Brighton Women’s Centre brought together a wonderful group of speakers for the Time For Unity conference to celebrate their 45th birthday on 19th November 2019. The conference showcased how partnerships can support women, their families and communities, it was uplifting and energising to hear the insights, experiences, progress and challenges openly discussed. Here are just some of the nuggets from the session in the morning.
After the welcome address and keynote speech the first presenter, Dr Shona Minson (Centre of Criminology University of Oxford) shared her report: Addressing the Impact of Maternal Imprisonment airing the myths about maternal imprisonment and the range of impacts on children which went far beyond the obvious physical separation from their mother. Children also have to cope with increased poverty, disrupted education, social isolation (stigma and shame), difficulties in making visits and the resultant changes in the mother and child relationship affecting their behaviour and future stability. However, Shona also wanted to share signs of progress such as the NPS Guidelines (March 2019) and the JCHR Report and Recommendations (9th September 2019), finally she asked us to use our power to empower other women.
An extract of the film ‘Safeguarding Children when Sentencing Mothers’ was also shown, Dr Minson later shared these links for the film and further information on maternal imprisonment, please see references below.
The second talk Time for Gender Equality was chaired by Helen Pankhurst who was in discussion with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Natasha Walter, Susheila Nasta and Greta Squire.
Helen Pankhurst began by asking for a show of hands on 3 options: optimism or pessimism about the progress in gender equality, or a third possibility, the idea that the situation can be further be improved but with a muted optimism; the latter was given the biggest show of hands.
Helena Kennedy then spoke and gave thanks to Helen as an inspiring example, Helena continued by explaining that although she had been practising law for over 40 years she wanted to share her very first legal case because it marked the direction she would take for the rest of her career. Her first case was in Tottenham defending a woman with 3 children who had been caught for shoplifting, she was given a legal brief which consisted of just 2 pieces of paper, sadly, the woman was sent to prison because she was already in breach of a suspended sentence.
Helena cried, this woman was poor and to make matters worse her DHSS cheque had been stolen, she had been left with no resources to feed her children. Helena decided to write an appeal including many details about the woman’s life such as the abuse she had suffered from her partner. From this moment justice for women became an important part of Helena’s life, she explained that ‘silencing women has been part of our own history’ we must acknowledge this. Hence, the #MeToo Movement was important, we should give voice to these experiences and recognise the failure of justice, parliament and our institutions. Helena emphatically stated that we have not yet ‘unknitted the business of patriarchy’ with all its unconscious biases, nor have we overcome the disadvantages that are built into our economic system. Unless we change society systemically our lives will not improve, Helena was also clear about the current UK government, she saw it has having no real interest in equality for women.
Next Natasha Walter praised Helen and Helena for keeping feminist passions alive in a society where 70% of women describe themselves as feminists yet teenage girls are under incredible pressure to conform to the expectations and norms of a highly sexualised society. After Trump’s election there was a surge of solidarity amongst women but some of the resultant feminism was just a brand of marketing to sell us something. Helena continued, that even Ivanka Trump describes herself as a feminist but ‘we need a real movement of feminism to do battle with the patriarchy, no one women does feminism make.’
Feminist Bookshop at the Time For Unity Conference
Natasha highlighted the fact that even now few reported rapes result in prosecution, then she described a devastating case from her work with women who have fled persecution in the Congo. A Congolese woman who escaped to the UK after the death of her husband and horrific sexual abuse, had to sleep on buses to try and stay safe because she did not have all the necessary paperwork to prove her ordeal ‘we need a movement big enough to challenge this system!’
Susheila Nasta came next, explaining that she was an academic and the editor of a literary magazine, in those roles she could see positive change across different areas of discourse (Susheila has also researched Indian Suffragettes). However, in universities there is still much inequality, especially for women of colour, for example in the UK there are only 25 black female professors out of 6,000, representation creates opportunities, so how do we create this structural change? Susheila also noted that there are a lot of women in publishing and the majority of novel readers are women but most of the gate keepers are white men. Susheila then quoted Derek Walcott real change will only occur if we also change our language.
Finally, Greta Squire from Brighton University explained that her research into violence against women and girls revealed a definite, positive shift in attitudes amongst younger people, however, austerity has had an impact, creating more structural inequalities that have eroded women’s rights.
She also cautioned that the rise of the far right and their cutting of services in certain parts of the world has been erasing women’s voices. We must understand this within a broader structural analysis, the resurgence of the ‘manosphere’ has come as a backlash to the small inroads many of us have made. This broader international context should be considered, with this in mind 'it is very important that we come together and support each other.'
Questions from the audience followed, several of them related to the apparent quietening of women’s voices, such as in the judiciary and female probation service. Great Squire agreed, in her discussion with women from different parts of the world she did feel there was a quietening of women’s voices.
Susheila suggested that collectives in literature were becoming common and this helped women find their voice. She added that there was a need for face to face conscious raising, sisterhood and help for refugee women who are often digitally excluded, more needed to be done - International Women’s Day offered an opportunity to act.
Helena had grown up in a working-class background in Glasgow, she felt her own pain and perspective offered an entry point to her work, this impulse may also help others to act. As Helena is an international human rights lawyer, she can see how austerity has ‘snuffed out’ many of the vital supports that vulnerable people relied upon. Helena also reminded the audience to follow the money to the powerful actors, our welfare state was being eroded by populist politics and of course Brexit.
It was at this point that the morning session came to an end, food was provided by the Network of International Women and a beautiful celebratory cake that had been baked by Linda Beanlands. Here are some photos of the celebration and a poem by Poet Unchained called Trap Queen to begin the afternoon session. Time for Unity!
Unchained poetry (Lady unchained) reciting 'Trap Queen' a poem about the large number of women who take the blame for a crime on behalf of their male partner, reading can be heard here:
Film clip mentioned by Dr Shona Minson, Oxford Law Faculty - Safeguarding Children when Sentencing Mothers: https://youtu.be/L18nFBXzHlI and for further information about these issues, including Sentencing Guidelines please see Dr Minson's website: https://shonaminson.com/