Saturday, 25 June 2011

Response from Theresa May to my letter

Back in April you will remember that I wrote to David Cameron, Theresa May, Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone about the cuts to vawg support services. Over 330 of you signed in solidarity.

Here it is:

And here is the response from Theresa May that I received today. 

Dear Ms Norris

Thank you for your letter of 12 April raising your concerns about services to support victims of domestic and sexual violence. I understand that a similar letter has been sent to the Prime Minister and I have been asked to respond to you on his behalf as well. I apologise for the delay in replying to your letter. 

The Government has made it a key priority to take a strong lead on tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) to help ensure this issue remains a priority at local level.

To support this, we published a strategic narrative in November 2010 setting out out vision for the continuing importance we attach to specialist services for such victims. 

On 8 March this year we also published a cross-government VAWG Action Plan setting out 88 specific commitments in this area from 12 departments – including Communities and Local Government (CLG). We have also provided ring-fenced Home Office funding for local specialist services to tackle VAWG with over 28 million allocated until 2015 for Independent Domestic Violence Advisors, Independent Sexual Violence Advisors and Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference co-ordinators. This is in addition to Ministry of Justice funding of up to 3.5 million per year for three years to support local rape crisis centres. This action has been welcomed by the sector, and I hope may have helped influence local funding decisions as well. 

As I made clear in my speech to Women's Aid in July 2010, local authorities must not see this sector as an “easy cut” when making difficult decisions. At national level and throughout the Spending Review the Government has been guided by a commitment to fairness, protecting the most vulnerable people in our society and as far as possible protecting frontline services. 

The Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) has secured investment of 6.5 billion for supporting people over the next four years, which equates to an average annual reduction over the four years of less than 1% in cash terms. Safeguards in the local government finance system mean that no authority needs to make large reductions in its funding for Supporting People services. Having said this, I am concerned to hear about cuts in some areas that are much greater than this and have asked CLG for further advice. I know that they take this issue very seriously. 

You will be interested to hear that Baroness Hanham, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at CLG recently held a roundtable event with the Local Government Association (LGA) and womens' charities to discuss their concerns and identify solutions. Baroness Hanham has asked the LGA to organise a further meeting, where local authorities can discuss best practice in the commissioning of specialist services directly with the charities. 

Let me assure you that the work of the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) co-ordinator will not end. Rather, it will continue to be carried forward by individual departments where we believe it will be better integrated. FGM is a brutal act of child abuse, a clear form of violence against women, and we remain absolutely committed to eradicating this practice. 

As part of our cross-government programme to tackel FGM, we have established a forum to support community engagement work to challenge FGM, and published new guidelines to raise awareness of this issue with all professionals. 

I hope this information reassures you of the Government's dedication to tackling violence against women and girls.

Yours ever, 

The RT Hon Theresa May MP

Back to me: 

Looking back, I'm not sure what I hoped the letter would achieve. Rolling back the cuts? Ring-fencing and providing more funding for support services? MPs heading into council buildings and demanding they put that money back where it came from? I wrote that letter in anger. In rage. I was furious and I wanted to demand that something was done. 

I don't understand a lot of things in this letter. I'm not sure what the impact of having a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference co-ordinator would be. I'm not sure I know what one is. But I am still very concerned that really, in the face of the huge amount of violence against women and girls that happens in this country every single day, that this simply isn't enough. Like many people, I was thrilled that the Ministry of Justice secured funding for rape crisis centres. But seriously, it is not that much money. And it isn't funding to open new centres so we are still faced with a situation where women are living in cities, counties, with no rape crisis centre. With 2,000 women being raped every week this is not good enough! 

Since I wrote my letter, the cuts have continued apace, as Women's Aid feared. In my own city, this week WISH, a charity which supports victims and survivors of domestic violence in South Bristol, have had all their funding earmarked to be cut. The Poppy Project lost a valuable grant. Women have been murdered, abused, cut, and raped. Whatever Theresa May said at the Women's Aid conference, local authorities do seem to be choosing DV services as an 'easy cut'. It seems to me like a lot of words, a lot of promises, a lot of talking. But although some money is being spent, Is it enough money? These cuts have not been committed to fairness, whether we're talking cuts to VAWG support services, or cuts to disability benefits, or cuts to single parent benefits. I'm not sure why she talked about the 6.5 billion invested in supporting 'people' over the next four years. Which people? I found that whole bit very confusing, unless it was to show a big number even if it wasn't a number wholly related to the conversation. 

I appreciate that she wrote back. I feel that she in many ways is genuinely concerned about violence against women and girls. I know I am a trusting person, but the letter read very sincerely, and I felt that she had taken the time to reply as fully as she could (compared to a two-line letter from Liam Fox when I was a teen writing to him about abortion rights). But I have had to cry, because I feel like I wrote this letter in anger, and I asked you all to sign up to it, and you all did, and now that it hasn't really achieved anything, I feel I have let you down. 

So i'm sorry about that. I'm sorry that it didn't make this all stop. It was never going to of course, but I am sorry all the same. 

But thank you so much, everyone who signed that letter. 

Someone said to me the other day that the problem with feminism is that by “moaning” and talking about issues such as VAWG all the time, we turn women into victims. I disagree. Staying silent, not shouting back, taking it lying down and refusing to raise our voices, that makes me a victim. I was so happy when I counted all the signatures from you all, because we were refusing to be silenced. 

I hope we will stay 'un-silenced'. Please keep protesting these cuts. I will be writing a template letter to use to complain to councils if they threaten cuts to VAWG support services so watch this space and please use it. Keep your eyes and ears open and keep fighting back. 

If anyone who works in the sector has any points they want to make about Theresa May's letter then please comment as it would be good to hear your perspectives. 

And as usual, anyone can comment anyway. 

Sorry again. 

And massively, hugely, thanking you all again for your solidarity on this campaign. 

Sian xx

Friday, 24 June 2011

I am a hollaback grrl

So, last night I went for dinner with my team at work. We were in a restaurant on Corn Street, a road that is notoriously horrible on weekends, when very drunk young people get a bit rowdy and everywhere smells a bit pissy and sicky. Two of my male colleagues started telling a story about the time they were walking down a road near Corn Street, and two drunk young women groped them. They talked about this for quite a while. And I thought, how strange. I don’t think I can remember the number of times I’ve been groped, or shouted at, or street harassed as I’ve walked around the two cities I’ve lived in as an adolescent and adult. Of course, I can remember the BIG incidents, the men chanting ‘bitch’ as I walked down the street, and the man who tried to sexually assault me on the bus (unwanted sexual contact). It struck me how for these guys, being street harassed was such a rare occurrence that they could pinpoint this one occasion, and talk about how awful it was (awful in a ‘state of today’s youth’ way rather than awful because they felt violated way). It was a big deal, a conversation point, because it was rare, a one off. This is in no way trying to diminish men’s experiences of women harassing them, it just really struck me that for them this was a unique experience, whereas for me, and every woman I know, street harassment is a constant.

It was therefore almost ironic then that on my way home from the meal, a drunk teenager yelled ‘give me a blowie’ in my face.

It was about 11.15pm. Was wearing knee-length mac, leggings and sandals. Was deciding what to do regarding crossing the road on the Stokes Croft/Ashley Road junction. I could see the group of lads across the road, so was wondering if it was better to stay put and wait for the green man. But I also feel a bit vulnerable when stood still on a road, more vulnerable to street harassment, more vulnerable to being touched, so because the traffic was clear, I just kept moving. I reached the group of men and they shouted at me. I shouted ‘fuck off’ loudly and clearly. They laughed, and mimicked my voice.

Sometimes I understand why people (particularly men) think that street harassment is ‘a compliment if anything’. If someone yells ‘alright gorgeous’ or ‘mmm beautiful’ I can understand why people go ‘but he just thinks you look nice’. They don’t understand that it actually leaves you feeling exposed, objectified, threatened. They don’t understand that you feel like your personal space, your self, has been invaded and violated. They don’t understand that it is an assertion of power (this street is mine and you are an object to be looked at or discarded) rather than a throwaway ‘compliment’.

I do however think a lot of people don’t understand how sexually aggressive street harassment can be. They think it is just a case of ‘alright gorgeous’ and try and diminish the experience as a ‘nice compliment’ because they don’t get or know what actually happens. Having someone shout in your face that you need to give them a blow job is horrible. It leaves you shaking with rage and in many ways with fear. When they explain to you what they want to do to you, or you to them, and you are reminded that your status is object, thing, nothing. Being pushed on a bus as someone tries to kiss you, being pushed against a wall as someone sticks their tongue in your mouth, listening as someone verbally abuses you for not responding to their harassment, listening to someone take the piss out of you when you do, being terrified as you walk away that they will follow you, that they are going to hit you, rape you, for daring to shout back – they don’t know this. They don’t understand.

Gender violence, sexist verbal abuse, gender based assault aren’t hate crimes. So there is very little you can do about it when it happens to you. Apparently in Bristol the authorities are worried that if they classify it as a hate crime, people won’t report it because it’s so common, or, conversely, that they’ll be so overwhelmed with complaints precisely because it is so common that they won’t cope. So women are kind of left hung out to dry on this issue. There’s so little we can legally do. We can’t say that street harassment is legally gender hatred. Because it is gender based hate crime. It just isn’t called that.

But there’s one thing we can do. We can speak out. We can share our stories. Bristol is about to get a Hollaback, giving us space to share our experiences of harassment. Keep speaking out. Don’t let them win.

Anyway, in spirit of feminist rant here's some Le Tigre:

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Whenever a new feminist book hits the shelves, there’s always some debate and argument around it. Nothing will compare to the furore surrounding Ellie Levenson’s publication of ‘The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism’, where she memorably said rape was just a penis whilst including it in her ‘sex’ chapter, but the conversations on Twitter and the blogosphere about Caitlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a woman’ are reminiscent of some of the arguments we saw then. So, what is it all about?

Times columnist and renowned tweeter, Caitlin Moran has called herself a feminist since she was 15, and her book takes us on a journey through her life from her 13th birthday to her mid-thirties. It is a memoir that uses feminism or, more specifically, her understanding of feminism, as a way to frame her experiences and thinking through the years. It is very personal, and very, very funny with plenty of laugh out loud moments. A polemic on feminism, a book that deeply explores the issues, causes and effects of inequality it is not. Instead it is an intimate and emotional look at one woman’s life and what feminism means and has meant to her.

I loved it. I read most of it in one morning.

This is not a book that gives you the facts. It isn’t a book that interviews women about their experiences of violence, misogyny, inequality. As feminism was pronounced ‘no longer dead’ by the media (it never was, they were just ignoring us) we had three fantastic, non-academic books published that asks these questions, gives voice to a range of women, shows us the numbers and takes the reader through an informed and vital journey to explore what feminism means today, in the 21st century. If you haven’t read them yet, then check out ‘Living Dolls’ by Natasha Walter, ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard and ‘Reclaiming the F Word’ by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune.

What Moran’s book does is more personal. It doesn’t give us a deep analysis on the problems of how pornography is intimately connected with violence against women and girls. Instead, we learn about how she discovered masturbation via Jilly Cooper and various artsy movies. To have a woman writer talk so joyfully and enthusiastically about masturbation, an experience that still remains silent in so much of women’s discourse, is pretty cool. She uses this experience as a springboard to criticise the violence, degradation and lack of pleasure in modern pornography, and asks why is it that we don’t have images of people’s sexuality that includes pleasure, desire and consent. As many a feminist before her has said, something like 90% of online porn depicts violence against women and girls. This is not acceptable. Moran’s book asks for a revolution of the way we depict sex and sexuality, so that rather than it being about dominance, pain and violence, it is about equality, pleasure and desire. I think it is these comments that have caused the most controversy in the feminist social media world, with these statements being read as being pro-porn. I read them as questioning why violent and degrading pornography dominates our cultural landscape, and what can be done to ensure that images of sexuality depict pleasure and consent. I felt that Moran was saying, as Zoe Margolis has said and many other feminists too, that there is nothing wrong with images of sex and sexuality, but there is something very, very wrong with the modern porn industry.

Of course, what this argument doesn’t consider is whether we can ever record or depict people having sex without it being exploitative in a capitalist society, whether it can ever be truly consensual if money is involved, or what it means to perform sexuality rather than simply have sex. These are huge, complex arguments that feminists are discussing every day all over the UK (if not the world). I’m not sure Moran’s proposed solution is entirely satisfactory, but then that isn’t the intention. It can and should be read as part of her personal reflections on her sexual awakening (via Riders and Camomile), rather than a ‘how to’ guide for answering one of the big debates that has formed part of our feminist discourse since the 1970s, if not before. It raises questions, and perhaps causes us to question and consider our own views on pornography. And as feminists, questioning and considering our own views is never a bad thing.

The book takes us through her adolescence, conversations about language and women’s bodies, her experiences of sexism in the workplace, a particularly upsetting chapter on a violent relationship, her pregnancies and childbirths, why women shouldn’t be criticised for not having children, why she loves Lady Gaga, and how she feels about her own abortion. It explores the pressures on women to fit a narrow version of beauty and sexuality, it questions expectations on women to be ‘feminine’ and it refuses to accept that Jordan is in any way a feminist role model. She disavows Brazilian waxes and warns us all against high heels and expensive handbags.

Again, this isn’t a groundbreaking book on the future and present of feminism. It is about Caitlin Moran’s life and the impact that feminism has had on her.

The book is of course very white, and very western. She has been rightly criticised for her use of ableist language in an early chapter and has apologised on Twitter. There are many, many issues it doesn’t explore. But this is because, first and foremost, this book is a memoir, a journey through Caitlin Moran’s life, and what feminism has meant and means to her. I don’t think this book is about ‘fun feminism’ or ‘feminism TM’, where drinking a glass of wine, shopping for shoes and giggling about men is a ‘feminist act’ because it is ‘your choice’ as a woman to do those things. For a good look at Feminism TM, check out Nina Power’s ‘One Dimensional Woman’. This book takes us on a bouncing, fast paced and hilarious journey through adolescence and young adulthood that shows us how sexism and feminism impacted on one woman’s life, and there are plenty of moments or incidents that UK women will recognise, laugh about and maybe even cry about.

I don’t agree with everything she says. I don’t agree, for example, that there is that much of a distinction between burlesque stripping and other kinds of stripping. I don’t agree with everything she says about porn, or historic achievements of men and women. But I loved the way it was written, the personal stories and the way she brings feminist issues into her every day experiences and anecdotes. For women who don’t identify as feminists, I think it is an accessible and easy way to see how feminism and sexism is an issue for all women. Even if you don’t identify with all of her experiences, there’s probably one we can each point to and go ‘ahh, that happened to me!!’

I would definitely recommend this book. And straight afterwards I picked up Laurie Penny’s ‘Meat Market’ which looks at the politics of female flesh via sexuality and performance of sexuality, eating disorders, gender and work. Finishing that, I’ve re-started ‘Reclaiming the F Word’. We all need to read these books, and those mentioned above, and books about global feminism to get to grips with the challenges that we as feminists face today. But for taking a trip down Caitlin’s memory lane, and re-considering why we shouldn’t just accept having our pubic hair waxed off, this book is just right. Curl up with a cup of tea and some chocolate biscuits, and enjoy.


A few people have said thank you for the book recommendations. So, to make it even easier to treat yourself to a new feminist library, here are the Amazon links:

The Equality Illusion:

Reclaiming the F Word:

Living Dolls:

One Dimensional Woman:

Meat Market:

How to be a Woman:

Happy reading!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Lets celebrate BFN!

I wrote this last night after our Feminism 101 meeting...

With Deborah Orr’s Guardian article on 16th June 2011 being illustrated by Bristol Feminists, it felt a bit like ‘have a go at feminists day’. So, I have decided to write about the many achievements of BFN, to share with you what we do, what we have done and what we will continue to do in the future.

Discussion groups:

Since we launched in November 2007, we have aimed to have a discussion group at least once a month. Bearing in mind a few breaks, this means we have had nearly fifty discussion meetings.

Discussion is and always has been part of feminist activism. They are educational, consciousness raising, inspiring. They allow us to hear one another’s stories and one another’s truths. We have had discussion groups on the women’s body, FGM, forced marriage, women and prison, intersectionality, porn, rape, street harassment, body image, relationships, education, men – so many subjects and this is just a tiny sample. Discussion groups are led by members, and the subjects are chosen by members. This means that we talk about what the BFN community want to talk about. If you want to set up a discussion group to talk about the issues that matter to you, then you can. Get in touch and we can book a date, sort out the venue and spread the word. Discussion groups are for all members to say what they want to say. Book Group is also a great place to start discussion, share thoughts and experiences and read a good book.


Since we launched in 2007, BFN have put on a whole host of events, including two Reclaim the Nights, four film nights and one gig in collaboration with Indymedia, a pro choice protest, panel discussions, guest speaker events, flashmob activity, research projects and more. We helped organise the council’s International Woman’s Day event and have worked closely with other organisations to support their campaigning activity. We have also worked on public art projects and one member last year organised a series of workshop for survivors of violence.

Other activism:

BFN have organised letter writing campaigns, petitions, attended council meetings to protest licensing decisions, supported and raised awareness of other women’s campaigns, lobbied for parliamentary change etc. It has always been our policy to provide members with the resources they need (online or at organised activist meetings) to ensure that everyone is empowered to take action on campaigns that matter to them. Our members also blog, organise their own activist conferences and events or actions, which we advertise and do what we can to support.

Networking and outreach:

BFN stands for Bristol Feminist Network. Therefore it is vital for us that we work with other community groups, women’s services and public service providers.
Examples of our networking include working with the city council, the women’s forum, being part of the consultation process with the Women’s Voice strategy, Safer Bristol, the police, the Fire and Rescue service, The Bridge (SARC), Bristol Fawcett, the Bristol Uni Centre for gender violence research, Bristol Rape Crisis, One25, Bristol Indymedia, EVAW Coalition, various political parties, UWE Gender Research group, the Domestic Abuse Forum, local media, Daughters of Eve, the Watershed, the PCT and NHS, UK Feminista, Women’s Aid, V Day, Amnesty International, No Women No Peace, Victim Support, the NUJ and many, many more. We do our best to alert men and women in Bristol to the many services and community groups in the city via the links page on the website:

We currently have representatives of BFN sitting on the council’s committee that is looking at education and how we can improve PSHE around issues of intimate partner violence. We are really excited about the work this strategy group are doing and the impact it could have on encouraging work in schools on this vital issue. Members have also worked closely with the anti-violence groups to try and ensure that the impact of media imagery on levels of sexism and violence are considered and tackled.

In 2009 we sat on the city council’s steering committee for International Women’s Day, working with a range of organisations including SPAN and Silai for Skills.

We will shortly be showing a film about FGM at the Watershed. We have been in touch with women who work in sexual health and education to ensure that teaching professionals come to the event. The day will include speakers and a panel discussion from Daughters of Eve, the Orchid project and the PCT.

Despite being continually attacked in the local press (!) we believe it is important to keep them informed of BFN’s activities. Talking to the local press (be that radio, TV or print) allows us to reach and speak to people who may not have heard of BFN, may not consider themselves to be feminists, but who may then feel interested or inspired by the campaigns we run.

When we organise Reclaim the Night we make sure that we consult a number of organisations and community groups in the city to ensure that our aims reflect what they want from the march. One member produced an extensive database of contacts of women’s groups in the city to ensure that our marches are as inclusive and representative as we can make them.

We also support activism outside of Bristol. We are members of Object and UK Feminista for example, so we are connected to campaign activity all over the country. Our current featured campaign is regarding asylum seekers’ rights and homophobic persecution. We try and ensure that our work and campaigning focuses both on Bristol and beyond.

At BFN, we believe that education is vital to tackling violence against women and girls. We have historically tried to get in touch with schools with the aims of going in and working with teachers to encourage them to talk about consent and respect, media literacy and other feminist issues. We didn’t have any response from the schools so we are now trying new ways to engage. We helped disseminate the Women’s Aid ‘Expect Respect’ teaching pack to schools in Bristol and North Somerset. As mentioned before, members are involved at a strategic council level at looking at what we can do to encourage education around consent and respect. We try and do what we can to engage with educators, be that at school, management or HE level.

BFN is and always has been run by a skeletal staff of volunteers who have full time jobs, lives and other responsibilities. We do what we do because we believe passionately in liberation from patriarchal oppression. We are time poor, financially poor and resource poor. We give up our annual leave, our spare time, our evenings and lunch breaks to make sure BFN is what it is today. There are so many more things we would love to do, love to achieve and I hope that one day we will do. But in the meantime, I am so proud of what we have achieved. We are a respected organisation that has made a lot of things happen. We are able to talk to people high up in the city about what they are doing to tackle gender inequality. We are listened to and consulted on issues in the city about gender inequality. And I am proud that when women and men come to feminism, they can come to us. Lets celebrate what BFN have achieved, what we continue to achieve, and what we will achieve in the future.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Stop the deportation of Betty Tibakawa

Please sign this petition:

Background (trigger warning) :

Betty Tibakawa, a young lesbian living in Uganda, had gone for a walk on the beach when she was approached by three men she did not know, but who knew her by reputation, who began taunting her about her sexuality. They took her to a disused building where she was violently assaulted. The men kicked her in the stomach, pinned her down and branded her inner thighs with hot irons. She lost consciousness and when she woke up, the men were gone. Her injuries were so severe that she could not leave her home for two months.

In February, Ugandan magazine Red Pepper outed Betty as a lesbian, publishing an article about her illustrated with photos, and the claim that she is ‘wanted’ for being a lesbian. It has become incredibly dangerous for her to return to Uganda, where she has been disowned by her family and faces the risk of violent persecution for being gay. As a named lesbian, she is at risk of being targeted for her sexuality, experiencing further violence, imprisonment or even death. Betty has gone from being a bubbly young woman with a bright future at university, to being withdrawn, feeling worthless, frightened and depressed.

Betty Tibakawa has had her asylum application turned down and is facing deportation back to Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal. Gay women who are deported to Uganda risk being raped and assaulted whilst they are in custody. We are petitioning the Home Office to overrule this decision from the UK Border Agency, to give Betty the chance to live a life free from violence and fear. No one should be deported to country where they will be persecuted for their sexuality. We owe those seeking asylum in this country better than this.

Petition statement (trigger warning):

We the undersigned ask you to re-consider and overturn the UK Border Agency decision to deport 22 year old Betty Tibakawa to Uganda, where she faces homophobic persecution. We ask you to give asylum to Betty Tibakawa.

Uganda is now considered to be the most dangerous place in the world if you are homosexual, transgender, or believed to be homosexual or transgender. The recent murder of gay activist David Kato has brought further international attention to the danger gay men, lesbians, and trans people face in Uganda. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence showing that Betty Tibakawa will face a life of violence and fear in her home country of Uganda, she is now in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre facing deportation from the place she sought safety and asylum.

As a lesbian teenager in Uganda, Betty Tibakawa was violently assaulted by three men who kicked her in the stomach and hit her. Two of the men held her down and the third branded her inner thighs with an iron, leaving her unconscious and unable to leave the house for two months. The scars on one of her legs is consistent with being branded with an iron. The scar on the second leg is diagnostic with being branded with an iron. We are concerned that continued detention in Yarl’s Wood is detrimental to her mental health; she is showing symptoms of PTSD, as well as being very depressed, frightened and afraid of deportation.

There is compelling evidence to suggest that Betty Tibakawa will face more violence on her return to Uganda. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and we know that lesbians are at risk of being raped and assaulted whilst in custody. Betty has already suffered horrific injuries and torture as a result of her sexuality being known in Uganda, and risks facing more violence if she returns.

Despite this, the UK Border Agency have responded by saying that Betty Tibakawa has fabricated a claim to be gay and will be deported, even though the medical report confirms that the assault where Betty sustained her injuries was very likely to have happened as Betty described. The report ruled out self harm as a possible cause. The UKBA do not dispute that a hot iron caused Betty’s injuries, but they claim that Betty did not suffer ill treatment whilst living in Uganda and so can be deported. Because Betty Tibakawa has been outed as a lesbian by a Ugandan magazine, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter whether she is a lesbian or not. She is believed to be a lesbian in Uganda, and therefore her human rights, welfare and life are at risk if she returns.

‘I look at a community like in Central London, I see so many of them. I see gay guys. They walk in the street, they hold hands, they kiss at the bus stops. On the bus. You know, its free, so it’s not hard for me to tell them I’m a lesbian. But in Uganda, I can’t say that. I really can’t. I just have to, I don’t even know how to. I just can’t. I just can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I don’t want to live, not being able to live as me. I don’t wanna be someone else just because of the situation around me. I just want to live truly, and just live like me. That’s really what I want.’ - Betty Tibakawa

A change to UK law last year means that the UKBA is no longer allowed to send lesbians, gay men, or trans people back to countries where they face homophobic or transphobic persecution with the advice to live discreetly. And yet we are once more confronted with a case where a woman is being sent back to a life of violence and fear due to her sexuality.

For the UKBA to replace one bad practice, deportation with the order to live discreetly, with another, the refusal to believe that any asylum claimants are genuinely homosexual, is a worrying step in the wrong direction. Human rights campaigners have pointed to Betty’s case as further proof that the UKBA continues to refuse to take homophobic violence and persecution seriously.

This is your chance to take a stand against homophobia and transphobia; to prove that the UK takes gay, lesbian, and transgender asylum claimants seriously, and to give a young woman the chance to live the life she has the right to live: free from violence, free from fear and free from persecution.

Please re-consider the UK Border Agency’s decision and grant asylum to Betty Tibakawa.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Where are the women? Speech for DRC event at the Cube

This year, Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett have joined up to ask the question, where are the women? We have discussed the absence of women in popular culture, and have celebrated the talent and creativity of women in this very room back in January. You may have joined us at the Watershed in March where we discussed where women are absent and where they are present and what that means for the fight for equality in the UK and beyond.

Today we look at another area where women are absent from our cultural landscape. And not just women, but all sorts of people who’s country, situation, war or famine do not make the news headlines. In a media landscape dominated by football shagging stories and Britain’s Got Talent conspiracy theories, the international crisis of violence against women and girls, and the work women and girls are doing to rebuild their lives and communities out of the ashes of violence are often sidelined to ‘special reports’, when they are reported at all.

Where are the women, I ask, in the news?

Last year on his excellent Newswipe show, Charlie Brooker talked about how the media reacted to the Ebola virus when it broke out in the Congo. The disaster took over our TV news screens as we learnt and heard about how the virus had taken hold, with the ever present fear of a global pandemic hinted at throughout the reports. Then, just as quickly as they arrived, the journalists were gone. The Civil War that has raged across the country for years has killed far more than the Ebola virus did, in fact the civil war in the Congo has killed more people than any other conflict since world war two. Yet, beyond the odd special report, we rarely hear about this human rights crisis.

News editors have a difficult job. Across the world terrible things happen every day. How do they choose which ones to focus on? It is not a decision I have ever had to make, and I don’t envy them! Inevitably, news tends to focus on issues that its felt the news audience can connect with, that they feel is part of their lives or something they can put into a context of their own experiences. And, sometimes, news overlaps with celebrity gossip.

To most people, the civil war in the DRC is far away. It happens over there. It doesn’t connect with us, there’s nothing we can do or say to make it better.

But this is a lie. Everyone in the room is connected to the DRC, by what you have on your desk, in your pocket, in our handbag. By this. [hold up phone].

The DRC is one of the most mineral rich countries in the world. For centuries the West have plundered their natural resources at the expense of the people’s rights, safety and happiness. The most recent mineral making Western businesses a fortune is coltan, used in mobile phones, laptops and other electrical goods that we use every day.

I’m going to read an extract from Johann Hari’s recent article on the DRC and coltan to explain the chain of events that takes minerals from the Congo into our pockets:

‘The major UN investigation into the war explained how it happened. They said bluntly and factually that "armies of business" had invaded Congo to pillage its resources and sell them to the knowing West. The most valuable loot is coltan, which is used to make the metal in our mobile phones and games consoles and laptops. The "armies of business" fought and killed to control the mines and send it to us. The UN listed all the major Western corporations responsible, and said if they were stopped, it would largely end the war.

Last year, after a decade, the US finally passed legislation that was - in theory, at least - supposed to deal with this.. it outlined an entirely voluntary system to trace who was buying coltan and other conflict minerals from the mass murderers, and so driving the war. (There are plenty of other places we can get coltan from, although it's slightly more expensive). The State Department was asked to draw up some kind of punishment for transgressors, and given 140 days to do it.

Now the deadline has passed. What's the punishment? It turns out the State Department didn't have the time or inclination to draft anything.’

That’s the end of the quote. You can read the full article here:

So we have no excuse to think the violence in the Congo is far away. It’s in our living rooms, our offices, our pockets.

The Civil War in the DRC has killed over 5 million people and due to the mass rapes of women and children, the eastern Congo is considered to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Tonight, we are here to hear the stories of these women.

And when you leave here tonight, tell people about what you have heard and seen. Tell people about how we are connected to this bloody conflict. Tell people about how the women of the DRC are active agents in their country’s future, rebuilding lives, communities and their country for a better tomorrow. Lets not ask ‘where are the women’ again. Lets make sure that the stories of women all over the world are heard and not silenced.

Please come to the event!!