Friday, 7 November 2014

What I learnt at the Feminism in London Conference


So I attended the Feminism in London Conference for the first time 2 weeks ago. Slightly apprehensive about dry academic debates, exclusive women only zones or maybe hardline activists, my fears were put to rest when I found a buzzing crowd of women and men of all ages, creeds and professions there to engage with important issues of our time. All the campaigns of the moment had a stall: the 50:50 Parliament Campaign, Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3, Fawcett Society, Mothers at Home Matter. Comedians. Academics. Health Professionals. Women's Advocates.

Of course, I meant to write a blow by blow account of my experience as soon as I left. Have I quite managed it? No. But here are some items on the programme that keep coming back to me. Stats that I suddenly remember while cooking that make me feel angry and upset.  Inspiring speakers that I keep on meaning to look up.


Prof Gail Dines, author of Pornland, gave an amazing whistlestop tour of feminist history, nailing why Radical Feminism is better than Liberal Feminism before launching into a passionate campaign against the porn industry. She is unequivocal - "sex workers" are not empowered, they are exploited. Porn is violent and degrading, giving young men and women a skewed vision of sex which will harm not only their own sex lives but society as a whole. Nishia Lilia Diu has written a critical review of this lecture in the Telegraph if you are interested but whether you agree with Dines or not, her message is important. Porn cannot be ignored. For those of us bringing up/teaching/involved with kids, we need to know what they can access within 30 seconds on the internet. Burying your head in the sand (to be honest, my preferred choice) is no longer an option.

Maternal mental health

The Maternal Mental Health Alliance is leading a campaign called "Everyone's Business". In the UK we have very poor provision of perinatal mental health services - only a quarter of London has "good" provision. This is a problem because more than 1 in 10 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby. Untreated this impacts on the mental health of the woman and her family long-term and can have tragic consequences.

Prof Susan Bewley, Obstetrician at Guys and St Thomas' Hospital and Honorary Professor at King's College London, talked about domestic violence and abuse, with early marriage and/or motherhood making young women especially vulnerable. Abuse may start or escalate during pregnancy and become more severe after the birth. The child is damaged in utero, may then also be abused or simply suffers from witnessing violence in the home. Domestic violence overlaps with child abuse in 40% of cases. For more information, see Bewley & Welch's ABC of Domestic and Sexual Violence published earlier this year.

Dr Susan Pawlby discussed the effects of maternal prenatal stress on the stress levels of the baby, pre and post birth. At 6 days old, babies who have experienced prenatal stress are less alert, more irritable and have higher levels of cortisol in response to mild stressors that take longer to return to normal. She argues that employers need to reduce stress in the workplace for pregnant women, decrease demands, become more flexible over deadlines and listen to individual needs. She also encourages women to take maternity leave earlier in pregnancy - in Germany, mandatory maternity leave is 6 weeks prior to birth and 8 weeks post birth. In the UK, we can work up to the day of delivery with only 2 weeks mandatory paid leave after birth.

The Maternity Action Alliance seek to improve pregnancy outcomes for vulnerable and disadvantaged women and have launched a report "When Maternity doesn't Matter".  There were some shocking statistics:
  • The maternal mortality rate of Black African women in the UK is six times higher than that of white British women. 
  • Due to the Home Office policy of "Dispersal", pregnant asylum seekers are routinely moved several times during pregnancy seperating them from relatives, support and their midwives. 
  • Pregnant asylum seekers who are living under the threat of dispersal - two thirds have mental health problems, two thirds booked late into prenatal care. One half gave birth ALONE, without even a friend or partner, because they were isolated from their support networks, didn't know how to get help or were worried about leaving their children.


Reproductive choices


Kate Fox, a stand-up comedian and poet, talked about her decision to be child-free. An emotionally liberating decision that she feels her own mother and grandmother might have chosen if they had been able to. One in four women in the UK now choose to be child-free. Gateway for Women offers resources for women who have decided not to have children, who have not been able to have children and who also still hope for children. Social pressures are huge to become a parent and the emphasis has to be on supporting people's choices.

Kerry Abel from Abortion Rights spoke about access to abortion in the UK at the moment. It is very easy for progress to be rolled back, with any cut to services potentially reducing access. Their campaign focus for 2017, when abortion will have been legal for 50 years in England, Wales and Scotland, will be the following.
  • Abortion to be legalised in Northern Ireland
  • Shouldn't have to be a doctor to sign the form
  • Should be able to take second pill at home.
Mars Lord, a doula and mum of 5, spoke about birth choices and birth rights. Having your first baby is "going to a country you don't know". She emphasised that pregnant women have a right to know the facts, to weigh up the risks and benefits ourselves.  AIMS (Association for Improving Maternity Services) campaigns to protect the human rights of women during childbirth.


The Emma Humphrey Memorial Prize

These awards were given to women who had fought violence against women and children. Truly humbling to hear about these women's achievements and very emotional watching women who are clearly still hugely suffering. A real moment of human engagement, where the personal stories of abuse became political stories of change.

The Rousing Finale!

So the closing speech was given Dr Finn MacKay, founder of the London Feminist Network. She warned that feminism is being co-opted and watered down, made safe:  "Not everything is feminist, feminism is about everything".  Gender-based injustice is REAL. Dr MacKay called for us to be there, to be involved, to be present and working from within. "Institutions are groups of people with values that can be changed". It was a speech about engaging, about being active at every level, and having faith that change is possible. A call for action and a superb end to an invigorating, fascinating and emotional conference experience. I left angry, heartbroken, and inspired; I recommend you give it a go next year!

Thanks for reading. Would you ever be seen dead at a feminist conference?? Which campaigns are closest to your heart when it comes to women's rights and women's health?