LGBT people in Commonwealth states are still treated as second-class citizens

Gay men are the most frequent targets but the stigma also affects lesbians

Independent on Sunday, 22 November 2015

Astonishingly, some form of “right to matrimonial rape” is still in force in most Commonwealth countries. It exists alongside other archaic laws, many aimed at gay people, which have a draconian effect on intimate relationships. Gay men are the most frequent targets but the stigma affects lesbians as well, even in jurisdictions where sexual relations between women are not specifically prohibited. David Cameron has promised to raise the issue at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta next weekend, armed with a report from the Human Dignity Trust on the effects of discriminatory laws on LGBT people.

In the past couple of years, the situation has got worse. India decriminalised same-sex relationships between consenting adults in 2009, but this was reversed by the Supreme Court in 2013. New laws in countries such as Uganda, which last year increased sentences for people found guilty of same-sex relationships, are sometimes used to suggest that prejudice is rooted in local culture. But it’s also a legacy of colonialism, and a legal framework based on traditional English law that treats gay people and women as second-class citizens.

This is rarely acknowledged when right-wing historians talk wistfully about the British empire. Most Commonwealth states retain laws that reflect punitive Victorian (and earlier) attitudes: gay sex is illegal in 40 out of 53 countries, while almost half fail to recognise that men can be raped too.

Think about this country, before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, when gay people had to conceal relationships and live in fear of blackmail; that’s the situation in one Commonwealth country after another. Except that it’s worse: effective HIV education is next to impossible where homosexuality is stigmatised; Commonwealth states account for 30 per cent of the world’s population but have more than 60 per cent of HIV cases.

But change is always possible. In 1988, Tory MPs voted for Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”. Just over 20 years later, Cameron apologised for it, and his government legalised same-sex marriage in 2013. I’m sure the Prime Minister doesn’t want to lecture leaders of Commonwealth countries. But if even the British Tory party has managed to embrace equality, so should they.

 

Paris attacks: terror groups glamorise their brutal violence and give alienated young men a sense of importance

We must set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence

Independent on Sunday, 15 November 2015

The latest massacre in Paris demands a reaction. For most human beings, it is not possible to watch footage of police and passers-by trying to help the wounded without feeling a maelstrom of emotions. Shock, horror and anger are natural responses but after a year of such atrocities, they come with a sickening sense of helplessness.

None of that helps us to think clearly, which is one of the aims of the perpetrators. The spectacle of young men walking into a concert hall with guns, ready to kill as many of the audience as possible, is intended to resonate far beyond those particular walls. It’s happened at least once before, when Chechen terrorists seized a theatre in Moscow in 2002, resulting in the deaths of 130 hostages during a controversial rescue mission. Terrorists don’t even need to come up with original ideas to have the desired effect.

They want us to feel paralysed by fear, but it’s important to bear in mind that we are not the only spectators they have in mind. If claims that Friday’s massacre was planned by Isis turn out to be correct, it looks like a show of defiance after recent setbacks. The struggle between Isis and rival groups affiliated to al-Qaeda is a factor, but there is another audience as well: young men who might follow in the footsteps of Mohammed Emwazi, whose reported death in Raqqa, Syria, from an American drone strike dominated the headlines before the Paris attacks.

It doesn’t seem likely that the two events are connected, given that terrorists need time to train, assemble suicide vests and acquire weapons. But the mindset of the Paris killers and Emwazi appears strikingly similar, requiring the kind of cool analysis that was strikingly absent from much of the discussion of his demise.

There was a cartoonish air to reports that he had been “eviscerated” or “evaporated”, as if he had simply disappeared in a flash of flame. Reports from a Raqqa opposition group suggest that what is going on there is unspeakably horrible, with Isis carrying out public murders (let’s not call them “executions”) close to the spot where Emwazi was targeted. Activists described a grisly scene following the drone strike, with body parts strewn across the street. Do we really want our response to these individuals to be as bloody and horrible as the crimes they have committed?

I’m hugely disturbed by the way in which Emwazi’s grandiose self-mythologising was taken at face value from the moment he began appearing in murder videos in August last year. The flippant nickname “Jihadi John” went on being widely used even after his real identity was revealed in February, despite the fact that it’s painfully at odds with his evident enjoyment of torturing and butchering helpless captives. It was still being used after reports of his death last week, along with vile pictures of him brandishing a bloody knife.

There’s a parallel here with serial killers, who are routinely mythologised (Jack the Ripper, Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer) in British and American popular culture. I remember when football crowds taunted West Yorkshire police with chants of “There’s only one Yorkshire Ripper”, exposing an ambivalent response to men who kill for pleasure.

Ever since the Enlightenment, philosophers, politicians and latterly feminists have struggled with the question of how to deal with extreme violence. The Holocaust provided evidence of the cruelty human beings are capable of in certain circumstances, chief among them being an ideology which removes the restraints that curb sadistic impulses. That is exactly what terrorist organisations such as Isis are doing, using social media to glamorise breathtaking acts of violence. This newspaper took a stand last year against publishing stills from Emwazi’s vile propaganda videos; events have shown it was right to do so.

Islamist terror organisations deliberately encourage young men – some, though not all, with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies – to defy cultural prohibitions on torture, rape and murder. Astonishingly, this process has been almost completely ignored in discussions of previous terrorist attacks, including the one by Cherif and Said Kouachi at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January. Some commentators even appeared to blame the murdered journalists for bringing about their own deaths, failing to recognise the power imbalance between people with pens and people with guns.

Power is at the heart of this phenomenon. For the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are not being committed by young men, and a handful of women, who have grown up under the Middle East’s brutal dictatorships. The perpetrators are often individuals like the Kouachi brothers, who were born in France and appear to have gone off the rails when their mother killed herself. These young men are offered an identity and a sense of importance by extreme Islamist organisations: who would have heard of Emwazi if he hadn’t become Isis’s most ruthless killer?

The Enlightenment taught us that reason, tolerance and critical thinking are the best guides for human behaviour. It is no accident that France, which was the cradle of these ideas, has been attacked twice in one year. So has Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began five years ago. Once we get past anger, reason dictates that we set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence.

The truth about men who watch violent porn – and how dangerous they are to women

Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2015

Another man has joined the growing list of convicted murderers ‘obsessed’ with violent porn. Nathan Matthews, 28, was found guilty yesterday of the brutal murder of his 16-year-old step-sister Becky Watts, whom he suffocated and stabbed after going to her home equipped with stun guns and handcuffs. It’s now emerged that he watched a film entitled ‘virgin teen gets raped in own house’ before attacking her.

Last month, a serious case review into the murder of Georgia Williams, a policeman’s daughter from Telford, highlighted failings by police and social services. Her killer, Jamie Reynolds, 23, had previously tried to strangle a girl in 2008 and went on to kill Georgia in 2013.

Reynolds had been obsessed with hanging, strangulation and necrophilia from the age of 15. His collection included 16,800 pornographic images and 72 videos of sexual violence; he also doctored photos of girls he knew to make them look as though they had been hanged. His step-father told the Justice Liaison Service he had had discovered Reynolds viewing images of women being strangled; he was advised to go to the police but the force failed to act on his report.

Other cases involving violent porn include the murder of Joanna Yeates by Vincent Tabak, who strangled the landscape architect in 2010 while they we living in adjoining flats in a house in Bristol. The murder attracted huge attention and it later emerged that Tabak had violent images on his laptop, including videos of blonde women being strangled. Earlier this year, Tabak admitted four charges of possessing indecent images of children on his computer.

Two other men, Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell, are serving long prison sentences after carrying out lethal attacks on children. Bridger killed five-year-old April Jones in Wales, while Hazell murdered his step-grand-daughter Tia Sharp, aged 12, in south London. Bridger spent a great deal of his time viewing violent porn, including 65 images that met the standard for criminal prosecution. Hazell had a history of viewing paedophile material online and possessed memory cards showing indecent pictures of children and images of bestiality. He also secretly filmed Tia before the murder.

These cases reflect a hugely disturbing trend, which is the apparent ‘normalisation’ of watching extremely violent porn among some groups of men. Thirty years ago, ‘hardcore’ porn consisted of unpleasant magazines and videos that had to be obtained from specialist suppliers, with some risk to both sides. Now it has not only moved online, where teenage boys and adult men are able to access it, but it has become even more graphic and violent

People who associate the word ‘porn’ with Playboy magazine would be shocked to the core if they knew how brutal this stuff is, or how much of it explicitly involves sexual violence. Masses of material is available in categories such as ‘rape porn’, while individuals who want it can find videos showing women being strangled. It is suspected that some of this material is non-consensual, created by traffickers who make porn videos as a side-line to their main business of forced prostitution.

This explosion in violent porn poses challenges for the criminal justice system. Possession of some material, such as pornography involving children, is a criminal offence and the police try to catch consumers through their use of websites and credit cards. Obviously those men should be charged and taken to court, where the publicity may have a deterrent effect, while female friends and partners are at least made aware of a potential risk.

In the past, researchers have been wary of making assumptions about the impact of porn even on frequent users, pointing out the big conundrum: do men become violent after watching porn or are violent men drawn to watching it? In a sense, the change in the type of pornographic material available makes that question redundant, because the link between pornography and violence is now so much more explicit.

Most disturbingly, in all the cases mentioned, there is an undeniable similarity between the videos viewed by the offenders and their crimes. They seem to have progressed from viewing unpleasant material that fed their fantasies to treating it as a kind of rehearsal for the murders they went on to commit.

The notion that watching women being tied up, raped, stabbed and strangled on a regular basis has no impact defies common sense. Men who do this recreationally are not likely to emerge with an enhanced respect for women; aside from the possibility of copycat attacks in real life, the desensitising effect is worrying enough.

That’s why the subject should be addressed in schools, with teenage boys and girls being told that this is not healthy or acceptable behaviour. At the same time, when someone comes to the attention of the police, the regular viewing of violent porn should in itself be regarded as a risk factor.

However liberal we might want to be, it’s hard to deny that an individual who collects stabbing videos might pose a danger to women and girls in his social circle. Porn has changed, and our assumptions need to change with it.

 

Death & the Orgasm

Literary Review, November 2015

Fear of Dying, Erica Jong

The characters in Erica Jong’s new novel are not like the rest of us. They live in spacious apartments in Manhattan and own ski places in Aspen. They go to glitzy parties and sociable AA meetings, and they have cosmetic surgeons on hand to smooth out lines and wrinkles. They share some of the existential anxieties of ordinary people but such a gilded existence makes empathy a bit of a stretch.

In that sense, Erica Jong can’t be accused of going after the sympathy vote. Her protagonist, an actress in her early 60s called Vanessa Wonderman (more of this name later), lives with her fabulously wealthy husband in New York. She has a poodle called Belinda Barkawitz and her best friend is Isadora Wing, heroine of Jong’s best-selling novel Fear of Flying. Vanessa and Isadora resemble their creator to such an extent that multiple Jongs seem to flit through the pages of the book.

These are women whose attitudes to sex were formed in the 1960s and they seem never to have reconsidered them, a circumstance evidenced by Vanessa’s admiration for the Marquis de Sade. When her much older husband starts to have erectile problems, she advertises for sexual partners on a website and treats it as a joke when one of them sends her abusive texts. In a cringe-making passage, she talks blithely about ‘female circumcision’ rather than female genital mutilation: ‘You think female circumcision is bad?’ she demands of an imaginary reader. Vanessa allows that it’s ‘health-destroying and horrible’ but ‘at least women have other things to think about than their pussies’.

It’s hard to imagine an unknown author getting away with such distasteful nonsense, while Vanessa’s throwaway remarks about sex hardly suggest that she will turn out to be a repository of original insights into death. The latter is her real subject, prompted by the demise of her parents and her husband’s near-fatal heart attack during the course of the novel. Even her dog dies, following an illness as protracted as that of her parents.

The problem – and I write as someone who has recently experienced similar losses – is that neither Vanessa nor her creator does anything beyond rail against the human condition. I think Jong is trying to be clear-sighted, describing the physical decline of Vanessa’s parents and her conflicting emotions in harrowing detail, but the tone lurches all over the place. Vanessa’s musings on the afterlife, prompted by witnessing her mother’s final breaths, consist of a series of questions: ‘Can an infinite higher power keep all these individual minds whirring at once? How about the minds of all the people who have ever lived? Is it possible that they are somehow here in the ether, taking up no space, but influencing us?’ No, no and no.

Her artless admissions say a great deal about the unrealistic expectations created by affluence: ‘What was wrong with my generation of women? We thought we would get better and better forever. We thought war and disease would afflict only people on the other side of the world.’ This is not something to be proud of, and such ramblings exist alongside positively excruciating passages about sex. The myth of the G-spot was debunked years ago but Vanessa is a fervent believer, describing her husband’s search for it in rather more detail than seems necessary. (No more ‘wet pussy’, please.)

Her response to all these confrontations with mortality is to have more sex, a solution not universally open to people in their 60s and 70s, but lucky old Vanessa experiences ecstasy after flying to India with her miraculously-recovered spouse. There she visits a deep cave and encounters a huge lingam, ‘the tireless penis of Krishna, with which he had fecundated the world and all its beings’. She isn’t called Wonderman for nothing.

Jong is widely read and she has always tried to be a radical thinker, but this is a truly awful novel. Its lapses into the phallocentric language of the 1960s are unintentionally comic but they sit uncomfortably alongside the reality of modern-day India, where rape culture is a national scandal. In the end, her protagonist has nothing to offer but solipsistic fantasy: ‘How little I knew myself until I descended into the earth in search of my ancestors.’ Even the Indian tourist board would be embarrassed.

Canongate £16.99

 

Let’s stop using ‘humble’ in place of ‘poor’ or ‘working class’

People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice

Independent on Sunday, 8 November 2015

Some people are born humble, it seems. Not as many as there used to be, I like to think, despite last summer’s revelations about Labour cabinet ministers grovelling (“your most humble and obedient servant”) when they signed letters to the Prince of Wales. This rare instance of self-imposed humility – no one had any idea at the time that the correspondence would one day be made public – is a wondrous thing, especially when it turns up in a political party with a commitment to equality.

Others have humility thrust upon them. The latest recipient of this dubious honour is Labour’s candidate in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, Jim McMahon. I don’t know much about McMahon but he has an impressive CV, including the fact that he leads the Labour group at the Local Government Association. He had only just been chosen to fight the late Michael Meacher’s parliamentary seat last week when a left-leaning newspaper produced this priceless sentence: “Despite his wide experience in local government, he comes from humble beginnings.”

What on earth does this mean? That most people with experience in local government have titles? That they’re usually Old Etonians? I think someone has got confused with the Cabinet, where it is now the norm to be posh, if not to have a title or two lurking among the rellies. The Prime Minister, who is the son-in-law of a baronet, recently fortified his OE credentials by inviting his old school chum Boris Johnson to attend cabinet meetings. But I’ve met literally hundreds of councillors and most of them come from perfectly ordinary (though rarely humble) backgrounds.

In this context, “humble beginnings” and its close relative “humble origins” may be little more than a cliché, written in haste, but the phrase is surprisingly resilient. Westminster has its own humble-origins club, the most prominent members at present being the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, and Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. “Humble roots and a City high-flyer” is how the FT summed up the former when he was appointed Culture Secretary last year. I’ve met Javid and I have to say that the paper was wise to attach the adjective to his background, rather than the man himself; I’ve seldom met anyone I warmed to less, shall we say. In this instance, it’s just a lazy way of reminding people that his father (like Khan’s, as it happens) was a bus driver.

Who actually is humble these days? More to the point, who would want to be? The root of the word is humus, the Latin word for earth or soil, and its synonyms include lowly, meek, deferential, self-effacing – I could go on, but you get the picture. A humble person doesn’t have ideas above his or her station, which is one of the reasons it’s so patronising when used about someone from a working-class background. If a writer means “poor” they should say so, but poverty is neither something to be ashamed of nor a reason for low self-esteem.

My family background is poor on both sides, including a lot of ancestors who did dangerous, back-breaking jobs for shockingly low wages. Before the Second World War, the biggest employers on South Tyneside were the Merchant Navy and the coal industry, which is where most of my male relatives worked. Two of my great-grandfathers were donkey-men, working in the furnace-like heat of a ship’s engine room, and one of them lost his life in an attack by a German U-boat. My mother’s father did the same job, narrowly escaping death when defective hatches allowed sea water to swamp the cargo hold during a gale in the North Sea. Why would I be anything other than proud of these men and their wives, who brought up large numbers of children while their husbands were away at sea?

People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice. A quarter of a century after John Major talked about a “classless society”, the fact that anyone in public life is still being described in these terms is genuinely shocking. So is the way it’s only ever applied to poor people: how many humble CEOs or viscounts have you encountered? I’ve met quite a few middle-class people with no obvious talents and wondered where they would be in the world if their parents hadn’t paid for them to go to the “right” school. But they’re not humble and no one would expect them to be.

The most striking use of the word in recent years was by the press baron Rupert Murdoch, when he appeared before a House of Commons committee at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. He interrupted proceedings before MPs could start questioning him, declaring that his appearance before the committee was “the most humble day of my life”. Some observers took it as a species of apology but I smelled a rat, wondering why Murdoch was attributing this status to a date in the calendar rather than himself. Humiliating, possibly, but humble? I didn’t believe he had ever felt a moment’s humility and subsequent events, such as his reappointment of Rebekah Brooks, this time as CEO of News UK, have proved me right.

There are moments in public life when a bit of humility would not come amiss. But I’m proposing a ban on the word “humble” in any circumstances where it just means poor or working-class. Labour’s candidate in Oldham West may be the son of a lorry driver but he isn’t Uriah Heep, for god’s sake.

Merseyside Police’s Twitter ‘banter’ shows why women still fear reporting rape

Traumatised women are still learning to trust the police

Daily Telegraph, 2 Nov 2015

Confidence in the criminal justice system is a fragile thing. For decades, women who’d been raped were reluctant to go to the police, fearing they would not be believed. Those who did often had dreadful stories to tell about casual sexism, shoddy investigations and failure to collect evidence. Since then, senior officers have worked hard to win the trust of victims in a campaign which seems to be working, judging by the rise in the number of victims going to the police.

Imagine, then, the anger and frustration of everyone involved when someone working for Merseyside police joked about rape on Twitter at the weekend. The exchanges (there were two of them) between football fans and Merseyside police were crass, suggesting that losing a football match is somehow comparable to rape. ‘I’d like to report an incident of rape that occurred at Goodison Park’, a fan tweeted following Everton’s 6-2 defeat of Sunderland on Sunday.

The initial response of whoever was in charge of the police Twitter account – to check that it wasn’t a serious report – was understandable. But the next sentence was jaw-dropping: ‘Sunderland certainly got caught with their pants down’. In the 21st century no one should use this kind of language about rape; it’s old-fashioned victim-blaming of the worst sort. Like jokes about male-on-male rape in prisons, it trivialises the experience of individuals who have endured humiliating and life-changing assaults.

But the PR disaster for Merseyside police wasn’t finished. When another fan came on Twitter and talked about Chelsea getting ‘raped every match’, the official police account chirped back that ‘it’s not a criminal offence to lose week in week out’. Merseyside police quickly deleted the tweets and issued an apology, insisting that their officers make ‘strenuous efforts’ to investigate sexual crimes and protect victims. But the public expression of such casual attitudes to rape on an official account suggests both that the Merseyside force has a problem and that it hasn’t done anything like enough to address it.

However much its senior officers protest that they take sexual crimes seriously, the message clearly hasn’t got through to all levels of the force. While victims can be sure of receiving a sympathetic response from rape crisis centres, it’s vital that they also feel able to talk to the police – it’s the entry point into the criminal justice system. And it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of this ‘banter’ on a woman who’s trying to summon up the courage to walk into a police station, speak to total strangers and tell them about a brutal assault.

All of this is supposed to have changed in the last four or five years, not least because of revelations about Jimmy Savile and other rapists who were protected for decades by their celebrity. Senior officers on Operation Yewtree were genuinely shocked by the extent of Savile’s predation and the ease with which he avoided investigation, prompting a sea change in their approach to victims. Another notorious case, that the of the serial rapist John Worboys, has led to significant shifts in the way the country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, deals with rape allegations.

These changes are very recent, and traumatised women are still learning to trust the police. We know that most rapes go unreported, and that’s why anything that dents that emerging trust is so damaging for the entire criminal justice system. I’m not in favour of naming and shaming in this instance, because the problem goes beyond a single individual. But Merseyside police were right to announce an investigation, and they urgently need to look at how staff are trained in relation to serious sexual assaults.

Everyone who works for the police – not just frontline staff who deal directly with sex crimes – needs to understand how fragile this process is. Stopping violent rapists, who are usually serial offenders, depends on winning and maintaining the confidence of victims.

Charities have to play Whitehall’s game to survive

Kids Company schmoozed MPs and was feted for years, but a project for abused women spoke out and fell from favour

Independent on Sunday, 1 November 2015

For several years, charities have had to operate in an increasingly hostile climate. They’ve had to cope with severe public spending cuts and falls in individual donations, while demand for services keeps rising. Some have responded by using more assertive fundraising methods, leading to criticism. Others have used dramatic stories to tug at the heartstrings of politicians who control access to public funds.

That was the route taken by Kids Company and its charismatic chief executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh. The results were spectacular, with the charity receiving more than £46m in public money, even though ministers were warned on six occasions about the parlous state of its finances. The former children’s minister, Tim Loughton, told the BBC that he argued against giving a “very sizeable” grant to Kids Company, but was overruled by the Prime Minister.

Contrast this with the fate of a widely respected charity which didn’t schmooze ministers or toe the Government’s line. Two days ago, Eaves Housing – the organisation that created the Poppy Project to support women rescued from sex traffickers – announced that it was closing. Eaves has existed to support victims of sexual and domestic violence for almost 40 years, but its work on trafficking brought it a much higher profile.

It began that work in 2003 when it became clear young women were being moved across Europe, kept as prisoners and forced to provide sex for a stream of men. Since then, the Poppy Project has supported 2,000 women and helped 45 victims bring their traffickers to justice, resulting in 423 years of jail terms. Eaves Housing’s widely admired chief executive, Denise Marshall, was awarded an OBE in 2007.

The Poppy Project received government funding, but that didn’t stop it campaigning for changes in government policy. To begin with, trafficked women who didn’t have EU passports were treated as illegal immigrants and deported back to their home countries. Along with Amnesty International, Eaves pressed the Labour government to recognise them as victims of crime; it eventually changed its stance in 2008, announcing an automatic 45-day recovery and reflection period for all identified victims of trafficking.

The catastrophic effects of the earlier policy were exposed when a young Moldovan woman took the British Government to court in 2011. She was discovered in a brothel in north-west London in 2003 and officials argued that it was safe for her to go back to Moldova. They were wrong: she was abducted by the same gang and taken to a forest, where she was raped and subjected to a mock hanging. She was re-trafficked to the UK, arrested, and once again threatened with deportation until the Poppy Project stepped in to help her. The day before her case was due to open in the High Court, lawyers for the Home Office agreed to pay her substantial undisclosed damages.

When Eaves closed two days ago, the Poppy Project’s legal service had 87 cases on behalf of trafficking victims on its books. This species of advocacy and campaigning does not go down well with some Tory MPs, who see it as an example of charities biting the hand that feeds them. In addition, Marshall was an outspoken critic of government policies, returning her OBE in 2011 because she foresaw that spending cuts would no longer allow Eaves to do its job properly.

A few months later, the Poppy Project lost its funding for services to trafficked women. The Government awarded a new contract, worth £6m over the next three years, to the Salvation Army, which had offered to provide services at a much lower cost per woman. Eaves managed to get some EU funding for the Poppy Project, but it had to draw on reserves to keep it going.

Its financial problems are far from unique: there is no statutory obligation on local authorities to provide services for victims of sexual and domestic violence, so they’re often the first to be cut. Charities have to compete for contracts through a tendering process that appears to value price over quality of service, with small specialist organisations losing out to big housing associations. “The next day they phone us and say a woman needs an advocate,” the head of one women’s organisation told me. “That’s part of the job, but they haven’t included those costs in the bid.”

The risk to charities that dare to criticise government is high. Earlier this year, a report from a panel set up by the Baring Foundation identified “worrying and growing threats” to the independence of the voluntary sector. Its chair, Sir Roger Singleton, said he’d been told about “gagging clauses” in contracts for public services and “active threats by some local authorities” to charities that speak out. Singleton, who ran the children’s charity Barnardo’s for many years, also revealed a startling conversation with the food bank charity, the Trussell Trust. They “told us how they were threatened with closure when they raised issues with the Government that could have led to fewer people going hungry”.

In this cut-throat atmosphere, it’s easy to see why Kids Company cultivated friends in high places. Its success demonstrates how a single organisation, working with difficult children but without being able to show proper financial controls, was able to suck in publicity and public funds at a cost to others who were helping equally vulnerable people.

Eaves announced last week that it had managed to transfer some of its projects to other women’s organisations, but the future of the Poppy Project is uncertain. The staff suffered a body blow in August when Marshall died from stomach cancer at the tragically early age of 53. Now the organisation she led for so many years is going through its own death throes.

 

Feminism over? Not while so many women still fall victim to male violence

Every day, women from every class and background are attacked by current partners, former partners, male friends and total strangers

Independent on Sunday, 25 October 2015

Have you heard about the woman who seized a man off the street, carried him to a piece of waste ground and raped him? You haven’t because, as far as I know, it hasn’t ever happened. But two women have been snatched, taken out of sight and raped in British cities in the past 12 months. The second attack, which happened in Leeds in August, was revealed when police released CCTV footage of the suspected rapist carrying his victim.

This is the kind of event that comes into my mind whenever someone announces that we’ve achieved gender equality. The Spectator is the latest to repeat this hoary claim, declaring in last week’s edition that “feminism is over, the battle is won”. Well, not from where I’m sitting it isn’t. How could such a thing possibly be true when so many women live in fear of violence?

Every day, women from every class and background are attacked by current partners, former partners, male friends and total strangers. Many men find this behaviour as abhorrent as I do, but the fact remains that most of the perpetrators are male. That’s why the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, who was released from prison to house arrest last week, is so haunting. Steenkamp was young, educated and affluent; she campaigned against domestic violence and has become a symbol of the vulnerability of just about any woman since her ghastly death.

Violence against women and girls is so common that it’s become an acronym, VAWG, which is recognised right across the criminal justice system. For the past couple of years I’ve chaired the Mayor of London’s VAWG Panel, which draws up policy to protect women and bring perpetrators to justice. Yet the extent of male violence isn’t even acknowledged in The Spectator.

It mentions rape only in the context of a recent row over remarks by the singer Chrissie Hynde, who said she took responsibility for a sex attack upon her when she was in her twenties. People who support rape victims worry about talk like this, because women who blame themselves are unlikely to get much-needed help. They’re also less likely to report the crime, which means their attackers remain free to target other women.

I’ve read lots of diatribes against feminism over the years and they usually end up, as does The Spectator, by idolising Margaret Thatcher. It’s a manifesto for individual self-interest, ignoring the fact that equality for an entire class (women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people) can’t ever be attained one person at a time. If Baroness Thatcher really changed things forever, why has she been followed by an unbroken line of male prime ministers?

The Labour Party hasn’t even managed to elect a female leader, let alone put a woman in Downing Street – being “acting leader” while the party gets on with choosing the next bloke isn’t the same thing at all. I suspect that the parade of white men at the top of what we used to call the three main parties – Cameron, Osborne, Corbyn, Watson, Farron – is one of the reasons why the Women’s Equality Party has attracted so much support since it launched earlier this year.

What the statistics show is that some British women are doing very well in some areas. I’m glad so many girls are getting top grades in exams and going to university, but it doesn’t alter the fact that three-fifths of those earning the minimum wage are women. The most dramatic indicator of inequality is to be found in crime statistics, which flatly contradict the notion that we’re living in any sort of post-feminist utopia.

Several times a year, I sit in a room at City Hall with senior police officers and go through the latest figures for London, including domestic homicides (there were 26 in the past 12 months). Every time the story is the same: big rises in reported cases of sexual and domestic violence, while refuges are overwhelmed by women needing emergency housing, counselling and protection.

The police recorded more than 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London in the past 12 months, which is an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year. Sexual offences were up by 20 per cent, including a 13 per cent increase in reported rapes. A similar picture exists elsewhere: in Scotland, the number of sex crimes recorded by the police has increased by 46 per cent in a decade.

But what’s really telling is the gender breakdown. In London, three out of four victims of domestic abuse are female. The imbalance in sex crimes is even more striking, with women accounting for almost nine out of 10 victims. At the same time, it is overwhelmingly men who are accused of committing these offences: almost 93 per cent of defendants in domestic abuse trials and 99 per cent in rape trials, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, which compiles statistics for England and Wales.

The Spectator thinks it’s “time to move on” from feminism. That’s wishful thinking, as long as the world remains such an unsafe place for women.

 

The Oscar Pistorius pantomine trundles on – but what about the next Reeva Steenkamp?

Oscar Pistorius has been released from jail to serve the rest of his sentence from his uncle’s home. Joan Smith remembers Reeva Steenkamp and reflects on what this says about South Africa

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 20 Oct 2015

It remains one of the most sensational crimes of the 21st century. Every twist and turn in the Oscar Pistorius case has been reported around the world, including his early release from prison in Pretoria last night. The Paralympic athlete has served two days short of a year of his sentence for culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of a manslaughter conviction. He was cleared of murder at his trial in 2014 and will serve the remaining four years of his sentence under house arrest.

Pistorius’s early release was bound to cause disbelief and outrage. In a country with above average levels of violence against women, it sends an appalling message about the value placed on women’s lives. The National Prosecuting Authority has already been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court against Pistorius’s acquittal on a murder charge. The case will be heard next month.

For the moment, the athlete will stay at his uncle’s house where he faces not very onerous restrictions. He’s denied access to alcohol or firearms but he will be allowed to work and he won’t be electronically tagged. Many observers believe he has been treated much more leniently than thousands of defendants convicted of less serious offences.

The athlete’s family responded to his release by announcing that he is in poor shape and unlikely to resume his sporting career, a move that seems designed to remind the public of what he has lost during this protracted saga. It has now been dragging on for more than two and a half years, ever since he shot his girlfriend of three months at his home in Pretoria in February 2013.

She died behind the locked door of a toilet in Pistorius’s home, struck by expanding bullets which almost amputated her arm. His defence, that he mistook her for a burglar, was in the public domain before we even knew her name.

She was called Reeva Steenkamp, a fact overlooked so often in discussions of these sensational events that campaigners against violence against women began protesting on social networking sites within hours of the killing. They argued that it was bad enough that Steenkamp had lost her life without losing her identity as well; she was only 29 years old, had a successful career and could reasonably have looked forward to many decades of productive life.

The same is true of many women killed by their partners. Contrary to popular belief, such deaths are far from unusual, not just in South Africa but in this country as well. There were 26 domestic homicides in London alone in the year up to September 2015, and a third of all notifiable domestic abuse offences in the city involve violence with injury.

The Metropolitan Police recorded 145,000 domestic abuse offences in the last 12 months, a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. Karen Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women Project, which includes domestic and other killings, recorded 97 murders of women by men between January and September this year.

The South African police do not count domestic homicides separately, making it difficult to find up-to-date statistics. But a study by the South African Medical Research Council in 2009 reported that murders of women by intimate partners were five times the global average, a figure supported by anecdotal evidence. If Steenkamp’s identity has been largely eclipsed by the fame of her killer, many other victims remain entirely unknown except to their grieving family and friends.

This context is at the heart of the Pistorius case. Is it the story of a young woman killed in horrific circumstances by a man she trusted or that of a world-class athlete who ruined his career with a moment’s thoughtless action? At his trial, Pistorius’s defence depended on putting as much distance as possible between him and other men who have killed their female partners, something it did by focusing on the security fears of the country’s affluent middle classes.

Instead of a man with a dangerous obsession with firearms, Pistorious was portrayed as a potential victim of South Africa’s problem with violence, terrified of being attacked by intruders. Unconcerned by any loss of dignity, the athlete bolstered this impression in court, where he vomited and repeatedly broke down in tears. There was much discussion of how difficult he would find prison conditions, with the unspoken implication that it was not an appropriate punishment for someone of his fame and status.

Now he is out, not exactly a free man but able to get on with his life in a way denied to Steenkamp. Last year, there was a collective intake of breath when a judge decided that the case was a one-off and had nothing to do with domestic violence. A year on, South Africa’s reputation as a country unwilling to protect women or punish men who kill them has been confirmed.