Winning for Women

Guest post from Yvonne Jeffery, @bakingforpeace, campaigner at Save the Children, reflecting on the latest in Save the Children’s #changehistory series. You can read about and listen to earlier sessions here, here and here.

Like thousands of feminists across the country, I was eagerly anticipating the new film Suffragette, which charts a tumultuous period of feminism and the fight for equality in the UK in the very early twentieth century. After the screening, I was left asking myself two questions. What would I have had the guts to do in the position of these women in 1913? Secondly, and more importantly for today, can I say that I do enough to fight the inequality that still remains? In her talk on the history of The Women’s Movement, Nan Sloane (Director, Centre for Women and Democracy) argues that the period of pre-suffragette feminism was one of the most successful social movements ever, and yet we have lost this era and its learning from our history. She outlines five lessons.

Lesson 1: Campaigns should be unclouded and inclusive, in outcome if not in content. Campaign for all, not just some, women, spreading power to every class at every level.

Twentieth century suffrage campaigns ground to a halt partly due to the longstanding failure to achieve parliamentary enfranchisement. Under pressure, different factions appeared, and sought different levels of suffrage that would create a different outcomes and benefits for women and men. The movement lost clarity and unity.

For today, applying this test of clarity and inclusion to achieve change for women is still as important. For example, increasing the number of women in the courtroom, on business boards, and in parliament is only a means to an end; in themselves, these measures do not improve daily life for most women. Objectives must have actions that will translate into change on an everyday scale.

Lesson 2: Take help wherever you need or can get it.

The total number of female MPs elected since 1918 is 450. Today alone, there are 459 male MPs. In almost 100 years, as a country we have still not managed to elect the same number of women to parliament as we have men elected now.

Feminism needs men as men still hold power. Everyone must take on the fight for equality. One of the most recent campaigns to build an ambitious movement of 1 billion men worldwide to commit to taking action against gender discrimination is UN-Women’s HeForShe, which has so far gained only half a million pledges. Yet, it is only through the recognition that we all have a role to play that legislation to improve the lives of women will be enacted, and equality through social change achieved.

Lesson 3: Be opportunistic to seize the public imagination. Be constructive, imaginative, to ensure that people are talking about feminist issues, and in a way that gets them on to the agenda.

In 1867, the Second Reform Act extended the vote to all urban householders and people who owned small amounts of land in the country. Afterwards, a woman named Milly Maxwell managed to get her name on the electoral register. Lydia Becker, a leader of the suffrage campaign in Manchester, accompanied her to vote and they were ‘much cheered’ as they did so. Becker saw a campaigning opportunity, and ran a national campaign to get women to register to vote. As the rules stood, objections had to be made to remove people from the electoral register, but the rules were ambiguous, and barristers were forced to hear thousands of objections. Many women were removed from the register, but some barristers let women remain and be able to vote. This campaign helped to ensure that the franchise was slowly extended to some women at local levels, so that by the early twentieth century, Westminster was left as the only elected body where no women had any voting rights.

Today, you still need to be in the game to change the game. From women being classed as a non-person with no legal or financial identity and being expressly forbidden to vote in 1832, in 2015, the 18-24 female bracket is the least likely to vote. There is of course a lot of debate over how to get young females to vote, and efforts by political parties are to say the least unappealing, such as Labour’s pink bus or Ukip’s jump to promise to abolish the tampon tax and portray themselves as the party of young working women before the General Election this year. Communications and campaigns must show when, where, and how we all fit in to making equality a reality.

Lesson 4: See the whole game, not our own small part of it. See how our campaigns link to other struggles.

Empathy and understanding are powerful. Every campaigner needs to understand where the cause that they are fighting for sits in the context of the wider network of political and economic events. The votes for women campaigns are often viewed in isolation, without the recognition that they sprang from a longer campaign and sat alongside other campaigns for suffrage, and that other radical events such as the People’s Budget happened at the same time.

It is essential to recognise and understand the intersection of equality struggles, and to work together. Helen Pankhurst recently made this call at The Bechdel Test Fest discussion of Suffragette: ‘If each one of us took up an issue and held hands, we could achieve great change. We need less apathy!’

Lesson 5: Reclaim and remember our history.

Faye Ward, producer of the Suffragette film, has stated that ‘We are never taught history from the female perspective.’ In 12 years of primary and secondary education, the women’s movement never once appeared in my textbooks; I have only a single memory of my reception class teacher talking about Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes.

Recognising that our forebears did indeed change Britain profoundly, and that there are lessons that we can learn from them and apply today, would go some way towards reclaiming what has been lost and saluting the sacrifices that they made. The fight for equality still remains, and we can learn the lessons to make sure that we each do enough for it.


Men and Development: Why gender should not just be about women

Last week I was asked to review a new book on gender and development. Since these things are usually turgid affairs, full of abstruse jargon (“registers of governmentality”, “idioms of sexualness” and “body reflexive practices” are just a few of the assaults on English perpetrated in this one) and nostalgia for the marxist utopias of yore, I was apprehensive. I envisaged long days of ploughing laboriously through paragraphs, trying heroically to decipher “essentially hetero-normative constructions”, “emergent rubrics”, and “positionalities”, and then having to pretend in my review that I’d both mastered this tangled tongue and maintained sufficient will to live to pass constructive comment on it.

But once you have hacked your way through the impenetrable forest of the introduction (which counts “decentring the traditionally unmarked male” and “normatively naturalizing potencies” among its most egregious language crimes), you emerge into a glade of sunny clarity. For Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities is no ordinary gender book – reading it will give you a new perspective on the social problems of the developing world.

The idea that gender equality is important to development is not new – efforts to educate women and girls are among foreign aid’s few relatively uncontested success stories, and microfinance programs, the development fad du jour, also mostly target women. Men, however, have largely been overlooked by practitioners and policy-makers; reading Men and Development, you begin to see what catastrophic effects this has had.

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.

When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive – think of the black South Africans who responded to economic emasculation by adopting the role of fighter against oppression and joining the liberation struggle.

But many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive. Physical violence is the most obvious of these. Economic insecurity, as one of the Men and Development authors Gary Barker notes in an earlier paper, can prompt men to turn to violence to reaffirm their power – many South African men have joined criminal gangs, for example, while domestic violence becomes more common as unemployment rises.


Let the Little Boys Die II – WHO cares?

It’s not just the World Bank which believes that the health of baby boys matters less than girls. Here’s the World Health Organisation:

  • “While women and men share many similar health challenges, the differences are such that the health of women deserves particular attention.”
  • “Every year some nine million children under five years, including 4.3 million girls [48% of the total], die from conditions that are largely preventable and treatable… Globally, girls are not more likely to die under the age of five years than boys are. In fact, girls may have a certain advantage.”
  • “The health and development of… children is a prime concern for all societies. The health and wellbeing of young girls is of particular concern because of their future reproductive roles and the clear intergenerational effects that poor maternal health has on the health and development prospects of their children.”

So… boys die more than girls, and are sicker. The overwhelming majority of these deaths (95+%) could be prevented easily and cheaply. But the health a boy is worth less than that of a girl, because mothers will go on to play a greater role in the lives of their children than fathers.

I still think this is a morally repugnant argument, especially when WHO (like the Bank) can find no evidence of sexual discrimination in child or healthcare. There’s “no overall systematic bias against either boys or girls” in access to immunization, for example. Furthermore, “boys are more likely to suffer from severe malnutrition (stunting) than girls are.”

But let’s explore WHO’s instrumentalist approach a little further. It’s widely accepted, of course, that more educated women have healthier families. Their own health as children presumably has an impact on their ability to stay in school and learn, and thus on the role they’ll play as mothers.

But causation runs the other way, as well. As children become healthier, families tend to choose to have fewer children, and to invest more in them. This has a huge impact on the health of women and on the lives they lead. The health of all children has instrumental benefit, therefore.  If anything, parents may be especially sensitive to male infant mortality, given the preference of many to have at least one son.

Also, as wealth is the most important determinant of health, men’s role as breadwinners – they make up 60% of the global workforce – cannot be totally ignored. There may be greater return on investment in the health of a young girl (although I haven’t seen research proving this), but a boy’s expected lifetime earnings, and the impact these will have on his children, remain important.

What is galling is how threadbare the evidence base is – even after years of ‘mainstreaming’ gender into health. The WHO has run an awful lot of gender workshops in recent years, but its network on Gender, Women, and Health (interesting name), displays remarkably little curiosity as to why women are healthier than men. The anodyne verdict –“probably due to a combination of… genetic and behavioural facts” – is backed up with just four references to the academic literature.

In its research into men and boys, it simply indulges in the usual lazy speculation about men’s risk-taking and failure to take care of themselves, before turning attention to strategies to “encourage men to take responsibility for advocating agendas of gender equality, including policy initiatives for women’s rights.”

“What gets measured gets done,” says WHO’s Director-General, Margaret Chan, explaining why she commissioned a report to “gather a baseline of data about the health of women and girls throughout the life-course, in different parts of the world, and in different groups within countries.”

Perhaps it’s time for her to do the same for the other – sicker – sex.

Let the Little Boys Die – Reaction to the 2012 World Development Report

The 2012 World Development Report has a stat that the World Bank is mighty proud of. I’ll let Bank President, Robert Zoellick tell the story:

Imagine if a city of almost four million people disappeared every year. A Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Yokohama. It would be hard to miss.

 Yet it goes largely unnoticed that almost four million girls and women “go missing” each year in developing countries.

It’s a shocking statistic. For comparison, AIDS and TB each kill around 1.7 million people a year – malaria a million. So why are so many women missing? What’s happening to them? And what does the Bank want to do about it?

Burrow into the report and the total drops a bit – to 3.882 million. A third of the ‘missing’ are from China, 30% from Sub-Saharan Africa, and 22% from India. The two big rising powers and the countries of the world’s poorest region clearly have some questions to answer.

The initial analysis follows a well-trodden path. According to the Bank, the largest group, 37%, are ‘missing at birth’. This is largely a problem for China and India (95% of missing baby girls). Many parents in these countries want sons rather than daughters, and are prepared to use ultrasound and abortion to make sure they get them.

It’s when we move onto infant mortality that the WDR gets into trouble. 617,000 of the missing (16% of the total) are girls who die before the age of 5, it reports. These girls die in much larger numbers than their brothers because they are neglected by their parents and are starved of healthcare by the prejudiced societies into which they have the misfortune to be born. Right?

Well no, not at all, as it happens.