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Bachelet shines as UN Women takes centre stage

May 26, 2011

Last week (yes yes, it’s been a busy few days …) I attended a VSO event in honour of Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and now head of the new UN Women agency. Bachelet was in town on a whistlestop tour to drum up support for the fledgling agency, which has yet to see much of the monies promised to it by various nations. It was a chance to see in the flesh the woman who will oversee an agency tasked with the empowerment of 50 per cent of the global population, and to assess her chops for the role.

On listening, if this was a charm offensive, it was a good one. Admittedly, Bachelet was playing to a receptive audience of women politicians, activists and charity workers from across the UK and beyond. But she proved a persuasive and passionate speaker, rattling off statistics on gender equality and emphasising the need for a results driven organisation that would have firm benchmarks in place for results.

Most crucially, Bachelet took pains to stress her view that the agency would not just be talking to its governmental counterparts, eg the women’s or equalities offices, but to all departments, from finance to health to education, in a bid for gender issues and women’s empowerment to be mainstreamed across all government offices, not just the designated ones.

Nonetheless Bachelet faces a tough challenge. UN Women is the amalgamation of four separate, smaller former UN agencies dedicated to women. There has been criticism of the organisation’s slow start from the media and charities, and raising money has proved tough, despite pledges from various global governments including the UK.

To the Department of International Development’s (DFID) credit, its minister Andrew Mitchell, sitting alongside Bachelet and his shadow counterpart Harriet Harman, was forthright in his commitment to UN Women and to women’s issues within DFID, but as of yet we have not, I believe, seen a committed figure.

Funds need to be committed quickly, otherwise UN Women, which Bachelet readily acknowledged had, in NGO speak ‘capacity issues’ – with only 5 staffers in Congo and 78 in Afghanistan – will falter.

Despite such challenges, the warm reception granted to Bachelet, and her clear commitment to the role, are both heartening and inspiring. Given sufficient support from nations UN Women should have the capacity to be a fantastic agency supporting women across the world.  Incidentally, if you want to know more about the VSO’s ‘Godmother’ campaign, which is calling for more UK support for the agency, go to the site here – they are currently inviting Nick Clegg, deputy pm, to be one! (Godmother, that is …)

Media coverage of rape should not be about ‘sexual excitement’

May 18, 2011

There has been strong criticism of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke over his unwise comments over rape today after it emerged the UK government was mulling halving rape sentences if the accused submitted guilty pleas. But one comment stuck out in particular – his opinion that the media had seized on the rape sentencing part of the proposal to inject some degree of “sexual excitement” into the story.

Certainly, the media has not always covered itself in glory when it comes to covering rape cases. Today someone from a rape crisis centre told me that a TV reporter had used the word ‘seduced’ in reference to IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn with regard to the assault charges pending against him. Plus various tawdry stories of footballers and allegations of rape have often ended in a ‘he said, she said’ spiral and the old (incorrect) charge that many rape cases are false.

But this does not excuse such a comment by the justice secretary. The issue of the UK’s appallingly low rape conviction rate has long caused controversy – and headlines – in the UK, and several notable pieces of research, most notably the Stern Review by Baroness Stern last year, have pointed out the need to improve conviction rates. But, as the Labour MP Bridget Phillipson pointed out on Channel 4 News, it seems that at no point were survivors of rape consulted about such plans.This says much not about the media, but about a failure to consult the research, and to consult the very people who suffer the most from this awful crime – the victims.

After a debacle of a day, Clarke said he would “look again” at the proposals and said he had written to a victim of an attempted rape who had confronted him on Five Live earlier in the day to apologise. It is unfortunate that a politician who approved up to 10 million pounds for rape crisis centres earlier in the year – a commendable move in these economic times – is now in this position. Hopefully today hard lessons will have been learned. God knows everyone has had time enough to learn them.

Of US foreign policy and gender – does it make a difference?

May 8, 2011

I had to highlight two excellent articles on US foreign policy under the Obama administration which raised some interesting points about how it’s being shaped (or not) by the gender dynamics within the administration.

The first is Ryan Lizza’s in depth New Yorker piece which looks particularly how the recent wave of unrest in the Middle East has tested the administration’s chops, the second is Vanity Fair’s profile of secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Woman of the World.  The reason I link them is that both analyse the tensions within the administration between those reluctant to get involved in the Arab Spring and those who argued for humanitarian intervention – and attempts by some observers to split them down gender lines.

Interestingly, the allegation was that it was the women – such as US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and national security aide Samantha Power who were pushing for military action, albeit for humanitarian purposes. Both sides, of course, are quick to deride such assumptions, with AnnMarie Slaughter dismissing the claims as “ludicrous”. “We were dismissed for months as soft liberals concerned about ‘peripheral’ development issues like women and girls, and now we’re Amazonian Valkyrie warmongers? Please,” she states.

She is right, of course. But what cannot be denied is that under Clinton women’s rights have been front and centre of much of her conversations and actions around foreign policy, right from her confirmation hearings, where she stated  “if half the world’s population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity is in serious jeopardy”. So gender is having its impact on the US administration, but perhaps in a way more subtle than people would expect.

Superinjunctions – super sexist?

April 26, 2011

First of all, I’m not even going to touch with a barge pole any of the spurious gossip surrounding the identity of those who have taken out superinjunctions. So anyone looking for blind item style reveals, go forth and Google!

However,  I am going to point out the troubling impact such injunctions have in terms of creating a two tier system of justice and in terms of tilting the favour of law in rich men at the expense of women. Gill Phillips in the Guardian expresses her concern that “by granting these privacy orders, courts were in effect allowing men to treat women like chattels. That power imbalance still exists and it is clear that the courts are not willing to engage with it.”

Ridiculously, in some cases involving superinjunctions, the woman’s details have been made available for all to see (and shame her with) whilst the men’s have been protected thanks to his phalanx of expensive lawyers. Does it not take two to allegedly tango in these cases?

It seems the language of ‘human rights’, developed to protect those who had long been unprotected, has been deviously twisted to mean ‘rights for those who can buy them, even using terms of breathtaking hypocrisy’. Women’s legal rights in this country are already at risk following moves to cut legal aid – often poor women’s only recourse to justice – and moves to charge for child maintenance cases. Such injunctions make it perfectly clear to women that, when two sides misbehave, nonetheless in the eyes of the law it is the wealthier party who is considered worthy of protection.

Soon Lord Neuberger will be releasing his details of his review into the use and the issue of superinjunctions. It will be interesting to see what he finds, but whatever conclusions are reached one of them, surely, should be that the balance of power should be shifted to one that is fairer for all, not just those of a certain privileged class. But no – extraordinarily, this news story in The First Post says Lord Neuberger will actually argue such injunctions are necessary.  Necessary for whom, I would ask …

America’s new ‘pundit brat pack’ – where are the women?

March 29, 2011

I must commend Feministe for pulling together this post decrying the New York Times for its article on Washington DC’s hip gun-slinging new pundits, all of whom happen to be young, white and male.  They point to Ann Friedman’s very funny parody of the article to make a salient point that the conversation in DC – which let’s face it shapes so many other political conversations across the US and the wider world – will never be diverse until its representatives are.

This is not to denigrate the fine work of those pundits interviewed in the piece, all have worked hard and, as Feministe points out, would be the first to credit a certain amount of luck for their position.

Nonetheless, there is a wealth of talented female critics, authors and writers out there (from diverse backgrounds, too) who could have been interviewed, and weren’t. As I (and many, many others) have banged on about constantly in this blog and beyond, it is not good enough to pay lip service to 50 per cent of the world’s population. At a time when the glass ceiling still very much remains in place for women working in the media (women make up 23 percent of top-level management of American newspapers, television and radio stations and 35 percent of executive positions), the sector has to ensure the air waves are fair waves for women.

Why we need to get more women in UK newsrooms

March 5, 2011

The Women in Journalism group has released a depressing study coinciding with next Tuesday’s International Women’s Day revealing that just 33 per cent of editors on UK national newspapers are women – and just 30 per cent of reporters on the nationals are female.

In addition, the report’s survey of the UK’s top 28 national newspapers shows a pathetic mere four per cent per cent of sports journalists are women, while so-called ‘soft topics’ are also heavily covered by men, with 49 per cent of lifestyle reporters and 70 per cent of arts reporters being male.

Hello, newsdesk? Can I NOT be assigned a story on fluffy kittens?

“Broken down by topic, the split between men and women is evident. So-called ‘soft’ topics such as Lifestyle are the closest to parity, while News, Sport, Financial, and Politics contain disproportionate numbers of men. Columnists – widely viewed as agenda and opinion leaders – were also found to be primarily male,” the research adds. And this just the UK, the report does not cover global newsrooms or international newsrooms (and if anyone can point to such research let me know), but I have a feeling the results will be depressingly similar.

This is, quite frankly, appalling, and needs to be addressed. Notwithstanding the blindingly obvious need for proportional representation, I would have thought it obvious that news does not do well when it is written by a non-representative section of the population. And news will not be consumed if it does not reflect the population’s demography in turn.

I was a journalist for 11 years and will always consider myself one at heart, but in a time when the majority of journalism degree applicants are women (as Journalism.co.uk discovered when it asked City University) it is cold comfort to them, and me, that they face a much smaller likelihood of entering into and thriving in the profession.

So why the lack of women in national newsrooms? Many point to the unsociable hours, the tendency of women to be pushed to so-called ‘lifestyle’ sections or feature desks, and particularly in some sections of the news media eg politics and sport, a boys club mentality (just ask Andy Gray and Richard Keys!) that excludes women, and of course the temerity of women to take time off when they have children.

Furthermore, as the report points out, the lack of women in senior positions is also a factor – it cites a recent EHRC report that notes only 11% of directorships of the top 100 FTSE companies are women-held.

Certainly in my experience of several newsdesks, the planning and features desks have been staffed more by women and this can partly be offset by the number of women in part-time work, but it does reflect a need to retain and encourage women who work in hard news.

So where do we go from here? We could start by beginning to reflect the diversity of this nation much more adequately in newsrooms – and calling out those who don’t – and I see no reason why more flexible working patterns for women cannot be improved upon.

But ultimately it’s about attitudes. Newsrooms will not change unless there is a commitment and buy in by editorial boards and media owners that they need to be more representative. Otherwise the attitudes of the likes of Keys and Gray – who let’s face it only suffered punishment because they were caught – will prevail.

The Oscars – still no-one takes a chance with women

February 28, 2011

So I watched a little of the Oscars last night, and while I don’t think James Franco and Anne Hathaway was as bad as everyone said, the Oscar winners reached new heights of predicability and inanity for me, particularly when it came to, (yes, you guessed it) the women winners.

I do love Melissa Leo, ever since Homicide Life on the Street, in which she was the fantastically dry Kay Howard (and was later, reportedly, sidelined so they could bring in more of Hollywood’s definition of aethetically pleasing female chracters), so it’s thrilling to see her career propelled forward to such a degree.

Melissa Leo bringing it as Kay Howard in Homicide

However she should have won for Frozen River, an extraordinary film – the Winter’s Bone of 2008 – that had women as front and centre in the story. In The Fighter it’s, as ever, the wife, the mother, the sister, the girlfriend, and while some snarky types could argue for Christian Bale’s character as being only the brother – at least he’s given the back story of being a former boxer.

And I’ve already ranted on about Black Swan (a bit further down below), so at least I was glad it only got one major award, and I did think Portman did good work with a one-dimensional trope (too obvious to even call it a character) but it’s still the old, boring stereotypes of sexually repressed vs sexually overconfident women, at times the film became almost a ‘gender studies in film’ primer of the characters women are shoehorned into.

So all in all, I was disappointed, even the dresses weren’t that great. Which just seems to typify to me that nobody, not even sartorially, seems to want to take a chance for and with women at the cinema these days.