Women's Conference - from the view of a first time delegate
Last year I wrote a short piece on my experiences of Local Government Conference in Liverpool. I had attended as an observer and although I had enjoyed it immensely I got very frustrated that as an observer I was unable to take part in any of the debates. This year I was able to attend Women’s Conference in Brighton; as a first time delegate I was a little nervous of how any of my views would be received but was pleasantly surprised when the time came.
Before heading of to Brighton I had to endure the usual banter from friends and family alike – was I off to Brighton to burn my bra with the rest of the hardcore feminists??? Was I off to simply complain about how men never listen??? (This would take more than a weekend) Or even better were the accusations that Women’s Conference was nothing more than an excuse for us ‘girlie’s’ to get together and go shopping!!!! I can assure you all that none of the above was the case.
So off I went, in the midst of a storm that would only get worse, arriving in Brighton to find that a bomb scare had taken over part of the town!! Oh how the jokes followed me around on that subject (all from family and friends); for those of you who don’t know me, I am from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I got myself booked into my hotel and set off the 200 yards from there to the Brighton Centre armed with an agenda and a voting card.
Women’s Conference is exactly as it says on the tin. It focuses on issues that affect predominantly women – though it was recognised that some of the issues do also affect men. Some of the topics for debate included the rising use of Pay Day Loans and Loan Sharks; the rising use of Food Banks, increased support for Social Workers; increased support for victims of Domestic Violence and the ongoing and increasing issue of Forced Marriage and Honour Killings just to name a few of the 43 motions that were on the agenda. I personally got up to speak on 3 debates that I felt passionately about and as a first time speaker was warmly welcomed and encouraged.
I spoke in support of Social Workers receiving additional emotional support from their employers – the job they do is an often thankless task, they are demonised by families and the media alike. These Social Workers have to endure abuse both verbal and on occasion physical, they are threatened, work with some of the most vulnerable people in society, can often be witness to some of the worst deprivations and yet rarely receive any recognition for just how hard their job is. I get to work with these people, as an administrator in Children’s Social Care I get to see daily just how much they care about their clients, how big their caseloads are, the demands made on them from the public and management alike. The ongoing restructures and changes to their job roles, the lack of experienced and suitably qualified workers who can then mentor and teach those newly qualified and the rise in use of locum social workers with often no knowledge of the background of the family that they are working with. I have immense respect for what they do, their seemingly endless patience, and how much they care.
I also spoke in support of a motion that calls on this Government to do away with age restrictions of Cervical Screening – as someone whose family has been affected by this – thankfully with a happy ending I believe passionately that every women regardless of age should be afforded the opportunity for screening as this can save lives.
The final debate that I spoke on was Domestic Violence, as you can imagine this was a somewhat emotional debate with tears and cheers in equal measure. There were many first time disclosures, each woman in her turn supported by her friends and colleagues, and applauded for her bravery in speaking out. I had originally contemplated skipping this debate as it struck a chord in my own life but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this was an opportunity to raise further awareness. I spoke in support of the motion but also highlighted that it needs to go further, that there also needs to be structured support for the families of victims of domestic violence. In my case I openly spoke of the domestic violence I endured at the hands of a partner when I was only 17 that led to a number of hospital admissions before finding the strength to leave, but more importantly I spoke of the horrific effects that domestic violence has on families who suffer the ultimate loss – life! My family have been through this – my cousin lost her 14 week old son at the hands of his father, a man she had already left. Domestic Violence often does not end when the victim leaves the perpetrator it can continue for weeks, months and even years, in our case – a lifetime. The statistics are horrifying and a sharp reminder that as a society we have much to do if this is to be a thing of the past.
Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana spoke of her own experiences of forced marriage, honour killings and the death of her sister who had been married as a young teenager. She asked why schools are continuing to turn a blind eye to young Asian girls’ absence from education – some because of the fear that they will be labelled racist. This woman is another example of the strong, assertive, sometimes emotional group of women I had the honour of meeting and speaking with.
I left Brighton, realising I had made a lot of new friends, been surrounded by some of the most remarkable women I have ever had the privilege to meet and with a sense of pride that I belong to that group. It was an experience that I hope to build upon moving forward.