An Aspirational Look to 2018

Coming out of a year of sitting around, watching and questioning, 2018 has to be a year of collective action.

From early on, we will not only pay attention to what is being said by whom, but scrutinise those words and hold them up against behaviour and supposed values.

We will find inconsistencies, wherever they are, and call on relevant organisations and individuals to address them.

In 2018, Bahamians will finally move beyond conversation and not just to participate in political stunts. We will be thoughtful in our contributions to national discussions, cautious in our commitments and unrelenting in our pursuit of the common good.

The people have been duped enough times to now recognise the tell-tale signs of liars, opportunists and manipulators and our experience will be put to the test.

Politicians, wannabe politicians, career criminals and those seeking celebrity will continue to use pressing issues to push their own agendas, tying up Bahamians thirsty for change in their webs of deceit. We will do our best to see these people miles away, ask the hard questions and listen to what they don’t say. We won’t have the time to warm seats or fill streets for anything other than a better Bahamas for all of us – and we know this. We’ll be more discriminating in the causes we take up, who we allow to lead us and how far we go without seeing a long-term plan.

This is the year of the sceptic. Conspiracy theorists will continue to buzz in our ears about other eras, curses and outlandish outcomes unnamed people are working toward. Those aren’t the sceptics, or the people the sceptics question. Most of us will become — if we haven’t already — untrusting. Leaders in all arenas will find it more difficult to gain support because we are determined to avoid all forms of trickery. We won’t be easily convinced and we will refuse to get on board without near-absolute certainty of the outcome.

It’s going to be a tough one. While we want to move from talk to action, there isn’t much we can accomplish alone. Unfortunately, we don’t know who to trust. We may be facing the toughest year yet, for politicians, yes, but it isn’t an election year. It’s going to be most difficult for the activists, advocates and civil society organisations that need buy-in.

So many have disappointed Bahamians over the past year it should not be surprising that we’re made to work much harder to gain trust, mobilise and take the kind of collective action that forces change.

Published by The Tribune on January 2, 2018

Culture Clash: Time We Talked To A Wider Audience

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence continues, most people working in the fields of gender and violence prevention are attending events ranging from special assemblies at high schools to conferences. At these events, we see and engage, for the most part, the same people. We sit through presentations on the same material, listen to the same comments and have the same sidebars with the people we talk to every time we meet in these spaces.

There are many things we can do to make these meetings more beneficial to participants and impactful for the communities they serve. One often ignored and overlooked area we need to strengthen is multi-sector partnerships. Beyond holding events during traditional work hours on weekdays and bringing the same participants together, we forget to invite organisations and individuals working in different fields, but with direct access to the communities we need to reach.

One of the most dangerously powerful entities in The Bahamas is the church. It has tremendous influence on its congregants and, by extension, elected and appointed representatives of the people who sit in Parliament and the Senate. The Christian church has shown itself to have the power to make its vote the vote of the people through its interpretation of biblical text, access to resources and at least weekly opportunities to push its agenda.

Many Bahamian people are more inclined to listen to a religious leader than a politician, academic, or advocate. Church masses and meetings are seen as mandatory while conference and information sessions tend to be seen as distractions, poor uses of time, or generally superfluous.

When we take all of this into consideration, it becomes clear we need to partner with the church to reach the people. This doesn’t mean promoting conferences in the bulletin or newsletter, or asking to use church halls to hold meetings. It means having ongoing conversations with leadership about current events, draft legislation, programme development and community-building.

This is not to be confused with the usual quest for the church’s approval. It is a completely separate process which would allow us to properly communicate with the church about national issues and its role in addressing them and engaging its congregation in the conversation and the collective action required to make positive change.

Many politicians, civil society leaders and activists would agree The Bahamas Christian Council tends to make a nuisance of itself. It has historically been selective in the issues it speaks to and frequently, as in its most recent statement, suggests prayer is a reasonable and impactful action on its own.

The Bahamas Christian Council announced it will focus on men as they are in need of immediate attention. While he mentioned the plan to hold panel discussions and meetings, Bishop Fernander spoke about using teaching, preaching and prayer to reach young men.

While the church, as Bishop Fernander said, “can’t be anything else than what the church is,” it is important we recognise its role in developing and influencing people. It is easy to criticise the church and its methods, but it is not going anywhere, and Bahamian people continue to fund it and look to it for direction.

How can we make better use of the platform and space the church holds in Bahamian society? Are we inviting religious leaders to panel discussions, conferences and reporting sessions? While there will always be those who teach and preach on what they do not fully understand, it is important we make it possible for them to gain access to information, challenge it in forums where there can be immediate response and debate and take material for colleagues and congregants.

The Pan American Development Foundation in partnership with the US Embassy has delivered Resistant and Prevention Programme training to police officers, civil servants and members of civil society for the past few years.

While the programme focuses on crime prevention and community policing, opening it to more than just police officers is critical to its success. It was through this programme that I gained appreciation for Urban Renewal and I can now challenge people who say it is useless. My participation in the course revealed harsh truths about the police force, the state of families and communities around us and the resources available to assist those in need.

I do not imagine I would have gained the same insight from speeches, essays, or one-off events. I still have strong opinions about law enforcement, from the system to the personnel, but the course was integral to deepening my understanding of our state and building relationships for collaboration. Opening a police-focused course to others allowed for honest yet difficult conversations and helped participants to see the value in the work we are all doing.

Yesterday, the Pan American Development Foundation held a conference on its Women’s Initiative for Non-Violence and Development (WIND) programme and, again, there were many police officers present.

In addition, there were representatives from various government departments including Education and members of civil society organisations. For many of us, the information presented was not new, but the value was in the discussion toward the end of the day.

We were able to hear about the work being done and some of the barriers to that work, or to expanding it. Interestingly, every time a participant raised an issue or made mention of a roadblock to developing, funding, or expanding a program, someone volunteered helpful information or offered their own resources or influence to give the person access. This is the power of working across sectors.

While we are not likely to agree on every issue, there are many areas of consensus. For example, there are many responses to domestic violence. There are thousands of stories of women being turned away from police stations because they had been there before and officers were tired of helping them. There are just as many stories of religious leaders encouraging women to stay with abusive husbands because the “family” is paramount.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations work to assist survivors, providing them with counseling and economic support, prioritizing the life of the women and their children. There is clearly no consensus there, but all entities can agree that violence — based on the texts, whether religious or legal, they use as guides — is wrong. Let’s start there. Make it a part of the message in sermons and teachings. Make it a part of summer camps run by the RBPF. Make it a part of the conversation when training volunteers. Find ways to work together on programming that can reach all of the communities these organisations touch. Include each other in the work being done.

We won’t make change by continuing to talk to ourselves. If we continue to only see the same faces every time we meet, we’re doing it wrong. Our challenge — perhaps the greatest and most pressing — is to expand our reach, step out of our comfort zones and engage the people we perceive to be our opponents. Even they have something to offer, if only their audience and the influence they maintain over it.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 6, 2017

Culture Clash: Violence Cannot Be Tolerated – In Whatever Form It Comes

Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that often goes unrecognised and unchecked. We all know it exists, but our understanding of it can be quite limited in scope and type.

In discussions about violence, emphasis is generally put on direct violence which includes physical acts like hitting and pushing, with little focus on forms of violence that are just as damaging. Direct violence also includes sexual violence, from harassment to rape, and less frequently discussed acts like human trafficking, exploitation of domestic workers and online harassment.

We have fallen into the habit of excusing direct violence. We find ways to put blame on the survivors and victims of violence. This is sometimes because we want to protect the abusers, but in most cases, we fail to recognise certain acts as violence. We use words like “teasing” and “flirting” to downplay harassment, refusing to see the distinction between them.

Women and girls are seen as unfriendly or “stuck up” when they dare to say or show that attention is unwanted. Men and boys are allowed to make nuisances of themselves because there is more value on their performance of masculinity and seeking to fill their own needs than the comfort and safety of women and girls.

Far too many people concern themselves with what a women or girl was wearing, where she was, who she was with and why she was there with whomever was in her company when she reports sexual assault. This refusal to recognise the violation in favour of misplacing blame for the violation is another act of violence.

Indirect violence includes systemic issues and the stereotypes with which we are familiar, even if we do not recognise them as such.

Yesterday, in a session focused on the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, a differently-abled woman spoke out about the lack of access to spaces — public and otherwise — and increased vulnerability of differently-abled women.

She identified the exclusion of differently-abled women as an act violence. This is a form of violence we do not often recognise or acknowledge, but is part of the lived reality of differently-abled people and compounds the marginalisation of differently-abled women. Women do not get to be only women. We are women and black, women and queer, women and poor, women and elderly and any number of other layered identities.

Every year, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence — a global campaign — run from November 25 to December 10. It opens on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and closes on International Human Rights Day. These observations underscore both the pervasive and possibly most easily identified forms of gender inequality and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. This campaign coincides with National Women’s Week in The Bahamas which this year began on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the first time Bahamian women voted.

The Department of Gender and Family Affairs planned Orange Day, a church service and the information and walk-through of the CEDAW report. The Department also disseminated information on NGO-led events and initiatives, including the Zonta Says No town hall held last night and the series of events and actions organised by Equality Bahamas.

These included a Day of Silence, screening of Marion Bethel’s Womanish Ways — a documentary on the Bahamian Women’s Suffrage Movement — and open mic at Expressions at Bistro Underground being held tonight, featuring Tingum Collective from University of The Bahamas, Blue Elite dance troupe and poets Zemi Holland and Letitia Pratt.

This 16-day campaign includes a broad range of activities which are aimed at raising awareness and driving action. Beyond wearing orange and attending events in droves, it is critical we advocate for the change we need, systemically, to end gender-based violence. As Donna Nicolls, of Bahamas Women’s Watch, stated at a few events thus far during the campaign, we need to continue our action and remember that 16 days is not enough.

The campaign is beneficial for introducing people to the issues, increasing and deepening understanding of those issues and connecting with organisations and individuals working on women’s rights and ending gender-based violence year-round all over the world.

Last year, the Life in Leggings movement started in Barbados, swept across the region and encouraged many Bahamian women to share their stories of sexual violence. For most of them, it was the first time they had spoken about their experiences.

While the campaign was not launched as a part of the 16-day campaign, it connected thousands of Caribbean women and highlighted the similarity of stories, laws and systemic issues. This year, just before the beginning of the campaign, people in Guyana stood in support of high school girls who reported sexual violence by a teacher and rebuked the headmistress who shamed girl students for not supporting their teacher. They pushed for a response from the Ministry of Education with regard to the teacher and the headmistress. It is clear none of us can wait for annual campaigns, nor can we limit our advocacy and activism to these limited periods.

Everyone is not able to participate in global campaigns or contribute to ongoing work in the same ways, so it is important to consider various levels of involvement, time commitment, and frequency of activity. As the holidays approach and the season of giving makes us more willing to part with money, think about how can you support an organisation advocating for the rights of women or providing support to women and girl survivors of violence.

While money is always helpful, a phone call or email to find out about items needed is always welcome. The Bahamas Crisis Centre, for example, is currently in need of nonperishable food including noodles, tuna, corned beef and small packs of rice.

Whether you can give a can of tuna or a case of tuna, it would be appreciated by both the organisation and its clients.

There are always people who want to help, but are not able to give tangible items, and there is space for them too. Bahamas Sexual Health and Rights Association (BaSHRA) is running Baby Can Wait — a comprehensive sexual education program — in a few high schools this academic year and could certainly benefit from more volunteers willing to be trained and assigned a class to teach for one hour per week for ten weeks. There are many ways to take action and Equality Bahamas is sharing a new idea every day during 16-days.

The first step is to think about violence in its various forms, where it shows up in your life and how you respond to it. Every act of violence is not intentional, but is still wrong, so it is on the individual, along with organisations, to be intentional in our actions and inclusion of women and girls and all other marginalised people.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 30, 2017

Culture Clash: The Flexibility of Activism

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 28, 2017

As social justice issues become more mainstream, the number of activists, advocates, and allies is steadily increasing. People are more involved in conversations about gender, race, class, migration, and a variety of other issues with social media as a go-to resource for a broad range of news and commentary.

Access to information, opinions, and public action is at our fingertips; we can immediately respond to and participate in them. By becoming vocal, visible, and active, people feel more connected to existing movements, and see themselves as activists. Recently, there has been debate about who can call themselves an activist, and how the title is earned. Activism is more than social media posts and profile picture ribbons, but is it productive to discount the efforts of people trying to make a difference in whatever ways, however small, they can?

The work of activists is not trite, easy, or passive. Risks are assumed, positions are clear, and actions are taken. We all know activists are often demonised and ostracised because of their methods of participation and the challenge we bring to old ways of thinking and being. We are often painted as extremists — dangerous and unreasonable people.

In recent years, we’ve seen changes in this dynamic with people taking centre stage, refusing to be sidelined. In many cases, activists have created the agenda and an environment where the option to ignore or refuse to participate does not exist. Leading dialogues and taking control of both narratives and outcomes have always been critical, and the possibilities have increased along with appreciation for the work, and more people want to be a part of it.

Measuring and Validating Activism

While some take offence when others use “activist” to describe themselves, having a narrow view of what it means to embody the term, activism today takes many different shapes, and can be performed in a variety of ways. As people of marginalised communities fighting against oppression and actively disputing ideas of the monolith, it is unreasonable to expect activists to fit a mold. It is also far from productive to alienate, rebuke, or silence people who are, at the very least, allies.

There is no official list of qualifiers to determine whether or not a person is an activist. Even if creating one, it is important that our own values and abilities are not imposed on entire communities, expecting them to measure up to attain activism status. In fact, dictionary definitions of activism prioritise political causes, giving social issues a backseat. Clearly, activism has grown beyond the definition, and as we continue to be creative and provocative in our work, activism will continue to be dynamic, ever-changing.

Before taking action, most people assess their qualifications, skills, and living situation. Do they have the knowledge to write an informative article? Do they have the charisma to deliver a speech? Can they afford to leave work to protest? With such varied points of assessment, no one can use their own activities and choices to define activism for all. It is as diverse as the people who practice it and, perhaps more importantly, the people it is meant to reach.

Traditional and Social Media Activism

In years gone by, activists were known by their public deeds, from impassioned speeches to protests and petitioning. Today, it is difficult to differentiate activists from non-activists when they claim the term in thought, word, and deed. Do all activists protest? How many times does one have to protest before becoming an activist? How can a participant in (or beneficiary of) an oppressive system be an activist?

How can we give room to people who may not protest, but are active on social media, and have conversations in groups others among us may not be able to access? Their efforts may not be public-facing, but they can answer questions in our stead. We have to be able to value work that may not look like our own, but helps to lessen the burden we carry, saving us from the emotional burnout that can come from engaging both peers and the general public.

What is the value of people on social media sharing articles, giving different perspectives, posting pictures from public events, and directing people to more information? An active social media presence is not always as easy as it may seem. Online harassment continues to be a deterrent from using platforms like Facebook. It is often the less visible and less politicised figures who are able to engage in heated debates and escape relatively unscathed. How do account for the danger activists face just by the nature of the work, and avoid discounting their efforts because of the precautions they must take?

Diversity of Movements

Movement membership and participation are important, regardless of the shape they take. Some people march while others write think pieces. Some people start petitions while others send the link to their friends lists. Some are talk show guests while others wrestle with detractors on Facebook. In movements — large and small — fighting to end injustice and restore peace, there is room for everyone. A variety of personalities, skill sets, qualifications, knowledge, and experience make for a more robust, multifaceted movement.

To reach people in other spaces, movements need people with different experiences, and members of the dominant culture are needed as allies. While people on the frontlines take the brunt of the criticism and abuse, supporters need to be ready to defend fellow activists, dispel myths, and drive conversations forward, using more traditional actions as a springboard. The truth is there is always room for more in social and political movements, the need for people power and passion never diminishing. The differences in audience and approach are strengths, only increasing reach and impact. Recognising the value in our varied approaches will enable us to better work across disciplines and areas of focus, propelling us toward the version of The Bahamas we are all working to build.

Culture Clash: On Cyber Crime in The Bahamas

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 19, 2017

Everyone wants to be entertained.

We pay for cable television, go to political rallies and engage in Facebook banter on hot topics for days.

Sometimes our jokes are on other people, but nothing is as disturbing as the pleasure many get from recording, watching and sharing explicit content without consent of the people involved.

Too many people prefer to make assumptions, stating them as facts, to looking critically at common behaviours and the related social ills.

There is no shortage of topics we would prefer to leave undiscussed. We are not interested in feeling uncomfortable, challenging norms or risking existing perceptions of ourselves to have necessary conversations.

No one wants to talk about sexual violence. It is not pleasant. Rape is not a safe table topic, but women are not safe from predators either. Why not? Who is to blame? How have we contributed to rape culture, ensuring that victims are blamed for violence enacted against them and made to feel shame and guilt?

Every few months, a new story makes the rounds on social media. Videos are quickly shared, exposing traumatic, humiliating moments for the entertainment of the general public. We have become voyeurs, cultivating an insatiable desire for violent content. When people are excited by images of car accidents, footage of people taking their last breaths, children being abused and women being raped, it should be an alarm. This growing obsession is a definite indicator of desensitisation to acts of violence and loss of humanity. Unfortunately, it seems this has been normalised, and few are willing to challenge it.

For the past few days, video of a rape has been circulating on social media. Not only has evidence of a crime been widely shared, but people have requested the video. They are asking contacts to share a video of a woman being raped for their entertainment and to enable them to join the troubling conversation, complete with graphic details.

Why was this video recorded? Who recorded it? Why has it been shared with anyone other than the police? Why do people want to watch it? What does it mean when people are excited by the thought of such a video?

In conversations about violence against women, the issue of relationship to the survivor is almost always raised. When men and boys fail to see the problem with various forms of sexual violence, we quickly point them in the direction of their family trees. What if this happened to your mother, sister, or daughter? What if this woman was related to you in any way? Would she be a human then? Would she deserve to be protected then? Would it still be her fault?

The same distance exists between viewers and individuals in the videos. Something keeps us from seeing people we do not know as human beings. The same deficiency renders us incapable of empathy. Entirely separate from this is the sense of moral superiority that comes with viewing such content. People like to see and position themselves as better than others. It is a pleasure to point out all the things we would have done differently to ensure a different outcome.

What did she drink? Who did she get it from? Did she ever let it out of her sight? Why did she drink it? Didn’t she notice it tasted different? Did she know these people? Couldn’t she fight back?

I wouldn’t have drunk anything. I don’t know anyone who would do that to me. I’m a better judge of character. No matter how drunk I am, I can fight back. I’m smarter. Stronger. Better.

These questions are easy to ask. These actions are easy to premeditate. Judgments are easy to make. In all of this, we centre ourselves and forget about the people who are impacted by the content shared without their consent and the unfiltered public commentary. We give no thought to the impact of our self-aggrandisement on victims of cyber crime. We rarely even think about our perception of rape.

It is easy to think of rape in narrow terms – dark alley, stranger, screams. In reality, rape is not limited to specific circumstances. It can happen day or night, inside or outside, with or without an audience. For the perpetrator, it is an exercise of power and control. When consent is not given, it is rape. Consent must be voluntary, explicit and continuous, and can only be given in sobriety and adulthood. It is never implied and is always necessary. When lack of consent or the end of consent is ignored, the act is a violation. In this most recent video, the young woman was incapable of giving consent. She was sexually violated and that has been multiplied by the cyber crime of recording and sharing the video.

Certain assumptions can be made about people who send and receive videos like the one being discussed. Sending such a video suggests the sender has reason to believe the recipient is like-minded. It implies there is nothing wrong with sharing this kind of material, and no consequences are expected. If you are in receipt of the video, it may be time to ask yourself a few questions. Who sent it to you? What is your relationship to the sender? Why would anyone feel comfortable sharing the video with you? How do you respond to people sharing this kind of content with you? Have you shared the video, or content like it? Are you a cyber criminal?

If we are not prepared to consider the impact of our actions and speech on others, to refrain from criminal activity or to correct family and friends when they commit harmful acts, are we ready for the revolution we say we want to see?

If we cannot govern ourselves or see the humanity in one another, we are not prepared for fight for democracy. Are we ready to study, debate, and decision-making on the road to May 10, 2017? Until we respect and protect the least among us, we cannot rise together for effective leadership and civic participation in our country.

We must think beyond ourselves and our personal relationships, working to understand and promote human rights for all, if we are to build a better Bahamas for Bahamians.

Culture Clash: On People Power and Functions of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on March 22, 2017

As the general election of 2017 – date still unknown – draws near, conversations about democracy are being ignited, but largely limited to one of its functions.

The low rate of voter registration has led the Bahamian people to frame the act of voting as the only form of participation in democracy available to citizens.

While it is a direct action and right afforded to us through democracy, voting is not the only benefit of democracy. Additionally, the creation and maintenance of the political system is not the only function of democracy.

Democracy is a concept, system, and practice that we, as citizens of The Bahamas, need to understand. Many believe it to be limited to elections and voting, but it reaches far beyond such events.

Democracy has four main functions, three of which are often ignored while it is reduced to the first. While it is important to understand the theory of democracy, it is at least as critical to recognise all of its functions and put it into practice more fully and intentionally.

  • Political system

A democratic political system allows people to choose their leaders in regular, free elections.

Free, fair elections require a neutral administrating body to ensure fair treatment of all parties and candidates, allowance for individuals to monitor voting and the counting of votes and independent tribunals to hear disputes.

Beyond that, it allows the people to hold representatives accountable for their actions and inaction while in office. Democracy recognises the sovereignty of the people as government authority is subject to the people’s consent. Political power is only temporary while the power of the people is lasting and flows to their representatives at their will.

For this reason, those elected are to consult with their constituents to ascertain their needs and opinions to enable accurate representation. Through the democratic system, voters have the right to observe the conduct of government business, criticise elected representatives, launch and support campaigns, vote secretly and be free of intimidation as they participate.

  • Active participation

Like its benefits, the democratic burden does not fall solely on governments and political leaders to maintain, strengthen, and exercise it.

The onus is on citizens to be informed of national issues, observe the behaviour of elected and appointed officials, voice their concerns and challenge decisions imposed upon and ideas put to them.

While voting is an important exercise and a right afforded to citizens by the democratic political system, citizens are called to participate in public discussions. The voice of the people must be heard, and serve as a guide for political representatives who are to act in the interest of their constituents.

Participation is not synonymous with spectatorship. To fully participate in public life, citizens must be informed – and this often requires personal effort. Politically-driven narratives seldom give a full picture, and the media is not always capable, for many reasons, of delivering balanced reports. It is necessary to look at multiple news sources, ask questions and engage in conversations with people of varied persuasions. Democracy enables the people to actively participate through:

  1. Questions. Accept nothing as fact without evidence. Investigate claims and try to find multiple sources.
  2. Discussion. Share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Engage with people who do not look like you, have the same background as you, or think the same way as you. The purpose is not to win, or be on the side of popular opinion. Enter conversations with gaining new perspective as your goal.
  3. Challenges. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Make demands of your representatives. Hold them accountable for their actions, demand transparency and insist upon regular reporting to and consultation with the people.
  4. Mobilisation. Be prepared to work together, as citizens, to find common ground, make a plan and take action. Your power is strengthened with activated along with that of your fellow Bahamians.

Participation includes joining political campaigns, protesting, petitioning, organising within communities and running for political office. Involvement in civil society organisations is another way to be an active citizen, and can allow for informal education and mobilisation around specific interests and causes.

  • Human rights protection

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, language or any other identity marker.

They are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Human rights are promoted and protected by international law, and the standard has been set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR protects against discrimination, slavery, torture, and unfair detainment, and affirms the right to life, freedom of movement, equality before the law, right to trial, right to privacy and right to nationality.

International law grants every citizen human rights that cannot be denied. Citizens are free to speak, practice their religions, associate with people and organisations, assemble, travel and engage in a number of other acts. In a democracy, citizens have these basic rights that cannot be denied.

  • Rule of Law

Democracy is subject to a set of laws. These laws exist for the protection of citizens’ rights, to maintain order in the country and to limit the power of the people’s representatives.

This function exists to ensure that rule is not subject to the whims of an individual or group of individuals. Because of the rule of law, all citizens are equal, none being above the law, regardless of position. It allows for fair and impartial decision-making by independent courts, separate from the government, which is meant to limit the power of representatives.

The people of The Bahamas can only benefit when democracy functions properly, being exercised by the citizens to whom it extends specific rights.

One right afforded to us through democracy is the casting of a ballot in the next general election. To exercise that right, we must take proof of Bahamian citizenship to register to vote. This is an important exercise that enables us to choose our constituency representatives and, by extension, the leadership of the country. It is not, however, the only way to participate in our democracy, and to suggest such is both dishonest and disempowering to the Bahamian people.

Let us encourage one another to exercise the right to vote, but include the other functions of democracy and methods of participation in our conversations for balance, comprehensiveness and strengthening of people power.

#TooSexyToVote: Female Voter Suppression in The Bahamas

Published at LadyClever.com on January 27, 2017

On the heels of the U.S. Presidential Election, The Bahamas is preparing for its general election expected to be held n May 2017. The Bahamas has successfully maintained a voter turnout of over 90% for general elections— one of the highest in the world. A November 2016 report, however, showed that approximately 57,000 people had registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011, ahead of the 2012 general election. Since then, there has been a significant increase in politicians and civic society, through social media posts, radio talk shows, and daily newspapers, urging Bahamians to register to vote. Given this, it was shocking to learn that Bahamian women were being turned away by Parliamentary Registration Department staff, denied the right to register to vote, by reason of dress.

No Cleavage Allowed

On December 30, 2016, The Tribune’s cover story featured a woman who had been turned away from voter registration three times. Deputy Chief Reporter Krishna Virgil asked Parliamentary Commission Sherlyn Hall about voter registration policy, as the Parliamentary Elections Act does not mention a dress code.

Mr. Hall said, “Because you have to take photographs, so if someone comes with half their breasts out and cleavage showing, this isn’t permitted.”

In the same interview, he shared that 75,000 people had registered to vote — less than 50% of registration numbers at the same point in 2011.

While this story was a surprise to some, others had stories of their own to share. Women took to social media to talk about what they were wearing when they were turned away from registering to vote. They ranged from tank tops to sleeveless dresses. Generally, it seemed any woman with their shoulders, upper arms, or breasts visible was denied their right to register.

#TooSexyToVote

Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune, sprung into action on the day the story was printed. Within hours of her Facebook post and the creation of a secret group, dozens of Bahamian women were in conversation about the suppression of women’s voter rights.While some researched laws and policies regarding dress code, others brainstormed national actions. #TooSexyToVote to vote was born, and the Sexy Voter Registration event was set for January 4, 2017.

Bahamian women were invited to a lunchtime power hour at the Parliamentary Registration Department to register to vote in the attire of their choice. The decision was made not to leave until everyone successfully registered to vote, no matter what they were wearing. The participants included a woman in a crochet top and short, a women in jeggings and a crop top, a women in a fitted dress exposing her cleavage, and a woman in a men’s three-piece suit. All participants were able to register without a problem, though the woman in the crop top was asked to remove some of her earrings. She refused, the photographer consulted a supervisor, and it was decided that her picture could be taken and her registration process completed.

The Fight Continues

The next day, more reports were made on social media of Bahamian women being turned away from voter registration station. It became clear that most of the issues were occurring at two locations. The #TooSexyToVote crew then began plans to respond. While two female Parliament members and the Minister of National Security — who has responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department — referenced the issue and Hall’s comments, there were no reports of directives being issued for the Department’s staff to cease its discriminatory practices and register all eligible Bahamians to vote. Hollaback! Bahamas then published an open letter to the Parliamentary Commission, calling on him to do his job in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Act, or vacate the post.

“It is an affront to Bahamian suffragettes and all Bahamian women that in 2017 — the year we will celebrate 55 years since the first time Bahamian women voted — eligible voters are being turned away because of personal opinions. Hollaback! Bahamas denounces the refusal to view Bahamian women as full citizens, the policing of women’s bodies, and the subsequent perpetuation of violence against women.”

A directive has since been issued, and Hollaback! Bahamas continues to collect #TooSexyToVote stories through its online report form. All data collected through the form will be reported to the media, holding all parties involved accountable.

Next Steps

#TooSexyToVote organizers are closely monitoring social media reports on experiences in registering to vote. It has expanded its scope to include other barriers to registration, like stations not being open during published times. The group is set to launch an interactive flowchart providing Bahamian citizens with comprehensive information on voter registration requirements and procedures to ensure they are prepared when they visit a station. There are also plans to train voter advocates to visit registration stations and assist people who encounter issues with the staff. #TooSexyToVote is committed to encouraging people to register to vote, especially women, who comprise more than 50% of voters.