Journo for hire!

After more than two years I have left the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and am working as a freelancer full time. I’ve learnt a lot at IDS and met some great people but the time has come for a new challenge.

Here is some of the work I did in my final months at IDS:

‘It’s time to decolonise feminist knowledge’ (BRIDGE) – a report from a Signe Arnfred lecture on the decolonisation of knowledge production. The lecture highlighted the close relationship between the colonial process and knowledge production in Africa.

In January I went to Belize as part of a learning exchange. I worked for two weeks at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) as part of the Open Knowledge Hub Project. These posts for the OK Hub and Eldis outline some of my experiences, touching on data, development and the response to climate change in the Caribbean.

‘Urbanisation, health and the Sustainable Development Goals’ (Interactions) – part of a series looking at how specific topics are reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, including gender-based violence, unpaid care work, economic empowerment.

‘Faith, Gender & Sexuality: A Toolkit’ (Sexuality, Poverty and Law) – I edited this new resource for faith leaders in Africa and beyond.

Recent writing

This week I had a couple of posts published on the Transition Free Press blog:

  • Real Media conference celebrates independent journalism about the new campaign and network to support and promote independent, ‘public interest’ journalism. As someone passionate about these kinds of publications and platforms, I’m really excited about its potential. Real Media are holding a conference in Manchester on 28 February.
  • Accelerating transition, city by city about the ARTS research project. A study of five European city regions which aims to find out more about what makes some areas hubs for sustainability.

At the Institute of Development Studies, I have been working on three features for the Interactions website, focused on how the project’s key themes: unpaid care work, gender-based violence and urban health of women and girls in low incomes settings, relate to the Sustainable Development Goals. The first article on unpaid care work is now published here.

Gender and Social Movements

This summer I started work at the Institute of Development Studies, based at Sussex University. I do a variety of editorial based things but one of the most exciting projects I have been involved with is the BRIDGE Gender and Social Movements report and online resource.

Exploring issues close to my heart, the report explores the role of gender justice within and between social movements, arguing that sexism, racism, or any kind of deliberate or non-deliberate discrimination can’t be left until ‘after the revolution’ to address. Just because women or gender minorities are present in a group, or if a movement has some kind of ‘justice’ goal, it doesn’t mean that everyone is happy or has the same change to participate. The report also addresses, gender violence, intersectionality, gender justice within the feminist movement itself and includes some really interesting case studies. Written by by the inspirational Jessica Horn, contributions came from 150 activists, scholars and supporters from around world.

I wrote this post based on the report for the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change blog: ‘How to build a gender-just social movement‘.

This also gives me the chance to share one of my favourite passages on sexism and patriarchy: ‘Are you a manarchist?‘ Aimed at anarchists but a challenging read for anyone, of any gender, who considers themselves a feminist and an activist. Gave me something to think about anyway.

Cameroon’s women call time on breast ironing

This article was originally published in the May 2013 New Internationalist magazine…

When paediatrician Tamara Bugembe was first forwarded the email about ‘breast ironing’, she shuddered. But she didn’t take it seriously until a few years later, when she was working in Cameroon.

‘Breast ironing’, or ‘flattening’, aims to stem the growth of the breasts in the hope that it will help prevent unwanted male attention and delay a girl’s sexual activity. It is usually carried out by the mother or another member of the family, sometimes, even the girl herself. A heated tool, such as a pestle, is used.

Stemming development: Tools used for breast ironing are often those found around the house and then heated. This mother holds a stone and pestle.

The practice is common in Cameroon, although rarely talked about. Research by Cameroonian women’s organization RENATA and Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) in 2006 found that 24 per cent of young girls and women in Cameroon had experienced it.

Similar procedures have been recorded in countries including Nigeria, Togo, Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa.

Margaret Nyuydzewira is co-founder of CAME Women and Girls’ Development Organization (CAWOGIDO), based in London. She believes the procedure is also being carried out in Britain. ‘I met a police officer who was telling me they arrested a woman in Birmingham who was doing breast ironing, and because nobody knew about it, they thought it was her culture and let her go. We cannot say it’s culture because it’s harm that is being done to a child,’ she explains.

A campaign to raise awareness about breast ironing has begun in the Netherlands.

Gender Danger workshop

Nakinti Besumbu Nofuru/Gender Danger

The term ‘breast ironing’ is enough to make your toes curl, but for some mothers the alternative for their daughters seems much worse. The average age of rape victims in Cameroon is 15.

Tamara Bugembe has been working with Voluntary Services Overseas in Cameroon since September 2012. She has had two patients, aged 24 and 15, who came to her with swellings on the breast which turned out to be cysts.

It wasn’t until later that their mothers revealed they had previously ‘ironed’ their daughters’ breasts. ‘The girls were in boarding school and they were worried that the teachers would be using them to perform sexual favours, or that they would be raped. One mum was especially relieved – she’d clearly been beating herself over it thinking she had done something permanently harmful to her daughter.’

Georgette Taku, Programme Officer at RENATA, says it began the first campaign to raise awareness of breast ironing in 2006. ‘Before this, people did not know about the consequences; they just thought it was a means of helping the girl erase the signs of puberty and avoid the trap of early pregnancy,’ she says.

This was not the case for Ben, who is now 48 years old but underwent breast ironing in Cameroon when she was 13. Her mother used a spatula, normally used for cooking. She feels that the experience pushed her into having a child early, at 18, because of her lack of confidence. She now has seven children. ‘It has affected every area of my life,’ she says.

‘We never had a name for it like “breast ironing”; we just knew it was a kind of tradition. I had a lot of friends who were from Europe and hadn’t had it done and my breasts were not the same. When we went swimming I was embarrassed.’

But Ben’s eldest daughter also had her breasts ‘ironed’ – by Ben’s mother-in-law. ‘I see it having the same effect on her; she also had a baby early. I believe strongly that it should be stopped.’

Breasts can be a focus of unwanted attention and personal shame, especially for early developers. Fifty per cent of women in the 2006 GIZ/RENATA study who had their breasts ironed had started developing breasts at nine years old.

One woman told RENATA: ‘My elder sister decided to massage them every evening with hot water and a towel. This was very painful and before I slept, she would fasten a very big elastic belt around my chest to help flatten the breasts. Six months later, my breasts were weak. At 10, my breasts were small and fallen like that of an old mother. Each time I undress I am ashamed.’

Chi Yvonne Leina is a 31-year-old Cameroonian journalist and activist who founded Gender Danger, an organization that campaigns against breast ironing. She was 14 when she saw her grandmother ‘ironing’ her cousin Aline’s breasts with a grinding stone as she peeped through a hole in the wall.

‘I got to understand why my beautiful cousin had changed completely: because grandma was “fixing” her!’ After that, Leina says, she lived in fear: ‘I thought maybe that’s what they do to everyone who has breasts.’

Sure enough, a few months later her grandma approached her, but Leina threatened to tell the neighbours and her mother. ‘Out of fear, grandma gave up. She anxiously watched me as I grew, expecting the worst to happen at any time.

‘I made up my mind that I will be the voice for those women who can’t talk for themselves in my community. That led to my choice of journalism and advocacy for women as a career.’

So far Gender Danger, which was set up in 2012, has talked to over 200,000 women about breast ironing and the importance of sex education for their children.

‘It’s when people start opening up and talking that you find out what’s going on,’ points out Nyuydzewira. ‘I went to Islington [London] to give a talk and this lady from Greece said, “Oh yeah, they do it in Greece, too”.’

Nyuydzewira, who is originally from Cameroon, compares attitudes towards breast ironing with those directed at female genital mutilation (FGM) in the past. We all know that FGM happens, she says, even though we may never have seen it taking place. ‘Organizations [working against FGM] are mobilized. [In Britain], the police are involved, the social services are involved.

‘Every time somebody asks, “How do you know that breast ironing is going on?”, I say, “I’m from the community.” You’ll never see it, but we know that it is quietly happening.’

The clandestine nature of the practice means that some people think it’s an experience they alone have suffered. Rebecca Tapscott conducted a study of breast ironing in Cameroon in 2012. ‘I spoke to a lot of people who said: “That’s completely ridiculous, nobody would do that”,’ she says. ‘I heard about a minister who found out about it and thought it was terrible; he then went home and found out that his wife did it to his daughter.’

There is currently no specific legislation against breast ironing in Cameroon. Georgette Taku thinks that passing a law and starting to make arrests would make people think twice: ‘It would raise eyebrows.’

But Tapscott is not convinced that the law would be enforced. ‘You could make the argument that that sort of legislation is useful because it sends out a message when the state comes out on something, but I wonder if that is as far as it goes.

‘It’s really taboo [in Cameroon] to talk to children about sex and responsible relationships, which I think leads to this dramatic response.’

Taku says the biggest obstacle is getting on board everyone concerned with the rights of women and girls: ‘People who are supposed to be at the forefront, who are supposed to take up the fight, are staying quiet.’

But she thinks things are improving. ‘Some parents are opening up and trying to bring their children closer to them through sexual education rather than using methods like breast ironing; to help their children not become victims of one problem or the other.’

On 27 September 2013, CAWOGIDO is organizing a conference on breast ironing in London. To find out more go to the CAWOGIDO website.

Interactive timeline: 40 years of New Internationalist

One of my latest projects at New Internationalist has been an interactive timeline, covering 40 years of highlights…

New Internationalist is 40 in 2013 so we thought we would pull together some of our milestones into an online timeline.

40 years of New Internationalist

Click through to the full timeline here.

It was great to be able to look back over such an impressive history of independent journalism as it documented some monumental social movements.

Thanks to Charlie Harvey who used Timeline.JS to build a really easy to use template for me to put the editorial content into.

Student activism, free software and meeting inspiring people

My recent articles on or in New Internationalist

I’ve had a couple of interviews published in the magazine recently, including a Q&A with Man Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil, for November (online here), and an interview with the amazing feminist activist Khanum Lateef from the the Kurdistan region of Iraq, published in December’s issue.

On 21 November I went to London for the NUS demo and wrote a couple of blog posts – before and after.

For December’s podcast I spoke to NI’s Hazel Healy and Charlie Harvey. We had an interesting discussion about digital freedoms and non-freedoms, privacy, the practicals of free software and why tech is so dominated by men.

For anyone interested in the free software movement check out this month’s massive web hit, Hazel Healy’s interview with Richard Stallman.

Youth activism, cross-border feminism and climate justice

My latest offerings from the New Internationalist website…

Podcast: Jody McIntyre on youth activism – As part of the lead up to October’s youth issue I made a podcast featuring an interview with guest-editor Jody McIntyre.

‘We were wrong to think the environment could wait’ – Interview with Lidy Nacpil, the inspiring Filipino economic and climate justice campaigner who started out as a student activist against the Marcos regime.

The dos and don’ts of cross border feminism – Last weekend I went to UK Feminista’s Summer School for a day and caught this session on building global solidarity.

Right, I’m off for a little holiday to Gent, Belgium now. Looking forward to catching up on some reading on the bus journey – am finally going to get through Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – better late than never!