Charities take MDGs from the summit to the streets and the tweets

If it was not for the work of charities and select sections of the media, I worry that the UN Millennium Development Goals summit and its purpose would have passed many people by.

There has been some progress on the eight MDGs, but it is, at best, uneven and slow. For example, Eastern Asia has surpassed its target already for halving the proportion of people, between 1990 and 2015, whose income is less than $1 a day. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia it is lagging massively behind.

Continue reading at… http://community.thirdsector.co.uk/blogs/thirdsector/archive/2010/09/23/charities-take-mdgs-from-the-summit-to-the-streets.aspx

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Voluntary groups show there’s power in numbers

There was a sense of unity at the Protest the Pope march in London on Saturday, which is no mean feat considering there were around 10,000 individuals, many of them defined by different beliefs, lifestyles, religions and creeds.

Continue at… http://community.thirdsector.co.uk/blogs/thirdsector/archive/2010/09/20/voluntary-groups-show-there-s-power-in-numbers.aspx

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No Nathaniel no – keep your kit on please

So I’m sitting in a booth. Nothing strange there. I’m leaning back, the padded leather cushion behind me gives a little; I stretch out and wait for the next act.

As the music starts, it’s a tune that I know – The Spirit of Man, from War of the Worlds. Yes, the classic song that urges a despairing vicar who has given up hope in the face of a martian invasion to trust in humanity. When I first heard this song, I felt a rousing in my heart. I imagined the blood-red skies in an apocalyptic landscape with mechanical Martian structures crushing humans and, with it, our hope. I’d had a few Bacardis but I was far from delusional. Read the lyrics for yourself:

NATHANIEL: Once there was a time when I believed without hesitation
That the power of love and truth could conquer all in the name of salvation
Tell me what kind of weapon is love, when it comes to the fight
And just how much protection is truth against all Satan’s might

BETH: There must be something worth living for
There must be something worth trying for
Even some things worth dying for
And if one man can stand tall
There must be some hope for us all
Somewhere, somewhere in the spirit of man

Okay, so it’s a bit biblical for my liking, but it resonated. I was overcome with the power of insignificance and the magnitude of the universe. And white rum is powerful stuff, I’m telling you. (Click here to listen on Spotify).

Back to the comfy cushioned seat… so my foot starts tapping. It’s War of the Worlds, I cry! How great, that at the Edinburgh Festival, I am seeing a show that involves War of the Worlds, for nothing. A free act that I found by chance.

Imagine my surprise when Beth (the character who urges Nathaniel to not give in) has a quick grope of the vicar’s crotch. It was a slip of the hand, my more prudish side insists to the perplexed perverted one. Oh – there it goes again. It seems this vicar is as randy as a Catholic priest at a school play.

And Beth is now busy massaging her bosom while telling the small (so very, very small) audience about the ‘spirit of man’. Now when I heard that song for the first time, I made the assumption that the spirit of man was a catch-all phrase for humanity (albeit disguised with token sexist terminology). But according to this Beth, Nathaniel’s spirit was bottled up someone down below his belly button. It seemed she had mistaken it for a genie’s lamp.

It was as Beth stripped off her corset to reveal nipple tassles, that I realised no amount of Bacardi was ever going to be enough to reverse this image from my mind.

I can’t really explain how ridiculous this display really was. It was completely dislocated from reality or comedy. It made a mockery of the institution that is War of the Worlds. Imagine porno versions of your favourite songs/films:

-    Apocalypse (fuck me) Now
-    Schindler’s Fist
-    Star Whores
-    (Lock) Jaws

It just doesn’t work. It never will.

Needless to say, the night got worse. The next act involved lycra and grown men pretending to be flies and swatting the audience with fly swats – never a crowd pleaser I find, hitting people.

This was followed by the icing on my rotten made-of-shit cake. A Burlesque act. On hearing the words, my girlfriend and mate did a runner to the bar, leaving me to sit back in my booth, like a sleazy motherfucker and watch a woman strip. I had to watch the bags you see. But no-one else knew that. No, the rest of the 12-strong audience glanced at me and thought: she’s loving it, loving it, loving it (cue bad 90s music).

And I really, really, really wasn’t. Not only am I against stripping for the very obvious reason that it degrades women’s bodies to mere objects for (usually) men’s pleasure and nearly always acts as a precursor into selling a body as if it’s a cup of coffee, but I am against it because I don’t find it enjoyable.

I’m sitting and watching a woman remove her clothes in time to music and expected to clap afterwards. Well hey, I hate to ruin the illusion, but rhythm ain’t that hard. Even my washing machine has it. And taking off my clothes? I do it every night. Without any rapturous applause, I might add. The added (more) nipple tassles, feather boa and glitter may as well have been rusty nails in my libido.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the woman in question. She was attractive and surely confident. But I’m sure as hell that stripping just isn’t an art, no matter how much you gyrate/how far you can bend over/how extreme the pout or how long I have to wait for you remove a thong from up your arse. Critics wouldn’t spend decades debating the merit of the lighting.  I wouldn’t take my Mum to see that at the Tate Modern. I wouldn’t buy a print of it from the gift shop. And I wouldn’t put a postcard of the aforementioned arse on my noticeboard above the fridge. It just isn’t art and, glancing at the rest of the audience, most appeared visually uncomfortable.

This kind of stuff isn’t suitable for a comedy/theatre festival. It isn’t an art form, it isn’t particularly funny (if you don’t count the poor performer having to walk butt-naked through the audience when the lights were switched on at the end to the bogs).

There must be something worth living for, Beth told Nathaniel. And I don’t think it’s hard-ons that will be the salvation of humanity…

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I want to be ‘one of those people’

I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to be ‘one of those people’. Whether it was a person with a placard outside an embassy or the person at school that could eat the entirety of a pear (core/pips included) without so much as a flinch, there have been lots of little and much bigger things that I have wished I could do.

Seeing myself as perhaps rather a sedentary bystander (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron) of life in general, there has always been a kind of knot of frustration deep below the sheltered layers of quilted laziness and fatigue in my under-achieving brain.

I want to do good stuff, great stuff even.

I read history books, I get Wikipedia ‘Articles of the Day’ and that’s not to mention the constant reminders in the news – they are all showing me images, footage and sound of those kind of people out there doing really important things, while I sit under the glow of halogen office lights, my biggest success of the day being typing at a ridiculously fast rate and buying my favourite soup from the food trolley before it sells out. It’s not quite what I had in mind when I drooled half-asleep over A-level set texts and stayed up buzzing on Pro Plus at uni believing that all that shit really did matter.

It’s a curious thing, watching people. And I don’t mean in a creepy, follow-you-home kind of way. The ones around me now are consumed by the screens before them, some plugged in with headphones too, hypnotised by the modernity of technology. But I am talking about those other people again – the ones who find themselves in warzones, in protests, in conversations about things that matter.

How? I have always thought. How do they end up there and how did I end up here? No-one in sandals approaches you when you hit adulthood with a big signpost asking ‘Do you want to do something worthwhile with your life or do you want to focus on you for a bit longer?’ If they did, I was too busy sleeping or watching Eastenders.

And as much admiration as I had for those other people, I couldn’t help but hate them a little bit too. The irony hey? I didn’t just do nothing, but I also resented the people who were doing something.

So it was surprising, even to me, to see myself breaking out of this mould last weekend and becoming ‘one of those people’ who seemed so intangible previously.

There I found myself, among around 7,999 other women walking down Regent Street towards Trafalgar Square, the wind whipping up the passion in our cheeks, the crisp colours of marble statues striking a pose against the sky radiant in blue. It sounds fantastical, magical, and it was.

In my previous experiences as an outsider to days such as this, I had always suspected, and actually hoped, that the event itself was rather dull; that the excitement seen on the faces of those involved was just because they so desperately wanted to be having fun; that really their feet were aching and they were dying for a cup of tea.

Yet on London’s Million Women Rise march on 6 March 2010, as cold as the temperature was that afternoon, I didn’t care one bit.

On a purely personal level, the sense of purpose and unity that arose from being part of ‘something’ that wasn’t an office party or a queue for a bus was really quite enlightening.

Listening to the voices of women whose lives had been about plights of passion and fights for rights seemed to lock into place that knot of frustration that had been tightening in my brain, and it made more sense. The frustration could become motivation instead.

It’s not so hard to be part of something. It only takes finding a cause that you believe in (and there’s a million out there) and actually participating in it, – whether that’s through signing petitions, attending rallies, emailing MPs or telling friends, the gain far outweighs the effort every time.

We are always told that today’s generation lacks that sense of community that existed in previous decades. I don’t personally agree with that, I think we have just become more global and network more extensively through the aid of technology. Yet there is something special about being part of something that matters.

I have chosen women’s and gay rights as my principal areas for concern because I believe deeply in equality. Along with my usual daily grind of work and more work, I am finding time to develop my interests in these areas and, in doing so, have met some wonderful people and learnt some fascinating stuff. The more I learn, the more awake I feel. That empty coma-inducing mentality that I survived on before is learning how to really think and feel again – that incredible self-awareness so key to human beings is no longer being wasted on flickering screens and chit-chat alone.

My individual actions as a fledgling feminist may not make a discernable difference, but knowing that, as a collective, I am part of a movement that has and continues to empower and demand change, is motivating in itself.

So if you’re feeling a little lost/bored/intellectually and morally deadened/any of the above, then just consider becoming ‘one of those people’. I can certainly recommend it.

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Should a straight woman run a gay news website?

Last week the editor of Pink News publicly ‘outed’ herself as straight in the Guardian. ‘So what?’ some might sigh. Surely in this modern world of alleged equality, we gays should well know how sexuality is not a factor in how well someone can do a job? But if this is the case, how come so many people have got their pink knickers in a twist?

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Lesbian smear campaign

Lesbians can catch cervical cancer.

If you have trouble understanding that sentence then you may find that, throughout your life, simple stuff generally confuses you. Don’t be alarmed to find out that most people probably think you are a twat. The likely cause of this is that you probably are.

You see, if even a layperson struggled to understand the above statement, I would be shocked. It’s not exactly a revelation is it? (PS Did you know that women and straight men can get AIDS too?). So to face such ignorance from a qualified professional took some beating.

Today I went to a Family Planning Clinic (Why? You might ask… lesbians can’t have kids can they?), to discuss why once a month I turn into Regan at the drop of a hat and cry at episodes of Jeremy Kyle. I meet with a nurse who is friendly enough.

She asks what I use for contraception and I politely explain that I don’t really need any – ‘I’m gay.’ ‘Brilliant,’ she replies, more than a little flustered.

On we go with the questions… ‘Are you pregnant?’

‘Err… no. Not unless my girlfriend has a big giant invisible cock.’ I didn’t say that though. I just shook my head.

‘Have you ever had a cervical smear?’

‘Yes,’ I reply, thinking that they were compulsory and remembering the dozens of letters I’ve had from my GP urging me to make sure I have regular smear tests.

‘Have you really? Why on earth would they do that? I mean, you don’t need one do you? How funny.’

At this point, my cervix probably blushed, it’s hard to tell, but my face certainly did. ‘I was sure that every woman over a certain age has to have a smear test.’

‘Really?’ Yes, that’s what the NURSE actually said to me.

‘I don’t think sexuality has anything to do with getting cancer.’

‘I suppose not,’ she pondered.

Now, forgive me for condemning this woman. She was pretty nice other than this and didn’t intentionally mean to make me feel hugely uncomfortable in what was a pretty personal and private meeting anyway. But I could not go so far as to say that her comments or attitude were harmless. Far from it – she directly implied that as a lesbian, I do not require regular, if any, cervical smear tests and therefore that I am not at risk from cervical cancer.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is bullshit in its rawest form. It’s staggering that a health professional, whose job it is to inform vulnerable women about sexual issues, could be so discriminatory and ignorant at the same time.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated case. Diva magazine did a feature on this very thing not that long ago.

According to this, statistics show that a woman’s risk of cervical cancer is cut by 84% if she has a smear test every five years, and 91% if she has a smear every three years. It’s estimated that NHS cervical screening saves more than 1000 lives each year.

A British Medical Journal editorial published in 2003 said: “An unfortunate perception exists among healthcare providers and women who have sex with women that they don’t need regular cervical smears… sexual intercourse with men is a powerful risk factor for cervical cancer. However, it’s important to counter the erroneous assumption that women who have sex with women aren’t at risk of catching human papillomavirus. Around one in five women who’ve never had heterosexual intercourse have human papillomavirus which is associated with developing high-grade cervical intraepithelial neoplasia” – in other words abnormal cervical tissue development.

So please, don’t ever be fooled into thinking that because you sleep with women and not men that you can’t develop cervical cancer.

It is more than just a myth. It’s a lie that puts lives at risk.

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Women’s rights can’t be wrong

Tammy Wynette said it well really. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman (I’ll selectively ignore the rest of her song lyrics for the purpose of this blog). But she had a point. It is hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – I’m not saying I want to start pissing standing up or take testosterone replacement, but I feel quite justified in my right to moan about the burdens that womanhood has placed on my shoulders.

I attended a discussion group recently. The topic was whether lesbians in this country should care about lesbians in other countries – where approaches are more hostile – and what we should do about it. The question prompted a variety of responses. In the main, it was heartening to hear that people cared; they wanted to help, but weren’t sure how. The idea of setting up a human trafficking ring to bring over Nigerian lesbians was raised, but as with most good ideas, practicality reared its ugly head. We just aren’t well connected enough to the underworld of London.

But what of those people who are subjected in other countries to harsh and often brutal responses to their sexuality? How exactly can we help? It’s not like hunger or poverty – I can’t just pack an old shoebox full of unwanted toys and clothes and send it off with a wing and a prayer. With the exception of talking/writing and, in doing so, raising awareness, there’s very little I personally can do that is short of packing my rucksack and heading off with a ‘Gay and Proud’ placard and a big red target painted on my back.

It’s a depressing thought and a sobering one at that – I am lucky. Sure, it was tough telling my Dad that I thought that rather than saving up for a wedding he should start a fund for IVF if he ever wanted a grandchild, however, my life is not in danger and I am not persecuted for my beliefs.

It was with interest that I listened to one person explaining that we should leave some matters up to the people in their own country to sort out. This caused some outrage, but I remained quiet, not sure what to make of such a statement. The person argued that, if such laws (such as anti-gay legislation) had been voted in by the people of the country, or the main religious movement there dictated that it was wrong, it wasn’t for us to go over with our rainbow flags and demand change. What about the gay people who are born into that sort of country, some asked. ‘They can just leave and come here or somewhere more tolerant.’

This is exactly the sort of argument that some people base their anti-Iraq sentiments on – it’s not up to us to go sorting out other countries’ issues and problems based on our own principles of democracy. There is some logic in this perhaps. It would certainly lead to less conflicts and an easier life for people over here.

However, this laissez-faire attitude is like putting the brakes on world development. It’s the ‘let someone else worry about that because it doesn’t affect me’ kind of thought that allows bad stuff to continue and gain momentum, making it not just bad but terrifying.

Sure, it’s not really my problem that there’s a lesbian in Iran living in fear because it’s against her religion to be attracted to women. She might get beaten for it. She may just have to shut up, shut down, spend her life in denial/hiding. What can I do about it? I’ll just thank my lucky stars that geography saved me from a life of misery.

I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. It just doesn’t feel right to turn a blind eye. How on earth will things ever improve if we don’t consider the world as a global community, as opposed to one fragmented by man-made borders that our ancestors gave names to?

As a lesbian, you are given a label. I am therefore more likely to be interested in the lives and fates of others like myself. But going back to my original point (if you can remember back that far!), what about my role as a woman? Surely there’s enough other women that I don’t have to care too much about their rights – I’ve got enough on my plate with gay issues haven’t I? Yet another question that I find hard to answer and one that arose from the discussion group.

While talking about the persecution of gay people abroad, we stumbled across the subject of strip clubs. There was a general consensus in the room that, as women who like women, we should care about women’s issues. It’s a fairly logical argument I suppose, but not everyone agreed. Despite the common conception that many lesbians are avid feminists, many aren’t much interested in the rights of women beyond their own sphere of influence. It got me thinking… should lesbians be expected to carry the torch of women’s rights moreso than any other woman? Historically, yes, this has often been the case, giving many lesbians their atypical ‘man-hating’ label in the process.

The subject arose when it was discussed that a lesbian club in London featured women pole-dancing and stripping. ‘So what?’ argued one woman. ‘Like men, I like looking and it’s just a bit of fun.’ Another vehemently argued the opposite – that it is this kind of ‘fun’ that damages women worldwide, perpetuating the myth that women are a commodity that can be bought and sold as readily as a cup of coffee – that it is acceptable to judge women aesthetically and solely from a sexual standpoint. It is a tough call – I hear the first woman – why should she care? Just because she sleeps with women in her private life, like many thousands of men, she enjoys looking at women sexually and feels justified in doing so. By being gay, she didn’t take an oath to look out for the rights of other women, gay or straight.

So why is it that the majority of the group took the opposite approach. ‘Who better to care about the needs of women than us?’ said one. And maybe she’s right. Being gay by no means suggests that you must be a feminist or an activist of any form, but the nature of our sexuality means that we take an interest in women and the needs of women, both straight and lesbian.

As women, we should be outraged at the idea of women stripping for us in a club because they are one of us, regardless of our sexuality. By ignoring the issue, we are agreeing in principle to the sexualisation of young women, deeming it acceptable even to other women who, in reality, should be the friend and not the foe. On a superficial level, most gay women would have to be chemically castrated to not find the idea of half-naked dancing women attractive, but we must think with our heads not our libidos. We have a duty to do so.

Maybe men don’t have to do this, I am sure many don’t as they gain gratification from the idea that these attractive, often drug-dependent or poverty-stricken young women are actually dancing for their pleasure (and not the dirty cash that pays their undeclared wages that are not protected by employment laws). Yet I for one cannot switch off and just think of them solely as sexual objects. I see another ‘me’ (albeit less good looking and with arguably smaller tits and a less flexible hip action).

I am well aware that there is an argument, often by women in the business themselves, that stripping is a life decision that is well informed and well paid; that they are not coerced and not exploited. Individually, for those women, that is great. I am glad to hear it. Yet it cannot be ignored that in many cases this is just not true. And stripping for cash is often a pre-cursor to a much more dangerous activity – prostitution.

Should we as women shoulder more responsibility? It seems like many of us believe yes, myself included, however my reasons for believing this are kind of vague. I just care. I am just not really sure why I do.

Being a woman is a label that many of us share. It is a unique identity, yet is also so generic. Beyond my own experience of being a female, I care deeply about others’ experience of it too. It should be something positive – something that can be freely explored within the understanding and accepting framework of a more general society. However, as is the case for many lesbians, many women too face discrimination and stereotyping, in this country and further afield.

I strongly believe that I have a duty to care about other people, whatever their sexuality, religion, race or indeed gender. If being a woman means that I better understand the needs of other women, then I should take this belief and put it to good use. The women’s movement has come on leaps and bounds in this century and the last, but it is by no means a fait accompli. For this reason, I will continue to write about these issues and try to encourage others to feel the same. By staying quiet, I am tacitly acknowledging that there is nothing that needs to change in the world and that isn’t something that I am prepared to accept…

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