidence Bill, which introduces more modern mechanisms for evidence gathering in criminal trials, and approved pepper spray as a self-defense tool, leaving many to wonder if the deaths of these two young women have finally signalled a turning point in what citizens are willing to take.

Pressure from citizens and civil society groups—inclusive of the March 8 Walk-Out for Women—has remained consistent. The march, a collaborative effort among various civil society groups, including Womantra, CAISO, Conflict Women, Act for Change TT, and the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, convened at Port of Spain's main transportation hub and ended in front of the Red House, the seat of Trinidad and Tobago's parliament, where participants called on members of the government and opposition to “take immediate action against gender-based violence.”

Many netizens—men included—also posted videos explaining why they are “walking out.”

A woman at a protest at Woodford Square in Port of Spain on February 12, 2016, after Japanese steel pan player Asami Nagakiya was found murdered. Her placard, “Teach our sons not to abuse women,” speaks to the core of the issue of gender-based violence in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

In the spirit of this year's #ChooseToChallenge theme for International Women's Day, many Trinidadian women spoke out, including President Paula-Mae Weekes, whose public silence at the time of the young women's deaths attracted much criticism on social media. While she felt this was “fair and perfectly understandable in a society which has become accustomed to instant reaction and social media fodder,” the president made the point that society must shoulder some of the responsibility for producing the type of men that commit such unspeakable crimes.

In the three years in which she has held the office of president, as many as 155 women have lost their lives because of gender-based violence; continued advocacy from a vibrant electorate, she said, would help create a climate that would render transformative change when it comes to the safety and well being of women in the country.

Comedian Simmy the Trini agreed, posting on Facebook:

If we want to see change, we need to continue challenging the systems that impact us negatively. We need to continue pressing for legislation that takes into consideration our various issues and challenges.

I am grateful to be alive at a time when women are collectively speaking up and out against the atrocities we face. No longer willing to suffer in silence. No longer ashamed or afraid to demand the right to live lives free of violence with access to education, healthcare and opportunities for empowerment.

As the Guardian editorial put it:

Gender-based violence and domestic violence are no longer ‘not my business’ in Trinidad and Tobago; now they are everybody’s business. They are being seen for what they are—crimes against women. Crimes that are no longer culturally accepted. Crimes that can no longer be buffered with an apology or easily dismissed.

These crimes have been hurting this country’s women and doing unspeakable damage to the heart of this nation—which women undoubtedly are.

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