I'm off to Brazil

Monday, 28 February 2011

This is a post which goes some way towards explaining why it's been pretty quiet around here of late - and also why I won't be around for the next week or so.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. What began in 1911 as a day when men and women alike attended rallies campaigning for women's rights to work, vote and an end to discrimination is now officially celebrated in 70 countries and marked with a variety of events across the globe. Although there are so many differences in the issues women face worldwide and the concerns they have, March 8th is a day when we can all celebrate who we are, call for equality and respect and try to bring about change.

While there are hundreds of IWD events taking place across the UK in the next few weeks, the country as a whole doesn't go in for commemorating the day in a big way and that's why I was so excited to hear about the work of the EQUALS coalition. Spearheaded by Annie Lennox, it's a partnership of charities like the Fawcett Society, ActionAid and Women For Women International and is working with stars like Paloma Faith and V V Brown. And this year, EQUALS is putting on events, asking big questions and trying to get people talking about women's rights today and what it really means to be 'equals'.

It's because of EQUALS and its partnership with ActionAid that I'm off to Brazil on March 1st as part of the Bollocks to Inequality initiative to look at gender equality from a different perspective and gain insight into the way making it a priority can really impact communities for the better. As it stands, there are many, many countries where being born female puts you at an incredible disadvantage, but working to empower women has a markedly positive effect on society as a whole.

So why is this? It's not difficult to imagine why when you look at the stats. 70% of the world's poor are women. Gender-based violence causes more death among women and girls than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war.And while women do 66% of the world's work and produce 50% of its food, they earn just 10% of its income and own 1% of its property. Change the outcome for women and you can impact a nation.

ActionAid has been doing sterling work on gender equality for a number of years and has been working in Brazil since 1999. Much of its work centres on combating poverty, empowering communities and improving prospects for young people. The country struggles with extreme income inequality, meaning that the richest 10% of it inhabitants earn almost half its income. The poorest 10% receive less than 1.2%.

We'll be meeting young people to find out how their lives are being changed by work on gender equality - such learning about safe sex, getting better access to education and speaking out about sexual violence. In order to do this we'll be visiting one of the most poverty-stricken and dangerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro - and a city on the banks of the Amazon. We'll be talking to some opinionated musicians and seeing how local youth are using carnival to spread their message about rights, respect and equal relationships.

In the UK today, women's rights don't always get the best press. I've been taking part in events for International Women's Day for a number of years and it's surprising how much contempt will show when you explain what the day's all about. Many people find it hard to talk about feminism without seeing it as a negative rather than a positive, a destructive rather than a constructive set of beliefs. They wonder how they can impact the lives of people on the other side of the world and often end up thinking it's too much hassle to bother with.

Despite the negativity, it's my greatest wish that through projects like Bollocks to Inequality, through attending events, getting involved and taking a stand we can really get people talking about gender equality and discussing just why it's so important. It's a worldwide issue, it affects us all and it's worth fighting for. Over the next nine days I'll be keeping you updated on what we get up to in Brazil and how it shows just why equality matters. You'll also be able to read the latest on what we're doing on the ActionAid blog or via the #bollockstoinequality hashtag on Twitter.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via Cyro A Silva's Flickr.

Please, let's stop victim-blaming (for the umpteenth time)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Last Thursday saw Glasgow's fourth city centre sex attack since Christmas. Local police, who have mounted extra patrols in an attempt to solve the cases, have said that they believe 'different gangs' are responsible for the attacks, which have included serious sexual assault and two rapes. It must be a really difficult and worrying time for city residents. What sort of statement about it all would you make, if you were a Member of the Scottish Parliament? Choices are as follows:

a) "Somebody should be asking her what she was doing in Renfrew Lane."
b) "The police say there’s a lot of drunken carry-ons that result in rape allegations which are subsequently dropped, put it that way."
c) "It’s an area where a lot of the hookers take their clients. Now that may not have happened in this case. But you know ... what was happening? There’s always a lot more to these city-centre rapes than meets the eye."

Well, it appears that Conservative MSP Bill Aitken plumped for d) All of the above. When challenged about these comments he denied even making them - until he realised a transcript of the conversation existed. And as if he hadn't already taken issue with the victim being in a certain area of the city, accused her of making everything up and insinuated that she was a prostitute, he went on to claim that there is a difference between the rape of a woman who works as a prostitute and the rape of a woman who doesn't.

According to the Herald, Aitken is "convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee – which helps formulates rape law". These remarks, coming from a person in his position, are beyond ignorant, insensitive and truly horrible.

Sandra Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland said:

"His attitude is completely out of step with what the law says and what we should be thinking as a society. For far too long there’s been the attitude if you are involved in prostitution you cannot be a victim of rape. Women who are raped need support, not a climate that’s asking blaming questions about what they were doing."

And people wonder why women are hesitant to report sex attacks. Part of the answer is probably in the fact that even the people who have a say over rape laws spout this sort of unpleasantness as standard reaction to an attack. Aitken has since apologised to the victim and her family, stressing that "Rape, in every case, is an abhorrent violation and must always be prosecuted with the full vigour of the law".

Except he didn't say that to start with, did he? And it's really shameful that those in positions of such power are endorsing views which will do nothing to help current public perception of women who report rape and sexual assault. As long as this continues, women will be scared to speak out and people will carry on believing that a prostitute cannot be raped or assaulted.

A testimony

Saturday, 12 February 2011

I've been taking part in some public speaking workshops at church and last night I presented a short talk on the subject of 'a testimony'. I thought I'd reproduce the main points of it as a blog post for reference and anyone who is interested, as my talk actually included discussion of my blog and I know people who were the last night may be on their way here eventually.

This is a testimony in two parts. Part One deals with my struggles surrounding self-worth, confidence, depression and anxiety and Part Two deals with my life after overcoming most of these struggles, but feeling that there was no place for me in the church. Further information can be found under the 'my story' and 'Christianity' tags.

Part One: 2003-2006.

Last night I subtitled this 'And Here My Troubles Began', which is a reference to a favourite book of mine but in no way was I insinuating that my 'troubles' here are comparable to those in that particular book. Just in case you know which book I'm talking about. The point I was going to make at the start but which I think I probably glossed over a bit and was subsequently discussed at length was that in some quarters, it's easy to get the impression that once you're a Christian, God solves all your problems and life becomes AMAZING. Because He will heal all hurts and fill you with the joy that can only touch you when you're TOTALLY ON FIRE FOR JESUS.

This is not correct. I think it's fair to say that this can happen and also that through God we can find hope and healing. But it's not that easy for everyone. I was one of these people. I was a person who went off to university filled with optimism and excitement and really hoping to make loads of great new friends. I returned to my parents' house one year and two months later, because I dropped out of university. Struggling with depression, anxiety, body issues, anger and loneliness. A month or so later I was suicidal. Permeating everything was this enormous sense of failure, that things had not gone as they were supposed to, that my life was ruined. Looking back this seems almost silly but when you're a 19-year-old who has spent her life basing her self-worth on being a straight-A student and all-round high achiever it's easy to see how it happened.

For the next two years I went from place to place, new start to new start, thinking each time that things were going to improve and that my problems would be over. They didn't. What did happen was that I still couldn't shake the self-hatred, the sense of failure, the depression. I was made redundant from my first job after just three months. I thought my second job would be my 'big break' but it turned out to be the job from hell, one which made me feel like I was compromising my values and gave me a great dislike for a lot of people. I wasn't attending church very often and I felt very disconnected from my faith. The body issues were worse than ever and despite talking with some people at church who really tried to help, I just could not see how I could be a woman of worth.

August 2006. I went camping to Momentum. For the first couple of days I was consumed with unhappiness because everyone else seemed just so damned happy and radiant and filled with joy. Why wasn't this me? What was wrong with me? It was yet another reason to beat myself up and dwell on what a horrible person I obviously was. But something changed one evening when I was receiving ministry and being prayed for by the friends I was camping with. What I received was a profound revelation of who I am in God's eyes and that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It was some months later that I realised I could trace the cessation of many of my issues to this day, which is not to say that they were gone forever, never to return. These things take work and they take time. At Momentum that week, I purchased a book about dealing with depression. I've never needed to use it.

Part Two: 2007-present

So I felt equipped to deal with my problems and more secure in who I was, but with my marriage came worries that had only been 'niggles' before. I'd always felt at a bit of loss as to how I could serve in the church. Previously I had felt that my personal problems were a barrier to this and that I could not effectively minister to people when I was going through so many struggles. The problem now was that I felt my personality, my interests and my strengths were 'wrong'. That God had made me a certain way but that this wasn't what the church wanted.

When I tried to find enlightenment on this point it made me feel worse. Everywhere I looked I found very conservative Christian blogs and books with titles like 'Captivating Countenance' (clearly I've made that one up, but YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. I know you do) which felt totally irrelevant to me because we had no plans to have children yet, because I had a job, because I didn't care about crafty home decorating projects or being the 'perfect' hostess. I'm sorry, but I do not like books like that and find them generally unhelpful and narrow-minded. I have written about this before in more detail so all I'll say now is that I don't believe God's plan for women involves forcing them into living out a 20th century Western white middle-class capitalist male-run version of femininity.

Things were also not being helped by some of the attitudes towards the place of women in Christianity that I saw played out in my church. I found this short but sweet and totally spot-on blog post the other day which goes a long way towards explaining it. I got the feeling that being a woman, for me, was going to be less about being 'proud to be me' and more about changing myself to be 'acceptable'.

The things which changed everything:

* Great teaching on women in ministry, social justice and political involvement from Elaine Storkey and Jo Saxton.
* Finding more resources that I felt comfortable learning from and discovering that I wasn't alone, knowing that it is possible to be passionate about the things I'm passionate about and still love God.
* Joining a church we are very comfortable with, which supports people in developing and using all their gifts regardless of gender - and is full of great people helping each other, with a commitment to diversity and inclusion, helping the needy and combating injustice.
* Constant encouragement from my wonderful husband, who made a promise to support me and build me up in everything I do when we were just 18 years old and has never gone back on it.
* Blogging, which has enabled me to express myself, connect with others and start dialogue with a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds.
* Great teaching on marriage at my church from Mark Stibbe, which echoed our personal position on marital relationships and was incredibly edifying.

As I mentioned above, things take work, but what I shared last night and what I hope to convey through this post is that going from a very low place spiritually to a much more confident and positive outlook on life, church and self-worth, seeing yourself as being able to make an important contribution to the world and knowing that you were made the way you were for a reason is possible. That you should never be afraid to be the person you truly are.

The quote of Jo Saxton's that I finished with: 'Be the man God made you, not what you feel you ought to be. Be the woman God made you, not what you feel you ought to be.'

Yo Daily Express - your racism's showing

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Today's Express hate: coming soon to a far-right blog near you as 'proof' of the way this country's going to hell in a handcart.

EDIT: Not everyone was as busy as I was yesterday and therefore you can read this post over at Minority Thought which goes into more detail about the story - and the fact that the Express has managed to turn a story about healthcare professionals speaking English into a story about its apparent problem with healthcare professionals who aren't white British.

Religious Wednesday (sort of)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

I never, ever do day-of-the-week themed posts. So don't expect Religious Wednesday to be a regular occurrence - it just so happens that I was saving up a few links to post.

- Check out Restored, an organisation set up to provide a faith-based response, working with churches, to violence against women. With links to Tearfund, Restored was set up because its founders saw what they believed to be a 'gap' in tackling VAW - that is, a need for an organisation which could help respond to the issue by emphasising a faith-based model of 'restored relationships' and also encourage men to take responsibility and play their part in standing up to attitudes about VAW. The website states:

"We are therefore establishing Restored; a global Christian alliance to transform relationships and end violence against women. We believe that Christian churches have huge potential to help prevent violence, but also need to change their own attitudes and practice. Our specific focus will be the prevention of domestic violence and sexual violence against women and girls. This will include a Christian men's initiative on preventing violence against women, which will come under the main alliance. Restored’s priority in its first year will be to develop a pack to help churches address violence against women in their communities."

Something Restored is keen to point out is the fact that domestic abuse can be a difficult area for Christians to discuss and a difficult problem for churches to address within their congregations. Nevertheless it is clearly an issue which affects women from all backgrounds and no matter what the church and the Bible might teach about relationships, it's a harrowing reality for plenty of Christian families.

The site contains a lot of really good resources, including the church pack mentioned above, which I emailed to my church as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence last year. You can also follow @rest0red on Twitter.

- After having attended and been incredibly impacted by Jo Saxton's workshops on women in leadership as a delegate at Soul Survivor Momentum I'm so excited to have found out that they're putting on a one-day conference called Equal later this year. The day will explore the theology and practice of women in church leadership and will be held at Soul Survivor Watford on June 18th. Soul Survivor as an organisation has shown such a positive attitude to empowering women in the last few years and I'm really pleased that they're tackling the issue. As it stands I plan to book a place and am hoping that nothing else will come up that day!

- Really interesting responses to this old but popular post on Anne Jackson's blog. Anne asks: 'What is something you feel you can’t say in church, or around other Christians?' I'm sure most of us have a long list.

- I have written about faith and feminism as a guest post for C Jane's blog. You can't read it just yet but I can tell you it'll be up fairly soon as part of her Sunday Guest Post series.

And finally, for some non-relgious links:

- You must read Juliet Shaw's guest post entitled A True Story of Daily Mail Lies over at Jonathan's blog, No Sleep 'Til Brooklands. Juliet tells the story of how she agreed to be interviewed by the Mail for what she thought was a feature on the benefits of moving from the city to the country. Instead, the newspaper fabricated quotes, details and in fact the majority of her 'story', making her life a misery when it was published. This blog posts tells the tale of what happened when Juliet fought back.

- Keep an eye on We Are Equals in the coming weeks. The site, which has recently launched, is part of a camapign centred on International Women's Day, organised by a coalition comprised of charities such as The Fawcett Society, Oxfam and Women's Aid. The Equals coaliition hopes to prompt a 'big debate' surrounding inequality this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of IWD.

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