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.

Campaigning for you in 2015

Here’s an email I sent to my constituents yesterday. If you live in Hornsey and Wood Green – please do fill in the survey!

It’s almost twenty years since I first got involved in local politics here in Haringey. I joined a residents’ group and we protested against an unpopular parking scheme being imposed on us by the Council.
We were successful – and it showed how a small group of determined people could make changes, benefitting a huge number of residents. After this, I became a local councillor and then MP for our area.
I believe in a fairer society – it’s what I work for day in, day out – in Haringey and in Parliament.
That’s why, along with local residents, I launch campaigns to protect and improve our local services: like hospitals, libraries, stations, parcel collection points, bus stops, police front counters and more.
It’s also why my local team and I worked so hard to secure fairer education funding for Haringey – and now we’re pushing for fairer funding for our health services too.
Creating a strong economy is also important, to support our public services. That’s why my party took the difficult decision to enter into coalition in 2010 – to be part of a stable Government, capable of rebuilding the economy.
Now, both the deficit and unemployment are down. Youth unemployment here has halved – giving so many more young people a better opportunity to get on in life. But there is still work to be done.
I am standing again to be the MP for our local area at the General Election in May this year. Do I have your support? You can let me know who you’re supporting by replying to this email, or filling in this survey.

In the survey, you can also let me know of any issues or problems you’d like to raise with me. I’ll get back to you asap.
Thank you, and Happy New Year,
  [Lynne Featherstone's signature] 
Lynne Featherstone
Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

The gender pay gap

Women and men should be paid the same if they do the same job. It sounds obvious, but in reality it doesn’t happen. In 1997, when records began, the difference was a very alarming 17.4%.

Since entering government my Lib Dem colleagues and I have worked hard to reduce the gender pay gap to the lowest ever level (9.4%). This is welcome, but there is much more to do.

The Lib Dems want to close the gap completely, just as we have eliminated other inequalities between men and women.

Our introduction of Shared Parental Leave has made it easier for parents to care for their children. Older men and women will receive the same basic state pension from 2016. There are now many more women on company boards. All Lib Dem commitments, all delivered.

We want to go further – our manifesto for next year includes a roadmap to ending pay inequality completely.

We will make it a legal requirement for companies employing more than 250 people to publish their average pay for male and female workers.

With this simple change, staff will be able to see whether they are treated the same as their colleagues. Shoppers will know whether a company has a pay bias against women.

The pressure from both sides will force employers to account for, and abolish, any gender pay gap. Equal work should mean equal pay.

Tackling Violence against Women and Girls – Men and Boys must play a part

We spend a lot of time blaming men (not without reason) for violence against women and girls – but they can be agents of change.

The coalition government is determined to tackle violence against women and girls in all its forms. These abhorrent crimes are not a women’s issue – they are everyone’s issue. And men can be central to bringing about cultural change.

In December last year, we re-launched the This is Abuse campaign which aims to prevent teenagers from becoming victims and perpetrators of abuse, encourage them to consider their views of abuse and the meaning of consent within relationships and signpost them to help and advice.

A significant focus of the campaign is targeted at boys and young men to help them identify and challenge abusive behaviour.

Just Google ‘this is abuse’ and you will see the campaigns from the Home Office. They are really potent. A while back I went into Channing School to talk to the sixth form and I asked who in the class had seen the This is Abuse campaign – and nearly the whole class had. It really reaches out to young people negotiating the difficult territory of relationships and what is ok and what is not.

The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) – which I wrote about yesterday – appeared in 1991 and has become one of the largest men’s anti-violence programs in the world. It has now spread to over 57 countries around the world.


Julien Blanc is a pimple on the ugly face of Violence Against Women

I am glad that the Home Secretary banned Julien Blanc from coming to our shores.

I had made my view (as Ministerial Champion for tackling violence against women) quite clear – he should be banned. His seduction teachings as a ‘pick-up’ coach – including the use of the hashtag ‘chokinggirlsaroundtheworld’ with copious pictures of him with his hands on girls throats – crossed the line. This wasn’t about free speech. This was incitement to violence – against our laws – that is why the Home Secretary banned him.

But Julien Blanc is just a pimple on the ugly face of Violence against Women and Girls.

Tomorrow is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – which kicks of the 16 days of activism. Events are held right around the world – to raise awareness of the dreadful and all-pervasive violence that women and girls endure. Right across the world there is a living and horrifying living tableau of what women and girls suffer.

In the UK we have two women a week killed by their husband or ex partner. One in four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. As you go across the world – and as the UK Government’s Ministerial Champion for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Overseas I have seen first hand – how that violence worsens. Whether it is rape as a weapon of war, breast ironing, acid attacks, defilement, rape, sexual harassment or just brute violence – where women have no rights, no voice and no power – they are brutalised. And as DFID Minister for two years – giving women voice, choice and control over their own lives was my mission.

Now at the Home Office – it still is my mission. And tomorrow I am focusing this world day on ‘Men as Agents of Change’. I am going to King’s College with the White Ribbon Campaign for an event focusing on men.

The White Ribbon Campaign is the UK branch of a male led, global campaign to make sure men take more responsibility for reducing the level of violence against women. They ask men to make a personal pledge to take a stand against violence and pledge never to commute, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women. Organisations such as councils, police forces and towns are able to apply for White Ribbon Status.

The event has been arranged with the help of the National Union of Students who recently published a survey called Lad Culture and Sexism in September 2014 which found that one in four students have suffered unwelcome sexual advances, defined as inappropriate touching and groping in universities.

Misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, domestic violence, stalking, grooming,  trolling, everydaysexism –  this is not OK. Everyone needs to stand up against this tide of violence against women.

We have one world – and we need to share it equally, peacefully and with respect.




Strikes at our local schools

I’ve sent the following email about the NUT strikes in Haringey to local residents. Any residents who want to let me know their opinions on the strike can do so here

Strikes at our local schools are the last thing we want. Our local children miss out on learning opportunities, and parents have to arrange urgent childcare or take time off work.
This is exactly what is happening in Haringey at the moment.
The strikes follow the suspension of Julie Davies – Haringey’s National Union of Teachers (NUT) representative. Ms Davies was suspended months ago by the local authority, Labour-run Haringey Council, and a dispute has followed.
For a long time, local head teachers expressed concerns about Ms Davies. A week after tensions reached boiling point, Haringey Council suspended her – on grounds of gross misconduct.
Haringey Council should have stepped in much earlier and handled this better. 
Haringey’s own report (published nearly 2 years ago) said that a large proportion of primary head teachers and all secondary head teachers were deeply concerned about the “unconstructive role played by the main teaching union” and recommended an “urgent need to reconfigure union facilities time to ensure it supports the best interests of children.”
This should have been dealt with long before.
Instead, the situation has escalated following Julie Davies’ suspension. The NUT has called local strikes, which have already disrupted over 3000 local pupils. This also seems vastly disproportionate, and head teachers are livid.
That’s why I have contacted Haringey Council’s Chief Executive to ask for his direct intervention in finding a resolution – in what seems to now be a dispute between the Labour-run council and the Union.
Ultimately – I’m sure we all agree – it’s vital that the situation is resolved, and that no more teaching time is lost.
If you would like to let me know what you think – please do fill in this survey. I’m keen to hear as many opinions as possible.



Remembering the journey to equal marriage

Here’s a copy of an article I’ve written for Left Foot Forward on Equal Marriage – the journey to it and what comes next.

On Saturday the 29 March, I went to two fantastic weddings.

On that historic day when all love finally become equal before the law, same-sex couples were able to get married – and hundreds did!

At the second wedding I went to, which had a musical theme, a very poignant video was played before the ceremony. It showed a timeline of the steps towards securing rights for the LGBT+ community in the UK.

It included the marches in the 50’s, 60’s and 70s, the decriminalization of homosexuality and the lowering of the age of consent, and then moved on to adoption rights, civil partnerships and equal marriage.

The video also included some of the setbacks which occurred along the way. The awful Section 28 legislation was introduced by the Conservative government in 1988 and shockingly prohibited “the intentional promotion of homosexuality” by any local authority, as well as “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Among other examples, this was a reminder that the journey for LGBT+ rights has not been an easy one – not without setbacks, not without opposition, and not without discrimination and oppression.

But sitting in the theatre in Alexandra Palace (where the wedding was held) surrounded by LGBT+ activists, the very happy couple and their families and friends, it was easy to see how far we have come in the UK.

Marriage is now well and truly equal – open to all couples regardless of their gender.

And that day, 29 March, was a landmark day for me too. It was a long journey, starting when I marched into the Home Office and said to my civil servants ‘’I am going to deliver same sex marriage – and I know it’s not in the Coalition agreement – but it needs doing.’

And the rest is history – literally.

One day, when I am no longer a minister, I will be able to tell the whole story of how the law came to be. But for now I can publically thank the activists, the LGBT+ community, the cross-party group of MPs, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and others for the support they gave.

And the effect of the change in law goes beyond the ability of same sex couples to marry. The legal change has also, I hope, gone some way into changing attitudes towards homosexuality. The more progress we make on LGBT+ rights, the more equal and tolerant our society will become, as no-one is treated like a second class citizen by the law.

I hope that, as a result of equal marriage law, the young LGBT+ community do not feel that they have to keep their sexuality a secret, or try to hide it – as people in previous generations often felt they had to.

It’s heartwarming now, whenever I speak at an event, when someone (usually a young man) approaches me at the end and says ‘thank you for what you did.’ It’s emotional – I cry, he cries – and we both know that our country is a better place than it was, now that marriage is equal.

And it was of course fantastic on a personal level to recently receive awards from both Pink News and Stonewall, in recognition of the work on equal marriage.

Ben and Jerrys also said thank you by sending me an ice-cream tub with my name and picture on it – one of the most random but wonderful gifts I have received for my work in politics!

But the work certainly doesn’t stop here. While we’ve made huge progress in this country, it was a culmination of a long journey, and there is still a way to go to fully stamp out discrimination.

As we celebrate our victories in the UK we mustn’t forget those LGBT+ campaigners around the world whose situations are still desperate.

From day one of my role as a minister in the Department of International Development (DFID), strengthening the department’s LGBT+ rights strategy was one of my top priorities.

DFID’s strategy has rightly been led by local LGBT+ campaigners in each country, and they asked that we take a subtle approach.

So, respecting their wishes, that’s what I did – I raised my concerns in private with African ministers and prime ministers, and met privately with local LGBT+ groups in country.

The new strategy is about to be signed off to extend this work further. I hope that the UK’s equal marriage law, and our ongoing commitment to LGBT+ rights, will also set a good example for other countries, who are at a much earlier stage in their journeys towards equality.