Ruthibelle’s university mentors taught her to claim her voice and speak up for others. Now she advocates for women and girls’ rights.
“I was a timid country girl when I started university… those three years sowed the seeds of transformation that would ultimately determine my life's purpose.”
When Ms. Nadeen Spence said to me, “Wake up to your own power,” it was a call to arms, a call to service, and a call to courage. I've lived out the rest of my life as a response to that statement.
My involvement in women's rights advocacy was almost accidental. I moved from my conservative home in rural St. Mary, Jamaica, to the only all-girls' hall at the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI). For the next three years, the student services manager, Ms. Spence, and the female resident advisors encouraged us to make noise, claim our voices, and advocate for changes that would benefit women and girls.
During my second year as a journalism student, I stumbled into a media, gender, and development course taught by a women's rights advocacy group called Women's Media Watch (WMW Jamaica). That’s where I learned how our assumptions and expectations about gender roles negatively affect women and girls. I was shocked that something so real and powerful had been invisible to me for so long.
I began volunteering with WMW Jamaica, eventually working my way up in the organization. This woman-led and woman-focused advocacy group was started in 1987 by some of the strongest Jamaican/Caribbean feminist voices. I was in awe when I realized that the same authors who had written my feminist theory textbooks sat beside me in meetings.
Our founding members are still alive, and I feel lucky to have them as sisters, mentors, mothers, and friends. Their activism in the 1970s and 80s paved the way for my generation to access education, meaningful employment, maternity leave, contraceptives, and political power.
It's a blessing to work alongside them as we build for the next generation. Our work is fueled by a desire to help create positive, lasting, and meaningful change, especially for the marginalized and vulnerable. Despite my education, I still have to consciously unlearn years of mental conditioning about what it means to be a woman. I still struggle to defy subtle stereotypes that try to limit what I can do, and who I can be.
What about the women and girls who did not get the same education and opportunities? What about those who have no access to financial resources, technology, or support? What about those who live with disabilities, or in poverty, or with HIV/AIDS? What about those who are non-binary? What about teen moms? Who speaks for them? Who fights for them? Who stands alongside them and teaches them to fight for themselves and others like them? Who helps them understand and navigate the injustices they face daily? Who advocates for change so their lives can improve?
My answer is baked into Ms. Spence's words: “Wake up to your own power.”
My awakening was an interesting, often slow process. I was a timid country girl when I started university and it’s taken me almost a decade to overcome that timidity. Some days, the fear is still there, like an unwelcome old friend.
I thank my lucky stars that I lived in Mary Seacole Hall for my undergraduate studies. Funny that my parents selected an all-girls' hall because they thought it was a safer, more conservative option. Those three years sowed the seeds of transformation that would ultimately determine my life's purpose.
I refuse to pretend ignorance. I refuse to keep silent while women and girls are fighting for respect as human beings. This issue is too pervasive, too pronounced, too personal! And the price of silence is too high.
I'm a writer, a speaker, a thinker, a teacher. These are the tools I use in my advocacy.
That's my power. What's yours?
This story was published as part of World Pulse's Story Awards program. We believe every woman has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could receive added visibility, or even be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.