World Wide Women Conference

On Saturday, I attended the World Wide Women conference in Sheffield, organised by Sheffield Fems and the Sheffield branch of WILPF (the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom). The day’s aim was to highlight some of the challenges facing women in the UK and globally and to inspire attendees to take action on the issues raised. It certainly hit the spot for me.

The day kicked off with a talk from former MP for Sheffield, Helen Jackson, who identified climate change and lack of education as the biggest threats to women’s liberation globally. She then focused on women’s rights in the UK, highlighting workplace discrimination and the need to recognise that grandparents are also negatively affected by our long hours, inflexible working culture. She pointed out that women’s unpaid caring work impacts on our ability to earn within this culture, despite the fact that the value of unpaid care of older people alone is estimated at £58 billion, and argued that no one should have to suffer financially for making the right decisions for their families, communities and health. These messages need to be heard by politicians and decision makers, but in her experience this will only happen if more women are able to access these powerful roles.

The second, incredibly moving speech was given by Marie-Claire Faray-Kele, a member of WILPF and spokeswoman for their Voices of African Women Campaign. She highlighted the devastating effects of colonialism and the violent masculinity of patriarchal capitalism on African societies, arguing that the oppression of women – often pushed through Western religion – has been one of the key mechanisms by which the colonisers destroyed and fractured African nations. 90% of African women now experience domestic violence, and in her home country of Congo, girls are confined to the home or married off when they reach puberty – sometimes dying or being severely injured in childbirth – due to a lack of sanitary products and contraception, as well as patriarchal attitudes towards women and girls.

She focused on women as courageous resisters, however, who have to fight on multiple levels to get their voices heard: they are ignored by their own male-dominated communities; by disempowering aid agencies who set their own agendas rather than listening to the needs of local people; by international bodies and the UN, who listen only to men; by multinational corporations, international financial organisations and foreign governments who fuel civil wars and support oppressive regimes in order to exploit Africa’s resources; and by all of us in the West who fail to challenge our governments’ policies and fuel the demand for illegal exploitation of resources such as the mineral coltan, used in mobile phones and games consoles, by our unnecessary levels of consumption. Their fight is made all the more challenging by language barriers, as many women cannot speak French, let alone English.

At present, no one but WILPF is supporting Congolese women at an international level. Marie-Claire asked that we do all we can to make these women’s voices heard. You can do so by writing to your MP asking them to support the Declaration of African Women and joining WILPF and supporting their campaign.

Jean Lambert MEP then talked about the impact of anti-trafficking legislation on women across Europe, highlighting the anti-Islam bias in much discourse on migration (such as the conflation of forced and arranged marriage) and the campaign to ensure migrant women are granted independent legal status. At present many women’s status – and therefore every other aspect of their lives – is dependent on the male ‘head of household’. Currently it is less risky to traffic people for sexual and labour exploitation than to traffic drugs, and this needs to change.

Ann Hamilton, vice-chair of the End Violence Against Women campaign picked up on the trafficking theme, arguing that a recent Guardian article asserting that the lack of sex trafficking convictions is proof that sex trafficking is extremely rare is entirely wrongheaded. Glasgow’s anti-trafficking project, TARA, has seen 50 victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation this year alone, but the women’s fear and shame and the police’s failure or inability to class them as trafficking victims means there have been no convictions; this doesn’t mean sex trafficking is a myth. Ann also highlighted the work that has been done in Glasgow to address violence against women and tackle prostitution, and will hopefully be guest blogging for us on the latter in the future.

There was an opportunity to discuss all the issues raised in workshops, where we agreed on actions we could take collectively or as individuals to push for positive change – a great idea, as I’ve sometimes been frustrated by the lack of opportunity to use the information I’ve gained from other conferences in a constructive way – and I got some seriously good feminist networking done! Well done to all involved.

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