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.

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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.

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.

Are quotas the answer?

This was originally written as a university assignment and aimed at  Press Gazette.

Hundreds of  journalists in Germany have called for gender quotas in top media jobs. Women in the UK media give their opinion on whether we should be calling for the same here…

Rebekah Brooks and Sly Bailey: both high profile, both women, and both out of the job. Whatever your opinion on them, they were part of a very small group of women in the industry who make it to the top of their game.

The lack of women in powerful media positions is not just a UK problem. In February, in a letter sent to around 250 editors, publishers and managers across Germany,  journalists called for quotas to get 30% women in executive jobs in editorial departments within the next five years.

Quotas have been in the news recently in Britain in the context of business but the issue has not been seriously raised here in relation to the media. When suggested in any sector they are controversial but are they the only way to equality?

What limited research there has been into the amounts of women in the UK, and global, media workforce has shown that despite high numbers of women entering the industry they are not working their way up the career ladder.

In 2011 the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) released the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media. Covering 170,000 people they found that 73% of the top management jobs globally are occupied by men.

Looking at 16 news companies in the UK across newspapers, television and radio the IWMF found that although women represented 45% of the combined workforce, at senior management level the proportion of women was 29.5%. The UK companies studied, “exhibit entrenched institutional practices of marginalising women in their newsrooms and decision-making hierarchies.”

The trend is similar across media platforms. The Fawcett Society carried out research in 2007 which showed two woman editors out of the 17 national newspapers surveyed. If the study were to be done again today this would be just one, Tina Weaver of the Sunday Mirror. Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) was replaced by a man when she left The Sun to become chief executive of News International. The 2007 also showed 6% women among deputy editors at nationals.

In 2011 Skillset released research into the UK broadcasting industry that said that while women working in radio were better qualified than men (73% had degrees compare to 70% of men), they earned, on average £2,200 less each year. They were also just 34% of senior managers and only 17% at Board level. In television the numbers at board level were 29%.

Dr Cynthia Carter, of Cardiff University, is a leading academic in gender and the media and founding co-editor of the Feminist Media Studies journal. She says there needs to be more research done into why women are not progressing. “A lot of the top jobs need 24/7 availability,” she explains. “As women get into their 30s they start having issues with partners and children and start taking positions that don’t lead to the top jobs to allow them to have a life outside work.”

In Skillset’s research only 16% of women in UK radio had dependent children compared to 25% of men. A report on the film industry commissioned by the UK Film Council, published in 2007, echoed this saying 36% of men lived with dependent children whereas only 14% of women did.

Janet Street-Porter raised the issue in the 1997 documentary A Night In With The Girls saying society still expects women to fill a role. She said women needed time to themselves when they get home from work to “stop being a boss woman and become a normal person.” She suggested men are used to being bossy all the time.

Francesca Preece, editorial assistant at The Sun, says that women in journalism have to fight their corner. “It takes a very strong woman to break through the prejudice. If you had two equally qualified young people, one male and one female, the male journo would almost definitely be taken more seriously,” she explains.

The main argument for the introduction of gender quotas in the UK media follows that although change is happening it’s not happening quickly or thoroughly enough. People recruit in their own image, and will continue to do so until someone shakes things up. Dr Carter describes this as informal and unconscious discrimination where men often see themselves in a candidate of the same gender and similar background.

It is argued that quotas are compensating for the barriers a particular group faces and that as audiences do not get to choose who runs the media so they deserve a more representative workforce to better cater to their needs.

Quota Project, a database of gender quotas for women, use Norway as one of the examples they say prove quotas work. A law was passed there in 2003 to allocate 40% of boardroom places in publicly traded companies to women. There are now have 37.9% women on company boards whereas the UK has 12.5%.

But those people against quotas see them as patronising, elevating people to positions they are not skilled or ready for. “Hiring more women at the expense of men for example won’t make male journos respect them any more than before…They would just be seen as filling a quota and not there on merit.” says Preece.

“If Rebekah Brooks managed it without a quota at one of the most male dominated titles, I am sure many others can elsewhere in Fleet Street.”

Do we need gender quotas in the UK? Journalists Alison Clarke and Michelle Perry go head to head.

Yes

Authour and journalist Alison Clarke is the founder and co-editor of Women’s Views On News.

“Quotas are a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut but where they have been introduced, in boardrooms and parliamentary representation, they do make a difference…Quotas serve a purpose and they should be time limited so it’s not that they’re on the statute book forever.

“I’m 57 and I’ve heard that argument [that we should wait for change] for 30 years. Well, I’ll be dead before it does; it’s nonsense. It won’t happen because we all hire in our image.

“The UK media industry is not just dominated by men at the top, but when you drill all the way down then newsrooms are dominated by men as a result of which our news is filtered through that male lens. They’re deciding who should be heard and who shouldn’t be heard.

“One woman is never enough they reckon you need about 30% so you have a critical mass then things start to change, so you get a critical mass with parliament, suddenly parliament starts talking about childcare, maternity rights, lots of issues which are of more direct relevance to woman and I think the same thing would happen in the newspaper industry.”

“I would say that most women who work within that industry know that it’s very male dominated but if you asked an awful lot of men they wouldn’t necessarily be aware of that. Or if they were they wouldn’t be aware of the impact that it has on women in terms of the culture.

“People on the right argue against it because they say it’s tokenistic and that they don’t want to be a token woman and that they want to get there on their own merit. My argument would be that there are plenty of women out there with plenty of talent and there’s a reason they’re not getting on and it’s got nothing to do with their ability.”

No

Michelle Perry is a journalist specialising in business and finance. She is the editor of CFO World a website for chief financial officers.

“I personally wouldn’t back any quotas in any industry, for any reason. What I’ve seen in business the threat of quotas is enough to make people make change. People don’t like change whether they’re a man or woman and they especially don’t like being told to do it from outsiders.

“Even though journalism is predominately populated by men it is changing and in the younger ranks coming through now there’s probably a greater balance of men and women. Personally I’ve always worked with male bosses and with a majority of men on news desks and I’ve never felt it’s a problem and I’ve never felt that I was inhibited from progressing in my role.

“I think it [the workplace] is changing because more and more women are in the workplace and want to go back to work after they’ve had kids. I think more organisations now realize that they have to have flexible structures to incorporate this very talented workforce that is being excluded.

“Someone should do an industry piece of research then we can see who’s in all levels, then if there is a problem you can work from facts and not presumption. Perhaps it won’t change unless it’s raised and we just carry on plugging along and perhaps women don’t rise up and leave the workforce and don’t vocalise why they are. I think there’s also an issue that women tend to be not as bolshie as men and perhaps wouldn’t go for the roles that they don’t feel confident about.

“I find that if you kind of force the situation then you end up getting people into positions who perhaps aren’t ready. Not because they don’t have the skills or they don’t have the ability to get the skills, but because they haven’t had the experience…they may fail and that will be a disservice to all of us.”

CAS @ Feminism In London

From looking around the room a feminist could look like anyone. The women did not fit the stereotypes all too often associated with the feminist movement, ranging right through the age spectrum, gay and straight and of varied ethnicities.

There was also a significant number of men, not coerced there by women but fully engaged in the issues including those sometimes considered women’s domain – like maternity care and problems with the ‘sex industry’.

There was a workshop for men only on ‘Confronting Privilege’; part of a diverse programme that included feminist parenting, women’s internalised prejudice, reproductive and sexual health and workshops specifically for children.

One of the main attraction of the conference for Ctrl.Alt.Shift was the section titled ‘Reports From The Global Women’s Movement’, a panel of feminist activists, experts who have taken part in struggles around the world.

“If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu”, said Chitra Nagarajan in the day’s opening, and this is especially obvious in many places where war, poverty or corruption have caused dramatic imbalances in power.

Nadje Al-Ali started off talking about the Iraqi movement, where she said in many ways there has been regression in women’s equality. Leila Alikaramis told a similar story from Iran but pointed out, “Now women have showed themselves successfully in public life it is not possible to force them back into the private lives of their home.”

M&S Percy the Sexist Pig protest

Tsitsi Matekaire talked about how despite violence against women and forced marriage by kidnap being prevalent in Ethiopia, women are increasingly organising and fighting for their rights.

Katherine Ronderos also spoke about women’s resistance and told the story of the Feminists In Resistance movement in Honduras – an energetic and compelling campaign against the violence of the recent coup in the country.

Katherine also highlighted how inequality in sexual identity, ethnicity, class and gender is always interlinked and should be tackled in intersections instead of in isolation from each other.

Complex issues were also explored by one of the most exhilarating speakers of the day, Marie-Claire Faray-Kele, recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a group who travelled from the UK in solidarity with women who are victims of mass rape, a weapon often used in conflict there.

Marie-Claire painted a damming picture of how the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC by multinational corporations have led to displacement of people and how she thinks the presence of NGOs and the UN is adding to the problems in the country by disempowering women who want to stand up for their own rights.

Every person told an inspiring story of women and men working for gender equality. Cynthia Cockburn, who chaired the section, called on the audience to learn from these struggles of people who are often working in very dangerous and more restrictive situations than our own. As Marie-Claire pointed out “feminism is not just a Western concept.”

Whether in the DRC or on the streets of London many women and men are taking part in the gender equality movement. Lunchtime activism was also squeezed in outside Marks & Spencer in Oxford Circus, as 50 people dressed as ‘Percy the sexist pig’ descended on the store and gave out leaflets calling for a Boycott of the chain after they sub-let one of their buildings (in Bristol) to Hooters.

Feminism in London showed the growth of an inclusive feminist movement in Britain; for around half of the delegates it was their first Feminism in London conference.

The final speaker was Finn Mackay who received a stand ovation for her call to action, but for me movements for equality were summed up by Natasha Walter, who said, “Never stop believing that the future we want will become the present we are living in.”