While some lament that social media is littered with mindless memes and brings out the worst in people (enter the comments section at your own risk), there are Barbadians who are using it as a tool for empowerment and knowledge-sharing about critical issues affecting this society.
Aside from the #mannequinchallenge and the #unameitchallenge, in recent months there’s been a more potent challenge going viral on Bajan social media – ‘ordinary citizens’ challenging long-ingrained social norms and the status quo.
Over the past few days, Barbadian women have been using the hashtag #LifeInLeggings to share their personal experiences of street harassment, as well as sexual and other forms of abuse.
Many of the accounts are disturbing and heart-wrenching as these young women, most of who are in their 20s and 30s, recount almost daily experiences of disrespectful, threatening and abusive behaviour in both public and private spaces at the hands of male strangers, friends, classmates, colleagues and family members, starting from a young age.
Their stories have sparked a range of reactions – with many in disbelief and disgust at the frequency of the experiences as well as the shocking nature of the abuse.
Loop News spoke with Ronelle King, who along with her best friend Allyson Benn, started the hashtag.
“The hashtag encourages women to share their sexual assault experiences with men so that the men on their timeline would be forced to acknowledge that every single woman they know experiences this from the "ghetto" to the "bourgeois" as well as from their "daughters" to their "mothers"," King told Loop.
She explained that #LifeInLeggings was chosen because leggings are the main article of clothing that are considered ‘slack’ and almost every woman from all walks of life owns a pair.
King told Loop News, “I've always been outspoken about injustices in society but after observing the comments on Sherri-Ann Norris' video and seeing that some men were attempting to justify their abhorrent behaviour that I realised something else needed to be done.”
She added, “We're celebrating 50 years of Independence this month and Barbados is still a developing country with its issues. It's easy to condemn other countries for their injustices but what do we do about our own? While sexual harassment towards women is a global issue, rape culture is very prevalent in our society as well as within the Caribbean and something needs to be done about it. It's easy to demand change in our society but we often forget that WE are society, this country is no one else's but our own and if we don't fix it... who will?”
King said she has been overwhelmed and is extremely proud that the topic that started among friends has now seen more people coming forward to share their own experiences. She noted that she has received messages from men who admitted they knew this was an issue but reading the first-hand experiences made them rethink the way they approach and interact with women, as well as inspired them to appeal to their friends to listen to the experiences of women so there would be more respectful interaction in the future.
She emphasised that the situations and experiences being shared on the topic are real.
“I'm extremely proud of every single woman who came forward and spoke up, reposted and anonymously inboxed us their stories for this cause. This is not just my victory, this is ours. We're taught to suppress these emotions and continue about our daily lives. Doing so isn't healthy and neither does it tackle the matter at hand. I'm also grateful for the male allies out there who refused to sit idly and jumped on board to offer their support in any way they could.
“Not everyone is going to support the movement and to be quite honest, I expect backlash too. I've seen slut-shaming and victim-blaming comments from men attempting to perpetuate the myth that sexual harassment is the result of women wearing revealing clothes in public which couldn't be any farther from the truth. It's an excuse; one that women are deciding not to listen to anymore.
“Women are deserving of respect regardless of what we wear and we refuse to subscribe to the notion that men simply cannot help themselves to sexually harass or abuse a woman because of what she is wearing.”
Type #LifeInLeggings in your Facebook Search bar to follow the discussion.
UPDATE [Nov 27]: Also search for the hashtag #LifeInLeggins.
Real 'live' issues
Every year, the local media reports on the findings of the Auditor General’s report, which usually reveals some serious mishandling of public funds. However, the magnitude of the problem didn’t seem to hit home for many until it was broken down in some very plain terms via Facebook Live by certified auditor, Krystle Howell.
Her video, posted on September 26, garnered over 37,000 views and 1,800 shares. In the following weeks, she has continued to analyse the report in a series of Facebook Live videos, sharing her insight as an auditor of 11 years. Howell, who is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Barbados (ICAB) and Secretary of the Institute of Internal Auditors Barbados Chapter, has also gone on to tackle other financial topics such as printing money and property ownership.
Expressing a sense of frustration that the general populace seemed not to fully appreciate what the report truly meant, Howell told Loop News that she wanted to find a way for the information to hit home for people but was overwhelmed by the interest shown.
“People are coming up to me saying that they never knew about the [Auditor General’s] report and now they’re downloading it and reading it. I’ve had people from the US, UK, Bermuda, Sweden… messaging and telling me they are reading the report – Bajans from all over the world.”
“One person can’t do it but if everybody starts to ask questions and hold Government accountable, they can’t ignore us.”
She stressed the role of the traditional media in putting the public’s concerns to people in power but added that this was one aspect of a fuller strategy to improve public administration in Barbados, where a more knowledgeable people will be equipped with the information to ask the right questions.
“We are products of free education and now that… it’s going to be very difficult for some students to go to UWI to further their education, even more so I felt the need to try to see how much I can share information with people to help in my small way to fill the void where people aren’t able to go to university anymore. I know it is nothing in comparison to a full university education, but it is what I can do to help and to try.”
She noted that there was some level of fear in speaking frankly and publicly about such a controversial topic, but that it is for the greater good.
“I could not believe the amount of people who showed concern for my well-being… I have things to lose [and] I have nothing to gain personally so a lot of people probably think I’m crazy for doing this but we all sit down and hope somebody else will do it without realising that everybody has something to lose. Everybody in Barbados has something to lose and some kind of fear that they will be attacked or there will be some kind of retaliation. So when do you stop hoping for somebody else and start being that somebody else who operates even if they are afraid?”
She admitted, “I’m scared about getting into trouble or losing things that I have worked very, very hard for but at the end of the day, we can’t expect other people to put country above self if we aren’t willing to...”
“I’m a Caribbean girl and love all [the fun aspects of our culture] but at some point we have to also show that we are a people that can be taken seriously, we are a people that are informed, we are a people that can make intelligent decisions and we can come together and help to make this country better – that we’re not all about the fun side.”
“I remember one politician telling me that people like the parties, the fetes and everything else so that’s what you have to give them if you want their attention, but hopefully now... they’d be willing to give that information now that the people have shown that this is what they’re interested in.”
She’s not alone in her quest to use social media to educate and inform. University lecturer and President of the Barbados Economics Society, Jeremy Stephen, is also a fan of this medium. For the past few months, he has been using Facebook Live to share his economic insight on a range of issues facing Barbadians.
He told Loop News, “I would have been speaking to traditional media for… about five or six years, but I wasn’t reaching the people that I thought would be important in really facilitating or bringing about change. I’m not talking revolution, but sensible change – us being more accountable for our activities, us being more productive, us having more of a civil and civic engagement with our politicians without fear of being typecast. There’s more than a 'B' and a 'D' philosophy out there and millennials – definitely the majority of us – do understand that inherently, but many of us were afraid.”
He added, “One of the best ways to reach people in my age group is through social media. It’s a very powerful tool.”
Watch the video for more of what Stephen had to say about the power of social media in bringing change.