Let’s talk about feminism

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

By Claudia Bonifay

When a close friend of mine mentioned on a group chat that Emma Watson had just launched a book club, I was immediately thrilled. Ever since her speech at the UN for the launch of ‘He for She’ had moved me to tears, I had been following the campaign. This book club had the promise of bringing together my new found fascination for Watson’s work on feminism, my love for reading, and my inappropriate adult obsession for Harry Potter. What could possibly go wrong? Within minutes I had visited the book club page, called ‘Our Shared Shelf’, and downloaded the first book on my reading tablet. I was ready to be part of the movement.

Since January, Watson has been uploading a new thread announcing the book she will be reading on the first day of every month. Initially, it was explained that members had three weeks to read the book, and it would then be discussed throughout the remaining week of the month. However, that rule was quickly disregarded by the overwhelming ever-growing following of the club, as eager members were creating dozens of different discussion threads every day. With such a wide variety of questions and topics, the forum had to acquire more than a handful of moderators to keep it all in check. Anybody can start a discussion thread, whether about the books, related themes, or really anything that the feminist topic inspires. You can also join in on threads others have already started. From pornography, to the representation of women in the media or the complexity of religious belief as a rape victim, the forums have plenty to offer. There are even discussion threads in different languages, such as Spanish and French.

‘My Life on the Road’ by Gloria Steinem was the first book on the list. Steinem is one of the most prominent feminist activists of the 20th, and even of the 21st century so far. The book is all about her life as a feminist activist, her love for the road and is full of highly satisfying juicy anecdotes. This first pick was a perfect introduction to feminism because it unveils the inner works of her life as an activist, effectively bringing a human touch to historical events and feminist theory. It was incredible to learn from her experience about the different ways the feminist movement had evolved throughout the decades. Most importantly, it taught me that her work had such a large-scale impact because she truly cared about listening, learning and building deep relationships with others.

The book club does not just link people together behind the screen. Dozens of members have quickly taken the initiative to organise meet-ups and reading groups in their respective cities. And last month I saw the club come to life as Gloria Steinem took the stage to be interviewed by Emma Watson at the ‘how to: Academy’ in London as part of her UK tour. At first, I was sceptical about the idea. I was afraid I would be stuck queuing up along with a crowd excited about coming face to face with a celebrity. I am glad I was proven wrong when I realised that everyone was incredibly open-minded and diverse, crossing generations and races. I was also glad to see men sympathetic to the cause disseminated amongst the audience.

Despite the event having been organised in the context of the release of Steinem’s book, other topics were addressed such as the place feminism should take in international conversations on development. Watson expressed her frustration with regards to gender issues being constantly pushed down further on the agenda, rather than being considered a priority and an issue that encompasses all others. Instead, development or conflict concerns should also be examined with a gender lens, as they will always be either caused or aggravated by the exclusion of women and girls and widespread violence against them. In fact, every issue deemed more important than gender equality cannot possibly be solved without gender equality. A perfect example of this is how we currently think of international security. Watson mentioned a figure she came across in the book ‘Sex and World Peace’ that shocked the audience just as much as herself – ‘(…) more lives are lost through violence against women from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, suicide, egregious maternal mortality, and other sex-linked causes than were lost during all the wars and civil strife of the twentieth century,’ thereby effectively resulting in women no longer constituting half of the world’s population. The devaluation of female life is an international security threat but is often regarded as a separate issue. Steinem followed up by stating that the best indicator of the likelihood of violence occurring in a country or even of that country’s willingness to use military violence against another is not poverty, access to resources, religion or degree of democracy, but the level of violence against females. She explains that this is not because female life is more valuable than any other but rather because it normalises domination.

‘Our Shared Shelf’ really is an incredible way to discover books written by women about feminism, even if not always in obvious ways. It challenges me to think of the presence of those themes where I would not look for them. This is also what the ‘He for She’ campaign aims to achieve: to challenge our notion that feminism is a women-only club. As Watson always says, men need to be part of the conversation for equality to be achieved. I have already started to notice the impact this campaign has had on how comfortable most of my male friends now are with the word feminism and how ready they are to identify with the movement, as feminists.

I was recently asked who my literary female hero was when I was growing up. Whilst I could name a few fictional characters following a few minutes of careful thought – Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy did not deceive as an adventuress and taught me that loving and caring does not contradict strength and courage, actually quite on the contrary – I realised that I had a very hard time naming other heroines who were not sidekicks to protagonist male characters. The ones I liked won the inspirational prize by default because the list of competitors was unfortunately incredibly limited. There has definitely been developments since my time as a child, and I particularly like Viola Eade from Patrick Ness’ ‘Chaos Walking’ series, but I think there is a lot of progress to be made with the support of a book club that aims to deepen exposure to a variety of female authors and characters, dedicated to women, girls, men and boys alike. Gloria Steinem said at the talk that ‘clicking send is not activism,’ but I have to disagree with her. Online platforms such as ‘Our Shared Shelf’ are the future of activism because they have the potential to create communities where ideas can be shared, events announced, questions raised and opinions debated in a much larger space than was previously possible.

Why 2016 is the year to leap, not shuffle, towards gender equality

left to right, Katie Berrington, Karen Gould, Emily Berrington

Katie Berrington, Karen Gould & Emily Berrington

By Emily and Katie Berrington

Despite being the year that the United States may be set to welcome its first female president; the first year that Saudi Arabia’s female residents will live under municipal governments that they were able to vote in; and the year that more than 90 countries answered the UN Women’s call to “Step It Up For Gender Equality”; 2016 has not been an easy year to be a woman in many parts of the world. Far from it, in fact. Headlines of progression for women’s rights are scarce and a quick scan of the top news stories over the last two months confirms that we have a long way to go before equality is achieved – approximately 117 years according to the World Economic Forum, based on indicators of health, education, economic participation and political empowerment. Even more worrying, this estimate increased by 38 years between 2014 and 2015, due to a slowdown in the rate of progress.

But it is not just about the figures – so far this year has seen women suffering disproportionately in conflict zones around the world, with groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram using sexual violence as a weapon of war and suppressing women’s rights in areas under their control. Many fleeing war torn homes report assault, exploitation and harassment on their journey to safety (Amnesty International, 2016) with little protection or security being provided to those at risk. The battle against Female Genital Mutilation rages on, with an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing it every year (WHO, 2016). Human trafficking remains an international issue – the most common form being sexual exploitation and victims predominantly being female. And, although women may have been given the vote locally (still not nationally) in Saudi Arabia, they continue to face sanctions, such as the lack of freedom to drive to the polling station, which render a historical development less of a leap and more of a shuffle in the right direction.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to address the enormous forces working against women’s rights and preventing true gender equality. It is a chance to petition governments, to challenge, to campaign, to take action. It is also a time to celebrate, to reflect on the achievements that have been made and to salute the fantastic work that is being done, as well as to recognise how much further there is to go. The headlines are bleak, but they are not ineradicable.

This International Women’s Day we will be celebrating some of the many women who have inspired us – in the opportunities we have had and the choices we have made. Our mum, who made being a feminist the norm and led by example in encouraging us to expect and strive for parity in both our personal and professional lives. Harriet Harman, who Emily was lucky enough to see being honoured at last year’s Labour Women’s Conference for bringing what had previously been seen as “women’s issues” – childcare, for instance – to parliament. She was often mocked or ignored and we are grateful that she refused to concede. Finally, Malala Yousafzai, whose courage in the face of unspeakable adversity and dedication to advocate girls’ right to education worldwide drives progress forward, and to whom we give the closing words. “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

Let’s all raise up our voices, in whatever ways we can, this year.

On International Women’s Day call on the Government to back up UN Women

Today is International Women’s Day, Labour is holding the Conservative-led Government to account on its promise to women around the world. This comes a week after support for UN Women was left out of the aid review. In an email, Harriet Harman asked people to ask them why:

Today is International Women’s Day. Join me in calling on the Government to answer the question they failed to answer last week when they published their review of the UK’s international aid programme – how much will they commit to spending on the new UN women’s agency?

This new UN agency has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of women in both the developed and the developing world but it needs resources.

The Government say they are putting women and girls at the heart of their development work. Sign up and ask the Government to put their money where their mouth is and show the world that the UK is still a leader for women

The Labour Government played a key role in establishing “UN Women”. The new Government must continue that support. Empowering women is not only right in principle but essential for fighting poverty and achieving all of the Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing the number of women who die in childbirth, and increasing the number of girls who go to school.

It is women in developing countries who are best placed to fight for maternal health care, and for their daughters to go to school. UN Women must help them in that fight. Support UN Women by signing up to ask the Tory-led Government for a real commitment to back up women throughout the world

Decisions are being made on this now and women the world over need the UK to play its part. The women of the world shouldn’t have to wait any longer for this Government to make up its mind.

Best,

Harriet Harman
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

 

Women and Development policy review group launched

Today, on the eve of the 100th International Women’s Day, Labour launched a policy review into women and development: “Supporting the sustainable empowerment of women and girls in the developing world”.

As part of the wide-ranging review of Labour Party policies, this group will look at the barriers that women across the world still face in accessing education, healthcare and economic opportunities, as well as a staggering lack of political representation.

The group will be chaired by Cherie Blair, who in 2008 established the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which works with organisations based in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East jointly developing projects with  local partners to help women start and expand their businesses.

The review will look into 6 areas:

  • Supporting the sustainable empowerment of women and girls in developing countries
  • Making growth work for the poor and generating resources for development
  • Climate Change, resource scarcity and food insecurity –mapping and responding to the challenges
  • Conflict, security and development
  • Beyond governments: Recognising and building greater support for international development
  • The challenge of inequality between and within countries

Underlining the importance of the policy review and Labour’s dedication to international development, Cherie Blair said:

“Women are the drivers of change across the world. They are far more likely than men to invest their incomes back into their families – helping to drive up better health standards and educational opportunities for their children, which in turn benefits the wider community.

“That’s why working for the economic independence of women is vital to the fight against global poverty. But there are so many barriers faced by women and girls in the developing world, that they are often unable to participate in economic or political life and struggle to get access to healthcare and education for themselves, let alone their families. 

“We need to look afresh at how countries like the UK, through their development efforts, can help make a real difference to the status and power of women in the developing world.”

Welcoming the selection of Cherie Blair as Chair, Harriet Harman, Shadow International Development Secretary, said:

“I am delighted that Cherie Blair has agreed to chair this group. She is a committed campaigner for women and girls in the developing world. Her contribution will be invaluable.”

TUC marks International Women’s Day with celebratory dinner

The Trade Union Congress marked the 100th International Women’s Day with a celebration of women through music, poetry, comedy and speech.

Speakers included Frances O’Grady, Maria Eagle, Bonnie Greer and Hariyatu Bangura, an inspirational women’s leader for the Western Region of Sierra Leone Teacher’s Union.

The evening jumped between hip hop, soul, poetry, an ironing board keyboard and the charming comedy of Josie Long in a surprisingly fluid manner. Despite being a celebration it was clear the day was not simply about celebrating women’s progress but also a day to look at what still needs to be achieved in both the developed and developing world.

There seems to be a general consensus in the media and popular opinion that equality now exists and that the women’s movement is a thing of the past. Events like International Women’s Day draw attention to the fact that not only do women still have far to go but that even these basic rights many women take for granted do not extend to many parts of the world.

It is not a coincidence that one in three women across the world will be raped, sexually abused or suffer domestic violence in their lifetime nor is it a coincidence that there is still a 16% gender pay gap. Gender equality leaves much to be desired and whilst I was personally inspired and encouraged by the event at the TUC I was glad there was a serious tone to the evening and a sense that this was a movement that was only just getting going.

by Lucy Inmonger, LCID

The effect of HIV/AIDS on women in the developing world

Huge advancements have been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS since the 80s, but the fight is getting harder and numbers of people contracting HIV are growing. This International Women’s Day, it is worth pausing to contemplate the disproportionately devastating toll that this infection takes on women in the developing world.

We have all heard harrowing tales of infection being passed through rape in armed conflict, or from promiscuous partners in relationships that still value wives as personal chattels. These stories effect us deeply, but the effects on women in the developing world are often beyond our comprehension. HIV/AIDS does not just affect the person it infects: it cuts down people in their prime, it kills breadwinners and it makes full-time carers out of those who could otherwise work to earn money for food, clothing and schooling. In many cases, it can be a death sentence for a whole family. Children are orphaned and developing countries stagnate whilst their workforce dies.

Speaking for the Chief Executive of the National AIDS Trust, Deborah Jack said:

“Women are disproportionately affected by HIV globally, yet they still do not have a widely accepted prevention method they can initiate and control.  Whilst existing prevention strategies are essential, new tools such as microbicides or a vaccine, could offer women a powerful new way to protect themselves against HIV.”

That is why this Government, through DfID has committed itself to fighting the tide of HIV/AIDS. As one of the first Governments to fund research into microbicides and antiretroviral therapies, the UK’s track record is strong. Going forward, the Global AIDS Strategy commits the Government to a 50% increase in funding of vaccines and microbicides during the 2008-2013 period.

There is no question about continued support for the fight against HIV/AIDS by a Labour Government. More funding for prevention, more funding for microbicides and vaccines, ensuring treatment: these commitments are solid.

It is all too easy to focus on the medical effects of HIV/AIDS. Although these are devastating to individuals, the social effects on families, communities, even whole nations are greater still and especially hard on women.

By Tim Nicholls

Global Dinner Party for International Womens Day

Monday sees the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

To celebrate this, Sarah Brown’s White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood are encouraging people around the world to wear white and hold a dinner party in March for the 100th year of International Women’s Day on the 8th. Please get together with your friends, have some fun and join this global celebration of women and newborns saved and also to remember those lost.

“Together women around the world can really show governments and national leaders that we won’t be ignored and that all women in every country deserve access to basic healthcare. We can save so many lives by refusing to be ignored. Please Play Your Part to prevent the needless deaths of women and newborns in childbirth.”

– Naomi Campbell, White Ribbon Alliance Global Ambassador

WRA Members in over 140 countries will be holding marches, dinners and events in celebration of International Woman’s Day.

To find out more information and put on a dinner party yourself, please go to whiteribbonalliance.org