Archive for the tag 'Activism'

The call

NS January 2nd, 2011

Soon after I became a doula, I considered shutting down this blog.

I’ve grumbled before about the possibility of having nothing left to say or being tempted to throw in the towel but I can never quite bring myself to do it. This blog has been a major part of my life and, dare I say it, my identity for the past (coming up to) 6 years.

So I’m not going to shut it down. I may post more infrequently, or in manic bursts between silences, but I’m not ready to let go of the part of myself that still believes I am/will be a writer.

That said, I think I have a new calling.

When I became a doula, I wanted to help women have better births. After writing about, reading about and now even witnessing firsthand the terror and trauma that so many women go through (often unnecessarily) to give birth, I am even more devoted to not only helping individual women receive better care and become empowered enough to make their own choices, but to actively fighting to change the appalling state of maternal health in the UK and around the world.

Here are a few facts to chew on†:

  • If you are a north-western European woman, your risk of dying in childbirth is 1 in 30,000; if you live in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, your risk is 1 in 6
  • Every year over half a million women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; 99 percent of them are from the poorest nations
  • Preventing unwanted pregnancies would reduce the maternal mortality rate by a quarter. At the moment, more than 68,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year
  • There are not enough midwives. One in four women in the world give birth without a skilled attendant present. Even in industrialised, wealthy nations, women are frequently left unattended or unsupported as they give birth, resulting in both physical and emotional trauma
  • Women in poor countries lack access to needed caesarean surgery; women in rich countries are subjected to too many. Both have dangerous implications for maternal health
  • The child of a woman who dies in childbirth is much more likely to die before the age of two

In the UK, David Cameron is revoking his campaign promise to provide at least 3,000 more midwives within the NHS, the minimum number needed to bring the service to a safe and acceptable level. Once again, as they do the world over, politicians’ lips do a lot of moving but their commitment to actually providing the funding and resources is non-existent.

Do we really matter so little?

NHS midwives are stretched so thin that at the Royal College of Midwives’ recent annual conference, RCM General Secretary Cathy Warwick painted a bleak picture of maternity services and warned that they are at the breaking point. In today’s Observer, on the front page, Warwick warns once again that if the maternity services don’t improve quickly, it is only a matter of time before it begins to break down completely, further endangering women’s lives and those of their babies.

If we can’t get maternal health right in even the most prosperous, wealthiest nations in the world, what hope do we have of bettering conditions in developing nations where conditions are much worse?

Even Dr. Tony Falconer, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, today issued a warning that women who give birth at night are at greater risk for inadequate care due to staff shortages and inexperience because senior staff tend to work during ‘normal’ business hours. This, despite the fact that many women go into labour and arrive at hospital in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning. I’ve personally heard countless stories of women in full-on labour being turned away because there just aren’t enough midwives to cope and being sent to another hospital, A&E or being forced to give birth unattended in a waiting room, corridor or car park. It does paint a rather worrying picture, doesn’t it?

That’s why I’m working on a new project, one that will hopefully combine my passions for birth advocacy, feminism and writing into one big ball of justice-seeking, anger-tinged-yet-hopeful blogginess. I’m hoping that all will be revealed in the next few weeks so watch this space. I do believe that 2011 is going to be a busy, busy year.

Bring it.

†All stats taken from ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts Are Bad For Business’ by Gabrielle Palmer

Photo credit

Yeah, I did get a medal for birth

NS October 1st, 2010

My son turned two a couple weeks ago. At various points in the day I thought of where I had been in labour and made sure to stop and mark the moment when he had been born, at 4.32pm. When I thought back to his birth, I smiled. I remembered it warmly and fondly and with more than a little joy.

His entrance into the world, in our home, went just as I had hoped. While it was obviously intense, I did not consider it horrendous, overly painful or traumatic. At many points and up until I was nearly ready to begin pushing him out, I was smiling and laughing, so excited to meet my little guy and in awe of my body’s intuitiveness and primal, biologically-designed power.

If I could recreate and live through that day again every year (without adding to my family each time!), I would. Every contraction, every push, every soul-shaking guttural groan, every everything. I want to feel it again because it made me feel so utterly alive, so connected to myself, so grounded and yet so light that I felt as if I could simultaneously meld into the earth with feet of stone and fly far away, up into the clouds.

But I didn’t write about it. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t share those feelings of nostalgia and joy. I kept my mouth shut and my head down because that is what is expected of me.

Our modern cultural narrative of birth tells me that my experience, my story, does not exist. It’s either all in my head or a bunch of hippy claptrap designed to make other women feel inferior and guilty. Enjoying birth is a privilege I am not allowed to have because so many others have been denied it, through circumstance or luck or whatever forces are behind the story of how our children are born.

Last year, when Noble Boy turned one, I surveyed my view at the apex of the mountain. I know I’m lucky to have even climbed that mountain and that it wasn’t necessarily anything ‘special’ I did or was or knew to get there. I don’t presume to have special powers that other women do not possess or more knowledge than those who had disappointing, interventionist or traumatic births. My birth is in no way a condemnation of anyone else’s. It is simply and only what it actually is: mine.

As a doula, an advocate for mothers and vocal member of the online birth community, I fight tooth and fucking nail for women’s right to choose not to give birth at all, to choose caesareans, to choose hospital birth, to choose narcotic pain relief and as many bells and whistles as they want. I do this alongside my advocacy for those who don’t want drugs, don’t want interventions or don’t want to leave their homes to have their babies.

I am a birth advocate because I believe in women’s autonomy and in their personhood. I believe in mothers’ ability to make their own decisions, lead their own lives and have their own experiences, on their own terms. I respect them. I trust them. I want the best for them.

So when my own experience is sidelined, marginalised, silenced, criticised, dismissed and ridiculed, it hurts. It hurts a hell of a lot. I have to choose my words very carefully when relaying my son’s birth and be sure to throw in self-deprecating remarks and pay penance for not finding it horrible, lest I hurt anyone’s feelings or make them think I’m ‘smug’. The accusations of superiority and patronisation are sometimes implicit and, often times, outright explicit, said to my face with defiance and what appears to (sometimes) be glee.

I guess that’s because it’s socially acceptable to tell a woman she is crazy, ridiculous, smug, flaky, woo woo, arrogant or any other myriad of derogatory terms when she says childbirth was anything but a best forgotten ride to hell and back. Women who say they didn’t find it painful or even found it pleasant are told they are outright lying, the implication being that because the majority experience birth in one way, those who fall outside that ‘norm’ must be disbelieved, discredited or punished.

And no matter how this sounds to anyone, no matter how many accusations of insensitivity or insanity are thrown my way as a result, I think it’s completely ridiculous and more than a little sad that women having joyful, memorable, special (yes, sometimes even pain-free) births that changed them, moved them, empowered them — inexorably and unalterably for the better — are being silenced and shouted down lest anyone with a less-than-ideal birth get their feelings hurt.

How are we ever going to change that narrative and know of more women having positive stories if we don’t hear any or won’t allow them to be told?

I’ve spent months and years walking on eggshells, bending over backwards to make sure that I don’t offend or belittle or minimise other women’s experiences. I strive to face my own little creeping prejudices and biases and correct them before they turn into sweeping generalisations or proclamations of what is Best and True and Noble. I do my best to listen and learn and help when I can and only where I am wanted.

I have no interest in competing for gold in the Birth Olympics but I sure am sick and fucking tired of being told I’d better get off my high horse because there ain’t no medals in this here event, sweetie cakes.

Well you know what? I do have a medal. I have a medal of achievement around my neck and it hangs there, invisible, every day. When I want to feel good about myself or when I am doubting my capacity to cope with something life has thrown at me, I take it from where it hides beneath my heart and gather up all the strength from that place of calm and courage within me from which it came.

But no one else gave it to me, nor did I expect them to. I gave it to myself.

I mark my son’s birth as a victory not because I was competing against anyone else or because I needed to win, but because of how I felt about myself as I made that journey towards the finish line.

The thing is, birth doesn’t even have a finish line; it’s a starting point. So even if one woman’s didn’t go as she’d dreamed, even if that journey ended without the ‘medal’ she yearned for, she still finished the race and that, in itself, is pretty damn amazing. Us mothers are doing what billions of women have been doing for billions of years —  giving over their bodies and their lives so that another body and another life might grow and flourish.

Pretty fucking cool, right?

As Dr. Seuss says:

You have brains in your head

You have feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose

I have no interest in marking out a path or prescribing a method or lifestyle of my choosing for others. Life’s not worth living if it’s under someone else’s thumb, in accordance with their wishes or in conjunction with their views. We’re all individuals and we’re all going to choose and experience things differently so it’s important that we extend respect to those whose life choices and experiences have taken them down paths divergent from our own.

I try my best to practice what I preach but damnit, I expect a little bit of that respect in return. Is that really too much to ask?

A woman’s wish list

NS March 8th, 2010

I’ve been trying to decide what to write today, on International Women’s Day. There are so many issues I could explore, explain, shout about, get angry,  sad and wax lyrical about. But today, I am not in the mood for any of that. All I want to write is what needs to change. So, in no particular order, a few demands I’d like to make of the British government.

Give women absolute rights over their bodies and reproductive choices. This means allowing women as young as 25 to be sterilised if they do not wish to have children; granting no-questions-asked access to safe, inexpensive and immediately available contraception and abortion; and allowing women to birth their babies where, with whom and in whatever manner they see fit.

Require employers to keep and make transparent all records relating to the pay levels of their employees as they relate to skill level, length of employment and educational background. Heavily fine and penalise employers breaking the law by discriminating on the basis of gender or parental status.

Set out directives requiring that, wherever possible, meaningful, part-time and flexible work of all skill levels be made available to all employees, especially those with dependants or caring responsibilities.

Normalise, support and protect breastfeeding as a woman’s prerogative and a baby’s human right.

Produce a Parliament that is representative of the people it governs. If this means all-women, all-racial-minority shortlists, so be it.

Decriminalise the selling of one’s body but make buying another’s illegal and punishable.

Open childcare centres with fully-trained, well-paid staff, longer hours, greater flexibility, more individualised care, more outdoor space, healthier food and less expensive fees. Subsidise, subsidise, subsidise.

Stop blaming victims and demand that perpetrators of rape and domestic violence be held entirely accountable for their actions.

Put news relating to women’s rights, health and lives in the main bit of the paper, not the bloody ‘Lifestyle’ section or in ‘women’s supplements.’

Force anyone printing and distributing images of women, be it in advertising, promotion or media, to disclose when and to what extent said images have been altered.

Take your harmful, war-mongering, mother-blaming, woman-hating, gender-conforming, patriarchal norms and shove it up your collective arses.

Book review: The Equality Illusion

NS March 4th, 2010

This is the first in a run of book reviews I hope to do in the coming months, seeing as I have a backlog of relatively new feminist non-fiction to read. First up is ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard, former campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society, an organisation that campaigns for social and economic justice for women in the UK.

Before I get to the review, I’d just like to make a somewhat-tangential aside about Ms. Banyard’s place of employment. While I know that there are sectors within which unpaid internships are the norm and that non-profits are one of the biggest culprits, I was pretty disheartened when I emailed the Fawcett Society a few months back to eagerly ask how I might assist them with some volunteering of some description. I didn’t mind if it was stuffing envelopes or whatever, I just wanted to get involved with an organisation I’ve always admired and would love to work for some day, when my return to paid employment outside the home is imminent. In reply to my query about volunteering on an occasional basis, I was sent details of an unpaid internship (what other kind is there?) instead. The kicker was that the job would’ve been perfect for me and I would have happily applied right then and there…if it actually paid any money. Travel expenses and £4/day for lunch isn’t going to pay the bills or the childcare though, that’s for sure. When I wrote back to say as much and again asked if there were any more occasional tasks or weekend events I could help with, I was told they “don’t really do that sort of thing.”

Now, the only reason I bring this up is because I think this is a good example of an organisation trying to do good work but putting restrictions on who can actually work for it. I mean, who else but the wealthy or those just out of university and living with their parents, sans any immediate financial responsibilities, could afford to work for three days a week for 3-6 months, completely unpaid? The assumption that those interested in feminist activism can do unpaid internships (especially by an organisation that campaigns for fair wages and equal pay for women!), just comes across as astoundingly arrogant and clueless to the realities most of us face. And the only reason I’m pointing this out is because some of my criticisms of this book are based around this general appearance of excluding some topics in favour of others that may be more sensationalist or controversial but less relevant to the majority of women’s everyday lives in the UK, ones that are affecting their livelihoods and personal lives in deeply-ingrained, meaningful ways. So with that grumble out of the way (and with it having no direct bearing on Banyard because she is not the sum of her employer’s policies, obviously), on to the review.

First off, I will say that my overall impression of the book as a tool to get the general public thinking about ways in which gender inequalities still exist is a fairly good one. If you ever heard someone say “We’ve/you’ve got equality now, what are you complaining about?” or use a term like “post-feminist world,” (has a more laughable phrase ever been uttered, aside from ‘post-racial’?) you could do worse to hand them ‘The Equality Illusion.’ For those unversed in gender issues, this is a good starting place. However, as Jess at The F-Word already pointed out in her review, Banyard is kind of preaching to the ‘yes, we all know this’ choir as far as how already-established feminists are likely to react to it.

The first chapter, on body image, does a pretty good job at dissecting the main issues —  media representations of women,  objectification, gender conformity, beauty standards and the beauty industry and how all of it is damaging to girls and women. The young women she interviews for this portion of the book indeed have heartbreaking tales of shattered self-esteem and distorted views of their bodies, but I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t include much in the way of how we can combat these images in our daily lives, not just by taking on the huge structures perpetuating and capitalising on it, which is a huge task that no one is really sure how to undertake.

One of the most important ways we can help girls (and boys, for that matter) build healthy self-esteems and realistic body expectations is through involved parenting and leading by example. The messages sent by a constantly-dieting mother who is always (only half-jokingly) calling herself a pig can be far more harmful and seep into a child’s subconscious than a parade of billboards with conventionally attractive, airbrushed models on them. Talking to your children about the messages they receive and the images they see can be a very effective tool in keeping their expectations healthy, yet Banyard does little, if anything, to mention empowered parenting as a potentially massive part of the ‘solution,’ as it were.

I have similar complaints about the chapter on education. Overall it’s very good in presenting facts and providing a context in which we can see the gaping inequalities still present in today’s schools, but where are the interviews with parents? What do they think of gendered behaviour, gendered education, the arguments for and against biological and socially-conditioned differences in the way boys and girls think and perform? What are their thoughts and concerns on how gendered education is effecting their kids and if they are counteracting that at home in any way? Speaking to the teachers and to the children themselves is all very well and good, but leaving parents out of the education equation just because they don’t actually attend school with their kids is trying to complete a 24-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 18 of the pieces.

I have similar complaints of the reproductive rights chapter, which deals, unsurprisingly, with teenage/young pregnancy and abortion but not much else. There is no mention of feminist issues relating to pregnancy or birth rights, or of the changing role and consequences of reproduction throughout a woman’s life. Again, the focus seems to be on young(ish) women and those who have chosen not to have children, at least for the time being.

From my corner of the feminist parenting blogosphere, there hasn’t been much hope that this book would be any different from most of the others in really dissecting some of the issues important to mothers, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the ‘Sexism in the City’ chapter to be dedicated almost solely to the injustices and inequalities that women face with regards to work and childcare and the division of domestic labour. The case study she uses to open the chapter is about one woman”s struggle to care for her children and earn enough money to support them. Banyard asks some good questions and raises relevant topics, such as:

Why do so many women have to work below their skill level because those are the only jobs that fit around their caring responsibilities? Why are cleaning and other forms of traditional ‘women’s work’ (like carers and caterers) paid so little — and in particular less than traditional ‘men’s work’ (like plumbers and decorators) that require equivalent levels of skill and effort? Because gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal and women make up nearly half the workforce it is easy to assume that all is now fair and equal. But the near equivalent numbers of women and men in the workplace is where any ‘equality’ ends: 30,000 women are sacked each year in the UK simply for being pregnant, women make up only 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors and women are paid on average 22.6 per cent less per hour than men.

She also writes:

When discussing women in the workplace a standard media refrain is to ask whether women can ‘have it all’, i.e. a family and a career. But women have always had to combine work and caring. For many, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, that question is redundant; if they don’t work their family doesn’t eat. The real question is why is it only women who have to choose between a family and maximising their career potential? And, in fact, why should anyone have to choose between these two things at all?

Banyard goes on to talk about discrimination against mothers at work, the belief that women’s careers are curtailed by their ‘choices’, not because the system is set up to favour those without caring responsibilities, and the concept of a ‘sticky floor’ that exists well below the ‘glass ceiling.’ She interviews a charity that supports working parents and talks to working mothers themselves, making a real effort to understand and explain the disparities they face. There were things she didn’t touch on, of course — issues relating specifically to mothering are about more than just combining work and family — but for a feminist book by (from what I gather is) a relatively young, childless woman, I thought it was pretty well done.

Finally, the chapters on violence against women and the sex industry were informative, compelling and passionate. It seems pretty obvious that these issues are the most important to Banyard, and many young feminists, and she/they are doing a great job of speaking out against them. However (didn’t you know that was coming?), I will say that while I am 100% supportive of feminist aims to help women exit prostitution and to combat the pervasive and often-unpleasant sex industry, I can’t help but feel that the intense focus on it can be a bit off-putting to the general public. As Rachel Cooke pointed out in her review in the Guardian:

Mostly, she is preoccupied with finding ways to help women exit prostitution, and while I’m all for that, too, there are 30 million women in Britain, of whom not even a quarter of 1% sell sex for a living. What about the rest of us?

That’s not to say that prostitutes or sex industry workers don’t deserve our help and attention, because they unreservedly do. But if a book about gender inequality is trying to reach out to large swathes of people in one country, many of whom probably don’t identify as feminist in the first place, it needs to be relatable to their lives. Focusing on the sex industry, or female genital mutilation or forced marriages in other parts of the world (for example) can be, rightly or wrongly, seen as directing focus away from the issues that women right here in the UK face, all around them, every day. Portrayals of Western feminists as young, childless, middle-class, white girls who want to save ‘those poor women’ (sex industry workers, African women, child brides, etc..) from themselves may be off base entirely, but the fact is that this is the image they (we) have been saddled with by some. If a book’s aim is to foster greater understanding and enthusiasm for gender issues within a Western framework and amongst the women who inhabit it, I have to wonder if narrowing the focus a little bit and not necessarily worrying about casting the net wide in an effort to be ideologically diverse would actually catch more fish, as it were.

Again, I don’t want to insinuate that international problems or ones affecting a small, specific minority are not our problems or that we should be discouraging others from thinking about and acting upon them, but if Banyard truly wants to inspire ‘grassroots feminism’ (to which she devotes most of her last chapter), she would do well to remain focused on issues a bit closer to home and our hearts and remember that most of us — especially those living with children, or with disabilities, or financial hardships — can’t easily attend meetings and marches, or get online to check out all the latest blogs and conferences, or partake in unpaid internships.

Overall, this is a good ‘primer’ book but its approach is too broad and there’s not enough fire in the belly. We need less theoretical pontificating and more solid ideas for action. Because until we start organising the latter, the former is all we will ever do.

Cross-posted at Fertile Feminism

Bloggers For Haiti

NS January 18th, 2010

shelterbox

Have you been wanting to give something to Haiti but have perhaps hesitated, not knowing which organisation to donate to and what they’ll do with the money? Do you like the idea of helping to purchase a specific item that you know will be put to good use?

Some fantastic bloggers have gotten together and started a Just Giving page to help raise funds for ShelterBox, an organisation that is incredibly vital in the aftermath of disasters such as the earthquake that has destroyed much of Haiti. As pictured above, each box contains a ten-person tent designed to withstand heavy rainfall, extreme temperatures and high winds and comes with partitions so private spaces can be created inside. It also includes other vital survival equipment like thermal blankets, water purification and cooking supplies, a wood-burning or multi-fuel stove, a tool kit enabling latrines to be dug, firewood to be chopped and basic repairs to damaged dwellings to be made.

The box itself is lightweight and waterproof and can be used to store food and water or even double as a cot for a small baby. A supply of colouring and drawing materials for a child, who will likely have lost all of his or her possessions along with family members, is also included. It may seem irrelevant, but it’s often the small kindnesses and distractions that can help a child cope and bring a smile to his or her face.

Please, I beg you: give whatever you can to this fantastic organisation. They need our help to get as many of these boxes to the families in Haiti who have suddenly found themselves bereaved, injured, ill, homeless, thirsty and hungry. Each box costs nearly £500 so the more funds we can raise to ensure as many boxes as possible are sent, the better. As I type this, over £2,000 has been raised so far by the Bloggers For Haiti campaign, in the short space of a couple of days. That’s four boxes, ready to be shipped out! That’s shelter and supplies for 40 people.

Let’s help another 40, and then another. Just give.

Donations can also be made to Save The Children and UNICEF, amongst many others.