Category Archives: Women

Sheffield joins One Billion Rising global protest to demand an end to violence against women

Yesterday I was delighted to join the One Billion Rising gathering in Sheffield, which joined communities around the globe in a joint act of solidarity to protest at violence against women.

The slogan this year was “Rise, Dance, Disrupt”, and dance was what we did in Sheffield, with performers presenting dance with an appropriately internationalist flavour with flair, verve and skill.

Then all (or nearly all),  of the 200 or so participants, joined in the Break the Chain dance, with energy, enthusiasm and varying levels of skill

I did join in – although carefully down the back, since my attempts to keep in rhythm and step are something the world is probably best protected from.

In between, there was serious talk about how our government, many governments, are failing to take the action that’s needed.

The lack of funding for victims of violence was one focus. Rape crisis centres and refuges are left to struggle with crumbs of funding, frantic fundraising and continuing uncertainty, when they should receive stable, long-term core funding for the best, and most financially efficient, services.

Another was the need for good quality, inclusive sex and relationship education in our schools (something Green MP Caroline Lucas has been fighting for with her PSHE bill).

And there was rightful anger at the government’s failure to sign the Istanbul Convention.


Yes: feminism and environmentalism are essential partners

Reflecting a speech I gave at the Women’s Environmental Network Forum, January 26, 2017

I was asked to speak a little about my personal political history, so I begin with chronologically the first part of my politics: feminism. That started at age five, when I was told “Because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle.” That was a product of the thought processes of my aspirational working class grandmother, who thought it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

I didn’t know the word feminism then, and it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered the novel The Women’s Room at about age 16 that I realised other people thought as I did.

My other key political strand came later, in my university years, as I studied agricultural science, and came to understand that Australian farming, using methods transplanted from the other side of the world, was mining the soils, destroying them. In that lay the foundation of my environmentalism.

But it would be decades before I started to see the links between the two sides of my politics.

One element that they share is that feminists and environmentalists seem to keep having to fight the same battles again and again. For feminism, this was brought into focus for me by one of British feminism grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, in 2010, when I heard her say: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.” As we’ve found now fighting for a ban on companies forcing female staff to wear high heels.

Preparing for tonight, I was struck by the parallels with the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, sneaked out by the government. The Climate Change Act was hailed as a great victory, and it was a success, but not one whose continuation was assured.

The problem is that when we fight battles on individual issues, once that issue is apparently won, the momentum, the energy, heads off in new directions, and the system reverts to status quo settings.

This reminds me of many years ago when I founded the blog Carnival of Feminists. I was also at the time a regular host of the Britblog roundup, a political blogging carnival. I had a lot of trouble getting the (mostly male) hosts of that to see feminism as part of politics, but I also had some problems getting the feminist bloggers to conclude the same.

What we’ve not really grasped in many parts of feminism and environmentalism is that what we are doing is, must be, has to be, politics.

We can’t just lobby politicians – we have to be politicians. In other words, we have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.

What’s increasingly clear now if that the problems identified by feminism and the problems seen by environmentalism are joined up – they are part of a system, a model, that’s broken – that’s based on an economic system that’s trashing the planet while society tramples all over the rights of women, failing to treat them with the most basic respect.

We can’t win by picking off small issues – we need system change, a transformation to move towards a society and economy that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.

And here’s where I think a concept that comes from agriculture can help us see more broadly what we need: agroecology. I wrote about it recently after returning from the climate talks in Marrakesh.

It’s a concept of farming and land management that aims to work with each plant, animal and microbes natural strengths, to support and go around its weakness, to create a natural environment in which every species can thrive and flourish, not overstretched, not be a cow pumped with hormones to produce heroic quantities of milk, or a soil treated like a cake mix whose ingredients can be fiddled at will.

It might just be a useful way for feminists to think about the kind of society that we need, one in which everyone has access to light, and air, to space and time, to the opportunity to flourish without undue demands and pressures.

It’s one more way in which we can join up feminism and environmentalism.

Bridges not walls: a great response to Trump

Today a great many people have been unable to turn their eyes away from Washington, mourning the undemocratic result of the American election and fearing what a President Trump will bring.

Those are understandable reactions, and we need to acknowledge and respect those feelings. Before the election I was saying that I couldn’t imagine a President Trump in charge of nuclear weapons. Now I don’t have to imagine.

But the answer to this election outcome is not to get depressed, but to get even more determined, and that’s what the people of Sheffield, like many around the Britain and the world have been doing today, with about 500 people gathering at the two events I attended in the city centre on this cold winter’s evening.

bridges not walls banner

What we’re seeing today, I would argue, is the peak, and the end, of the era that began with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the era in which the interests of the banks and the multinational companies has dominated over those of communities and entire countries, the time during which we’ve hugely intensified the rate at which we’re trashing the planet, while producing miserable, unhealthy societies.

Many in the US voted for Trump because he held out the promise of something different – but as the former bosses of the vampire squid Goldman Sachs and the climate-destroyer Exxon Mobil have taken some of the most senior posts in the Trump administration, the truth is already becoming clear to some who voted for Trump, that he’s just an extreme, vulgarised form of more of the same.

The US vote was a vote for change – and the voters will quickly realise that that’s not what they’ve got – and the desire, the hunger, for change will still be there.

While it is of course worth noting that he didn’t even in the election – in terms of getting the most votes. The corrupt, undemocratic electoral college system clearly has to go. That a problem for the American people, while we can focus on our own corrupt, undemocratic politics, and demand democracy also in the UK,, where we have a government with 100% of the power based on the votes of 24% of eligible voters, and a manifesto now entirely irrelevant.

More, today Green MP Caroline Lucas was presenting before parliament her Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) bill, which would make providing an education for life, including sex and relationship education, required in all government-funded schools. It was widely backed by civil society groups, including the Fawcett Society, the Terence Higgins Trust and St John’s Ambulance. But it didn’t get debated, being filibustered by a group of the usual Tory suspects, who make no pretence at respect for democracy.

As we work on creating a democratic system for the UK, we need to make sure that the misogyny, the racism, the vile level of public discourse is not normalised, which means standing up against it and calling it out – as the lovingly handcrafted signs saying “pussies against Trump” (yes, some lovely cat pictures) in Sheffield did tonight.

It means saying “refugees welcome”, “multinational companies must pay their taxes”, “decent benefits for everyone who needs them”, “climate change is real” and much more.

It means presenting a message of hopeful, positive change, to counter the fear and division of Trump, Farage and their ilk.

For as Green Cllr Magid Magid said tonight, “hope always trumps fear”.

Pregnancy discrimination – twice as bad as a decade ago

To Westminster today for the launch of an excellent campaign by Maternity Action, highlighting the issue of pregnancy discrimination, which recent research has shown is twice as bad as it was a decade ago.

The Women and Equalities Committee completed an inquiry into maternity discrimination in August of last year.  The Government’s response is now 11 weeks overdue.

The group was launching three videos featuring women in low-income jobs talking about how they overcame discrimination and won their rights – a really important message.

Sheffield Needs a Payrise: Taking the message to the high street

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the rally today at the start of the Sheffield Needs a Payrise march, a campaign that’s calling for a minimum £10/hour wage for all workers in Sheffield and beyond (particularly apt since South Yorkshire is the fifth poorest region in Northern Europe). There was a great turnout of around 300, excellent on a busy, cold day just before Christmas.

We heard many examples of the difficulties workers face as a result of low pay and zero-hours contract. An Usdaw representative said she’d just been trying to help a member with six jobs, who needed to use a food bank to get by.

Gareth Lane from the bakers’ union spoke of the difficulties faced by laid-paid workers in McDonalds, citing particularly one young father left rarely seeing his children by computer-allocated shifts that took no account of his family responsibilities.
I spoke about the great radical political tradition of Sheffield, and how it was again politically leading the country with this campaign. Our economy, that’s increasingly dominated by low-paying, tax-dodging multinational companies that are parasites, isn’t doing what an economy is supposed to do, which is to provide for our needs, one of which is stable, secure, decent-paying jobs – jobs that you can build a life on.

“FearLESS” – excellent title for a campaign to end violence against women and girls

Some telling figures today from Action Aid UK at the launch of a report on their “FearLESS” campaign. Women’s Rights Organisations received only around 1.5% of the aid money committed for gender equality worldwide. For UK aid the figure is under 1%.

The people best equipped to understand the situation and tackle it are not getting the support they need. 

I heard this in the rather grand surroundings of the Speaker’s House at Westminster, although telling that the oil portraits gazing down on us were all male.

But it wan’t all bad news. World Bank figures report that the number of countries with legislation against domestic violence has increased from seven to 127 in the past 25 years.

One case study given was of the work of Mifumi, a Ugandan organisation that for two decades pushed for a law, passed in 2016, banning refunds of the “bride price” as a condition for the dissolution of customary marriage – a practice that trapped women in abusive relationships and put them at risk of violence.

Another was of the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Impunity in Guatemala, which helped indigenous women from the Sepur Zarco community win a case against two former soldiers who were found guilty of crimes of sexual violence, a landmark in which sexual violence as a war crime was raised in a national court. (It was declared as such by the UN Security Council Resolution 1820.)

We also heard at the event from Jess Njui of the Africa Youth Trust about its work in tackling violence against women and girls at the informal Kenyan communities – was great to hear her paying tribute to the work of early feminists in Kenya who laid the ground for work today.

Another wonderful Women of the Year lunch

I was honoured to be invited to my second Women of the Year lunch yesterday.

One of the many lovely stories was that of Razan Alsous, from Huddersfield, who came to Britain from Syria five years ago and founded a fast-expanding cheese production business, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, using her professional background as a microbiologist.

But the biggest focus was on the Hillsborough families, and their 27-year fight for truth. Their award was presented by Theresa May, who was given credit as Home Secretary for being more prepared to listen to the evidence in this case than previous incumbents had been.

The Prime Minister was, however, under critical focus as Liz Clegg, who founded and runs the Women’s and Children’s Centre in the Calais refugee camp, received her Courage award. Liz implored the Prime Minister to allow the children to come to Britain before the camp is bulldozed. The Red Cross has identified 187 children who have rights to come to Britain under the Dublin regulations, but Britain appears to plan to accept just 25. And there’s been no action on the promise to bring in unaccompanied children under the Dubs amendment.

cu-zyynwiaaygmjThe strong Northern focus was reflected in the Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition. She spoke with wry pride of how others had told her she couldn’t do this in Leeds, it would have to be London, and how she’d successfully ignored them.

The Inspiration award was won by Lizzie Jones from Halifax, who set up the  Danny Jones Defibrillator Fund, in memory of her husband, who died suddenly while playing rugby league.