The morning of Wednesday, November 25 began with a fine drizzle. It was International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Jamaica, and a muted start with grey clouds gathering. Nevertheless, those events that were planned were well supported and indeed, made an impact. There was a stronger focus this year among civil society – not surprisingly, perhaps, since this year’s high rates of crime and violence have been hanging over us like the clouds of mist over the mountains surrounding our city. Did you know that Kingston is in many ways beautiful? Yes, it can be.
The “stationary front” lingers, and it is a damp, almost chilly night in Kingston. The Sixteen Days of Activism also remain for us to consider, and numerous events are planned for the next two weeks – ending on December 10, Human Rights Day.
We went up to Mary Seacole Hall on the University of the West Indies Mona campus, to find a number of T shirts pinned on lines under several large mango trees. The colors (including orange, yellow and glitter) brightened the gloom. There was a production line going too – the nearby bus shelter had been taken over (the drizzle persisted) and was filled with young women busy creating. I had already prepared my T shirt for the Hall’s Clothesline Project, a simple but highly effective way of putting out some powerful messages. I was handed some glitter in a tube to jazz it up a bit. The result is posted here – it doesn’t look bad. I wanted to commemorate the life of Shauna-Kay Pitter, who was murdered along with her unborn child, almost one month ago in Salt Spring, St. James. I blogged about her life and death recently.
The creators hung over 60 T shirts on the lines, eventually. Congratulations to Nadeen Spence and the students of Mary Seacole Hall, and all the supporters.
In mid-afternoon, I met up with my friends from Eve for Life (Shauna-Kay was one of their clients) at the Half Way Tree Transport Centre. If you have ever spent time in that area, you will know that its crowds struggle and hurry throughout each day. It is “gritty,” filled with jostling schoolchildren, vendors, cabbies and hustling minibus drivers and their “loaders” on the outside. Inside, there are many more schoolchildren and those big yellow buses. On Wednesday afternoon, we added to the throng (more than two hundred of us) with the #SilenceSpeaks demonstration against violence against women, sexual abuse and rape – and, in fact, violence in general. We all wore purple – more on this below. The protest was organized by a coalition of NGOs, with Jamaica AIDS Support for Life as a lead organizer, along with Eve for Life and many others. Supporters were there from the USAID-funded COMET-II project, also.
Although it was intended as a silent protest (a number of participants wore duct tape over their mouths) the decibel level inevitably rose. Voices above the din of the thick layers of traffic, three or four deep, that filed past us (Half Way Tree is the most congested part of town, in every way). Some produced whistles, which were duly blown. Chants of “Say No! No to Violence!” and variations on that theme started up. When passing drivers honked their horns and gave us thumbs up, or shouted encouragement, the protesters responded loudly and gleefully. We were getting the message out (and to the many passers by, too) and it seemed to resonate. I was happy to see male drivers, in pickups and vans, as well as women acknowledging us. After hanging over the railings, holding up placards, the crowd did two circuits of the Transport Centre (which looks like half of a flying saucer, landed on top of the chaos) and then walked across the road, shepherded by the police, to a nearby church hall parking lot – still energized.
Still energized, but suddenly quieter and more thoughtful, those who had not already headed off in different directions gathered under a huge old tree in the parking lot and shared thoughts on the success of the protest, and how more can be done to spread the word between now and December 10. Everyone was disappointed at the complete absence (so far as we could tell) of the traditional media. Considering the size of the demonstration, we had hoped for a television camera or two, and they were all invited. Clearly violence against women wasn’t appealing or controversial enough.
Or perhaps we should have been wearing orange, the official color of the United Nations Secretary General’s campaign UNiTE To End Violence Against Women – “Orange the World.” Then the media might have sat up and taken notice – mistaking us for a party political rally. Orange and green, sadly, are difficult colors to wear in Jamaica, especially in the heat of an election campaign that has no end in sight. Anyone seeing placard-waving crowds in orange T shirts would have mistaken us for supporters of the People’s National Party. So, purple it was. The Color Purple.
There has been no real consensus on this issue in civil society in the past few weeks, it seems, with discussions going back and forth as to which color we should wear. We should not be held to ransom by our “tribalistic” politics, said some; we should be able to wear whatever color we like to make our point, and orange is the official, global color for the next 16 days – including the 25th of each month, which the UN campaign has named “Orange Day.” The other school of thought insisted that in order not to distract the public with political colors, we would have to go for purple. Otherwise the message would be lost, they said. I am completely torn on this one; on principle, I feel we should stick to the official color. But I know if we do it will be misinterpreted, and could have all kinds of repercussions. This is actually quite a sad reflection on our society, and politics.
But, as Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith pointed out today on Twitter, a color is just a color. The Senator – an eloquent and persistent advocate for women’s rights – suggested that colors are symbolic, and what is more important is that women obtain all the protections they need under the law. Which is not the case at the moment, by any means. An event on Wednesday evening, which I was unable to attend unfortunately, highlighted “The Status of Women’s Rights Under the Law.” I hope to share the remarks by Senator Johnson-Smith and UN Women’s Taitu Heron in the next few days, because this is a crucial topic that cannot be ignored.
By the way, I collated social media commentary (mostly tweets) on the Half Way Tree demonstration here – there are many photos and messages: https://storify.com/Petchary And COMET-II put together a brilliant photo-essay which is well worth looking at, here: https://comet-ii.exposure.co/silencespeaks
Other things happened, and will be happening in Jamaica over the next 16 Days of Activism. I hope you will play your part, wherever in the world (or on our island) you live.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says:
Break the Silence. When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act.