Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and sexual harassment are issues of increasing importance in Caribbean society, where women are hyper-sexualised and masculinity is often demonstrated in the ability to exert power over women. However, Caribbean women have been rising up against GBV by using social media as a tool. A great example of this is the #LifeInLeggings movement. This online mobilization encourages women who are victims of GBV and sexual harassment to use the hashtag to help educate society about the prominence of the issue, change male attitudes and behaviours toward women, and develop policies to support women who are affected by GBV.
#LifeInLeggings is directly linked to Sustainable Development Goal #5 (SDG) 5 on gender equality, as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015: “Achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls.” The goal aims to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and others types of exploitation. The importance of #LifeInLeggings is not to be underestimated nor understated. In 2015, United Nations General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon stated that the Caribbean region ranks high in terms of sexual assault rates. Three Caribbean countries (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, and the Bahamas) are among the top ten countries in the world for recorded rapes.
Words in the Bucket (WIB) spoke with Folade Mutota, Executive Director of the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) about the #LifeInLeggings movement. Ms. Mutota remarked that #LifeInLeggings is a much needed response to a historical problem that is generally normalised frequently even by women and girls who are victims, because issues of domestic violence and sexual assault tend to be put on the back burner and considered lesser crimes.
The creator of #LifeInLeggings, Ronelle King, a 24-year old feminist from Barbados, is eager to further social justice, having been a survivor of sexual abuse herself. She calls for women around the world to open up about their individual stories of GBV and sexual harassment. As Ms. King told Nation News, “I, nor any woman, should have to live in constant fear…as a woman, it can be hard to feel safe in public spaces…the psychological burden of constantly being on your guard in public and having to fend off unwanted, hostile advances can be tremendous.” Indeed, the #LifeInLeggings movement has spread from Barbados, to other Caribbean countries, and now the rest of the world. This has helped feminine solidarity become an increasingly mainstream topic and put it on the radar of national news.
However, many have also responded to the hashtag negatively, stating that it is an excuse for women to complain. Some even doubt the effectiveness of the online movement, thereby raising the question: can a hashtag really help change men’s a behaviour toward women? Folade responded that the approach is a bold one: “The campaign and the subsequent discussion on rape culture forced everyone, including opinion leaders, to declare their position on women’s rights, and this is a good installment to an ongoing struggle to dislodge misogyny.” The campaign adds width and depth to the struggle. #LifeInLeggings provides a space for all women with access to Internet to share their experiences and opinions online, and empowers the voice of ordinary citizens. Additionally, the online movement has created avenues for the marriage between the already strong Caribbean academic feminist base and the community-led activists – an important element to any effective civil rights movement.
For example, university students came together at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Social Students Conference’s public forum to highlight violence against women. Plastering their experiences on the Wall of Hope, some of the female students’ #LifeInLeggings messages read as follows:
- “I was in secondary school when a classmate of mine pulled out his penis and shoved it in my face. For some reason everyone thought it was funny.”
- “I told him to stop. It hurt. He didn’t listen.”
- “Being touched inappropriately by a male you trusted as a 6 year old girl and he’s 30 can make you lose hope in humanity.”
- “A stranger walked up to me one day and asked to touch my breasts. I was 14 and in school uniform.”
- “It’s not consent if you make me afraid to say ‘no’.”
The explosion of heart-wrenchingly violent stories online via #LifeInLeggings has prompted change on the ground. For example, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago are considering making changes to the Domestic Violence Act, and the government’s Gender Affairs Division established a national registry for domestic violence. According to Folade, the #LifeInLeggings campaign has had a good start in challenging government lethargy; however, further coordinated action is required to more strongly influence policy.
#LifeInLeggings is more than just another hashtag. It demonstrates the power of social media and online activism in raising awareness about the struggle for women’s rights, while also creating a platform for power to be more equally distributed. #LifeInLeggings is a movement that gives power to the powerless, a mechanism through which to coerce action against deeply entrenched and systemic sexual violence against women. It is time to recognize that sexual violence is an issue that disrupts women’s fundamental rights to security and sovereignty. As Ms. Mutota told WIB, “Campaigns are usually a strategy for a larger policy oriented program. Programming around ending GBV has been on the feminist/women’s rights agenda for a long time in this region.”
Through #LifeInLeggings, women can come together to open the eyes of society to the difficulty of living in their reality, release themselves from the burden of shielding the male ego, and vindicate their victimhood.