Barbados’ so-called culture of sexual violence and harassment against women is once again under the international microscope.
This time, the harassment was so bad that Andrea Lo, a freelance journalist from Hong Kong, said she felt compelled to flee the island and abandon her welcome stamp visa before sharing her experience with the international press.
Minister of Tourism Senator Lisa Cummins told Barbados TODAY that she is “personally familiar” with Lo’s unfortunate experience and described it as “totally unacceptable” but declined to confirm whether other ‘welcome stampers’ have been complaining of similar issues.
Director of the Life in Leggings movement Ronelle King, however, lamented the fact that many Barbadian women and girls are yet to experience the “paradise” to which tourists are invited to vacation due to the scourge of genderbased violence and harassment.
In an article carried by the Business Insider, Lo, who arrived last December, recalled being sexually heckled and harassed on numerous occasions to the point where she no longer felt safe to leave the house.
“Almost every time I left the house, someone called and whistled after me or spoke to me. It felt like I had nowhere to go without experiencing catcalling like this. A man told me he wanted to ‘put his aloe vera on me’ when I was taking pictures of the beach. Another yelled, ‘Leave that bum alone’ as I adjusted my shorts as I walked,”
“During the lockdown in March, I went to the supermarket by myself at 3 p.m. Nobody else was on the street. A man drove by and stopped next to me. He said he was selling beach chairs. And then he asked me to get in the car. ‘I’d rather go, thank you,’ I replied.
“He became aggressive: ‘I’m trying to talk to you, but you’re not talking to me.’ I replied, ‘I’d rather be alone.’ ‘Don’t you want a husband?’ he asked. I said no, and he drove away. But I froze in fear and was too panicked to write down his licence plate,” she added.
This was seemingly the last straw, and by April, the journalist, who four months before detailed her first few days here in a CNN travel article, was now packing her belongings and heading home.
Her experience is not isolated and is one which numerous women’s rights organisations have been championing on behalf of local and regional women affected by a “culture” of harassment.
About a month ago, a 15-year-old girl was beaten and raped while passing through a track near the National Insurance Building on Collymore Rock and Culloden Road.
No less than two weeks later, news surfaced about a home invasion where a British female was apparently raped at gunpoint.
When contacted about the latest saga, Senator Cummins revealed that Lo’s concerns were relayed to her by a local advocate, after which she maintained direct contact.
“Whether a local or a visitor, the experiences that she has recounted are simply unacceptable and have no place in modern Barbados,” Cummins told Barbados TODAY.
“Women, locals and visitors going about their daily lives are to be respected and treated with that respect at all times whether on the beach, at a fete or in the boardroom,” she added.
The tourism minister further lamented that many of the issues which have landed on her desk concern issues affecting women.
“We have had women disproportionately affected by unemployment in the sector and all that came with that. We had some challenges with visitors, and we have dealt with them all with sensitivity and privacy,” Cummins revealed.
“But let me go a bit further on this specific case. This is an era where we have had the Me Too Movement, Life in Leggings and a broad global conversation about the things we as women have all known. We navigate life differently,” she added.
Tourism officials have also confirmed that other persons on the Welcome Stamp Visa have been relocated at the expense of local authorities because of similar issues. Senator Cummins, however, said that she would rather not come out in public spaces “breaking” stories such as these.
“It’s not the right thing to do. What is right, as I see it, is ensuring that we engage directly and personally with persons who are affected. If they want to share, then that’s the option they take, and we hope that in doing so, it brings awareness to issues that we need to solve for all of us,” she explained.
King, the director of the Life in Leggings is credited by the visiting journalist for reaching out and offering support. She, however, told Barbados TODAY hundreds of Barbadian women continue to face harassment on a weekly basis. The difference with ‘welcome stampers’ is an added feeling of isolation due to the absence of familiar support systems.
And while there has been an increase in activism, safe spaces and even legislation supporting the fight against gender-based violence, King complained that there are still too many detractors in society that in some cases include law enforcement officials.
“We sell Barbados as this paradise, this very safe destination, and for the most part, it really isn’t paradise. It doesn’t feel that way for a woman or girl who experiences this pervasive sexual harassment or wider gender-based violence every day,” King told Barbados TODAY.
“It is not about protection of women. It is about creating environments where women can be free. Women should be allowed to walk around and exist in this country with a level of freedom that men have. Men don’t generally walk around in fear of women and what they will do to them.
Women would like to be able to access that privilege as well,” the women’s rights activist added.