Category Archives: Hard Times

Companies must end culture of secrecy for the Equal Pay Act to work

The Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and Labour MP for Ashfield, Gloria De Piero, writes for Feminist Times on the ongoing battle for equal pay, 44 years on from the Equal Pay Act. Find out more about Feminist Times’ Equal Pay campaign with Elle & Mother.

In 1970 Labour’s Barbara Castle passed the Equal Pay Act, declaring:

“We intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class”. Yet 44 years later, women in Britain still earn on average eighty pence for every pound a man earns.

Whichever region of the country you live in, whatever job you do, one thing is guaranteed: women are being paid less than men for doing the same or equivalent jobs. No matter if you’re an engineer or a chief exec, a hairdresser or work in catering. Even in industries where women dominate, we are still being paid less.

Worse still, in the last four years of Tory/Lib-Dem Government, any progress we were making has disappeared into thin air. The pay gap hasn’t budged by more than 0.1 per cent and last year rose for the first time since 2008.

It’s simply not good enough. Women shouldn’t have to wait another forty four years to expect to be paid the same and valued the same as men.

Eighty pence in a pound is a figure symbolic of the economic disempowerment women face throughout our lives. Whether that’s finding out that the man who’s sat opposite you at work for the last 20 years, doing the same role, is on a higher salary; or being forced to take a pay cut to work part-time because work makes it too hard to juggle being a mum with having a career. The work women do and the roles women perform have always been, and continue to be, underpaid and undervalued.

Workplaces need to change to support more women and men to balance work and family life so that having kids doesn’t mean taking a pay cut. And we won’t deliver equal pay unless we challenge the reasons why jobs which women dominate, such as care, have so often been undervalued. But there’s no getting away from it: plain old pay discrimination happens across every sector and every level too.

It’s a matter of justice, and it can make the difference between making ends meet or slipping through the net. We can talk in the abstract about 80p to the pound but it’s when you hear the stories of women who’ve experienced it first-hand that you realise what delivering Equal Pay means.

Women like the childcare worker for Birmingham City Council who, along with scores of other women working as caterers and carers, won compensation for being paid less than male manual workers. She told me:

“All those years I was in debt to credit card companies, even though I’d been to college for two years. I’d got qualifications, it was a vocation not a job… and I think what would my life have been like if I’d been paid a fair wage?”

The route to ending pay discrimination and delivering equal pay is transparency. Empowering women to challenge discrimination means arming them with the information to use the Equal Pay Act to challenge when they are paid less for work of equal value, and the knowledge to challenge why all the highest paid in their workplace are still men.

True transparency though can’t rely on us as individuals; we need companies to end secrecy around pay, and the Government must lead the way.

Equal pay is a battle cry that’s united women across generations. Let’s not leave it up to our daughters to deliver.

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Lifeworks and the power of protest

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Deputy Editor Sarah Graham reported on the service users occupying their under threat community mental health clinic, Lifeworks Cambridge, in an effort to keep the service open. Two months later, after protesters had occupied the building for four months, an agreement has been reached for Lifeworks to continue providing community care for Borderline Personality Disorder patients for five more years. Lifeworks service user and protester Ann Robinson sent us this update:

At 10:45am on the 30/06/2014, the service users of Lifeworks signed a 5 year contract with the CPFT Chief Executive Aidan Thomas, Cllr Kilian Bourke and, on behalf of service users, Ann Robinson. Along with the contract, the CPFT and service users of Lifeworks are to do a joint piece of work to develop a joint proposal to take to commissioners.

For us the service users it has been a hard and stressful road of learning, protesting, stamina and determination. To occupy a building for 4 months, give up your time and effort, to hold yourself together, help others, meet strangers who have become friends, and deal with media has been intense. With all of this we all still have an illness ourselves, which is stressful in itself. It is as a team and working together that we have achieved this, although some became ill along the way, everyone played their part.

Congratulations to all at Lifeworks from us at Feminist Times.

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Unemployment up by as much 272%: Black & minority ethnic women hit hard

This article is an exclusive extract for Feminist Times from a longer version that first appeared on lacuna.org.uk a new online human rights magazine, as part of its austerity and prosperity edition.

I was several months into my research on the impact of the government’s spending cuts on BAME women when I first began to despair. The more I researched, the more it affected me emotionally. What triggered these feelings was coming to understand just how many individual and cumulative cuts would impact BAME women.

It’s well documented that women are likely to be hit harder than men by the spending cuts. They form the majority of public sector workers, so are most likely to lose jobs; they use public services more than men, so will feel the pinch as the government rolls back state provision; and they rely more on benefits, an area under constant attack. But different groups of women will fare even worse; when gender is combined with ethnicity, class, disability or age the negative impact of austerity is compounded.

Some welfare benefit cuts will impact on some BAME women disproportionately because of the particular circumstances of their lives. Take the reforms to non-dependent deductions. These deductions to housing benefit were introduced because of an assumption that anyone over 18 and living in the same house as a recipient will make a contribution to paying rent. By the government’s own admission, black and minority ethnic families are more likely to live in extended families, therefore are more likely to be affected by the deductions. For anybody receiving housing benefit while living with extended family, this cut is as significant as the bedroom tax, according to Ed Hodson from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

Non-dependent deductions aren’t the only problem. While the government plans to penalize jobseekers refusing to learn English, cuts are being made to the very classes to help them do so. Changes to the criteria in accessing classes, cuts to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision, and a lack of childcare make it difficult for some women to learn English. One BAME organization turned away 50 women who wanted to enroll in one ESOL class because of stricter funding criteria.

To better understand the combined impact of the changes I put together this Venn diagram. It was only then that I began to realize the complex web women would face. The choices they must make are stark; do you buy food or pay the rent shortfall? What if you experience poor mental health or lack the confidence to communicate in English? How do you prepare or plan for these changes?

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Universal Credit and the Benefits Cap – What Do They Cover? The diagram below shows which benefits are included in the Benefits Cap, which are within Universal Credit and which benefits in Universal Credit are subject to the benefits cap.

Sons, not daughters

I put some of these questions to women in focus groups; the response was alarming. “My husband has lost his job and we don’t have much money. So we are only thinking about now sending our son to university and not our daughter,” said one woman. It was worrying to see other women in the focus group nodding in agreement. From my own experience I know that sending a young woman to university is a family decision in some situations. My uncle in India, another uncle in Canada, as well as uncles in England, all had a say in the future of my education.

Many young women from black, Asian, or ethnic minority households impacted by the cuts (combined with the hike in university tuition fees) will be the first lose out. And if that happens, imagine a future where young women lose the opportunity to fulfill their potential? Imagine the impact on their children?

Who counts BAME women?

There is a lack of local and national data disaggregated by gender, race, and disability. Often data is broken down into gender or ethnicity, but never both. Where race is counted, it is divided into white and BAME, obscuring significant differences between ethnic groups.

Sometimes I was asked to pay for data. At other times I was sent from agency to agency before getting anywhere. The lack of accessibility to data made it difficult to monitor the impact of austerity policies on BAME women. With great effort I was able to source the data for Coventry, but how do we measure national impacts?

The figures I did uncover revealed that unemployment among black and minority ethnic women in Coventry increased by nearly 75% between 2009 and 2013, compared to 30.5% for white women (also high). Breaking down these figures further, unemployment had increased by 272% for white non-British or Irish women (mainly Eastern European migrants), 160% for mixed ethnicity women, and 87% for black British and African-Caribbean women. This is why we need data to highlight the different experiences within ethnic groups.

When the personal becomes political

I have always been interested in the issues that affect BAME women because ‘the personal is the political’ and my experiences stem from being Asian and a woman. But I have always given my race higher priority when fighting social injustice. Although intersectionality has formed part of my thinking linking my class, race and gender, up to now I accepted binary thinking about women and race.

The evidence above caused me to re-think. I now recognize the importance of articulating all the combined inequalities that affect me, and not one at the expense of the other.

Kalwinder Sandhu is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer and a local feminist activist in Coventry.

Photo: Luri Kothe

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Beaten & begging: all India’s parties ignore the “untouchable” widows

Last December, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Maitri India found 95-year-old widow Kanchan Dal living and begging on the streets of Radhakund, a small village a few kilometres outside of Vrindavan. Now she is sitting on her bed in Maitri’s recently constructed emergency shelter. Stick-like limbs poke out of her sari at various angles and her right eye is covered by a cloudy cataract. She says she can’t remember when her husband died or exactly how long she’s lived in the street. Maitri staff are amazed she has survived so long and they seem to dote on her. “If he doesn’t press my feet for ten minutes each day,” she says, gesturing to a member of staff, “I throw a tantrum.”

As India’s politicians vied with each other for popularity in the recent elections, NGOs say that millions of the country’s much-maligned widows continue to be ignored. Many widows are unregistered, excluded from the voting process and easy to dismiss. In recent years NGOs such as Maitri are increasing being forced to care for Vrindavan’s most vulnerable widows, as government negligence and exploitation continues unabated.

Maitri offer healthcare and food to around 500 widows in the Vrindavan area, including the village of Radhakund where an estimated 3,000 widows live. Maitri is currently constructing two ashrams in the village; each will house around 100 widows. “This is the most destitute part of this area,” says Winnie Singh, Executive Director of Maitri India. “The widows out here get no government benefits of any kind. The government just doesn’t recognize them. Nobody fights for them.”

Thousands of destitute widows have congregated in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, to scratch together a meagre existence through begging or chanting in the holy city’s temples for several hours a day, in exchange for a few rupees – enough for a handful of rice and some chapatti flour.

“Widows here are in a prison-type situation of hellish purgatory,” says Panca Gauda Das, President of Vrindavan’s ISKCON temple, “and people think they deserve it.”

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A widow in the Radha Kunj ashram, Vrindavan

Widowed men can re-marry and live normal lives. However, in some traditional Indian communities, widowed women are regarded as ‘untouchable’; in spite of their previously held caste or class. They may be expected to shave their heads, wear only white and spend their remaining days praying for their dead husbands in a supposedly holy place such as Vrindavan. Widows are often regarded as ‘inauspicious’, although the women are often forced to leave their families because financial factors or petty family jealousies lead them to be regarded as a burden. Some are from wealthy families; NGOs claim to have seen widows dropped off in a Mercedes and then abandoned.

Shakti Dasu is a 67-year-old widow from Bengal. When she talks she reveals teeth that are red and rotting at the roots from chewing betel. Dasu’s husband died eight years ago and she came to the Vrindavan area a year later. She is from a well-to-do family and used to own a shop and a three-storey house. She claims that her son wanted the property so badly that he broke bones in both of her legs and inflicted serious head injuries. After a year of mistreatment she gave him everything she owned and came to Radhakund to earn 10 rupees a day chanting in government ashrams.

The destitute women who go to the government’s bhajan ashrams in huge numbers are inadvertently filling the pockets of others. The more widows there are chanting in the ashram, the higher the level of donations; and the older the women, the more generous the benefaction.

Singh says that money is made from government ashrams “at every point.” Donations to these ashrams are commonly misappropriated by ashram employees, creating an incentive to keep recruiting large numbers of the oldest widows. The money earmarked for maintaining the buildings often disappears. Money is commonly made by stealing the paltry government pensions awarded to the widows, typically between 300-500 rupees per month. “25-30% of the money is often taken away by somebody from the [ashram] management, as well as the government, as well as the bank,” says Singh.

When widows become too ill or frail to chant in government ashrams, they are often forced to beg in the streets. Shefali Bhowmick is a frail, birdlike 65-year-old and it’s too arduous for her to chant for several hours a day. Bhowmick’s family became verbally abusive towards her following the death of her husband and they allowed her 12-year-old grandson to hit her. “My son and daughter [in law] didn’t care for me, they didn’t want me,” she says. “They were asking me for money and they wanted me to work.”

She came to Radhakund two years ago and began begging. On a good day she can earn 25 rupees, on a bad day just 10. She becomes tearful when recounting her story, rocking back and forth, remembering the house and land in Calcutta that she used to own with her husband.

In recent years some legislation has been passed to protect India’s widows. The Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, passed in 2007, made it illegal for children to abandon their parents. However, such legislation often fails to offer protection for widows as the law is often not applied. In many instances widows are poorly educated and are not able to understand or demand their rights. When laws are enacted, traditional values often render them impractical.
Winnie Singh has offered to fight for Shakti Dasu’s case and get her land and property back, but Dasu declined. “Her take on it is ‘you will put me back in my house, but my community is not going to accept me because they are going to say – ‘here is a woman who threw her son out of his house’.’ They will not say anything to him even though he threw his own mother out! It’s very strange.”

Sulabh International, a not-for-profit Indian NGO, began working with the widows of Vrindavan in 2012, following stories broken by the Indian media which detailed instances where the bodies of dead widows had been chopped up, put in a sack and thrown in the river, rather than being given costly Hindu cremation and burial rites. In the aftermath of the scandal, and resulting Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court approached Sulabh for help looking after the widows in government ashrams.

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With the help of Indian NGO Sulabh, widows work on textiles that will later be sold on local markets. The women are also being trained by Kopal, a New York-based fashion designer.

Sulabh now oversees the running of seven government ashrams, and one private ashram for Nepalese widows – a rough total of 800 widows. They are offering healthcare and vocational training to the women, in addition to a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees. Some of the women say that the money has changed their lives; many can now afford nutritious food and have their healthcare needs met. Some of them sell dresses, bags and incense-sticks on the local markets, using their skills gained through Sulabh’s vocational training.

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh, believes that giving the women vocational training can change the way they are perceived. “These women should be a resource of the country. Not helpless people in society. And the moment they earn a livelihood, the whole family will come to give them respect because she is an earning member.”

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In a move that breaks regular tradition, women are now being taught literacy in Bengali, English and Hindi in an attempt develop new skills.

Maitri’s Winnie Singh says that reconciliation between widows and their families is actually very rare and labour intensive – it often takes a lot of work by intermediaries and will only work in a few cases. Furthermore, for the many widows who are too frail to work or learn new skills, a huge number still rely on charity, and wherever money is handed out the scope for corruption drastically increases.

Around 350 widows are living in Chetan Vihar, a government-owned residential ashram in Vrindavan, which Sulabh now runs. Many of the women speak reverently of Pathak, giving him the honorific ‘Baba’. However, after some time, other women come forward with complaints about the intermediary NGO that administers the ashram on Sulabh’s behalf.

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Basanti Dasi, 70, sits in her quarters at the Radha Kunj ashram.

Ramanandi Nai Thakur, is a 75-year-old woman. White roots are ousting the bright orange henna from her hair. She claims that there was a recent altercation between intermediary NGO workers and her friend, that they were dragged out of their room by their saris, and then hit and kicked. She also says that she was given only a quarter of her 2,000 rupee stipend by the intermediary NGO this month and has had to forgo some food and rely on friends to help her. She says that complaining was futile: “We can’t ask Dr Pathak for help because he is busy and, when we ask the government for help, they ignore us.”

A middle-aged woman living in Chetan Vihar approaches and says quietly that the problems with the intermediary NGO are fairly common and that they threaten the women. “They say, ‘if you tell anyone anything about what has happened we will wipe your name from the list, throw you out the ashram and you’ll be back begging in the streets.’”

Another woman complained that she was not getting the money she was owed and needs funds for an eye problem. “Tell Baba what is happening” she pleaded.

Sulabh claim that they were not aware of the allegations but that they take them extremely seriously. They said that they intended to remove and replace the administering NGO immediately. Dr Pathak acknowledged that corruption amongst many of India’s NGOs is rife.

The Age of Kali Yug

Back in Panca Gauda Das’s office, the walls are adorned with pictures of Krishna in various guises. On his desk sits a golden bust of a self-satisfied looking Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement.

ISKCON have been criticised for not doing enough to help Vrindavan’s widows. Gauda Das says that they do some food distribution, and some Hare Krishna devotees run small projects, but claims their main focus is on “spreading Krishna consciousness.” “It’s the duty of government [to help widows],” he says. “We don’t want to lose our main thrust, which is providing spiritual knowledge and education.”

Das cheerfully states that we are currently living through the ‘Age of Kali Yuga’; a period of destruction, darkness, moral degradation and decline that some Hindus believe is the final stage in a quartet of cyclical ages.

Twenty years ago the writer William Dalrymple visited Vrindavan and found widows living in abject squalor and misery. His vivid account was published a book titled The Age of Kali. Two decades later, India has changed dramatically. It is much wealthier, though more unequal, and has undergone rapid economic growth and development. Traditional views are being forcefully challenged. NGOs are increasingly involved in caring for the widows and new approaches, such as offering vocational training, may help some women.

But the scale of widows’ issue remains vast. When Dalrymple visited Vrindavan he estimated that there were around 8,000 widows in the area. Now it is estimated that there are several thousand more, although a definitive survey is required, and India’s NGO sector is not able to cope with the demand.

“I guess one just has to keep talking to the government because they need to accept their responsibilities,” says Singh. “They are supposed to be responsible for shelter, health, clothing – everything. We are just supporting what they are supposed to be doing, [but] we are assuming their role.”

As politicians campaigned for votes in India’s lengthy election process, NGOs claimed that there are few differences between the political parties on the issue of widows because they are simply ignored. Despite the work of NGOs, the age old problems of exploitation, corruption and neglect remain prevalent. The ‘Age of Kali Yuga’ continues to be particularly cruel to India’s widows.

 

Patrick Keddie is a British freelance journalist. See http://patrickkeddie.wordpress.com/ for more of his work.

David Shaw is a photojournalist from the UK, specialising in human rights and social issues reportage. To see more of his work go to www.davidjshaw.com

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Why the East London housing crisis is a feminist issue

In February, Editor Deborah Coughlin reported on the Focus E15 Mums’ campaign against their mass eviction from temporary accommodation in Stratford, East London. Instead of being relocated to permanent housing nearby, the young mothers have been offered housing in Hastings, Birmingham, and other cities away from their support networks.

The Focus E15 Mums campaign is ongoing (you can sign their petition here) and a public meeting has been organised in their support by Feminist Fightback, Hackney DIGS and Plan C London, on Saturday 24 May in Bethnal Green. We got in touch with co-organisers Feminist Fightback for their perspective on the housing crisis.

We have organised this meeting to try and help raise the profile of a campaign that we see as very important – this is the coming together of young families (and young people in general) to fight for fundamental rights to decent homes; a decent place to live in the area they have either grown up in or found a home in. It is a campaign for something immediate in East London – halting evictions and ensuring secure housing for the families who are moved on – but it is part of something much bigger too. The brutal reality of London’s housing ‘superbubble’ combined with cuts to public services is frightening.

Some of us in Feminist Fightback grew up in east London, and many of us have lived here for many years. Many of us face the daily stress of housing insecurity ourselves – living in fear of the next market-driven rent hike, waiting to be thrown out of our homes because the landlord wants to sell to make a quick and easy profit. Also many of us work in East London as teachers, midwives, social workers – we work face-to-face with families forced into poor quality, insecure temporary housing and we are angry about the injustice of it.

Every week in my own work I meet young mothers living in one room with one, sometimes two young children, trying to make ends meet. This is ‘temporary accommodation’ but so many of these women have been living in such conditions for a year or more. This exists in the midst of intense gentrification in East London – all around us blocks of ‘luxury’ flats are being built, old houses are being refurbished into large family homes. Very few of these developments are accessible to ourselves or the families we work with day to day. Our homes are not our homes – they are ‘property’.

That is why the E15 focus campaign feels so important to support. The struggle of these young people against eviction poses the question of what society we want to live in. One that removes young families from their communities and forces them into insecurity, while the houses next door sell for half a million pounds? Or one that values people’s right to a home, a home not a property, no matter how much money or capital they have access to. For Feminist Fightback this question is fundamental not only to east London campaigners and activists but to feminist struggle as a whole.

We hope the campaigns gains momentum and hopefully the meeting will help with this. The intent is to build solidarity and gain more local support.

I don’t think many of us held out that much hope for an ‘Olympic legacy’ – this felt like a fallacy from the very beginning. When you live in insecure housing, with rent prices soaring all around you, it is very hard to feel overly grateful for a new shopping mall and sports centre…

For more information about the public meeting on Saturday 24 May, click here.

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Save Lifeworks campaign: “They used our mental health against us”

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing. 

“We were only going to be here a couple of hours, then it was overnight. And we just haven’t left!”

Jacqueline is one of an amazing group of women (and one man) who are now more than ten weeks into occupying Lifeworks, an under-threat community mental health service in Cambridge, for patients suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Housed on Cambridge’s Tenison Road, Lifeworks is part of Cambridge and Peterborough Foundation Trust (CPFT) Complex Cases Service and has offered a community drop-in and crisis care service for the last 12 years.

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Patients now believe it may secretly have been under threat for as many as two years, though they only learnt of the closure in February, when they were told they would be discharged back to their GPs with no specialist BPD support on offer.

We’re sat at the table in the cosy main room of what, at first glance, looks like any other community centre. I’ve come at a particularly quiet time of day, when just three of the protesters are around, but already Ann, Heather and Jacqueline have made good on their promise of “a mean cuppa”, and there’s a plate piled high with chocolate biscuits, which between the four of us don’t last long.

The sense of community is palpable and heart warming. The sign on the door reads: “You don’t have to be mad to live here, but it helps!” – the word “don’t” playfully crossed out.

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The sofas, painted murals on the wall, and the abundance of teas, coffees and biscuits on offer almost belie the serious nature of what’s going on here; it’s the sign on the wall listing who can be trusted to enter and – most crucially – who cannot, that give away the building’s occupied status. Then, of course, there’s the room full of banners and placards, the treatment rooms converted into bedrooms, and the collection of press cuttings proudly adorning the wall.

Each of the three women I meet has a similar story to tell about how Lifeworks has provided a literally lifesaving service in their most dire moments of need.

Heather has been using Lifeworks since it was founded, 12 years ago. Before that, she tells me: “I used to take overdoses all the time and self-harm. I was in and out of Fulbourn [psychiatric] hospital all the time.

“I’ve really come a long way since I’ve been in the service. I use it mostly for the crisis clinic and the social aspect – seeing people really helps, to have people around who understand.”

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Likewise, since her referral to Lifeworks 8 years ago, Jacqueline says: “I’ve not had one A&E trip and I’ve not been in [hospital] for mental health. I haven’t self-harmed for a couple of years now.”

For Ann, who’s been at Lifeworks three to four years, the service has also been a lifeline: “I was in a really bad way when I came in. I wasn’t functioning very well, I was hibernating, I wouldn’t get out of bed, I was stashing pills. I don’t self-harm but I have a very bad eating disorder, which was extreme at the time, and Lifeworks has helped me to keep my eating disorder under control.

“It’s helped me with socialisation and meeting people too – with our disorder we don’t really go out and meet people or make friends easily because of our mood swings, our anxieties and our paranoia,” she adds. “But with Lifeworks my husband can go to work knowing I’m safe.”

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It’s not difficult to see why the potential loss of Lifeworks is a feminist issue; Jacqueline estimates around 90% of the service users – and, indeed, all but one of the protestors actively involved in the campaign – are women.

Proposed changes to the Complex Cases Service would see the service change to what the CPFT says is a “more evidence based model”, but the patients are less than convinced.

“What they’re bringing in with their new personality disorder community pathway is a cluster approach, where they’re treating groups only, with mentalisation based therapy, which works on the basis that you stay in the present, you don’t discuss the past,” Ann explains.

“Mentalisation based therapy really works best on a one-to-one basis, where you can focus and that person gets to know you, but they’re knocking all that to the wind.”

Not only that, the patients also worry they will lose out on the community aspect that is clearly at the heart and soul of Lifeworks. “They’re putting up all these big walls and blanks, and it’s very cold. You come in, you have your mentalisation therapy, you go home – there’s no socialisation, no integration. We just don’t get it,” Ann says, clearly exasperated by what she sees as a chipping away of public services.

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The patients tell me their mass discharge followed a gradual scaling back of the service in recent years, with the departure of a number of specialised members of therapeutic staff and the Lifeworks service being reduced from a four and a half day week, to just two days a week.

“To start off with Lifeworks was very much a social, open affair,” Jacqueline says. “You could just turn up and use the groups that were running – the groups were open, they had cooking groups, arts and crafts groups, stuff like that, and you could just turn up and join in. If you were having a bad day you could just turn up and sit in the corner.”

Ann interjects: “The mantra was always ‘come in and be with people’ – and it worked. They would pick you up. All of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough – suddenly the groups were limited numbers and it was a case of if you didn’t join in, you couldn’t come into the building until the drop-in.”

The women estimate around 40-50 service users dropped off following these changes. “They’ve run it into the ground by the staff leaving and the limited numbers. People just stopped coming in because that’s not how we work – and they know that,” Jacqueline says.

Faced with being discharged en masse to their GPs, the group took the decision to occupy the building in March because “nothing else would have worked”. Originally intended as an overnight sit-in protest, to “put the staff out a little bit and prove a point”, the women have been there ever since, determined to be heard.

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“When we took over the building we did some digging and it came to light that they hadn’t done a [public] consultation, they hadn’t done an equality impact assessment, and they were literally just going to close it,” Ann says.

It’s this lack of transparency that particularly angers the protesters, who have already gained much support from the local community and trade unions, and are now in talks with the local council’s adult wellbeing scrutiny committee about the terms of reference for a public consultation. “It’s as if [CPFT] are accountable to no one. How can they treat patients like this and get away with it?” they demand.

For each of them, the prospect of life without Lifeworks doesn’t bear thinking about: “I’d feel suicidal, I think,” Heather says. “If you’re in crisis, where do you go? My GP told me they’re out of their depth. They don’t really understand personality disorders; they don’t specialise in it. Here they’re specially trained and understand us.

“One of the main conditions with a personality disorder is a fear of abandonment and trust issues. All the time with this service they’ve said ‘you can trust us, we’ve set this service up for life’, because our condition’s lifelong, and then suddenly they’ve abandoned us and they’ve done a lot of harm.”

While discussions rumble on between CPFT and the council, the women at Lifeworks describe the situation as “a waiting game” until the public consultation begins. Meanwhile, they’re planning further protests, a trip to Parliament, and link-ups with trade unions and other anti-cuts campaigners around the country.

Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust has published a statement on the situation on their website, stating: “CPFT is having to make cuts of about £6million as part of the four per cent cuts that the Government requires every Trust to make. Our community division makes up about one third of that.”

“They quite openly admit it’s a false economy,” Ann scoffs. “But as long as it’s not their budget, they don’t give a toss – it’s A&E’s budget, it’s the ambulance service’s budget, the police budget, the drug and alcohol service’s budget.”

Lifeworks8

It’s sadly now a familiar story for campaigners across the country fighting cuts to their much needed public services, but the Lifeworks patients are determined to fight for as long as it takes. “I’m in it for the long haul. In an ideal world we’d like to go back to four and a half days, and also bring new referrals in – there’ve been no new referrals for the last two years,” Ann says.

“Open up the door and let the people in that need help, and stop using us as an excuse. You knew you were closing us down, you used all of our techniques and all of ticks against us because you know us.”

Her voice wavers: “They used our mental health against us.” It’s that betrayal that smarts the most.

To find out more about the Save Lifeworks campaign, join their Facebook group Save Cambridge’s Complex Cases Service and sign their online petition here.

Photo: Jacqueline, Ann, Heather and Richard (who joined us towards the end of our interview.)

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#GenderWeek: The delusion of choice

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Like Charlotte I get irritable when I hear about feminism and freedom and choice, although not for exactly the same reasons. No, I don’t wear stilettos firstly because – quite apart from the fact that they’d hurt my feet and give me painful bunions, just like my mother had – I instantly fall over. Even if I could stay upright, as Charlotte suggests, I’d feel a tad silly wearing my feminist badges while wobbling about in them.

I’m a little more devious, and feminism did encourage me to be somewhat more rebellious in how to dress. I didn’t burn it, but I’ve never worn a bra, even if I know I’ve always chosen to add just a little height to my five foot four inches (platforms will do that nicely) and have routinely worn just a little make-up, trying to look quite as ‘sexy’ and attractive as I can manage  – although not just to please men.

But I don’t feel too strongly about couture – haute, bass, or even crass – and I suspect that once-upon-a-time we women’s liberationists were rather excluding of some more timid souls in imposing a certain type of dress code. Flowered smocks and dungarees were for a long time the favourite attire: forget high-heels, a woman arriving at a feminist meeting in skirt and twin-set might find it hard to relax and fit in.

The issue of ‘choice’ annoys me because most of us, and many women in particular, have so very little of it – and indeed, less all the time. Last year I was asked to discuss ‘the tyranny of choice’, on the supposition that nowadays we suffer from having too much it. Can you believe it? Now that really is infuriating. On every important issue: where to live; what jobs are available; the length of the working day, if we have jobs; how to avoid being the objects of sexist abuse or violence; having the time and resources to choose to have a child, should we wish to; being able to care for our loved ones, when they are young, old, or for any slew of reasons, are in need of care – all these are choices that are so very hard, almost impossible, for the majority of women to make in ways we would like to.

All this is a feminist issue. The very mention of ‘free-choice’ feminism by the likes of Louise Mensch and other ‘Tory feminists’ (who believe that women hold themselves back from the top jobs) is for the most part absurd. Top jobs? Young women coming out of university are very lucky if they can get any job at all. If in work, the precarious nature of most jobs today and the ever-stretching working day, leave almost no time for attending to all the work of caring, loving and building communities we want to live or raise children in.

I am similarly irritated by accusations of feminism’s complicity with neoliberalism, made by certain older feminists such as Nancy Fraser, because of our supposed embrace of ‘choice’. Yes, we did want the right to reproductive choice, and all sorts of other resources for creating more egalitarian and nurturing environments for all. But despite all our campaigning – some of it successful – what we have ended up with, by and large, is the opposite.

Most women, much of the time, have no choice at all over all the important issues in their life; which of course has little to do with either make-up or foot-wear. This lack of choice, especially for women caring for children or other dependents, has left many women much more vulnerable to domestic violence. And, with women still largely doing the caring jobs in society, whether paid or unpaid, it is women above all who are hardest hit by the austerity policies of recent years. A recent Labour Party document on older women reported that unemployment amongst older women has increased by 41 per cent in the last two and a half years, compared with one per cent overall.

The majority of women have much too little choice about how to live our lives. The fetishisation of choice is all about equating the private and privatised with ‘freedom and choice’; the public, the collective, the community, the nationalised, with ‘constraint and imposition’. Yet it is precisely in the private arena, and above all because of the rolling back of welfare and the spending of resources in the public sector, that women today actually have so little choice.

Feminists worth their salt have always known this, yet it is quite extraordinary how successful Thatcher, and all those trailing her legacy, have been in selling people delusion of ‘choice’. Let’s go back to basics. Over two centuries ago, one of our greatest foremothers, Mary Wollstonecraft in a A Vindication of the Rights of Women, knew then that was that it was no good merely talking about rights or freedom of choice. As a woman, she knew that what we need to talk about was not just rights, or choice, but equality, insisting that “the more equality there is established” among us, “the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”.

Choice is an irritating concept without that feminist imagination that tells us more about the societies we want to live in and how best to head towards them. With this government in command, we seem to moving further away from the possibilities for true virtue or happiness every day.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

Photo source.

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10 reasons why debt is a feminist issue

Debt is one of those things that few people like to talk about and, like any corrosive, destructive force, it gets worse the longer you ignore it.

Given that the majority of those in debt are women, payday lenders are targetting women more than ever and our wages remain lower on average than mens – it’s worrying that mainstream women’s magazines give this issue so few column inches – it’s time we put debt on the feminist agenda.

1. Over 5 million women are in severe debt

Around two thirds of the 9 million people in severe debt in the UK are women, according to the Government-backed body the Money Advice Service.

2. More women are being declared insolvent

Insolvency Service data and Data Advice Foundation analysis suggest that women accounted for just 30 per cent of personal insolvencies in 2000, but that this rose to almost half in 2011, and  women could soon account for the majority of insolvencies in the UK.

3. Women’s debt is bigger than men’s debt

Women were found to be in £22,418 worth of debt, on average, which is markedly higher than the £14,228 level for men, in the Cooperative Bank’s Modern Families and Household’s report.

4. Women earn less than men

According to the Fawcett Society the mean gender pay gap for all work (excluding overtime) in the private sector is 24.2% and 17.6% in the public sector.  With less income to draw on, it may be harder for many women to pay off problem debt.

5. Households reliant on a woman’s salary have more debt

Households reliant on a woman’s salary typically receive nearly a third less income and have significantly more debt and smaller savings than when a man is the main source of earnings, according to research by the insurer Aviva.

6. ‘Hidden debt’ may be bigger than you think

Recent research by Jo Salter at the think tank Demos highlighted that total arrears, combining rent and council tax, and overdue utility bills come to almost £5 billion and yet this ‘hidden debt’ isn’t included in official debt figures in the UK.  This means the real extent of the debt women face in daily life may be bigger than some of the statistics out there suggest.

7. Debt is high on the harm index

Jo Salter’s recent research asked people to rank their debts in terms of the negative impact.  This ‘Harm Index’ highlighted that debt isn’t just harmful because it is hard to repay, it also has an impact on mental wellbeing and other factors. The research found that the top five most harmful debts were illegal loans, payday loans, council tax arrears, rent arrears and utility bills. The fact that three of the most harmful debts are incurred trying to pay for the basics – somewhere to live, heating and electricity – show that the social and emotional impact of debt should not be underestimated.

8. Debt defines our future

Debt doesn’t just loom large in daily life, it also shapes how many people see their future. Debt was an issue raised by a large number of people in a survey conducted by Survation, when asked what they would like their lives to be like in 2020. Some people spoke about how they would like to have kids, or buy a house, or do up their home, but only once they have become debt free.

A 42-year-old unemployed woman from London said: “I want to be living in another flat/bedsit/room, without bed bugs, that would be clean. I would like to be in a better health condition, and that my debts are reduced.”

9. Payday lenders are targeting women

Some payday loans companies seem to be trying to appeal specifically to women. Commenting on the development, Carl Packman, the author of Loan Sharks: The Rise and Rise of Payday Lending, said:

“Today, with the changing face of debt, payday loans companies have taken to appealing specifically at women. Firms like Cash Lady – famously advertised by Kerry Katona – are able to exploit hard up women and ensure they stay in debt to boost profits. A toxic mix of a cost of living crisis and the fact women are paid worse than their male counterparts, has taken its toll. We need to respond by ensuring financial independence away from problem debt. Government needs to regulate payday firms properly, make progress on a living wage, align the wages of men and women toward greater equality, and boost alternative sources of finance like credit unions”.

More and more people, including campaigners like Sharkstoppers, are trying to challenge the payday loans industry, while others like the movement behind the Bank of Salford are trying to create alternative, community-focussed, sources of finance.

10. Women need to talk about debt

More than 1 in 10 women, surveyed by the Cooperative Bank’s Modern Families and Household’s report, said they hide their debts from their partner, compared with around 1 in 7 men. This could mean around half a million of the 5 million women in severe debt are desperately trying to hide their money worries.

Trying to sweep debt under the carpet never works, which is why it is time to start a conversation about what needs to be done to tackle the growing problem of women’s debt.

Fran O’Leary is a Founder Member of Feminist Times and Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone, writing in a personal capacity. Follow her @FranOLeary

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‘Manifestly Inadequate’: austerity and cuts are punishing and devastating

After being found ‘fit for work’, Miss DE committed suicide. Her benefits were cut, despite her long-term depression. Without consulting her doctors, ATOS decided she should lose her Incapacity Benefit and the drop in income made her fear she would lose her home.

On Hogmanay last year, she killed herself.

Normally it is unwise to speculate on the cause of somebody’s suicide but, in this case, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland (MWC) carried out a detailed investigation and found that, despite years of stress-related depression, she had never before displayed suicidal behaviours. She was doing voluntary work, getting married, and undergoing treatment. The MWC concluded that: “There wasn’t anything else which we could identify that would lead us to believe that there was any other factor in her life that resulted in her decision to end her life.”

Almost two months earlier, in Bristol, Jacqueline Harris also killed herself after ‘failing’ her Work Capability Assessment (WCA) during which she was said to have been only asked one question. Her benefits were stopped and her limited mobility, severe pain and visual impairment prevented her from being able to seek work.

Without a full enquiry or inquest verdict it is inappropriate to suggest that Harris’s suicide was down to this single factor, but the connection between WCAs and a deterioration in mental health is undeniable:

  • 13% of psychiatrists report that at least one of their patients had attempted suicide as a result of the assessment process
  • 85% had patients who had been so distressed they needed more frequent appointments
  • 65% had patients needing stronger medication
  • 35% have had patients admitted to hospital

Disability benefits are complicated, and people can receive up to six different awards, sometimes for relatively small amounts, due to the way the system is set up. Furthermore, certain benefits entitle their recipients to other help, such as motability cars and public transport passes, so losing a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claim will not only cause a drop in income, but also create an inability to travel, go to the shops, or attend medical appointments.

Because of the incredibly complex way that cuts are affecting disabled people, more than 100,000 people signed the WOW petition, calling for the government to carry out a Cumulative Impact Assessment of the impact of the cuts on disabled people. This would look at not just how the bedroom tax, DLA cuts, and introduction of ESA are affecting people separately, but would instead study the impact of combination of cuts, all happening simultaneously.

The government refused.

Even taken individually, the cuts are having a devastating impact. Disability is really expensive. Specialist equipment, needing taxis due to inaccessible public transport, employing support workers, and needing specially designed clothes are just a few factors that need to be taken into account. All in all, disabled people are being set upon from every angle, and the lack of a Cumulative Impact Assessment means that the unfairness of the attacks cannot be fully exposed.

The Independent Living Fund has also been abolished, a move that Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have described as, “a regression of disabled people’s rights”. Those using the ILF are the severely disabled, and the fund was designed to help people live independently in their own homes. This is a right that is taken for granted by many non-disabled people who are not at risk of being confined to a group home or care facility, potentially as a young adult, subject to others’ rules and regulations, infantilised and segregated.

Two-thirds of people being hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ are disabled; the Disabled Students’ Allowance has now been targeted; up to 15% of disabled people affected by cuts have relied on a food bank; and the European Committee of Social Rights has stated that benefit levels in the UK today are “manifestly inadequate”. And even the economic benefits to the country are questionable: the potential savings of £145 million, as a result of the change from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments, is eclipsed by the potential £456 million that will be lost when disabled people who lose their DLA award have to stop working as a result. Plus, the extra hospitalisations, medication and psychiatrist appointments described above will cost the state far more than the associated benefit cuts will save.

Almost all of these cuts can have very expensive, as well as personally devastating, consequences, clearly demonstrating that they are an ideological rather than a true cost-cutting measure. The government’s focus on attacking those least able to fight back is cowardly and cruel and, combined with the viciousness of the cuts affecting women, disabled women in particular are under extreme pressure.

A Cumulative Impact Assessment is absolutely necessary to measure and quantify exactly what is happening, and the EHRC have now stepped in. To really fight back, we have to understand the precise situation we are in, so we can fight to support the most vulnerable in our society.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

Photo: Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

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Hackney’s Active Citizens

Shoreditch Trust delivers the Active Citizens programme in partnership with the British Council. The programme aims to increase the contribution of community leaders towards improving the environment around them, setting up enterprising initiatives to solve problems and creating sustainable change both locally and globally. They hope to encourage in their participants:

  • A strong sense of your own culture and identity
  • Knowledge and understanding of your local community
  • Project planning, leadership and management skills
  • Responsibility towards sustainable development
  • Recognise value in, and work effectively with, difference

Last month Editor Deborah Coughlin and Deputy Editor Sarah Graham led a workshop for the Active Citizens programme. Our workshop focused on how young people living in Hackney today can make themselves heard – how they can communicate effectively about issues that affect them, whether that be in a newspaper article or in a letter to their local council.

We asked everyone on the programme to think of something they feel passionately about that they would like to change; their concerns ranged from voluntary work while on JSA, to the lack of access to employment in theatre, and the abundance of cheap junk food on sale in their area. We then asked them to go and find one fact or quote on the internet that would back up their argument for change, before presenting it back to the group. The results from the workshop were amazing, with some of the participants feeling they could argue their case effectively for the first time, and we all came away feeling empowered.

We asked Active Citizens if they would allow us to print some of the resulting pieces to see what Feminist Times readers make of their arguments.

 

Kenneth Grinell, 26 years old, trainee chef

Kenneth

What I care about: support for job seekers on training courses

Recently I have been frustrated with the unemployment figures in the country vs the systems put in place by our government to aid people in finding work. My biggest gripe would have to be that people, like myself, who are attending a training course (non-paid) in order to gain employment in their desired field, are not entitled to get Job Seeker’s Allowance if the course is over 16 hours per week. This catch 22, that a lot of people are caught in, penalises those who are actively looking for work for no good reason. If the benefit is called Job Seeker’s, they should not discourage the public from doing so.

According to FE Week, “The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has called for a new look at how the government’s flagship youth unemployment scheme will affect Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).” They are also in talks with the DWP regarding the 16 hour rule. Although the various government departments are working together to solve this problem, no deadline has been given for a resolution.

Meanwhile, companies such as CDG (Careers Development Group), who have been hired because of the failing job centres around the country, are sending the unemployed on courses such as, “Employability Skills”, which exceed the 16 hours per week rule and provide you with a qualification that is not exactly sort after. This is only worsened by the fact that George Osborne announced his “work for dole” scheme, as stated by Channel 4 news. This basically means the long term unemployed will have to do 30 hours of community service per week, almost double the allowance for a trainee course. A fact they failed to mention in his party’s manifesto prior to their election. To me this is more of a hypocrisy than a democracy.

 

Lara Rodriguez, 19 years old, Open School East Student and Active Citizen

Lara

What I care about: young people being ignored by the government

Being a young adult in London is extremely difficult. We are not being heard. Danny Dorling (New Statesman 2013) agrees: “If you are young in Britain today you are taken for a ride”.

We are already at risk of growing up and being worse off than the previous generation. The younger generation are not being made aware of changes that are being made that will affect us; personally, I think it’s because the government does not target the younger generation as a voting primary, thereafter we are left in the dark.

Instead they target the older generations, who they know are keeping tabs on current events and are aware that their views matter and need to be heard. In 2010 only 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the General Election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Watchdog has also revealed that 56% of voters aged between 17-24 are yet to be registered.

Compulsory voting would help keep away from this biased targeting and, according to the Think Tank IPPR: “Voting should be compulsory for your first election”. Even Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan is considering making first time voting compulsory; this would be a very beneficial step to give young people their rightful voice to be heard, especially if the Labour party (if elected) plan to move the voting age to 16.

 

Marvin Davidson, 26 years old, Engagement and Training Programme Coordinator

Marvin

What I care about: Black History in education

I believe that it’s unfair to have Black history folded into such a small segment of the UK’s  educational curriculum where it’s all covered in the space  of a month (October). The majority of Black History in most westernised countries is fixated on slavery with little focus on or mention of inventors, leaders, change makers, scientists, freedom  fighters. I believe that there are numerous BME people who have made significant contributions to British history and place shaping – they are either mentioned briefly in Black History month or not at all.

I believe all children should be taught more about BME history and about what happened before and after slavery which hopefully might empower more BME children to see themselves in other positive lights.

I woud also challenge London’s museums and galleries to not only exhibition the work of BME citizens in one month of the year but to integrate this information into permanent collections and museum and gallery policy.

Significant leaders include the founder of Britain’s first black weekly newspaper The Westindian Gazette, Claudia Jones – a feminist, black nationalist, political activist, community leader, communist and journalist.

The Runnymede Trust has developed a Real Histories teaching resource to support and encourage cultural diversity.

According to the Guardian, “one of the recommendations of the 1999 Macpherson Report on the Stephen Lawrence case was a: “National curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism,” in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society. This is something the vast majority of teachers would unreservedly support whatever our views on the new curriculum. Yet we need to be clear that the draft national curriculum for history, if it comes into force, is very likely to set this cause back at least a generation. In fact it is hard to see how the Department for Education can have taken into account its legal obligations with regard to equality when devising it.”

 

Renalzo Palmer, 24 years old, trainee commi chef

Renalzo

What I care about: youth unemployment

I have recognised the struggle young people have to face in today’s society in order to find work. I believe if there was more opportunity for disadvantaged young people to access apprenticeships and structured volunteering that actually lead to employment or a career our government statistics would be a lot more acceptable.

This is a report from Newlonfusion.org in February 2013 stating that “there are over 954,000 16-24 year old in England who are not in education or employment (NEET) representing 1 in 5 of all young people of those (about 13%) live in London.”

I am a trainee chef at Shoreditch Trust and this is where I recognised the important work that is being done to help deprived young people in London. The Trust opened a restaurant to train young people like me to have the necessary skills needed in the catering and hospitality industry, which has been running successfully for 5 years now.

Renalzo

Trainees on Shoreditch Trust’s Blue Marble Training scheme at Waterhouse Restaurant, Hackney

 

Samuel Santulu, 25 years old, Assistant Producer/Session Musician

Samuel

What I care about: youth club closures

I believe that many children and young people in London really benefitted from youth clubs and investment in structured activities including myself. When I was a teen I witnessed a lot of my friends deteriorate when our club got shut down. Street life became a normal thing for them and older people took advantage of the young people.

Is there a link between funding cuts for local authorities and closure of structured youth clubs and activities? Youth clubs could be a safe haven for young people to go to when they want to socialise.

Evidence:

Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the “annihilation” of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs. “Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” he said. (Guardian, July 2011)

Hackney riots: ‘The message when youth clubs close is that no one cares’. Half the borough’s children live in poverty. Missing, too, are the summer courses that kept minds and hands busy. Many youth projects across London’s inner city estates have closed down due to funding cuts. Yet the capital dominates the child poverty statistics, with far higher proportions of poor children than other European cities – 44% of Hackney’s children live in poverty. For Candy, 14, on the Whitmore estate off Hoxton Street, that’s a poverty that sees her sleep each night under a coat on a bare mattress on a bare floor. “Sometimes we have food, and sometimes not much,” she says, opening an old, scratched fridge. Her mother is asleep on a plastic-covered sofa in front of an old TV. “She is not very well, she gets depressed,” explains Candy. Next door three children under nine are home alone. Their mother will feed Candy when she gets back from work for keeping an eye on them.” (Observer, August 2011) 

 

Timoney James, 23 years old, trainee commi chef

Timoney

What I care about: immigration

I’m particularly passionate about the balance of fairness and equal rights in obtaining a visa to work in the UK; I believe there is as huge deficit in terms of measuring how many people and family’s lives are being affected as a result of unfair immigration policies.

Evidence:

“The parliamentary group says immigration rules are too restrictive and a review is needed. New financial rules for migrants from outside the European Union are tearing UK families apart and causing anguish, a group of MPs and peers have said. They said thousands of Britons had been unable to bring a non-EU spouse to the UK since July 2012, when minimum earnings requirements were introduced.Children have also been separated from a parent, the parliamentary group said.” (BBC News)

To find out more about any of the projects run by Shoreditch Trust, visit http://www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk or follow @ShoreditchTrust

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Saviors

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Saviors

The experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible. By doing so, there is no need to listen to sex workers; if we already know their fate, their usefulness lies solely in providing more evidence for the readers’ preconceptions. For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the “expert” journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.

Meanwhile, when sex workers do face discrimination, harassment, or violence, these can be explained away as experiences intrinsic to sex work—and therefore, however horrifically, to be expected. Though this antiprostitution perspective claims to be more sympathetic to sex workers, it produces the same ideology as the usual distrust and discarding of them: Both claim that abuse comes with the territory in sex work. If a sex worker reports a rape, well, what did she expect?

I have not worked as a sex worker in Cambodia, so my knowledge is limited to what I’ve observed firsthand, what others have told me, and what I have found comparing the various official publications of governments with the NGOs who attempt to uncover abuses. But what I have that Nicholas Kristof does not is trust. Through my relationships with sex workers and sex worker activists in the United States, I met several from Cambodia. When I visited a brothel outside Phnom Penh, it was at their invitation, with no grand welcome or melodramatic conclusion.

Arriving with activists and outreach workers, we were greeted by sex workers who weren’t otherwise occupied, dropped off some boxes of condoms, and then gathered in an open courtyard. They brought us cold scented cloths with which to dab our faces and pitchers of water. I didn’t bring a camera crew, unlike NBC’s Dateline, or countless well-meaning documentary filmmakers. Nor did we bring the police and the promise of rescue. Instead, we sat together on plastic patio chairs under the stars and talked there, openly.

Back in my hotel room in Phnom Penh there was a sign in English on the door, posted where I could read it in bed: sex workers are strictly forbidden in the hotel. I could look out across the road from my window, swollen with motorbikes and tuk-tuk traffic at sunset, passing by the river where the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) offi ce’s boat was docked. Earlier I had sat on its wooden fl oor with a few of their members, circled around a MacBook, watching videos they’d made themselves and were posting on YouTube.

As we watched videos—stop-motion animations that used Barbie dolls in the roles of sex workers who wanted to remain anonymous but still speak out, and another, a work-in-progress about the abuse of mandatory health-check programs to extort bribes from workers—banners hung overhead moved gently in the breeze coming in off the water: don’t talk to me about sewing machines. talk to me about workers’ rights.

The hit was a karaoke video, a slide show of images casting then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” as a troubled ballad directed to President George W. Bush. At the time the State Department was pressuring the Cambodian government to take a stand against sex work or else lose aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Cambodian police, who had long been cracking down on sex workers, were now working in concert with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation; they were hauling sex workers out of brothels, loading them onto the backs of trucks en route to “rehabilitation” centers. They didn’t anticipate that sex workers would snap photos of these raids on their cell phones. One of these pictures showed up on placards and on buttons made by the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), with USAID renamed ‘‘USRAID.’’

What happened once the sex workers rounded up in brothel raids were unloaded from the trucks and moved to the so-called rehabilitation centers? They were illegally detained for months at a time without charges, as were others who worked in public parks and had been chased, beaten, and dragged into vans by police. The Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO captured chilling photographs of sex workers caught in sweeps locked together in a cage—thirty or forty people in one cell.

Sex workers who had been detained reported being beaten and sexually assaulted by guards in interviews with LICADHO, Women’s Network for Unity, and Human Rights Watch. Some living with HIV, who had been illegally held in facilities described by the local NGOs that ran them as ‘‘shelters,’’ were denied access to antiretroviral medication. In one facility sex workers were “only able to leave their rooms to bathe twice a day in dirty pond water,” Human Rights Watch reported, “or, accompanied by a guard, to go to the toilet.”

The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers reported that a common theme in interviews with detainees was the appalling food delivered in plastic bags which they then retained to use as toilets, disposing of them by hurling them from windows. Through eyewitness accounts, human rights observers established that at least three detainees were beaten to death by guards. Observers from LICADHO witnessed the body of one woman, left to die after advocates found her just the day before comatose on the floor of a detention room where she had been locked in with twenty other people. This occured at a facility on Koh Kor, an island that had once served as a prison under the Khmer Rouge.

“The government needs to find real solutions to the economic and social problems which cause people to live and work on the streets,” LICADHO stated in their 2008 report on conditions at Koh Kor and a second facility at Prey Speu. “It cannot simply round these people up and throw them into detention camps.”  If the sex workers standing in the doorways in Phnom Penh’s red-light district looked out on the street with fear, it could be just as likely from the prospect of rescue as due to any customer.

As is the case for much of industry, accurate data on how many sex workers are in Cambodia are hard to come by and difficult to trust. One study USAID funded themselves found that of a sample of roughly 20,000, 88 percent were not forced into sex work, whether through physical force or debt contracts. It’s especially tough to know how accurate figures on coercion are. But these are the figures found in the USAID commissioned study and were presumably available to all those in the State Department who were agitating for crackdowns on all Cambodian sex work as a means to end trafficking.

These crackdowns are no corrective to abusive conditions in sex work, and can expose sex workers to yet more abuse, including those who want out. But this is of no concern to the American government, which not only wishes to “eradicate prostitution” (as a US attorney testified on USAID’s behalf before the US Supreme Court in 2013), but requires those receiving foreign aid to agree with them. When the Cambodian government sought to demonstrate their commitment to these American values, they had in no way “eradicated prostitution”—they had simply taken action, through detention and violence, to eradicate sex workers themselves.

The State Department, in turn, upgraded Cambodia’s compliance ranking, and in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, offered only a weak admonishment that “raids against ‘immoral’ activities were not conducted in a manner sensitive to trafficking victims,” and recommend further “training,” not investigations or sanctions. The US has spoken: They see no meaningful difference between the elimination of sex work and the elimination of sex workers themselves.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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LONG READ: Chav is a feminist issue

Feminist Times Contributing Editor Reni Eddo-Lodge took part in the Manchester Met feminist conference last week. She heard this speech by Rhian E Jones and came back to the Fem T office wide-eyed and excited about it. With kind permission from Rhian, we publish the speech below.

Intersectional Feminism, Class, and Austerity

Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.

Introduction

The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.

The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender.

These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.

‘Chav’ is a feminist issue

Over the past few decades, despite insultingly obvious and deepening socioeconomic divides, official political discourse has continued to insist that we live in a meritocracy. From this, it follows that anyone unable to gain a sufficient share in the wealth – since they cannot be structurally disadvantaged – must simply not be trying hard enough. In order to reconcile this almost charmingly insincere idea with the recent manifest reality of life under imposed austerity, with its falling wages, rising prices, and flatlining standards of living, we have seen the reanimation of Victorian and Edwardian ideas of the undeserving poor. In politics, media, and popular culture, class is increasingly identified by moral rather than economic or occupational indicators, with class-inflected ideas of ‘respectability’ the means by which morality is made publicly visible.

This approach, a rhetorical and material triumph for the forces of neoliberalism, seeks to justify political attacks on the recipients of state welfare by subsuming them all into an underclass characterised as ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’, ‘workshy’ and ‘feckless’, despite the fact that a majority of welfare recipients are in work and still struggling with lower wages, higher rents and increased costs of living. In this remaking of the working class, the despised, mocked and hated figure of the ‘chav’ has been instrumental, as a class stereotype externally imposed upon what is a more complex and heterogeneous working class, to the exclusion of alternative identities. Significantly, this figure is very often female. The uses made of the female ‘chav’ in political and media discourse illustrate vividly how abstract meanings are articulated through images of women, and the particular strain of misogyny which ‘chav’-hatred can contain.

Over the past decade or so, the British ‘underclass’ has been presented in a heavily gendered and sexualised way, with images of pram-pushing and pregnant teenage girls, or slovenly and self-absorbed single mothers, used to express ideas of poverty, deprivation and dysfunction. These images crop up not only in the right-wing press but also across popular culture, and particularly in comedy, where they tend to be self-conscious or pastiche performances by those not identifying as a permanent part of the subculture – the prime example of this being Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard character. In a rant by James Delingpole, in the Times in 2006, Vicky Pollard is made to embody:

… several of the great scourges of contemporary Britain: aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye…

This kind of anti-‘chav’ rhetoric serves as a very thin veil for the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes of working-class women and girls – presenting them as sexually precocious and promiscuous, and their childbearing choices as the result of irresponsibility or scheming material greed. It also contains a tacit disapproval of the behaviour of women who exist outside traditional roles, deriving their support from the state rather than a male breadwinner. Alongside this cultural stereotyping, government rhetoric insistently seeks to validate its reduction or removal of state support from benefits claimants by playing on the stereotype of the idle and recklessly promiscuous single mother, and the moral decline, sexual depravity, and social disintegration her lifestyle choices are held to represent.

Anti-‘chav’ commentators in media and politics are often disquietingly obsessed with describing the presumed licentiousness of working-class women, whose irresponsibility, lack of deference, and refusal of traditional family and community hierarchies, must be politically penalised. All this happens with barely a glance at context or circumstance, with the working-class ‘bad girl’ understood not in terms of poverty or social exclusion but in neoliberal terms of individual moral degeneracy. The perceived inadequacies of single mothers or comprehensive schoolgirls are viewed as purely individual failings or pathology, rather than related to their demoralising circumstances or lack of financial and material resources.

The female ‘chav’ is further used in narratives of slut-shaming and taste-policing, where she represents unladylike promiscuity, lack of restraint, and vulgarity in dress, speech and behaviour. These qualities, already heavily class-inflected, are held to be especially objectionable in women, with sexual excess in particular seen as a central signifier of ‘disrespectable’ femininity. Intersections like this make explicit several implications of the discourse around the female ‘chav’, not least the conflation of sexuality and class to invoke the Victorian and Edwardian spectre of working-class women, with their hazardous lack of morality, taste and discrimination, and their unregulated sex drives, spawning hundreds of equally depraved and financially burdensome children. This trope also continues the historical representation of working-class women via their ‘deviant’ sexuality, as opposed to what the sociologist Beverley Skeggs has observed as the possibilities for ‘rebellion, heroism and authenticity’ which the working-class identity has historically held for men.

Exclusionary definitions of ‘working class’

In the left and liberal media there has been both recognition and confronting of the ‘chav’ stereotype as a method of class demonization. However, much of this has not paid sufficient attention to the gendered and raced dimensions of the term, and has sought to redress the idea of ‘chav’ by proposing equally inadequate and exclusionary models of working-class identity. These tend to either draw heavily on the historical figure of the noble and oppressed worker, who is invariably white and male – or to present the ‘white working class’ as an oppressed and neglected ethnic group on whom ‘chav’ is a slur. Within these parameters, the ‘chav’ becomes a figure of ‘borderline whiteness’ invoked in what Imogen Tyler identifies as ‘an attempt to differentiate between respectable and non-respectable forms of whiteness’. In the same way that anti-‘chav’ rhetoric can become a cover for misogyny, it can also work as an excuse to propagate racist or anti-immigration narratives. The ‘chav’ also appears as a modernised version of Marx’s lumpenproletariat – implicitly feminised by dint of being unable to express the securely masculine identity that comes with being a ‘respectably’ employed breadwinner.

These obviously dubious arguments, then, present whiteness and maleness as signifiers of what it is to be ‘authentically’ working class. In the short-lived Blue Labour project a few years back, Maurice Glasman presented the Labour Party’s history after 1945 as an emasculating ‘cross-class marriage’ of a put-upon working-class husband and a domineering middle-class wife. Similar sentiments informed the speech made in 2011 by the Conservative David Willetts, in which he attempted to portray feminism’s achievements, in enabling larger numbers of women to enter higher education and employment, as a process which had displaced and weakened working-class men. This kind of disingenuous dog-whistling criticises women’s emancipation while offering nothing to address the very real disadvantages and anxieties of working-class men. It also postulates some disciplined army of empowered middle-class feminists against an incoherently resentful horde of disenfranchised working-class men – while, in these scenarios, the existence of working-class women appears to go entirely unacknowledged.

The debate on ‘chavs’ is a significant arena in which working-class women are granted political visibility – only to then be discussed negatively through disingenuous stereotypes, and have their social and sexual conduct policed. But this gendered dimension to the debate has been surprisingly neglected by a mainstream liberal feminism which can fail to take account of other axes of privilege and oppression. Acknowledging that the discourse around ‘chavs’ can provide a cover for denigrating the social agency and sexual autonomy of working-class women, as well as for wider political attacks on the unemployed and working poor, would significantly enrich mainstream feminism and challenge the perception of it as irrelevant outside an academic and metropolitan elite.

Neglected traditions of working-class feminism

I will now contrast these presentations of feminism and of class with some aspects of my own experience. I grew up a feminist as well as a socialist, and both of these identities were rooted in my consciousness of class. Feminism and socialism seemed to go hand-in-hand when I considered things like the legacy of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the support groups formed by miners’ wives, partners and other women in communities like my own. Although such groups were primarily set up to distribute food and cash donations to the families of striking male breadwinners, as the strike progressed their female members increasingly found themselves taking more explicitly political roles as part of fundraising and outreach work, and becoming public figures and community leaders in what had traditionally been a male-dominated political sphere. Through these networks of mutual support and solidarity, working-class women, while on the one hand acting in support of what might be seen as a macho and patriarchal industrial culture, on the other hand gradually challenged the chauvinism in which this culture could be steeped.

Similarly, factory work, despite its immediate associations with industrial masculinity, has historically also been a potential hub of female working-class solidarity. This unfashionable species of feminism stretches from incidents like the 1888 strike by women and girls at the Bryant and May match factory to the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant. The Ford Dagenham strike saw female workers take on their male bosses over sexual discrimination, with several becoming radicalised in the process, and its success eventually resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

Awareness of histories like these can help to break down overly essentialist and unhelpfully narrow ideas of class identity, present on the left as well as the right, which characterise ‘the working class’, or even just its politically organised sections, as composed only of white, male, urban industrial workers. This latter concept of class, and its decreasing relevance, is frequently used to deny that ‘working-class’ is still a viable contemporary political identity, despite the continued existence of class relations and class inequality. These perspectives neglect the fact that over the past thirty years, deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, and the loss of skilled factory jobs have not only destroyed a former source of masculine status and self-respect, but also weakened what could be a source of political and social empowerment and consciousness-raising for women.

Today, the face of mainstream feminism is likely to be turned away from the bleak financial and employment futures facing women under austerity, and towards symbolically financial issues like the campaign to put Jane Austen on a banknote, or the low number of women attending this year’s World Economic Forum. It is instructive to compare the attention given to these issues – or to even more peripheral concerns – and the lack of attention given to, for instance, the current campaign by single mothers in East London to draw attention to their impending eviction following their local authority’s austerity-driven decision to reduce single-parent housing. The mainstream media’s preoccupation with ‘lifestyle’ or ‘Lean In’ feminism does little to engage with the material pressures experienced by a growing majority of women, or to draw meaningfully on previous industrial traditions of working-class feminism.

The trouble with ‘rebranding feminism’

Beyond the mainstream, a number of feminists on- and offline have made welcome attempts to integrate class into their analyses, and much of the revolutionary left has engaged positively with feminism as an expression of class struggle. However, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in some feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands on their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise ‘rough’ to be directly engaged with. The closest we seem to have come to attempts to alter this has been the recent debate on the need to ‘rebrand’ feminism as more inclusive, particularly of women who fall outside of its supposed white and middle-class power-base. Within these debates on how to make feminism ‘accessible’ to ordinary women, however, otherwise well-meaning feminist analysis has been vulnerable to reductive, stereotyping and patronising uses of the term ‘working-class’.

The idea of a divide between academic and populist ways of promoting progressive politics is not unique to feminism; a similar debate periodically engulfs much of the left. How can ‘ordinary women’, or indeed ‘ordinary people’, be appealed to in language which will resonate with their everyday concerns and not alienate them by using words of more than two syllables? The trouble with this question is that the first half doesn’t automatically imply the second. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. A feminist politics predicated on this false dichotomy, of ‘high theory’ middle-class feminist activists and disenfranchised, politically unconscious working-class women, risks buying into narratives which see working-class parents, schools and communities as unable to impart education or instil political consciousness in the same way as their middle-class counterparts, and which present working-class girls in particular as the helpless inhabitants of some kind of neo-Victorian netherworld.

The ‘chav’, crucially, is represented as uneducated and often actively hostile to the idea of education, negating the possibility of self-improvement. But the idea that there are no grey areas, no available identities, between the volubly ignorant Vicky Pollard and an empowered and educated middle-class feminist leads to the double-bind whereby political engagement and consciousness raising is seen as automatically conferring class privilege and upward mobility upon an individual, thereby barring them from identifying with or being categorised as ‘working-class’.

In reality, not only have many university-educated feminists come from working-class backgrounds, but working-class feminists form part of the long line of working-class autodidacts whose attraction to ideologies of emancipation partly results from the desire to articulate and analyse their own experiences. Women’s Studies, at least in the UK, was rooted to a large extent in attempts by women of generally less privileged backgrounds to question and critique the privileges of existing academia, and to draw attention to neglected perspectives and experiences, including those marginalised by virtue of class, race, age, ability or sexuality. The fact that feminism within academia can now be considered to be middle-class and irrelevant says more about the squeezing out of attention to and discussion of class-based analysis within it; as well as the erosion of empowering traditions of adult education and of self-education through libraries and community colleges; and the pricing out of poorer students, than it does about education’s intrinsic appeal to, and suitability for, anyone outside the bourgeoisie.

Conclusion: women, austerity and intersectionality

Advocating that feminism be ‘rebranded’ in simple words, however well-intentioned the argument, can entail falsely assuming that ‘ordinary women’ are unable to understand theoretical ideas like intersectionality – when, in fact, the lives of working-class women offer many practical examples of multiple systems of oppression, most obviously including, but not limited to, those based on race, gender and class. Under austerity, we are seeing the driving down of wages, living standards and working conditions; closures and funding cuts to women’s refuges and childcare services; the sale of council housing and removal of housing, child, and disability benefit. Where this erosion of the welfare state impacts on women, it does so from several intersecting angles: women are affected not simply as women, but as women of colour, as disabled women, as mothers, as carers, as low earners or unemployed – very often, several of these at once. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum. The problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional: material disadvantage amplifies, and is amplified by, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism, all experienced as real and immediate issues enforced by existing structures of power. Women’s grassroots organisations and actions, which analyse and oppose the impact of austerity, will be informed by an awareness of how gender and race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality – not intersectionality as it is often caricatured, as a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. The past and present experience of working-class women offers a real-life, intuitive and logical application of the ideas and concepts that are apparently considered too complex for the likes of them.

Speech originally published on Rhian’s own site The Velvet Coalmine.

Rhian E Jones works in retail and writes on politics, history, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender and a co-editor at New Left Project. Blog: http://velvetcoalmine.wordpress.com, Twitter: @RhianEJones

Photo: Ben Sutherland

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Young mums are Stratford’s biggest Olympic losers

Wherever there’s an Olympics happening, BBC’s Panorama send in their top corruption-uncoverer John Sweeney. Just last week Sochi was “Sweenied” when he reported the Russian Games was considered by some to be the most corrupt ever. Six years ago he did something very similar in China. However in 2012 there was a distinct lack of Sweeney in Stratford, East London. Two years later, there is a group of young mums in a hostel in E15 who might just want John to take a little look around, because their reality of the London Olympic legacy, and so-called regeneration, is social cleansing.

It’s so easy to level corruption charges at our former Cold War enemies with their human rights violations, low levels of democracy and the disappearance and imprisonment of dissidents. After all, while the Olympic Park’s nearby Tower Hamlet’s council is a staple of Private Eye‘s ‘Rotten Boroughs‘, I think I’d get away with performing a Punk Prayer in St John’s on Stratford High Street without too much impact on my freedom.

It’s so much harder to look in the mirror and see where our own games could have been more transparent – less generous to big billion pound business and kinder to the people who just happened to be born in Stratford, like the gorgeous little babies of the mums in Focus E15 Mothers. There’s no better way to explain their situation than letting the women speak for themselves.

Focus E15 Mothers’ statement:
We are a mix of mothers and mothers-to-be who have lived in the E15 hostel from a few months to 3 years. Having been told this would only be temporary accommodation, we are no closer to finding permanent housing and now Newham council has stopped funding the mothers and baby unit and those of us who have been in the hostel for over six months have been served with a possession order with a date of 20 October.

We have been told we will not be offered council housing but that we will be offered private rented accommodation from accredited landlords outside of London in places like Hastings, Birmingham and Manchester. If we refuse this offer, we will be classed as making ourselves intentionally homeless and face temporary accommodation with little protection from eviction and no guarantee of a long-term solution from the council. Also if we chose to rent privately we are not entitled to get sufficient help with deposits which we cannot afford ourselves.

We want secure and suitable housing for mothers in east London!

Every Saturday they take to the streets of Stratford in what they describe as ‘meetings’. They hang up banners with slogans that say “Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism”, “Caution, Social Cleansing in Progress” and “Don’t Make Our Babies Homeless”. On Facebook they share photos of ex-council housing in their area boarded up; ““no housing” my foot” says a commenter underneath the photo of a huge tower block.

And is that not the very essence of uncovering corruption? Being told one thing by the powers that be and then seeing evidence that proves it’s a lie. Being told there’s no housing while the Olympic village lays empty, no lights on. Being told there’s no council housing while estates are gradually boarded up and packaged up for redevelopment. Property prices rising high because Waitrose and John Lewis followed the IOC into town, all the while being told it will be easier to just go to Hastings, and if you don’t you’re purposefully making yourself homeless – that you, the single mum and your baby, deserve to be on the street.

I didn’t go to the Olympics when it came to London. I left and went to Camp Bestival instead, which has more of the sporting activities I excel at. Even hundreds of miles away in a Dorset valley, I and the thousands with me were moved by the Danny Boyle spectacular that was projected from the festival stage. The opening ceremony’s most touching part, the part that made me cry, was the Mary Poppins-style tribute to Great Ormond St Hospital and the NHS, with dancing nurses looking after children who were jumping on flying beds.

Reality is no magical fairy tale; there’s no super nannies blowing in on the wind to comfort the anxious mums of Focus E15 Mothers. They are the casualties of our Olympics and while Panorama waxes on about Sochi we must remember that our own backyard is not squeeky clean. The legacy of a transparent, caring Olympics should always be that local people will benefit, that their home town will be improved for them and their children to enjoy, but in Stratford those children are no longer welcome.

Photo: Lorraine Murphy

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How to make the unhappiest town happy

Standing at the bar of Bedford’s West Indian Social & Cultural Society, I’ve been talking to the Windrush generation about the boxes of records they’ve all got stashed in the loft or the garage. They have original Blue Beat singles, old Trojan tunes, things with the red Island Records logo. Next door, their grandchildren play MP3s on a big, bass-heavy sound-system.

I’m in Bedford because the Office for National Statistics decided last year that it was the unhappiest place in the country. Bedford Creative Arts have commissioned me to look at what makes Bedford unhappy, and see if – in three short months – I can change it. The project is called, simply, Bedford Happy.

Bedford was built by the Saxon chief Beda, around a crossing on the River Ouse. It’s always been a place of crossing, of coming together of the tribes, and as such is incredibly open to different cultures – just a few doors down from the West Indian club is the Polish Club, and opposite that, the Italian Club which serves a wicked short, black coffee.

Bedford has the third largest Italian community in Britain, behind London and Manchester. That’s because the Bedford-based London Brick Company found a skilled workforce in southern Italy in the 1950s, when they needed enough bricks to rebuild bomb-damaged London. The brickworks followed it up with a recruitment campaign in India, and in 1960 the Indian Workers’ Welfare & Cultural Association was set up in the town.

And that ever-changing mix is what makes Bedford really interesting. It’s a town of contrast and change. There’s the area around the bus station, which feels like an unloved corner of North London, populated by fast food, cheap supermarkets and cab firms. And a few minutes’ walk away are the clean, elegant streets leading down to the river’s Embankment, where the water is often alive with rowers from Bedford’s four private schools. The parents of the pupils there live in big villas around the grand, Victorian-landscaped Bedford Park where every Saturday morning 250 or more people turn on their smartphones and log on to the Parkrun app.

Every group – ‘West Indian’ or ‘Italian’ or ‘Rowing Club’ or ‘Parkrun’ – changes the town. For generations, people have arrived and felt they have the power to do things for themselves. People have started offbeat arts organisations and oddball religions (the Panacea Society who saved an end-of-terrace house for Christ’s return deserve an article all of their own). They’ve founded their own schools and social clubs – to get a few people together, talk about your shared interest and make something happen is the Bedford way.

That approach is perfectly illustrated by what made me notice Bedford in the first place. Two strangers, Kayte Judge and Erica Roffe, started a conversation about the town’s empty shops on Facebook, created a project called We Are Bedford and spent a year activating empty spaces. Their approach is one I see across the entire country. People are tackling local problems for themselves.

Collaborate, create the smallest structure you need to make things happen, try and test your ideas where people can see them, and use that experience to decide what to do next. It’s a refreshing alternative to the way councils or charities work – endless meetings, everything in place to blunt the sharp edges of any risk, and nobody responsible for their own actions.

It’s exactly what Clay Shirky wrote about in 2008; people are organising without organisations. The tools we have literally at our fingertips, a smart phone that lets us access social media, mean we can be the change we want to see. We can form loose, agile collaborations and tackle problems. I recently listed 100 such projects on my company’s blog.

The actor Peter Coyote, looking back to the 1960s, said, ‘If we had any belief, it was that a man’s vision is his responsibility. If you had an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power exposed the shallowness of endless theorizing and debate. Visions became real by being acted out, and once real could serve as inspiration and free food for the public imagination.’

It’s no coincidence that the internet lets us do that so quickly, when the people that built it were Coyote’s contemporaries. The 60s generation have given us the tools to make change endlessly, easily possible – to make revolution an everyday thing.

Dan is a social artist and writer living in Margate. His work is about people and places. He is interested in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces, and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. . In 2012, he was included in the Time Out and Hospital Club’s Culture 100, a list of the most inspiring and influential people in the UK’s creative industries. Find out more at www.danthompson.co.uk

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What women really worry about 2014: The stats

“Be a Better You” – Red magazine.

“A New Year, a New You” – Get Slim magazine.

“How to Get July Skin in January” – Elle.

If an alien visited earth this month and read our women’s magazines, they’d be left with the impression that all women really want is to lose weight, unwrinkle their skin, look different, act different and buy new shoes.

They’d get the distinct impression that transformation is transactional and that happiness can be bought in the form of a night cream. ET would think that, for this planet’s women, a new year means a new you, and that little else matters. But the relentless magazine headlines about aesthetic New Year’s resolutions don’t reflect *all* of the things that women really want.

As part of the Lodestone Political Survey, prepared by Survation, we polled over 1,000 women about what they really worry about and what they really want. When asked ‘what is the thing that most worries you at the moment?’, only 2% of these women answered by saying “the way I look”, 2% said “not having enough me time”, and 1% said “not fitting in”.

In contrast the top five responses were:

“My children’s/grandchildren’s future”

“Not being able to afford to pay the bills”

“Not having enough money as I’d like to have”

“Getting or being unwell”

“Becoming or being unemployed”

Earthly concerns, rooted in the grind of daily life, family love and economic realities come way above the worries that fuel New Year aesthetic transformation fantasies.

With women earning an average of 15% less than men, the prevalence of these everyday concerns shouldn’t be a surprise. Women are likely to have fewer financial assets and are more likely to live in poverty, especially in older age.

These earthly concerns and aspirations were reflected in the answers women gave when we asked them what they would like their lives to be like in 2020. For example, a 47-year old gardener from Wales said: “I would like less stress on my finances and would like to feel safer and more secure than I do now.”

Similarly, a 43 year old office worker said that, in 2020, she would like to be: “happy, calm and secure; much the same as now but without the anxiety of worrying about bills and expenses being higher than our income,” and an unemployed 20-year old from the West Midlands said she would like to be: “better off financially [and] I would also like to have a job.”

A 61 year old woman from Northamptonshire told us that, in 2020, “I want to be able to use my heating without worry about the bill, I would like to have enough pension money to afford a taxi or a haircut, I would like to eat meat.”

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about having “the right haircut”; they’re about being able to afford a haircut.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “preparing the perfect meal”; they’re about being able to afford to eat meat once in a while.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “having a stylish home”; they’re about being able to heat her home.

Some of the answers women gave are heartbreaking in their honesty and it’s telling that they mentioned debt 117 times, while make-up was mentioned a grand total of one time.

The fantasy of aesthetic personal transformation helps to sell magazines, shift products and help us cope with everyday life by giving us a moment of escapism. At times, I’ve found the New Year articles, inspiring and interesting, and I’ve enjoyed looking through magazines with my sister and friends. At other times, I’ve found the articles at this time of year condescending, simplistic, formulaic and repetitive.

The key point is this: not all of the things that women really want can be bought in a shop. Not all of the things we really want can be achieved in the gym, the bathroom or the beautician’s. Many of the women we surveyed talked about their concerns about personal finances, work and the future of the economy, and when we asked women “what is the one thing you would most like politicians to focus more on doing?”, the top responses were “ensuring we have a stable economy” and “working to create more jobs”.

While many magazines pump out advice on action we can take as individuals to transform the way we look, we should consider spending more time thinking about the action we can take collectively to tackle the big issues. New Year, new you? No thanks. New Year, new thinking? Yes please.

Fran O’Leary is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone. She is writing in a personal capacity. Follow @FranOLeary

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VIDEO: Afghan Women’s Rights – A doctor’s story

To coincide with International Human Rights Day, Amnesty International today launches two short films on women’s rights in Afghanistan, telling the stories of two women: a teacher and a doctor.

The second tells the story of Dr D, an Afghan gynaecologist, recounted by Dr Caroline Wright – a gynaecologist at Epsom General hospital, Surrey.

Dr. D. works as a gynaecologist providing healthcare to women suffering from abuse, including rape and domestic violence.  Here she tells Amnesty International how her family was targeted by the Taliban as a result of her work. 

The problems started back in 2007 when I was living in Kunar province. I was working in a clinic frequently carrying out abortions on girls who had fallen pregnant after being raped by their male relatives. There were different kinds of cases, for example, girls pregnant by their uncles, others by their brother-in-laws. They came to my clinic because they had to have an abortion [or they would have been killed by their relatives or members or their community as an “honour” killing]. I would receive threatening night letters and phone calls from the Taliban, warning that they would kill me and my family because of my work.

Two years later, in March 2009, it was evening and I heard an explosion and rushed outside. My children had been playing in the front yard. My 11-year-old son was very badly wounded and lying on the ground. I was shocked and don’t remember what happened next.

My son had to have medical treatment for almost a year and we were busy moving him from hospital to hospital. The incident badly affected him. He became mentally ill. He is always tired and depressed and always asks why this incident happened to him.

Six months later, my 22-year old brother was also killed in a grenade attack in front of our house. They threw a grenade at him while he was walking to our home. We have suffered a lot in our life.

We reported the threats to the government, but nobody listened to us and we have felt very discouraged. They have done nothing so far. I tried to seek justice and asked the government agencies to find the perpetrators, but they ignored us and did nothing.

We moved from Kunar in 2009 after my son was wounded in the grenade attack.

Now I have stopped doing abortions and keep a low profile at work. Nobody knows my address. If they know my whereabouts they will start threatening me again.

The situation here is very bad for women.  Women have problems going out to work and girls are prevented from going to school. There are too many cases of violence against women. I have witnessed 30 to 50 cases in a month. When I tell [the women] to report their case to the police they refuse because their family would be ashamed of them and would treat them very badly. They don’t go to the police and they tolerate the violence and harassment.

We have to help our people, particularly women, they need us and we have to serve the country and the people. I can’t sit at home and doing nothing, this is not in my nature.

* Dr D’s name has been withheld for her safety

For more information about the film campaign, follow @AmnestyUK

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VIDEO: Afghan Women’s Rights – A teacher’s story

To coincide with International Human Rights Day, Amnesty International today launches two short films on women’s rights in Afghanistan, telling the stories of two women: a teacher and a doctor.

The first tells the story of Parween, an Afghan headteacher, recounted by Jo Dibb – the headteacher at a school in north London.

Parween, a headmistress from Laghman province, was targeted for running a girls’ school. After receiving repeated threats from unknown men warning her to stop working, her son, Hamayoon, was abducted and killed. Here, she tells Amnesty International her story.

In April 2009 my young son Hamayoon, who was 18 years-old at the time, was kidnapped by unknown men. They are the people who are opposed to the progress and are the enemies of this country. Three days later I received a call from the kidnappers who told me that I could talk to my son for as long as I wanted as this was the last time I would speak to him.

My husband spoke to them and asked them why are you doing this to us? They said ‘because you’re working for the government [running a girls’ school] and for the Americans. Your wife is working, she was a [parliamentary] candidate, and was awarded the Malalai gold medal by Afghan-Americans. And you still say you have done nothing and ask why we are cruel to you?’

They handed the phone to my son and he asked me to come and take him back home. My son said that the kidnappers had told him to warn your mother and father to stop working otherwise they would face far severe consequences. That was the last time I spoke to my son.

A year and three months later, after heavy rainfall, a flood brought my son’s corpse to a Gardel desert. His body was caught in a tree. Nomads living close by found his body and contacted the government and police who contacted us. My husband went to the police station and recognised the body as our son’s. His body was taken to the public health hospital. We received his body from there and buried him.

The hospital gave us the post-mortem report. My son had 12 gun shot wounds to his body. The doctors told us that he had been killed at least three months before.

Before that, when we had been searching for him, we saw some 30 other corpses. My husband and his brothers, other relatives and villagers, whenever they heard that a corpse had been recovered, went rushing to see if it was my son’s body. We even opened some unknown graves to search for my son’s body. We saw corpses which were half-eaten by animals, rotten bodies, some corpse had ropes around their necks, some had been strangled by strings which were still wrapped around their necks, others had gun shot wounds to their heads and other parts of their bodies. We suffered a lot of torment searching for my son. We are still receiving death threats but we continue with our work.

We registered the kidnapping of my son with all the government agencies, like the police, the National Directorate of Security [Afghanistan’s Intelligence Service]. The NDS said that all the mobile numbers [of the kidnappers] originated from different provinces, like Kabul, Mazar, Laghman, Logar, and were linked to fake ID cards, making it very difficult to trace these people. We don’t have a strong government to investigate and find these people.

I also went to human rights organisations, but no one listened to what we had to say. Nobody cares what is happening to us.

On 21 February 2012, when I was returning home from work by car, they detonated a bomb and my husband received serious wounds to his face and hands. The children and I had a lucky escape and received minor injuries but the car was completely destroyed.

We don’t feel safe anymore now and we don’t know what to do. We have left our house. We are always on the move from one place to another and from one house to another. We are all living in a fear. Whenever there is sound at the front door I get scared that something bad may happen to us. My children are always scared, even in their sleep and while awake. Whenever the kidnappers traced our new mobile number they made threatening phone calls. I don’t know what to do. We are all suffering from mental health problems because of the continuous threats.

My father was a liberal and educated man. He gave us an education and religious lessons and told us that we should work for the progress and prosperity of our country.

If we want we can also leave this place and run away, but this is not our aim. Our main goal is to serve the people of this country by promoting education for children and rebuilding the country.

When my father was dying he took a vow from his children that we would serve the country even if this meant sacrificing our lives. So we are committed to fulfilling our father’s wish and the only way to fight ignorant people is to promote education in this country.

For more information about the film campaign, follow @AmnestyUK

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#16Days: Survey highlights funding crisis for domestic violence services

Domestic violence services are being stretched to their limits, with 155 women and 103 children turned away from refuges on a single day this year. Of those women, 62 per cent were turned away because of lack of space.

The 2013 Annual Survey produced by Women’s Aid highlights enormous demand for domestic violence services, at a time when many organisations are facing devastating cuts to their local authority funding.

Almost 10,000 women and more than 10,000 children were supported by refuge accommodation during the year, and more than 82,000 women used non-refuge services.

Despite the demand, almost half (48 per cent) of the 167 domestic violence organisations surveyed by Women’s Aid, said they were running services without dedicated funding – the majority of these for children and young people or black and minority ethnic (BME) women.

Of the 145 services expecting to receive local authority funding during 2013/14, almost a third expected to receive less than the previous year, and 17 per cent still did not know if they would get any funding at all.

The survey also revealed a troubling decrease in numbers of specialist staff for children’s and BME services, coupled with an increase in volunteers. “It is clear that services are struggling to meet the needs of women and children with reduced funding for staff,” the report concludes.

Writing for Telegraph Wonder Women today, Women’s Aid Chief Executive Polly Neate urged Home Secretary Theresa May to “act to secure funding for specialist domestic violence support services, in light of the crisis many services are experiencing.”

You can support Women’s Aid by donating online at www.womensaid.org.uk/donate to text ACT to 70300 to donate £3.

If you have been affected by domestic violence, call the national domestic violence helpline free on 0808 2000 247. The line is open 24/7 and run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge.

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#16Days: Save Edinburgh Rape Crisis

It’s no secret that domestic violence and rape crisis services have suffered enormously from funding cuts since the 2010 election; Edinburgh Women’s Rape & Sexual Abuse Centre is no exception.

The centre, like many others, faces an ongoing funding crisis. Prior to Spring 2013 it had received £500,000 over five years from a large funder. When this funding ended, EWRASAC struggled to secure additional funding for more than a year, despite demand for its services being greater than ever. The Centre supported 416 service users last year, and has a 12 month waiting list. 75 per cent of its frontline support and counselling services are at risk of closure when current funding streams end in May 2014.

EWRASAC supporters are holding a fundraising event on Thursday 5 December at the Counting House pub, Old Town, Edinburgh, as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (link). The event will include a Ted Talk-style discussion with Ragged University about the difference rape crisis organisations make to survivors, and a presentation by Julian Pearly entitled “Beyond Words: From Music to Cinema, An Interactive Story”. There will also be a charity auction and raffle with over 50 prizes, and a vintage clothes swap, with all proceeds going straight to EWRASAC.

Nina, a service user fundraising on behalf of EWRASAC, said: “The centre helped me regain my dignity, understand what happened to me was not my fault and gave me the resources and courage to do what is right. The staff are kind, non-judgmental and highly professional. There are so many vulnerable people who need services like these and it is tragic the centre is suffering the problems that it is.”

EWRASAC is the only rape crisis centre in Edinburgh and the Lothian and, on 26 November, celebrated its 35th Anniversary with a special event held at the Scottish Parliament, hosted by Malcolm Chisholm MSP.

The centre offers free and confidential emotional and practical support, information and advocacy to women, girls over 12, and all members of the transgender community who have been affected by sexual violence including rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse and ritual abuse.

Their specialised services include group and individual therapy, email and helpline support, complementary therapy, relaxation, music and art therapy, alcohol counselling, and helpline support for male survivors. They provide information and advocacy for survivors to engage with the criminal justice service, access to emergency safe accommodation, sexual health services and medical assessments. They also offer personal safety classes, English and Sign Language interpreters, information services translated into eight languages and designed to be accessible for the deaf, and home visits for those with limited mobility.

Find out more about the Save EWRASAC campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and sign their petition on Change.org.

If you have been affected by rape or sexual abuse, you can call Edinburgh Women’s Rape And Sexual Abuse Centre‘s helpline on 0131 556 9437.

If you’re outside of Edinburgh, call Rape Crisis Scotland on 08088 01 03 02 or Rape Crisis England and Wales on 0808 802 9999.

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#16Days: Support Refuge without spending a penny

Throughout the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, we’re bringing you daily posts containing a mix of harrowing stories about the violence inflicted on women and practical ways you can help.

As it’s Friday, today’s practical action couldn’t be simpler: click a button, enter your email address, and help support the 3,000 women and children that domestic violence charity Refuge works with every day.

Shortlist Media’s daily culture and lifestyle email service, Emerald Street, has chosen Refuge for their Christmas charity campaign. For every user who signs up to receive the email, Emerald Street will donate £1 to Refuge.

Ok, so Emerald Street’s daily blend of fashion, beauty, culture and lifestyle won’t be to all our readers’ tastes, but the money raised by the campaign will go towards Refuge’s vital work: from its network of refuges and 24 hour domestic violence helpline, to its advocacy, lobbying and counselling services. Click here to sign up.

Refuge is also running a fundraising campaign throughout the 16 Days – find out more about how to pledge here.

f you are affected by domestic violence, you can phone the 24-hour national domestic violence helpline, run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247.

For more information, please visit www.refuge.org.uk, or find Refuge on Facebook and Twitter @RefugeCharity

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Older women in the northwest rally to save our NHS

“The NHS is one of the best things about this country and this government is going to ruin it,” says Sue Richardson, one of a growing number of women who have become active in campaigns to oppose the privatisation of the NHS. In her 60s and a publisher of local history pamphlets, she reflects the new intake into one of the most vibrant political campaign in this country, Keep Our National Health Service Public (KONP).

KONP was started in 2005 by Jacky Davis, radiologist, and John Lister of Health Emergency together with other health professionals to oppose the Labour government’s introduction of the private sector into the NHS. The umbrella organisation has over the last year galvanised opposition to the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act 2013 which, Davis says: “has aggressively pushed privatisation and dismemberment of the service.”

Richardson lives in a village outside Bolton in Greater Manchester and decided to join KONP when her local hospital A&E was threatened with closure: “Both my late mother-in-law and husband were treated there and I was really suspicious about the bad publicity that came out about the hospital just before they announced the closure of the A&E.” Over the last year she has petitioned, attended meetings and demonstrations and become an active member of her local group.

For Terry Tallis, a social worker for forty years, her own experience has informed her political campaigning: “I have seen at first hand the effect that social and medical misfortune can have on people’s lives and why, today more than ever, we need our health and welfare services”.

Tallis is now chair of her local pressure group, Stockport NHS watch, and spends her time lobbying locally to raise issues about the ongoing privatisation of NHS services.

Both Richardson and Tallis attended a meeting in Manchester in February of this year when over one hundred activists gathered together to form the umbrella organisation, Greater Manchester KONP. Tallis says: “It was very reassuring to see so many people with the same values and objectives as us gathered together in a city such as Manchester, which has such an important labour history.”

Over the last year, Greater Manchester KONP has led the campaign in the northwest to publicise the massive changes being rolled out in local and national health services. The Save the Bolton A&E campaign has led to Richardson petitioning in her local village, as well as taking part in the massive TUC demo in Manchester last month. She says: “It has made me more politically aware and I have been impressed with the committment of the other people who are involved with the campaign.”

Tallis says she has been encouraged by the growth of KONP across the region: “The NHS is one of this country’s greatest achievements, it has been there for all of my life, and to see it being deliberated dismantled is horrifying. What was ours – is ours – is being stolen from us.  We must act to stop this theft.”

Bernadette Hyland is a freelance writer based in the Manchester area, writing about feminism, class and culture for theMorning Star, Big Issue in the North and the Guardian. Find out more at http://lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com

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India’s Forgotten Children

Last Thursday saw the launch of India’s Forgotten Children, a powerful documentary film exposing the trafficking and oppression of some of India’s poorest children, from the 250 million strong Dalit community.

Feminist Times was invited to the premiere, at Leicester Square’s Vue cinema, by Dalit Freedom Network, one of three charities that partnered on the making of the film.

The Dalit people, formerly known as Untouchables, are victims of India’s ancient caste system: outcast, destitute and oppressed. The one-hour film made by Pipe Village Trust, a human rights filmmaking charity, examines the scale of trafficking and exploitation that Dalit children face daily.

What the film lacks in production values, it makes up for in harrowing, rarely told stories from some incredibly marginalised people. Filmed in villages around Bengaluru, Lucknow and Hyderabad, filmmaker Michael Lawson interviews boys in bonded labour, working gruelling jobs to pay off their parents’ debts, and a 13-year-old runaway who was abused by her father and uncle.

Later we see a young woman manual scavenging – cleaning out human excrement by hand. The footage shows human waste, teeming with maggots, being mixed with ash, as the woman takes a pill to “numb my brain, so I don’t vomit.”

Pipe Village Trust presents the modern-day slavery of Dalit children as threefold: trafficking into bonded labour, organ harvesting, and the sex trade – an industry that exploits millions of young girls, and increasingly boys.

Much is made of India’s status as a rising global power; to those campaigning on behalf of the Dalit community, this oppression is part of India’s dark secret.

There are laws in place to protect Dalits from discrimination but, according to Lawson’s interviewees, the Indian government largely turns a blind eye to the reality, and the Dalits’ plight is all but unheard of in the West.

The film has a broader scope than I expected and, as well as focusing on children, much time is dedicated to the double oppression experienced by Dalit women and girls – exploited and outcast not just because of discrimination against Dalits, but also affected by deeply entrenched gender discrimination.

One interview is with an older woman – a ‘Jogini’ or ‘Devadasi’ prostitute, sold into ritualised sex slavery at the age of nine – explaining the lifelong impact of being trafficked as a child. Her story begins with superstitious parents dedicating their young daughter to a goddess, a tradition that leads to forced prostitution and a devastating lifetime of abuse and exploitation.

The statistics set alongside these stories are equally shocking: every day four Dalit women are raped and eight children under the age of fourteen commit suicide.

Following these poignant encounters the film ends, somewhat inevitably, on a note of optimism and redemption, highlighting what is already being done by NGOs to change the future for India’s Dalits.

Indian women’s activists Cynthian Stephen and Jeevaline Kumar explain how services like the Tarika Women’s Training Centre empower Dalit women by giving them a trade to escape from exploitation.

Similarly, the film suggests English-language schools set up by NGOs across the country offer India’s forgotten children a future – a way out of child labour, an education leading to a career, and the confidence that so many would otherwise lack.

The Dalit children we see at the end of the film are smiley and confident, well fed on their school dinner, smartly dressed in school uniform, and describing their ambitions to be a doctor, a cricketer, and a police officer. They are a far cry from Mariam – a 16-year-old girl interviewed earlier in the film who, following a failed suicide attempt, has faced persistent threats of death and violence from family members and is too scared for her life to be shown on film.

Kumar Swamy, the South India Director of Dalit Freedom Network, features heavily in the documentary and spoke in the post-film discussion about his experiences growing up as a Dalit child. He is evangelical about the transformative power of English-medium education, but is clear that much more remains to be done at all levels of Indian society.

To find out more or get involved in campaigning on behalf of Dalit women and children, visit Pipe Village Trust, Dalit Freedom Network, Free a Dalit Child or Red International.

Image copyright Michael Lawson.

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Austerity Patriots? Pull the other one Dave

David Cameron loves women, especially those of us who’ve started businesses recently. Not only do we make a great photo opportunity, but we’re also going to rebuild our economy and bring Britain back to boom time. Hurrah!

With women-led small businesses already contributing 50 billion to the UK economy annually, Cameron wants to see more “out of work women starting their own businesses” to contribute a further £15 to £21 billion a year.

Cameron speaks about women building recession businesses with a perverse sense of pride. And of course he can take some credit. The reason the number of women registering as self-employed has increased so dramatically since 2008, and continues to rise much faster than men, is because women have been disproportionally affected by the recession.

Thanks to public sector and welfare cuts, many women are starting their own businesses because they have either lost their jobs or their benefits and are in need of an income, or can no longer afford childcare and so need to earn money whilst also staying at home to look after their kids.

Cameron sings the praises of the “entrepreneurial spirit” of those prepared to join the great “global race that’s taking place”. He champions “the chance to go from a very small start-up to a massive business that can take on the world and win”.

Of course his romantic notion of a woman starting a businesses – Sam Cam’ meets Rosie the Riveter – is just not the reality for most.

Most women start businesses at their kitchen table because they need to find a new way to put some food on it – not in a patriotic and heroic attempt to rebuild Britain, but as a strategy for survival.

Though I don’t agree with Cameron’s Enterprise Expert, Lord Young, that recessions are an “excellent time to start a business”, they do force people to become more imaginative and resourceful. They create conditions in which people are desperate enough to try something new.

For most people, the decision to start a business is not the ‘magic moment’ Cameron imagines. It’s the beginning of a long and lonely road, filled with risk and often not much reward – and with very little support.

Despite promises made by the government, banks are still not lending to small businesses. And for women looking for loans – with no business background, no savings, living on a reduced income and/or unwilling or unable to put up their homes as equity – going to a bank is just not an option.

It certainly wasn’t for me.

In the end I managed to get my business off the ground thanks to a patchwork of 25 people prepared to invest in my idea – savers frustrated by low interest rates who each had a small amount of money doing nothing in the bank and were prepared to take a punt.

Patchwork Present has only just launched. We’re a website that lets friends come together to collectively fund one gift that’s really wanted – piece by piece. Like a digital whip round, our purpose is to help people in tough times use gift-giving occasions to get the one thing they really want – and at the same time reduce the amount of money wasted on unwanted gifts that end up in landfill.

We’re certainly not a success story yet, but our site is getting a lot of interest. Most of us are having to do more with less; we’re already becoming more resourceful and we’re prepared to share more so it seems a site like ours just makes sense.

I hope our business succeeds. I hope that all those people starting businesses up and down the country have huge success and make millions. But I hope success doesn’t mean going back to ‘Business as usual’ for Britain.

I hope we learn from a recession caused by criminal bankers and made more painful by tax dodging multi-nationals, corrupt politicians and a system rigged for the rich. With tax-payers bailing out Britain and small businesses now responsible for our economic recovery, true success will be re-building what this government has failed to deliver: “a better, fairer Britain.”

Olivia Knight is a feminist, mother and founder of Patchwork Present. Find out more @projectpatchwrk

Image Jeremy Keith

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Refuge calls for 16 Days of fundraising against domestic violence

Every year, the 16 days between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November) and Human Rights Day (10 December) are internationally recognised as the 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women.

National domestic violence charity Refuge is this year calling on supporters to mark the 16 Days with a fundraising campaign to support their specialist domestic violence services.

Supporters can take a Gold, Silver or Bronze pledge to raise £1,600, £160 or £16 respectively for Refuge’s services for women and children.

Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, said: “Sixteen days can be a life-threatening period of time for women and children experiencing domestic violence; the risk an abused woman faces is dynamic and can change quickly. But sixteen days can also be an opportunity for people to make a real difference.

“On any given day Refuge supports 3,000 women and children to escape domestic violence and rebuild their lives, free from fear.  But we cannot do this vital work without public support.  Please support our 16 Days campaign and help us continue to provide life-saving and life-changing support to women and children across the country.”

According to Refuge, during a 16-day period four women will be killed by a current or former, 432 women will attempt suicide as a result of domestic violence, and eight women will take their own lives to escape domestic abuse.

Refuge relies heavily on donations to sustain their work; every penny raised during the 16 Days campaign will go towards their life-saving work with women and children experiencing domestic violence.

To find out more visit www.refuge.org.uk/16-days or email fundraising@refuge.org.uk with the word BRONZE, SILVER or GOLD in the email subject.

If you are affected by domestic violence, you can phone the 24-hour national domestic violence helpline, run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247.

For more information, please visit www.refuge.org.uk, or find Refuge on Facebook and Twitter @RefugeCharity

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VIDEO: Southall Black Sisters Demo

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) yesterday staged a demonstration against UKBA’s “Go Home” posters and immigration bill outside Eaton House, Hounslow, in West London.

A group of around 30 activists from SBS and other organisations gathered outside the Immigration Reporting Centre at Eaton House to “campaign against the racist targeting of the most vulnerable in our society,” many of them wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Do I look illegal?”

Writing for Feminist Times last week, Chitra Nagarajan, who is on the SBS management committee, said: “Politicians and media organisations reflect back a racist anti-immigration viewpoint to each other and make it seem like the norm. They continue to blame immigrants for economic woes. The government cuts the funding, housing and services available to immigrants. Their stated aim is to create a hostile environment that makes life unliveable… All of this has meant a heightening climate of fear for many, including women who have been subject to violence by their partners, whether or not they have leave to stay in the country.”

In August Southall Black Sisters protested against UKBA’s immigration raid in a Southall shopping centre – part of a series of tactics including the notorious “Go Home” vans and racial profiling at train stations across London.

Following a successful legal challenge by the Refugee and Migrant Forum East London (RAMFEL), UKBA shifted the message of their “Go Home” vans to Glasgow, Croydon and Hounslow, using a picture of a destitute person and the slogan: “Is life hard here? Going home is simple.”

On their blog, prior to the demo, Southall Black Sisters wrote: “there have been calls for inquiries and investigations into the government’s tactics. There is also a growing appetite to build an anti-racist movement. If the government can revert to the racism of the National Front’s ‘go home’ slogans of the 70s then we too can invoke the spirit of solidarity that underpinned the anti-racist movements of the 70s and 80s. Join us in demonstrating against the Government’s anti-immigration campaigns. We will not tolerate underhand tactics used to instil fear and divide us. Let us return to the streets and make our voices heard. We need to fight for our rights.”

They certainly made their voices heard, with a vibrant scene of drumming, chanting and supportive honking from cars passing on the main road, as you can hear in our video footage!

Feminist Times visits Southall Balck Sisters protest against current immigration policy. from Feminist Times on Vimeo.

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Why immigration is a feminist issue

Government policies are intensifying in anti-immigrant focus. The draft immigration bill contains proposals to charge immigrants for using the NHS, force landlords to check the status of tenants and require checks before opening a bank account or being issued with a driving licence.

Struggles around immigration should be a central part of the feminist movement. These laws and policies are the cutting edge of black communities’ experience of state racism with women particularly affected.

In the 1970s, immigration officials conducted ‘virginity tests’ on South Asian women who arrived in the UK to marry fiancés. These state sanctioned sexual assaults were based not only on biological myth but also on racist and sexist stereotypes.

In its early months, the Coalition removed legal aid for non-detention immigrants, including women who had experienced domestic violence. After a legal challenge from Southall Black Sisters, it announced an amendment to cover domestic violence cases but what of other vulnerable women?

These policies, thirty-five years apart, are just two examples of the injustice of immigration policies and how they affect women.

Racist and classist laws and policies aim at keeping the wrong people out and letting the right ones in. Plans to introduce a £3,000 deposit for visas will not affect American tourists but mean none of our family, with their Indian passports, will be able to attend my brother’s wedding in England next year.

Politicians and media organisations reflect back a racist anti-immigration viewpoint to each other and make it seem like the norm. They continue to blame immigrants for economic woes. The government cuts the funding, housing and services available to immigrants. Their stated aim is to create a hostile environment that makes life unliveable.

The most common word used to describe ‘immigrants’ in newspapers is ‘illegal’.  Statistics are often inflated, speculative and without sources. The counter-narrative of people living as friends, neighbours, family, classmates and colleagues is seldom highlighted. Neither is support for immigrants and their rights.

All of this has meant a heightening climate of fear for many, including women who have been subject to violence by their partners, whether or not they have leave to stay in the country.

In the light of these deliberate attempts to create a racist anti-immigrant electorate, the broad-based backlash against vans driven around London with the message ‘go home or face arrest’ and the race profiling spot checks is welcome. Recent months have also seen an upsurge in mobilising.

From asking for help to go home (to Willesden Green) and distributing leaflets informing people of their rights to organising a protest against spot checks that made Southall a no go area and bringing a court challenge against the campaign, people are taking action.

The ‘racist vans’ were just the visible tip of a very large iceberg. Their messages have now moved from the streets to places out of the public eye, such as signing on centres in Croydon, Hounslow and Glasgow.

Southall Black Sisters is organising a demonstration on 24th October at Eaton House (581 Staines Road, Hounslow, TW4 5DL) where the ‘go home’ posters are being displayed – see here for details. All feminists need to support women migrants by allying with these campaigns and actions. The struggle for the rights of immigrants should be one that concerns us all.

Demo against UKBA 'Go Home' Campaign

Chitra Nagarajan has worked to promote and protect human rights, especially those of women, in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and countries in west Africa for over ten years in both professional and personal capacities. She currently works on issues of human rights and peacebuilding in Nigeria but remains linked to activism in the UK. She tweets here and blogs here.

Images courtesy of Southall Black Sisters.

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Cost of proof

No legal aid. No justice.

On 1 April 2013, the biggest change to access to justice (and therefore accessible rights for women) occurred with the enactment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO, and it has happened by stealth. At a glance the act seemed innocuous, in that the opening paragraph promised that “nothing in the act would contravene International Law, or International Convention obligations/rights”. This, however, was a singularly dishonest statement. On 26 July, the UN Convention for the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW) concluded their review of the British Government’s compliance with its convention obligations, particularly with regard to access to justice, equality in the family, and the right to a fair trial, and found the Government non-compliant.

As with any legislation, the Government had to undertake an equality impact assessment. Even by their own, admittedly limited, standards, the equality assessment prepared by the Government clearly demonstrated that women used Legal Aid in far greater numbers that men, and that women would be disproportionately impacted for the worse. And let’s not forget the greater earning power of men in the UK, and the fact that even if the male party uses his superior financial position to hire a top London QC to fight his case, Legal Aid will still be denied to the female party in most family and civil law cases, unless she can prove that she is a victim of domestic violence (DV). So, no problem there, then.

For the first time in its 60 year history, Legal Aid was removed from those seeking redress in debt cases, housing (unless facing homelessness or serious ill health due to disrepair), education, most immigration cases, and all private family law – which means divorce, financial settlement, contact and residence cases in relation to children, and any other actions between parties over children, unless either party can prove they are a victim of domestic abuse. Legal Aid remains to allow women to get an injunction or a forced marriage protection order, but a woman will have to win that case in order to get Legal Aid to then fight for her children, or her share of the family assets, unless she can get over the high evidence hurdle to prove in some other way that she is a victim of DV.

So another singularly dishonest statement came out of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), both in the press – in answer to the 5,000-plus consultation responses opposing LASPO – and in their evidence to the UN this July: namely that all “genuine victims” (apparently there are non genuine victims of abuse, who knew? ) of domestic violence would automatically get legal aid. They won’t. In their thousands, NGOs, individuals, frontline DV professionals, lawyers and academics warned the Government that what they were demanding from people by way of evidence of abuse would leave victims unable to obtain legal assistance. The draft law was subjected to an unprecedented number of amendments by the House of Lords, redressing some of the inequality, only for them all to be immediately reversed in the House of Commons. In a debate in the lords on 28 March, Baroness Scotland urged a rethink, saying, “It will be too late to say we are sorry when people are killed because they can’t get help.” The Government wasn’t listening.

Some minor concessions have been made as a result of constant lobbying, and the intervention of CEDAW. The type of evidence demanded has been extended to a criminal conviction for assault by the abuser against the victim in the last 24 months (as opposed to 12) – and we all know how regularly they are achieved – or a finding in a civil court that the perpetrator has been violent to the respondent within the last 24 months; ditto.

Other concessions were added to the list of evidence, such as a letter from a GP or other health professional stating both that the patient has been treated for some kind of “condition”, and that it is directly attributable to domestic abuse. What has never been trumpeted by the MOJ is that the GP letter will have to be paid for. They cost £50, and the GMC has said doctors will be charging for them. A memorandum of conviction – proof that your opponent has been violent to you and has been convicted of it (given recent figures coming out of the CPS these are likely to be more rare than flying pigs) – will cost approximately £60. When protesters from all stakeholder groups asked what women were supposed to do if they could not afford to pay, Andrew Tucker of the MOJ replied that this was a done deal: “A Ministerial decision has been taken that everyone can afford at least £50-60.” What is not in doubt is that the ministers can afford it, but tell that to the woman who has fled her home with her children, whose benefits have been scuppered as a result, and who needs legal help to sort out her family issues against her husband’s barrister, who is applying on his behalf to take the children away from her. If you happen to meet any Government ministers, do ask them what they mean when they say, “We’re all in it together.”

Some types of acceptable evidence do not come with a price tag – for example, a letter from the manager of a women’s refuge stating both that the woman has spent at least 24 hours, including an overnight stay, in the refuge in the last 24 months and that her stay was due to domestic abuse. It’s hard to imagine what other reason she may have for going into a refuge, but rules are rules. Finally, a letter from social services, or a letter from the chair of a multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC) on headed paper with an original signature will do. Similar evidence must be provided in cases involving applications about children and child abuse. Repeated requests for the range of acceptable evidence to be widened to include a letter from an independent domestic violence advocate (IDVA) or refuge outreach worker have met brick-wall resistance. This is despite the compelling argument that a woman who cannot go into a refuge – she may, for example have teenage boys – is at greater risk in the community than her sister in a refuge. With refuge places under threat of cuts, it is more urgent that other suitably qualified DV professionals can vouch for a woman’s ‘victim status’.

What the Government fails to grasp (or perhaps they grasp it but don’t care) is that most of the evidence required is in relation to physical violence: most women who have experienced any form of DV will tell you that it is the psychological abuse that is the most damaging. Baroness Hale, in the recent case of Yemsahw vs London Borough of Hounslow council [2011] UKSC 3, quoted CEDAW to widen the definition of domestic violence to include the non-physical, yet the evidence required to obtain legal aid is still heavily weighted towards physical injury, rather than control, visa abuse or verbal abuse, all of which are devastating in their impact but virtually impossible to prove with evidence.

Lawyers are routinely turning women away who are unable to “prove themselves victims”. It is usually at this point that those in need of help realise for the first time that what we take for granted by way of access to our human rights, and specifically our UN CEDAW rights, has gone. There is little point in guaranteeing our rights if we have no ability to fight for them when they are taken away from us.

Human rights are women’s rights. The Government is obliged by UN treaty to ensure that we have equal access to the law. If we let them get away with trashing their international duties then we will lose them. Make a noise, write to your MP, or better still, visit him or her and let your feelings be known. Tell people who don’t know what has been lost, and encourage them to fight for its restoration. The appalling treatment given by the Government and the right-wing press to the UN Special Rapportuer Rachquel Rolnick who dared to criticise the bedroom tax, cannot go unchallenged. She has had to endure banner headlines that branded her a witch and a left-wing nutter, and The Times even stooped so low as to criticise her looks –all for doing her job by holding the UK Government to account under the UN treaties it has signed and promised to abide by.

In July, the UN examined the UK’s compliance with the CEDAW treaty; it found that the Government is failing in its international equality obligations under CEDAW and demanded rectifying action. One CEDAW commissioner said of the Government: “They think they are too big, too important to have to listen to us.”
We have fought hard for these rights. Now join the fight to keep them. Remind them that, fortunately, women still have the vote.

 

Cris McCurley is a partner at Ben Hoare Bell LLP Solicitors and a member of NEWomen’s Network.

Cost of proof to obtain legal aid

 

No Legal Aid

Listen to the experts

Legal aid cuts

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Thrift

The ‘hard times’ look

I have a fraught relationship with thrift.  My husband had spent the past ten years proselytizing about the virtue of living within our means. We argue constantly about money, because we never have any left over once the bills, mortgage and high interest loans are paid. I never earned enough money as a freelance writer to cover our childcare costs, but kept thinking I would. I argued us into debt – I would earn more money, as long as I had childcare, so it was worth borrowing money to finance it. I didn’t of course and then the debts made it even harder to break even.

I’m ashamed to say that I am a ‘spendthift’. I love expensive things; my weaknesses are cocktails, hotels and vintage clothes. I don’t like traveling on public transport, camping or squeezing the end of the toothpaste. Would money make me happy? My impoverished writer friend John Healy and I fantasize about what we do if we won the lottery. He would buy a duplex by the sea in Rottingdean and I would build a stilted mansion in the sea off Treasure Beach in Jamaica.

My profligacy made sense in the nineties – I was loaded. I earned 30 grand a year in my early twenties and had no mortgage or kids to think about.  But my boom era sensibility hasn’t adjusted to austerity. My income from journalism is paltry these days, but I’m still feeling as if that shouldn’t be the case. I think there should be a higher monetary value put on thoughtful writing. The only way I could make journalism work, is to increase my output, so I could turn things round in hours rather than weeks, which I’d find very difficult.

Tom bought me a book called ‘How to worry less about money,’ thinking it would offer wisdom that would enable me to come to terms with wanting and not having. He thinks I should accept that I can’t have creative freedom and cash.

Amusingly, the writer has the same fraught relationship that I do with his crappy but functional car. He thinks he should have a better car, and feels even more resentful than I do about the dents we can’t afford to fix. My ten year old Golf is horribly reliable, like his, so there’s no chance of it breaking down. I keep denting it in protest, like scuffing the Start Rite shoes my mother made me wear to school.

Thirft is in Tom’s DNA. His parents were brought up making do and mending in middle class families during the war.  Money was tight but there was plenty of stimulating discussions about literature and theology to make up for it.

Thirty years later, they furnished their second home in Dorset from church fetes and scout jumble sales. Nothing has been altered or improved. ‘Granny’s cottage’ looked a bit weird in the nineties, but now ticks a lot of boxes! There’s no fitted kitchen, central heating, television, wi fi or mobile phone coverage; the furniture is worn and the ancient hoover doesn’t work: they could probably market it as an austerity experience to paying guests. Middle class thrifters could be sent out to forage for nettles during the day and return for a lesson on cooking on a range that isn’t even an Aga, then an authentically poor night’s sleep in one of the freezing bedrooms. They would love Granny’s homemade jam and fireside chats about days gone by.

My dad was also brought up during the war; his experience of austerity Britain was different from Granny’s. He grew up Plymouth, foraging for toys on bombsites. His Huntington’s affected mother couldn’t make do or mend. Her four children went without everything – food,  stimulating debates, and decent threads. He was nicknamed Murphy, after the tramp that hung around by the school gates and the name stuck.

When my brother Daniel was six months old, he nearly died of a mysterious illness when we were on holiday in Menorca. There was no doctor on the island, or rep of any kind. We couldn’t afford a return flight and Murphy always describes this terrifying feeling of impotence as a turning point. He decided money was important, and set about acquiring it.

When my dad made a cool million in the nineties from selling his business, he bought an extremely naff second home in a gated community in Florida with surfeit of comfortable seating, but no soul. Tom hated it there, and thought Murph’s overheated Jacuzzi was immoral, but it ticked a lot of boxes for me.

Can I learn to manage money more responsibly? Like many of the squeezed middle I have an eye for a bargain, and forget that they all add up. I’ve cut my cloth – or so I think: I’m no longer tempted by expensive new stuff but think second hand purchases don’t count, however many you buy and whatever you pay for them. My most recent purchase was a 140 pound vintage Bush record player – a consolation present for always being stressed about paying the bills.

I feel good when I come home a charity shop find, better than if I hadn’t bought anything. So I’m pleased with myself, but we’re still nowhere near balancing the books and I can’t understand why.

I was distressed to read the advice from Oxfam’s Green Granny in her household manual. “Don’t be seduced by a bargain. It’s not a bargain if you need not have bought it at all.”

In an attempt to understand the principals, I attended the thrift festival in Darlington last weekend hoping to connect with other high rolling thrifters like me, rather than Green Grannies and wasn’t disappointed.  The self-styled King of thrift, Wayne Hemingway began his talk by boasting about how little he had spent on his jacket.

I’ll wager that the sustainable Jacuzzi in Wayne and Geraldine’s garden wasn’t such bargain. Green Granny probably wouldn’t approve of the vast permanent Tipi in the garden where they entertain. I recognized the Hemingway’s home from the colour supplements but was still mesmerized by the slides featuring their fabulous living room and light fittings made out of inverted coffee cups.

Inevitably, there were bargains aplenty at the thrift festival and loads of thrifters with sharp elbows. The sign on the vintage jumble sale stall said, ‘We take cards’; I had my eye on 70s blanket at another stall full of beautiful vintage object’s – old suitcases and glass display domes for stuffed birds. The blanket was a steal at £38 – much cheaper than it would have been in London.

Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway have amassed so many second hand gee gews in the past 30 years that they had to have their own house, an old market hall in the Shropshire town of Craven House. Once it reached critical mass, they called their purchases an archive: the Land of Lost Content.

I can picture Tom’s expression if I explained that I was a collector of mid-century modern design. It might go down better if I had worked out how to monetise my collection. Hemingway has created a Vintage by Hemingway product range inspired by objects in the Land of Lost Content archive. What a brilliant idea! You can buy Vintage by Hemingway storage tins on the John Lewis website.

The Hemingways pride themselves on their northern nous and ability to make ‘silk purses out of sows ears.’ In the eighties, they sold the ‘hard times look’ to fashion conscious teens. Wayne describes gleefully how they sourced second hand clothes from rag and bone men and sold them for a huge mark up in their Camden Market stall. They couldn’t keep up with demand for old mens coats and granddad shirts! My mum thought the poverty trend was obscene – particularly at these prices – but the Hemingways’ conscience was clear.

Flash forward 30 years and the Hemingways have pitched an updated hard times look at the mass market. My taxi driver thought the branding for the festival looked Monty Pythonish – “you’re expecting a foot to come out of that sign.”

The visitors to the festival were surprisingly normal – families on a cheap day out. The £5 workshops would have been good value if they hadn’t been so incongruous; I don’t think Granny would have approved of the ‘make your own sushi’ module I attended, but would probably have enjoyed the talk by the man who invented freecycle.

My husband believes that thift culture is radically anti-capitalist. One of our contributing editors is also a big fan. Barbara argues that not buying more than you can afford will reduce debt and therefore the need for financial services. I can see that at its most extreme – eg freganism – thrift might offer a free space within capitalism. But will it precipitate revolution? The atmosphere at the thrift festival was far from incendiary. You couldn’t overthrow the system in a paper hat, or a belly full of lemon drizzle cake. It was easy to overdo it at the thrift festival, particularly for those of us with no children in tow. I ate three cakes instead of lunch, then couldn’t face my foraging workshop, which was a shame.

Thift culture is no longer a countercultural mainstay of anti-consumerist movements, but a cultural trend with a different emphasis.

Thrifty habits and practices like using up leftovers, foraging for food and sourcing vintage clothes in local charity shops are badges of honour for the competent bourgieous. According to sociologist Tracey Jenson, “Austerity has become an opportunity to showcase one’s consumer competence and thus cultural value.”

“I could have bought one from Paul Smith for thousands but it wouldn’t have been as individual. I love having things that I know no one else has got.” Hemingway’s cheap jacket is more of a status symbol than the Paul Smith because it conveys his distance from the over-consuming mainstream and connection with old time virtues.

Wayne grew up in a frugal family in Morecombe. His mum used to save all the soap ends and boil them all together in a big pan every few months to make new ones.

“I still think like this. How long is it since I bought a new bar of soap Geri?” Wayne asks rhetorically. Do they boil up their soap ends up in a massive pan chez Hemingway? I’m impressed until Hemingway confesses that he nicks the toiletries from hotel rooms – “we travel a lot.”

He’s been known to hide his stash and get housekeeping on the phone, demanding more Molton Brown bodywash. I wonder where he keeps it and whether he’s considered turning into an installation at the next thrift fest.

Thrift is the perfect alibi for this kind of demanding consumer, legitimizing the mindless acquisition of free stuff. Wayne’s hotel soap stash is a symbol of high-rolling thrift. But is there actually any other sort?

The new thrift is not about saving money or the planet.  According to Jenson, thrift is actually about “transforming the relationship of self to itself.”

“The New thrift positions itself not as a matter of survival but a way of transforming the relationship to self to itself.”

Thifters are impossibly smug. Classed others are shamed for not being thrifty enough, and showing excessive attachment to the material world. Though Jenson points out that austerity can hardly be a matter of pride for those who’ve had it thrust upon them.

This group is having a terrible time, but you never hear from them.  And the other group may be experiencing some difficulties but have the social capital to convert them into opportunities and blogs. If the internet had been around, my father’s father wouldn’t have been blogging copiously about the pleasures and challenges of single fatherhood, and the benefits of feeding a family of four on wartime rations, but Granny’s father might have had something interesting to impart about their situation.

The thift festival was a great place to pick up money-making tips. On the train home, I fantasised I about a Feminist Times product range, inspired by my growing collection of feminist artifacts. The covers of my suffragette newspapers could printed onto magnetic boards; you could pin your to-do lists on them or see it as an affordable and inspirational piece of wall art to admire!

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Woman and child on beach: Eduardo Merille

The manifesto of… a single mum on benefits

The ‘break-down’ of the nuclear patriarchal family is the fault of… The Nuclear Family. Yet I am represented as a parasite, certainly by the tabloids (not sure the Telegraph quite understands what a single mother is). Fine to be wanton and lazy if ya hot and a rich man will support you, but try living that lifestyle on the state… no no.

Look how we have been conditioned to judge those who step away from this model. Single mothers, co-habiting friends, solitary folk penalised by bedroom tax – a tax on the lonely, the introverted, the abandoned.

Our 2.4 set-up is not healthy but it does brilliantly for capitalism. Each little unit all making their individual purchases for the home. But it is the isolation this set-up creates from the tribe that causes depression and social strain.

In a larger group, even an extended family group of grandparents and aunts, women can have a low or difficult period and be supported back to health – the children are looked after by others during this time.

Never the less the ‘single mother’ has been distilled into a sub-class council estate mindless slapper. Who, despite her rock bottom IQ, is conniving enough to plan a secure financial future around having one or more babies. However, for most of us we are single parents for legitimate reasons: relationship break-up, domestic abuse, bereavement.

Does the myth hark back as a potent reminder of man’s earliest epiphany, the original fall from grace for women, when men discovered their part in the production of a child? Where the goddess fell from her magical pedestal. Is a single mother a crude reminder of this ancient mysoginist niggle? A woman. Having a baby. On her own. Without a man.

MANIFESTO

If I was in power, I’d like society to have…

  • More integrity, less platitudes, less generalisations, less scapegoating. In fact, a new political language that was both honest and optimistic. Less bullshit.
  • Practical experience for young people most likely to have early pregnancies – not with babies for a week, but with difficult six and seven-year-olds. Lessons about pregnancy, birth, motherhood, fatherhood, feminism and relationships in schools, throughout – not just one term or year.
  • Harsher penalties for the flagrant misogyny of the press.
  • Social accountability as a whole.
  • Revolutionising of internet porn controls.
  • NGOs to help soap operas raise their game and stop propagating socio-political ignorance.
  • Much better Arts funding.
  • A sea-change away from cult of celebrity which encourages the worship of the superficial, the material and success for all the wrong reasons.

Photo credit: Eduardo Merille

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