Thursday, 31 March 2011

The government's war on women continues

Trigger warning

Today i have learnt:

That the government have scrapped the post that was dedicated to eradicating female genital mutilation. This comes weeks after they pledged to fight the practise that cuts off girls' clitorises, leaving them more often than not with health problems, pain during sex, periods and childbirth. FGM is a form of violence against women and girls that is about controlling women and their sexuality. As is, ftr, labiaplasty, which, unlike FGM, is perfectly legal in the UK and recommended by celebrity doctors, despite it having similar causes and side effects.

I also learnt that the government have made the following cuts to domestic violence services:

60% of refuge services will have no council funding after tomorrow (1st April 2011) and neither will 72% of floating support services.

40% of jobs will be lost across the domestic violence sector - meaning that women and men and children needing vital support to escape violence simply won't get it. It will also affect educational efforts to prevent violence. It also means a few hundred people will be unemployed.

70,000 women and children will be without support to escape violence as a result o f these cuts. 70,000 women and children who are being subjected to violence will be unable to escape violence as a result of these cuts.
This will lead to a rise in murders, rapes and assaults.
This will lead to a rise in murders, rapes and assaults.

There are currently 400 refuge spaces in England. The cuts (60%) are reducing that to 160.

Every DAY, 200 women are unable to access a refuge space. Many of these women simply have no-where else safe to go.

Clegg and Cameron, exactly how many women do you want to die, do you want to see raped, do you want to see battered until you think that your ideological cuts have gone too far? How many women have to die? How many have to be raped? Are 2,000 women a week being raped and 2 women a week being murdered not bad enough? Because, apparently, you don't appear to give a shit that it's already happening. And you don't appear to give a shit that your cuts are going to make it worse.

If you don't already, please set up a direct debit to support Women's Aid:

Rape Crisis in Crisis

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

Rape Crisis in Crisis

On Monday, the Pixel Project tweeted that 2,000 UK women are raped every week. On the same day, Scottish newspaper The Daily Record reported that, as sexual assaults and rapes go up in Glasgow, their rape crisis centre was having its funding slashed by £8,000 – a third of its total.

This is not an unusual situation. Despite the fact that the number of rapes is not going down, whilst the conviction rate is barely budging from its low percentage, rape crisis is in crisis. And as councils are making more and more funding cuts thanks to the government budget plans, organisations providing vital services for victims and survivors of rape and domestic violence are finding themselves with very little money left to continue their work.

Back in 1984, there were 84 Rape Crisis Centres. Now, there are only 38 affiliated to Rape Crisis in England and Wales. Glasgow's is the oldest running Rape Crisis Centre in Scotland, having been opened in 1976. In its history it has provided vital support to women who have been victims of rape and sexual assault, and has been actively involved in educating young men and women about violence, consent and rape. But with a third of their budget about to be slashed, they will no longer be able to provide some of the important educational work they are engaged in. And if we don't educate young people about rape, then there is little hope for a change in attitudes about violence against women and girls. Particularly as the NSPCC and Bristol University have found that 1 in 3 teenage girls experience violence from an intimate partner. With funding cuts imminent, the fight to help women, and to change attitudes is seriously compromised.

Devon Council recently hit the headlines when they proposed to slash 100% of funding to support services for women and men who have experienced domestic violence. After a lot of uproar, the funding cut was reduced to 40%. But this still means that the vital support that Devonshire domestic violence charities and services provide will be severely cut, and the lives of women and men and children are left at risk.

It is, sadly, easy to cut services that offer support and help to survivors of rape and domestic violence, men and women. After all, a lot of people refuse to even recognise or engage in the high numbers of victims and survivors. Rape and domestic violence are invisible crimes, or presented as 'her fault' or 'a crime of passion'. Charities who support victims and survivors struggle to get the public to reach into their pockets precisely because of their invisibility, and because people don't want to confront the realities of these crimes. It was famously reported in 2008 that a donkey sanctuary in Devon earned more income that year than Women's Aid, Eaves and Refuge put together. The result is that many of these services are dependent on central and council funding to survive. And, considering that the work they do to prevent rape and violence, to support victims and survivors and educate, ultimately saves money that would have been spent on police investigations and NHS bills, the centres give the council and the government a pretty good deal.

Take this statistic for an example:

The average annual income for Rape Crisis centres was £81,598, only marginally more than the cost, to the state, of one rape.

The combined annual income for Rape Crisis centres in 2006-07 was just over £3.5m. The government spent more than twice this amount on advertising and public relations each week in 2004-05.

It's easy to cut rape crisis funding. It's easy to cut domestic violence funding. In government terms, it's a small amount of money, and because people think that “it happens to other people”, the government can sneak the cuts in. But these services save people's lives. They save families and protect children. They provide vital support to women and men who otherwise are at serious risk of violence, even death. They help those who are dealing with trauma from historic abuse. Their education and prevention programmes save money for the police and the NHS in the long run.

Rape and domestic violence can happen to anyone. Every day, every night, men and women experience domestic violence and rape. All over the UK, workers and volunteers are fighting to prevent it from happening, and to help the women and men who seek support. Surely the government and the council should do everything they can to make sure that this continues. Surely the work these centres do is so-called ‘Big Society’ in action. It is not an 'easy cut'. Risking women's lives to save money should never be an option.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Daily Mail Fail

TRIGGER WARNING please note that as this post talks about rape it may be triggering.

So, a week after the NYT blamed the gang rape of an 11-year old girl on her, whilst the rapists received sympathy for having their lives ruined, the same thing happens on our side of the pond.

Of course, it is no surprise that it was the Daily Mail. After all, this is the paper who praised their natural enemy, Julian Assange, as a “crusader”, when it became clear the extradition proceedings around him gave them an opportunity to indulge in a bit of ‘all women lie’ reporting.

The article opens with:

"Reading Crown Court heard how the soccer players were encouraged by the schoolgirl 'Lolitas'"

Now, it just so happens that I read Lolita at school and at university. Clearly, our friends at the Daily Mail have done neither. If they had, they would know that contrary to the porn-ization of Lolita in magazine editorial, mainstream movies and porn films, Lolita is a victim of rape. Humbert rapes her repeatedly, and then when she leaves him, the other man is a rapist also. We know this because, when she goes to Humbert’s room after the first time, he writes ‘you see, she had no-where else to go’. We know this because he threatens her with abandonment if she doesn’t give in. We know this because he murders her mother in order to rape her. And even if all of this didn’t happen, we know this because she is TWELVE and he is a GROWN UP. Seriously, one of the greatest tragedies of literature is how fucked up people’s responses to Lolita are. The whole book is Humbert’s fantasy of being seduced by Lolita. As you read the book, you are struck by how upset, frightened and disturbed Lolita is by the experience. She is not a ‘tease’ or ‘seductress’ she is a little girl who chews gum, has greasy hair, and is the victim of a paedophile.

But anyway, I digress.

Apparently, according to the Daily Mail, the girls had ‘sneaked’ out of a party to meet the men, who are footballers, and told them that they were older then they were. The defence reportedly told the court that the girls could not be trusted, and that they had exchanged suggestive text messages with the men. Apparently one of the girls had a false age on Facebook.

The Mail reports that one girl was raped by five of the men, but one girl “was more reluctant and was raped by just one player”. Don’t even get me started on the utter horror of that sentence. Reluctant to be gang raped? When you’re a teenager? Fancy that!

Apparently the rapists were shocked and disgusted when they discovered the age of the girls. Which makes me furious. They should be shocked and disgusted with their own actions of raping the girls. Whatever age those girls are. They should be horrified that they thought it was ok to coerce girls to have sex with them, with no thought or respect for what the girls felt or wanted. They should be disgusted with their actions.

The Mail writes about the girl who was raped by five men:

‘She was initially reluctant but eventually gave in to his persistence.’

It is sentences like this that mean the Assange defence lawyer could describe having sex without someone’s consent as the ‘ebb and flow of sexual relations’. It is sentences like this that mean people go ‘she wanted it really’. It’s sentences like this that mean the conviction rate for rape stays low, at 6.5%. Five older men (their ages ranged from 19-21) pressuring a girl to have sex with all of them, no matter what age she is, or what ages she says she is, is wrong.

The Mail also writes:
"They [the defence] added that the careers of the promising young footballers had been ruined by 'the biggest mistake [of their] lives'."

And the girls? What about their lives? What about the psychological trauma of being 12 years-old and being forced to have sex with five men. And don’t pretend that ‘eventually gave in to his persistence’ is anything but being forced. These girls are children.

Of course, thanks to being groomed by the Daily Mail to think that all rape victims are liars, or are asking for it, because they are outside, or have drank alcohol, or have spoken to the rapist, or have spoken to any men ever; the comments place the blame squarely on a 12 year-old girl. She’s a slut, apparently. They’re wayward, who are ‘more at fault than the lads’ (notice affectionate term for rapists there). They ‘claimed to be 16 and we all know how tarty girls can look’. Apparently we should save space in prison for ‘genuine criminals’ and it is the ‘girls who should be punished.’ Yes Daily Mail reader, lets punish girls for being gang raped. Lets call the men, adult men, ‘misguided’, and lets say that children, young girls, are ‘slutty’ and ‘instigated it’. Well done. Congratulations.

I can’t even be bothered to point out the irony of a news media that wants to bring back the death penalty for paedophiles, insinuating that a 12 year-old girl deserves to be gang raped.  With this thinking, it is apparently ok if men want to rape 12 year-olds who look older, it’s only bad if the girls look 12. I don’t quite understand the logic.

So, here’s a lesson for the Daily Mail and their readers.

1.     Having sex with a 12 year-old girl is statutory rape.
2.     Pressuring and coercing a child into having sex is rape
3.     If someone is 12, 16, 26, 48, 97 or ANY AGE and they are forced to have sex, it is rape
4.     If someone looks 12, 16, 33, 52, 75 or ANY AGE and they are forced to have sex, it is rape
5.     If a woman or girl wears a short skirt, or a low cut top, or skinny jeans and is forced to have sex, it is rape
6.     If a woman or girl flirts with, talks to or knows a man who then forces her to have sex, it is rape.
7.     Lolita was a rape victim
8.     If you lie about your age on Facebook, and a man forces you to have sex, then, amazing I know, this is rape.

It astounds me that we are still having these conversations. But so long as this keeps happening, and the news media keeps blaming the victims and sympathising with the perpetrators, and their readers keep blaming the victims and sympathising with perpetrators, then we need to keep reminding why this is wrong.

As Coventry Rape Crisis tweeted earlier:
‘We have 12 year old clients who have been raped but don’t call it that, they call it 'love' or what you have to do 2 have a boyfriend’

We need to educate our children about active, informed consent. Starting now.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


After the triumphant feeling that surged through us all after the Where are the Women event on the 6th March, I have started to spiral into a state of despair. Despair brought on not just by the thumping realisation of how far we have to go to tackle even the most basic right to live without the fear of rape and violence, and despair at the sheer bile, hate and anger that is thrown at you when you point this out.

Since the 6th March here is a snapshot of what I’ve learnt:

•    The UK has fought to change the wording in the EU’s commitment to fight violence against women and girls so that instead of reading ‘violence against women is a violation of human rights’ it reads ‘violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights’
•    An 11 year-old girl was gang raped in the USA by 18 men. The NYT decided that it was because she dressed older than her age. Local residents worried about the perpetrators and asked where the girl’s mother was.  
•    Women’s unemployment rate has increased for the 8th month in a row
•    George Osbourne has launched an attack on maternity leave for small business employees.
•    Women protestors in Tahrir Square were subject to violence and attacks on International Women’s Day
•    South Wales police has reported that forced marriage is at a record high, and the force dealt with 49 cases in the last 12 months

A lot more has happened of course. In the past week and a half, a couple of women in the UK will have been murdered. Around 2000 women in the UK will have been raped, according to the Pixel Project on my Twitter feed ( Across the world, girls are trafficked into the sex industry and girls are raped on their way to school. Countless girls will have been held down and cut.

These things happen every week of course, and I know they do, so there’s no real reason to feel more despair on this week than any other.

But this week I have felt more and more the huge, overpowering strength of anti-feminist feeling that exists so clearly, leaving me with a sense of utter anger and despair at the ignorance about gender inequality that is, quite literally, leaving women to die.

As part of International Women’s Day, I wrote an article about why we still needed feminism for Liberal Conspiracy. I was expecting a certain amount of pain in the comments, but even I was shocked at the level of rage (from men and women) directed at me for daring to point out that, for example, 60 million school girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school. I was quite happy to share the sources of my statistics – after all, why wouldn’t I? but this didn’t satisfy the critics. They claimed, with no evidence to support this, that my statistics were flawed. When I say ‘no evidence’, I mean that they couldn’t produce any stats that contradicted mine. They seemed to base their disbelief solely on the conviction that the numbers were so bad, they couldn’t possibly be true. Bad news. It is true.

They angrily argued that blaming men, something which I had not done at any point in the piece, was unhelpful (I agree, it is). One person with breathtaking ignorance and naivety argued that 1 in 4 women in the UK suffering domestic abuse was not, actually, that much, and that if 2 women a week are murdered, well, that’s ONLY 100 a year which again, apparently, isn’t THAT much (it’s actually 104 when you multiply 2x52). Quite how many women he thinks should die before this issue matches his definition of ‘enough’ I never managed to learn.

Of course I know statistics can be used to serve an agenda. We only have to check government biased civilian casualty lists of the Iraq war to know this. But I find it infuriating that when you don’t use statistics, people criticise you for not giving evidence, and when you do, they criticise you for being ‘duped’ by stats. My statistics, FYI, came from a range of sources, including the UN, WHO, Amnesty International and the Home Office. Some came from smaller, specifically feminist organisations.
The overwhelming feeling in response to the stats was people choosing to quibble over numbers (‘how do YOU know 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school? Do THEY press a button to alert you every time it happens) rather than using the numbers as a way to start a discussion about why violence against women is so huge, so endemic, and such a problem in peaceful and war-torn societies. It was classic derailing to avoid discussing the real issue.

It seems that every article about feminism I read these days, even on feminist blogs, becomes a dreadful match where rather than being a space to explore issues such as violence against women and girls, commenters (men and women) argue about moot points, or try and fight a battle about who are the real victims and who are the real ‘goodies’. It’s hard work and above all its depressing, because whilst anonymous internet typists shout at each other, women are dying, being raped, losing their jobs, losing their rights, being beaten.

I believe more and more that when people try and derail the conversation in this way, it is because they do not want to look this issue full in the face.  After all, it’s a pretty ugly world where around 4 million women are trafficked every year, many going on to be repeatedly raped to make money for someone else. It’s a pretty disgusting world that rapes its children (men and women). It’s not pleasant to deal with a world that cuts off women’s clitorises, often leaving them with innumerable health problems. It’s a lot to cope with. How much easier it is to bicker about whether the UN has reliable statistics on trafficking, how much simpler to state that the World Health Organisation is “probably not” an authority on women’s health. Why bother trying to discuss what can be done when we can just accuse feminists of being wrong.

If I go on one more feminist blog and read ‘what about the men’ I think I will cry. I hate this idea that if you are against sexism against women, you can’t also be against sexism against men. It’s stupid. It’s unnecessary and creates divides where there should be unity.

I believe that domestic violence against men, and male rape, must be taken more seriously. We need to encourage greater awareness, greater reporting and greater support for survivors. And yet I am endlessly accused of ignoring men, or not caring about men, because I do not caveat every sentence with ‘and men too’. Because I also believe that men and women are different, and we need different approaches to resolve the issues of domestic violence and rape. A one-size fits all approach to resolving domestic violence is never going to work. Police need different training; awareness campaigns that appeal to women may not appeal to men; different myths need to be broken down, e.g. the myths that blame women for their rape, the myths that men need to be ‘tough’. The same goes for trans victims of domestic violence, and domestic violence in gay relationships. We need to find ways to support all survivors and victims of violence. But this doesn’t mean we can’t talk about women and domestic violence, and women and rape. Why is the response to talking about violence against women and girls to tell the speaker to not talk about women and girls? Would we do this in another discussion?

Whichever way you spin it, domestic violence and rape does affect more women than men, and there are more male perpetrators than women. And so to counter every mention of domestic violence or rape with ‘what about the men’ is to try and derail and ignore that this issue is killing two UK women a week. And when commenters (men and women) ask what about the men on a thread that is talking about violence against women they are, to me, trying to derail a conversation in order to ignore and belittle the levels of violence against women.

I would love to go on a site such as Liberal Conspiracy and read an informed, researched and pro-active article about domestic violence against men. But when we’re discussing the mind-boggling levels of violence against women? It’s not the time. And, whilst we’re having a moan, why don’t those people pitch an article about it? Why don’t they do something, seeing as they are so concerned that the ‘pendulum has swung too far the other way’. Again, I think it’s because it’s easier to moan at the feminist view, than face the issues that need confronting.

Another thing I have found so despairing lately is the number of commenters (men and women) who feel threatened by discussion about feminist issues. The insecurity, that we are somehow blaming ALL men for ALL the horrors in the world, dominates discussion that could be used for more positive speech and action. Even when the article doesn’t blame men, this defense appears. And it’s a way of saying that the reader does not want to take the article or the point seriously, because they don’t feel it has anything to do with them.

What’s the point? What’s the point of being so defensive, and turning the debate into one about why you are not guilty? It completely turns the whole conversation away from ‘what can we do about violence against women’ and instead makes it about why feminists are man-haters who blame men for everything and don’t understand subtlety. Why can’t we have a grown-up, sensible and pro-active talk about women and violence? Why is that so much to ask for?

Because every time we sit there arguing whether every conversation about violence against women should actually be about violence against men, or about how one individual has never been violent so why should they care, we’re ignoring the fact that women are being beaten, raped and dying. We’re drawing attention away from that. We’re derailing the conversation away from that. Whether you like it or not, whether you can deal with the fact or not, whether you are ‘not to blame’ or not, this is the bigger issue. This is the bigger picture.

And that’s why I’m full of despair. Because all this derailing, all this bickering, is all a way to hide heads in the sand and ignore the fact that violence against women is something people don’t really care about.

If these commenters cared, they wouldn’t say that 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence isn’t very much. They wouldn’t say that we have equality now, or the pendulum has swung too far the other way. They wouldn’t look for reasons as to why it was really the woman’s fault. They wouldn’t look at the stats that show two women a week being murdered and come back with an anecdote to ‘prove’ that another problem is worse. They wouldn’t make jokey, sarcastic remarks about a terrifying number like 60 million schoolgirls being sexually assaulted on the way to school. They wouldn’t try and make the conversation about them. If people cared, it would be on the news. It would be top of our agenda. It wouldn’t be an easy, quick thing to ‘cut’ services that save lives to ‘save money’.

I’ve been accused of being hysterical. Of being emotional, of ranting. But I think it is ok to respond with emotion when you see what is happening to women around the world, and women you know. I was accused of treating women as victims by discussing violence against women. But when there is so much ignorance, so many people who don’t even know the basic extent of the problem – if we don’t talk about it how are we ever going to start solving it? How are we ever going to get it into the open if we don’t have the conversations? It isn’t victimising women to talk about the facts and the affects of violence. It is trying to make sure people know what happens, to work together to make it stop.

So, within my despair at the sheer bloody battle we face at getting the issues out there, I do have hope that by continuing to fight that battle, we can, one day, create a change.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Daughters of Eve and FGM

This post initially appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, will affect at least 3 million girls across the world this year, according to the UN. And despite the practice being illegal here, no-one has ever been charged or sent to prison for cutting girls, despite the fact we know it is happening in the UK.

‘It’s hard to give an estimate of how many girls are cut each year in the UK,’ explains Nimko Ali, one of the founders of Daughters of Eve, a charity dedicated to supporting and empowering women who have gone through FGM. ‘But within the FGM practising community that I grew up in and work within, I only know about two or three women who haven’t been cut.’

Daughters of Eve was set up by Nimko, Leyla Qalbi Hussein and Sainab Abdi to fill the gap in young people’s services for young women and girls who have gone through FGM. ‘No-one was talking to young people and survivors of FGM about what had happened to them, beyond giving them victim status,’ Nimko explains. ‘We wanted to provide a space that offered open debate about sex and sexuality, and gave young women an unedited voice to discuss their fears and desires. We are surrounded by sex, in advertising, the media, film, music; but these girls then go home to a space where their sexuality is completely controlled. We want to give them a voice.’

It hasn’t always been easy. As well as the difficulties of showing young women where to find this service, like so much of the women’s sector, Daughters of Eve receive no funding. ‘It is a struggle sometimes,’ Nimko agrees. ‘But we overcome it because we are so passionate about this cause, and because we believe it needs to be talked about openly and honestly.’

Nimko believes that FGM is connected to the greater question around societal expectations of women’s sexuality. ‘We want people to understand that FGM is not just the one action of cutting,’ explains Nimko. ‘It is a whole cultural issue of conditioning women to be submissive, to be seen as the property of men. The cutting is the first step of this process.’

So much of the silence surrounding this issue comes from the belief that FGM is something unique to African and Muslim communities, and that ‘cultural sensitivity’ dictates that women and men outside the FGM practising community must not speak about it. It’s a perception Nimko wants to challenge. ‘This isn’t a cultural problem just for African women. It is part of a much wider issue about the way we think about women’s bodies and violence against women.’ Nimko believes that FGM is linked to the reasons behind women wanting surgery to achieve the “perfect” labia, or vajazzling. ‘It stems from a hatred and disgust of women’s organs, and a desire to try and make them fit into a dominant cultural view which are the views of men and not women,’ she argues. ‘It all starts with a fear and hatred of women’s sexuality. Once we stop thinking about FGM as being an issue for “girls with headscarves” and instead consider it as being part of a pattern of gender based violence that oppresses women, we can tackle it out in the open. The women I speak to in the FGM practising community use the same language of disgust to describe un-cut women, as women outside of the community talk about their own, “un-perfect” bodies that need surgery to fit into an ideal of beauty. The result is the suppression of women’s sexuality to the benefit of men who start these myths in order to get women to want to alter their bodies.’

‘Everyone has the right to a sexual identity and to be a sexual being,’ states Nimko.
Daughters of Eve is aiming to ensure this is so.

For more info please visit their Facebook page:
The Daughters of Eve website is currently under construction.

For more info on FGM please visit:

New guidelines for dealing with rape cases

This post initially appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

Can new guidelines tackle pervasive rape myths?

Last year, after suffering years of violence, a young woman found the courage to accuse her abusive husband of rape. The police found plenty of evidence to charge him and the case was all set to go ahead, when the young woman falsely retracted her allegation. The reason? Her husband and his sister put huge amounts of pressure on her to withdraw her accusation, a not uncommon situation.

She was sentenced to eight months in prison by Judge Brown, a man with a history of giving domestic violence and child porn offenders suspended prison sentences.

The case was picked up by feminist campaigners, the media and the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, and the woman was eventually released from prison via the court of appeal. She still has a criminal conviction, and faces a fight to get custody of her children.

These types of cases are now under the spotlight as new interim guidelines are introduced by Starmer to ensure that victims of rape and domestic violence do not end up in prison. This will be supported with a public consultation, with guidelines finalised at the end of the year.

The guidelines advise members of the CPS that victims of domestic violence and rape may retract their allegations due to 'pressure, a fear of violence, or intimidation' and must be handled sensitively to ensure that women and men are not put off reporting the violence committed against them.

However, new guidelines on their own are not the answer to a problem that is influenced by the way rape and domestic violence continue to be viewed in society.

It is believed that 1 in 4 women will experience rape or sexual assault in her lifetime, with the annual number of rapes estimated to be between 45,000 and 104,000. Yet the conviction rate continues to stay at around 5-6%, and it is estimated that between 40 - 80% of rapes remain unreported. False accusations of rape do occur, however the rate is around the same, if not lower, as false accusations of any other crime (3-5%).

Yet these statistics do not match the impression of rape that is all too often created by various media outlets and popular perceptions. There remains a persistent and pernicious myth that women lie about rape, and that false accusations abound and are more common than rape itself. This has led to reporting around rape that suggests that if a man is acquitted, or the case doesn't even reach court, then the woman must be guilty of making a false accusation, even if she has not been accused, charged or prosecuted of the crime.

Being falsely accused of rape is a terrible thing, and a crime that needs to be punished by the law. But our whole perception of rape and false accusations has become hopelessly skewed thanks to the ways in which the crimes are reported in the media, and the sending to jail of women who have falsely retracted true allegations of rape.

As well as guidelines for the CPS, we need to start tackling rape myths that assume the woman is lying and that continue to undermine the fact that rape is a frighteningly common and destructive crime. We need to start educating about what active and informed consent means, and fight against the beliefs that all too often lead to all stages of the prosecution process, from the police to the CPS to juries to judges, allowing rapists to walk free.

Judge Brown sentencing:
Rape conviction and reporting rates:
False accusation stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts'
Rape rate stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts' and the BCS figures cited here:
Guidelines can be read here:

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Violence against women and girls on IWD

A version of this article appeared on Liberal Conspiracy

For those who dare to tell us that feminism is dead, no longer necessary, no longer vital, you need to open your eyes to see that the inequalities women face are still very real, very pertinent and very damaging.

Last year, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn published their game changing book, Half the Sky. In it, they talk about the 107 million missing women. These women are missing because of femicide, because of lack of healthcare, because of domestic violence and because of trafficking. They write:

“in normal circumstances women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in the world. Even poor regions like most of Latin America and Africa have more women than men. Yet in places where girls have deeply unequal status, they vanish...Every year at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

These are the women who we don't hear about on the news. These are the women whose stories are too terrible for our 'compassion fatigue' society to deal with. These are the women who are forgotten, whilst bored commentators dismiss feminism as a lost cause because, after all, we have equality now don't we.

It is estimated that three million girls across the world will be affected by female genital mutilation this year alone, according to the UN. For those of you who don't know, FGM involves cutting a woman's clitoris and sometimes sewing up a woman's vaginal opening until marriage – this is also called infibulation. FGM can cause infection, issues with menstruation, pain during sexual intercourse, and, at worst, death through infection. But fundamentally it is about control. A few weeks ago I spoke to Nimko Ali, one of the founders of Daughters of Eve, a charity that supports girls in the FGM community. She believes that FGM is about a disgust of women's organs, a desire to control women, that all starts with a fear and disgust of women's sexuality. She argues that the same issues arise with the increase of western women seeking labiaplasty to get the perfect vagina. Ali argues that:

“The women I speak to in the FGM practising community use the same language of disgust to describe un-cut women, as women outside of the community talk about their own, 'un-perfect' bodies that need surgery to fit into an ideal of beauty. The result is the suppression of women’s sexuality to the benefit of men who start these myths in order to get women to want to alter their bodies.”

FGM happens to a girl every ten seconds. Every ten seconds a woman's sexuality, ability to experience sexual pleasure and potentially her reproductive health are compromised. Although FGM is a crime in the UK, no-one has ever been prosecuted.

It is tempting to think this is a problem for 'over there'. But this is completely wrong. This is a problem for all women, and it is something we should all be involved in the fight against. This disgust, this fear of women, women's bodies and women's power affects every woman across the world. The oppression of women across the world is a fight for all of us.

But, of course, we have equality now, don't we. The battle has been won.

According to the UN, an estimated 2 million women are trafficked over international borders every year. When you add the numbers of women who are trafficked internally, the number is even higher, around 4 million. These women are trafficked into the sex and domestic service trade. They are repeatedly raped every day, for money that they don't see, or work as slaves for privileged women and men. They lose their lives, their health, their identity. They may lose any children they have to the brothels or homes they work in. Some escape, as described in Half the Sky. But many don't. In the UK, teenage girls are internally trafficked in to the sex industry. Whatever your view on the sex industry, and I am sure some of you who have read my articles before will know mine, surely there is something very damning and disturbing about a society that will pay money to rape a woman. And yet, it happens every day, all over the world, to millions and millions of women.

Across the world, 70 million girls are deprived of an education. And yet, study after economic study has found that educating girls improves the economy. By educating girls, you empower them for future generations, who will also benefit from the education of their mothers. Improved literacy has a positive effect on empowering women to have control of their families and their reproductive health. Educating girls not only makes good moral sense, but it makes economic and political sense too. What's stopping us? Inequality and sexism.

Still not convinced? Here's some more numbers that might change your mind.

Across the world, sixty million girls will be sexually assaulted on their way to school. A girl in South Africa is more likely to be raped than finish her education. One in three women in the world will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Two women a week will be murdered in the UK by a current or former partner. About six women who work as prostitutes will be murdered in the UK every year (British Journal of Nurses). Three million women across the world are left incontinent with fistulas that are caused by rape, or lack of care during pregnancy and labour. Women with fistulas often find themselves treated as outcasts, unable to get or access the healthcare they need. And they are the women who survive childbirth. The maternal mortality rate is actually getting worse in some parts of the developing world; the number of African women who die in childbirth has risen from 205,000 in 1990 to 261,000 in 2005.

These are all big problems. And this is the tip of the iceberg in a world where women do two thirds of the world's work, earn 10% of the world's income and own 1% of the world's property.

If you think that International Women's Day is a waste of time, that feminism no longer has any battles to fight, then please, I beg you, think again. Think of the women in the Congo, who's stories have been silenced. Think of the girl who is being held down as her clitoris is cut to be made a 'real woman'. Think of the teenage girl who thinks the only way to success and self esteem is to have her breasts cut open and stuffed with silicon. Think of the women who don't go to school, who are kidnapped and forced into sex or domestic slavery. Think of the women who have died this year in the UK already as a result of domestic violence. Think of the women who are raped every day for profit. Think of this and tell me that we don't need International Women's Day. Hear these women's voices and tell me that we don't need feminism.

For stats and references please check:
Living Dolls by Natasha Walter
Half the Sky by Kristof and Wudann…/Rape%20-%20The%20Facts.doc

Monday, 7 March 2011

Where are the women - speech

I'm going to start by talking about our own findings of where women are often absent in the media, alongside the research conducted by UK Feminista in this area, and share with you how clear and manifest this kind of discrimination that renders women invisible is. I'll then explore with you where women are represented in the media, and how this can so often be problematic.

Bristol Fawcett began collecting data in 2007 and in 2008 and 2009 Bristol Feminist Network joined in, to try and discover and understand why we always had this nagging feeling that the way women appear in the media and in our cultural landscape just wasn't quite right, that there was something missing or something that didn't match our experiences of being women living in the UK. And so we started counting, collating and recording where and how women appeared in the media. The results shocked even us, who had expected to be shocked.

We found, for example, that in November 2008, none of the comedy venues in Bristol featured any women comedians. A random sampling of turning the TV on and off during the month found that whilst men appeared on the the screen eight out of ten times, women only appeared 5 out of the 10 times. The rest of time was a man and a woman. This was even more exaggerated on the weekends when men's sports dominates the schedule. In this period women only appeared 13% of the time, men appeared 64% of the time.

One woman counted the number of images in the November 2008 Observer Sports Monthly, to find that out of all the pictures, 177 were of men, 13 were of women. In 2009, one volunteer took this a step further, counting all the images of women in the sports pages of the Guardian over November. She found that out of 1048 images, 1019 images were of men, and 28 were of women. Further, none of the images of women were of women doing sport. None of them showed the energy, passion and vitality of women actively engaging in sport. Instead they showed women crying, dressed up, in the crowd, WAGs and the head shot of a journalist.

Film was a similar story. Sue, who is sitting here, counted the number of films showing on one day in the summer of 2007. None of the films showing in Bristol were directed by women. In 2009, she repeated the experiment over the month of November, counting how many films were directed by women and showing in Bristol. At first the results were encouraging. The numbers had gone from zero, to a whole 17 in 2009. Until we realised that 108 films had been directed by men. These numbers are backed up by UK Feminista's findings in 2010, where they found that only 7% of film directors were women. Similarly, according to UK Feminista only 7% of BAFTA winning screenwriters have been women.

Keeping on the film theme, I'm going to read you some reviews from Venue magazine taken from Sue's research in 2009:

.gratuitous gore and nudity…..pleasingly unpleasant….Special mention should be made of the game Betsy Rue, who remains completely naked throughout her sub plot. This is so enjoyable that only afterwards does one realize it was entirely superfluous”

you may be persuaded to give this a go if we tell you that it features a cameo by Miss Nude Australia, who inevitably gets an extended shower sequence

What this shows is that not only are films overwhelmingly being written, directed, created by men, but that very often the presumed audience of a film is male. These reviews are not addressing a womanly film audience. They are maintaining the status quo that men are the default, and that women are 'other'. And Sue will be talking to you more about what this means and why it's important.

Of course, films aimed at women do exist. But they tend to be a very narrow kind of rom-com, where women still play the props to a male character, rather than have their own independent storylines or lives. In the world of mainstream cinema, women's lives revolve around men! Our happinesses, successes, conversations and friendships all orbit the ultimate male character. Unsurprisingly, many films aimed at women also tend to originate in the mind of male directors, from SATC 2, Bridget Jones's Diary, No Strings Attached and that sexist celebration, He's Just Not that Into You. Rom coms that are directed by women, such as Mamma Mia are rather sneered at by the critics and movie buffs, but could its popularity be explained by this being a film, directed by a woman, that was full of silliness and fantasty, but actually spoke to women in a fun and honest way?

Literature is my passion. I did an English lit degree and my head is always in a book. It is well documented that women are bigger readers than men. Surely then, as the leading audience, women writers would be top notch in the representation stakes? However, research from UK Feminista shows just how little women's writing is represented in the important publishing awards that mark out which literature we see as being canonical.

For example,
• 78% of the authors shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction in the past decade have been men, and men make up 70% of winners  (10)
• 38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women (11)
• 70% of the winners and 68% of those shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year in the past decade have been men (12)

One of the interesting issues in women's representation in literature is that whilst women are happy to read books written by either gender, research has repeatedly shown that men tend to gravitate towards books by men. Could this explain the dominance of men in the awards stakes? And yet, the best selling Booker Prize novel of all time was written by a woman, Hilary Mantel. So it isn't that people aren't buying books by women. But when you put this research next to the recent report that women are underrepresented as reviewers in book journals, with only 74 women reviewers at the London Review of Books, compared to 343 men, and the idea that male reviewers tend to gravitate towards books written by men it becomes clear why this discrimination in whether men or women write award worthy literature comes in. These journals decide which books should be taken seriously, so it is easy enough to see why women writers struggle to get their names on the awards lists when they can't even get their books reviewed. Another interesting point to make before I move on, is that the books we traditionally associate with women writers, such as historical fiction, fiction about emotional or family relationships, are rarely seen as counting as serious literature by the male-dominated reviewers's world.

So there's a snapshot into women's lack of representation in the media. I'm now going to briefly discuss about where women are represented, and whether this is really how we want to be.

Back in 2008, we took a quick survey of magazine covers in WhSmiths and Borders. We found that whilst 85% of magazine covers showed men being active, as in being cover stars for being political, creative, sporting, powerful etc, only 15% had equivalent images of women. The flip side? 15% of images of men on magazine covers showed men in idealised poses, compared to 85% of women. The women on magazine covers were almost universally white, cis-sexual, straight, able bodied, long haired, slim, smiling, young and conforming to our current beauty ideal. Whereas men were allowed to deviate from this young, sparkling model, with wrinkles, grey hair and not universally slim, women were homogenized until we were overwhelmed with a virtual tsunami of idealised, blank women. The only older woman we saw was on the cover of a caravan magazine.

What does this tell us? Well, we believe that it is symptomatic of the objectification of women in the media. It shows us that whilst men are allowed to be portrayed as do-ers, sports stars, musicians, politicians, business leaders, car or fishing enthusiasts, women are told to sit still, and be looked at. The women on these magazine covers are performing for the gaze, rather than being subjects themselves, active agents in the world.

There is cross over of course and we can argue that whilst sports stars, for example, are active on the covers, they are also idealised. But at least they are allowed a bit more variety, a bit more humanity, than simply being teeth, hair, eyes and tits.

Women were also portrayed as being highly sexualised, both in women's and men's magazines. But never in a way that hinted at women's pleasure and women's own sexual desire. Instead, women's sexuality was portrayed on our magazine covers as a performance for a male gaze or audience. Lesbian sexuality was also overwhelmingly shown as a performance for men, rather than as an authentic female desire. And whilst some men were sexualised also, on the covers of gay magazines or men's health magazines, men were never the object of the female gaze (not that this isn't problematic – i'm not saying that men should be treated solely as objects too!) and although there is one documented occasion of a man appearing for the female gaze on Marie Claire, this has never been repeated as far as I know.

The problem with reducing women to sex objects to satisfy a presumed male gaze – in that some images are aimed at women but we have taken on a male gaze to view other women as objects performing their sexuality – is that it reduces the potential for women to be anything else. It also reduces and narrows our definitions of what it means to be beautiful, sexual and desirable. Rather than being a symptom of a sexually liberated society, or a society which is comfortable with and celebrates women's sexuality and desire, it is commodifying and narrowing women's bodies to sell a version of sexuality and beauty back to us that does not reflect our reality and is often unattainable. It measures women's success on their ability to meet a certain level of hotness.

The reducing of women's potential results in issues such as those we saw at last year's general election. Whilst the press couldn't get enough as to whether Sarah Brown or Sam Cam had better pedicures, or indulged in moralistic tut-tutting at Miriam González Durántez
not having the same name as Nick Clegg (would you want to?) women politicians were no where to be seen. It was Where are the women indeed! The result? We now have more graduates from Magdalen College than we do women in the cabinet and Quentin Letts spends his time writing nasty little articles about how our women politicians are not as hot as their world counterparts.

I've gone through a lot of numbers today and to finish I am going to share some final figures with you.

Anna and myself spent Thursday evening doing our bit to save Venue by buying the mag and doing a quick count of how women were doing in the representation stakes in our city. We re-visited film, comedy and, because it's happening this weekend, the Bath Literature Festival.

Here's what we found:

44 male acts
3 female acts

37 films directed by men
2 films directed by women
0 films directed by a man and woman

23 male led events (1 man or all male panel)
8 woman led events (1 woman or all women panel)
4 mixed events (most of these had more men than women on the panel)

The numbers are there. They matter. They clearly show that the nagging feeling we had all those years ago that women just weren't there was entirely justified. So, the question is, why does this matter and what are we going to do about it?