A Barbadian women’s rights advocate is hoping to improve the lives of migrant women and trafficked victims through her work. Dr Olivia Smith, Executive Director for the Caribbean Anti-Human Trafficking Foundation, is currently a Fellow at McGill University, examining the troubling way law enforcement agencies often treat vulnerable migrant women.
“In my specific study, I’ve been looking at the perception law enforcement officers have of trafficked women and girls, because how police officers perceive women in these circumstances often leads them to miss the fact that the woman is trafficked, or it leads them to treat the women as criminals instead of victims. It also leads to mishandling of the criminal investigation.
“We have so many complaints of how these women are treated when they go, for example, to the Welfare Department. They’re made to feel less than human when they go elsewhere within government organisations, and many of the organisations that these women turn to happen to be led by women. It calls for a lot of training, especially with senior female managers in the public service. It has to stop.”
However, as it relates to the COVID-19 response, she commended the efforts by the Government.
“The Barbadian government has been responding in terms of providing food for them during the lockdown periods and providing some welfare assistance for those who qualified.
“When COVID-19 came along, we suddenly had many people reaching out to tell stories of women that they knew had been trafficked to Barbados from Guyana, Jamaica, and a few from Trinidad. We ended up helping 450 migrant families— almost all women-led. People don’t want to use the words, but we are in an emerging humanitarian crisis situation. So in the real world, [this help] means getting food, it means getting sanitary napkins, pampers, baby milk, and those things, or, in some cases, assisting them with rent or travel,” Dr Smith said.
Her research estimates that vulnerable migrant women in Barbados typically have between three to nine children. This is why she sees an urgent need to equip both mothers and children with tools for the future, instead of allowing them to fall through the cracks in the country they have settled in.
“We have to urgently retool women so that they can meet the needs of the labour market. This can be done by putting programmes in place that move beyond teaching them to sew and bake, to use technology in order to become 21st Century entrepreneurs. This is especially important if we want to revive the economy coming out of the COVID-19. There are lots of international grants for training and development initiatives, so the Government does not have to pull its pocket; just try,” she said.
Dr Smith also praised the work of non-profit organisations such as the Soroptimist International Club of Barbados, the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Barbados, and the Barbados Red Cross.
Regarding what the public can do to contribute to the well-being of vulnerable migrant women, Dr Smith asked that they simply treat them with dignity and respect.
“I would like us as women not to be too busy with our own selves that we cannot reach out to give a hand up to another woman…. We have to find a way to help our women get back on track because it means getting the society, at large, back on track.”
This article appears in the 2022 edition of our International Women’s Day feature. Read the full publication here.