Sexual Violence and Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Amy Holmes

Resilience and solidarity, hope and renewed health. Image by Platon, for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Foundations. © 2016

The aftermath of decades of civil war and instability across the African continent is still profoundly felt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the thousands of women and girls for whom sexual violence is an everyday reality.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is situated in a crucible of conflict, and not only shares its borders with countries affected by conflict such as Angola, Sudan and Uganda, but also bears the legacy of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, from which thousands of the Tutsi ethnic minority fled persecution by the Hutu majority.

The fraught relations between ethnic groups, alongside the routine perpetration of sexual violence by state officials, militants and even by locals, ensure that torture and rape remain endemic in the region.

It is estimated that 48 women and girls are raped per hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Susan Lloyd-Roberts, 2016; 248). Such is the scale of the problem that the 1998 Rome Statute ratified Gender Based Sexual Violence (GBSV) as an act of genocide due to  widespread devastation it has on communities, often lasting for generations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are at risk, not only from their physical wounds but from the social and cultural consequences of sexual violence.

Photographer: Paolo Patruno for the Social Documentary Network

CULTURAL CRISES

Although it is important to acknowledge that sexual violence has both male and female victims, the study of conflict-based sexual assault demonstrates that violence against women has specific consequences.

To illustrate the cultural ramifications of this type of violence, I refer to the work of American philosopher, Judith Butler.

Butler is notable for her vast contributions to the field of gender theory, and she argues that cultural attitudes in the context of war play a key role in particular defining what experience defines someone as a victim.

She addresses the consequences of sexual violence in her book, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and puts forward the notion that sexual violence is not usually considered to be directly resulting from war time activity, as sexual violence is something of a normative, even during peacetime.

For Butler, sexual violence inflicted on women demonstrates existing inequalities that are exacerbated during conflict, leading to her assertion that war is perhaps the most extreme expression of inequality between men and women (Judith Butler, 2009).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, strict moral codes such as those pertaining to honour and chastity are imposed upon women, as if their body’s honour are a direct belonging of the community, and as such, are instrumental to the strategic domination of communities by oppressive forces.

The stigma that is attached to sexual assault survivors, serves to fracture social cohesion within the groups that are targeted, and thus, displaces thousands of survivors from their communities; as they become estranged by the shame imposed upon them.

VIOLATION

Many gender theorists argue that the work of the social anthropologist, Mary Douglas provides an accurate explanation of the stigma and shame associated with sexual violence. In her book, Purity and Danger, Douglas brings forward the notion of ‘the abject’ a person who embodies disorder, dirt and disruption or contamination of everyday life.

The idea that rape violates communal, marital and personal boundaries means that those who survive it, come to carry the symbolic, as well as the physical and emotional, injuries of their ordeal.

Women who survive sexual violence are frequently condemned by patriarchal society, and are labelled abject, because the boundary between the community and its enemies has been broken, thus allowing disorder and a ‘contamination’ by outside forces.

SYMBOLS OF CULTURE

This is especially the case where a woman becomes pregnant from rape by outsiders; the baby that she carries comes to represent a blurring of ethnic boundaries, and presents a cultural crisis that threatens the potency of established traditions and social bonds.

Significantly, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are seen to be symbols and repositories of their native culture, and through child-rearing and education, propagate the continuation of tradition. Therefore, the notion of motherhood represents a symbolic actualisation of cultural identity, not only within the sphere of the family, but within the broader local and ethnic community.

Esther, 17, with her son Josue. Image by Platon for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundations USA and DRC. © 2017

LONG-TERM INEQUALITIES

As stated by Blay-Tofey and Lee in their study of Cote d’Ivoire, “Violence represents a serious public health problem, that is an important cause of many physical and psychological illnesses, and can cause social disruptions that impede reconstruction efforts for generations.” (Blay-Tofey and Lee, 2015;341).

Although post-conflict strategies in Africa aim to improve the structural conditions across the continent, very little is often done to tackle the long-term inequalities that arise from the pervasive sexual violation and trauma experienced in the region.

Alongside the short-term damage and psychological trauma caused by sexual violence, women are at risk of myriad additional complications from their physical injuries, such as incontinence, miscarriage, permanent damage to the reproductive organs, fistula, sexually transmitted infections as well as infertility.

The brutality of these injuries is poignantly captured in a statement by Dr Denis Mukegwe, the director and chief surgeon of the Panzi Foundation, who said: “If you destroy enough wombs, there will be no children.” (Mukegwe, in Cannon, P, 2012; 483)

VIOLATING A COLLECTIVE IDENTITY

This statement recognises the strategic dimensions of GBSV in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and demonstrates the intention of rape as a way of violating a collective identity through the intrinsic link between the body of the mother and the lifeblood of the community.

The destruction of the womb becomes a symbol by which the vitality of the community is threatened; if there are no wombs to create children, there are no children to continue traditions and thus preserve the community itself.

The work of the Panzi Foundation and its contemporaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide hope, by rehabilitating mothers and restoring a sense of community cohesion through education and communication.

Rhythm exercises during music therapy at Maison Dorcas. Photo credit: Naama Haviv for Panzi Hospital and Foundations, September 2016

REHABILITATION

The Panzi Foundation provides health services to women who have suffered reproductive damage and related issues as a result of sexual violence, but also plays an important role in enabling these women to secure work and support their families (Cannon, 2012; 480).

Through access to healthcare and education, service users are also empowered to subvert the stigma that was once attached to their injuries by restoring their worth as caregivers and mothers.

Although Trenholm et al assert that a focus on motherhood “ignores the fundamental individual humanity” (Trenholm et al, 2015; 494-495) of women who have survived sexual violence, I argue in this final discussion that motherhood provides a strategic means of rebuilding a displaced identity in the aftermath of assault.

EMPOWERMENT

The formation of a community of survivors demonstrates the potential for motherhood as an innovative means of recovery and empowerment “the community of women creates unity- one life” (Mama Jeanne, in Kumar, 2015).

This is a vital insight into the way in which motherhood can reassert itself against the perceived stigma of sexual violence, where the mother was once rendered incapable of acting as “guardian of moral and ethical values” (Meger, 2010; 127). Instead, the role of mother, or ‘Mama’ becomes vital to the destabilisation of normalised assumptions about sexual violence.

The high prevalence of sexual assault means that rape has become a normalised behaviour amongst Congolese men, that is enacted on women as a form of punishment or dominance. From a young age, those who see rape as a corrective or coercive practice are likely to take on board the idea that it is an acceptable form of social interaction thus creating a cycle of sexually violent behaviour.

Rebecca ‘Mama’ Masika Katsuva, a prominent sexual assault campaigner and activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Foundations such as Panzi and Heal Africa are vital to the rehabilitation and breakdown of this cycle, and of the normative recognition of sexual violence; offering treatment and education to survivors enables them to challenge the acceptability of rape and thus destabilise its place in Congolese society (Cannon, 2012; 480).

‘Mama’, therefore, becomes a label of optimism; despite, and perhaps because of the legacy of sexual violence, survivors can educate and raise children, and once again re-establish themselves as the core of the community.

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#MeToo

Artwork: Januz Miralles at Berlin Artparasites

Artwork: Januz Miralles at Berlin Artparasites

Me too.

In a week, those two little words have gained immense meaning. Since The New York Times reported the serial sexual abuse perpetrated by film mogul Harvey Weinstein, women all over the world have taken to social media using the hashtag #MeToo to share their own stories of sexual assault, abuse or harassment.

It has been heartbreaking to read harrowing encounters that women from all walks of life have experienced, and I for one have been inspired by their courage.

I’m a passionate advocate for women’s rights, and for years I’ve fought against gender inequality. I’ve long discussed issues of harassment and assault in depth, and yet I always relied on statistics and other women’s stories to back up my arguments. I’ve never shared my own stories because I have been ashamed and afraid of what people would think.

And yet I do have a story – most women do, as we’ve found this week.

“I’ve never shared my own stories because I have been ashamed and afraid of what people would think. And yet I do have a story – most women do, as we’ve found this week”

Artwork: Patryk Mogilnicki at Berlin Artparasites

I can’t bring myself to share #MeToo on social media as I’m scared of what will happen. So for now, I let the braver women of this world share their stories openly. And I make my stand, by writing mine anonymously, here.

When I was 12, I was on the London Underground and a man exposed himself to me, stood in a corner and masturbated staring straight at me. It was a quiet train and no one else noticed as I was the only one looking towards him. I got off at the next stop. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 16, a boy who I had never met, told his school that I had performed oral sex on him. Everyone heard about it and people called me a slut. I had never even met him, but I felt that it was my fault. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 18, a boyfriend – who I thought I loved – forced himself on me during an argument while I begged him to stop. I didn’t understand that it was rape because it wasn’t a stranger outside of my comfort zone. It was in my house. The next day he apologised and I quietly broke up with him, never admitting why to my friends. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 20, I got locked out of my house for a night and stayed over at a colleague’s. I woke up halfway through the night with him touching me. I screamed and pushed him off but he yelled back, saying I had been begging for it. I worked with him for another three months and never told anyone. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 25, I was out walking late one night and three drunk men grabbed me. They pulled my skirt and touched my breasts. Luckily, their drink slowed them down and before they were able to hold me down I ran away.  It was dark. I shouldn’t have been walking that way. I stayed silent and ashamed.

Last night, on a main street, a man walked up to me and said “Hey baby.” It was dark and I silently sped up, keeping my head down. “Fucking bitch!”, he yelled as I ran away. I stayed silent, scared that he would do something worse.

Artwork: Loui Jover at Berlin Artparasites

These are a few snapshots of times in my life when I have felt ashamed to be a woman. For years I’ve been angry at myself for bringing these incidents on. So many incidents happening to one person, it must be something I’ve done.

This week has been triggering for me – it’s brought back memories that I have spent years trying to forget. But it’s also been liberating and hopeful. It has made me realise that the force of this movement around those two little words shows the sheer scale of the issue.

Now, more than ever, we need to bring a stop to it. To make it very clear that this is not acceptable. That as a woman you are not asking for anything, and deserve respect for being a human being.

I have to keep coming back to this when these memories swarm back to me. It is not my fault. I will not stay silent. I will not be ashamed.

I have been attacked but I will never be defeated.

‘For my black girl’

By Jennifer Robinson

Photographer: Khadija Saye
Website: http://www.sayephotography.co.uk

Foreword by the author, Jennifer: I was inspired to write this poem after looking at the photography of Khadija Saye. Her portraits of African hairstyles – Crowned, reminded me of a discussion I’d had some time previously with a few Ugandan colleagues about the time, effort and pain that goes into crafting the intricate but necessary hairstyles which keep African hair in check.

My children are mixed race, and it’s something which weighs on my mind because I recognise that for too many people, this is still a negative. I have no idea what it is to be black, or African. So raising in particular African children, and getting it right, is something which I worry about.

This came from an emotional reaction to Khadija Saye’s photographs, but ultimately because this young woman, who fought visible and invisible prejudice from all sides, died alone in a dark stairwell in Grenfell Tower, a harsh reminder that her community were still, in 2017, not important enough.


Hair curls
Won’t be tamed
Full lips melanin DNA
“What a beautiful colour she is” they say
Not too dark, not too light the meaning inferred
“Her hair is not like theirs”
Her hair is hers
She can choose how to wear it
“Her nose is like yours”
Pointed?
Like the comment you made, believe me I caught it
Because what you went for first was her nose and her hair
How lucky you are not seeing prejudice there

Where’s her dad from?
Must be hot and oppressed
Replying Uganda
“Africa right? South, East or West?”

And that’s not who I am
Who am I to tell her how her struggle began?
Disrespect automatic, but never for me
Will I know how to help her
Will I even see
When the world turns its back
On her
Or asks more of her
Than I had to produce
When mediocre was enough to get through exams
Knowing she’ll fight harder than I ever can
Just to get less
To be less
In the eyes of some

My baby is beautiful inside and out
But the out is what matters,
To tabloids and fascists
And the poison that fills our day to day
Is enough to question how she’ll make her way
British but always “where’s she from, really?”
Half and half, half-caste, half white, half black,
Half empty, half full? Half each of two, making three
And to me she’s the world
But the world still disagrees

Photographer: Christopher Rivera
Website: http://www.christopherj.org

As a gratuity for featuring the work of Khadija Saye on this blog, Attacked Not Defeated has made a donation to the fund supporting survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. 

An Ode to the Trigger Warning

 


Founder of Attacked Not Defeated, Phoebe Tansley, is a sexual health practitioner, gender-based violence prevention advocate and survivor. Here she revisits a previous blog and reflects on her experiences over the last five years.


 

By Phoebe Tansley

Unbelievably, it’s been over two years since I last wrote about my personal experience of surviving rape. I suppose as time goes by and workload mounts, self-reflection gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list too often.

16298695_575633395979470_3817207482471222057_n

I decided to write this as I recently reached the five year milestone since I was attacked; and in particular wanted to focus on something which has cropped up for me recently; triggers.

In the five years I have been doing this, many survivors have approached me and asked me for advice on how to cope; some reassurance that it gets easier. I know that when survivors who are further along in their journeys than me describe where they are at with it, it has at times comforted me.

In particular I remember reading an account written by a woman who – like me – was strangled, but around 20 years ago. She talked about how she couldn’t wear anything too restrictive around her neck for years because it reminded her of the attack, but that over time she started to wear scarves again and now she can do so without even thinking about it.

To me, in the early days of recovery, that was probably the most comforting thing I read. So next time you see me rocking a turtleneck and looking pretty smug about it, you’ll know why.

turtleneck

source: rifemagazine.co.uk

 

***

The word ‘trigger’ suddenly becomes really present in your life after you’ve experienced sexual violence.

I remember in the immediate aftermath, various professionals kept asking me what ‘triggers’ me or if I had been ‘triggered’, and not really knowing what they meant.

As I wrote in a previous blog, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arrived with delayed onset so for about six months after I was raped I felt relatively ‘okay’. It was my first trigger which actually then led to the first signs of PTSD; and that trigger was a pretty catastrophic one as it involved me being mugged by two men carrying machetes.

The sight of two violent men, the feeling of vulnerability, and the very real threat to my life took me right back to the night of the rape, and culminated in a total shut down of logic; I remember a feeling of overwhelming fear, and of utter devastation. It was from that moment on that my hyper-arousal kicked in.

There are plenty of definitions of hyper-arousal online; all I can really say with any authority is my own experience of it, which was a feeling of being constantly under threat.

Every situation was a risk, every day was a mission to avoid being raped or attacked. Every unknown person, and some known people, felt threatening. I had adrenaline constantly pumping through my body which translated into night-terrors as I slept; and so it was rare to have a restful and uninterrupted night’s sleep – even with the addition of a hammer that I kept by my bed.

I remained in this exhausting state of existence for around 18 months; but now, I am pleased to report, it has eased off substantially.

These days I walk home from the tube at night with the regular amount of anxiety that any woman experiences (that in itself is still frustrating but I’ll take putting keys between my fingers over screaming ‘HEELLPPPPP’ and running in the opposite direction when a man smiles at me on the street – this actually happened).

I am also, I think, a better friend and family member than I was back then. I’d put this mostly down to the fact that I don’t conduct an impossible-to-pass risk assessment of every social engagement before I attend in the same way I used to; I’m generally more trusting and can devote more brain space to enjoying people’s company now that it’s not being taken up by holding my bladder for hours on end because I’m convinced an attacker is waiting for me in the toilet.

All joking aside – hyper-arousal is totally debilitating and so if you are currently experiencing it, be gentle with yourself. You’re allowed to drop the ball a bit in other areas of your life while you navigate this horrible, relentless sense of impending doom. If a loved one is experiencing this, let them off the hook if they flake on a few meetups or don’t reply to your messages. They will come back to you and they will be so thankful that you continued to love them and gave them time to find their footing again.

So, remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything was much better? It is – however, as with most difficult things in life, recovering from trauma is not a smooth ride. Rewind to four months ago, there I was living my life, feeling good about not having to barricade myself into rooms anymore, when the mother of all triggers decided to descend.

It had been so long that I had forgotten how it felt. And yet; the length of time I had felt better for, and the confidence I had developed, somehow made it worse: I wasn’t protected by shock like I was back then; the memories were flooding in with ease and clarity, and I was no longer dissociating with the event like I used to.

This wasn’t a scary movie anymore, it was me. It happened to me. It really happened.

I was watching the TV programme Broadchurch, which came with very clear and robust trigger warnings. Confession: I basically ignore trigger warnings. This is because between working in sexual health, studying sexual violence advocacy, and running AND, I have developed the ability to almost completely separate my personal experience and my professional experience. This ability is what has enabled me to do the job I love for the last five years.

I watch documentaries, films and TV programmes as well as read academic texts, personal accounts and fictional descriptions involving sexual violence all the time. Of course – I am human – it still affects me, but what I rarely do is relate it to my own experience.

I think one of the main reasons I have been able to do this is because what happened to me is a less common form of sexual violence – stranger rape. So, when I tuned into Broadchurch, the only thing going through my mind was that it would be interesting to see sexual violence support services depicted in a drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant. It didn’t even occur to me that it might impact me personally.

And then suddenly, a frightened, injured woman was being taken into a clinical room for examinations – and it was me.

She had bruising on her arms and neck and cuts on her legs – just like me. She even had a cut on the back of her head where it hit the ground when she lost consciousness – just like me. And as the timid remains of her voice attempted to answer the policewoman’s questions while tears involuntarily fell out of her eyes, I remembered: that’s me.

This totally blindsided me and it took some time to feel like myself again. My nearest and dearest will tell you I am pretty in touch with my emotions – I regularly cry watching DIY SOS – but before experiencing this trigger, I can count on one hand the number of times that I remember crying about what happened to me. But this trigger acted like a faucet, and the tears were unyielding for a good five days.

***

I am very lucky in that I am currently being supported by a therapist, so I was able to take this into the therapy room within a week of it happening and do some very intense, challenging, but ultimately hugely restorative work around it. My therapist also gave me a talking to around my wilful ignorance of trigger warnings, and encouraged me to take a bit of a time out from anything which could be upsetting to watch.

But the most profound realisation to come out of this trigger has been this: maybe I don’t have to carry around my experience like a heavy burden whilst simultaneously trying to conceal it. Maybe I don’t need to be so anxious that others might view it as an impediment to my work and other areas of my life.

After watching Broadchurch I got into such a state that I felt an overwhelming urge to run away, because I genuinely didn’t know how I would ever be able to act normal and carry on with the life I had created for myself.

Partially due to aforementioned hyper-arousal, and partially due to my tireless indulgence in self-serve guilt, I decided not to do a runner and instead to bite the bullet and talk to a couple of people in my life about what I was going through.

The response I got wasn’t the one I was expecting. The people I chose to share with were my brother (for the comforting honesty that a sibling will reliably deliver) and two co-workers (because I was demonstrably not coping at work).

Both of these conversations resulted in these people fundamentally (and much more sensitively than this) asking me what on earth would possess me to stifle my human feelings and reactions to something which was not my fault in the first place, when those very feelings and reactions grant me an empathic knowledge which could actually be invaluable to my work?

Oops.

I had been so utterly convinced that my experience of sexual violence and the impact it had on my mental health would be at odds with my professional practice that I had neglected it and starved it of oxygen until it eventually clambered up into my consciousness, gasping for air and begging me to accept it as a part of me.

I am coming to realise that the most important thing I can do to aid my work is to take care of myself – and that means all of myself, not just the parts that are convenient.

Sometimes, admitting that something is hard and asking for help is the hardest part.

These blogs are not easy to write; and they’re even harder to share. But I do so in the hope that – just as that article comforted me five years ago – someone might read it and feel a little bit less alone. So to anybody who can relate to some of the things I have described in this blog, consider that sometimes it takes another person to point out the truth that has been glaringly obvious to everyone else the whole time; that the darkest part of yourself that you have demonised and shamed for so long could actually be cultivated into something wonderful, if you’d only shed a little bit of light onto it.

afterlife

“Afterlife” by Chana Bloch

In an Alley, At Night-time

by Robert Lutz

A woman alobne

Illustration for the poem “In an Alley, At Night-time” by Robert Lutz

Imagine
At
Night-time
you are walking through an empty
Alley
when all of a sudden you hear someone
Cough
and you shudder for just a single
Second
And then you abandon the scary
Thought
that something might happen to
You
Tonight
Here

Imagine
At
Night-time
you all of a sudden hear another
Cough
and stop and turn around and see
Someone
walking through the alley behind
You
and the person coughs and coughs
Ceaselessly
and the cough reverberates through
You
Tonight
Here

Imagine
At
Night-time
the coughing stops and you breathe
Quickly
and your body becomes tense with
Fear
and you move no more because you
Cry
and your tears fall freely because you
Thought
that this could never ever happen to
You
Tonight
Here

Identity politics: why have yours when you could have “ours”?

by Joshua Piercey

Image source: newstatesman.com

It’s time for the left to abandon identity politics.

That’s what the right say, at least. They also use some cool, 1984-inspired buzzwords like “thought police” and “liberal elites”. Identity politics is the domain of the illiberal, the controlling, the feminazi. Many on the left are starting to adopt similar discourse: identity politics are counter-productive, divisive.

DOES IDENTITY POLITICS LOSE CANDIDATES VOTES?

In a New York Times article that generated much debate, Mark Lilla intoned:

In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

Identity politics supposedly cost Clinton the election. By focusing on LGBTQ people, black people and women, Clinton lost the votes of rural white people. In the UK, Brexit was apparently not a rejection of diversity and immigration but rather a push for sovereignty and national control. Now Theresa May describes a national unity that does not exist, repeating her mantra of “strength and stability” to present a picture of united government that a fragmented Labour cannot match.

Image source: squarespace.com

All right. Let’s assume that successful politics is a play for the middle ground, and that identity politics are counter-productive. What should we do instead? According to Lilla:

LIBERALISM SHOULD BE ‘QUIET, SENSITIVE WITH A SENSE OF SCALE’

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base … by emphasizing the issues that affect (the) vast majority.

As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.

Riiiight. Unfortunately, “scale” is rarely dictated by those pushing against the status quo. If every social change went through without a hitch there’d be nothing to complain about. If you don’t really care about transgender bathrooms, their adoption is a non-story. If you’re hugely against them you shout it from the rooftops.

“Quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale”? When I look at the great civil rights successes of the 20th and 21st century I cannot find many that succeeded using this strategy.

WOMEN AND IDENTITY POLITICS

Leaves women in a tricky spot, doesn’t it? If you ARE a woman, and you care about issues that face you personally AS a woman (and it’s undeniable that there are many), what exactly are you supposed to do?

(That fact that “female” is included in discussion of identity politics at all is important to note. More than half of us are female. That’s not the politics of the minority, it literally can’t be. But to try and speak to women about the things that specifically concern them is pushed as political suicide. To bring up issues that affect the majority of people in the entire world is seen as somehow shutting out another majority that doesn’t exist.)

WHAT IF IDENTITY-DRIVEN POLITICS IS INTEGRAL TO WHO YOU ARE?

What if you are a woman of colour? Or gay? Or all three? What if the issues that affect the many make less difference to the quality of your life than the issues that affect the very few? What if the issues that affect the many are, for you, inextricably linked to your identity?

The answer is, as perhaps is to be expected, “shut up about it and concentrate on something more important”.

In the UK that “more important thing” has been and is Brexit. The media and political establishment are setting up the snap election to be one-issue affair, leaving other identities behind, even as the terms “leaver” and “remainer” become firmly entrenched in the discourse.

But identity politics are at work in the UK, even within a so-called “single issue” debate. If you identify more as English than British, you are more likely to have voted for Brexit. The more English you see yourself to be, the more likely you are to vote Conservative or UKIP. Outside of England, Welsh and Scottish identities become more and more important. Part of Labour’s apparent collapse is its changing (and challenging) relationship with the working class.

Image source: Illinois Family Institute

DOES CENTRALISM PERMEATE THE IDEA SOME IDENTITIES ARE WORTH MORE?

So the backlash against identity politics masquerades as one of moderation and centralism to obscure a key fact: some identities are worth more than others. You don’t want to make white men feel left out, because they dominate the voting and the discourse. The working class are important not because of what you can do for them, but because they might vote for you. No one is asking “English” people to leave their English-ness aside.

This is pragmatic, of course. But to pretend it’s anything other than pragmatic is disingenuous. ALL politics is identity politics. And while it won’t change the economic status quo, it is what wins (or loses) elections. When we elevate single issues to the forefront we are deliberately ignoring the patchwork of identities that create and care about those issues.

When it comes to how you vote, your identity is as important as anyone else’s. Beware those who would supply another for you and tell you it’s all that matters. If you vote only as a Leaver or a Remainer, what will the consequences be for you when those labels become worthless? In short: anyone asking you to abandon your identity because it’s inconvenient is not your ally.

The stifling of women’s reproductive rights

by Laura Mundy 

On his first full day in the White House, Donald Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy – or to be more apt – the Global Gag Rule, named to reflect the silencing of women’s right to healthcare in one fell swoop of a patriarchal signature.

You might recall the image below of eight men behind a desk, signing into law the withdrawal of US funding for health organisations operating outside of the US that provide abortions – or even offer information about abortions.

Source: The Independent

In summary, the Global Gag Rule blocks US funds to any organisation involved in abortion advice and care, overseas. This is expected to have a huge impact on family planning services and women’s health programmes in less developed countries.

Not only will this rule strip funding from any organisation that “performs or actively promotes abortion as a method of family planning”, but goes even further, slashing finance to any organisation supported by US aid not just those involved in reproductive health – if they choose to continue offering abortion services.

This denial of women’s access to vital sexual reproductive health services is actually the product of years of deliberation and U-turns at the hands of the US government.

When Ronald Reagan led the Republicans to victory in 1984, he devised the policy we see today, albeit far worse now under Trump’s conditions. Then came Clinton’s Democrat presidency in 1993 which saw the policy rescinded, only for George W. Bush to reinstate it in 2001. Barack Obama again denounced the policy in 2009, and in recent times, the now President Trump once again reinstated it.

To give some context of how this has stifled developing nations in the past, US-based charity EngenderHeath reported that: ‘From 2001 to 2009, 20 developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East lost US-donated contraceptives, and many organisations and clinics were forced to reduce services, lay off staff or shut down entirely.’

They added that: ‘…the Global Gag Rule affected family planning, HIV services, maternal and child health, and even malaria services. And in no place did the policy reduce abortions. In fact, the irony is that this policy led to more unwanted pregnancies.’

HOW DOES THE GLOBAL GAG RULE MANIFEST IN REAL LIFE? 

Source: ODI and WHO

The consequences of Trump’s Gag Rule are set to cause a lot more restrictions than cuts to abortion-related services; this in part is down to the fact that ‘abortion-only’ clinics are few and far between. Abortions most often take place in clinics or health centres that offer vital reproductive health services too. Cutting funding for abortion means cutting funding for them all.

This partnered with the fact that the US is the largest provider of overseas global healthcare aid, signals even further chaos.

It is important to evaluate what other services will be impacted by the Global Gag Rule.

1. Contraception and family planning

Millions of women worldwide rely on contraception to safely control the timing and prevention of pregnancies. Being in control of fertility has been proven to directly contribute to women’s economic empowerment and the increased ability to keep the cyclical poverty trap at bay.

Access to contraception for young women has been proven to decrease numbers of teenage pregnancies, which in turn improves young people’s opportunity to gain education, life skills and employment. The Global Gag Rule directly prevents US-funded international organisations offering contraception and abortion, from providing either service.

2. HIV and AIDS

HIV is commonly diagnosed at family planning clinics, when women come in for their first antenatal appointment. In some rural and poor parts of less developed countries, this can be mothers’ first contact with healthcare providers. By cutting funds to family planning clinics, Trump is denying women access to routine HIV testing during pregnancy, and the result will be a direct and damaging rise in HIV prevalence as current infections go undiagnosed.

The success of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV has accelerated in the last few years, thanks to routine HIV testing. The testing procedure has enabled the provision of antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive expectant mothers, which in turn vastly reduces the chance of passing the virus to their unborn child. The Global Gag funding cut will directly undermine the progress that has been made in reducing HIV transmissions from mother to child.

3. Sexual abuse and rape support services

Attacked Not Defeated was founded upon the trauma that too many women experience as a result of inadequate support after rape or sexual abuse. It is integral that crisis services provide information about abortion. Yet Trump has just denied that to millions of women. The result is a catastrophic violation of women’s rights to make a decision over their body following abuse.

But it’s not only abortion services at rape crisis centres that will be affected by the cut in funding. All crisis centres reliant on US funding – providing services such as emergency contraception, STI testing, HIV testing, post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, counselling, hospital referrals, face the real possibility of closure if they choose to continue providing abortion services.

4. Abortion itself

Consider additionally that restricting abortion services does not decrease the demand for abortions; it only serves to increase the need for unsafe or illegal abortion, which results in higher rates of maternal death. Preventing access to safe abortions will force women to seek unregulated or ‘backstreet’ procedures that endanger their health in many different ways. The World Health Organization estimates that 13% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions.

By taking away funding for all other family planning services it is undeniable that this will lead to more unwanted pregnancies; HIV infections and STIs; and abortions.

In response to the Global Gag Rule, the Dutch government has set up She Decides, an international funding initiative to plug the ‘gap’ many organisation will be left facing by the cuts. Many other governments have pledged support already, and anyone can donate to the fund.

We must not stand by and let huge organisations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes International or PAI lose funding for the work they do all over the world, let alone the hundreds and thousands of smaller organisations that stand to lose service-threatening sums of money for all the work mentioned above.

We must work together to fight for women’s access to sexual and reproductive health, family planning and abortion the world over, for it is a fundamental human right regardless of government-bound legislation.

Lessons from a Nobel Peace Prize winner

by Sara Belhay

Image source: Pinterest.com Pictured: Activist and Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee

Challenging the status quo in Liberia

Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, for leading a non-violent women’s movement to end the second civil war in Liberia. At the time of the outbreak, Leymah Gbowee was a social worker at the ‘Trauma Healing’ project, which was initiated in response to the damage left from the first civil war. Women largely saw peacebuilding as the work of men, and so Gbowee sought to redefine the role of women and ensure women’s voices were heard. Gbowee recruited women from different spheres of civil society, targeting the mosques on Friday, markets on Saturday and churches on Sunday. Flyers were handed out that read ‘We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up- you have a voice in the peace process!’ In order to create an inclusive movement, religion, class and social differences were side-lined in favour of their shared identity as women.

The Liberian Women’s Mass Action for Peace wearing white to symbolise peace. To ensure inclusivity and solidify their shared identity as women, Gbowee asked the women not to wear makeup or jewellery.

Although Gbowee encouraged the women to see beyond their identity as wives and mothers, Gbowee strategically adopted techniques that played to the gender conventions in Liberia to support her cause. The women appealed to President Charles Taylor as mothers, in Gbowee’s address to him, she stated ‘we believe as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’

In addition to this, the women abstained from sex to persuade the men to end the violence. Although Gbowee reflects that this had little practical effect, it did successfully garner international media coverage which further propelled the women’s movement. When the peace talks were at risk of breaking down yet again, Gbowee instructed two hundred women to link arms and sit outside the room in which the talks were taking place. When leaders of the rebel groups tried to leave, Gbowee threatened to strip naked, which traditionally in Africa, is considered a curse if an elderly or married woman deliberately exposes herself, as it symbolises taking back the life given to men. After peace was brokered, attitudes towards women changed, paving the way for the election of Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee addressing over two hundred young people at the PeaceJam conference at the University of Winchester 11/03/17.

At present, Gbowee is the founder and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation, which provides educational and leadership opportunities to girls and women in West Africa. Gbowee is also is a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning and serves on the Board of Directors of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the PeaceJam Foundation.

‘Are you a bystander?’

Earlier this month, I attended the annual PeaceJam conference at the University of Winchester, where Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee addressed over two hundred attentive youth, asking: ‘What are the things that keep you up at night, that disgust you?’ From discussing bullies to racism, Gbowee referred to the concerns that young people often approach her with: ‘You may be against all these things, but unless you take action, you are just a bystander.’ As a human rights and women’s rights activist, Gbowee is committed to taking action when she witnesses injustice.

Gbowee recalled an incident whereby she witnessed a 14-year-old boy harassing a young girl stood in a group. The other girls were howling with laughter and as the boy left, he took the sunglasses off this girl, snapped them and threw them in to the trash, and said take it from there because you are trash. Gbowee walked over and confronted the girls, asking who the best friend was. When the girl who had laughed the hardest raised her hand, Gbowee replied ‘who needs enemies when this girl has got a friend like you’. Gbowee talked to the girls about feminism and sisterhood, with the message that there will always be people there to stand up for you, and there will always be women who will be your sisters in the face of patriarchy.

Image source: REUTERS/Cornelius Poppe/Scanpix Pictured: obel Peace Prize winner, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, poses with her award at the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2011.

Leymah Gbowee, poses with her award at the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2011. Image source: REUTERS/Cornelius Poppe/Scanpix

Determined to confront the boy, Gbowee sought him out and challenged his behaviour towards the girl. When asked if he had any sisters, the boy replied yes. Gbowee instructed the boy to question his actions and ask himself, ‘would this upset me if someone did this to my sister?’ The lesson Gbowee taught the boy was that making others feel bad for your own inadequacies, would not be tolerated by people.

Gbowee recruited women from different spheres of civil society, targeting the mosques on Friday, markets on Saturday and churches on Sunday. Flyers were handed out that read ‘We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up- you have a voice in the peace process!’

‘Don’t hide in the shadows of low self- esteem’

Gbowee declared to the audience, if you want to live and enjoy life, you have to at some point make a stand. Gbowee divulged to the youth that after leaving an abusive relationship, Gbowee returned to education but had such low self-esteem, she never participated in class, despite knowing the answers. When Gbowee received a grade F for a piece of work she knew deserved a grade A, she challenged the teacher that marked the paper. The teacher apologised and revealed that because Gbowee never participated in class, the teacher assumed Gbowee did not know the answers and therefore automatically graded the paper badly. Gbowee highlights this event as the start of a journey in which she would use her voice to speak truth to power. Addressing the audience, Gbowee said to the audience that if you want to taste freedom, keep walking as life with all its complexities will never offer you what you want unless you step up and take it.

A student group presenting their project to Leymah Gbowee at the PeaceJam conference at the University of Winchester 11/03/17.

‘I challenge you to take the open mind challenge’

Gbowee spoke of the divisions that exist in society and the prevailing ‘us v them’ narrative. Quentions around racism and identity kept re-occurring at the conference. One school student originally from the Philippines asked Gbowee how to respond to bullies without resorting to violence. Gbowee probed what the boy’s aspirations were in life and instructed him ‘respond to what you are and not what you are called’. Gbowee’s parting message to the young people was to take the open mind challenge. Gbowee urged the young people to break down the barriers that exist in society, and talk to people you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to.

Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee discussing nonviolent solutions towards bullies.

‘One Billion Acts of Peace Movement’

PeaceJam’s ‘One Billion Acts of Peace’ campaign is an international movement that encourages people around the world to take action and provide solutions to the planet’s most pressing issues, as identified by Nobel Peace Laureates. Students at the PeaceJam conference were invited to present their projects to Leymah Gbowee. It was not only inspirational to see the fantastic projects delivered by young people, but also inspirational to see their reactions to other student projects, and further cemented the idea that anyone can make change. The lessons learnt at the PeaceJam conference were evident in the enthused faces of two hundred students. The students had accepted Gbowee’s open mind challenge and they were no longer going to be bystanders, but instead active agents of change, committed to standing up against injustice.

Eye on the ball: Why making sport accessible to women is so important

by Emilia Passaro

Image source: This Girl Can. The campaign , funded by The National Lottery and developed by Sport England, celebrates being active and aims to help women overcome the fear of judgement stopping women and girls from joining in.

In the past few weeks The Guardian has put out two articles about netball. Two! This is exciting news right?

A predominantly female sport is finally getting some recognition in the infinite ocean of male-dominated sports. Unfortunately, they’re not the greatest write ups we could have hoped for.

The first, by Morwenna Ferrier, states that netball is “uncool” even though  £16.9m is being invested in to the sport, with a solid £10.5m of that going towards encouraging adult women back into the sport.

Image source: This Girl Can

She claims the reasons for the game’s uncool rating are “it’s reputation at school, it’s complex rules and it’s tremendous restrictions on movement, not to mention the fact that marking an opponent requires a player to do a modified Nazi salute”.

Disregarding the Nazi salute comment because that’s obviously an unsavoury (and frankly lazy) joke, let’s look at the breakdown…

School reputation

I understand this statement. PE was the bane of my life and is the reason I still hate field hockey (although my perceptions of the sport notably improved during the 2016 Olympics. That was class).

I can see how the flashbacks of standing outside in a tiny skirt, probably wearing a t-shirt foraged from lost property while the wind howls and rain falls in horizontal sheets stinging your bare legs could be traumatic, but surely women’s relationship with sport has moved on since these dark times?

Complex Rules

Netball is a competitive sport and as such it has rules. Complexity is a subjective concept so I won’t comment on that but I know many people who are able to understand and execute the rules of netball. Plus, with two umpires barking out any offenses you make during the match it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick out where you’re going wrong.

Taking part

The rest of the article goes on to quote the head of Media at Sport England, Andrew St Ledger, who awarded the grant. He says “It’s all about getting people who are typically not represented in sports and physical activity to take part.” I think this is the most important aspect of netball and Mr St Ledger sums it up beautifully. He goes on to say “Netball is a great one for targeting women because about 98% of people who play netball are women, as you might expect.” He’s right. The vast majority of netball players are women and it is good to see an investment into women’s sports.

Image source: This Girl Can

The problem comes when we look into why women’s sports are so underfunded and frankly under appreciated. Billions of pounds have been pumped into men’s sports, premier league footballers are some of the highest paid individuals on the planet, it’s almost impossible to get away from the men’s rugby Six Nations and there’s nothing wrong with that (except maybe those wages – that’s ridiculous) but wouldn’t it be nice for the other half of the population to be represented in sport?

At this important juncture in their life, teenage girls become more self-conscious. Not only physically, but also how they are perceived by their peers, effectively how “cool” they are… and this is exactly why articles such as Miss Ferrier’s are so damaging.

Why are women abandoning sports after school?

The other article, in response to the first; shed a slightly more helpful light on the situation. Emma John delivers a response to Ferrier’s article from the netball community and even though the piece was undoubtedly meant as light-hearted commentary it seems to have missed the point. She states how the popularity of netball is on the rise and with recent international and league matches being broadcast live on television (BBC2 and Sky Sports 2 respectively) more and more eyes are turning towards the sport and hopefully women’s sport in general. I for one am very excited to see where the increase in funding and attention will take the game and, I’m sure the rest of my team, the Wendover Sparrowhawks Netball Club are too. However, the fact remains that a significant proportion of young women are abandoning group sports after leaving school.

Academic achievement vs sporting achievement

Is it a coincidence that this departure from group sports tends to correlate with hitting puberty? The reasons for this are not entirely clear but there are a few theories. Is it possible that young women are discouraged from pursuing sporting achievement in favour of academic achievement? Girls often out perform boys in academia at this age while boys surge ahead on the sporting field. Could it be that this supposed competition between sexes is turning our young women away from finding accomplishment in sporting endeavours?

Self-conscious

Another theory is that at this important juncture in their life, teenage girls become more self-conscious. Not only physically but also how they are perceived by their peers, effectively how “cool” they are. I see more truth in this latter theory and this is exactly why articles such as Miss Ferrier’s are so damaging. Young people are highly impressionable and therefore there is just no room for any kind of negative press in regards to women’s sports. We need to be promoting it as much as possible. The health benefits of sport, not only physical but also mental are well documented – this is something we should be ushering our young people towards.

Motherhood feels like lying on your CV

by Jennifer Robinson

Image source: Mia Nolting at berlinartparasites

Jennifer is 29 and splits her time between the UK and Uganda where she lives with her partner and their two children.

When you start telling people you’re pregnant the questions just keep coming. I thought it was bad with my first (unplanned) pregnancy:

“Oh. What are you going to do?” I am going to have a baby.
“Oh. Are you with the father?”  Right now I’m here inwardly rolling my eyes at you. He’s at home.
“Oh. Do you need some leaflets about terminating unwanted pregnancies?” No thank you. Just a referral to a midwife please, Doctor.
“Well, don’t worry, it will all turn out all right” Ah man, I was so worried. Phew. You’ve alleviated all my fears about my own inadequacies.

Distinctions between first pregnancy and second pregnancy are vast – I felt much more relaxed. My doctor also initially thought the second pregnancy was ovarian cancer, so in a choice between that and a baby, obviously I’ll take the baby.

Nothing prepares you for the sickness, but like the waves of nausea whenever you open the fridge, the questions just keep coming.

This time, by the nature of having already had a baby and managed quite well actually, there were less “your life is ruined” undertones and more “hope you love being tired” undertones.

My first kid barely slept for three years. I am the Queen, no, the KHALEESI of tired. I laugh in the face of tired. Slightly hysterically and at 2am, but I do laugh. Right before leaning into the cot to ask my baby what her damn problem is and right before I accidentally-on-purpose elbow her sleeping father in the face. AT WHICH HE DOES NOT WAKE.

Image source: Keely Montoya at berlinartparasites

The biggest mistake made by non-parents is to suppose that tiredness and dirty nappies are the worst of it. Those are easy, they have solutions; sleep works itself out. The hard part is having your child ask why the other kids were calling him a brown boy, why they were throwing things at him, or why they didn’t want to play. I have noticed an undertone of casual racism to many of my sons’ encounters with children in the UK and let me tell you – they get it from the parents. The hard part is having to watch as the world begins teaching them that nobody but your parents is going to do shit for you. With a boy, that means he has to work hard, but with a girl; life will find ways to stack itself against her just as it always has.

Let me go back to the inference that pregnancy ruins your life (if you’re not married, and especially for single mothers). This goes back to when women were to be preserved for marriage, from the same place as such enlightened schools of thought as ‘if a woman has an abortion she no longer deserves love and compassion’, or as is still an important part of some cultures, particularly in Northern Africa and the Middle East, ‘if she’s ever going to get married then any visible traces of genitalia must be removed lest she be rendered unclean.’

FGM is the extreme end of a sliding scale of inequality, a scale which has us applying layers of makeup, dieting for literal decades, using language differently; ‘treating’ ourselves to things men just buy themselves because they want them; or to food we want but don’t feel we should have; shrinking out of the way when a man is taking up our personal space. All of these things are interlinked within an idea about the value of women and our own self-worth. I saw a thought-provoking graphic the other day which said: If I asked you to name something you love, how long would it take for you to name yourself?

How are women supposed to learn to love themselves when society applies conditions to the love it offers them?

It is not far from living memory in the UK that women were little more than property and still ongoing in many other places. But these attitudes have no place in modern life. People no longer meet at village dances and take years to get to know each other before marrying in church, they swipe right. If you don’t get a match, no problem, there’s someone else.

What HAS happened, in the face of all the terrible things that the internet has brought us (I’m looking at you, Tinder), is an upsurge in acceptance for even the most unorthodox lifestyle. But why has this trend of acceptance not yet made its way to single mothers?

It’s not AS taboo – children no longer grow up to discover their sister is fact their mother and their mother is their grandmother as a way to avoid the stigma, judgment and persecution young mum’s faced if they had children out of wedlock.

But if one of the first questions I’m asked is ‘are you with the father?’ then is that a sign that society is ready for a woman who says “Actually, no I’m not”? In fact, with my second baby, the FIRST QUESTION I was asked by people I know relatively well was “Do they have the same father?” so – under the assumption that – as I might not have been able to hang onto the first guy (should have dieted harder post-baby?), at least I may have a chance of the second guy sticking around! Life jackpot!

Sorry to disappoint, but it’s the same father. Yes, we’re together. So damn traditional.

And while it may not disappoint overtly, it’s a much juicier piece of information to pass on when the father is not around, because people love to see women fail. This is why Ulrika Jonsson was named the shockingly derogatory 4×4 (four kids by four fathers) by the British media when men have been having kids left, right and centre for millennia and nobody says a bloody word other than ‘you go, Rod Stewart’, or ‘great work, Donald Trump’.

The guilt that comes with being a Mum

Image source: Personal-Art Pop Art Yourself Pinterest

By whatever circumstances brought her there, she is not considered to have simply ended relationships that were not working but has instead failed to hang onto a man. I have friends who have chosen to go it ‘alone’, a misleading phrase because when you have friends who are parents too, you’re never alone. ‘Going it alone’ just means there’s no man around. I have nothing but respect for them, and I will do anything that they need me to do to help, because this is hard. It’s hard when you have a traditional support network – the mythical village it takes to raise a child. I have resolved to be part of my friends’ villages, even if it’s on the outskirts.

I maintain that parenting, for all women – with or without a partner – is like lying on your CV that you have certain skills so that you get hired, then realising that not only do you not have those skills, you don’t have any skills at all and then you end up crying in the bathroom because you can’t remember how to make a table on Excel and your boss is waiting for the report. Just as they can’t imagine you feeling out of your depth, your child won’t know you’re crying in the bathroom, all they’ll see is you opening the door and smiling at them.