2012: a recap and some links

Monday, 31 December 2012

I seem to have spent most of December cleaning up the by-products of a succession of infant colds and stomach upsets, and stopping a now mobile Sebastian from eating power cables and houseplants, hence the lack of blogging here. It's now just under two months until I return to work and despite the way that time at home with a baby seems to drag, I really don't know where 2012 has gone.

This year, I:
- Got more and more pregnant
- Facilitated part of a session on faith and feminism at Go Feminist!
- Got really sick of being pregnant and found my prayers answered as I gave birth four days before my due date, two hours after arriving at the hospital
- Celebrated five years of marriage and ten years since I started dating Luke
- Found summer at home with a newborn really isolating and miserable. It was like Groundhog Day with nappies, and I really hoped it would get better.
- Took a two-month-old to a gathering of women leaders where he was the much-loved Token Male, and a  three-month-old camping (and survived)
- Found that things did get better and that however it has made me feel, it's been really important for me and for Sebastian that I've spent this time with him (even though I'm definitely looking forward to working again)
- Read barely any books, and listened to barely any music
- Felt hopelessly out of touch with what's happening in the news and on blogs
- Helped form a the collective that founded and launched a new UK Christian Feminist Network (email cfnet@ymail.com to be added to our mailing list!)
- Went for precisely one run, but generally walked several miles every day
- Struggled with "doing" church with a baby
- Was really grateful for the support of online friends
- Got into Pinterest

This month:

Mormon feminists wore trousers to church on December 16th as a way of raising awareness of gender equality issues, identifying themselves as feminists to their communities, and generating discussion. For something intended as a fairly innocuous, peaceful action it really didn't go down too well with those who don't believe in gender equality, don't believe in rocking the boat, or basically think that women have nothing to complain about and need to put up and shut up. Pantsgate 2012, as it became known, fascinated me for a good few days as I read posts and discussions about it. I wrote about it for BitchBuzz, but here are some interesting posts from actual LDS women:

- From C. Jane, who I might add has had a great blogging year and is one of my favourites: The Worst Thing Is Pants; The Worst Thing Is Pants Part II; Proving Myself.
- Young Mormon Feminists: Panstgate 2012
- Zelophehad's Daughters: four posts, here; here; here and here.
- Feminist Mormon Housewives: pretty much any post from the week or so leading up to Wear Pants to Church Day.

Since November I've been a curator for Threads, a blog for 20-something Christian voices that won Best Blog at the Christian New Media Awards in October. Last month I expanded on my feelings about the pro/anti-choice debate and where Christians can fit into it. This month I've written about new motherhood and the changes it brought to my emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

I also wrote my annual Year in Feminist Rage round-up for BitchBuzz.

Next year I really want to return to blogging more regularly. Where this will fit in around working full time and parenting a baby I have no idea, but I'd really like it to it to happen somehow. I was chatting to a friend a couple of months ago and she said she was so impressed that I "hadn't missed a beat" with blogging despite having a baby. Believe me, this is not how I feel about it and there are times when I've felt quite miserable about the lack of posts and lack of time to write about things I really want to write about. Here's to a more productive 2013.

Young motherhood, feminism, and privilege

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

There's a good piece in the Telegraph this week. Written by Prymface, it discusses women who have children in their teens, the inequalities they have to battle, and how all this relates to today's feminism, which can focus overwhelmingly on taking a path through life that doesn't involve young motherhood. Prymface writes:
"As a society, we spend a lot of time helping those with the most options in their lives to have access to even more choices. When we talk about inequality, we need to look at where we are placing our values and whose values we are adopting."
This is an important point and of course, where privilege comes in. We see it in the focus on getting more women into boardrooms and in the way that media coverage of young feminists - and the activism of young feminists - is often limited to the experiences and concerns of middle-class university students and graduates. This isn't to say that these things aren't important, but it can all be pretty excluding for women who have different priorities and are facing different inequalities and judgement from people.

As a young(er) feminist issues surrounding children and motherhood weren't really on my radar either. I was one of the aforementioned middle-class university students and the big issues for me were objectification, (thin) body politics, rape and sexual assault, the media and advertising. Pretty typical, and it did take a while for my horizons to broaden. It's only been in recent years, as I started to consider becoming a mother, that the battles associated with what a speaker at a conference I once attended referred to, not entirely favourably, as "the mummy track" became apparent to me.

I couldn't find an up-to-date statistic on the percentage of women in the UK who do not have, and will never have children, either by choice or circumstance. One statistic from a few years back put it at around 20%, which indicates that therefore four out of five women do. This should tell us that feminist issues related to motherhood and children are pretty important. I hate Daily Mail-style handwringing that positions joyful motherhood as the ultimate goal of all women as much as the next person, but sometimes I think the inevitable ensuing chorus of "We're not just WOMBS, you know!" misses the point that these are issues that matter to women, whether you, personally, have chosen to have children or not.

I believe that the way we focus on abortion rights can often have the same effect - an emphasis on not having children, excluding those who have chosen otherwise and meaning that the issue of forced abortion as a form of abuse, and abortion as a way out taken by women who would have preferred not to have one but felt they had no choice (feminist issues both) get overlooked. I don't want to be misunderstood on that point - I say it as someone who is pro-choice and has written about it many times, but it ignores the full spectrum of issues.

Considering motherhood and children is hardly something new or revolutionary - free childcare was one of the seven demands of the British Women's Liberation Movement (and of course the cost of childcare remains one of the most important and limiting economic issues affecting women and their working lives). But in today's discussions of giving up careers to stay at home, or the "consequences of delaying motherhood", or  endless dissection of the choices exercised by relatively privileged mothers, the issues affecting young mothers - and by association working class mothers are left untouched.

I wonder, then, what needs to happen to encourage such issues to start appearing on the radar of many feminist activists today.

Bristol Christian Union and the "ban" on women speakers

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Last night's big news came courtesy of Bristol University Christian Union, which has caused uproar by stating that women may not teach at some of their events and meetings.

The issue is not that the CU previously allowed women speakers at main meetings and has now put a stop to it - what's happened is that they have clarified their position that women cannot teach in certain situations, but have conceded that they may do so at other times, outside main meetings and weekends away. A move towards an egalitarian position had led to resignations from complementarians. An email to members stated:
"...we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly Equip meetings, as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks, but a husband and wife can teach together in these. This means that women are able to teach."
Single women are therefore excluded altogether from teaching in main meetings, in a move that appears to legitimise the theologically suspect position that women can only exercise authority if they're under the "covering" of a man, often used to mean husbands and therefore prevent unmarried women from doing much at all.

The reaction has been as predictable as you'd expect in the wake of the debate on women bishops. It's no secret, however, that individual Christian Unions have always held the view that women cannot teach men - but this is the first time it has been reported in the mainstream media. This is not an issue exclusive to Bristol University, but one that has caused a lot of hurt to many people over many decades. When I was a student, my CU did not permit women to teach in main meetings, nor did it ever have a woman president. The same is true at several other universities.

Something I think is always a major issue here is immaturity, spiritual and otherwise. These societies are generally run by young people aged between 18 and 21. That's not to say I'm being superior about it - I was certainly no different when I was a student - but I think there is often a lack of awareness and overly zealous attitude that can cause problems in all student movements, not just religious ones. One thing I would hope is that the committee at Bristol are seeking support and wisdom from others rather than just trying to work this out among themselves, as emotions are no doubt running high.

What worries me about all this is that decisions are being made - not just at Bristol - that lead to confusion and disillusionment among young people, who in turn might feel as if there is no place for them or their gifts and possibly, that there is no place for them in the church.

Despite the presence of other Christian socieites, Christian Unions tend to do a pretty good job of positioning themselves as the Christian group on campus. Their activities, for better or worse, become representative of what Christianity is, and they become a main focal point for many young Christians trying to live out their faith at university. Over the years there have been numerous disputes involving Christian Unions and conflicts of opinion on gender, on spiritual gifts, on other aspects of doctrine. Often there has been an attitude that places them above other Christian groups in terms of who the "real" Christians are. All of this does a lot of damage to what Christian groups at universities aim to do and has the potential to make plenty of student Christians feel very unwelcome. You don't have to dig much to find the stories of Christians who felt very hurt and excluded by CUs during their time at university.

I've seen comments from some people that the decision at Bristol CU was made in the spirit of unity, a measure to prevent division. This is an explanation we see repeatedly in response to issues of gender in the church and is, in my opinion, really problematic. Jenny Baker summed up the problem with this stance in a Sophia Network blog post last year:
"My concern is that the ‘centre-ground’ for shared worship and mission will end up being complementarian by default, not a place that genuinely accepts the beliefs and practices of all sides of the conversation.

Let me explain. If you are a complementarian man or woman in an egalitarian space, then you might feel uncomfortable when you hear a woman preach or see her lead, but your practice – the way you are obedient to what you believe God is calling you to – does not need to change.

If you are an egalitarian man in a complementarian space, then again you may feel uncomfortable that women aren’t allowed to lead or preach, but your practice does not need to change. You can lead, preach, teach and innovate to your heart’s content. You’ll be listened to and welcomed round the table, wherever that table might be.

But if you are an egalitarian woman in a complementarian space, then your practice is restricted."
The so-called middle ground that's supposed to prevent disunity always ends up excluding women in an attempt to keep those who want to restrict their ministry happy. And funnily enough, this doesn't exactly instill in women a sense of unity and grace. It makes some of them feel as if they can't do what they feel called to do, what they are gifted to do. One committee member at Bristol CU has resigned because he felt women should not be allowed to teach in any capacity. That doesn't exactly say "unity" to me. As I've written about in the past, restrictive policies and teachings on women in ministry are having a genuinely damaging effect on young Christian women and the way their feel about their faith. Many who cannot reconcile these teachings with their gifts and passions end up leaving the church. Is there any wonder, when they just want serve in the way they're best equipped to do and end up getting called "Jezebels", with the importance of male headship at all times being underlined?

On the subject of grace, there have already been comments to the effect that more people displaying a gracious attitude is what this situation needs. It's predictable that yet again, as with numerous debates on women in the church, "grace" is being used as a silencing tactic. I agree that's what's unhelpful at this point is further speculation about the situation when Bristol CU have yet to make any clarification on what's happening. Neither is a general pile-on in the direction of UCCF useful. It may be the case that many CUs hold a restrictive position on women's roles (thanks to the "middle ground" principle detailed above), but they operate as individual groups united by a doctrinal basis that does not include a position on gender equality, even though it's well known that UCCF has historically tended towards a more conservative position on women.

Last night's news has served to highlight to a more general audience a major area of disquiet within student Christian movements, although it's worth pointing out that it has nothing to do with the Church of England or women bishops. As with the issue of women bishops I'm not sure the best course of action is to demand that a secular body gets involved in sorting it all out. I hope Bristol CU will move to correct any inaccurate reporting, rather than declining to comment on the situation at all, and I hope that it will prompt more reconsideration on the way CUs in general restrict women's ministry.

Further reading:

No women bishops for the C of E

Thursday, 22 November 2012

There was disappointment and anger for many Christians on Tuesday when the General Synod of the Church of England narrowly voted not to appoint women as bishops.

There were 322 votes in favour of measures that would finally allow women to be bishops, and only 124 against. All but two of the Church's 44 dioceses had given their support. But a complicated voting system, requiring the support of at least two thirds of each of the three different sections of the synod - bishops, clergy, and laity (regular, non-ordained members of the church), meant that thanks to just six votes, the "nos" triumphed. There were large majorities among the bishops and the clergy, but "just" 64% of the laity voted "yes".

When you look at the overall spread of votes and the overwhelming support of senior members of the church, the outcome seems ridiculous and unfair. That evening, many of my Anglican friends - both men and women - were extremely upset by it all. There were tears shed by many present at the meeting when the results of the vote were announced. Such a narrow loss after so many years of discussion, campaigning, and heartache is a huge blow. As a statement from pro-women bishops group WATCH said:

"The vote is a missed opportunity for a whole generation to see men and women sharing fully in the mission, ministry and leadership of the Church of England".

Media reaction to yesterday's news has been a mixed bag. As well as helpful comment from those affected by it, there has been much talk of Christianity proving itself to be "irrelevant", obsessed with tradition and sexism at a time when it should be more forward-thinking - which totally ignores the fact that the Church of England establishment does not represent all Christians. There has also been much talk of "evangelicals" holding firm on a "no" vote when it is completely inaccurate to suggest that being evangelical is synonymous with a view that men and women have different "roles" in the church and in the world.

You wouldn't know it from looking at many media sources, but there are actually many churches that affirm the role of women as being able to serve and contribute to the church in the same way as men. They could sometimes do with focusing more on how they arrived at this decision, because in a secular world where equal opportunities and fairness are key, it's theological arguments that are of primary importance to most Christians involved - that is to say, what does the Bible say about men, women, and equality, and how should this be applied to the church today?

That's why it was particularly disappointing to see a piece by Jemima Thackray in the Telegraph yesterday, claiming that "feminist rhetoric" irrevocably damaged the campaigning of those who are pro-women bishops.

"My main concern was that some arguments for women bishops just sounded too much like a contrived government initiative to get women into the boardroom," she wrote, mentioning the fact she thought the debate had become about "women having authority for its own sake" when the clergy are meant to be servants. She used words like "power hungry" and "status" as if that's what was at stake for the thousands of campaigners hoping for a "yes" on Tuesday.

This could not be further from the truth. Those in favour of women becoming bishops have always made a strong case for themselves, based on the equality of men and women in the eyes of God that's evident in the Bible and also on the radical example set by Jesus and the early church in giving authority and dignity to women that was, at the time, unheard of.

Over the centuries the church may have bought wholesale into the patriarchal way societies have generally been run, but that's not how it all began. Thousands of women clergy are very ably leading churches across the country because they feel that's what they've been called to do and because they love to serve their community, not because they're "power hungry". As Lucy Winkett said in her piece for the Guardian, linked above:

"For me, though, the issue is clear: from the very beginning of the church's existence, women should have been together with men in every area, every layer, every activity of the church's life. However, in the first century AD the church followed wider society, conforming to a societal structure that gave men the power."

Throughout this debate, it has been voices from outside the church that have ran with the rhetoric of "getting with the times" and equality legislation. This is not wrong - equality and inclusion were central aspects of Jesus's ministry - but it misses out on a vital perspective and in turn positions the debate on women bishops as one that should be decided on secular terms. Yes, many campaigners would consider themselves feminists and by opposing patriarchal power structures then they certainly have a lot in common with the feminist movement - but to claim they appeared motivated by status is out of line, and a sadly common view leveled at women who speak out against injustice and feel called to lead.

Broadcaster and popular blogger Vicky Beeching, who's also a research fellow in Christian ethics at Durham University, spoke to BitchBuzz on Wednesday. Of the tension between scripture and equality, she said:

"As a Christian Feminist who strongly campaigned for the women bishops vote to go through, I got my fair share of criticism. People often criticise my passion for gender equality, assuming that my feminism is rooted in a desire to be 'relevant' to today's culture. For me it's actually rooted in the Bible, because in that book I see a God who values women and men completely equally.

"Yes, the Bible has a reputation for being patriarchal, but I don't feel that is an accurate interpretation of it. For me, Christianity is best modelled in the life of Jesus and he treated women in ways that were considered revolutionary for his era. To me, he is the ultimate feminist."

Where the secular perspective matters here is for the general public who may be occasional churchgoers, or considering checking out church for the first time. Complex theological wrangling means little to them - they may just see a denomination that's anti-woman and more concerned about minute doctrinal detail than actually making a difference in people's lives, and this is never a good thing.

What's important right now is that the church shows love and support for its women clergy, attempts to move forward, and stands up to secular accusations that it is "dead", "irrelevant" and "bigoted", in the period before the measure can be discussed again in 2015. The "pro" camp must be united over proposals in order to stand firm against those opposing women bishops. As the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on Tuesday:

"It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure. But, also, the Church of England needs to show how to develop the mission of the church in a way that demonstrates we can manage diversity of view without division."

Further reading: A useful Q&A on this week's events A good but very indepth post on the theological debates surrounding the issue

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz

Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Biblical womanhood. It's a phrase and a concept that doesn't sit well with many Christians, thanks to the way it's been held over women and used to dictate their life choices in recent decades. For a long time, those two words together made me bristle with irritation at the way they're used, at the things they're supposed to suggest. In the UK, Biblical womanhood isn't such a clearly defined set of choices, personality traits and opinions as it is in the US, where depending on what sort of church you go to it might mean long skirt-wearing, head-covering, contraception-eschewing, living under the 'authority' of a man at all times, or Martha Stewart-cooking, seasonal craft-making, "keeping sweet" and claiming that when it comes to clothes, "modest is hottest". Cultural and religious differences mean it'll probably never be like this here, unless we see some sort of Handmaid's Tale-inspired coup d'etat. But that doesn't mean we don't see the popular books about it stocked in our churches and some of the more popular ideas about it bandied about during women's events and Bible studies.

The long-awaited book about this nebulous concept from the often-controversial blogger Rachel Held Evans has been creating a bit of a storm since its publication. Evans knew this would happen because it started the moment she published a blog post announcing her Biblical Womanhood project. Over the past couple of years, she's gone from being a well-known blogger and writer to being notorious, with scores of fans, but also with critics lining up to label her evil, a heretic, bitter and ungracious, hysterical, out of line and someone who's making a mockery of scripture. Plenty have gone as far as to question whether she can actually be regarded as a Christian at all. The main reason for this, of course, is the fact that she writes with passion about women's issues from an egalitarian perspective, and dares to question conservative evangelical culture. And in a country where this has the ability to incite such angry debate, where the role of women within Christianity is such an issue that it's causing incredible damage in people's lives, that it's causing women to leave the church altogether - Evans's voice was never going to be welcomed by all.

The basic premise of the book is a playful sort of piece of performance art - explored through a series of experiments and conversations. Evans chooses 12 qualities of women mentioned in the Bible (gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valour, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace) and devotes one month to exploring each of them, setting herself goals and activities, and meeting women who espouse some of these qualities. Yes, she spends time sleeping in a tent because she's menstruating. Yes, she stops cutting her hair and wearing trousers. It's meant to be slightly hyperbolic because plenty of these things really are mentioned in the Bible, and because she wants us to find it funny. And it is - reading of her exploits with a computerised baby, her efforts to cook elaborate recipes, and she and husband Dan's attempts to get used to a marriage with defined "roles" and male headship is good fun.

But there's plenty to be serious about too. In her own words, Evans's goal was to challenge the idea that "Biblical womanhood" is a set of roles and rules. She set out to explore the stories of women in the Bible, look at the way different groups of Christians interpret "Biblical womanhood" today, and come to some of her own conclusions about what it meant for her personally, and for Christian women in general. She developed a close and wonderful friendship with an Orthodox Jewish woman. She talked to Amish women, spent time at a monastery, got the lowdown from a woman who grew up in the Christian Patriarchy movement, and visited a whole bunch of amazing women in Bolivia. It was from these conversations, with people who didn't share her religious traditions and culture, that Evans gained a lot of wisdom and insight, confronting plenty of negative stereotypes she'd previously held.

She was also able to confront several of her insecurities - mainly discomfort with the "Proverbs 31 wife" and the way she had felt - even from childhood, that she never would measure up to what this was supposed to represent, but also her anxieties about motherhood. The exploration into Proverbs 31 is one of the most profound in the book, as when Evans decides to "take back Proverbs 31", and delves into the concept of the woman of valour - eshet chayil - she realises that the woman is not praised for what she does, rather for how she does it. As a result she resolves to celebrate the lives and work of women who shine, and stop trying to be anyone but herself.

In exploring the qualities of the Biblical woman, Evans also has warnings for Christians and Christian culture -  of teaching a view of beauty that amounts to "thou shalt not let thyself go", and for pastors tempted to teach prescriptively about "Biblical" sex in a way that goes into great detail. She comes to the conclusion that "the Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula...is a myth". This is well illustrated by the fact that each chapter ends with a section focusing on a different woman whose story is told in the Bible. No uniformity is to be found in the tales of Esther and Deborah, Leah and Martha, Junia and the woman at the well.

To a UK reader, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is also an interesting glimpse into a culture far more bound by conservative Christian values - Evans writes of worship music playing in the background at the craft store, and having to drive for forty five minutes to buy wine to cook with, as "hard liquor" can't be purchased in her county. When she meets a female pastor, she learns of how the woman was called "a cancer in the church" and "a threat to Christianity" for preaching, with people leaving her church in protest and other local churches coming together to denounce her. It shows us that we are, perhaps, quite fortunate that there is less of one-size-fits-all approach here, but also that maybe there are perspectives we are missing in our discourse on the subject, and that we often don't consider what the situation is for women in other branches of the church.

So what of the criticism the book has received so far? A good number of Evans's more vocal opponents haven't actually read it, convinced as they are that it's full of heresy and mockery (she has politely suggested that they may wish to do so before commenting further). Many of them don't like the tone of her writing - but as Morgan Guyton said in a piece for HuffPost Religion (read it; it's good):

"The trouble is you can't be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm."

Snark should not be the problem here. There's nothing wrong with putting a humorous spin on things. Evans predicted in the book itself that she would receive criticism from two camps - from conservatives calling her "dangerous" and an "extreme feminist", and from atheists, calling her "brainwashed" and wondering why she belongs to a patriarchal religion in the first place. From what I've seen this is fairly accurate. I've been disappointed by the unwillingness of people holding such views to actually engage with the purpose of the project - for the former, reviews have seemed to mainly consist of theological rebuttals of egalitarianism as if that's what's at stake here, and accusations that Evans has somehow "put God's word on trial". As Amy Lepine Peterson wrote in her review of the book:

"If Evans is putting anything on trial, it’s the notion that any human, herself included, can have the final word on what defines 'womanhood'."

As a Christian with great respect for the Bible, Evans had no intention of trashing the phrase "Biblical womanhood" or denigrating God. She talks about the way we all interpret scripture to find what we are looking for and challenges us in this respect. She finds a new reverence for contemplative practices and ritual. She's able to take a lot from the experiment. And she wants us to take something from our reading of it, too. Apparently this has already been happening - she's had correspondence from people who have told her it's made them want to start delving into their Bibles again, that it has finally brought them to a place of peace with the Proverbs 31 woman.

Eshet chayil, Rachel!

The rise of the feMEnist, and why it must stop

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Yesterday several newspapers were abuzz with the results of a survey claiming to show that just one in seven women identify with feminism, instead seeing it as "irrelevant", "too aggressive", and "not a positive label". The survey was carried out by parenting website Netmums, and 1300 of its members answered questions such as "Do you think there are any downsides to the successes of feminism?" and "Which of these activities is acceptable for feminists?", a list that included "baking cupcakes", "false nails", and "topless modelling".

Despite the fact that the survey seemed designed to highlight what people see as the negatives of the movement, and hardly representative ("women see motherhood as their top priority" - hardly unexpected of a survey carried out on a website for mums), the usual suspects in the national press were quick to jump on the results as representing all women. The Daily Mail's headline was "The death of feminism", while the Express plumped for "Feminism is over...say women". So far, so typical linkbait for the right-wing press, "radical feminist" stereotypes abound. Yawn.

And I have to admit that yes, right-wing linkbait and all, I did feel disappointed to read what the survey had to say, from "39% said they don't want to be equal" to "accept men and women are different and therefore need different rights", and that old classic, "feminism has gone too far". On the other hand, it was interesting to see respondents identifying which battles they believe feminists still have to fight, from affordable childcare to equal pay and bans on sexist advertising - and the fact that 70% of them held the view that "too much is expected of women".

One thing, however, stuck out to me the most: the way Netmums has branded the findings as "the rise of the feMEnist", so called because women today supposedly want the right to live their lives as they want without judgment, rather than "being dictated to by the 70s-style sisterhood", as the Telegraph put it. They want to "find their own path that works for them and their family". This is all very well and really important, but when you reduce the movement down to nothing more than choice feminism, you really miss the point.

A common criticism levelled at the feminist movement today is that we're just out to police women's lives and dictate their thoughts, either "forcing" them into one way of thinking or rejecting them as "not feminist enough". This couldn't be further from the truth, although it often doesn't seem like that when the media insists on pigeonholing us and painting us as obsessed with certain issues above all else. Women push back against the idea of "sisterhood" because they think it means having to love all women; they push back against the idea of solidarity because this one time, this one feminist said something they didn't agree with. They push back against equality because they think people will hate on them for wearing makeup.

The problem is, turning everything the other way and making gender equality all about personal choice and "me, me, me - whatever I think is good" conveniently forgets that there are a whole lot of women struggling with a whole lot of circumstances who do need - and want - collective effort, empathy, and action. Individualism is not the way forward.

It's an "every woman for herself" attitude that's heavy on "my personal choice to do x" and light on cohesion with a wider movement, and compassion for other women and their lives. It's the unfortunate state of affairs that means public debates about feminism get mired in waffle about the "choices" surrounding vajazzling and baking while serious issues go undiscussed.

The Netmums survey concluded: "While undoubtedly it's down to old-fashioned feminists for bringing society this far, now it's time for another radical change to let individual feMEnists find their own path..." We know everyone's over the idea of "having it all". We know that choices about family life are important and that every woman has the right to be respected for the choices she makes about work, motherhood, and interests.

But let's not turn feminism into nothing more than "doing whatever we want". The survey showed that women think there's a lot of work to be done by the movement, which is why it's important to work together, help each other, and genuinely want to improve the situation for women the world over. To dismiss this as old hat, the preserve of "old-fashioned" feminists, is sad - and I think, misrepresents the movement today. Yes, we have to be accessible, and yes, we have to be accepting of a wide range of views. But come on, we can do better than this.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via crl!'s Flickr

Further reading:

Salt and Caramel: Feminism is over...say women
My Elegant Gathering of White Snows: FeMEnism: Netmums re-invents "choice" feminism

Towards a more wide-ranging "pro-life"

Sunday, 7 October 2012

"Being a pro-choice evangelical is a bit niche, isn't it?" I said to someone in the midst of the latest blowup over abortion rights. First it was Maria Miller and 20 weeks. Now Jeremy Hunt and his support for a 12 week upper limit, which has had all my fellow pitchfork-wielding leftie Twittermobbers raging for the past couple of days.

Hunt stated in an interview that his view on the 12 week limit is down to his personal belief "about the moment we should deem life to start", not, he added, "for religious reasons". David Cameron has responded by saying that the government "has no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area". Still, it's unsettling, isn't it? Both the minister for women and the health secretary. Whether Cameron's got plans to that effect or not, it's got people worried yet again, that little by little we're going to see that limit chipped away.

Being pro-choice means that people ask me things like why, as a Christian, I'm not "valuing life above all else". If babies born before 24 weeks have survived, why shouldn't the cut-off point be 20 weeks? Meanwhile, people talk about those who want a 20 week limit as "hating women". Both sides of the debate, at their extremes fuelled by comments like Hunt's, are completely unhelpful.

My issue is this: on the side of the debate that values life above all else, there is plenty of commitment to slashing the legal limit for women to have abortions (based on the survival of a handful of babies), but precious little noise made about addressing many of the issues surrounding why women are having abortions in the first place. Take, for example, these case studies from BPAS showing the reasons for requests for abortion over 22 weeks gestation in 2008. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, stalling on the part of the NHS meaning women had had to wait weeks to access services. And several women who had no reason to believe they were pregnant in the first place.

It's my belief that a commitment to lowering the number of abortions should go hand in hand with a commitment to lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and supporting women at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately you don't often hear those who are anti-abortion talking about better sex and relationships education for young people, easier access to contraception, addressing issues such as domestic violence, poverty, rape, and support for women who are unsure about what choice to make that doesn't just involve telling them how much they'll regret having an abortion. More talk like that might mean more people would believe Maria Miller when she calls herself a "very modern feminist". We haven't quite reached the same state of affairs as the USA yet, but who knows what could happen - as Tanya Gold said in a piece for The Guardian on Friday:

"The abortion wars in America, funded by Republicans who want miracle babies but not a functioning welfare state..."

There are two further issues with 20 weeks - one being the anomaly scan carried out around this point in a pregnancy, and the other being the fact that some women end up waiting weeks to access the services they need when considering whether or not to have an abortion. It goes without saying that even when the procedure is restricted or made illegal, women will still find ways to do it. We don't demonstrate holding banners with pictures of coathangers for nothing.

To my mind, when I'm supporting a pro-choice point of view, I am "valuing life". Access to abortion should be combined with action on all the issues mentioned above - the sex education and the domestic abuse and the waiting times. It's not enough to talk about abstinence education yet send more families into poverty and cut funding to women's shelters. As @DillyTante said in an excellent post yesterday:

"Lowering the legal limits for abortion will not reduce the number of abortions. It will reduce the number of legal and safe abortions. Someone desperate enough to terminate a baby in the middle of pregnancy is likely to go to any lengths to do so. Reducing the legal limit for abortion will not result in more happy smiley chubby babies; it will increase the number of desperately unhappy women and children brought into this world in devastating circumstances. With a government reducing welfare and community support for families and people with disabilities this can only be a path to unhappiness for many."

As a Christian I'd like to see more of a "pro-life" commitment to this side of the story. Maybe then I'd be convinced that there is a real concern for women and their welfare. The desire to "value life" when "life" refers to a foetus is all well and good, but what of the lives and wellbeing of women? What of the life of the child once it's actually exited the womb? I don't see any of that in the demonstrations outside clinics, or in the desire to lower the legal limit on dubious medical grounds. And that's why I occupy my "niche" position: because I hope for something different. People are entitled to an anti-abortion view, but all too often they let themselves down.

50 Women to Watch: The Fallout

Saturday, 6 October 2012

I was slightly late to the party in seeing Denny Burk's response to Christianity Today's list of "50 Women To Watch", and the reactions it has caused.

Burk's main concern appears to be the fact that CT's list of "women to watch" contains no discussion about the controversy surrounding different perspectives on gender roles and therefore, highlights the work and careers of women excelling in areas that some complementarians don't believe it's their place to excell in.

"In general, it regards high-achieving women excelling in their respective fields as something to be celebrated," he writes, adding that he wouldn't have a problem with celebrating women if they actually, you know, knew their place and were "excelling in roles that the scripture commands".

"I wouldn’t celebrate those that I believe are serving in roles that scripture forbids," he explains in a comment.

Burk goes on to turn the comments section into a highly judgmental discussion on whether or not Rachel Held Evans (who is mentioned on the CT list) is really an evangelical, even after Evans herself comments to lay the debate to rest. That, however, isn't enough for him.

"I think you and I have really different views about what an evangelical is," he tells her, stating this again and again.

Comments on the post are numerous and come from both sides. When I first read the post, I felt pretty angry. It's just another example of the "interesting" stance on gender espoused by certain prominent bloggers and teachers in the USA, a stance that often begins with judgments such as those detailed above and leads to the characterizing of women who express disagreement as "shrill", "ranting", or "extreme". It's all part of the "interesting" stance that has left many people, men and women, disillusioned with church and with Christians, as well as giving the rest of us a bad name, and has even seeped into some UK-based discussions on gender recently. It's a stance that affects the way these prominent bloggers and teachers think about wider issues, such as rape. It's a stance that obsesses over tone policing and appearing "gracious" to the extent that nothing ever gets resolved thanks to an endless cycle of opinions, disagreement, tone arguments, posts about forgiveness and grace, then returning to square one until the next time it happens.

However it didn't make me angry for long. Moreover, it struck me as incredibly sad. Disappointingly sad, but also eye-rollingly, tediously sad. Firstly, the idea that the achievements of women should not be celebrated if they dare to work outside narrowly-defined roles. I mean, really. Secondly, the insistence of Burk on judging whether or not others are Christian enough according to his narrow standards - not uncommon, but arrogant all the same. Thirdly, the message that all this sends out - that prominent Christian "names" (if not in the UK, but among US evangelicals) actually spend their time being upset that other Christians are being praised, for no other reason than their gender. What does it say to people who are already increasingly disillusioned with what constitutes US evangelical culture (which if I go by what I've read in reports and on blogs in recent months, are numerous)? Nothing positive, that's for sure.

I think about what I've seen in the couple of weeks since all these lists started to appear, these lists of  "Top Bloggers" and "Most Popular" and "Ones to Watch". I think about the drama they've caused and the debates they've started. How time and time again they out themselves as a back-slapping exercise for high-profile white men, how they veer from being something to be proud of and display a button for to something that you wouldn't want to be a part of, oh no, because that would be thinking too highly of yourself and it's not your place and oh, you're just happy to blessed by the wonderful people who actually did make the list. Isn't it wearisome, and isn't online Christian culture stuck in a rut?

Someone I was talking to a couple of weeks ago on Twitter said the same thing - that they're sick of the circular debates and the way the discussions always go. It's time to change the way we go about these things, she said. Time to stop being nice and bending over backwards for people, whether they call us shrill or say we need to change the way we say things or straight out insult and patronise us.

See also:

Are women really "less ambitious" than men?

Friday, 5 October 2012

The results of an exclusive poll conducted for The Telegraph claim to show that women are less ambitious than men and that we're facing an "aspiration gap" between men and women in the business world.

The findings are the subject of a couple of stories published in the paper's newly-launched women's section called "Wonder Women", which is being billed as content that this generation of women will actually enjoy and identify with, rather than consisting of the usual "lipsticks, handbags or BMW - bitching, moaning and whining" (more on this later).

1,000 18-35 year olds were surveyed and it was found that just 16% of young women aspire to run their own business one day, and just 3% want to be the chief executive of a company - compared to 22% and 6% of men. It also looks like women aren't as concerned by earning a high salary, with 16% aspiring to take home £100,000 a year compared to 20% of men. 16% of those surveyed said they were happy to take home £30,000 a year, compared to 12% of men.

This, apparently, is indicative of the fact that women are less ambitious and less concerned with "climbing the corporate ladder" than their male contemporaries. But is this a bad thing? The article happily details the fact that a "surprising" percentage of both men and women have no desire to become a line manager or head of department - so is it a case of unambitious women, or both sexes being disillusioned with the traditional concept of "success"?

The idea that women are "less ambitious" than men is problematic from the outset, because it equates "ambition" with wanting to earn a high salary and become a chief executive. This leaves no room for the fact that there are many, many ways to be ambitious, and that money isn't the most important thing in plenty of people's lives. Andrew Hunter, co-founder of the company that conducted the survey, said he thought that young people "would have a little more aspiration than this". Surely it's not difficult to understand that the corporate world isn't everyone's thing?

More and more, it's being reported that people will take job satisfaction and a good work-life balance over pots of cash and an important-sounding job title any time. In my experience, the current economic climate coupled with 21st century workplace culture has made people reassess their priorities - and while everyone wants to make enough money, that's as far as it goes for a lot of people. We know that the job opportunities of years gone by aren't there any more, which is probably why so many of those surveyed were keen to work freelance or set up their own business.

It's also possible that people aren't interested in working their way up to management because they're unwilling to become part of a power structure they're not totally comfortable with. Leadership can be worked out in many other ways.

So is it cause for concern that women, in particular, don't seem so interested in that sort of life? No, not really. As someone who has plenty of ambition but has never aspired to corporate glory and a six figure salary, I can't see what all the fuss is about. It's suggested that we should be doing something about this supposed lack of drive in young women. By all means, we should be offering encouragement and resources if they need help realising such ambitions. But otherwise, I'm not so sure.

What the survey actually appears to suggest is that women are more interested in other career paths, and don't see business and cash as their route to "having it all", something I know is true for me and for many of my friends. It found that careers in the public sector and charity sector are the most desirable, followed by those in the IT and digital sector, and the media.

Speaking of which, you'd think that a so-called "sassy" new women's section would avoid going down the cliché-ridden route of stories about "Having It All". The same goes for illustrating said stories with stills from The Devil Wears Prada and pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker. It would be nice to see a move away from all that nonsense and towards a more up-to-date take on these issues, a take that doesn't see the woman who "has it all" as a woman with several children, a job in banking, the perfect relationship, and a house worthy of Elle Decoration. I'll be interested to see how Wonder Women pans out in the weeks to come.

One of the better points raised by The Telegraph's coverage is that childcare arrangements and attitudes towards mothers remain a major barrier to women achieving their career ambitions, and could explain the difference in aspiration between men and women. The cost of nurseries these days is the highest in Europe, which means it's not economically viable for many women to return to work, even if they're keen to do so. In my opinion that's worth addressing and something the government really needs to act upon, because it does affect the lives and careers of many, many women. Maybe then we'll see a change in the disparity between men's and women's ambitions.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via victor1558's Flickr.

Links round-up: Church x gender

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

I read this post over at Her.meneutics yesterday, entitled "Hookup culture is good for women, and other feminist myths". I have mixed feelings about Her.meneutics in general; I've read some great stuff on the blog and a lot of stuff that has't been so great. It's inevitable that many of the posts are filtered through the lens of evangelical culture in the US, and therefore sometimes really miss the mark on their interpretations of issues. Yesterday's post is a prime example, but also highlights the common misunderstanding that the goal of the feminist movement is for women to "become just like men", with all the problematic behaviours that this might entail.

Dianna Anderson tackles this in her latest blog, "Feminism is Not the Enemy".

"The sexual revolution of the 20th century, then, was not about “making women act like men.” Rather, it was about removing the double standard that surrounds sexual activity – the double standard we find replicated again and again in rules about sexual activity on private Christian campuses and on Sunday mornings from the pulpit."

Sarah Moon has written interesting post about what rape means to complementarians. In recent months she's been hard at work calling out a few prominent names on their attitudes, and the way their view of sex and purity sets up a negative and disbelieving attitude towards any woman who has been raped or sexually assaulted yet does not fit the "perfect victim" stereotype. She also addresses the fact that it's an opinion accepted by many that sexual violence occurs because women step outside their "God-given roles" and behaviours, meaning men are drawn to rape as a way of asserting the masculine authority they deserve. It sounds ridiculous, but it's a view I've seen argued on conservative blogs in the past.

Some complementarian evangelicals go beyond this to actually blame feminism for the very existence of rape. Douglas Wilson, for instance, believes that when feminists deny men the opportunity to practice “godly” authority over women, men react by taking back the authority that they deserve using violence.

“When we quarrel with the way the world is,” Wilson says, “we find that the world has ways of getting back at us.”

Adrian Warnock has published a post detailing what he sees as the "Complementarian-Egalitarian Spectrum". I was pleased to see that he'd made some changes to his initial post after an email from Rachel Held Evans, as I was slightly exasperated to see the "Strong Egalitarian" section make reference to adherents ignoring or devaluing scripture. It's good that there is now acknowledgement that there can be distortions on both sides. On the negative side, I don't recognise Adrian's description of an "Extreme Feminist" viewpoint. The idea that there's this goal of being "better" than men and a wish to emasculate them is a straw feminist stereotype. Surely for him, the more "extreme" end of the spectrum would mainly be comprised of separatists?

Running through all discussions, as usual, is the question of whether by "equal" we mean "the same", and how problematic this is for people who can't look past biology as a determining factor in, well, just about everything. I think it may have become my least favourite track for these debates to take as it always ends up with someone having to spell out to someone else that having different genitalia is not a barrier to equality because equality doesn't mean "physically identical", "having the same hobbies and interests", or "being able to create babies and breastfeed". Honestly, you'd think it wasn't straightforward.

Baby brain

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

As I sort of expected, my commitment to blogging has fallen by the wayside somewhat since giving birth in May. The newborn stage of having a baby is just a blur now - you have this creature that alternates between eating and crying (some people's babies also do naps but I seem to have produced one that isn't keen) and you muddle your way through it. Eventually you emerge from this stage having gained little chunks of your day back because said creature is managing not to eat non-stop and is learning to play.

Despite this, you still don't get a whole lot done. And this is hard. You go into this motherhood lark knowing that it's going to bring huge changes to your life. You're used to a busy job and an enormous to-do list, going to the gym, writing in the evenings and on your lunch break, attending events and conferences and staying on the ball, getting stuck in at church, keeping up to date with the news and blogs and always thinking, planning, getting stuff done. And all of a sudden, you consider it a huge achievement that you did the washing up and made the bed and only had to walk round the park for an hour before the baby would fall asleep. You think you might write about something but before you know it the day's flown by and the moment has passed.

I'm not going to lie - it can be really disheartening. Despite your love for that child and the amazing experience of watching them change and grow every day and the support from your partner and your family - it's difficult. Despite the new friends you make and the old ones you still see, it can be really isolating. On bad days, you wonder if something's happened to your identity, whether it went somewhere and whether you'll get it back - or maybe, it's just changed.

You read ridiculous articles like this one by Katie Roiphe and think "Crap, this is what some people think of me". God forbid that I should talk about or post pictures of this little person I spent 40 weeks creating and several hours birthing and now devote my days to caring for because he depends on me entirely. Hide me from your Facebook feed and unfollow me on Twitter and assume that I feel I don't matter any more and that my identity is my child, if that's what you want to think.

Last month we made our annual trip to Momentum. My favourite of the messages preached there that week was from Danielle Strickland, who flew halfway across the world with her four month old son in tow to tell us, among other things, that your circumstances don't have to be a barrier. She recalled women telling her:

"How can I do that? I'm a mother."

As if it was a problem that was going to stop them doing what they were passionate about. Danielle didn't think much of that.

"This is tough," I told God afterwards. "This is really hard."

It was confirmed to me then what I really did know all along.

"Don't worry. What you are doing now is really important."

Which doesn't mean that I'm not looking forward to really getting stuck into stuff again.

Mag fail of the week: Grazia predicts Aniston break-up

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Tickling me today: this week's edition of Grazia magazine, getting it very, very wrong with their cover story featuring everyone's favourite anguished spinster, Jennifer Aniston.

For those of you who haven't heard (or couldn't care less), it was reported on Monday that Aniston is now engaged to partner Justin Theroux. The news came too late for Grazia and its doom-mongering cover, telling us of "Jen's turmoil as Justin runs back to ex" (no doubt with quotes provided by "a source close to the couple").

The Sad Saga of Lonely, Childless Jen is Grazia's absolute favourite topic. One minute she had it all (aka Brad Pitt), the next, she was divorced and he was shacking up with scarlet woman Angelina, knocking her up just months after his divorce was finalised. Since then, Jen's embarked on several relationships, with the magazine's staff fervently hoping every time that she'll find happiness and, of course, have a baby, providing the ultimate two-finger salute to the globe-trotting humanitarian team of "supercouple" Brangelina and their six children.

Never mind about the rest of her life - Aniston is defined by her supposed quest to find a man, bag the all-important husband, and have a baby. The news that "yet again", she's back on the shelf when a break-up occurs is picked over relentlessly. Will she emerge back on track and determined to one day have it all, or "worryingly thin and sad"?

With Aniston now set to head down the aisle, Grazia will have to come up with some more positive headlines. Saying that, I'm sure we can look forward to gems such as "Bridezilla! Jen vows to have her dream wedding - AT ALL COSTS!" and "Desperate Jen cancels hen night to save her relationship". Let's hope they can, at least, get it vaguely correct next time.

Genuine debate or manufactured media drama?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

They're the discussions that fuel debate on Woman's Hour, daytime television, and online. The hot topics of the moment - or sometimes a whole decade. But when does such a debate become less relevant to the lives of women and more like manufactured media controversy, doing nothing more than pitting us against each other and attempting to cause division? The answer is: usually after about five minutes - yet the discussion continues. Which so-called "debates" need to die a painful death for the good of all women?

The Size Zero Debate

Those three little words became a media sensation a few years back and people started to discuss the sizes of popular models, of 'worryingly thin' celebrities, and the existence of Size 0 clothing. Were they the cause of eating disorders in young women? What should be done about it? Week after week, magazines published the latest updates on the main celeb offenders, who seemed to hang out together, favour the same styles, and were often connected to Rachel Zoe. But what started out as concern over health and wellbeing soon became another stick to beat women with. Young women with eating disorders became stereotyped as silly girls trying to emulate sillier celebrities, thin women found themselves sneered at as "not what men want", and the appearance of women in the spotlight was picked over at every opportunity. In the meantime, nobody really cared about size 0 at all. Which leads us on to...

Real Women

They have curves, apparently. No man wants to have sex with someone who "looks like a 12 year old boy". But wait - "curvy" is so loaded that it can also be construed as a euphemism for "fat" and therefore might be offensive. How about magazines try to make us all feel better by interviewing men about what physical attributes they really want from women? That'll work. How about the nastier women journalists write columns sniping about thin women? In the end, it becomes apparent that what the media means when it talks about attractive curves is "larger than average breasts". And so the conclusion is reached. Real women look like Kelly Brook. Fast forward a few years and it's still happening (thanks to a rash of annoying Facebook groups and memes), but the papers talk about Christina Hendricks instead, and "curvy" means "size 10".

Having It All

This one rears its ugly head in the Daily Mail every couple of weeks as a way of berating women for daring to want children AND a job. But recently the "debate" has gone mainstream again, thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter and a number of other well-known names weighing in on the supposedly failed dream. Thousands of women have collectively rolled their eyes and wondered why the way the media frames this issue doesn't actually apply to 90% of us, as if it's all about being the perfect mother as well as a banker or a politician. And of course anti-feminists and conservatives seize the opportunity to crow about how unhappy and unfulfilled these liberal times have made women feel. Meanwhile, most of us continue going out to work because we don't have any choice in the matter.

Feminism: compatible with makeup, shaving, and liking men?

In recent years, a popular feature idea to wheel out for International Women's Day, usually disguised as a missive about the state of modern feminism and illustrated with a picture of a burning bra. So repetitive is the format that you wonder what readers are left thinking about the fight for gender equality, and also what harm it would really do to discuss it in terms of things that aren't lipstick and sex. Patronising, short-sighted, and cliched, reducing gender equality to a list of things you can and can't do, and never failing to leave some people with the impression that feminists hate women who wear dresses and like baking, which in itself has become another tedious "debate".

Mommy wars

Currently taking the form of drama over how long it's appropriate to breastfeed for. Such has the animosity over which childbirth and parenting choices a woman makes increased that a mere mention of the way you do things is enough to make some people feel you're judging them for not doing the same. Some of the most weirdly drama-filled and vicious debates I've seen between women online have been about birth and parenting choices, and guilt-tripping or sensationalist news stories don't help matters, constantly painting some choices as bizarre and abnormal, some as neglectful, and others as "the latest trend". Motherhood is enough of a minefield of emotions without all this, thanks very much.

Faith schools, moral panic, and the HPV vaccine

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Today brought us the news that some secondary schools are opting out of the HPV vaccination programme for girls "on religious grounds". The vaccination, offered to girls aged 12-13, guards against the strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer and has had a controversial history. Opposed by people who think it will encourage teens to become promiscuous if they know they're protected against disease, it's been causing moral panic for a while now despite the fact that the idea of a vaccine making young people sexually active is, well, ridiculous. When I was at school, we didn't have the HPV vaccine. I don't remember anyone abstaining from sex because they were worried they'd catch it and therefore put themselves at risk of cervical cancer.

GP magazine found that the majority of the schools opting out of the programme did not inform local GPs of their decision, nor did they inform parents and pupils where they could be vaccinated instead. The reasons given for declining to offer the vaccine are concerning - from "Not in keeping with the school ethos" to "pupils...do not practise sex outside marriage" and "the school...does not want pupils to feel pressured by peers". All of these statements indicate that the schools in question subscribe to the belief that the HPV vaccine encourages sexual activity, which would be at odds with Christian teaching. They also indicate that the schools see sexual health as somehow irrelevant to their pupils: "Our girls aren't having sex so they don't need the vaccine!" - as if they're somehow above HPV and cervical cancer and will remain this way in the years to come.

There is absolutely no way that the schools in question are fully aware of what pupils are getting up to in their spare time and the extent to which they are or are not sexually active. As a Christian who attended a Christian school I can confidently state that abstinence was not on the agenda for most people I knew. Like the US teens who have taken "purity" pledges and then proceed to go back on their word once they start dating someone, many UK teens - no matter what they have been taught, or encouraged to believe - will go ahead and become sexually active. Attending a faith school is by no means an indicator of religious belief in the first place - I say this as someone who knew plenty of people for whom church attendance was about getting into a good school rather than acquiring a faith. What good does keeping young people in the dark do? About as much good as years of abstinence-only sex education lessons did for US youngsters: none. Are they expected to acquire knowledge about sexual health only as adults, when it might be too late for some?

Scaremongering around the issue of teens and sex while refusing to prepare them for its potential consequences is a tried and tested tactic that achieves nothing. Far better to let young people and their parents decide for themselves whether or not they wish to have the vaccine at the very least, rather than make completely unfounded assumptions about their personal lives. If it saves lives, surely it should be a no-brainer? The idea that giving young people knowledge about sex will lead to them behaving irresponsibly is unfounded and surely one that people need to get over, given the ignorance of many teens surrounding it.

Obviously vaccinations aren't compulsory but the decisions made by these schools as a result of their "ethos", or what they assume about pupils' personal lives, is putting girls at risk in later life. It's sad to see schools buying into the moral panic; this is not something they would do in the case of other vaccinations, and it implies an attitude towards sex that I'd rather not see in UK schools. As the Guardian story states, responsibility for administering the HPV vaccine will change next year, meaning that "there will no longer be any excuse for failing to protect children in this way". 2013 can't come soon enough.

Giving girls power with family planning

Friday, 13 July 2012

Like every woman I know, I've always taken it for granted that I can choose when I want to have children, how many I want to have, and how long I will leave between pregnancies. I've done so because I was taught about what contraception when I was at school. Over the years I've learned more about it - and also where I can get it, which thanks to the NHS, is from my doctor, for free. Pregnancy and contraception are things my husband and I have made decisions about together - meaning that after almost ten years as a couple, I recently gave birth to our first child.

Most of you reading this won't find that unusual, but for hundreds of millions of women the world over, the reality is very different. Right now, 22 million women have an unmet need for family planning. For them, accessing birth control is difficult, even impossible. They might have to walk for several days to reach a clinic, or deal with judgmental attitudes from people in their communities or healthcare providers. That is, of course, if they're aware of the different methods of contraception and how they work. Myths and misinformation abound, and often, their husbands are resistant to the idea.

This is obviously bad news for women and girls. Lack of access to birth control is one problem, but when you combine this with poverty, poor nutrition, child marriage, gender inequality, and poor medical care, it results in thousands of lives being lost every year. On Monday I was able to find out more about just how family planning can save lives, at an evening hosted by Save the Children to promote their Give Girls Power campaign. The charity has been just one of many mobilising to encourage governments to take action this week at Wednesday's family planning summit in London, and commit to helping millions of women access contraception.

I didn't know that pregnancy and childbirth is the number one killer of young women aged between 15 and 19. That's a huge issue in countries where child marriage is common, where discussion of sex and contraception is taboo and where patriarchal culture dictates that men make the rules, while women do as they're told. Save the Children's interactive game created as part of the campaign asks us: "Imagine what life would be like if you weren't able to make your own decisions". It illustrates just how tough - and dangerous - life is for millions of teenage girls.

Visiting the event on Monday was 17-year-old Aselefe, a family planning campaigner and peer educator from Ethiopia. She told us about phoning a contraception helpline at the age of 16, only to be told that they couldn't provide her with any information as she was "too young", and unmarried. Aselefe explained about the "silence" surrounding sex she feels exists between Ethiopian mothers and daughters, meaning that many young women don't know the facts of life - something that frequently causes problems, especially since the average age of marriage in rural areas is just 14.

One of ten children, Aselefe said she didn't want the same sort of life as her mother. She told us that she is literally changing lives through her work as a peer educator, and spoke of her wish to see sex education made part of the school curriculum, and family planning available in all rural health centres.

"It's important to give decision-making abilities to girls," she said.

Wednesday's summit, organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government, resulted in global leaders promising $2.6bn to make sure that family planning services will reach an additional 120 million women and girls in the world's poorest countries by 2020. David Cameron also met Aselefe at the summit. 

"Today we are investing in hope for Aselefe and girls like her," he said. He pledged to double Britain's current commitment to family planning by contributing over £500m over the next eight years. According to the summit's organisers, the commitments made on Wednesday will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, 110m fewer unintended pregnancies, 50m fewer abortions, and 3m fewer babies dying in their first year of life. 

The hard work of Save the Children and other organisations seems to have paid off, and they're looking forward to a future of "groundbreaking" changes for women and girls. 

Read Save the Children's report, Every Woman's Right: How family planning saves women's lives. Or share your personal experiences with contraception and access at the Gates Foundation's No Controversy.

This post was originally published at BitchBuzz.

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