I have never been one to shy away from talking about personal experiences in my live shows, I am now encouraging other women to do the same. I have experienced sexism that is not just every day, but institutional and cultural at every level. Rather than be defeated by this, I am embarking on a project that will empower women facing the same to talk about their experience, and hopefully be part of making a change.
During my visit to the Carribbean in 2015, a mercifully brief relationship with a man who then subjected me to domestic abuse exposed the injustice at the heart of the legal system, and I became quickly aware of how painfully the odds are stacked against women in the region. The magistrate point blank refused to look at the overwhelming written evidence that this man was clearly not being truthful and had in fact been harassing me, attempting to extort money from me and threatening to 'go to the British media to sell stories about me and ruin my career.' Apart from this man overestimating the level of my success, the other issue that was abundantly clear was that the subject of domestic violence was not taken seriously at all. But that is just the end result of the pervasive sexist attitude that can be seen reflected in the levels of catcalling, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Having dug deeper into this after the disturbing experience I had, the statistics from NGOs in the area certainly seem to back this up. Country studies for Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, British Virgin Islands and Suriname suggest that between 20-69% of women in intimate relationships have been victims of domestic violence. 42.8% of young women and girls first sexual experience was forced within the Eastern Caribbean islands, according to Unicef reports. They also estimated that 11,000 children below the age of 15 in the Eastern Caribbean alone also live with HIV/AIDS, mainly due to the fact that child abuse and incest is rampant in the region. This, in a region where three of the top 10 rape rates in the world occurs (SVG, Jamaica and Bahamas) and ALL Caribbean countries have a higher rape rate than the global average. 42.8% of women in the Eastern Caribbean alone describe their first experience as being forced.
The court case itself turned out to be something from medieval times. It did not take place in Barbados but a neighbouring island that was not as sophisticated. The magistrate started off by complaining about the length of the affidavits saying it was far too much to read. He then proceeded to take hand written evidence cutting short testimonies to as he said his hand was 'starting to hurt.'
It was little more than a vehicle for humiliation as the magistrate cracked jokes throughout the whole procedure. The police present in the courtroom were sexually harassing me and the delightful comments I received are now used as my comedy material. They adjourned the case repeatedly and unnecessarily leaving me with no option but to return back to the UK with no closure.
I began to wonder about all the other women in this situation that did not have somewhere to return to. Was it possible to ever receive justice living in that region? I have never looked at black people that live in the Caribbean (or even Africa) as separate to myself. As far as I am concerned, we are all the same people, cut from the same cloth, that have been separated due to circumstances beyond our control. So whenever I hear stories about things that have happened to women in that region, it could so easily have been me. It was upon bringing up the issue of rampant sexual abuse that I began to question what was really being done about it. Yes they had huge posters along the side of the motorway that declared 'Real Men Don't Abuse Kids' but that was hardly enough. I followed court cases and newspaper stories where the defence of these men were borderline ridiculous. And the comments under many articles about how the women and young girls were looking for what they got made me see red. When I brought it up with members of my family, I was chastised by a cousin who told me, "It's normal."
I became determined to examine the attitudes that have got them and more importantly kept them in this place. How did 'normalised' become interchangeable with 'normal' and why do so many not see the difference? Will there ever be anything resembling equality between the sexes in The Caribbean?
'The life of women here (The Caribbean) is undervalued, if valued at all.' Ronelle King - Barbadian feminist and co-founder of Life in Leggings
I began to look and see how women who have to live under these conditions were responding, especially as it is so easy to connect with people from all over the world. Many women are fighting back online using hashtags to connect with others and share their stories. 'Life in Leggings' was started in Barbados as a way of women sharing their stories of sexual abuse in order to educate and communicate with each other.
They recognised that women would have to stand up for themselves especially when the men that society are telling them to turn to for help (fathers, brother, uncles etc) are the ones doing the abusing.
'A girl child ain't safe in a family of men.' Alice Walker - The Color Purple
Rather than try to storm into a region that despite familial ties, I am not completely familiar with, I decided to see how I could use my own skills to amplify and help groups that already exist. I decided to run comedy workshops for women aged 18+.
All over the world, too often women are written off, especially after they have children and told they can't make something of themselves. That's not true. I was both a teenage and a single mother. You can make something of yourself if you are presented with the right opportunity to do so. We are not looking to necessarily find the next Wanda Sykes, just to equip some women with public speaking skills and an outlet within which to express themselves. How they choose to utilise these skills is entirely up to them. They could start their comedic journey, gain confidence, find a new way to express themselves, or even learn some transferable skills. Stand up comedy opened opportunities for me including giving diversity talks in the City at established firms such as Citibank and Simmons & Simmons, as well as to participate in debates at both Oxford and Cambridge student unions.
The whole experience plus testimonies from women from other islands will be filmed for a documentary called 'Sketel.' This is a Caribbean slang word for slag/slut/ho. A handful of the women that participate in the workshop shall then go on, if they so wish, to perform their sets at the prestigious Frank Collymore Hall during the very first Caribbean comedy festival that I am central to organising.
There is hope about the change it can make. I recently appeared on hugely popular television show Good Morning Barbados, where I spoke about this project and feminism in the region. It generated a lot of interest and support with lots of women messaging me to say they want to be involved.
Such a project should have a natural home in funding circles. It is exposing an unpleasant part of everyday sexism, but doing so using all the power and outreach that comes with comedy. An effective means that I have seen in my own professional career on the circuit. There is also the accusation that I am 'washing our dirty linen in public.' But women and children are part of our community and silence allows abuse the perfect conditions to survive. I have decided to crowdfund this project as I think it will take people power to make a difference. I am confident that the combination of a documentary, a live show and the personal journeys, including my own that will be woven into this can raise much needed awareness and inspire change. This is a not-for-profit initiative. Any money raised above and beyond what is needed will be donated to women's charities.
As the old adage goes: If you don't laugh, you'll cry! We have chosen to laugh.
For more information and how to donate please click here
Ava Vidal will be hosting "Sketel' live at Frank Collymore Hall at the first ever Caribbean Comedy Festival, 17-19 May, 2018