You Don’t Have to be Pretty

I was at a party the other day, and I found myself staring at the ice in my drink. It’s weird, but at parties I get strangely thoughtful. I watch the people around me, I look at my friends, and I wonder if they’re truly having fun or if they’re just playing a part. It seems to me, as a girl, that we’re expected to have fun at these events no matter what. It’s cool for a guy to chill on the side, but girls need to be out there dancing.

So, I think about my friends and I wonder if they’re free or if they’re conforming to expectations of how they should behave. Then, you have to think the same thing when you’re walking around during the day, and you see women going to work or running errands. They seem to live by all of these unspoken, invisible rules. We inhabit a world designed to keep us in check.

Women get trained into thinking in a certain way, and the worst part is that we act as enforcers ourselves. We criticise and shame other girls as a normal part of our social behaviour. I’ve never been upheld as the epitome of what a girl should be.

I never cared if my hair got wet and I don’t particularly like make-up or jewellery. I was wild in a way; I liked my hair messy and could never be bothered to wear shoes in the yard. But mostly, I think I shunned these things because of the expectations behind them. I like to be in control. I want to be free, absolutely free. Attachments and conformity, they seem like shackles, but my desire to escape them has created its own unique cage. I don’t know how to live in a world like this. I feel a strange mixture of resentment and gratitude when I’m told I’m pretty or clever. On the one hand, it’s nice to be flattered, but on the next, I feel this pressure to always meet the expectations of this prettiness, or intelligence. What if they suddenly believe themselves mistaken and I disappoint them? It’s a bother I don’t want. This isn’t freedom either.

Perhaps, absolute freedom, true agency, the type that I crave is merely an illusion. If that is the case, I wonder about how I can gain more power as a woman. I was thinking that it should start with rejecting gendered tasks around the household. Why should a girl’s inheritance be to sweep and cater to a man? Why are adventure and outspokenness unfeminine? Then, I think, women just need to be encouraged to have a voice, to think for themselves and question things. You have to be taught that you’re more than just this physical thing. You have a mind and a spirit, and a universe and life to experience. You don’t have to be pretty, fun, or smart, although it seems easier if you can be all those things.

When I want to feel like I have more control, I study the sky, especially at night. I like when the stars blink into sight one by one, until there’s an entire tapestry of them. Then I feel like there’s something more, and I can imagine that the stars have the answers.

Ariel French is a translator and aspiring novelist. She’s a slightly awkward, coffee drinking, travel loving, global citizen with an interest in human rights and languages.  You can find more of Ariel’s writing at

Do you feel boxed-in by unspoken, invisible rules about what a woman or girl should be like? Tell us about it. 



On Coming Out as Bisexual

Over the entire span of my dating life, I’ve had boyfriends and girlfriends. When I’m dating someone of the same sex, though, there’s an anxiety that comes about that I don’t get when I date someone of the opposite sex.

If I end up marrying a man, oh that’s fine. That’s normal. But what’s going to happen if I end up marrying a woman? I’m definitely going to have to come out. I’m pretty sure everyone would notice that.

I’ve only ever entertained the idea of coming out to my family when I’m presently in a relationship with a woman. And as I already don’t have a functional relationship with my parents or extended family, I really don’t see the point in telling them if I currently have a boyfriend.

Most of my family are not very open or progressive people. Even the ones who claim to be accepting of LGBTQ+ people, have already told me to my face, “not you though”. As in, it’s okay for those Americans to be gay, but not one of our own. “Ellen Degeneres is a lesbian, but that’s okay. She’s cool. But you can’t be. That’s for the white people.” Honestly, I don’t even know how to respond to that.

Being bisexual, it’s already hard enough, because there’s that backlash of bisexual erasure, which can be defined as the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or re-explain evidence of bisexuality in history, academia, news media and other primary sources. In its most extreme form, bisexual erasure can include denying that bisexuality exists.”

Now, personally, I experience this a lot. Particularly, being a bisexual woman in the Caribbean. My sexuality is often fetishized by men, who think bisexuality exists for them to realize their dreams of having a threesome with two women. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, there are times I feel discriminated against. I go to gay bars, and other spaces, and because I’m femme, I generally do not get approached by women. It’s also my space, but I am made to feel like an outsider. A lot of lesbians I have spoken to as well, don’t “believe” in bisexuality, or flat out don’t date bi women, because they believe that we’re just “girls who want to experiment”. It just really sucks feeling like you don’t belong in a space that was supposedly made for you to feel safe and connected.

There are still these myths that I hear from both straight and gay people, that “bisexuality isn’t real”, or that “you’re either gay or straight”. Honestly, in this day and age, are we really perpetuating these ideas? I am bisexual. I experience attraction to both men and women. I am not “greedy” or “indecisive” or “experimenting”. I have been in relationships with both men and women (and no, not at the same time.) When I am dating a man, I have not become straight; and when I am dating a woman, I have not become a lesbian.

I remain bisexual, and very proud.

Julie Mango is an internet enthusiast, and a Trinidadian. She spends most of her time writing words down. You can find some of those words at



Ask Him More: Gender Bias in Recruitment

“Do you have any children or plan on having children anytime soon?”

Stop asking me when I plan to have kids in a job interview!

It’s bad enough I have to deal with this question at get-togethers, conferences or with people who haven’t seen me in ages. But now I have to deal with this question in an interview for a JOB.

I have been told that I’m not allowed (yes allowed) to get pregnant during in my 1st year of employment – the company frowns on such a development. At another interview, I was told that I would not be allowed to get pregnant during my employment at the company.

However, I am pretty certain that very few of my male colleagues need to answer these questions in an interview room. Do they get questioned on when they plan on settling down? Or have they developed a project management schedule for making children and consequently the risk management matrix to hedge against complications at work?

I’d like to propose a list of questions that we ask the MEN to level the playing field a bit:

1. “How does your wife feel about your career? Does she think that it will get in the way of your role as a husband and father?”

2. “Kwame, are you in a serious relationship? When will the two of you be ready to start a family? Having kids could be a sign that you are no longer focused on your career.”

3 . “Three children are quite the handful. How do you intend on balancing your responsibilities as a father and a manager?”

4. Both you and your wife work. Who is going to watch the kids while you are at work? Or if they get ill and can’t attend school?

5.  So Bruce, you are unmarried but you have children with how many women? The company tends to frown on men who have multiple families. It shows instability.

When employees walk into the office, they bring with them their entire context – experience, emotions, family and life responsibilities. This affects how employees perform, how they relate to others in the workplace and how they view the company. However, it is only women who are bombarded with sexist, irrelevant questions in job interviews. These are not the kind of questions that men get asked and by asking women these questions, it reveals bias against mothers.

It can be said that most people (men and women)  are working so that they can provide a better life for their families. So why is it then, the family isn’t taken into consideration if companies value their employees?  There are going to be times when work comes first and other times, when family takes precedent.

Creating policies around flexible working arrangements or remote working helps workers fulfill their parental responsibilities and carry less guilt into the office. And by creating such policies recruiters would be focused on a woman’s skills, talents, productivity and ability to meet deadlines, rather than her timeline for having a baby. 

M. Analise Kandasammy is an expert generalist in the field of business and has branded herself an ‘organisational architect’. She believes that the path to a meaningful life first begins with accepting and loving your authentic self. She has a deep passion for developing entrepreneurial visions that are community-based and creative plus she is fascinated with how culture shapes societies and as a mixed woman, a diversity enthusiast.

Do you agree with Analise? Should we ask men some of the same questions women are asked around family issues? Have you ever experienced gender bias in the interview? Tell us!

What Was She Wearing?

“Does this top look good on me?”

Does this color compliment my skin tone?”

“Are these pants appropriate for the event I’m going to?”

These are some questions I ask every time I get dressed; but these are not the only questions I ask.

“Is this too revealing?”

“Are men going to make rude comments about me if I was walking down the street?”

“If I was assaulted would this outfit make people say I deserved it?”

Whenever I get dressed, I can’t help but have these questions cross my mind. I have read so many stories and comments where a girl, a woman finds herself at the hands of a man with ill intentions and the top comment questions why did she wear that? Why did she go to that place? Comments suggesting that this woman was somehow responsible for the actions of another. I sometimes wonder whether the people who make these comments spare any thought for the women in their lives. Their daughters, sisters, mothers. Have they ever put their loved one in the position of the woman in question?

I have spoken to many female friends and acquaintances. Every single one has a story about being catcalled on the street, being followed in public, being touched by a stranger, receiving unwanted photos online, lewd comments on their social media. This has become the norm. Some with even worse stories than these.

This is what is considered normal. People will stand by on the street and watch a woman being harassed and say nothing. People will stand by while a woman is told that her clothes caused her attack. People will stand by while a woman gets catcalled across a street. We all stand by and let these things happen and so long as we stand by, this will continue to be the normal.

This cannot be our normal. We need to stand up, step out of the shadows and make it known that this is not acceptable. And all it takes is a simple choice. Choose to change the narrative. Choose to set the bar higher. Choose to reject the old normal and create a new one and eventually those questions about clothes go back to just being about what you like and not about your life.

Sydney Joseph is a 19 year old aspiring photographer with a passion for local activism especially in relation to women’s rights and youth development. She is currently pursuing a Computer Science course based through the HarvardX Program as well as volunteering with many local organizations like the UNVolunteers and TEDxPortofSpain. She is looking forward to continuing her volunteer work and hopes to continue speaking her mind about the important issues being faced today. Sydney’s website will go live on August 5th.

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about whether you will be blamed for something you wore, if attacked? How does society’s victim-blaming hurt women? Tell us your thoughts.

Marriage and Tradition

“You can’t date till you’re an adult! No boyfriends allowed!”

*sneaks around*

“You can’t do that in my house! Not under my roof!”

*“Okay, well I’m 21 now, I wanna get my own place!”*

“Move out?? Why do you want to leave??? Do you hate me????”

*finally leaves home at 24 after finishing school, etc*

“You’re 25. Why aren’t you married yet??? When will I get grandkids?”

Do these scenarios sound familiar? If it’s something you’ve experienced, I empathize. I am Indian. From the Caribbean. Specifically, I’m West Indian with East Indian roots. These are my parents. Overprotective, overbearing, strict, traditional, conservative.

I know as far as Indian families go, the pressure for daughters to get married before they hit 25 is mainly because of societal pressures. Indian parents seem to care a lot about what society thinks. It is seen as something shameful to have a daughter who is over 25 and not yet married. And even to this day, this line of thinking still exists. I suppose tradition is hard to let go of.

Personally, I have been dealing with that harassment from my mother recently. She often asks about when I plan to get married. I’m only 25. All I can say is, “not any time soon.” But she wants to know when. She wants to plan the wedding. She wants to save up for décor and food. I can understand for her (and many other parents), I’m the only daughter. In this culture, weddings are kind of a big deal. Not marriage. Weddings.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fantastical Indian wedding. It lasts for weeks, almost. There are countless events, ceremonies, and rituals. It’s a big party for everyone. Not to mention, it is incredibly stressful for anyone involved in planning it. But it is tradition. And so my mother hopes I can tell her from now, so that she can save up enough by then to throw me a huge wedding.

Why are you breaking tradition? Do you have no respect for your culture?

Because that is what this is all about. Weddings, marriages, babies. These things follow a strict tradition of – finish school, get a job, get married, make babies. There’s no – finish school, get a job, travel the world, find yourself, stay single, enjoy life. That’s breaking tradition. And although your own parents might support that, society doesn’t. So those parents who don’t want to ‘look bad’ might pressure you into following tradition. I assure you, they do it out of love. They just want what’s best for you. And that’s what they know as being “best”. They mean well.

So the next time you hear this from your parents, tell them how you feel. And if that doesn’t work, then just play along like I did, and give them a random number. “In 5 years, mom.” When 5 years gets here, who knows? I might just say it again.

“Julie Mango is an internet enthusiast, and a Trinidadian. She spends most of her time writing words down. You can find some of those words at “
Do you think young women are still pressured to get married? What does society value more: tradition vs. women’s autonomy? Tell us what you think.


Failing Our Families

We repeat it so often, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and while we know this is true, Trinidad and Tobago has forgotten to include this in our nation’s social and economic policies.

Everywhere we go there are children, mothers and fathers. Yet despite how much of our population consists of families with children, the Maternity Protection Act as it exists today is near useless to the majority of our nation’s families.

For the mothers for whom the stars align, a short 14 weeks of partially paid leave (roughly 60% of earnings) is offered. However, there are qualifying restrictions. A woman must be formally and continuously employed for a minimum period of 12 months within which time she must have worked a minimum of 150 days.  Also, she must not have used the maternity leave allowance within the past 2 years.

But what happens to those who are not formally employed? Informal labour, the work of parenting, care and self care, remain unrecognized in our nation’s policies. Care work is still work, and children cost money. Still, the largest issue with the policy is a lack of inclusivity. Not granting leave to fathers pushes the work of care to mothers alone. Also, in a nation that has not yet accepted gay marriage as a right, same sex
parents are as invisible as fathers in this “protection” act.

The failures of our policy are widespread. Our children suffer when they are denied the care and bonding they need from their parents who are forced to be otherwise occupied with paying bills and buying formula. When the standard recommendation for breastfeeding is six months, what does a 14 week leave imply for the health of our children?

Employers are forced to deal with a dramatic loss in productivity when parents are forced to permanently leave a job in order to care for children. And of course, when parents are forced to give up earnings to care for children, poverty can creep in just as fast as the bills do, carrying with it the potential to extend to our children as they carry into their future, which is our future. A new policy for our nation needs to provide benefits regardless of employment status, and must implement paid leave for a minimum of one year.

Policies such as Sweden’s are exemplary. It provides a flat rate monthly maternity payment, regardless of employment status, calculated using average cost of living. For the formally employed, 80% of earnings are paid for almost 56 weeks, and a flat rate paid for another 13 weeks. Trinidad and Tobago should implement such a program calculated at our own cost of living, implementing a maximum payment cap the way Sweden has, in order to keep the policy sustainable. Additionally, it should lengthen the leave period to at least 30 weeks to provide for the minimum breastfeeding recommendation.

Paid parental leave isn’t a cushy benefit, it’s a necessity. We, all of us, need a parental leave policy that provides support to ALL families. New policies need to recognize that parenting isn’t just for mothers; it is for fathers, children, society and the workplace.

After all, it takes a village.

Asha Maharaj is a full time post-graduate student and an even more full time parent. With a background in International Development and a long pursued specialization in Gender and Development, Asha has chosen to pursue her dream of bettering the lives of women here in Trinidad and Tobago. After living and studying in various continents, her love for her home country may have something to do with the joy that comes from roadside doubles. You can find her exploring the joys of Feminism and Doubles at

Asha shared her wishlist for maternity/parental benefits; what would you add on your wishlist?

Second “Your Story” Writing Workshop for Women

On Saturday May 13th, 2017, The WomenSpeak Project concluded it’s Your Story Writing Workshop for Women. The workshop was once again led by our excellent facilitator Monique Roffey who took participants through exercises to help them ‘mine their memories’ and give voice to the anger, frustrations and fears that were buried for many days, months, years or decades.

Women were reminded that advocacy is something each of us can do everyday, right where we are. We can stand up for women in our workplaces when they are being treated unfairly; we can stand up for ourselves and not be boxed-in by notions of what we ‘should’ be; and we can write about our experiences so that others can relate to and learn from what we have been through.

Monique discussed the difference between art and therapy and reminded participants that while writing can help us make sense of the things that have happened to us, it was not until we shaped our ‘raw’ thoughts into more coherent and focused writing that we are able to respond to issues in a more direct and reasoned manner.

We are pleased that there are now 33 new members of the WomenSpeak community whom we have welcomed through these workshops and look forward to providing more opportunities for women throughout the Caribbean to become advocates.

Comments from participants

The free writing exercise was a gem. I would never have thought of adopting this approach to the process of writing. The conscious writing exercise forced me to focus more directly in a single thought, and resulted in my remembering an experience I had not previously thought of writing about. When I got home I sat down and penned a short story of 8 pages about this experience. I also appreciated the the pieces of advice about scheduling a set time to write, as well as jotting down thoughts in one notebook (instead of all over the place as I tend to do). Indeed the workshop provided me with valuable tools to spur me on to writing. Thank you WomenSpeak, Simone Leid and Monique Roffey. Deeply appreciated.”

Your Story Women’s Writing Workshop at Bocas Lit Fest 2017

The WomenSpeak Project conducted its first writing workshop on April 30th, 2017 in partnership with Bocas Lit Fest.

Twenty women participated in the event. Some were already writers and activists but many were just women who wanted the opportunity to tell their stories and learn some of the strategies to getting what was buried in their minds and bodies onto the page.

The 3-hour workshop was led by author and teacher Monique Roffey who took the women through meditative and free writing exercises to get them to unlock their stories and put them down on the page.

This was a closed event where women were free to express themselves and talk about their lives. Additionally, Akilah Riley – a clinical social worker – was also on hand to provide some words on self-care.

Comments from participants:

Enjoyed it tremendously!”
“It is one of my most memorable moments to date.”
“It was over all very informative and touching. It was good to meet so many like minded women.”
“Very therapeutic. Was much needed for me.”
This workshop was very valuable for me. I came away with more questions than answer but for the first time, I feel they are the right questions, the ones that will result in real changes for me going forward. I particularly liked how Monique took the comments from the participants, drilled down further into those issues and translated them into actionable steps and further questions to work on.”
Simone Leid – Curator of The WomenSpeak Project in conversation with Monique Roffey and Akilah Riley


Gaps in the national response to domestic violence.

In early January, 2016, I was speaking with members of Domestic Violence Survivors Reaching Out: An NGO composed of survivors and other supporters in Trinidad and Tobago. Here is a list of some of the gaps they have identified in the national response to domestic violence.

Gaps in Law
1. There is no provision for a woman’s claim to property when she has to flee a domestic violence situation.
2. There is no action taken against perpetrators when protection orders are breached or threats are made to a woman’s life. Magistrates do not implement provisions in law to deny bail to persons who breach protection orders.
3. There is no mandatory counseling for perpetrators who are sentenced.
4. There are no victim advocates provided by the state to help women through the process of seeking legal redress for abuse or claim on property.

Gaps in practice
1. Despite what procedures may exist, Police officers are often uncertain how to deal with domestic violence situations including child abuse.
2. Police officer sometimes prey on the vulnerability of women who come to police for assistance.
3. Police officers are sometimes perpetrators and other police officers refuse to take reports made against their colleagues.
4. Despite having a system where members of the public who make reports must get receipt, police officers do not always write down reports.
5. Government social service agencies close their doors at 4pm, thereby leaving women without available support after working hours. State sponsored counseling is offered for half hour every three months.

Gaps in Institutional support
1. There is no emergency care fund for women who find themselves homeless and penniless when they are put out of the home. Wait times for food cards etc can takes weeks to process.
2. There is no transitional housing to support women psychologically or develop skills, coping mechanisms to live on their own.
3. Women’s Shelters do not provide for housing of male children over the age of 13.
4. When a domestic violence incident occurs, the victims have to leave the home and not the perpetrator.
5. Children placed in ‘homes’ often become victims or perpetrators of sexual violence at these institutions. There is no comprehensive state monitoring system to address this very prevalent issue.

4 Tips for Keeping Online Followers engaged

Social media has become an important element of maintaining contact with an organisation’s constituencies. For NGOs, Community groups, social activists and other civil society actors, engaging online followers through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram means enlarging the space for participation in your cause. Here are 4 tips for keeping your followers engaged and active.

1. Make sure that your organisation’s purpose, goals and objectives are clearly stated on your social media platform. This way people who join or follow your organisation’s page are able to identify with your cause.

2. Ensure that you provide periodic feedback on what your organisation has accomplished and how this compares with the goals you have set for a given time period. This will provide accountability to your online constituencies and make them feel invested in the success of the organisation.

3. Provide opportunities for getting feedback from your followers. Ask questions about what they think about certain events or actions your organisation has taken. Do they agree with your methods? Do they feel the organisation is making an impact? Getting feedback from followers lets you know if you are addressing the needs they think are important.

4. Provide usable content. Making your followers knowledgeable about your cause enables them to become more active participants in moving the agenda forward. Using memes, posters or infographics is an excellent way to communicate important issues in a way that is easily understood and absorbed by followers.