I’m not a football fan. The ‘beautiful game’ is supposed to unite the nation, but I just can’t get excited about it. I’ve been to two football matches and I left the first watery eyed after being sprayed the with tear gas; I left the second wanting to cry tears of boredom. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the sport I did see today’s story about the footballer that bit one of his opponents. Luis Suarez, who plays for Liverpool, dug his pearly whites into Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.
After seeing the news report on television I naturally assumed the footballer would be sacked. If I sunk my teeth into a colleague, I assume the consequences would be grave. If, during a meeting where a competitor company was present, I lunged across the table and decided to make lunch meat out of their employee I assume I’d find myself not only unemployed, but also in police custody.
After reading the online news reports this afternoon I realised my assumptions could not have been more wrong. Suarez’s bosses are clearly much more lenient than mine. Liverpool Managing Director Ian Ayre said that Suarez could stay at the club, but that they needed “to work with him on his discipline.” To my mind, that’s one very understanding employer.
I thought it was interesting that on the same day this story hit the media the Daily Mail led with the headline: ‘A GENERATION OF UNRULY TODDLERS’. Liz Truss MP, Minister for Schools, has spoken out about the need for greater discipline and better-skilled staff in nurseries. Now, the Daily Mail headline ticked all the boxes of a Daily Mail headline; inflammatory, controversial and inaccurate. But it did make me think about the example Luis Suarez is setting to the thousands of youngsters who all dream of being footballers. Through my research for this blog post I’ve discovered that this isn’t the first time Suarez has been abusive; he’s been accused of racist and violent behaviour on a number of occasions. Maybe he went to a bad nursery school, or maybe he just needs to do a bit more ‘work on his discipline’, either way he’s been lucky to keep his job.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about celebrity sports stars getting away with behaviour which would be considered completely unacceptable (not to mention illegal) for the rest of the public. What really bugs me about this situation though isn’t the double-standard, it’s the fact that the media doesn’t even question the double-standard. I actually agree with Liz Truss, I don’t think it’s ever too early to teach good manners. But children need to have that reinforced by the adult world, and when celebrities can repeatedly get away with despicable behaviour I worry about them ‘learning by example’.
It’s just been announced that Suarez has been charged by the FA. I hope they are prepared to instill the discipline that Liverpool hasn’t so far.
I had resolved to keep quiet about death of Thatcher; ‘discussions’ have flared up at work from time to time during the last week and I have (unusually) refrained from comment. As I’m normally the first one to volunteer my political opinions at work my manager has eyed me suspiciously. I certainly hadn’t planned to write a blog.
The truth is I feel a bit of a fraud commenting on Thatcher – I was just seven years old when she stepped down so I didn’t live it the way that so many people did. And it seems to me that most people’s opinions of her leadership come from a deeply personal place. It’s very difficult to argue with someone whose beliefs are based on experience, particularly when my own are based on media reports and history books, so keeping quiet has seemed like the best option.
However, there is one issue where I feel do qualified to wade in and which has been getting me VERY frustrated since her passing; the debate in the media about ‘what Thatcher did for women’. I personally think before anyone answers this question we need to take a step back and say ‘should Thatcher have supported women?’ The media are obsessed with what Thatcher did for women because Thatcher was a women, but there is no way the media would devote hours of news coverage and miles of column inches debating what James Callaghan did to support women. This isn’t to say I don’t think that women in powerful positions shouldn’t support other women climbing the ladder, far from it. I just think we need to recognise the double standard – if powerful men felt more pressure to increase the representation of women in politics and business we might be living in a very different world.
But it’s not just the double standard that narks me: I have also been disappointed at which pundits the media has called in to give their opinion; ITV News interviewed Kirstie Allsop and Janet Street Porter on the subject. I have to admit I have a guilty crush on Kirstie – I love watching her craft and property shows – but when did she become an expert on politics and feminism? I have no such fondness for Janet Street Porter who I had the misfortune of spending a day with on the campaign trail with Emily Thornberry MP. In her follow up article for The Independent she included a section entitled ‘Battle Dress’ detailing the outfits of Emily and the other candidates. It’s more than a little annoying that ITV chose to interview a woman who perpetuates the media focus on women’s appearance rather than their qualifications, when they could have asked the likes of Tory MP Liz Truss, or LSE feminist political theorist Anne Phillips, or businesswoman and equality champion Helena Morrissey, or any number of women with more relevant experience.
Many commentators have said that by simply being the first woman Prime Minister Thatcher helped other women, but the numbers don’t back this up. The only real increase in the number of Conservative women in Parliament took place in 2010 when the number more than doubled to an all-time hight of 49. In the five elections since Thatcher stepped down the numbers have sat stubbornly in the mid-teens. Clearly having a women in power does not automatically create a more equal world for women.
While I sincerely wish that Thatcher had used her position to encourage other women to get involved in politics, I think we need to hold our all our political leaders to the same standard, and ask the same questions of all Prime Ministers regardless of their gender.
In case you missed it, Friday was International Women’s Day. There was no chance I was going to forget because the first comments in my office in the morning came along the lines of ‘When’s International Men’s Day?’ I don’t mind this light-hearted teasing at all but it does make me wonder if every feminist had a penny for all the times they’d heard this comment on 8 March just how rich we’d be!
It was incredibly refreshing therefore to be spending Friday night with a group of like-minded friends listening to two unbelievably talented and courageous women. On Friday I went with the trustees and a volunteer of YACI to watch the Grammy award-winning Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo. She was joined by Mali-born Fatoumata Diawara at the Royal Festival Hall.
Many of their songs were in their native languages so I couldn’t understand the words. But everyone in the audience knew what they were singing for; peace in Africa, equality, education, freedom from violence for women and girls. These women are activists as well as artists, and although their causes are deeply serious and the realities of them often depressing, their music was energetic, joyful and positive. They had the whole of the Royal Festival Hall on its feet, dancing and singing for most of the performance. Angelique Kidjo even managed to get those from the first few rows of the auditorium onto the stage with her, despite the protestations of a large security guard, who then comically tried to manage the frenetic dance-off between Angelique and members of the crowd.
I couldn’t help be reminded of another performance by African women, which I saw on my last visit to Benin. When we first arrived at the new office of YACI in Porto Novo, all of the mothers of the children we support came out dancing and singing. They were all wearing their best clothes and shaking tambourines to the rhythm of the song that they’d written to thank us for supporting the education of their children. I was overwhelmed by their joy and energy; the whole scene brought tears to my eyes. Just the day before I’d visited some of them in their homes where they’d looked exhausted, beaten almost, by the challenges life consistently threw at them. The transformation was almost like magic.
These women are unlikely to ever sing on an international stage like Kidjo or Diawara, but in their own way they’re activists too. They may live on little more than a dollar a day, but they’ve had the courage to put the education of their children first, instead of sending them out to work in the streets. I wish I could tell them that the songs of two other African women, one from Benin herself, carried their message to another continent and brought over 2,000 people to their feet, in support of their cause.
All too often I find myself depressed and frustrated about the lack of progress made by women since winning the right to vote: still there are too few women at the top, whether it’s in politics, business, science or the arts. Still the gender pay gap persists, and while women are working more hours than at any other time in history, we’re still doing the majority of the housework. All of this inequality and I still frequently hear comments that women are their own worst enemy; that when a woman does reach the top she doesn’t extend a hand down to help others, often because she’s so worried there’s only one female spot in the echelons of power.
Yes, it’s definitely easy to get disheartened… but then something comes around the corner to cheer you up. Over the last few weeks I’ve been listening avidly to the build-up to the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List: their final list of the 100 women making the most impact on UK society will be announced tomorrow. It’s been both fascinating and inspiring to hear about all of this extraordinary female talent; all of these women driving agendas and making change, being celebrated by other women. It made me want to use my blog not just to debate and critique inequality, but to celebrate some pretty special women around me.
The lady I’ve really wanted to shout about in the last couple of weeks is one of my oldest friends, Alex Ferguson. It’s unbelievable that sixteen years ago we used to sit in the same science classes together, because she’s just passed her viva for her PhD in Chemistry. Yes, you read the last sentence correctly, a PhD in Chemistry. If that’s not worth celebrating then I don’t know what is.
Of course Alex didn’t just go and get a PhD, she finished it several months ahead of the deadline, and managed to fit in an internship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. (Before you ask, she’s not slipped me any cash, in fact she doesn’t even know I’m writing this!) She also makes it her mission to put science at the heart of the political agenda, taking the opportunity to quiz any minister, who has anything to do with science, whenever they make a public appearance. Between her and Prof. Lesley Yellowlees (the first female President-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry), David Willetts has a lot to be worried about.
Alex will not be on the Woman’s Hour Power List this year, and maybe not the next year either, but in the years that follow, I firmly believe I’ll start to see Alex and many of the other strong, capable, intelligent women I count as my friends, topping the Power List and the Rich List and the Influential People List. I also know they’ll be extending a hand down to the next generation to make sure that they’re on the lists too.
Those are the words of the companion of the Indian woman, raped and beaten on a bus in December. The woman died in hospital from her injuries; five men and one juvenile have been arrested and charged.
Yesterday the friend gave an interview to the Indian network, Zee TV. After suffering such a brutal attack, it seems they did not receive decent support from either the Indian people, or the authorities. He and his friend sat on the side of the road for 30 minutes trying to get help after they’d been thrown off the bus where the attack took place. They were naked and she was bleeding profusely, yet no one stopped. When the police did arrive he said they wasted time arguing about jurisdiction, and then took them to a hospital that was far away, when there was another nearby.
The case has sparked national outcry in India, with campaigners calling for better protection for women against violence. The intensity and frequency of the protests has clearly rattled both politicians and police. In the days before Christmas Indian police used baton charges, tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters demonstrating against sexual violence. There is no doubt this brave young woman has awakened a nation.
But what about our nation? It’s easy to criticise India’s record on violence against women, and the Western press has certainly taken this opportunity to do so. Recent comment pieces in the liberal press include:
But can we honestly say we’re doing everything in our power to protect women in the UK from violence, sexual assault and rape? According to the charity Rape Crisis only 15% of serious sexual offences are ever reported to the police, and of the rape offences that are reported, fewer than 6% result in a conviction. That means that 85% of victims do not feel able to come forward and that there are potentially thousands of serious offenders out there, free to assault other women.
Clearly India faces a grave challenge when it comes to protecting women, but this is not an issue that us Westerners should feel comfortable about either. Last year Thames Valley police refused to give funding for a new Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Reading, despite the nearest SARC being over 20 miles away in Slough. SARCs are the only one-stop service where victims of sexual violence can get medical care, have a forensic examination, and if they wish, report the incident to the police. Funding from local authorities to organisations working with domestic violence and victims of sexual abuse fell from £7.8 million in 2010-11 to just £5.4 million last year, and the charity Refuge said it’s funding has been cut 50%. And it’s not just a funding issue; cases like that of Layla Ibriahim, who was jailed after reporting rape, show that much work needs to be done with police officers and prosecutors to ensure when people do report sexual violence they are given the care and support they deserve.
Clearly there is no room for complacency on the issue of violence against women either at home or further afield. I hope the courage of the woman in India awakens the UK to a few home truths and inspires us to do more; to campaign for properly funded specialist services, to get more training for the police and prosecutors, to make justice the rule and not the exception for victims.
Happy New Year! My resolution for 2013 is to blog more… it’s out there now so please hold me to it. Here’s some thoughts on charitable giving I’ve been mulling over the Christmas period.
A few weeks ago I heard a debate on Radio 4′s The Moral Maze. The backdrop for the discussion on ‘Ethical Consumerism’ was the idea that the tax avoidance schemes used by Starbucks, Amazon and Google are immoral, if not illegal. However, the debate was steered towards charitable giving and in particular whether the techniques used by charities to encourage donations at Christmas are ethically sound. Jack Lundie was there to fight the corner of Save the Children UK.
Save the Children can’t deny their adverts are intended to make you feel very uncomfortable as you wolf down your mince pie and brandy butter. Images of starving children; bald facts about the number of children who die needlessly due to hunger; celebrities clutching toddlers who are so malnourished they look like babies just a few months old.
I have held such children and it is truly heart-breaking. One little boy I met on my first trip to Benin I will never forget. At 9 months Joseph looked just a few weeks old and had a terrible cough. It really hit home when I came back to the UK and I met my boyfriend’s new born niece who was so plump and pink and beautiful. When I saw her I burst into floods of tears, thinking what Joseph might have looked like at 9 months had he been born in the UK.
I understand why charities show these images to raise funds. I understand the frustration of trying to explain just how bad things are in other parts of the world, particularly at a time when at home people are feeling the squeeze of recession and cuts. But, I think there’s always another way to get people to open their hearts (and their wallets) to support others.
People want to feel good about giving to charity, and so they should. Charity should be about enabling and empowering people, which does feel good. I often complain about the extra work involved in supporting YACI, but actually I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved and when I went to visit the families we work with in Benin last July I saw the work they’re doing to help themselves.
This year, with the help of friends and family, YACI produced giftcards and jewellery which supporters receive if they commit to sponsoring a child for a year. (The inspiration came from Oxfam’s give a goat campaign.) Each YACI gift had a story and picture about one of the children and the difference education is making to their lives. To date we have raised over £1500 with this campaign; small change to a giant like Save the Children, but it’s double what all of our previous efforts have achieved.
Charities should empower both the beneficiaries and the donors to make positive change, and I hope that’s the message people take away from YACI. I would never want to guilt people into giving, but equally, I don’t think the organisations that do deserve the kind of moral condemnation dealt out to Jack Lundie on the Moral Maze.
This issue is an important one to me because of what I do, but is it one that should be discussed on a par with corporations who have avoided millions in tax? Their adverts might be innocuous in comparison to a Save the Children tear-jerker, but ultimately I think we should save our moral outrage for the tax-dodgers.
This time last year I wrote about my fear that women’s bodies would become part of the political battleground, in the way they are in the US, with issues such as abortion and rape dominating the political agenda.
14 months after Nadine Dorries MP tried to introduce an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill to stop charities offering abortion counselling, two more Tories (both in very influential positions) have spoken of their desire to see abortion limits reduced. Last week Jeremy Hunt, recently promoted to Health Minister, said he’d like to see the limit halved to 12 weeks. And just a few days before Maria Miller, the new Women’s Minister, said she would like to see the limit reduced to 20 weeks.
I respect conservatism, I understand the theory and desire for a free market economy and a small state. I don’t generally agree with it, but after over 20 years debating it with my Dad I think I have have a pretty healthy understanding of it. As far as I can tell increasing regulation directly opposes what conservatism is about. So, why do Conservatives want more regulation when it comes to women’s bodies? Why are they so determined to restrict access to free choice? Why do they want to introduce laws that endanger life rather than protect it?
The reality is that where there is no access to safe, legal, free abortion women take matters into their own hands. It’s very difficult to get accurate statistics on the numbers of illegal abortions and how many women are injured or die as a result, but we know the numbers are not negligible.
Ultimately restricting abortion also has the consequence of piling discrimination onto poorer women. We know that in places with restricted access to legal abortion (such as Northern Ireland) those women with the means will travel to countries where they can get the services they need safely. It’s thought that last year about 1,000 women travelled to other parts of the UK from Northern Ireland to have a legal abortion. But what happened to the others who couldn’t make the trip?
With all the issues facing Britain today I’m disappointed that politicians keep returning to this subject. I think Jeremy Hunt’s time would be better spent limiting the damage caused by reforms to the NHS and I wish that Maria Miller would focus her efforts on the 230 victims of domestic violence turned away by Women’s Aid every day last year due to lack of funding. But domestic violence neither makes the headlines, nor rallies disgruntled back benchers, so I’m not going to hold my breath.
If I found myself with an unwanted pregnancy I have no idea what I would do. I know the decision would depend on the circumstances and I know it would be a difficult and painful choice, whichever one it was. But I hope that if I ever have to make that choice I’d have access to safe, legal and free healthcare.