Standing in Solidarity with the Women of Poland

Labour Party

Today, along with fellow Labour MEPs, I stand with thousands of women in Poland who have downed their tools to go on strike from both professional work and domestic responsibilities in protest at the Polish government’s moves to ban abortion.  This proposal that will criminalise all women seeking terminations threatens the dignity and safety of women.

As the law stands, Poland already has some of the most restrictive laws in Europe on accessing abortion. Legal termination of pregnancy currently applies only in cases where the life of the foetus is under threat, where there is grave risk to the pregnant woman or where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

The change in the law will mean increased criminalisation of women, with those who seek abortion facing up to five years in prison. Consider a case where a 14 year old seeking the termination of a pregnancy resulting from rape will herself be seen as a criminal. Doctors who assist with terminations will face a prison term and women who have miscarriages will also be under greater suspicion.

It bears repeating that sexual and reproductive rights remain human rights enshrined in international human rights mechanisms. As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Poland must guarantee women’s rights to decide freely and responsibly about the number and the spacing of their children.

Women must also be able to access information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights. Constricting access to abortion is an assault on women’s human rights and dignity, and countries that criminalise women who seek abortion inevitably put women’s lives at great risk.

These moves to restrict abortion access follow intensive trading between the Polish government and hard-line anti-abortion factions and it is clear that women’s reproductive rights are being treated as inherently disposable.

Poland must respect the will of Polish women in their call for sexual and reproductive rights, ceasing immediately these legal manoeuvres that deny the dignity of Polish women and put their safety at risk. Today, across Europe, we stand with Polish women who demand that they are heard and their human rights are recognised.


To keep up-to-date with today’s protest and share your support for Polish women’s right to access safe abortion, follow #CzarnyProtest on Twitter.



‘Too slow and too narrow’ says legal profession of the government’s refugee policy

Labour Party

A group of 300 members of the legal profession have signed an open letter criticising the government’s poor response to the migrant crisis.

The letter, which contains high profile signatories including judges, barristers, solicitors, law academics and  Queen’s Counsel, is an unprecedented move by the group. Not only is such an intervention so unusual, not least because the letter contained so many high profile signatories, but the tone of it is so forthright, or as the BBC’s legal correspondent, Clive Coleman, said “blunt”.

It criticised both the government’s slow response to the crisis and the fact it is only prepared to accept just 20,000 refugees into the UK. This compares with other EU countries, such as Germany who has plans to accept around 85,000.

The letter called the government’s response to the crisis ‘too slow and too narrow’ and said that plans to accept 20,000 refugees over five years was not good enough.

Among the action they called for was to suspend the Dublin system whereby refugees are required to register and claim asylum in the first country in which they arrive.

The problem with the current system, the group said, is that registration centres in certain countries are collapsing under the pressure. The centres are no longer fit for purpose and cannot cope with the volume of people. The letter stated: “in certain member states, particularly at the EU’s periphery, reception conditions have collapsed and determination procedures are rudimentary”.

The letter also outlines concern for the safe passage of the refugees and suggests the lack of safe routes makes them vulnerable to people smugglers. It suggests an action plan to help ensure that refugees have a safe passage of travel: “One way of doing this”, the letter describes, “would be to create a system of ‘humanitarian visas’ so that refugees did not have to undertake dangerous journeys to reach Europe.”

In my own work in the European Parliament, I have been focusing on the situation of women refugees and asylum seekers, as rapporteur on the Women’s Rights Committee and have called for safe and legal routes to Europe. I believe this is the most effective way of combating unscrupulous people smugglers.

The signatories, such as Sir Stephen Sedley, former Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal, are completely right that the UK is simply not doing enough and those such as Sir Stephen insist “we can and should be doing better.”

Tory MEPs oppose LGBTI and Women’s rights (again)

Labour Party

A version of this piece was originally posted on LabourList last week. It was co-authored by myself and Michael Cashman MEP.

Tory MEPs showed their ugly side again last week – the anti-women, anti-choice, anti-LGBT dimension to the party which David Cameron tries so hard to shield from public view. They packed in behind UKIP to oppose a range of progressive measures on sexual and reproductive rights, health services and education, and the combating of sexual orientation and gender discrimination.

The measures were designed to provide adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services which are in accordance with age, maturity and evolving capacities – and which do not discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status, disability, or sexual orientation. They underlined that sexual education should be non-discriminatory towards LGBTI persons, and stressed that sexuality education must fight against stereotypes and prejudices. In addition, the report said countries should facilitate safe and non-judgemental access to STI treatment, and should have effective inclusive health strategies for HIV prevention, removing laws that penalise and stigmatise those living with HIV.

The proposals also called for access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to be non-discriminatory and for women to have the right to choose the size and spacing of their family. They asked for sex education to “include the fight against stereotypes, prejudices and violence against women”, and to “shed light on and denounce discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation”. They called on national governments to ensure women who become pregnant as a result of rape can have unrestricted access to an abortion with full legal and health safeguards. Moreover, they stressed that coerced sterilisation and female genital mutilation represent breaches of human rights, and called on Member States to abolish any existing laws that allow such medieval practices.

These are measures which most sensible people can surely agree with. They protect women and LGBTI people, and focus on creating healthcare systems which safeguard the needs of young and in some cases vulnerable people in an effective and non-judgemental way.

So, following on from October’s shameful scenes – which saw the Tories siding with far right parties like the BNP – it was vital that  the draft Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights report went through successfully last week.

Yet thanks in part to Tory votes, it was not passed. Instead it was amended and blocked, with nearly 90 recommendations replaced by a watered down resolution. That Conservatives were among those responsible for this shows that the ‘nasty party’ is still alive and well.

At the moment approaches to birth control, contraception, family planning and sex education vary wildly across Europe. This means young LGBTI people and women in many parts of the EU are not given the information or the options necessary to make the best choices. We in the UK have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe – something which has a knock-on effect for our economy and for the wellbeing of our young people – so this is not an issue we can afford to treat lightly.

One need only look at Finland, where sex education and emergency contraception helped drastically reduce unwanted pregnancies, to see the value of giving women control over their bodies. The enlightened, liberal values which lie at the heart of the European Union are the same values which argue in favour of women being able to choose and of LGBTI people have the right to exist in a safe and open-minded world.

David Cameron’s MEPs are, yet again, failing to stand up to discrimination, and are instead reinforcing prejudice and patriarchy. As Edite Estrela, the author of the report pointed out, they have won the battle but not the war. In so doing they have put themselves on the wrong side of the LGBTI and women’s rights debate, and on the wrong side of history.

Women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis

Labour Party

The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has called for a halt to budget cuts,  particularly cuts in social expenditure that affect women more than men.

In a resolution the Committee approved a set of proposals to address the impact of the crisis on gender equality including investing in lifelong training and new jobs, public transport, and developing child care facilities.

Women have been punished twice since the start of the economic crisis, by losing their jobs and working part-time. Austerity measures and cuts in the public budget, unemployment, temporary work and low salaries affect women more than men.

The resolution’s rapporteur told the Women’s Committee that women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis which worsens their condition. Even before the crisis more women than men were affected by unemployment, precarious work, part-time work, low wages and slow careers. Today, as a result of austerity policies, they suffer a double punishment. This is an issue at the heart of political equality and employment. 

Women leaving employment or reducing their hours as a result of cuts in social security benefits and welfare infrastructure, such as education, childcare, health and care services, have further feminised poverty. Part-time employment has a long term impact, not only diminishing income, but pensions as well. Committee members believed that despite unemployment rates for men and women being comparable, the crisis affects the latter differently: working conditions for women have become considerably more insecure, their income has diminished, part-time and fixed-term jobs have grown to the detriment of more stable employment.

MEPs called on the European Commission to oppose budget cuts, especially in the public sector, to social security benefits and social welfare, education and childcare services. We also called for an action plan for better childcare, developing company and inter-company crèches. The Committee also reiterated its demand for the promotion of female entrepreneurship by facilitating women’s access to microcredits as well as for improving public transport policy to enable women to be truly mobile and to achieve a better work-life balance.

Let’s Talk About Rape.

Labour Party

Throughout recent weeks the UK press has been unusually dominated with stories relating to rape, infidelities by powerful men and the sex industry. The stories have ranged from a leader of an exceptionally prominent organisation being arrested and charged for sexual assault, a British minister finding himself tripping over both of his left feet into a pit of indignant fire for trying to distinguish between “proper rape” and, well, that other kind of rape, to an insurance industry rewarding its employees with prostitutes. 

Between them however these stories have exposed the myriad complexities, prejudices and myths which continue to pervade both in the press and the public conscience about rape and about women. Which is why I think now is a good time to talk about rape. So, let’s talk about rape.

Firstly, I think we need to clear up what rape actually is. Although different countries and bodies define rape differently, we can use British law for the purposes of this discussion. According to British law, rape involves forced penetration (of either variety and for both sexes), done without consent. Given that this definition is fairly clear and simple, I have been ashtonished to find that so many people still persist in thinking there are many different types of rape. Apologists for this viewpoint argue that some rapes are violent, or multiple, or abusive. But that doesn’t change the rape aspect of the crime; that simply means that the rapist has committed additional crimes or aggravating factors. If a man abducts a woman and commits a violent rape upon her he is charged not with “really bad rape” but with rape, abduction, assault and possibly ABH or GBH. Simarly if a woman is gang-raped, all of the men who raped her are charged with rape. This is because she was raped more than once, not because she experienced a “worse” rape.

I believe that ultimately this dialogue in more serious/less serious rape is based upon a notion that there are gradations of consent (and the refusal of it). This is because, given that rape is penetration without consent, (discounting for additional crimes or rapes committed during, previous or after the rape in question), any notion of “worse” or “more serious” rape must lie in an evaluation of the degree of consent (or lack of it) involved.  For instance a women who was date-raped is viewed to have mildly refused her consent whilst a woman abducted by a stranger has strongly refused her consent.

To elaborate upon this point, I now move on to the debate surrounding the accusations made against Strauss-Kahn.  Now, I do not mean to presume that Strauss-Kahn is guilty simply because he was accused and I am a feminist. It is entirely possible that he is innocent and, whilst we may be able to form a clearer viewpoint after the court case, ultimately the only people who will ever know the complete truth about what happened in that hotel room were the two in it at the time. What bothers me however is the reasons many people are giving for why they believe Strauss-Kahn to be innocent; such as “he didn’t need to rape, he was rich and powerful”, and just like all the other rich and powerful men who have been shown to have been cheating on their wives this week, it is assumed to be a natural thing that there would be numerous women willing to engage in consensual sex with him.

Aside from indicating a total lack of understanding about why men rape, this shows our attitude to men, rapists and women. There is in this argument both the assumption that by being successful Strauss-Kahn has disqualified himself from being a potential rapist, and that rapists are only men who cannot gain consensual sex. Both of these are fallacies, but commonly accepted. The reasons for this tie back to the assumption that Strauss-Kahn’s success has somehow earned him the consent of women, because women’s consent is something that can be quantified and bought.

This leads us on to the story of the insurance giant which rewarded its top staff with prostitutues. What is especially telling about this story is not just that these successful men were rewarded with sexual gratification (or that this sheds another angle on possible reasons women are kept out of boardrooms) but that these women wore labels showing which men they were available to. The “highest class” ones were only available to executives. What this shows us is a snapshot of a society where men compete against other men to be successful and in return are rewarded according to their success with sexual gratification and access to women’s bodies.

 It is this culture in which women are viewed as commodities and status symbols that leads many to presume that Strauss-Kahn is innocent: Through being rich and successful he had become entitled to sexual access to a multitude of women. This is also why people believe that there are different types of rape – because there are different degrees of non-consent, because consent is something you can earn or have a right to. Bacially, in the popular mindset women are still something you buy, own or be entitled to. This isn’t just a view held by men but by any woman who has ever felt obliged to consent to sex. A date-rape is less bad than a stranger-rape because he had earned part of your consent by taking you out and treating you to dinner. If you get drunk/are promiscuous/dress ‘sluttily’ the rape is less bad because you have shown both that you are a lower price good and that your consent is more easily bought. There is a smaller degree of non-consent for a rapist to overcome so, during a rape, less consent is considered to have been refused than might otherwise be the case had you been sober/a nun/wearing baggy trousers.

Many people argue that the reason for the shockingly low conviction rates in the UK (6%) is because rape is a difficult crime to prove. But if that is the case why is the conviction rate for male rape so much higher? (419 convictions out of 532 cases in UK magistrates Courts in 1994). Why is rape of women treated so diffferently than rape of men? The reason – becuase juries and the public still view women’s bodies as commodities, heterosexual sex as an economic transaction and women’s consent as something that can be bought. Rape of women is viewed as something more akin to theft, a commodity not paid for but taken anyway. A crime, but not a serious one and whose gravity can be judged by evaluating the good that was stolen (by asking what the woman was wearing or about her previous sex life).

 This state of affairs will only change when women and men realise that women’s bodies are not commodities, and not even that “women’s bodies belong to them” as the slutwalkers would have it, but that women’s bodies are them. Women’s bodies cannot be bought, given, sold, taken or refused. It is not a bargaining tool. Sex is not a transaction. Rape is not theft: It is a violation of a woman’s person, of who she is. When our society recognises that they will finally start punishing rape in the way it should be punished and respecting women as equal integral members of society.

Could Osborne make things any worse for women?

Labour Party

So George Osborne has now delivered his so-called ‘pro-growth budget’. With a surprise cut to fuel duty among his big proposals, The Guardian can be forgiven for calling this budget ‘unashamedly populist’. The Chancellor, it seems, is clutching at straws. What’s more, he is still refusing to address, or even acknowledge, the huge problem of how his cuts will affect women’s role in the workplace.

Yesterday Kitty Ussher, Director of the think-tank Demos, posted an insightful blog on the “Next Left” site reminding us all of just some of the long-term impacts of Osborne’s cuts. She also suggested a few ways in which Osborne’s budget could have been amended (if only he would listen) to make it better for women.

To recap, local councils are expected to lose a total of £7 billion from their budget by the end of the spending round. This means public sector job cuts. Employment patterns in the UK, like elsewhere in Europe, are characterised by the following: gender segregated labour markets; gender gaps in pay; higher levels of part-time and precarious work among women; and a higher concentration of women in the so-called ‘informal sector’. What this means is that women are in a far more vulnerable position than men in the face of severe cuts.

Reductions in public spending for after-school clubs, leisure centres, and nurseries also have a gendered impact – they result in the transfer of services such as childcare back to women, who are the primary care givers in the home. This limits their capacity to participate in society beyond the domestic sphere.

The outlook for women looks bleak to say the least. Yet the question is, what could Osborne have done differently? Kitty Ussher suggests, for one, that local councils should have more time to discuss flexible working hours for all their employees, rather than simply cutting jobs with impunity. This might not solve the problem, but it would certainly help. The fact is that unless Osborne comes up with proposals soon to mitigate the damaging impact of his cuts, women’s place in the labour market will become even more uncertain.

Buzz TV Episode 4

Labour Party

My vlog this week is on the role of women during the recent uprisings in the middle east.

A move towards democracy in the Middle East – but what about the women?

Labour Party

World leaders are hoping that the recent toppling of the authoritative regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, and the revolt in Libya, will trigger a democratic, cultural and economic rebirth of these nations. Yet what has remained largely absent from discussions on the future of these countries is how the change to democracy will impact upon women’s place in society.

Women were active participants in anti-government protests that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square women were as dynamic and outspoken as men, and were clearly visible in TV footage of the protests. Women’s rights activists in Egypt were also forceful in their condemnation of the sexual assault on Lara Logan, an American news reporter, which took place in Tahrir Square right after Mubarak’s resignation. In Tunisia and Libya, too, women have stood beside their male counterparts during rallies, demanding greater freedom after decades of authoritarian rule.

In some respects, the status of women in these countries has undergone a transformation in recent years. In Egypt up until 2000, a wife could not leave the country without her husband’s permission. Now women have greater freedom of movement. Tunisian women, unlike some of their Middle Eastern neighbors, can vote, they are allowed to have cars, and they have rights in the Parliament. Women in Libya can also vote. Here, in addition, equal pay for equal work and qualifications is a fundamental precept of female employment laws.

Many of the liberties established for women by the likes of Ben Ali have been token at best, often serving as little more than a political tool giving legitimacy to these regimes. In Tunisia, for example, Ben Ali was able to fight Islamists by granting certain civil liberties to women. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say women’s statuses in these countries have improved.

The key question now is what will political reform in these countries mean for women’s future? With the dismantling of the political systems in Tunisia and Egypt, many are worried that their rights (however token) will be under threat. Tunisian women in particular fear they may lose the few rights they have if the once-banned Ennadha Islamist party reemerges as a major political force.

In Egypt, women’s political participation is a huge concern. Not one of the female champions of the Egyptian Revolution has a seat on the newly formed constitutional committee. Egypt is full of talented female academics, lawyers, and activists; yet none of them, some experts in constitutional law, have been enlisted to help in the aftermath of the revolution.

Middle Eastern women have played a vital role in speaking out against their regimes, and they must continue to ensure their voices are heard as clearly as they were during the protests. Women deserve their rightful place in the future political makeup of their countries. Their rights must also be protected. Only this way will the states of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, ever succeed in being truly democratic.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round Up

Labour Party

As ministers are locked in a last minute battle to axe child benefit payments to over 16’s so it came too light that the RAF is expected to lose between 6000 and 9000 airmen and women.

Next Wednesday the chancellor will unveil the final detail of the Comprehensive Spending Review but this morning he refused to be drawn over the detail in an appearance on the Andrew Marr show. Also being interviewed by Marr was the new Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson.

I was struck by how comfortable Johnson seemed talking about the deficit and he did so with such conviction.  If you didn’t catch the interview you can watch it here. The interview with Alan Johnson is about 30.18 seconds into the show and you can watch it here.

Patrick Wintour, the Guardian’s political editor wrote on Friday how a ‘battered’ Nick Clegg will enjoy some respite when he will announce the delivery of one of his party’s central manifesto promises – a pupil premium for 1 million disadvantaged children.
The announcement will offer Clegg some much needed respite, says Wintour, after he was forced to tear up the party’s manifesto commitment to abolish university tuition fees and instead back Conservative proposals to double them. You can read the article in full here.

Next week MEPs will vote on changes to the existing EU rules on parental leave. I am a great defender of strong rights for both working mothers and fathers, but I am concerned that Parliament doesn’t end up undermining the rights of working women, albeit inadvertently, and particularly those on lower pay.

We will be debating the issue on Tuesday and a vote will take place on Wednesday.

I will keep readers informed of any developments on my blog and twitter account. And tomorrow I will be discussing this very issue on Woman’s Hour, on Radio 4.

Military Solutions will not tackle the Root Causes of Military Based Extremism in Pakistan

Labour Party

Speaking at a hearing last week organised by London Green MEP Jean Lambert, Shama Mall, the Deputy Director of Church World Service – Pakistan/Afghanistan, stated her firm belief that the current focus on military solutions in Pakistan  is incapable of tackling the root causes of religious-based extremism. Endorsing development aid as a means of addressing poverty and social justice, she also spoke about the desperate need for greater equality for women as a means of improving the lives of the people of that country.  In particular, Shama Mall spoke about the need to repeal of all forms of discriminatory laws and  highlighted the need to reform the school curriculum.

Rubina Bhatti, who is the founding member and General Secretary of rights-based development group Taangh Wasaib Organization, spoke further about the discriminatory laws against women and minorities which exist in Pakistan. Laws that have been particularly harmful include the 1951 Citizenship Act which, among other things, denies women the right to get Pakistani citizenship for their foreign husband but entitles a man to obtain citizenship for his alien wife. According to Rubina, many Pakistani women are trapped in a web of dependency and subordination due to their low economic status, and despite the Government of Pakistan taking some steps to ensure address discrimination against women, Pakistan still only ranks 56 among 58 countries trying to eliminate their existing gender pay gap.

Human rights activist, Beenish Hashwani, closed the hearing by offering a set of recommendations to the European Union. She called on the EU to put pressure on the Pakistani Government to expedite its enactment of its Domestic Violence Bill, which will outlaw domestic violence in a country where over 85% of women face this abuse. She also asked for policy-makers to increase aid for poverty reduction, to ensure that development aid for education stresses curriculum reforms as the long-term objective, and to encourage the government of Pakistan to promote policies that promote tolerance.

Despite this rather bleak picture, Pakistan is making some progress in terms of female political participation: in the February 2008 elections 15 women candidates were directly elected to the National Assembly. Last year a joint-summit between Pakistan and the EU took place in Brussels, and on 4th June this year a second summit is due to take place. This will provide a key opportunity for Pakistani women like Shama, Beenish and Rubina to draw EU leaders’ attention to the continuing difficulties faced by women in the country, and to call them to act upon their recommendations.