Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Children and domestic violence

We often hear the shocking statistics about domestic violence – that on average over two women are killed by an ex or current partner every week in the uk, and that one in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. But it is perhaps not until we have direct or indirect experience of the issue in our own lives that the true horror of those statistics really dawn on us.

When I was at primary school, my mother looked after a girl who was in the year below me. She came to our house for lunch and after school, until her mother picked her up. I got on well with this girl, A, and I think we enjoyed playing together because we were both ‘only’ children. We found we had a lot in common, not least of all that we were in what were often unhappy marriages. Not our own, of course – that of our parents.

A and I would hold regular ‘meetings’ to discuss the state of our parents’ marriages. These would take place in top-secret locations (I recall one under the dining table and one behind the garden shed). We would report on recent explosive arguments, recent scoldings we had received (verbal, physical) and whether we thought our parents would divorce - I always rather hoped mine would, though they never did! It really helped to have someone to discuss these issues with, I realise now.

Then, aged 8, I was sent to a different school, and I never saw A again.

I never knew what had happened to her, until in recent months when she has been featuring in the press for a terrible reason. It turns out that her parents never divorced either, and that in February this year her father had killed her mother in a savage attack. He has escaped being given a life sentence because of mental health problems and has instead being charged with culpable homicide.

A never told me about any physical violence that took place towards her mother in her household, but I wonder now what horrors she, as a child, was a witness to. Not much is said about the children who survive these situations, and how it affects them in later life.

So today I am thinking of children in that situation – there must be thousands, millions – and hoping that they are not irrecoverably damaged by their far from ideal upbringings. Much is made of ‘staying together for the sake of the children’. Perhaps ‘splitting up for the sake of the children’ would be more appropriate for many warring couples.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Women and the media

On Sunday I attended Day 2 of the UK Feminista Summer School. It says a lot about how big the resurgence of feminism has become when an event such as this becomes fully booked.

The first event of the day was a panel on ‘women and the media’, with freelance Hannah Pool, Kira Cochrane, the Guardian’s women editor and Jess McCabe from the F Word as Chair.

Both Cochrane and Pool agreed that there is still very much a culture of machismo within the newspaper industry, “even at the Guardian”, with a belittling of 'women’s issues'. They both observed that they get very misogynistic comments written under their articles when they appear online. As an experiment, Pool wrote a feminist article under the alias ‘Harry Pond’, and wasn’t surprised to see that this time she received no negative comments. Both writers agreed that it was important for women readers to make comments about articles, as difficult as it is to do so when you know you will then be attacked.

The issue of female journalists writing misogynistic articles was raised – Liz Jones and Melanie Phillips being two examples of this unfortunate species. Pool commented that this is a common trick that male commissioning editors now use – they know that men cannot say certain things about women these days, so they get a female journalist to do so instead. “It’s a pressure to be worse than men in a pressured environment, which is almost all-male,” she explained. Kira Cochrane concurred, saying it was also a way for female journalists to make a lot of money.

An audience member asked about whether writing in the Guardian is very much ‘preaching to the converted’, and what would their advice be on writing, for example, for the Daily Mail? Cochrane described it as “like walking into a really, really, really dark forest.” She said that if you wrote copy for such a paper, you had to be prepared for them editing what you had written substantially, and that it might also appear under a really awful headline. Pool said that she had written for the Evening Standard, and that she had ‘got away with’ writing feminist articles without much censure. She also noted wryly that her bag of hate mail was only as big as the one she received at the Guardian.

We all know the importance of the media in influencing society, and so this session, which also allowed women to ask about becoming journalists, pitching stories, and getting coverage for their campaigns, was extremely useful. Much was also made of the democratic nature of the internet – anyone can blog, and anyone can submit articles to sites such as The F Word.

As one older feminist in the audience commented, “the battles we fought so many years ago – they need to be fought again.” And the more visible and high-profile that fight is, the more successful it will be.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Haringey Council cuts luxuries – including being green!

Last night I attended a meeting at Haringey Council between the officers who are coordinating the Green door knocking scheme and members of the Sustainable Haringey Network.

The council have been given some Government money through the ‘Future Jobs fund’ to do some ‘environmental door-knocking’, talking to people about green issues such as sustainable transport, energy reduction, water conservation, sustainable food and of course recycling.

It’s a good idea in principle – taking the message to the doorsteps, giving people practical tips on how to reduce their carbon footprint.

There’s one big problem, though. The Future Jobs fund has been scrapped, and Haringey’s scheme, which started just last week, will be come to an abrupt end in February. That is if it isn’t extended by the use of volunteers. “The Big Society”, I quipped, and we all grimly chortled.

We raised the issue of Free Mass Insulation – that if it can happen in Kirklees, it can happen here. Creating local jobs, lifting the borough’s poorest out of fuel poverty, drastically lowering the borough’s CO2 emissions. “I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to spend any remaining money on – it’s win, win, win,” I told the officers.

Like most local authorities, Haringey have always come up with excuses rather than take what are seen as radical steps – the Free Mass Insulation scheme being a case in point. They’re big on proclamations “We’re going to reduce emissions by 40%!” – but less good on the detail of how that’s actually going to actually happen.

Now, though, they have the seemingly cast iron excuse to do very little – “there’s no money.” Sorry, I don’t buy it – pun intended. They can afford to publish a glossy magazine and send it to every household in the borough. They can afford to spend a fortune on consultants. They clearly have more money than they know what to do with – why else would they heat council offices to tropical temperatures and leave all the lights on at night?!

It’s time Haringey Council realised that tackling climate change isn’t just some trendy thing – a box that they can be seen to tick without taking real action. I do not blame the council officers – speaking to them individually, I sense that many of them would love to be more radical. Instead I blame the lack of political will. Oh, for some Green councillors, punching well above their weight, and not taking no for an answer!

Instead, for now at least, we’ll have to shout from the sidelines. My megaphone is at the ready.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lynne Featherstone and the 'ideal' body shape

Lynne Featherstone MP’s recent proclamation that actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Harris in Mad Men, has the perfect figure, the one that all women ‘should’ be aiming for, was bizarre to say the least.

Featherstone described Hendricks’s figure as ‘absolutely fabulous’ and held up a silhouette of her figure.

Now, I know Featherstone meant well with these comments. I know that she is concerned about the pressure on young women to conform to beauty industry standards and also about the airbrushing that goes on in the magazine and advertising industry.

But saying that this is the outline that we should all be aiming for is crazy. I’m sure flat-chested women everywhere will be delighted to be told that it is ‘absolutely fabulous’ to have big breasts.

And as a fan of ‘Mad Men’, I can’t help but recall the treatment Hendricks’s character, Joan, receives, due largely to her appearance. Men talking to her tits, not her face. Raped on the office floor by her fiancĂ© – who she still goes on to marry. And the subtle little shot (what other sort of shot is there in this excellent drama?) of Joan rubbing the raw marks on her shoulders where her bra straps have been cutting into her skin all day…

Not so ‘absolutely fabulous’ after all…