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Fighting abuse via #LifeinLeggings

LEANNE TASHER, [email protected]

Fighting abuse via #LifeinLeggings

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RONELLE KING’S strength is in the stride of her step, the curl of her lips and, above all, her willingness to speak up.

While embodying the qualities expressed in Maya Angelou’s famous poem Phenomenal Woman, the 24-year-old feminist stands up against abuse and harassment towards women.

The sexual abuse survivor, who started the Life In Leggings movement that took social media by storm late last year, remains hungry for social justice and equality.

King has made strides in her personal and professional life, such as teaming up with UN Women and registering a charity dedicated to tackling gender-based violence. She now looks to the future filled with hope, and refuses to let her own traumatic experiences hold her back.

“Healing is a process and I, like many women, had to learn to cope to be able to get through my day. I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome my experiences, because it’s a wound that reopens every single time I walk out of my house,” she said in a recent SUNDAY SUN interview.

“This is what I’m hoping to change with this movement. I, nor any woman, should have to live in constant fear in this island that we call home. As a woman, it can be hard to feel safe in public spaces.

“Street harassment is common. It ranges from the ‘pssst’ or being ‘kissed at’ to graphic descriptions of your anatomy, or verbal threats of sexual violence. The psychological burden of constantly being on your guard in public and having to fend off unwanted, hostile advances can be tremendous,” she added.

Time and time again, King said she had witnessed and experienced harassment and abuse at the hands of men. She said she had been stalked, threatened, had her hair grabbed and pulled by a stranger who thought she was ignoring him and, worst of all, was raped. To her disappointment, she said, society appeared “desensitised” to such awful occurrences. On one occasion, she said her report of almost being kidnapped was met with a “nonchalant attitude” by police.

That’s why last November she decided she had had enough. She recalled taking to Facebook to promote the Life In Leggings hashtag, an idea that came about while chatting with her friend Allyson Benn.

“[I had been] silent about my own rape and sexual assaults by persons I trusted. It reached a breaking point. Why should I have to map out my route before leaving home to be able to lessen the amount of harassment I receive that day? Why should I have to pretend to give a man my number because I’m afraid that he might react violently if I decline to do so? I shouldn’t have to. I should be free to exist in my own country without fear of sexual violence,” she said.

“So I had the idea to start a hashtag that would create a forum for Caribbean women to share their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. I messaged my friend, told her my idea and we deliberated on names before deciding on #LifeInLeggings,” she explained.

Since its launch last November, the movement has spread rapidly throughout the region, with similar hashtags like #LévéDomnik being created and endorsed by the Bureau of Gender Affairs in Dominica and #AhDoneTalk in Guyana. King said the National Women’s Commission of Belize supports the group and UN Women has partnered with them to assist with regional projects.

Because she has so many responsibilities, the mother of one often feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day. Sometimes King, who is also a fashion lover and cosmetologist, finds it hard to divide her time between her daughter, the non-profit organisation and work.

While juggling media interviews, interacting with community organisations, planning projects related to the movement and attending new cosmetology classes, her work seems never-ending. Thankfully, she has a supportive mother who helps to babysit.

After becoming a mum at 18, Ronelle said her life changed completely, but added she would not have it any other way. Her daughter, like renowned feminists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Audre Lorde, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, is a source of inspiration.

“I think I have a better understanding of what it means to love somebody more than you love yourself because everything I do is for her. It helps me to be more passionate, even with the movement. I don’t want my daughter to be raised in a society where she has to be constantly hypervigilant and her chances of being victim-blamed is high,” she said.

Except for not having ham at Christmas because her parents Ronald “Suki” King and Hazeain Harding-King were vegetarians, King said her childhood was normal.

Ronelle, who grew up in St Michael and St Philip with her parents and two siblings, said she became interested in social injustices such as Caribbean slavery, apartheid in Africa, child abuse and gender-based violence as a girl. It’s not surprising, then, that the former Lodge School and St Ursuline Convent student has long been opinionated and outspoken.

“I’m a firm believer that in order to create a more inclusive society we must first break down the stigmas that make these topics taboo in the first place. To do this, I’m committed to using any privileges that I have to advocate for those who are marginalised because I believe, with every fibre of my being, that equality is for all,” she said.

Although she has already sparked provocative discussions on gender-related issues, King said she remained uneasy. She said while reading information by UN Women Caribbean and the None In Three study, she learned that one in three women would experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime worldwide, and that the Caribbean had a rape rate higher than the global average.

That’s why she said she would remain relentless in the fight against any form of violence or abuse towards women and girls. So far, leading a feminist movement has been an honour for King.

“Words simply cannot describe how much it means to me to have created such a movement. I’ve always looked up to women who’ve . . . played important roles in history and I’m elated to be able to say that I spearheaded [a movement] as well as stood alongside hundreds of courageous Caribbean women to demand equality not only for ourselves, but for the generations of women after us.

“I envisioned feminine solidarity throughout the region to take back the power that was stolen from us so that we would finally be able to heal and that is what’s happening,” she said.

“It’s one thing to imagine it, but I’m completely in awe as I watch it unfold.” (LT)