Lynne Featherstone, UK’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Equalities, who has also been appointed as Ministerial Champion on the International Violence against Women, was recently on her first visit to India. In this exclusive interview she spoke about her efforts to mainstream gender concerns in both politics and policy making in the UK. She also highlighted why it is vital to have more women in politics.
Q: Gender as a concern seems to have fallen off the map. How does the UK government perceive it?
A: I don’t think gender has fallen off as a concern. Sometimes what does happen is that other issues of state that are pressing in some ways keep coming up. In times like that, I think it is even more important to keep gender on the agenda.
In Britain, despite the economic crisis that has led to cutbacks, gender remains extremely important. When the government is cutting funding to the districts, which fund local programmes, the challenge is to ensure they don’t make domestic violence programmes their first cut. On this our message is very clear: Maintain helplines, make sure that there are independent domestic advisors, and there’s additional money for more rape crisis centres, so that the work can go on.
Q: What is the work that is being done at the moment?
A: The present government has come out with a new strategy. It includes support for the woman who is a victim of violence – making sure there are helplines and support structures to help her either stay where she is, or get away from the situation of violence. There is also the issue of law and justice. Policing – which is one of the most crucial areas when it comes to such violence – is another pillar of this strategy. Before I became minister, I worked with the Metropolitan Police Authority. For a long time in Britain domestic violence was seen as a private matter, something that happened behind closed doors and was not a policing issue. The big shift happened some time ago, when it was no longer acceptable for the police to hold that position. That doesn’t mean the battle has been entirely won, but now when there is an occasional failure, it is a major issue for the police. This is extremely important, because the confidence with which the woman concerned can come forward is dependent on the policing system.
Q: What about the general appreciation of women’s rights?
A: There is now an understanding of rights, but like in any personal circumstance there is a whole range of other issues for women. That’s where the approach of Women’s Aid, a big organisation based in the UK is interesting. One of its strategies is to work upstream – ahead of the point when the violence actually erupts. Situations of domestic violence build up over years. So trying to work with these women at an early stage, so that the violence itself can be prevented, is useful. The woman knows there is a place to go to, should that need become urgent or overwhelming.
Q: How do you handle violence like ‘honour killings’ in the South Asian communities?
A: I don’t like the term ‘honour killings’ for what are actually murders, but I think we have about 12 such incidents a year. Where the issue crosses my mission in particular is if a British Asian man brings a wife over from the sub-continent on a spousal visa, and she faces domestic violence. As a government, we have the provision to assist these women. They are termed as women who have no recourse to public funds, because they have no status of their own in Britain. So what we have done, as an inter-ministerial group, is to extend the time they can be sheltered. During that 10-week period their application for their own status is fast-tracked through the emigration service, and with the involvement of the department of pensions they are able to access the same sort of public benefits that other women in their situation have.
When it comes to cases involving specific communities, the way the government generally works is to get people from that particular community to work on them. Take the example of the Southall Black Sisters, working with the South Asian community. Since they already work within the community, they are the ones that women who are brutalised and scared come to. They won’t talk to me but they will talk to them.
Across all cultures, the first recourse is not necessarily the law or the police. In nine out of ten cases, women who have suffered injuries because of domestic violence go to the Accidents and Emergency (A&E) departments of hospitals. So some of these groups have independent volunteers stationed in these A&E departments. Partnerships are very helpful. We also believe in prevention, which is why working with men and boys is so important. For instance, they should understand that when a woman says no, it means no; that she has absolute right over her own body.
Q: Does the UK prioritise gender in its overseas development initiatives?
A: Absolutely. I have put women at the heart of all of these programmes. Recently I was in Bihar. The DFID programme there deals with women’s empowerment and gender-based violence. I was struck particularly by the women’s self help groups there and the secondary education of girls. Unfortunately, it was a school holiday, so I could not see those schoolgirls on bicycles that one has heard of, but I did visit a school for Dalit girls. Caste is clearly a contributory factor in keeping girls back. The approach of putting women at the heart of the overseas programmes is gathering pace around the world. Hillary Clinton raises the issue of women’s status wherever she goes. My appointment by the British prime minister as Ministerial Champion on International Violence against Women means that I have systems for policy coherence across Whitehall – and all the secretaries of state and cabinet ministers are to take four key messages on the rights of women and domestic violence wherever they go, so that we can share information on these issues around the world. We don’t preach – because we have domestic violence too – but we can exchange our views. For instance, in Bihar I met the minister for social welfare – Parveen Amanullah, an activist who is now in government. She was very interested in this agenda, especially the approach to bring in boys and men.
Q: On a more personal note, what have been your experiences as a woman in politics?
A: I’ve had a wonderful journey. I believe one of the big issues is to make politics accessible and stop pretending that one has to talk like a stuffed dummy. But I am as tough as any man. I may look sweet but be careful! One of the important messages out of India is the 50 per cent reservations for women in local government. You get a poverty of thinking if you have only one group doing all the thinking, which is why women’s presence in the decision-making process is, I think, vital for change.
Q: What have been the tough times?
A: I am a single parent. When I was younger, it was the difficulty of leaving my two daughters to attend political meetings. But there are compensations. I was a role model for them, so that they could grow up independent and free-minded.
Q: And the fun times?
A: Because politics has been so male-dominated traditionally, there is actually a bit of an advantage being a woman – just by being different and having the courage to raise issues that haven’t been raised. We really enjoy upsetting the men sometimes!