Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Milking It!

Since being interviewed last week on LBC on the subject of public breastfeeding (you can listen to the interview here: , I have been really trying to understand why a man would be ‘acutely embarrassed’ by being made to ‘endure’ the sight of a woman breastfeeding. Now, it’s hard for me to peer into the Nuts magazine reading branch of the male psyche, but I’ve tried – Lord, how I have tried. Here are my attempts to make sense of this – I’ve come up with two theories.

Theory Number 1: ‘Oh my God, that bird’s getting her tit out. TIT! TIT! I can see a TIT! And I didn’t even have to pay her or google ‘big tits’! But I’m not meant to be looking. But I can’t help but look. But there’s a baby. How can I be getting turned on when there’s a baby involved? Oh my God, I’m a paedo.’

Theory Number 2: ‘Oh my God, that bird’s – yep, she’s getting her tit out! Hurrah! But…hang on. Something’s wrong here. It’s just not sexy. I can see a tit but I’m not feeling sexy...what’s wrong with me? Oh my God, I’ve turned gay.’

There you go – that was my effort to understand. Maybe someone could enlighten me if they’ve got any other theories. I had another idea which was that maybe men feel excluded from breastfeeding, and this makes them feel angry and rejected, but frankly that wasn’t as funny as Theory 1 and Theory 2, so I let that one fall by the wayside.

To be serious for a second (sorry): breastfeeding is a hugely emotive, complicated issue, especially once you start to come across really negative reactions to it. I do think part of it is how we are used to seeing breasts as sexual parts of a woman’s body, and then suddenly here they are performing an altogether different role. If it’s complicated for the confused male onlooker, it’s also complicated for the woman. Overnight your breasts look and feel very different, and they are suddenly seem to be someone else’s property – that of your baby.

I’ve spoken to a lot of women who say they love breastfeeding and that they find it a very sensual experience (personally I wasn’t massively keen, having mastitis a couple of times which was awful – I even started to really pity dairy cows and thought about becoming a vegan for, ooh, 30 seconds). It’s interesting though that when a lactating woman is sexually aroused, it stimulates the ‘let down reflex’ – that’s breastfeeding lingo for milk flow. Not something you’d know unless you’d breastfed, I guess – quite strange!

Anyway, like I said in the radio interview, please don’t be embarrassed, folks. They’re just breasts doing their rather clever job, and we’ll try our best not to spray you – too much – with milk.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The youngest Green

This is my three year old daughter, Clementine, 'reading' her copy of the Young Greens newsletter. She joined the Young Greens when she was two, and as far as I know she's the youngest member of the Green Party.

Some people have been a little cynical about me joining her up when she's so young, but I had some good reasons. We're always swift to complain about the apathy of the general public when it comes to the democratic process, but I think if you get people interested in playing a part in politics from a young age, the better chance we have of having a generation of active, engaged citizens in years to come.

It will be vital that today's children become the informed, concerned citizens of tomorrow, because of course they will unfortunately be inheriting the runaway climate change caused by the generations before them.

I don't know how common it is for schools to run mock elections, but they are certainly a good way of engaging young people. I remember one taking place in my school at the time of the General Election in 1992. The headmistress was unfortunately a staunch Tory and put up posters of John Major all over the place. (I drew a moustache on one of them, as I recall).

Anyway, my hope is that when she's old enough, she'll use her vote (by the way, she doesn't yet return her internal elections ballot papers - she uses them as drawing paper). I know who I hope she will vote for in the future, but she's happily a rather independent-minded type, so time will tell! Just this week, at the breastfeeding campaign meeting, she was holding forth about the importance of breastfeeding ("it makes us grow big and strong") and, unprompted, brought up the issue of the Whittington hospital ("we need to keep it open in case people get sick.")

Anyway, watch out for Clementine at a Green Party conference in a year or two - you heard it here first!

(Please note: I apologise for the perhaps slightly nauseatingly proud tone of this post - I honestly can't help it).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Breastfeeding campaign update

Today I attended a meeting of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign. We held a demo outside St Ann’s hospital during the summer to protest against NHS Haringey cutting the borough’s one paid breastfeeding support worker…something they announced during national breastfeeding month!

It isn’t a case of cuts causing the lack of provision, namely because there’s no budget to cut. That’s right: NHS Haringey doesn’t have a budget for promoting and supporting breastfeeding. This despite the fact UK breastfeeding rates are low and have been for decades: 42% of babies are being breastfed at 6 weeks, 29% at 4 months and just 22% at 6 months of age. (It’s worth knowing that the World Health Authority recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with breastfeeding continuing for at least the first two years).

Research from 2004 showed that 9 out of 10 women who gave up breastfeeding in the first 6 weeks said they stopped before they wanted to because they didn’t feel they had access to adequate support.

Haringey has in fact just increased the ‘drop in’ sessions in the borough, but these are funded by Sure Start…and we anxiously wait to see how that will be slashed by the current government.

But there is much the borough can be doing to encourage breastfeeding, especially if is wants, as NHS Haringey boss Tracey Baldwin claimed recently, to be accredited as having ‘Baby Friendly status’ as established by Unicef.

Just yesterday a friend of mine was breastfeeding her 2 month old daughter in St Ann’s Library (whilst reading her 3 year old son a book…what was that about women and multi-tasking?!). A male librarian asked her if, in the future, she would please ‘face the wall’ because they’d had complaints in the past. He also said that there would be some children coming in soon, so she better not get her tits out again. God forbid kids should see a woman breastfeeding! They might think it’s normal and think about feeding their own future babies that way! Just say no, kids…

In short, we’ve got a long way to go. The group of strong, opinionated and informed women I met up with today – who threw around ideas, facts and figures and brandished letters from our MP, often whilst breastfeeding a baby at the same time – left me in no doubt that this will be a successful campaign.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Prison - an expensive failure?

I’ll be heading to Birmingham this Friday for Green Party Autumn Conference, which, judging from the timetable, looks like it’s going to be a good one. I thought I’d blog about the panel on UK Prison Reform which I’ve been busy organising for quite a while!

The panel will take place on Friday 10th Sept at 6pm in the main hall. It will be chaired by Jean Lambert MEP and I am very excited about the panel I’ve lined up…

- Juliet Lyon CBE, Director of the Prison Reform Trust (and Commissioner for the Women’s National Commission (WNC)).

- Denise Marshall, coordinator of Birth Companions (an organisation who help pregnant prisoners and prisoners with babies).

- Joy Doal, coordinator of the Anawim Project in Birmingham (an organisation that supports sex workers and former women offenders).

- Rebecca Cunningham, a user of the Anawim Project.

Conference will also be considering a motion to adapt and augment our existing prison policy. I hope the policy is passed as it will add some important details to what is already a good, solid approach.

Particularly, I am keen to see points about women prisoners added to Green Party policy. Some facts on prisons I came across during the research for the motion and the panel discussion include:

- 17,000 children are deprived of their mothers annual when they are sent to jail (2004).

- Between 2005 and 2008, 283 babies were born in UK prisons. 8 mother and baby units in UK prisons – one is in Holloway.

- 12,000 women pass through the prison system every year. One third have a young child. (2010). 68% are in for non-violent offences, 56% have used drugs daily. Costs £27,000 per woman per year to keep them in prison (2004).

- A quarter have been in care as children, half have been beaten by their partners, 70% have been diagnosed with two or more mental disorders. (2004).

Little wonder, then, that there is an epidemic of suicide and self-harm in prisons – with the most likely time for a prisoner to attempt suicide being their first night in jail. Shockingly, six women on average have to be cut down from nooses every night in Holloway prison (2004). Women prisoners are more likely to self-harm than men (The Corston Report).

And of course there are less ‘dangerous criminal’ women than there are men - in 2007, it was reported that 1000 heroin-addicted women are jailed each year for selling sex. This begs the question, what is prison actually for? Protecting the law abiding? Enforcing normative moral codes? Or further damaging the life chances of the already seriously vulnerable and disadvantaged?

People ‘on remand’ are being imprisoned for long periods, and are not necessarily guilty of any crime. 12,000+ people in UK this applies to every year (2005). This raises some important civil liberties questions. ‘Remand’ is used incorrectly – e.g. to imprison people who actually need sectioning (according to The Howard League for Penal Reform). Two-thirds of the women who go to prison do so on remand and more than half of them do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, with one in five acquitted. (The Corston Report).

There are several steps that can be taken to improve the lot of those sentenced to a term in prison. Placing new prisoners in a separate wing, and talking them through the routine of prison life has been shown to be effective. ‘Buddy schemes’, where prisoners help each other, guided by The Samaritans, has also worked well (more so than help from professionals, apparently).

The problem we read about time and time again is overcrowding – we cannot rehabilitate prisoners if prisons are overcrowded. In 1993, our prisons contained 40,000: 47% ‘went straight’ upon release. Now the prison population us double (2008) – and only 25% ‘go straight’.

Something which also has a detrimental affect on prisoners’ chances of ‘going straight’ is the fact that a third of prisoners are homeless when they are released from jail, making it very likely that they will re-offend. In Liverpool Prison, prisoners were taught construction skills and then used them to do up an abandoned council house once they were released.

Another way to make sure that prisoners remain a part of society, rather than cut off and angered, is to allow them to retain the right to vote. Because they do not currently have that right, MPs do not have to listen to their concerns or raise issues about their welfare. It further disenfranchises them from society, and there is no incentive to make prisons better.

Lastly, it is worth bearing in mind, particularly in this era of ‘savage cuts’, that prisons cost £2.2bn a year. With re-offending rates after release still at about 60% (and over 75% for young offenders) prison is an expensive failure, which has no impact on crime levels or the fear of crime.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Free Wheel - not so fabulous

I’m not much of a cyclist (though, inexplicably, I own two bikes), but yesterday I attended the Free Wheel event in central London. It’s sponsored by Sky (that’s the main thing that’s wrong with it) and I generally had mixed feelings about it.

First off, the positives. It encourages people to get on their bikes and not have to worry about traffic. There are lots of different events to get involved with, stalls to visit etc – my three year old daughter loved the little kids fun section, where she tore around the track on a ‘like-a-bike’.

There were some spectacles to be enjoyed: a punt on wheels and a piano and a bicycle morphed into one melodic, travelling contraption.

Cycling helmets off also to the stewards and the lead riders, who lead big convoys of riders from the start points to the ‘traffic-less’ sections. It was a tricky job and the ones I saw in action were doing great work.

The less positive points now…Although one didn’t have to worry about traffic (as in cars etc), there were so many bikes, wheel to wheel, that you really did have to be on red alert every second so as not to have a collision. Indeed, I saw some people having bumps and falls because of this very problem.

It was great that it was so well-attended, but the feeling I had was that cycling, a solitary pursuit (unless you’re on a tandem, but let’s not quibble here, folks), didn’t really suit this massive, crowded event.

There was also a feeling of ‘organised fun’ – ooh, we’re in the loud zone, everyone ring your bells, wooo! No thanks. Maybe I am just a curmudgeonly misanthrope (actually, there’s no ‘maybe’ about it!) but organised fun makes me want to crawl into a burrow and not come out for a long time…

One more gripe: if the event is about encouraging people out onto the streets to cycle, isn’t this a rather unrealistic introduction? No cars, go-go dancers cavorting in tunnels, penny-farthings sailing past. Actually, that description makes it sound much more fun than it actually was!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Hague's ill-advised comments

I am not sure why William Hague is making such a big deal out of his sexuality. Who cares if he is or isn’t gay? It’s not really all that interesting. From the way he’s been reacting, you’d think he’d been accused of paedophilia or murder. Maybe, to the Tories, being gay is a sin akin to those crimes, who knows? I wouldn’t like to assume how a Tory brain works.

About 11 years ago I was at a party in south London (I don’t get out much these days, but long ago, oh yes). A Tory-faced man told me that he knew Hague and filled me in on gossip much along the lines of what the papers are reporting this week. Again, so what? Not all that interesting. Apart from the fact that, if true, why the hell does it have to be such a secret? What year is it again, 1952?

What struck me as particularly odd was Hague’s comments about his wife’s miscarriages. Despite how commonplace they are, no one really talks about miscarriages – especially men. One sensed it was Hague’s trump card, and the message was ‘so that means we have SEX and so I am HETEROSEXUAL! Hurrah!’ A little bit on the tawdry side, I thought, using his wife’s unpleasant experiences in such a public and insensitive fashion.

In short – Hague, if you’re gay, get over it, it couldn’t be less interesting. If you’re not, then do shut up – being accused of being gay in 2010 is no big deal – it’s (whisper it) not actually an insult, or haven’t you heard? Whichever is the case, leave your wife’s womb out of it. Ta ever so.