Recent Equality Articles

A call to arms on International Women’s Day

by Huma Munshi     March 8, 2013 at 12:55 am

I am not often filled with rage but earlier this week I attended a screening of ‘Banaz: a Love Story‘ directed by the Human Rights activist, Deeyah, and I felt such frustration and anger.

We hear statistics about the numbers of young people, mainly women, experiencing so-called ‘honour’ based violence and oppression but watching this young woman, who was eventually murdered by her family members, gave a stark insight into the horror of what these young people, mainly women, are enduring on a daily basis.

The figures for domestic violence in the UK are harsh, make no mistake. The Home Office reported that in the UK 1 in 4 women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetimes and the Home Office reported that in 2010/11, 21 men and 93 women were killed by a partner, ex-partner or lover in the UK.

The Forced Marriage Unit published its figures this week indicating that they gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in 1485 cases involving 60 different countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America last year. Of the 744 cases where the age was known, over 600 of those involved were young people under the age of 26.

What I saw on screen a young woman fighting for her life. She fought time and time again. Her father sought to break her will and her spirit. This is exactly what this hate crime – because it is a hate crime – seeks to achieve. There is an intense hatred and fear of women: their autonomy, their sexuality, their intellect, their very essence.

She was mutilated at a young age so she would derive no pleasure from sexual activity; as she grew older she was not allowed friends as they would be a negative influence on her; when she turned 17, her father and uncle arranged her married to a much older man from Iraq who spoke no English and abused her in every way imaginable: sexually, physically and mentally.

When asked why he raped her repeatedly, he had responded, “well I only do it when she does not want to have sex.” When she left him, the men in her family forced her to return to retain the honour of the family within he community.

It is the very people that should be your support and provide you with love and care that sometimes put you in harms way. A form of collective madness overtakes a community and their traditions, culture and social mores provide moral legitimacy for their actions.

Banaz was savagely raped and murdered by her cousins, as planned by her uncle and father. Like in other cases we are only too familiar with – Shafilea Ahmed, for example – no one in this community provided protection for these young women. The silence of the community leaders in these horrific cases is deafening.

In Banaz’s case, the report from the initial interview did not even get written up until three months later. She approached the police time and time again and at one point left a note with the names of the people that would kill her; tracking those individuals helped them to eventually find her body.

We need a call to arms on International Women’s Day. We will fail time and time again if we don’t get this right.

The End Violence Against Coalition is proposing to make Sex and Relationships Education statutory to deal with this problem because schools have a vital role to play in helping young people develop healthy attitudes and behaviours, as well as supporting young people experiencing abuse.

Karma Nivarna have tried countless times to go into schools and raise awareness about forced marriage and honour based violence but are turned away because schools want to bury their heads in the sand.

During this month of activity to celebrate women, we have must show dogged determination and be resolute to stop violence again women and girls.

Sex, lies and Liberal Democrats: What I knew about what happened

by Ellie Cumbo     February 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

For 11 months from September 2006, I was the day-to-day organiser of the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance, the party’s internal initiative to mentor, train and network female would-be candidates for Parliament.

Though managed by Jo Swinson MP, I was actually based in the party headquarters, my desk sandwiched between those of the Candidates and Campaigns teams, on the floor above the office of the then Chief Executive, Chris Rennard.

In my own life, these were important months. Galvanised into membership as a student by the heat of my opposition to the Iraq war and plans for 92-days detention, it was only when working right next to them that I saw how much else was missing that I also cared about- like class, redistribution and solidarity. Oh, and actually taking women’s under-representation seriously enough to do something about it that might work.

And it was also during this time that inappropriate sexual touching by Chris Rennard of Alison Smith was alleged to have taken place. I don’t now remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember the phone call when Jo told me she had spoken to Alison herself, and that the information had been passed to Paul Burstow, the Chief Whip. And I know that key members of staff at Lib Dem HQ were also aware of all this.

Naïve as it now sounds, I believed it was being dealt with, and that what I had to do was make sure Alison knew she would still get the campaign’s help if she chose to look for another seat. I left shortly afterwards, to become a law student and a Labour activist – things I now struggle to remember a life without.

Almost six years later, I was emailed by a researcher from Firecrest Films, who said she wanted to talk to me about “a possible short film looking at gender balance in political parties”. I could not have been more thrilled: the level of women’s representation in our Parliament is both embarrassing and damaging to sound policy, and cannot be fixed alone.

I wanted to talk about liberal ideology and its innate misunderstanding of positive discrimination, and the more prosaic issue of complacent local party officers who pay zero attention to the diversity of their membership until longlisting day. And yes- I wanted to talk about the questionable attitudes that some male politicians – in all parties- have towards young women.

But, of course, this wasn’t actually the purpose of the meeting at all. As I wittered on about shortlisting quotas and the great I Am Not a Token Woman scandal of ’01, it was impossible to miss the recurring theme of her questions. Those training events that in my view focused on the wrong aspects of what it takes to be a candidate- did, erm, did Chris Rennard usually come along? And did he stay over? Not even my hilarious Lembit Opik anecdote could throw her off.

So I adjusted my expectations, and told her what I knew. And having learned that, as far as we can tell, nothing was done about the allegations, I am wholly supportive of the Channel 4 investigation and the mounting pressure on the party leadership to explain who decided what.

What worries me now is that, as the coverage ramps up and up, and becomes increasingly politicised, we risk taking our eye off the wider issue of culture in all our political parties. Sexual harassment is hard to report anywhere- but it’s borderline impossible in a world where success means avoiding embarrassment at all costs, where new recruits can expect to be tested on their loyalty at least as much as their talent, and where employment rights don’t exist, because candidates are not employees.

There are answers to be developed here – from a cross-party protocol for handling allegations of candidate mistreatment, to opening up the remit of the existing Parliamentary regulators – but this won’t happen if scrutiny gives way to scandal. The commentators- from both politics and the media- must not look solely what was done, but about what will be done differently in future. And, in case any researchers want to hear my Lembit Opik story – I still think that short film on gender balance is a good idea.

Does the press simply reflect the continuing sexism in our society?

by Robert Sharp     February 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Many of the people who attacked the author Hilary Mantel on Twitter yesterday made derogatory remarks about her appearance. This was unwittingly ironic, given that Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books concerned the objectification of women, and our media’s obsession with looks.

If we believe in free speech, then insult becomes unavoidable. But that does not mean that objectification and misogyny should go unchallenged.

I felt it was particularly important to challenge people’s language in this case, because Mantel’s speech dealt directly with the problem of sexism in the media.

I spent some time yesterday evening collecting examples, which I made into a Storify.

My conclusions? The recent phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry has given us an opportunity to scrutinise the press. The conclusion is usually that the media is shallow and nasty.

However, I think these tweets, from ordinary members of the public, suggest that society can also be spiteful and sexist. Why blame the press, when they reflect the public?

Three ways we could have more radical, progressive international development

by Owen Tudor     February 11, 2013 at 9:30 am

On Saturday I spoke at the University of Newcastle’s excellent International Development Conference (#IDC2013) about Progressive Development. Below is an edited version of my remarks.

My main argument was that changes in the global economy were making traditional approaches to development – which portray the economic issues facing emerging and developing countries as qualitatively different from those facing industrialised nations – less relevant.

1. Development isn’t different

It’s often said that the past is another country, and that’s an important issue in international development. In the 1930s, my uncle and aunt were domestic workers; my grandad was a street vendor. Both occupations are key elements of the informal employment that characterises so many poor communities in the global south.

But of course they were in Plymouth and Cardiff, and within a decade they were all in regular employment, with pensions, a National Health Service, and a home of their own. They were also paying income tax, which was a major change.

Seemingly intractable poverty can actually be overcome remarkably quickly. Even in Europe, we only made poverty history recently, and it may be on the way back.

What I take from this is that the challenges of international development are not so different from the challenges we face in our own country.

This morning’s Action Aid report about tax dodging by Associated British Foods in Zambia is not so different from last year’s domestic scandals about Amazon, Google and Starbucks. Tax justice is a global agenda, not specifically a northern or southern problem.

Another example is Oxfam, founded 75 years ago to mount famine relief programmes not in Africa but in Greece. We may even have come full circle with the expansion of food banks even in Britain.

When Make Poverty History was launched in the UK in 2005, it was about poverty in developing countries. But others did it differently. Make Poverty History Canada addressed domestic poverty as well.

2. Solidarity isn’t charity

I don’t agree with those who say that overseas aid is a bad thing, encouraging dependency. I see it more as a form of economic transfer payment like unemployment benefit. State expenditure has been vital to the economic development of industrialised countries and spending on education, health and infrastructure is as vital in developing countries as it is in the north.

But at the same time, unemployment benefit is only a sticking plaster to get people through the bad times, until economic growth returns. So I’m pleased to see politicians starting to talk about ending aid in our lifetimes.

China, for example, is the major success story in reducing the number of people in absolute poverty, and that’s been achieved through a mixture of economic growth and welfare safety nets, rather than external aid.

But what I particularly take from the Chinese model is that, primarily, you cannot eradicate poverty from outside: the people who will overcome poverty are the poor themselves, and our role is to support them in that rather than take over and do it for them.

We can certainly stop making things more difficult – for example by ensuring that multinational corporations don’t dodge their taxes, and adhere to international labour standards.

And we should certainly stop portraying people in poverty as powerless victims: the ‘starving black baby’ pictures that open people’s purse strings, but don’t challenge the fundamental causes of poverty here or abroad.

Indeed, we should take our lead from those who are demanding change, rathe than imposing our own model on them. That’s frankly the TUC’s main concern – among rather too many to be comfortable with – about this year’s ‘Enough IF’ campaign, which was developed without any southern leadership or even input at the planning stage.

3. We need a new model of development

So, the concluding point I would make is that we need a model of development campaigning that addresses issues that affect people across the globe: tackling inequality between and within countries, reconciling economic growth with environmental sustainability and social justice, that says saving a hospital in Lewisham is as important as opening one in Luanda.

Tax justice is easily the clearest example of this, but precarious employment and informalisation is a challenge in the USA and Southern Europe just as it is in Ghana and Nigeria. Violence against women is an issue affecting the UK with cuts to police domestic violence units and Women’s Refuges, even if South Africa, India and the DRC present more alarming news.

So we need development initiatives that span the G20 and the G77, campaigns that are led by southern as well as northern voices. Inequality has been thrust into the forefront in industrialised countries, and in particular the shift in extreme poverty from poor countries to middle income countries.

These are the issues that will condition the post-2015 agenda, rather than the largely technical issues of the MDGs.

And this is especially important in conditions of economic hardship in the industrialised world when the pressure on politicians and on civil society generally is to focus inwards. Because charity isn’t enough to change the world.

Cameron’s Tories are getting MORE socially conservative not less

by Mark Thompson     February 10, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Something that I haven’t seen much covered since this week’s vote on the Equal Marriage bill is just how much it tells us about the social conservatism of the 2010 Tory MP intake.

Using the data on the vote from the Guardian Data Blog I have sorted those Tory MPs who voted for the bill into four categories. Those first elected before 1990, those first elected during the 1990s, those elected during the 2000s and those first elected in 2010.

I think the results tell an interesting story:

We all know that fewer Conservative MPs voted for the bill than voted against or abstained. But the trend here is very noteworthy. There is a steady increase in the percentages voting for the change as the first elected range increases through the decades.

But suddenly for those elected in 2010 this goes into reverse. A lower percentage of the 2010 cohort voted for change than their 2000s colleagues (and that is already from a pretty low starting base).

This is very strange. Most of the MPs elected in 2010 will have been born and raised during a time when homosexuality has been legal. They will have seen things like the equalisation of the age of consent, the scrapping of Clause 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships all from outside of the House of Commons.

They have literally grown up during a time of social progression and enlightenment on LGBT+ issues. And yet the majority of them were not willing to vote for the equalisation of marriage rights.

Whatever the arguments (and I have yet to see a really good principled argument against equalisation that doesn’t appeal to the authority of some religious text or relies on slippery slope nonsense) David Cameron who took a clear lead on this issue has a big problem.

The MPs that were elected in the general election where he led his party are more socially conservative than his contemporaries from the 2000s intakes. They seem to be getting more out of touch, not less.

If Cameron and other senior Tories ever want their party to reflect the open tolerant and socially liberal nation they wish to lead they are going to have to do some serious thinking about how to persuade those that make up the parliamentary party (and those who seek entry) their views are antediluvian and completely out of place in modern Britain.

cross posted from Mark Reckons.

Harrods criticised for sexist children’s reading books

by Sunny Hundal     February 7, 2013 at 9:19 pm

These pictures were taken by Krystina Meens and posted to Twitter today.

and another

This is outrageously stereotypical and sexist.

Last year the toy store Hamleys was similarly criticised for stocking toys by gender, and later changed policy after a barrage of criticism.

Traditional marriage already paves the way to Polygamy

by Robert Sharp     February 7, 2013 at 11:27 am

Adam and Steve

It was great news that MPs voted for marriage equality on Tuesday. We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.

But there is another argument worth an airing. It is this: If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?

The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage. Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.

The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument. “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future. This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments? In times past, God’s Law performed this function. But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient. Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.

In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law. Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say. But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so. This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values. This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.

Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

Why did libertarians like @DouglasCarswell vote against equal marriage?

by Sunny Hundal     February 6, 2013 at 8:55 am

Sometimes I feel sorry for libertarians in the UK – all their idols keep betraying them one by one. First it was UKIP, the self-proclaimed libertarian party against the free movement of people, that decided their current policy was to deny homosexuals the right to marry… for some libertarian reason.

Last night it was the poster boy’s turn: Douglas Carswell MP.

When I asked him in response how exactly religious liberty was going to be impinged by the vote, he didn’t reply.

Then he implied he was against the vote because some religious institutions were banned from performing gay marriages. So I asked him – was that his reason? No reply, again.

Here is an MP who waxed lyrically about how the digital revolution brought MPs closer to people and allowed them to explain their decisions. But when it came to the crunch – Carswell didn’t even want to explain why he voted that way.

And neither did he stick to libertarian principles, as the bill went out of its way to please the religious lobby. Of course I have no sympathy for the Labour MPs who voted against, but Carswell goes out of his way to preach about his independent mindedness and his libertarianism. But when it came to the big crunch he folded.

* * *

As an aside, it did amaze me that Cameron didn’t come into the Commons to make a major speech on this, at least for the cameras. It once against illustrated his weakness as he knew it would attract more ire from his own side. But if you’re going to take a hit, why not do it in style?

* * *

As another side point, I owe an apology to George Potter and Andrew Emmerson on this issue. I criticised the Libdems earlier when I said they had let the issue get kicked into the long grass, but both pointed out it was entirely procedural. They were right, I was wrong. Apart from the four who voted no, the Lib dems deserve credit for yesterday’s vote for constantly pushing this issue.

Activism work! How we saved Fernanda Milan’s life

by Guest     February 5, 2013 at 9:21 am

by Natacha Kennedy

On the 14th of August last year, a Swedish friend of mine posted a newspaper article about a Guatemalan trans woman who had been through a terrible ordeal trying to seek asylum in Denmark from persecution in her home country.

I felt so angry that I decided to translate the article into English, and it was picked up by the LGBT Press around the world, even being retranslated into Spanish.

Various forms of activism both online, offline took place. There were demonstrations in Copenhagen, in Madrid and here in London. Danes don’t get many demonstrations outside embassies; ours made it into EkstraBladet, the largest circulation tabloid in Denmark.

At the eleventh hour a message was received that the Danish Asylum Review Board had decided to grant Fernanda a stay of execution. Her case was reexamined and new representations were made. Information was collected from studies by the UN, the Organisation of American States and Oasis, the LGBT rights organization for which Fernanda had worked in Guatemala. They all confirmed how trans people in Guatemala are systematically murdered, and that Fernanda herself had had death threats from the police.

A few weeks later the Danish Asylum Board announced that it would now recognise as valid reasons for seeking asylum, persecution on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. A couple of weeks after that on the 27th November, they granted Fernanda Milan permanent leave to remain in Denmark, protected under the UN refugee convention.

The support organization, hastily put together in Denmark, called T-Refugee Project, to support her was, of course very happy with this result but they were still angry. Stine Larsen of the T-Refugee Project said:

We are very relieved that our struggle, together with Fernanda, ended in her being granted asylum. But it has been a soul-destroying asylum process with an initial refusal which was then reversed just three days before her scheduled deportation on 17 September 2012. Fernanda has needed time and space to recover from this ordeal. That’s why we are only publicising the good news now.

Activism works, solidarity works. Trans people are now able to obtain asylum in Denmark, but the story does not end there.

The reason Fernanda had problems was that she arrived and claimed asylum in one of the three countries that had opted out of the EU agreement to recognize persecution on the grounds of gender identity as a valid reason to claim asylum. The two other countries to opt out of this agreement are the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. So far the UK government seems to have made no clear declaration either way on the issue of trans refugees. It is time they clarified their position.

If Fernanda Milan had been deported to Guatemala on the 17th September, it is highly likely she would have been one of the 265 names we read out at the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony on Nov 20th. In the 6 weeks leading up to the 17th September there were four recorded murders of trans people in Guatemala, in a population only around one and a half times the size of London.

It looks like the activism is not going to end there; the last word on this from Fernanda;

“I have been a transgender person all my life. And I have been fighting against prejudice as long as I remember. I had to flee from Guatemala because I was fighting for human rights. Now I have the chance to live my life as a woman and an activist. Now I want to keep on the fight for a better world, where everybody can be educated, work, create families and live a dignifying life regardless of their gender identity.”

Why can’t we just spend more on benefits?

by Don Paskini     January 22, 2013 at 10:00 am

Kate Green, Labour MP and former CEO of Child Poverty Action Group, has forgotten more about social security than I’ll ever know. Her defence of Labour’s spending on social security is well worth a read:

Prior to the recession, expenditure had remained pretty constant, falling slightly from 11% of GDP in 1997/08 to 10.9% in 2007/08. But, more importantly, we were spending more on Labour priorities – cutting child and pensioner poverty – and less on the costs of unemployment: spending on children had increased from 1.3 to 1.9% of GDP, spending on pensioners increased from 5.7 to 5.8% of GDP, while spending on working age benefits (including JSA and Working Tax Credit) decreased from 3.9 to 3.2%. As a result, over that period, child poverty fell by 500,000 and pensioner poverty by 200,000.

Sounds great, right? Spending less on working age benefits as a result of falling unemployment, and using the resources freed up in order to reduce poverty amongst children and pensioners. But there’s just something which troubles me about this argument.

What Kate didn’t mention was that reduced spending on working age benefits led to a rise in poverty amongst working age adults. Their rate of poverty increased throughout the decade that Labour was in power, reaching 20% in 2009/10, and they were likely to be in deeper poverty than other age groups. So not such a success.

Then I looked at the different policies which have been advocated by Labour and lefties in order to ‘cut the benefits bill’. I read the Resolution Foundation report on the living wage, a terrific piece of work about a fantastic policy. I found that the living wage would save up to £2bn in reduced social security payments – or ‘a tiny proportion of the overall welfare budget’ as we call that sum of money when referring to the similar amounts lost in fraud and error. In addition, far from the living wage replacing the need for benefits and tax credits, it relies on them – if benefits go down, the amount needed for the living wage goes up.

A jobs guarantee for long term unemployed people? It would reduce the amount spent on unemployment benefits, but it has a net cost to the taxpayer. Reducing housing benefit by building more homes involves the government borrowing tens of billions more, and may involve stuffing the mouths of buy to let landlords with gold. Increasing employment rates and productivity through universal childcare could be funded by equalising pension tax relief, but it still involves higher spending by the state.

For all our economic problems, we live in a country where we collectively have the means to ensure that everyone lives in a decent home, has the opportunity to work and earn enough to live on, where the costs of care are made more affordable for those that need them most, and where people unable to work are able to live with dignity. The policies which are currently being considered by Labour and the left have the potential to take a big stride towards creating this society.

In the long term, I am absolutely on board with the argument that such a society would enable everyone to contribute more and therefore be enormously more productive and better off. But in the short to medium term, getting from here to there involves spending more, not less, on social security.

It’s a tough argument, but I think we need to persuade people that creating this kind of society is something worth spending the money on, rather than competing with the government about who’s got the best ideas for cutting the benefits bill.

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