For the past 45 years under a succession of leaders, the National Organisation of Women (NOW) has effectively championed the cause of a better deal for Barbadian women.
Marilyn Rice-Bowen, one of the island’s most outspoken women’s advocates, assumed leadership of NOW in 2013. She sat with Barbados TODAY recently and gave an update on what NOW is doing.
“When you think of the National Organisation of Women, you think of a wide range of women’s organisations on the island,” she explained. “One of our roles is to amplify societal issues that our affiliates are focusing on.”
NOW encompasses the promotion of understanding and unity among women, working towards equal status for women in economic, civil, educational and political life, the removal of discrimination, informing and educating women concerning their status in society, and generally protecting and defending the interests of women.
In recent times, NOW has been focusing considerable attention on domestic violence. Rice-Bowen said it is a problem which plagues Barbados and has the potential to destroy the fabric of society. She described domestic violence as one of the most challenging issues NOW has had to deal with.
Rice-Bowen observed many women are either afraid or ashamed to reach out for help and, as a result, suffer in silence.
Once women report being abused, the police will come to their assistance. The Business and Professional Women’s Club, one of NOW’s affiliates, also has a support programme which aims to turn women from victims to survivors.
“When we reflect on growing up in our own society, we knew of situations where women were being abused, but we didn’t call it domestic violence,” said Rice-Bowen as she relaxed in the comfort of her Christ Church home.
“And in those days, I remember you could hear people saying ‘she probably did this and this is why this has happened’. In those days, the woman was always to blame.”
“It is only over the last 15 to 20 years that it is labeled and we have learned to understand that domestic violence is what it is called,” she explained.
NOW intends to remain committed to this fight. In this president’s opinion, they have been reaping success in terms of increasing awareness locally and helping to change attitudes. She mentioned an experience last year as supporting evidence.
“I remember going into the fish market, and the guys were there just having a discussion that got fairly heated. It was all about women of course.
“And one guy said ‘look the woman there from NOW coming, we can’t talk about beating up no woman boah.’ So, in their minds, they recognize women are out there and we are doing our best and ensuring everything in our power that it remains a front burner issue,” the mother of two recalled.
Overall, Rice-Bowen, who is also president of the Caribbean Women’s Association, is satisfied that people generally, but especially women, are becoming more open about domestic violence.
“Women come and they approach you and they talk about their situations a lot easier than before. I guess what makes it even easier to talk about is that they recognize that everything is done in confidence so they don’t have to worry if their “business” would be out there.”
NOW has 20 affiliates with approximately 5 000 members who are seeking to make a difference by transforming lives. Through these affiliates, a wide variety of programmes focusing on economic empowerment is available to women who are interested.
“Economic empowerment is very important because some women need to make that step. We wouldn’t say financial independence because that might be too pie in the sky, but we want to move them to alter their situation which is important,” Rice-Bowen said, explaining that ironing, repairing and altering clothing are among just a few skills that women can use as sources of income.
The 60-year-old’s stint as NOW president will come to an end in May and she will immediately become a member of the executive board.
Regarding who is likely to replace her, Rice-Bowen indicated a voting process will soon make that determination. She noted that “inter-generation leadership is what we practice as we prepare young women for leadership.”
Meantime, the work of NOW continues and one plan on the agenda is the creation of a centre for women in the near future.
“We want to afford women the opportunity to undertake courses in conversational Spanish because, very often, they go to seek employment overseas, but when the cruise ships are looking for staff, if at least you can speak a little Spanish, you can edge in there. We also want women to learn basic computer skills because wherever you go to work, you need to have computer skills,” Rice-Bowen said.
Increasing women’s political participation will also be a major focus of NOW in preparation for Barbados’ next general election constitutionally due in 2018.
While it is evident that women understand the importance of voting as reflected in the numbers who go to the polls, the outgoing president said NOW believes more women should be encouraged to seek political office as she has done herself in the past.
“You can vote, you support people, you help mobilize things, they help to do everything and they can also lead. When you look at women’s political participation internationally, the Caribbean is still falling behind and Barbados in particular. So we need to make sure that women’s political participation is heightened,” she contended.
On Sunday, March 8, NOW will join the rest of the world to celebrate International Women’s Day 2015 under the theme Make It Happen.
Rice-Bowen said this is a time for women to stand in solidarity with women who are victims of domestic violence, or are seeking economic empowerment and resolution of societal issues that affect the family.
“If we can unite, then certainly we could make it happen,” she declared.