‘I want to erase my own footprint’: The women looking after an island paradise


Kih’Nyiah McKay is only 11 years old, but she understands the climate crisis well. She knows that losing trees reduces oxygen and that trash harms sea turtles, which are important for the ocean’s health. “Young people need to save the Earth,” she says seriously.

It’s only March, but the sun is already extremely hot, making it hard for the electric fans in Kih’Nyiah’s classroom to keep it cool. In Antigua and across the Caribbean, climate change is a daily issue. Beaches are shrinking, hurricanes are getting worse, droughts are more frequent, and summers are hotter.

Despite these challenges, some islanders are fighting back. Kih’Nyiah is one of over 60 girls and young women trained as coastal stewards. They plant trees to prevent coastal erosion, protect turtle nesting sites, and manage beach bins. This project, created by the local NGO Adopt-a-Coastline, has been very successful. Last August, it received a $100,000 grant from the United Nations’ Global Environment Facility (GEF), one of just 23 projects chosen from 600 applications. This funding will help the project expand to three other small Caribbean islands—Barbuda (Antigua’s sister island), Nevis, and Carriacou—later this year.

A key part of the project is encouraging women and girls to have a stronger voice, explains Adopt-a-Coastline’s executive director Kat Byles. Traditional gender roles are still strong in much of the Caribbean, so the project aims to teach new skills, like analyzing environmental data, to the next generation of women and inspire them to take leadership roles.

Kih’Nyiah’s school principal, Ryona Shaw-Joseph, was happy to get involved. She gathered kids to participate and helped with a beach cleanup. “We need to teach children to take care of what we have, so it can be sustained for the future,” she says. “And it’s important to show the girls a different path; not everyone can just go and work for the government,” referring to the country’s large public sector.

Kaiesha Joseph, a 24-year-old youth parliamentarian, dreams of becoming the country’s first female prime minister. For now, she supports Adopt-a-Coastline’s efforts. “We have developed a culture in Antigua and Barbuda where certain roles are for men, and many women still gravitate towards nurturing jobs like midwives, teachers, and secretaries,” she tells the Nwoow. “They would rather assist from the back and let the men step forward.”

Pensioners Beach on Antigua’s west coast is one of several beaches cared for by community volunteers through the program. Kaiesha points out the bins made from discarded tires, which would otherwise end up in the landfill that smokes in the distance. The beach, with its white sands and seagrape trees, attracts many tourists each year. However, the influx of visitors also brings a lot of waste, which the small nation struggles to manage. Today, four large cruise ships can be seen at the capital city’s port.

This May, thousands more visitors, including many world leaders, will arrive for the UN’s fourth small island developing states conference in Antigua. The event will assess the ability of small islands to develop sustainably while facing the worst effects of climate change. Input from young women like Kaiesha will be vital. “We may be a small country,” she says, “but we need to make our voices heard.”

Carolyn Perry, from the government’s youth affairs department, says that while more women are pursuing higher education, they still struggle to reach top management positions. “If we empower them from a young age, we will see our communities transformed,” she says. Adopt-a-Coastline also helps girls earn a modest income by teaching them to make jewelry, bird boxes, and benches from marine debris for sale in the charity’s shop.

Adopt-a-Coastline was founded in 2009 by long-term resident Jennifer Meranto. She explains, “I added up all the trash I’d contributed to Antigua over the last 20 years. People think that if they throw something away, it just disappears. But it doesn’t; much of it ends up in the ocean. I decided I wanted to erase my own footprint.”

Jennifer started by picking up 1,000 bags of litter from the island’s beaches. Others joined her, and the organization grew naturally.

For Kat, a crucial part of the project is the feeling of wellness that comes from being by the ocean. She is excited about expanding the work across the region. The ideas and experiences the children gain, she says, will stay with them into adulthood and open up more opportunities for them. Kaiesha agrees. “Right now, it’s mainly men in the decision-making roles,” she says. “We need women too. I want to encourage them to take up as much space as they can, stand up for what they believe in, and speak out.”

The role of women in the Caribbean is changing, and projects like Adopt-a-Coastline are helping drive that change. Young girls like Kih’Nyiah and ambitious women like Kaiesha are taking on leadership roles and working to protect their environment. They are challenging traditional gender roles and showing that women can make a significant impact. By empowering women and girls, the Caribbean can create a more sustainable and equitable future.

In conclusion, the climate crisis is a significant challenge for the Caribbean, but the region’s people, especially its women and girls, are stepping up to make a difference. Through education, empowerment, and environmental stewardship, they are working to protect their islands and inspire future generations. As they continue to break down barriers and take on leadership roles, they are proving that small islands can make a big impact in the fight against climate change.


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