I don't know where the last few weeks have gone. We have been busy with meetings and trips out. I have done some dress making. We spent a day in Colchester visiting the new Firstsite Art Gallery. Rob had a day in London. I visited the Budhist centre in Norwich with a group from the WI, and yesterday I went to a conference in London of which much more below.
After an early start Jill Newell and I arrived at Victoria Coach Station London, where we immediately sought out a small cafe for a much needed coffee and toilet stop, before heading off the the Home Office.
Airport style security is the order of the day to get into government buildings these days. Jackets off, all bags and small items removed from pockets and placed into plastic trays ready for screening and then through the security arch. All OK so far, given a ticket to indicate we had passed security and then on to the reception desk where we were given visitors passes for the conference facilities.
We joined about 50 women for a preparatory meeting ahead of the 56th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which will be focusing on ‘What are the priorities for women in rural communities?’.
The meeting was opened by Helene Reardon-Bond OBE, Head of Gender Equality Policy and Inclusion at Government Equalities Office. She then quickly handed over to Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister for Equalities who spoke about the importance of hearing from rural women themselves about the issues that concern them. She said she could not promise to make any decisions based on what was said at the meeting but she would try and bear our points in mind when dealing with issues that concerned us. She explained that she did understand what it was to be a working, single parent and that life is a juggling act. She told us that said had arrived home at 11 p.m. the previous evening to find her daughter not well and the dog sick and in need of the vet. So arranged an out of hours vet for the dog and picked up some medication from an all night chemist for her daughter on the way back from the vets. She does live in London, not sure how easy it would have been in rural Suffolk. She stayed for just a short while before dashing off back to the House of Commons.
Helene Reardon-Bond then went on to introduce the CSW to the group and explain the role of the UK Government Delegation. Each area of the world has a number of delegates, Africa, Asia, Southern America, etc and explained that the UK is in a group with Europe She explained the procedure for the conference in New York and how we fitted into the picture. We will be asked to put forward points to be taken into consideration and a small work group will discuss these points further before presenting them to the delegation from our area.
Sarah MacAdam the Head of Policy at Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) gave a very interesting presentation. The main topics which she thought were of concern to rural women, matched those that had been presented to me when I had canvassed opinion prior to the meeting. It was reassuring to know that we were all thinking along the same lines. Of course she discussed the statistics of the rural communities, but one statistic stuck out for me. Women in rural communities are more likely to be better educated than those living in towns, and have higher qualifications that men living in rural areas - I knew we were a clever bunch, and statistics prove it!
Leo Thomas, Inclusive Growth Advisor, with the Department for International Development (DfID) then spoke about the priorities for women in particular with reference to the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs. He spoke about his four main priorities: Delaying first pregnancies, tackling violence against women, and girls, working towards all girls/women receiving a full primary education. the economic empowerment of women, ensuring that they have rights to land ownership, and access to their own money and bank accounts. He had been working in Afghanistan for two years prior to taking up his present position and had seen how when women where in control of projects and cash that the money was always well used and projects succeeded.
We then broke off into groups where we gathered around flip charts and threw ideas at each other. Lots of noise and banter, but Jill and I did make sure the “WI” kept being mentioned. Reporting back to the meeting we were pleased that our note taker mentioned the WI three times in her report. We were the only organization to get mentioned.
Before the close of the meeting we had another presentation, this time by Polly Gibb, the Director of Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE). She explained the work of WiRE, how it supports rural women, through mentoring and peer support groups, who are setting up and running rural businesses.
Helene Reardon-Bond had to leave before the end of the meeting as she was expected to be at an event in Downing Street with the Prime Minister so her colleague Celia Reed closed the meeting.
Reflecting on the meeting it was clear that many attending were not from rural communities and had no idea of rural life. One women remarked that rural women didn’t have access to democracy, had no idea how to access resources and basically wanted to say that they were a little ‘backward’. A couple of women of African origin and a women from the Indian subcontinent kept returning to the problems faced by women in Africa and Asia, which although important was not the focus of this particular meeting and did not really warm us to their plight.
Those women we did meet who had come from more rural areas had similar concerns to us and we were all similarly motived to get things done. As one farmer from Essex who was representing farming women said we, all women's groups must work more closely together to prevent repetition and be stronger as a group.
It was a very interesting meeting and as the only two representatives from the WI we felt we had made a significant contribution. Whether we will be asked to be on the small working party - probably not as there was a small group from UN Women who regularly attend the CSW in New York and all know one another. In any case watch this space as we may get feed back about the issues we raised. I don't think we will be going to New York though for the conference.