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Erica is a woman steering her own future across the high seas

23 November 2016
The Commonwealth Secretariat is providing technical assistance to Grenada and the public education campaign of its Constitutional Reform Advisory Committee (CRAC), ahead of referendum. It is focussed on the Rights and Freedoms (Amendment) Bill 2016, one of the seven which the people of Grenada will vote on at a referendum on 24 November 2016. Karen McKenzie, head of human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and Sumedha Ekanayake, human rights adviser have been meeting some inspirational Grenadians.

During our visit, we made sure that we covered all three islands that constitute the State of Grenada namely, Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique.

That meant our participation in this public education programme extended to all parts of the country not only to the mainland Grenada.

Having engaged with several communities on the island of Carriacou, which has a population of about 6,000 people, we took a ferry to the island of Petite Martinique with a tiny population of about 900 people. 

This is how we met 28-year old Erica Benjamin as she was steering the passenger ferry on which we were passengers.

Her story was a unique one, which we thought must be shared.

Erica is the eldest of a family of six children who live on the island of Petite Martinique. She told us that when you live on the island, you simply live a 'seafaring life', and for a woman, there are two options: either get married and become a housewife, or work on the sea.

After she completed school, she went diving with her father for 10 years. He dived for fish, lobster, and lambie or conch. While her father was diving, Erica performed the very important task of keeping their fishing boat in place on the waters over the area where he was beneath.

From the age of 13, her father taught her how to steer a fishing boat and with that experience she was able to obtain further training so that she could develop a career as a skipper or operator of passenger vessels known as ferries.

These vessels are essential for people to travel between the islands. In fact, a ferry is the only cost effective mode of public transport between the islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique.  Erica has been doing this as a trainee for a year, and her training also includes gaining more experience of navigation at night. She hopes to move into captaining bigger passenger vessels, this time carrying people between islands such as Petite Martinique, Antigua & Barbuda, and Anguilla.

She says, “As I was growing up, the mentality was that young women leave school, get married and have children. But I wanted more, I wanted more than just a husband and children. I wanted to pursue a career on the sea, and my father always supported me.

“I believe that women are capable of doing work which traditionally has been the domain of men such as operating a ferry.”

Her own experience has motivated her to think more positively about the Rights and Freedoms Bill, and in particular, the relevant provisions dealing with gender equality. The Bill states that:

There shall be gender equality

(a) both men and women shall be entitled to equal rights and status in all spheres of life, especially in economic, educational, political, civic and social activities

(b) both men and women shall be entitled to equal access to academic, vocational and professional training; to equal opportunities in employment and promotion; to equal remuneration for work of equal value; and to equal access to justice

(c) both men and women shall have equal opportunities to be elected or appointed to public office and to be eligible for appointment to positions of decision-making bodies at all levels of the society; and

(d) both men and women shall have the right to legal protection, including just and effective remedies, against domestic violence, sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

Her father was also on the ferry with us and he spoke proudly of his daughter’s achievement.

It seems that the idea that only a man can captain a ship has been shifting lately on these islands. The ferry trade and the much larger cruise industry are now progressively incorporating female captains into their fleets.

With greater recognition of the equal rights of men and women in all spheres of life, underscored by the Bill, the avenues for further career success and improvement for women like Erica will be endless on the seas of the Caribbean.