Monday, 25 November 2013

Add Your Voice

Today feels like a sort of birthday for me. The international day for the elimination of violence against women. It featured quite heavily in my life in 2012.

A year ago, I attended the WAGGGS Europe Stop The Violence seminar. At the time, I was doing it because I wanted to learn how to facilitate learning in my unit roles, and because the girls themselves had asked me to take part. I never for a moment thought that we'd be challenged to speak out and take real, practical action, and couldn't imagine a situation where I'd feel comfortable being part of a movement acting for change.

One of the things that I've realised over the past year is that I'm not alone in that feeling. The situation for women worldwide is so horrific, so incredibly dire and overwhelming, that it feels like we're tiny drops in an ocean. How can one woman make any impact? But we can. We must.

Not everyone has to try and infiltrate News International (a la Yas Necarti) or lead a campaign. But every one of us has skills and talents that we can share and use to support our sisters, both locally and around the world.

Do what you know: You could retweet articles or statistics from the many inspiring women on Twitter, reply to them, engage in conversation and add your voice. You could do a sponsored event to raise money for a local (or international) women's charity. Attend women's groups, get involved in the community and meet others. I was going to say "start small", but it's not small - it's amazing.

Advocating for women's rights doesn't mean being on an international stage, necessarily, but being able to take action. Local campaigns often have a bigger "real-world" impact than some of the national ones that get lost. How about poster campaigns in schools or in the workplace, a flash-mob or getting a load of colleagues to volunteer at your local women's centre for a day or two?

Getting the media involved doesn't have to be scary either. Run an event and send them the details. Local press love to hear about local people. And with so many different forms of media these days, including the power of social media, getting word out there is easier than ever.

Every action has an impact. Every action reaches and touches someone else. Every action is important and worthwhile.

A year on, and I'm more determined than ever to fight. Speaking out against violence is tough, it's not easy to do and even less easy for people to hear. I've learnt that some will turn away or try to silence you, but I've learnt that it's worth it.

I've heard from other women who have been raped, who have been so grateful that they are not alone. I've heard from women who have self-harmed, who feel like there is sisterhood out there. I've heard from women who didn't know the reality facing their peers, and from women who felt like they've lost everything. Each and every one of these women has reminded me why I do this, even when it's difficult and even when it feels I'm having to make sacrifices.

Sometimes it feels like I'm just one voice, one silly little girl with a blog and a Twitter account. But then I remember that you're reading this blog and that people have read my Twitter feed. And suddenly, that's another silly little girl with a blog and a Twitter account. And we're not so silly anymore. Or so little. 

I said at the start of this blog post that it felt like a sort of birthday. Admittedly, the seminar didn't start until 29th November, but there seems to be something quite special about celebrating the first anniversary of my empowerment today. Because this is where it all began, and where everything in that seminar tied back to, and this is what gave me my initial confidence and inspiration to speak out.

So in the tradition of birthdays, I think there should be gift giving. And possibly cake, but definitely gift giving. And the gift I want you to give is your voice. Find a tweet about violence against women and girls, or an article, or even make a promise, and spread the word.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Anti-Rape Wear

I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter feed (which makes me seem very sad, but I was actually searching for details on the DW 50th anniversary screening... Not helping my case), when I saw a very heated debate being fought by feminist Roweena Russell and the EVB Campaign.

Under normal circumstances, I don't read many posts and links of that nature in Twitter. There's only so much of society's victim-blaming attitude that I can take, and you get to a point where if you read everything that crops up, you're going to lose the will to live.

But something about this caught my eye.

"Anti-rape clothing".

Sure, the suggestion of rape prevention as a female responsibility is misogynistic and dangerously avoiding the real issue of male perpetrators in control. But I was sure the situation couldn't be as bad as EVB were making out. Surely all those outraged feminists were over-reacting, at least a little bit. I was also mildly curious. How could a pair of shorts actually prevent rape? What was so special?

So I went to have a look.

The first thing that struck me was that the product seriously misunderstood the reality of rape. It was designed to protect people from assault on the street, for a start. It is estimated that most women who have experienced rape have been assaulted by men that they knew. Quite often, it is within a relationship, perhaps in bed at night, not when you'd necessarily be wearing shorts or trousers.

How would anti-rape trousers protect a woman who woke up to find her partner inside her,  are we suggesting that to protect themselves, women must wear such clothing every minute of the day that they are not willing to have sex? Would this become permissible evidence in court? And if they are raped at night, as suggested, did they consent by not wearing their preventative clothing?

Of course, it is ridiculous that a pair of shorts or trousers can prevent a woman's rape. You would need an immovable, tear-resistant gag to cover the mouth too, you see. Because the legal definition of rape also includes penetration of the mouth. So now, to ensure that women are protected, we must remember that their mouths are also fully covered at all times too!

The second thing that struck me was that all the images of women, all the prototypes, the whole campaign was geared towards young, slim, beautiful women. Some might say that this is a side effect of the fashion industry, but anyone who genuinely cares about and advocates on VAWG issues will know and understand that rape and related sexual assault happens to women of all ages, of all sizes, of all appearances and from all backgrounds. Genuinely caring and ethical companies would reflect that in their campaign, to lessen the isolation and counteract the myths surrounding society's perceived victim profiles.

Oh, the myths. It was bad enough when they talked about protecting oneself when on a run, when on a first date and so on, but then they spoke of "risky situations", they used accusatory language about "even if she's had too much to drink", as if alcohol intake is a reason for rape. It really isn't. Every single part of the video and the campaign put the responsibility on the woman for the hypothetical attack, and it also put the responsibility on her for prevention. It proliferated myths and stereotypes that research has proven to be simply untrue.

This product, and the way it is being marketed, is dangerous and damaging to women everywhere and could seriously impair and hinder the emotional well being and recovery of those who have suffered serious trauma.

And if only they were my sole concerns.

What is to stop an attacker coercing the woman into giving him the release code for the clothing? What if she has, in fear, forgotten it? The company claims research disproves an increase in violence, but what research is this?

The first time I was raped, my attacker tried to strangle me. He repeatedly smashed my head against the concrete. I don't remember him leaving, but do remembering opening my eyes and him not being there, so presumably he had left me for dead. He said he would kill me. If I had been "protected" by this clothing, would he have just killed me anyway? Would the enhanced rage and frustration given him the power to actually do it, rather than just render me unconscious?

You see, rape itself is rarely an act of passion, connected with sexual attraction or a spur of the moment, lack of control type of event. Usually, it is premeditated in some way, and it is always about control. Yes, by wearing supposed anti-rape clothing, you are removing some of that control from the perpetrator, but aren't you also opening these women up to even more danger when he loses control in that moment of anger?

I don't know the answer.

Another concern that struck me is practical and medical. This clothing is designed to be resistant to tearing cutting and all sorts of other destructive methods. Just suppose a woman is involved in an accident and needs to be rushed to hospital. There, the doctors find that they are unable to remove the clothing. What happens then? Yes, significant portions of the clothing are normal fabric, but that doesn't get rid of the leg bands, waist bands or the gusset. And in the event that there is a safety code to unlock the garments in these circumstances, what prevents potential rapists from obtaining that same code?

There are many other problems with the situation, such as the financial implications and the fact that anti-rape wear is going to heighten the unfounded stereotype that sexual assault doesn't happen in "nice" communities.

Perhaps the company genuinely thought they were doing a good thing. Yes, if women feel confident and empowered in this clothing and want that choice, it is no bad thing, but to campaign using stereotypes, victim-blaming and create a product that potentially puts women in a more dangerous position, that is not. The company has shown that, fundamentally, they don't understand what rape is, who it happens to, why it happens, where it happens or what the real implications of such violent crime are. Let's help educate.

Edit: I have been informed on Twitter that hospital scissors can cut through tough materials, such as biker gear. However, I think clarification from the company would still be a good idea on this matter!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Girls In Action: Discussing VAWG Issues With Young People

This posts answers questions I was asked today. It does discuss violence, personal experience (though not in detail) and other things. I try to be professional and sensitive throughout!

I'm not going to go through the whole process of facilitating a workshop for young people here. Most people reading this will be friends who already have access to brilliant resources and proper training teams. Those who want to know the WAGGGS guidelines or want to ask questions are free to do so and I'll try and help if I can!

So instead, I wanted to share some of the questions that I've been asked today by friends, parents and people at the women's centre about what I do and how I approach it. I must note that most of these questions deal with the rape and sexual violence aspect, and that is because of the people who have asked me, and the nature of the questions and activities.

Because of the nature of our volunteer day, our "action" for Girls In Action was finding out about services available, particularly Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre and Women's Aid Integrated Services which are based in the women's centre. This meant that we did look in detail at sexual assault and domestic violence, but many of our activities involved more positive aspects, thinking about healthy relationships and ideal partners!

Q: How do you prepare for a volunteer day / VAWG project?
A: After the girls suggest the project (it is always their decision, not me who initiates), I discuss with parents what I intend to do. They get a copy of the syllabus (if we are working towards a badge) and full details of any other work that we're doing. I welcome discussion from the parents about anything that they are unsure of or concerned about. So far, I've not had any concerns come back and parents have even suggested that I go into more detail rather than less!

Once I've discussed things with parents, I start chatting in more detail to the members who are participating. What do they want to learn? What sort of activities do they like? I show them the pack and they can select. Is there anything missing that they want to do?

At this point, I go back to the parents and show them the final draft of activities, as well as give them access to support networks / helplines they might want available for themselves or their daughters, and show them discussion notes so that they are prepared for any questions that the girls might ask them following the sessions. Girls In Action is a great project to do, as most of this information is included either in the members' resource pack, or the guidance notes.

In terms of preparing myself, I try and connect with my own support networks in advance. One of these is the Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre and I just give the helpline a ring to chat about what I'm doing, concerns I have and my feelings about it. It's not that I'm out of control or panicking, it's just a useful way of me to get aware of my own comfort levels.

Q: Are your girls aware of your personal experience?
A: Not that I'm aware. I won't say a definitive "no" because this blog is obviously public. However, if they are aware, they haven't said anything. I think the more important question is whether I have chosen to discuss this directly with the girls or not, and the answer is absolutely not. 

I am in no way ashamed of what happened to me. I'm not proud of it, and I'm very upset and sorry that it did happen, but it is not something that I feel that I should keep hidden or guilty about. 

Having said that, there is a difference between my professional and personal life. In a professional context, and I do consider Guiding to be a professional role, there are many things that I don't discuss or don't feel are appropriate to that arena. I don't discuss my love life with pupils, Guides (or Rangers!) or even with colleagues, for the most part. When my ex-girlfriend came to camp with us last year, she was just a Leader from Leeds, and that is all that was discussed. Likewise, I don't discuss my rape(s) with the girls or pupils, because that is not something they need to know about me, and I don't think it benefits them or affects the relationship I have with them to know that.

If they found out, however, I would not be unduly worried. I see it, in many ways, like them seeing me with a girlfriend in town. It is not information I would volunteer, but if it did end up in the public arena, I would discuss with my commissioners (or senior management in a school), as well as with parents about how best to tackle the situation. It may be decided that we ignore it, or decided that we open a discussion about it, with neutral support / mediators. 

I don't know how I would respond to a girl who asked me directly. I hate avoiding questions, but am aware that these discussions need to be conducted in safe space with full parental knowledge and consent. My gut professional reaction tells me to challenge the question gently, with one in return; turn it back on the girl. So, instead of answering the question, ask if that would affect how they saw a leader? Does that matter? Why do they want to know? Is it better to wait for information to be volunteered or should we ask for disclosure? How do we respond around survivors? Choose a question (not bombard) and try to open a general and non-specific discussion. 

Q: If discussing VAWG issues affects you emotionally, why do you do it?
I think most people are affected by these discussions on some level. Most of the time, I just feel tired and drained once the adrenaline of the day wears off, and I just need to curl up with a cup of tea. I know I'm not alone - the other leader who joined me in July also felt drained afterwards, so we debriefed with a good cocktail!

The real difference is how we acknowledge that and handle self-care following the event. Many will just say that they are tired / exhausted, but my work with D has shown me that my exhaustion stems from emotions that I need to identify and process. This may be the case for a lot of people. My acknowledgement of this fact is not a weakness, but actually a sign of a strong relationship with myself and awareness of my emotional needs. 

Why do I tackle VAWG issues despite my personal connection? Well, at first, it was because my members were so passionate about it. My role as a Leader is to facilitate the experiences that they want and have chosen, and to do it in a responsible way that cares for their well-being. In tackling sensitive issues, I have ensured that I seek support and the help I need to work safely and effectively with my members, and continue to do so now.

I did say "at first", though. I never thought I would be strong enough to do this work and did explore and consider outside providers to work with the girls. I also didn't think that I would ever be passionate about the topic, because it was too close to home. But the fact that it is close to home fuels me. When I think of the statistics (one in four women experiences rape or attempted rape), and I see that 1/4 of the young women I work with will be forced to endure what I have, I realise that I will do anything in my power to change this future, and anything I can to make sure they are equipped to support and speak out for themselves and for others.

Q: But if it's affecting you, shouldn't someone else deliver?
A: As I said, I have considered outside providers, but I am fully capable of delivering these sessions and have attended appropriate trainings. As mentioned, I make sure that I am fully prepared and that I explore my own feelings, but when I talk about being affected, I'm not necessarily talking about an extreme negative impact, rather an emotional response that can be processed.

When initially discussing the project with the girls, I do speak of peer educators and other options. Realistically, I need to ensure that the best facilitator for my members is the one delivering, and I know that I am not the only one suitably trained to facilitate this. According to NSPCC research by Christine Barter, young people much prefer peers to adults. However, my members have so far opted to work with me, on the grounds that they "know and trust" me.

Q: Have the girls ever seen you affected by activities?
A: Other than a long sigh at the end of a day, no. During the day, I tend to be running on adrenaline and don't have the time to be overly affected. But thorough preparation means that I'm better able to work with these issues and activities and facilitate their exploration. Actually, if anything, I've been questioned about why I seem so "unemotional" about the subject matter!

Since engaging with the counselling process, I've found that working with my emotions has been far easier, and they don't tend to "burst out" at inappropriate moments as they used to do. Occasionally, when attending Guides straight after a session, I have done washing up or paperwork to remove myself from the girls "in case", but I'm very aware of my limits.

Q: How do you ensure you can deliver safely?
A: As mentioned above, I make sure that I prepare fully, both in terms of activities and by looking after my emotional needs. Adults need the same safe space provision as young people; we need the chance to leave a room if the session becomes too intense, we need listeners for support, and we need to reflect and emotionally evaluate the activities. Having more than one adult present is essential for this; it allows you to take five minutes, have a tea break, just have a breather. When planning, it's also vital you have plenty of short breaks and time to just chat and escape that mindset for a little time. It's much healthier to take five minutes and do some washing up elsewhere than it is to let emotions fester and potentially let the girls see discomfort.

With the volunteer days, the painting itself is a great space. It gives our young people chance to process what they've been talking about, or to escape it for a bit. By breaking up the day around the painting, it makes sure they have time to do something else and offers plenty of space for them to go and do other jobs "alone" if they need space.

Q: You give the girls the opportunity to ask questions of a survivor of sexual assault. Why is this done through writing rather than face to face?
A: It is mainly to alleviate any discomfort and embarrassment for either party. The girls are able to ask questions, knowing that they don't have to say the words out loud, and they don't have to share the questions with other girls if they don't want to. In some cases, faced with a survivor of rape, they may become uncomfortable about how they are supposed to act or what they are supposed to say.

Similarly, for the survivor, a written question means that the response can be measured, thought through for whether it is age-appropriate for the members, and it gives chance to process any emotions that arise without an audience.

Because I have experienced sexual assault, I tend to write these answers myself, and it's useful to keep the anonymity. As  the questions are for personal experience / opinion, it's something I can do, but I try to ensure another adult reads them for content to check they are appropriate. In some cases, I will get another survivor I know, or a counsellor to answer the questions, as they are better equipped to do so. But in all cases, it is made completely clear that the answer is personal experience and opinion, and try to ensure there is a positive challenge or discussion point for the girls.

Parents are, like with everything else, made aware of this activity, and many parents have chosen to discuss potential questions with their daughters in advance. Usually, my members choose to take their responses home with them, so that they can keep and discuss them later. Both parents and girls have said this is a valuable part of the day, as it is a true, personal interaction rather than secondary source learning.


I hope that this gives a little insight into how I prepare for these sorts of projects, and how vital self-care and parental contact are in the process. I know some people may find areas of this confusing or worrying, particularly the conversation with the survivor of sexual assault, but given the age range of The Senior Section and the supportive environment in which it is conducted, it is an incredibly positive experience for our members.

My main wish, though, is that it will inspire people out there to consider VAWG projects. It may be discussing gender roles and stereotypes with younger girls (you don't need to discuss rape and domestic violence!), or it may have made you consider using peer educators or providers like Rape Crisis to help you in delivery.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Care Versus Control

It's another exciting day for Girlguiding, as the nation's largest charity for girls and young women launches another campaign to get the voice of its membership heard.

"Care Versus Control" is a new report that uses Girlguiding's "Girls' Attitudes Survey" data to show how young women view coercion, abuse and healthy relationships. It forms part of our work on the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) Stop The Violence campaign, and also highlights the importance of peer education in discussing issues of relationships and abuse with young people.

Some of the statistics are shocking:
  • Only 23% of girls aged 11-17 fully understood what an abusive relationship was
  • Only 18% of girls mentioned psychological or emotional pressures when asked about abuse
  • 12% of girls thought that telling you who you can and can't spend time with is ok
  • 21% said that telling you what you can and can't wear is acceptable
  • 21% said that calling you names could be ok
  • 22% thought that checking up on you and reading your phone was acceptable
  • 39% said that making you tell your partner where you are all the time is fine

Presumably, by reversing the presented statistics:
  • 4% think that kicking, biting or hitting a girl for talking to someone else at a party is ok
  • 5% think that it is sometimes ok to threaten a girl with violence for spending time with friends
  • 6% think it can be acceptable to threaten a girl into having sex in certain circumstances

The "Care Versus Control" report lays out what many of us youth professionals have known for a long time, and what Christine Barter (who conducts the NSPCC research on behalf of the University of Bristol) has also reported; young people want peer educators, not teachers or trained professionals.

In Girlguiding, we are lucky to have an established Peer Education system, with fantastic and fully trained young women aged 14-26 who offer sessions on various sensitive topics. I often find that this resource is underused, particularly in my area. It's an example I often point to when working with teachers; training older pupils to be mentors and session leaders will have multiple benefits.

Firstly, it allows the young people involved in discussion to open up in a way that they can't always do with their "regular" adult. Certain phrases, types of language and attitudes are often seen as unacceptable in a normal meeting or classroom environment. If we want our young people to be comfortable and open in discussion, they also need to be comfortable and open in the language they can use to facilitate that, and be free from judgement in that. Outside providers also free them fro lasting embarrassment with a face they have to see each week, as well as providing the trained "mentors" with valuable leadership and transferable skills.

Understandably, and quite rightly, the "Care Versus Control" report has sparked debate on Twitter, asking questions such as "how can we help girls to recognise abusive relationships?" 

One lady, who shall be called HH, replied "Ensure your own relationships are healthy and lead by example". I wasn't sure I agreed with this statement. In fact, I positively bristled at it, and it took me a little while to work out and articulate why.

As you may know, I'm a huge advocate for leading by example. I find that in my teaching and in my Guiding, I make it my personal motto never to ask my young people to do anything that I wouldn't be comfortable doing myself. I will offer them the chance, of course (I might not feel comfortable doing zip wire, but they still have the opportunity!), but a girl who is struggling with fear will never be forced into it.

So given my own love of this philosophy, and my pedagogical knowledge of the power of modelling, why is it that the "lead by example" response in this case caused so much discord?

Those without experience of abusive relationships often find it difficult to understand the pressures and the attachment that are part of them. It takes a lot of courage to recognise that your own relationship is unhealthy, because it's so easy to try and explain problems away as a rough patch, or something that will get better, or even something that he does because he loves you. And it takes even more strength to walk away from it. Sometimes, that's because you're in love and can't imagine life without them, sometimes it's fear of the consequences, sometimes it's more practical matters like wondering where you're going to live.

When I was younger, a male friend of mine decided he wanted to date me. He put a lot of pressure on me until I finally agreed (knowing I could break it off, because I was moving cities in a few weeks). He pressured me into things I didn't want to do, stopped me seeing certain friends, even sat in the back of my car as I drove an ex-girlfriend from Luton to Sheffield at 2am because he was insanely jealous and didn't trust me. He then asked my parents' permission to marry me, and they announced it locally without even asking. They offered me £50,000 to keep my mouth shut and go through with the wedding. Despite everything that man did to me, the knowledge that I would be financially secure was an incredibly tempting offer.

I knew that relationship was unhealthy, but I wasn't sure where to turn or how to get out of it. 

Women's Aid tell us that when we support other women, we should ensure we listen to their stories and we acknowledge their difficult, traumatic and frightening situation. We also ensure we tell them that no-one deserves to suffer abuse. But we must never tell them to leave the relationship, in case they aren't ready to take that step and in case it's removing another element of control in their lives.

You see, when you survive any sort of abuse, it becomes a matter of regaining control. What that control is, is specific to each individual. But by telling a woman to "ensure" her relationships are healthy, we are judging her relationships, telling her to leave those that are abusive and removing that element of control.

It is also a fine line between a statement that tells the woman to "ensure healthy relationships" and victim blaming. If it is the woman who has the responsibility to make sure her relationships are healthy, there is a subtext that women suffering abuse are to blame for not taking that responsibility. This is simply not true; it is always the fault of the abuser.

I can see where HH was coming from in her advice for other leaders. I can understand how leaders with healthy relationships can help facilitate discussion for others. But in some ways, isn't this somewhat like atheist leaders discussing faith with their girls? It may not be something that comes naturally, and may even be uncomfortable for some, but just because it is not an experience that you are living first hand, doesn't mean that you are in an unsuitable position to be facilitating exploration for others.

Of course, many leaders don't wish to share the personal details of their relationships with their units anyway. Some of my older Senior Section members were aware that I was dating a Guide leader from Leeds last year, but not all of them and certainly not my Guides. None of my girls are aware of my current dating situation and that's the way I like it. I certainly don't want to be "modelling" to my units using my personal life!

"Care Versus Control" is an incredibly important compilation of research, and shows the extent to which the current education system is failing our young people in terms of real-world education. However, the debates coming from this report and Girlguiding's tweets on Twitter also show how badly we need to educate our adults about the difference between empowering women, facilitating discussion and laying responsibility on the wrong parties.

You can read the full "Care Versus Control" report here

Monday, 23 September 2013

Nottingham Women's Conference 2013

As Finn MacKay told us at the start of Nottingham Women's Conference 2013 (also known as NWC2013), Nottingham is one of only a few cities that retains a feminist liberation network, and this conference was the first in the city for more than twenty years.

The event started on a high, MacKay introducing many women new to feminism to key issues that affect us, such as only 20% representation in UK government, 15-19% pay gap remaining even 40 years after equal pay legislation came into effect, the 3 million women affected by male violence each year and much more. Did you realise that there are more licensed lap dancing clubs in this country than rape crisis centres?

We were left with a challenge, for all those embarrassed by feminism and feminists. What is embarrassing about demanding basic human rights for all?

This was followed by addresses from three key speakers. Pragna Patel spoke eloquently on behalf of the Southall Black Sisters about her 34 year old organisation that supports women with a whole range of gender inequality issues. She spoke about their achievements in the forced marriage act and concessions in immigration law, as well as how immigration issues and criminalisation are intertwined with gender-based violence and inequality. We heard of of the dichotomy of familial roles in feminism, that they perpetuate and enforce inequality, yet also provide protection against it. And we were told of the importance of contextualisation, that feminism is not a clinical theory and needs to be discussed in a political context.

The second speaker, Dr Julia Long, spoke about objectification and how it disguises as much as it conveys. She showed how it normalises violence against women and how physical objectification (such as beauty regimes and fashion choices) are used to moderate and control not only physical abilities, but our intellectual and creative potential. Long showed the relationship between a dominant and subordinate group through three main factors; violence (asserting dominance), objectification (removing humanity) and submission (disguise and compliance). If women don't buy into the "dream", the subordination doesn't work. Long was a powerful and emotive speaker, telling the gathered women that, "ultimately, to render a person as an object is to kill them. It is about reducing us to dead bodies."

We also heard from Chris Herries, the chair of the Co-Operatives UK group, who spoke at length about the history of the Co-Op and how women have been involved. She, interestingly, agreed that the "lads mags" sold by the stores are indeed pornographic, and that we should all become members so we can complain, campaign and change as joint owners of the corporation.

All three women raised an important point, that resurfaced throughout the day in various workshops. Male violence against women, societal enforcement of gender-inequality against women is a huge problem that needs to be named. Though Theresa May and other politicians are telling us that they acknowledge the problem and the significant and disproportionate effect on women, they are trying to promote a gender-neutral approach. They want to discuss violence. They want to discuss forced marriage. They don't want to discuss who is doing what to whom. But if we remove the gender-issue, we a removing part of the problem, we are hiding it from view. We need to address it, name it and keep talking.

Lunch was a wonderful opportunity to network, and I got the opportunity to meet with people working in schools, organisations such as Equation, and the wonderful Roweena Russell, who already feels like a sister!

The afternoon was split into various workshops, run by different organisations. The first I attended was run by the End Victim Blaming campaign. We looked at the definition of victim blaming as well as exploring our own frame of reference and how that affects our ideas and attitudes. I took away several things from the workshop, including the idea of a group learning agreement and some of the things to include in it. I will be using that one tomorrow!

We are, as individuals, all controlled in our response to victim blaming by a personal frame of reference. This includes both internal and external factors and affects thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Our frame of reference is not fixed, but it can be hard to change.

For example, as a child I was constantly told that I would never be attacked because I didn't look pretty and I wasn't dainty. The consequence of this message was that I believed that I must have been responsible for my experience, because I couldn't identify with the idea of sexual assault. Another example given by EVB was the media's portrayal of a case, saying that a woman had been "flirting all night" which led to her policing her own behaviour and that of others.

We get messages from everywhere, from the fact that women are targeted about postal safety, that girls are taught in schools, messages from other women, even. Our culture grooms young women to believe in Prince Charming and fairy tales. Men are seen as our salvation, so it must be us who are broken.

We're not.

It was a deeply personal workshop for many of us. Though I now speak openly about my experience of rape eight years ago, and am starting to speak about my experience six weeks ago, it is still a challenge. And the thought of discussing personal references with strangers left me physically sick and shaking, a reaction that I've not felt in quite some time! Some women were braver than me, though. They shared their experiences and they were thoroughly supported in that environment.

We were left with advice, advice that seems simple and obvious, but advice that need to be taken. How can we support victims and start to challenge victim blaming?
1. Acknowledge and challenge our own beliefs.
2. Respectfull challenge others.
3. Change our own language.
4. Complain to the Pess Complaints Commission and services when we see victim blaming in media.
5. Believe and support victims. Tell them that you believe them.
6. Support EVB Campaign and spread the word.

I can't speak about the next section of the event, as I decided to take some time out for self-care at this point in the day. It was an incredibly useful time for me to reflect and take stock of what I had learnt and where I was emotionally. D and all at Nottingham Rape Crisis have taught me well!

I went back in for part of the campaign planning session, where a myriad of local and national causes were represented. Everything from fighting bedroom tax to the No More Page Three campaign, from writing a feminist publication to a female skills base... It was all there.

The second round of workshops meant going to see Equation for me. Equation works with young people on a range of sensitive issues, such s violence and self-esteem. The session was based around their secondary targeted Know More campaign and the importance of female networks.

Using NSPCC statistics, Equation stated that 27% of teenage girls have been raped and that 90% of domestic violence incidents have been witnessed by children. Again, they asserted the problem of gender-neutrality approaches to VAWG issues.

We were introduced to different protective factors which help young women avoid or cope with violence and were statistically proven. These were:
1) self esteem
2) belief in their own ability to cope
3) ability to deal with change
4) ability to problem solve

There were also existing factors, which included:
1) family cohesion
2) presence of at least one consistent adult in their lives
3) a close bond with the survivor (if violence had been witnessed)
4) strong support networks
5) out of school activities

We were told about the importance of female support networks and how they decrease isolation, provide a check-in point, enable girls to identify support and let them see value in being a women. It reminded me of how invaluable Girlguiding and other femal-only space really is, when it is used well! 

Social messaging also featured as an important part of the mix, how the genders are engaged in competition and taught differently about their worth and competency, as well as taught that girls shouldn't trust each other. Our society is constantly trying to break the bonds between women and isolate us.

Equation spoke to us about how creativity is essential in memorable projects with young women, and how it builds esteem. Their Know More project (looking at emotions, choices, aspirations and relationships) helped young women change how they saw themselves and others, improved friendships and how they lt about being a woman.

The closing remarks of the conference reinforced the message that we had been hearing all day. It is not feminism that silences women, it's the men that rape and abuse women who are trying to silence them.

I know there has been controversy surrounding the event, and I know it is likely to arise here, given what I've already experienced on Twitter. What I want to focus on now, though, is the opportunity that NWC2013 gave women to come and explore feminism in Nottingham, whether they have been feminists for years or have not explored issues before. The event was massively over-subscribed, which is a testament to just how much interest and demand there is for these conferences, and a number of organisations and speakers who could have delivered workshops were encouraged to run fringe events as an alternative because the organisers simply did not have the room physically or temporally!

If there is anyone who wants to get involved, there is still time. There are fringe events running into next month, and I am sure planning will soon be underway for next year's event.

For now, though, I'm going to go and hide... At least until tomorrow!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

New Beginnings

I've been waiting for a while to blog, because I wanted everything in life to be tied up neatly in a little bow. I wanted life to be like a story, with a happy ending, or a solid chapter break.

But life doesn't work like that, and one event bleeds into the next, with ties and things linking into your past, present and future. I like it that way, with themes and connections, keeping you anchored.

I have now finished my face to face counselling at Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre. I feel positive about that, in a strange way, like it's time to have an adventure on my own, or something. I'm sort of curious about how I'm going to cope. I still have support networks, but it's different. I have to get used to life without D.

Our last session was great. I gave her a Girlguiding Thanks badge, to acknowledge her impact on Guiding, along with a card signed by the unit and many others in the organisation. She was incredibly moved by it. I introduced her to my camp blanket and showed her all the wonderful memories and bits that make up me. Then we made badges for it, mine showing the tree I made for her early on in our relationship, and hers showing a jigsaw piece. This was both a gentle dig and a reminder - just after I made the tree, she tried to get me to complete a jigsaw of all the feelings that made up me. I never finished. So this badge represents that, and the fact that D is now a part of me forever. It also had a symbol for "hug" on there... It was brilliant. I gave her the gift that I made over summer, and she gave me a beautiful doll that she had made just for me, that she called Henrietta. I was completely blown away and it is probably the single most touching thing anyone's done for me.

But it's not a neat ending. There are things still happening, and part of our journey that still needs closure. I don't know whether I will have that in days, weeks or months, but it's not quite over yet. There is one more thing to slot into place, the same thing that I've been waiting to share here, and still can't.

I have a feeling it will never completely be over, though. Two weeks ago, we bumped into each other in her town, when I was on a date. This week, we ran into each other in the supermarket car park... Intuition tells me that fate will throw us together when we need that little reminder.

And just like life, this post doesn't really have a neat ending or a happily ever after. It is what it is; a short update to tell you about the not-quite-ending and not-quite-beginning. And, for anyone wondering, I did finally renew my Promise and promise to be true to myself! I did it in my way, with my person, in my time.

Writes For Women

When I first started my advocacy work for Stop The Violence, I was aware that I was a small voice in a big pond. I was also under the (false!) impression that my personal experience made me weak and stopped me from making a difference.

I felt like my aims needed to be small and local, so I started attending local feminist events and meetings, to network and to see where we could become involved. 

After a while, I met the organisers of the Nottingham Women's Conference, who were looking for fringe events. I spoke to my lovely writers' group and we agreed to host one together. It was exactly what I wanted; small, local, no pressure.

Writes For Women was the first event that I organised or agreed to, but as you know, not the first that  took place. It might seem insignificant, given Nine Worlds in London, or my Ranger Volunteer day at Nottingham Women's Centre, but Writes For Women holds a special place in my heart for being the first.

What made the event special wasn't the number of people participating, but the number of people who weren't writing, but engaged with the event anyway. We had leaflets and fact sheets about gender inequality laid around our venue, and evy time I walked round, people were talking. Really talking and discussing the problems. Because an event like this isn't just about the writing, or the money, it's about opening discourse on taboo subjects.

I spent my weekend writing about my personal experience of gender inequality and violence. I chose it knowing the impact certain blog posts have had on women and how female networks decrease the sen of isolation. At some point, I will share this work, though the format mains to be seen. My challenge was to write 10,000 words in two days. To put this in perspective, when we do the NaNoWriMo challenge in November, we say writers should aim for 1,125 words per day. It was a huge challenge, but a huge achievement when I succeeded in under 27 hours of my 48 allocated.

So far, the group has raised £172 for Nottingham Rape Crisis. There are writers donating to other causes too, but I'm incredibly proud of this. If you do want to add to this total, please feel free to visit this Just Giving page.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Being True To Myself

I fell in love with the new Promise for Girlguiding the minute that I heard (or rather, read) it. Personal, inclusive, it was everything that I had hoped for; a commitment that both my friends and I could make on equal footing.

Except I haven't yet.

It may seem odd to some that such a vocal supporter of the new wording has yet to renew her Promise, but the simple fact is that I'm not sure I'm ready.

I fully intended to renew on Cardiff Bay at midnight, the moment it came into effect. It would have combined my Showmasters family with my Guiding family, at a significant place and time. It would have been quite perfect. But my friends were drunk and I was unwell, so it fell through.

The next plan was to sit with my counsellor and renew it in session, because some of the wording rang true with our journey and our discussions. And it just so happened that she started to talk about being true to oneself, making me smile and we talked about what it meant to each of us.

So far in Guiding, I've heard people talk about being true to oneself as being about integrity and standing up for one's beliefs, but to me it's more than that. It's so much more personal, and somehow harder than promising to love my God (though, really, the latter does encompass the former).

Being true to myself involves knowledge of who I am, it means understanding myself as a person. Not just in terms of my moral compass and my framework for life, or my spiritual life, but it means understanding my emotions, my feelings, caring for and connecting with myself.

It's something that I have struggled with a lot throughout my journey with D. I much prefer to bury emotional responses, to assign a logical reason for everything, and I have to constantly remind myself that it's okay not to be perfect, and it's fine to feel. I'm at a place now where I do challenge myself about how I feel, I am more aware of what I want, what I fear and it's all part of building and maintaining a relationship with myself.

Those relationships are so important for our young members to develop, given that it's something that society almost encourages us to bury. Constant reminders to "grow up", "stop being a baby" or "grow a pair" constrain us and hinder our journey with ourselves.

It's the aspect of the Promise that is (and will probably remain) the most poignant for me, and I desperately want to be able to make it. But after sitting for an hour, struggling to vocalise my current predicament, trying to be "strong" and "independent", I realised that it's not a commitment I was quite ready to make at that point, that I would feel hypocritical promising to be true to myself when I was doing everything in my power not to be.

But, of course, that's where the other essential part of our Promise comes into effect. Because I'm not meant to be perfect, I'm not meant to be superwoman. I am just me - a girl with a lot of baggage - and our Promise reflects that too. Because I'm not promising to "be true to myself" at all, I'm promising "to do my best to be true to myself", and that is a very different thing indeed.

Despite the arguments I've heard, it makes perfect sense that being true to oneself exists within the framework of the Promise and Law. We put so much emphasis on looking outward in Guiding - we develop our beliefs, serve our community and help others - but we have to remember to care for and retain a sense of self throughout that. Without understanding our needs, our desires, our feelings and our own sense of right and wrong, we can't go out into the world and make the change that we want to see.

I hope that in the coming weeks, I will feel able to renew my Promise. I hope that I will find the right place, time, context and that I will be comfortable making that commitment to continue that relationship with myself as well as with my God.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Unblurring the Lines

Once again, I find myself proud to be a part of Girlguiding, as we have just undersigned the Telegraph's campaign for better sex education in schools as part of the national curriculum. I agree, as I have stated in support of Campaign For Consent, that better sex and relationship education in this country. But a conversation that came out of this discussion had me worried.

It was suggested that the issues of consent, sexual assault and rape should be addressed as sex education, under that banner. Although enthusiastic consent can be partly discussed in terms of healthy relationships, I don't feel comfortable with this overarching banner.

Why not? Because it seems to fit, doesn't it?

Well, yes. And that is part of the problem that needs to be addressed. Our society currently has such a phenomenal misunderstanding of what rape, sexual assault and consent are, that it is not just a part of "sex education". 

We need to show that sexual assault and rape do not equate to sex in any way. Penetration does not equal intercourse. The blurred lines between sexual encounters and sexual assault in our society are harmful to those who experience it and to those around them. In a world that classes rape as a sexual act, women who feel they are unattractive cannot fathom that they might have been assaulted, or feel ridiculous for reporting it. In a world that classes rape as a sexual act, it is glorified and revered in the media. And in a world that classes rape as a sexual act, both men and women are reduced to the worst possible stereotypes of their genders. If these beliefs and reactions are prevalent in society, they are perpetuated and reinforced, leading to a seemingly unbreakable chain.

By including rape, sexual violence and consent as part of sex education in schools, rather than as part of the wider PSHCE (personal, social, health and citizenship education) curriculum, we risk reinforcing the notion that violence is a sexual act rather than one of control. We create yet another generation who fail to see the distinction, and we fail in our duty of empowerment.

When I took my Senior Section members to the Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre in July, they thought they were pretty clued up. But even they assumed that a woman could not be raped by her partner, as she had already consented to sex. They assumed that if a woman consented, then changed her mind, the man had every right to continue, as she had agreed to sex initially. These are the effects of the blurred lines caused by classing rape as a sexual act rather than one of power and control.

It is important that young people are aware of consent within relationships and, with that in mind, it should be discussed as part of healthy relationship education, but much better that than reducing a serious, violent crime to "sex" once again.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

How to Spot a Guide

Back in 2010, not long after rejoining Girlguiding, we celebrated "Vision". Vision was our centenary finale, celebrating 100 years of the UK's largest charity for girls and young women, and ringing in the next hundred! In Nottingham, Vision was a wonderful event with several thousand members in the city centre. My Brownies rode in on an old London Routemaster, decorated in centenary coloured ribbons and bows - they felt like princesses on a parade!

The following day, I was teaching in a local primary school, a lovely CoE school in the village down the road. I had always noticed certain characters in the school, that they had a certain quiet self-assurance about them and a gift for group work that was particularly impressive amongst the younger ones who often struggle to share and work together. That day, the headteacher had a very special theme for the assembly; he asked that everyone who had their special item in their pockets stand up and put them on. Suddenly, these girls who I had seen as emotionally developed beyond their years all stood up. And the items they put on were their pink neckerchiefs from Vision the night before.

It was this assembly that started me thinking about Girlguiding and the many benefits that we offer young people. Because as much as it's seen to be about the activities (whether they be adventurous ones or more service based), there is something running deeper than that.

In a secondary school I taught at not long after, I had a similar experience. I was teaching music and each group had to put together a composition. They had their task and success criteria, but were largely left to their own development. Those groups with Guides in them had the organisational skills to break the task down, to assign roles, and the confidence to assert themselves as well as support others in their group who were more nervous.

Similarly, this last summer, my new GCSE German group had two young ladies who I instantly recognised to be Senior Section members, before they even told me. How could this be possible?

It's because, right from the start, we use our five essentials. A varied and balanced programme is just one of the five, and it is important to give our girls challenge, variation and opportunity. But we look after each member as an individual to build their self-esteem. It is often thought by education professionals and behavioural psychologists that children with higher self-esteem and stronger support networks tend to thrive at school, that they are calmer, more thoughtful and engage more consistently with their work. We teach them to work in small groups, both as leaders and as team members. Sometimes this involves team games, sometimes it involves problem solving and sometimes, as with my Rangers, it involves them each planning an evening for the other girls. And we also ask our members to govern themselves as much as they can, as early as they can. It may mean choosing their favourite activity, or a sixer that takes a register each meeting, or it could be a Senior Section member taking some responsibility for the unit budget. But they are making the decisions, they are leading, they are learning to look after others as well as themselves.

Girlguiding has a holistic approach to child development - teaching about relevant issues in a non-formal environment, offering new activities as well as encouraging transferable skills. And part of this holistic approach, of course, is our fifth essential, the framework for our organisation - our Promise. We show girls that their beliefs and their own world views are important, that to look out and understand and help the world, they need to look in and understand themselves too. We teach them the importance of community, help them explore morality, honesty, how to overcome challenges, what it really means to try their best.

One of the additional key elements of Girlguiding's ability to develop the girl, in my experience, lies in the simple fact that it's not school. I have worked with Rainbows, Brownies and Guides who have struggled academically for various reasons, but have thrived in Guiding without the pressure and expectations that accompany targets, assessments, constant reminders about spelling and punctuation. I have worked with several of my Brownies and been surprised by the notes left for me by their class teachers and even said, "Did you know that L is really good at this?" And the knowledge that they are valued members of a community, that they have their own strengths and abilities, builds their confidence at school and helps them face their everyday challenges with grace and determination.

And, of course, the girl's unit - whether it be Rainbows, Brownies, Guides or Senior Section - is a safe, girl-only space. So often there is a huge gender-divide in the classroom, one that is often (consciously or not) compounded by the staff in there who reinforce the stereotypes and the thought that boys should be louder, more boisterous, more confident. Girlguiding allows development space away from these stereotypes and pressure. 

If only every girl got that chance.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Guiding Memories

 Welcome to the planet of Blanket, complete with hand-stitched and lined extensions, hand holes and the all-important gravitational field!

Those people who follow me on Twitter will see me talking about my blanket quite a lot, because it's a huge part of me. I honestly believe that camp blankets reflect our lives in more ways than one - they are a physical accumulation of our experiences but also reflect us in our arrangement of our badges and novelties.

Another thing that I love about blankets is that a good blanket has a story before you even sew on the first badge. For my original blanket (the middle section), I got my uncle's old one from when he was a Scout. My grandparents took off his badges and gave it to me when I was ten, something really special because he had not long died at that point. It belonged to someone else in the family before him too. But not everyone's blanket is old, it may be that it was an official Brownie blanket bought as a gift by someone close, or maybe the act of finding the perfect blanket was arduous. Or it could be that you bought the fabric and sewed the entire thing yourself. I know a Guide unit who went on camp and made their own first camp blankets... a good blanket has a story and a connection.

Because a camp blanket, ultimately, is about love and about you. There are no two identical camp blankets on this planet, and rightly so - because no two people are the same. I often think that dating would be much easier if we all wore our blankets on the first date - we could instantly see what we had in common and it's a great discussion starter!

I wanted to show off every badge on my blanket, because every single one has a story. Even the random swaps and things have connections with those people, even the fundraising badge I bought from the lovely Kirsty was an absolute pig to sew on and sort of became a funny blanket addition for that reason alone! However, realistically, no-one is going to read through over four hundred badge pictures and stories, so I've just chosen some of the most special ones to me. Some are from when I was a child, some from my experience as an adult, but these are probably my most treasured items on there.

 This is my service flash from when I was a Guide. We either had to do forty hours of service in the community or regularly for six months (though I may have got those figures wrong). I don't know quite what prompted me to do it, but I'm so glad I did. I spent a year working every Monday evening in the children's section of my local library, shelving books, recovering them, cleaning them, all sorts of things. It was a wonderful experience for a 12 year old!

 Also a Guide badge, this was the arts and crafts emblem. To get an "emblem", you had to do at least five badges from a set themed list. No-one really got emblems in our unit and I fell in love with this one, so I identified all the badges I could do and went through them one by one. I did musician, band, writer and I'd have to look closely at my blanket for the others. I was so proud of this one and still am!

 It's a set of four badges this time, because I couldn't really choose between them. Our unit leader always laughs at me because when pointing out favourite badges, these are almost always the four I gravitate to. These are the Guide interpreter badges, as were. They used to be staged and I worked so hard to get them. I did different stages in different languages (yes, I was a show off even then) and I used to panic at speaking in front of other people, so it was a fight to gain enough confidence to do this! I still remember sitting in the classroom at school with my teacher who said she'd never heard me speak so much French (or German or Dutch!). I did stages three and four a little later, when I was a Young Leader - the beauty of staged badges was that you could start as a Brownie and finish later stages when you were in Senior Section; real skill progression!

 Not a badge this time, but a McDonald's Happy Meal toy! I have two of them sewn on my blanket and they're a little reminder of my days as a Young Leader with Guides. We had a brilliant weekend in London in 2000, staying at BP House and we even went to the Millennium Dome for the day. We ate at McDonalds twice, and so I still have the toys which I've sewn on. I think they're probably the Brownies' favourite thing on the blanket!

Though I was pressured by my district to leave Guiding in 2002, I sort of rejoined in 2004. But not in the "traditional" way. When I moved to Germany, I was determined to immerse myself in the local culture and improve my German by actually making friends and integrating. So instead of joining BGIFC, I joined the Rovers / Rangers of my local DPSG, and this was the badge. I never got a uniform, but wore a grey necker (because I was over 18). It was a really strange experience, coming from UK Guiding!

 Onto adult experiences now (but not like THAT- heads out the gutter!) and this was a thank you badge from the leader of a local Senior Section unit. She had been messed about and was desperate for a second leader for her camp so it didn't fall through. I was terrified, because I hadn't been camping since I came back from Germany in 2005 and the thought of no lockable doors sent me into blind panic. I survived the weekend and, not only that, but the Senior Section unit is now my lovely group that I took over that September!

Again, a little bit of a cheat as I've chosen a section of my blanket (and not all of it is shown on here). These are my badges from Roverway 2012 in Finland. Well, the official contingent badges rather than random swaps. It became my mission to try and get a badge from every contingent and I pretty much did it. The Spanish contingent had multiple badges and I didn't get all of the variations, the Icelandic contingent ran out of badges whilst on paths, so had none left by the time they got to the site, and the Italians were only given a badge for their uniform and were banned from swapping. I came up with a really productive system whilst serving dinner (I was on catering); If they had badges, they left one of theirs and picked up one of mine. That way, I got to see and speak to everyone! I became a little bit badge obsessed, sadly. Finland was also special as it was my first Guiding international, and had me in the middle of some woods for almost two weeks. And not a proper panic attack at all! Was so proud of myself.

This, again, is not actually a badge as such, but it was a special memory and made of fabric, so it got stitched on. In December 2012, I was lucky enough to be one of 25 women attending WAGGGS Europe's Stop The Violence seminar in Belgium. On the last day, we got to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and have a talk from a female MEP about the Istanbul convention and the importance of advocacy in VAWG. It was a great experience, and I wanted to keep this as a reminder.

This summer, I took part in the Soroco Speak Out blog competition. My entry was about violence against women, particularly sexual violence and based on the work I did in Belgium. It was a difficult and personal entry to write and record, and marked a certain step in both my own journey and the advocacy one. Each entrant to the competition was given a set of the Soroco badges, which are immensely special to me. In fact, when asked, I described these as the most important badges I've ever earned.

This last badge also marks something brilliant. My Senior Section unit had been desperate to volunteer at the local women's centre for a long time now, and we finally got to go and repaint the kitchen and one of the counselling rooms upstairs, used by the Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre. Whilst there, they got a talk by the helpline supervisor and also did several Girls In Action activities to complete the badge. I was so proud of their maturity, involvement and passion, and the ladies at the centre feel the same way. I never thought I'd actually have the strength to go in with them and have these discussions, do this work, but I did and - given everything they learnt that day - I know it was a challenge well faced!

Some people say I couldn't possibly remember every badge on there or the story behind it. Admittedly, I don't remember a lot about most of my Brownie or Guide badges. But my camp blanket is a tapestry of me. It's my friends, my journeys, my camps, my interests and hobbies. For me, my blanket isn't restricted to Guiding, but those are often the memories I treasure most.