While others seek division, we're searching for solutions to extremism and the politics of fear

Here’s my latest Ham and High column – also available here

It seems like every time we watch the news, we hear about another conflict or incident. And the awful terrorist attacks in Paris were so close to home.

The whole world felt the impact of the horror that unfolded at the Charlie Hebdo office.

But here in Haringey we have a proud history of uniting against violence, hate, and extremism.

Less than two years ago, the community response to the terrible attacks on the Somali Bravenese Centre was overwhelming. We all came together in a show of solidarity – and helped them to rebuild.

Unity is the best way to respond to the atrocities committed by terrorists, and extremism. It’s so important that we don’t allow the politics of fear and hate to creep in.

To be blunt, those seeking to create division are parties like Ukip, who would use the actions of terrorists to create fear and animosity towards certain communities.

I’m proud that my party, the Liberal Democrats, have stood up to Ukip from day one. Our beliefs and values really are the polar opposite of theirs!

But I know it’s not enough to just say these things – politicians, communities, everyone needs to take real action, and search for the right solutions.

That’s why I’m arranging even more local visits to community groups and religious groups, to discuss how they feel about the current situation; ask what they think can be done to stop further attacks, and how to prevent division in the aftermath.

There are going to be difficult moments, and tough conversations. But it’s what needs to happen for us to find an effective, long-term solution to tackling extremism.

This is the harder path. But it will ensure that the voices of all those in our community are heard – that our youth understand the value of engagement over argument.

This is a conversation that needs to be ongoing. We need to build forums and platforms that allow for a continuing discussion in our community about these difficult issues.

I want to hear as many views as possible – if you have thoughts you’d like to share, please contact me. This is a conversation we all need to be part of.

What Labour are up to in Hornsey and Wood Green…

It’s very rare for me to post about Labour literature that’s delivered in my constituency – firstly because it so rarely happens, secondly because I am a Lib Dem!

But here goes. Over the last few weeks, some Haringey residents have received a Labour leaflet on their doorstep. In it, Labour have outlined their ‘tough new approach to immigration.’

 Labour's disgraceful anti immigration leaflet - delivered in Hornsey and Wood Green

So apparently, under a Labour government – people who come to the UK will be treated as second class citizens. Labour will stop people who come here from claiming any benefits for two years. It doesn’t matter if they are a refugee fleeing violence, or someone who has been made redundant through no fault of their own, Labour will seemingly abandon them and let them fall into poverty.

Bizarrely, Labour then turn their fire on nurses and care staff, implying there is a major problem with their language skills – this is despite proof that the NHS and care system would collapse without migrant workers.

Shockingly, Labour have only put this leaflet out in areas where immigration is higher – Bounds Green, Noel Park, Wood Green and Tottenham. They have decided not to tell voters in the far West of Haringey what they really think.  Disgraceful.

Here in Haringey, we have a proud tradition of uniting against extremism and the politics of fear. I have always been so proud to represent such a diverse area – there are about 200 languages spoken in my Hornsey and Wood Green constituency. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But instead of upholding this tradition – Labour are pandering to UKIP and creating division. Even neighbouring Labour MP David Lammy has slammed the approach taken by Labour in Hornsey and Wood Green.

Just like one local resident said on twitter: “Immigrants are welcome in Haringey & this leaflet isn’t.” I couldn’t agree more!

Tackling violence against women in Burma

Final blog from my visit to Burma last week – including meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. Also available here.

Last week I spent 2 days in Burma, the last foreign country I will have visited as the UK’s champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas. And what a fascinating 2 days it was meeting Burmese civil society groups, women’s rights campaigners, government ministers as well as the iconic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burmese women suffer discrimination and violence as the direct result of decades of military rule and conflict, and due to widespread displacement. In Kachin State and Rakhine State in particular, there are reports of women and girls being raped, tortured and trafficked. The restrictions on the freedom of movement put on the Rohingya people in Rakhine means they are even more vulnerable to violence – so not only are they ineligible for citizenship, vilified by extreme Buddhists and kept out of basic education and healthcare, they’re trapped too. And Burmese women have little to no access to human rights protection or justice, and they are grossly under-represented in public life. Only 6% of parliamentarians are women and there are very few women at the top table in the national peace negotiations.

So for me, the big questions I wanted to explore in Burma were these: What hope is there for Burmese women and girls from all ethnic groups? Is there any hope that President U Thein Sein’s reforms will include improving their lives?

No one could answer these questions with complete confidence after just 2 days. But what was clear to me is that right now there is a window of opportunity, a moment that could be seized, that really could make a big difference to the lives of ordinary Burmese women and girls. And here is why.

Since 2011, the new government has signed ceasefire agreements with 14 out of the 16 main ethnic armed groups, released the majority of political prisoners (though not all of them), suspended censorship (though not intimidation of journalists), eased internal travel restrictions and endorsed the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), spearheaded by the UK government. Indeed, on Friday I observed a UK Defence Academy training course for the Burmese armed forces, police and senior civil servants on international law including UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

Lynne Featherstone speaking at the UK Defence Academy training course for the Burmese armed forces, police and senior civil servants on international law. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID
Lynne Featherstone speaking at the UK Defence Academy training course for the Burmese armed forces, police and senior civil servants on international law. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID

In parallel, civil society is gaining a greater voice in Burmese society. On Thursday I visited a PSVI-funded legal clinic, run by ActionAid, for women who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. The clinic is training female paralegals to provide legal advice and referrals to victims, and male youth leaders to influence men and boys in their communities to abandon the old ways and respect the rights of women and girls. I met some of these trailblazing paralegals and youth leaders and was so impressed by their dedication and leadership to change Burma for the better.

Lynne Featherstone with paralegals and youth leaders at the PSVI-funded legal clinic, run by ActionAid. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID
Lynne Featherstone with paralegals and youth leaders at the PSVI-funded legal clinic, run by ActionAid. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID

I also held a roundtable with women’s rights campaigners, including the Women’s League of Burma and spoke with a group of young female peace activists from around the country about their fight for an equal voice in the peace process and political reforms.

Roundtable with women’s rights campaigners, including the Women’s League of Burma. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID
Roundtable with women’s rights campaigners, including the Women’s League of Burma. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID

More evidence of the window of opportunity for real change in Burma is that an unusual degree of attention is being paid to the international community and Burma’s reputation within it. And there is a lively debate about how the UK should engage with Burma, among people inside and outside Burma.

Lynne Featherstone chats with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID
Lynne Featherstone chats with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Picture: Monica Allen/DFID

This was a major discussion point during my meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most popular, famous and inspirational politician. She is supportive of DFID’s work in Burma, especially our bottom-up approach on working to strengthen civil society and local communities. But she is concerned that the international community is giving too much leeway to the current Burmese government, and I agree that getting the balance wrong is all too easy.

Nevertheless I ultimately agree with the Commons International Development Committee, chaired by my colleague Sir Malcolm Bruce, which looked into the UK-Burma relationship last spring in light of the recent reforms taking place in Burma. The committee endorsed the Coalition Government’s approach of supporting reformers in the Burmese government to raise the country out of poverty, develop the economy and build a society that moves towards democracy.

Overall, all the Burmese people I met had one thing in common – they are all dedicated to making their country a better place for all Burmese people and they are making a noticeable difference. Even “just” breaking taboos and starting a national conversation about gender-based violence is a major step. In a country where most people would say it just doesn’t exist, a national conversation would be an enormous step in the right direction.

Tackling violence against women in India – day 3

Also available here.

My last day in India was spent back in New Delhi and I could write a whole blog just on my first meeting of the day with 10 young people! They’re part of the ‘With.in’ initiative, funded by DFID, which selects 100 passionate young people, mentors them and supports them over the course of 1 year to lead creative projects that challenge discrimination in their communities. Nearly half of these young leaders are women.

One of them, herself the daughter of a sex worker, works with children from red-light districts in Kolkata to break the silence on sexual violence. She uses comic workshops and theatres as a means for the children to express themselves to wider society.

Another was a young woman from Patna in Bihar state who runs a girls club for adolescent Muslim girls, where she works with them to value their worth as human beings and understand their rights.

And another was a young man from Delhi and wheelchair user, who mentors a group of other wheelchair users to challenge perceptions of disability in their community.

I could go on and on about each of these young people, but suffice it to say they were all incredible and humbling. The work they do to challenge the accepted norms and end discrimination in their communities takes tremendous courage and grit. Not least because it has come at a cost to each of them. Some have been practically disowned by their families, criticised or worse by their neighbours or physically threatened and put under police protection simply for asserting that men and women are equal. I salute them and hope their determination never fades. In fact, I’m confident I met some of the future leaders of India among them.

From one group of inspirational campaigners to the next, over lunch I met with a more experienced bunch: 16 leading women’s rights activists, ranging from lawyers and doctors to social workers and communications professionals at the top of their fields, all dedicated to empowering Indian women. We had a lively discussion on a range of issues including the Indian government’s commitments so far on gender equality, the notorious 2012 bus gang-rape, domestic violence, violence in the workplace, gender-based abortion rates, and the linkages between education, sanitation and safety in public spaces.

But 2 things always stick with me after discussions like these. First, the domino effect of women’s reactions to the fear of violence, which impacts on so many decisions women make for themselves and their families. Like whether to venture out at night and whether to take a job that means coming home after nightfall. Whether to go to the market if it’s already too late in the day. Whether it’s just too dangerous to send a daughter to school. Whether it would be better to marry a daughter off earlier in order to protect her.

Second, how no country can afford to relegate gender equality to some niche ‘women’s issue’. Gender equality should be a shared aspiration, with responsibility on both sexes. After all, men and boys are the only people who can end violence against women and girls.

Luckily Ms Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, agreed with me on this latter point when I met her later in the afternoon, and I hope that she can deliver her ambitious agenda of equality measures.

Finally, my last meeting of the day was with campaigners against acid attacks, including an attack survivor. Acid attacks in India are relatively new, and they may be on the rise as they are in other parts of the globe. According to the campaigners, there are acid attacks in India once every 2 days, a truly shocking statistic.

I believe this is one of the worst forms of violence against women – not just because of the multiple surgeries required over years and the exorbitant medical costs that can follow, or the deep psychological trauma they inflict, but also because acid attacks stem from the simple, oppressive idea that women must be punished for rejecting men. The survivor I met was attacked by her neighbour because she rejected his advances. Five litres of acid thrown at her because she bruised his pride.

In the end, the attitude in India about violence against women has really changed in the 4 years between my 2 visits. Because of the horrific Delhi bus gang-rape in 2012, violence against women, especially in the public space, is no longer a taboo subject. The conversation has been dragged out of the shadows and into the cold light of day. This is an important step, but it’s only 1 step. Change on the ground, including implementation and enforcement of the law, must follow soon and for all Indian women, not just for those loud and strong enough to fight for it everyday. India has made such amazing economic progress in recent years by force of sheer will. That same determination and stubborn leadership is required urgently for half a billion of India’s citizens, and the UK will also stand ready to help in any way we can.

I’m now off to Burma for the final leg of this visit. One last update to follow soon.

Breaking news – £23.5 million for local health services

Great news! Haringey’s health services are getting an extra £23.5 million this year – following our local fairer funding campaign.

It’s a massive 5% increase from last year, and it’s a huge step towards getting truly fair funding for our local services, residents, and health workers.

Take a look at this short video – featuring residents, midwives, a new mum and me. It’s about why I started the campaign, and the impact the extra money will have!

Thank you to everyone who supported the campaign for fairer funding. You can see from the video just how much it means.

And it won’t stop here – I’ll keep campaigning for more money, and the Lib Dems have pledged £8bn in NHS funding during the next parliament. 

Tackling violence against women in India and Burma – day 2

Also available here.

Yesterday was day 2 of my visit to India on the theme of violence against women, and I spent the day meeting people in some of the poorest areas of Madhya Pradesh. It was an incredibly informative and inspiring day, so I’m afraid quite a lengthy blog follows!

Even though Madhya Pradesh has seen a phenomenal 10% economic growth rate in the last five years, the state is struggling to bring everyone along in this progress. Over 30% of the state’s population live below the poverty line. And what is abundantly clear right across the world is that where there is poverty, violence against women and girls is more likely.

En route from Indore to Bhopal, the state capital, I visited a Dalit community who, like the rest of their caste around India, are socially excluded from their village and wider society on a daily basis. And this exclusion perpetuates their poverty. Discrimination against Dalits makes it far more likely for them to be turned away from government services, even cheated out of land possession and entitlements like ration cards. And when they can access services, they are still discriminated against; Dalit children are often made to sit outside classrooms and are served food separately so that others are not ‘polluted’ by them.

Lynne Featherstone meets the Dalit community. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India
Lynne Featherstone meets the Dalit community. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India

Dalit women and girls often suffer the greatest indignities – most of India’s 1.3 million so-called ‘manual scavengers’ are female. For those unfamiliar with the euphemism, manual scavengers clean up the excrement of other castes with their bare hands to eke out a meagre existence. So I was very keen to meet some of these women and try to understand how they live.

You might be surprised to read I came away with some hope! Thanks to a partnership between the DFID-funded Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme and the Jan Sahas Development Society (which literally means ‘people’s courage’), Dalit women are being helped to stand up and demand their rights as human beings. Thousands of families have been helped out of manual scavenging and trained in alternate employment. Jan Sahas also brings violence against Dalit women to the attention of the government and media.

Of course there is a long way to go yet. I spoke with some Dalit women who had been raped by men from upper castes and are struggling to receive any justice. Though they worked up the courage to report the crimes against them to the police, they and their families have been repaid with threats and intimidation, not just by their rapists but the police themselves.

Nevertheless, I found hope in that more and more Dalit women and girls are standing up for themselves and demanding their rights. And when I asked what they thought about their future prospects, it was really heartening to hear a group of Dalit children tell me they were confident their future is going to be brighter than their mothers’.

Lynne Featherstone visits India's first and only one-stop crisis centre for women. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India
Lynne Featherstone visits India’s first and only one-stop crisis centre for women. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India

And all of that was just yesterday morning! I also visited India’s first and only one-stop crisis centre for women, located within a hospital, which brings together medical, legal and psycho-social support under one roof to help women out of whatever emergency they’re facing. I understand the Indian government plans to roll these centres out across the country, which would be an amazing advancement in supporting vulnerable women. I used my meetings with ministers in the state government to say how encouraged I was by progress so far and pressed them to keep the momentum up.

I also spent an hour in a Bhopal slum learning about a safe city initiative to tackle violence against women in both the public and private spaces. Quite rightly, this initiative brings together women and men, girls and boys to make their community safer for all. After all, everyone must be bought in to really make an area safe. So, for instance, the community works together to map areas of the slum where violence has occurred. I also saw demonstrations of inventive ways of engaging boys on the agenda – from a Snakes and Ladder game that challenged social norms about masculinity to a role-play drama about a woman escaping a drunk and abusive husband. And I was shown an innovative, DFID co-funded mobile phone app called SafetiPin that is utilised in Bhopal, which collates information like how safe an area is and emergency locations and numbers, and links to GPS tracking and well-monitored alarm features. I’m sure urban British women would also value an app like SafetiPin!

Lynne Featherstone being shown the Snakes and Ladders game that challenges social norms about masculinity. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India
Lynne Featherstone being shown the Snakes and Ladders game that challenges social norms about masculinity. Picture: Anshuman Atroley/DFID India

I’m now back in Delhi for a few more meetings before heading off to Burma. More updates tomorrow.

Tackling violence against women and girls in India

I’m currently in India – here’s my first blog from the visit, also available here.

Since 2010 I’ve served as the UK’s first ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) overseas, and developing this role has kept me quite busy. From the UN to the UAE, I’ve compared notes with ministers, officials and civil society groups in capital cities and with community groups in the most rural villages on how we can end this global epidemic.

Yesterday I began my final foreign mission on this important agenda – to India and Burma – and it was a long and interesting day. After an arrival briefing from our High Commissioner and senior staff in New Delhi on the key issues related to VAWG in India, I met a group of LGBT activists and campaigners who talked to me about their fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I always find it fascinating how inter-linked gay rights and women’s rights are right across the world. Both issues challenge patriarchal traditions and in many cases across the world, gay rights quickly follow movement on women’s rights.

In the afternoon I flew to Indore in Madhya Pradesh – India’s sixth most populous state with 72 million people – and met with prominent civil society representatives and local government leaders who work on tackling VAWG on a daily basis. It was very encouraging to see NGOs and government officials debating these issues openly together – a good sign that they’re used to working together! And the scale of the problem in Madhya Pradesh will require them to collaborate for a while yet; among women aged 15-49, 45% have experienced physical violence and over 59% of girls in rural areas are married before the legal age of 18.

This is my second visit to India as VAWG champion – the first was in 2011 – and it’s already clear to me that some progress has been made since then. The shocking Delhi bus rape case in 2012 has prompted a national conversation that continues today. It’s no longer just feminists, aid organisations and governments like the UK trying to bring attention to the issue; there is now, finally, a national movement for the protection and empowerment of women.

To be clear, there is a long way to go in India. But I believe India has the political leadership in place to take some great steps forward on this issue.

More updates from Madhya Pradesh tomorrow.