Carrying Estella’s torch one year later

 Rayle Roberts doesn’t remember what day he picked up the phone and started calling his wife’s colleagues. He just knows that it was before her funeral.

He really didn’t know these women. They were his wife’s friends, his wife’s colleagues, not his.

But married to Estella Scott-Roberts, a womens’ activist who played an integral part in setting up the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre, he knew their names. They were strong women, leaders, willing to stand up for what’s right. That is what he knew when he called each woman, and asked them to be a director in a foundation he was setting up in Estella’s name.

“I knew I wanted to do something,” says Roberts. “I didn’t know what that was. I just felt moved to do it, so I did.

“The fact that they took my call was shocking. Not one of them hesitated.”

Melanie McLaughlin recalls the exact moment when Roberts called her.

“I was in Casanova’s having dinner when he called,” says McLaughlin. “I stepped outside to take that call.”

For Roberts, McLaughlin stood out.

“She has the same fire as Estella,” says Roberts.

Tammy Ebanks-Bishop, who headed up the Women’s Resource Centre for years, remembers she was at work when she got the call. She doesn’t recall the details. Just her answer was – yes.

He kept calling: Andrea Bryan, Sara Collins, Marilyn Conolly, Novellete Ebanks, accomplished activists and leaders in their own right. They all said – yes.

And that is how the Estella Scott-Roberts Foundation was born. It was not the first organisation to address violence against women in the Cayman Islands, says Roberts.

But with the surge in violence and kidnappings against women, there had to be a gap the Estella Scott-Roberts Foundation could fill, to make a long lasting change in society.

The Foundation is still evolving even as it closes in on its one year anniversary. But there is a determination there.

It was nearly a year ago when Estella was last seen leaving a restaurant after celebrating her birthday with friends. The next day, her burnt out SUV was found in the West Bay Dykes with her body inside. She was 33.

A week later, more than 2,000 people walked the streets of George Town in the Silent Witness March, an annual event that pays tribute to victims of domestic abuse, a cause close to Estella’s heart. Men and women carried signs with Estella’s photo while others wore ribbons and t-shirts with the words “Remembering Estella” in brown, Estella’s favourite colour.

This is a man’s issue
One of the Foundation’s initiatives was to send Roberts and two other Caymanian men, Clifton Gayle and Victor Crumbley, to “A Call to Men”, a conference specifically for men who are tackling violence against women.

Roberts didn’t know what to expect. Until this conference, Roberts thought being a good man was really about not being a perpetrator against women.

But the conference opened his eyes as a man to long-held beliefs about women.

“We are socialised in every respect to see women as less than, not equal. Our language affects women. Things we condone, degrading things we say about women.  I realised that not saying something, not standing up in a way condones it,” says Roberts.

“In Cayman, men can be disrespectful to women. It is very subtle. We call a lot of this culture. As a community, we hide a lot of little secrets,” added Roberts.

It is also about how boys are raised with certain macho attitudes that can perpetuate this thinking, explained Ebanks-Bishop.

“It is not just the men,” says Ebanks-Bishop. “We, as women, play into these roles as well.”

Ebanks-Bishop was careful to note the Foundation’s mission is about ending all violence whether it is against men, women or children. Nevertheless, Roberts readily acknowledges that men are predominantly the perpetrators and women too often are the victims.

“This is not just a woman’s issue; it is a man’s issue. Men must be at the forefront. We are the solution in the making,” says Roberts.

Life after Estella
Like Hurricane Ivan, Estella’s passing has become a marker in the community.  Before her friend’s death, McLaughlin never gave it a second thought to park in any lot on Seven Mile Beach and walk across the street or next door to a restaurant or bar.

Now, McLaughlin is always aware of where she parks, and cautious if there is a van near her car. Among her women friends there is an agreement to call or text each other when they get home safe after a night out.

Roberts was caught off guard the first couple times he saw his male friends walk a woman to her car. In the past, if a man walked a woman to her car it was about spending more personal time with her. But today, it is all about making sure she gets to her car safely, he explained.

Ebanks-Bishops has noticed that women are more conscious about their drinks, making sure no one has a chance to slip something in. Or they do not drink so much they can be easily caught off guard when they go home.

McLaughlin admits that she used to feel that her world was not impacted by violent crime. That violent crime was primarily isolated to the drug dealer world. That thinking has changed.

“All crime in the Cayman Islands is 15 minutes from my house, my mother’s house, from your house,” says McLaughlin.

The increase in self-defence classes for woman is evidence there are many women who feel the same way, said McLaughlin.

Be the change
On 10 October, Estella’s Foundation  launched its new campaign called “Be the change.”

“It is something my wife used to say,” says Roberts.

This date was chosen to celebrate Estella’s birthday, her life’s work, not her death, says Roberts.

The campaign is a challenge to both men and women to take personal responsibility to become the mechanism for change in society.

He is hoping this will be a part of a grassroots movement to turnaround the trend of violence against women in this country. And then next year, the Foundation hopes to raise enough finances to have its own “A Call to Men” conference in Cayman.

The Grape Tree
Early one morning, Roberts and the other Foundation’s directors gathered at Spotts Beach to take a group photo for the Observer on Sunday. This place was chosen because Estella liked a grape tree on this beach.

Roberts was on crutches from a recent knee surgery so he was moving cautiously on the sand.

Near the grape tree was a cemetery. One woman whispered to the reporter to be careful – don’t take the photo with the cemetery in it. So the group was arranged around the grape tree with the sea in the background.

A dog ran up, jumping on the women. Hobbling on one leg, Roberts shooed and waved his arms. But the dog thought Roberts was playing and dodged in out of legs and around the tree. Sand flew in the air. Laughter rang out.

The dog scurried down the beach. And for a moment there was peace to take the photo of Roberts and the lady directors, who have made it their mission to continue Estella’s work.

Afterwards, the reporter left the ladies and Roberts talking by the grape tree. They were no longer just Estella’s friends and colleagues; they were his.

Pullquote1: “This is not just a woman’s issue; it is a man’s issue. Men must be at the forefront. We are the solution in the making,” says Rayle Roberts, foundation chair and Estella’s husband.

Pullquote2: “All crime in the Cayman Islands is 15 minutes from my house, my mother’s house, from your house,” says Melanie McLaughlin, foundation director.

Be the Change
Be the Change campaign will be launched on 10 October at the Harquail Theatre from 5 to 6:30 pm. The public is invited to this free event, which will include the unveiling of the campaign’s poster and t-shirt.