international women's day 2011

Archive for March 2011

Annette Lawson is chair of National Alliance of Women’s Organisations in Britain. She has an OBE for services to diversity and is founder and Chair of The Judith Trust, which works for better lives for people with both learning disabilities and mental illness needs.

Chaos reigned last year at Commission on the Status of Women 54 which was known as Beijing+15 since it was 15 years since the fourth world ‘Women’s Conference’ had been held there on Equality, Development and Peace.

This chaos resulted from a total lack of preparedness on the part of the United Nations for the arrival of thousands of NGOs seeking to hold U.N. member states to account for the continuing inequalities and injustices still suffered by women globally.

The U.N. knew the numbers and had not worked out how to deal with the lack of space caused by the reconstruction of parts of the U.N. buildings. The paranoia of NGOs gathered there deepened as we were excluded, forced into interminable queues and were unable to work on any outcome document known as agreed text – important because that text provides lobbying material.

This year the U.N., with its great launch of U.N. Women, the new entity which merges others — especially UNIFEM and the Division for the Advancement of Women — into one, sought to improve access in these difficult conditions arising because of the continuing reconstruction. Indeed, despite hugely conflicting information ahead of the time, we finally had some good advisories about what we really would need and mostly registration happened quickly and simply.

Everyone came with multiple copies of everything in order to be sure of ‘getting in’. But ‘getting in’ did not mean you actually could ‘get in’ to the U.N. North Lawn building where most intergovernmental meetings and high level panels were held.

No. You had to queue each day for the one additional ticket per each NGO for a morning and an afternoon session on the following day. Then, for specific meetings organised by governments or the EU, say, you needed a ticket from that organiser. I attended an excellent panel run by the Bangladeshi U.N. Mission launching work on a Human Right to Peace which is thoroughly gender-aware.

These tickets had to be picked up in person within the hour beforehand. So if you were attending something else – most likely an NGO event outside the building – you would have to leave it or miss it to get the ticket. And when one did get in, there was no room to sit, except on the floor which in one’s seventies is no mean accomplishment.

I would rather not have to invent my self-worth as measured by this particular accomplishment. Rather, I would like to have been able to see the faces of the remarkable panellists especially when their mother tongue was not English.

We, women’s organisations based in the UK, were particularly concerned about this year – the first in 41 years – when we have not had the Women’s National Commission (WNC) able to act as liaison for us with the official UK government delegation, and, via them, to the voice of the EU, for, at CSW, the EU speaks with one voice through its Presidency – Hungary this year.

In an act which I have described as vandalism, the coalition government in the UK has abolished the WNC and taken over some of its functions by transferring them to the Government Equalities Office (GEO). This was part of the government’s austerity measures – to reduce expenditure on advisory bodies known as quangos – and also because its ideal includes a smaller State and much greater localism.

Alas, some of the good went out with the less necessary and in the view of every women’s organisation I know, the WNC, whatever its faults and nothing is perfect, is a great loss to us.

We are urging each other to view this as an opportunity and the Geo has instituted a couple of really helpful new ways of communicating – through a newsletter just for those attending CSW and with a special CSW email address.

One of our number, Jan Grasty, the president of the body which has taken over from UNIFEM (UK) called U.N. Women (UK National Committee) led the liaison while Zarin Hainsworth of the Baha’i was instrumental in providing space for morning meetings of UK NGOs and also much meeting space for our side-events in their international offices right beside the U.N.

The UK’s Ambassador to the U.N. hosted a reception as usual for us and the mission also welcomed us to evening briefings with expert UK government representatives willing to talk to us.

However, there is a steep learning curve both for the GEO and for us as a less coherent body and we learned much less than usual about the content of what was happening on the text and within the EU.

This year’s main theme was on education with a special interest in science, engineering and technology and women’s access to decent work. It is difficult to provide helpful suggestions as to how the language might be changed if we do not know where the hang-ups are.

Since we were also so restricted as to which intergovernmental sessions we could attend, we were not able to sit in on negotiations and that changes the character of the relationship between governments and NGOs. During the second week, the few remaining women from the UK met in the hotel room of one of their number to work together – I was not there but clearly new mechanisms are being created!

Anything that reduces the access of civil society, in this case women’s organisations, to meetings that are making decisions that fundamentally concern us, is a matter for distress and campaigning. Any action that prevents women’s organisations from being a vital influence at the U.N., flaunts the hopes and the rationale of the system established by Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945.

But, two brilliant things happened: the launch of U.N. Women; and side events put on by a ‘Youth Caucus’ of which 16 young women and men with an average age of 16+ were accredited from the UK (7 by my organisation, NAWO, the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, and others by Widows Rights International) and this was organised by the brilliant Zarin Hainsworth.

Next time I am forced to sit though some conference where a speaker turns her or his back on the audience, cannot be heard because they haven’t a clue how to use a microphone, read the text of interminable and illegible, boring, non-pictorial overheads, I will ask that they get a sixth-former please to teach them how to present.

These young people had done their research, created their presentations – mostly without power points which was just as well since the system broke down – rehearsed them and stuck precisely to time. You could hear everything they said and they were a joy to watch. They also did some dramatic roles which were terrifyingly good – especially ones showing violence against girls in a session it was my pleasure to chair, Say No Now.

And finally there was U.N. Women! It was such a thrill to sit in our accustomed NGO gallery above the great General Assembly and watch the videos and listen to the amazing line-up of speakers all completely committed to the vision and the implementation of this U.N. initiative which has the capacity to create a really different, more equal, more just world for women and for men, boys and girls.

And it was heartening that here at least the role of NGOs was seriously understood and recognised. And thanked. We who had been in at the beginning all knew what the GEAR campaign (Gender Equality Architecture Reform) had accomplished – we knew we would not have been sitting there at this launch without it.

Led by women in New York, the GEAR campaign had reached out across the globe and had regional networks all involved. In Europe, our own European Women’s Lobby was the recognised network and NAWO and our sister organisations in the devolved countries of the UK had signed up to it at the ‘off’.

No better Chief Executive than Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s woman President, and no better president of the new U.N. Women board, Joy Ogwu of Nigeria, a rare female foreign secretary, could have been chosen to be in the driving seats.

With Ban Ki-Moon, secretary general of the U.N., behind it because: “It is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

It remains for us to get our governments to fund it so it can work on the ground to transform the lives of the poorest women, and at the highest levels of international government to transform cultural attitudes that exclude women from the tables where global decisions are made.

With so many IWD events having taken place, it would be great to hear how your event went.

So if you have a report, or can send a link to an already published report on the internet, or maybe some photos or a video, please let us know so that we can add it to this year’s IWD blog.


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An evening march through Galashiels last Friday was a fitting climax to 16 days of action, organised by the Scottish Borders Violence Against Women Partnership.

The so-called Reclaim the Night march through the town centre, which was co-ordinated by the region’s Rape Crisis Centre, attracted a large crowd of women, men and children.

“The idea was to reclaim the night as a safe place with a demand that we end the silence and end the violence,” said Andrea Beavon, Scottish Borders Council’s Violence Against Women (VAW) co-ordinator.

Last month, Ms Beavon reported to councillors that the cost of addressing domestic abuse and violence could be as much as £50million a year in the Borders alone, when criminal justice, police, health, social services, loss of economic output and legal costs are taken into account.

And she won approval for a new project involving a more co-ordinated community approach to produce better outcomes for women, children and the perpetrators of violence. The new service, which is applying for lottery funding, will be a first point of contact for victims and their children.

The 16 days of action initiative was timed to coincide with this month’s International Women’s Day.

Highlights included the 104 Shows exhibition in Melrose on March 12.

“This protrayed the reality of domestic abuse for many women and demonstrated the need to raise awareness,” said Ms Beavon.

“Shoes from Annie Lennox and J. K. Rowling and many other celebrities told of the symbolic importance of shoes being ‘the way out’, but also portrayed the struggles many women can identify with of being constrained by shoes which don’t fit.”

Meanwhile Vagina Monologues in the Heart of Hawick was a sell-out.

“Feedback from the entire programme, especially the march which attracted much attention and was safely marshalled by the police, has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Ms Beavon.

“It is the first time the Borders has taken part in the 16 days of action and we hope in can be repeated with more people playing a part in ending violence against women.”


This was just one of the exhilarating statements made at yesterday’s Million Women Rise march through central London. I came away feeling incredibly inspired; the speakers’ convinced me that I was part of a broader feminist movement, a global network of activists fighting for change. Women from London to Lahore are refusing to compromise, we are worth more than what the world offers us. One of the speakers asked us to believe that ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for’, the women who can bring about the changes in our political, cultural and social life that we both need and deserve.

This was the second time I’d attended Million Women Rise and I was surprised again by the range of reactions from bystanders. Passersby laugh, they take photos, they clap, they scowl, they jeer. The general public seem to regard the march as a bizarre spectacle, perhaps because all the participants are women. I’ve been on Reclaim The Night demos before where men have heckled and verbally abused us, but thankfully I saw none of this yesterday, although such behaviour only strengthens my resolve. When men respond to an anti-violence against women march with violence against women, you don’t need any further proof that something in society’s gone seriously wrong.

The mood yesterday was much lighter though. The demo began at Hyde Park Corner, continuing down Bond Street, Oxford Street and passing by Regent’s Street before ending at Trafalgar Square. Amazing drumming accompanied our protest, as well as some enthusiastic chanting (‘What do we want? Safer streets! When do we want them? Now!’ was a favourite)

Once we got to Trafalgar Square we had our spirits raised (it was pretty cold by this point!) by Maman Michelle Springer-Benjamin amongst others. I was also thrilled to be given some lovely biscuits by some kind and caring members of RASAC, and a free copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin as part of World Book Night courtesy of the lovely folk at For Book’s Sake.

However, even without the food and the freebies it would have been an incredibly worthwhile experience. The banners I saw women waving from services active across the UK reminded me just how much we have to lose in this recession as the cuts begin to bite. Sadly there seemed to be little or no representation from the major political parties- maybe there were some Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs in attendance but I didn’t see them. The march’s message- the call for an end of male violence against women- should unite women across the political spectrum. Perhaps even more worryingly the Labour Party held it’s celebration of International Women’s Day on the same day as the march; either they’re unaware of MWR or they’ve failed to understand the importance of MWR as a show of solidarity for the women’s movement.

Let’s hope that next year we see this change. As MWR so neatly put it: ‘Unity is strength; the voices of many are louder together than a single voice.’


Pictures and videos of MWR

The men’s toilets were temporarily women’s in the Emmanuel centre in Westminster – not intentionally symbolic, I’m sure. But I did smile when I saw the paper sign ‘Ladies’ stuck over the permanent ‘Men’ sign.

(For centuries, women were not allowed in the House of Commons, and so there were no women’s toilets. When women were allowed to be Members of Parliament, there were two sets of toilets: toilets for ‘Members’ and toilets for ‘Women’.)

The event was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations for the Labour party – an all-day conference which brought together Labour party members, supporters, trade unionists and politicians.

The most inspiring and insightful speeches came from Harriet Harman, who urged women ‘to be the engine of their own advance’, Frances O’Grady (Deputy General Secretary of the TUC) and Ivette Cooper.

Kate Green MP was also wonderfully coherent, intelligent and memorable, providing the clearest explanation I have yet heard as to why the coalition’s cuts are unfair to women. Nan Sloane, from the Centre for Women and Democracy, also gave an interesting account on how countries compare regarding women in politics.

Ed Miliband was the only man to speak to us. It must have been an odd experience for him, and he seemed a little unnerved.

The only other men in the room were all the photographers and the sound technician – an oversight on behalf of the organisers; they should have tried to find women for those roles.

One thing I did wonder: where did Ed and the photographers go to the toilet?


for International Women’s Day the usual luvvies implore us to fight for oppressed womanhood all over the world.

They include Annie Lennox, activist, feminist and multi-millionaire; Emma Thompson, award-winning actress; Monica Ali, best-selling author, and Mariella Frostrup, glamorous telly and radio presenter, who told a recent interviewer: ‘I’m always tempted by money.’

They’re regularly off to Malawi or Liberia, Rwanda or Mozambique, photographed with groups of grateful villagers while looking suitably concerned in their eco-friendly bushwear.

Happy International Women’s Day! George Osborne has rapidly raised womens’ retirement age and Lord Sugar says bosses should be allowed to quiz employees about their plans for babies

Of course, the plight of millions of women in the third world is appalling — Aids, female circumcision, rape and poverty blight their existence. But would any of these high-profile female campaigners consider fighting for desperate women here in Blighty?

Many of us lead comfortable lives, but hundreds of thousands do not. Equality and opportunity are meaningless as far as they’re concerned. These celebrity feminists could try scheduling a visit to an NHS ward where every single day, thousands of ignored female pensioners lie quietly dying of starvation because there’s nobody to feed them. And with the NHS about to shed 50,000 jobs, the situation is unlikely to improve.

A recent report revealed the shocking statistic that two-thirds of elderly patients admitted to NHS hospitals do not receive adequate care, and many die completely unnecessarily after surgery.

These female campaigners could pass up a trip to South Africa and try a tour of care homes right here in England, where thousands of women with dementia sit for hour after hour in their own urine, many tied to their chairs in rooms with only the telly for company.

And what about the growing band of young women who left school with decent exam results in the past year and cannot get a job, forced to rely on benefits even though they’re desperate to work? Would any of these middle-class feminists consider employing one as an assistant?

The think-tank Demos calculates the number of jobless young people will grow to 1.2 million over the next five years, even if the economy recovers — double the rate of the Nineties. What kind of future is that? Is that equal opportunity for all?

Women at both ends of the spectrum — the very old and the young — are having a rough time in the UK right now. We have a Cabinet packed with millionaires, and in spite of David Cameron’s weasel words, they’re not very female-friendly.

George Osborne speeded up the rate at which a women’s pension age will rise from 60 to 66. Labour planned to do this gradually, but the Chancellor has decreed that by 2020 everyone will have to be 66 to get a pension, which means a huge number of women will have to stay at work for far longer than they had planned.

Women born before April 6, 1953, will be able to retire at 62, but those born after will end up paying an extra £13 billion in income tax and national insurance — an average of £8,400 each.

As the Saga group said: ‘Women are bearing the brunt of the changes. Pension policy always seems to be made by men, for men.’

When it comes to government, paradoxically, in some African countries, there are more women in power than in the UK. In Rwanda, in 2009, women won 56 per cent of the seats in the lower chamber and 35 per cent in the Upper House. In both Mozambique and Angola, women won 39 per cent of the seats in the lower house.

Many African states have women in high office. Here, just 22 per cent of seats in the Commons are held by women, and the Home Secretary has to combine her demanding job with that of Minister for Women and Equalities. That’s how seriously David Cameron takes women’s rights.

Finally, let’s celebrate International Women’s Day by reflecting on the wisdom of Lord (Alan) Sugar, who told the House of Lords last week he thought bosses should be able to grill female candidates about their plans for babies.

This is the bloke who said the best way to get round the laws protecting women in the workplace was by not employing them. Let’s all write to Lord Sugar and tell him when we plan to reproduce, when we’re going to take the Pill, and when we might have a spot of PMT.

Come to that, why don’t we email or Twitter him the dates of our menstrual cycle, if he’s that interested in gynaecology?

Edited from a longer article at

More specific programmes for the protection of women journalists should be established, recommended press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) following the findings of a new report.

The report, titled ‘News Media: A Men’s Preserve That is Dangerous For Women,’ was released by RSF to mark International Women’s Day today.

In the document the press freedom organisation highlights the problems facing women across the world who work as journalists, from difficulties in reaching higher levels in the newsroom to cases of segregation and violence.

Other recommendations outlined by RSF in the report are that cooperation between women’s rights organisations and press freedom groups should be reinforced and that there should be greater support for bodies providing journalism training specifically for women.

The report contains a number of accounts by female journalists from around the world, including French war correspondent, Anne Nivat, who claimed that Afghanistan in particular continues to be a place where “women do not have the right to speak”.

But, she later adds, her gender can at times be beneficial when working as an undercover reporter.

“It has been easier for me as a woman to do my work because women count for nothing in Iraq and Afghanistan and no one pays them any attention. You can see without being seen. Unlike our male colleagues, a woman journalist can pass relatively unnoticed. She can get through checkpoints. No one mistrusts her. But it is all to do with my method of working, total immersion in the local population.”

While certain countries are flagged up by RSF as places where women journalists face the possibility of violence or imprisonment, such as Rwanda, Eritrea or Uganda, others including the Philippines and Cuba are highlighted as places where women journalists are making “significant progress”.

Philippine writer and journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug, who heads the board of online news magazine Newsbreak, is quoted in the report as claiming that as a woman she has a “certain facility for doing this job”.

“People trust me more readily, I get information more easily than I think my male colleagues do. But it was hard starting out.”

Other research released in the UK to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day showed that nearly three quarters of national news journalists are men.

The research, which was commissioned by the Women in Journalism group and called “A Gendered Press?”, surveyed the top 28 national newspapers by circulation size.

It also found that just 4 per cent of sports journalists are women while so-called ‘soft topics’ are also heavily covered by men, with 49 per cent of lifestyle reporters and 70 per cent of arts reporters being male.

red women's symbold with continents superimposed repeatd 5 times

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