Abortion: One Northern Irish woman’s experience

As we have been promoting the pro-choice discourse, we have had people contact us with their stories. This is just one woman’s story. She wishes to remain anonymous. The news of the young woman prosecuted in Northern Ireland this week for procuring abortion medication online has made many women and men alike feel outraged and heartbroken. For me the story hit much closer to home. I became pregnant this summer and despite knowing at the beginning of July couldn’t do anything until the beginning of August due to the fact that I was back home in Belfast. No decisions could be made until I landed back in London. From the minute the pregnancy test showed positive I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that what would be best for me and for the foetus was for me to not be a mother. I was nowhere near ready for that and neither was I ready for pregnancy. Many women struggle with this decision but for me it was instant: I was going to have an abortion. The situation that I knew I could have been in was brought before me time and again during the process. With a question about where I was from. By a kindly nurse who, despite working in a service for exclusively people living in my borough, discretely asked if I did actually need advice on travelling after the procedure. With an unwitting question about why I waited when I had known for weeks. And even six months on it hits again, with a sharp reminder of what could have been the case if I had not made a rash decision as an 18 year old that I would move to London.

The reality of options for women with unwanted pregnancies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is this; either have money and go to England or get desperate and take what could essentially be classed as poison because “essential medication” is against the law. And even with the money, the risk associated with complications means having the terrifying possibility of having to tell the hospital that you’ve had an abortion for fear of prosecution. Apparently you can’t even risk your own housemates knowing. At every step these women are faced with obstacles. By my own rough calculations, travelling to the mainland for an abortion could cost the guts of £450 for travel and accommodation. And you are unable to get any NHS treatment, if you go BPAS you can get a reduced rate abortion but you will have to pay for a treatment that is readily available on the NHS.

Putting aside that this poor woman has been given a criminal record aside (not that I think I will ever truly get over the knowledge that that is what my home country did), the fact that this is illegal has left me and many like me reeling. As it was so perfectly put in a recent guardian article by Emma Campbell, how does a country so obsessed with equality and equal representation justify literally policing a woman’s body? What does it say about our government that we’re more careful about giving terrorists equal and fair treatment than we are women? We can write off thirty years of politically motivated murder but would be condemned to hell if we didn’t respect the sanctity of life of that foetus.

Any woman who has had an abortion will tell you the emotions surrounding it are complex and difficult. Whether you have the relief I had and the knowledge I had made the correct decision or not the hormones coursing through your post-pregnancy body are enough to cause stress and tears. I was very fortunate in my support, even without being able to tell my pro-life family. Instead of calling the police my flatmates made sure my favourite cereal, favourite crisps and favourite milk were in the house. Instead of calling the police my flatmates brought me cups of tea and paracetamol. Instead of calling the police my flatmate walked through the rain to collect me from the hospital. Instead of calling the police my flatmates cancelled their dates to stay in with me that night to watch bad tv and made sure I was ok. Instead of calling the police my flatmates went out to buy me sanitary towels when I was in pain and about to run out. Instead of calling the police my flatmates were my flatmates and not cunts. They weren’t bred to consider a choice I made about my body and my life as a criminal offence.

I cannot imagine how Northern Ireland as a society can justify adding a criminal prosecution into what a woman having an abortion goes through and I cannot imagine the pain that this woman has experienced. I don’t want to feel like returning to my home country limits my ability to make my own choices for my life. But now it’s been made clear that as a woman from Belfast that is exactly the case. Not just in its laws but in its culture.

International Women’s Day 2016: A global call to action

International Women’s Day, celebrated each year on 8 March, is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But it is also a call to action for all of us to continue fighting for gender equality in society.

In 1908 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York City demanding better working conditions and the right to vote. To commemorate this day the following year, the Socialist Party of America called for a National Women’s Day to be observed on 28 February across the United States.

Fast forward a few years and the movement had gone global. International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time by four countries, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March, 1911. It was moved to 8 March in 1914, where it has remained ever since, and rallies were held across Europe in solidarity with women’s suffrage. In London, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak to marchers in Trafalgar Square.

In 1975 International Women’s Day was officially recognised by the UN.

Do we still need International Women’s Day?

A lot has changed since the first International Women’s Day. In the UK it was not until 1918 that women gained the right to vote – although this was limited to property owners over the age of 30; rape in marriage was only criminalised in 1991; and the first women High Court Judges in NI were only appointed in 2015.

But international gender equality is still a long way off. According to the UN Woman’s Report ‘Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights’, the global gender gap in workforce participation remains at 26.4 per cent. In EU countries, 75 per cent of women in management and higher professional positions have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime. 77 countries still have restrictions on the types of work that women can do, for example, banning them from working at night or in occupations such as mining or construction.

Closer to home, women’s rights have been at the forefront of conversation over the last few months. In November 2015 the courts ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. A poll by Amnesty International demonstrated that 7 in 10 people in NI support a change to the abortion law, and yet on 10 February 2016 the NI Assembly voted against amendments which would allow abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, and in the cases of rape and incest.

International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate how far we have come, and to recognise how far we have to go.

It is a day to hold those in power to account for the position of women in society, and to mobilise the grassroots movements in a display of solidarity with women across the world.

It is a day to remember the sacrifices of countless unnamed women throughout history who have fought for a better, more equal society, and it is a day to talk about how we too can work together for a better world.

We need International Women’s Day so long as gender inequality exists.

International Women’s Day 2016

The official theme of International Women’s Day 2016 is ‘Make it Happen #PledgeforParity’. Their website states that “the World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.” They are asking people to come together and pledge to close that gap much, much sooner. You can pledge and share your support on their website.

Northern Ireland’s International Women’s Day programme has been co-ordinated by Reclaim the Agenda and funded by Belfast City Council. The theme is “Women Reclaim the 1916 Agenda”, designed to remember the role that women played in the 1916 rising and World War 1 and women’s lives during this time; an area of history which has received little attention. The programme was launched in Black Box on 16th February, and runs until 18th March. Full details of all events can be accessed here

The first ever ‘Women’s Work Festival’, which explores the position of women in the music industry, has also been launched to coincide with the celebrations. It kicks off on 4 March in the Oh Yeah Centre with a talk and DJ set by legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale.

On 5 March Belfast’s annual International Women’s Day rally will take place, meeting in Writers Square at 12:30pm with the Roller Derby Disco, face painting, and talks by Youth Action. The march will then continue to Belfast City Hall.

And of course, it wouldn’t be International Women’s Day without Belfast Feminist Network’s Diva Disco! Come dressed as your favourite ‘Diva’ – whatever that means to you. We’ll be partying in the Belfast Barge on 27 February at 8pm. It’s BYOB (no alcopops) and we will be dancing the night away to Venus Dupree and Ciara McMullan.

We look forward to celebrating with you over the next few weeks!

Sex Work Judicial Review: Why we support decriminalisation

In October 2014 Stormont Passed the Human Trafficking & Exploitation Act NI. Tacked onto this legislation was a clause which criminalises the purchase of sex.

Laura Lee of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland is challenging this legislation and other measures which prevent sex workers from working together for safety.

The first day of the hearing is in the High Court on Friday 19th February.

There are a few problems with clause 15 (previously known as clause 6). Including a measure relating to sex work in a bill which is framed around human trafficking only serves to conflate the two issues.

To be clear, human trafficking is a horrendous crime, and no one should be trafficked into any industry or coerced to sell sex.

The majority of sex workers in Northern Ireland have not been trafficked

In reality a minority of trafficking victims in Northern Ireland are in the sex industry, many more are in hospitality, farming or domestic work . It is right that victims of trafficking receive support if they need it, and that traffickers are brought to justice.

Research commissioned by the Department of Justice shows that the majority of sex workers in Northern Ireland have not been trafficked.

Criminalisation of purchase puts sex workers in more danger

Clause 15 criminalised the purchase of sex, meaning that NI has adopted a version of the Nordic Model. Read more about the Nordic model.

The key points? Sex workers in Sweden report that they feel less safe and are less likely to report incidents to the police, while the police say it has not reduced trafficking.

We already have legislation that makes coercion and violence illegal. The Nordic model makes it less likely for sex workers or third parties to report attacks to the police, and pushes potentially vulnerable people out of the reach of support services.

Criminalisation of purchase means that sex workers can’t carry out safety checks on clients like before as clients are nervous about getting caught. Clause 15 puts sex workers in danger.

The Nordic model also does not decriminalise sex workers.

Sex workers can still be prosecuted for offences such as working together or soliciting. Laura Lee is also challenging these measures.

A global human rights cause

Recently Amnesty International has come out in support of decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work. Amnesty International is just one of a number of multi-national bodies, such as the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, which support decriminalisation.

Amnesty recognised that sex workers are often marginalised and may be exposed to violence and excluded from things like social housing and healthcare. For Amnesty, sex workers rights are human rights, and we agree.

Research carried out by academics at Queen’s University Belfast, found that 98% of sex workers did not support clause 15, 85% believe it will not reduce trafficking, and 61% feel they will be working in a more dangerous position.

Politicians ignored the voices of sex workers, the people who have been impacted by this legislation. We won’t. We stand with sex workers in their struggle for the right to work in safety, just like anyone else.

Follow @GlasgaeLauraLee and #DecrimNI for updates on the judicial review.


Belfast Feminist Network – What’s Next?

A couple of Saturdays ago Belfast Feminist Network hosted a face to face meeting. We weren’t quite sure what to call it if we’re honest. Members’ meeting? Away day? At one point the working title was even ‘the AGM’ which, on one level, is ridiculously formal given BFN’s lack of anything resembling formal structure but on another level reflected our genuine desire to have some sort of completely open dialogue where everyone who feels at all invested in BFN could come and have their say in shaping its future.

What it turned out to be in the end was a day of looking back, using this feedback to try and figure out what you want BFN to be, and looking forward.

Looking back

After a year of organising under a loose structure with a range of sub-groups led by pairs of people passionate about facilitating activities under each theme, we needed to take stock and hear about how that had been working. In terms of the products of this sub-group structure, there was a lot of positive feedback. Events like Vitamin F, Reclaim the Night and Culture Night stood out as highlights as did the more informal social activities like the book club, film and craft nights and the opportunities for direct action and lobbying. People discussed areas that they feel are not currently reaching their full potential like the using the website more and ensuring that we follow up events like Vitamin F in order to maintain the momentum and give new people opportunities to get more involved. While people were very positive about the activities provided by the peer support sub-group and wanted to see more of these relationship building opportunities, some felt that the name could be off-putting. They also pointed to the BFN Facebook group as a source of negativity that could alienate potential members.

What do you want BFN to be?

In recent months the sub-group leaders have begun to feel like a bit of a committee because we meet regularly, plan activities, and make some low level decisions about the life of BFN. However, when faced with some bigger questions about the next steps for BFN we realised that we didn’t all have the same perspective on exactly what we wanted BFN to be. Which led to the conclusion that we shouldn’t really be operating as a committee because no-one delegated that responsibility to us and if we disagree on these bigger questions then the likelihood is, so do the wider membership.

Still with me? Great. The green squiggly line is telling me those last two sentences are terrible so if you need to read them again to get your head round our dilemma that’s totally understandable J

This all meant that we were approaching the meeting extremely hungry for dialogue and opinion (no matter how strong) that would get us to the essence of what people want from a grassroots feminist network like BFN. Should we be formalising now that our numbers are getting bigger? Is it enough for you to decide for yourself if you’re ‘involved’ or not or would people get more from the chance to be a card-carrying member? Should BFN be pushing for more public visibility and trying to drive forward a feminist agenda or does our strength lie in being a behind the scenes point of support for people doing activism in their own ways? Do you want us to set more concrete goals so that you can feel we are achieving something together or does that sound a bit too professionalised?

Rather than attempt to answer all of these with the 15 or so people who made it to that meeting, we started with a question that we hoped would shed light on all of the others – when something works well in BFN, why is that? The discussion took us to two quite different answers, potentially highlighting the main priorities for people who want to be a part of BFN:

  • Things work when they are concrete, well-organised, galvanising, mobilising, providing people with a platform to act, reaching out beyond ourselves, raising awareness, changing minds, challenging the dominant voices in society.
  • Things work when they provide us with a safe space, a chance to socialise with other feminists as that can be difficult to find, non-intimidating, open to everyone regardless of how much they feel they know or understand about feminism, offering chances to talk and get to know people, building relationships, community and alternative feminist culture.

In the past year BFN has made a point of trying to do more of the first of these than ever before. The positive feedback on these activities suggests that it has been worth it. But the strength of feeling about the need to give more focus to the second has started a conversation about how we might take things forward with a different focus. You could view these as competing priorities. On the other hand, there’s no reason why we can’t organise in a way that cultivates both. We need to hear more from you about how best to do that.

Looking forward

While we did not entirely resolve BFN’s existential angst we have started to get a sense of what BFN means to people and how to steer things in that direction. We also made an open call for ideas for specific activities you’d like BFN to undertake. The summary is below. All of these come with the caveat that the current sub-group structure could continue as a platform for making these happen but is in real need of more volunteers. The events sub-group in particular is currently operating way beyond capacity.

It was suggested that the name of the peer support group could be off putting, one alternative of ‘feminist circle’ was suggested, to reflect that the main aim of peer support is relationship building in a safe space. There was also the suggestion of a ‘topical discussion group’ where people could get together and have a chat about a particular issue, without any real aim except sharing views and learning about others’ perspectives on feminist issues.

It was also suggested that more informal social events, without an agenda as such, would be useful. While the big events were well received, people wanted to hang out with other members and get to know them socially. The reach of events needs to be improved, this could be through better use of communications.

Communications could be improved by having more frequent public Facebook posts, some members at the meeting didn’t know about the public Facebook page or the twitter. The blog should also be more frequent, which should be possible after the website is redeveloped. It was discussed that the blog should be open to people to submit a piece to about a feminist issue that interests them. While work would be reviewed before being published, this would be constructive. Differing views on topics could be blogged about, as BFN is a network of people with differing opinions.

While the Facebook group is the first point of contact for most members, some people felt there was an aggressive and critical environment in the group, and were put off posting for fear of reprisal. There was also some criticism that the focus is not on things that are local, or that we can directly change. However overall the Facebook group was seen as useful as a way of finding out what BFN was up to, and about topical issues.

People were interested in how to get more involved ‘in real life’, with many at the meeting expressing an interest in joining one of the sub groups but weren’t sure about how to get more involved. There will be a sort of recruitment evening in September where people can find out about the sub groups and see if they are interested in helping. This will be followed up by sub group meetings. The event in September will double up as a social event, since that is what people said they really wanted – to have fun with other members J.

And finally…

In conclusion, this meeting was incredibly important. We are so grateful to everyone who came along, stuck the heat and contributed their energy and honesty. We have to view it as a first step in answering some of the big questions set out above. We also have some practical decisions to make that we didn’t get to answer.

Should we recruit another BFN Coordinator now that Liz Nelson has come to the end of carrying that role way beyond the 6 months she originally signed up for (thank you!)? Should we keep the current sub-group structure and continue to define the leaders’ roles as simply people who facilitate activities? Or should we take steps towards delegating more decision making to this smaller group as the wider membership continues to grow?

One big question that remains complex and unresolved is the journey we are on with the BFN Facebook group. Having discussed at length the relationship between this social media group and the community that BFN is trying to build in the real world, we have made numerous attempts over the last few years to keep the two as aligned as possible. We have more recently had some discussions about the costs and benefits to keeping this Facebook group aligned with BFN, including the possibility of renaming it so that it can continue to evolve as an open space for online feminist discussion without the need for BFN to manage it as a space that is in keeping with our values.

On this and all the other questions, we need your views. Please feel free to start that process in whatever way you want. Comment on this post, email BFN, discuss it on the Facebook group or page. We will also use some online polling tools over the coming weeks to address specific questions so keep an eye out for opportunities to engage that way. At the end of the summer we’ll come back to this discussion and try to summarise the feedback we’ve been receiving.

Thanks again for all that you bring to BFN. In its simplest terms, this network is a beautiful collective of courageous, passionate people who are living feminism every day and those of us in the organising roles are constantly aware of how lucky we are to be able to offer something to help support you.

Why everyone who is interested in feminism should come to the BFN meeting!

The Belfast Feminist Network Annual Meeting is scheduled for Saturday 27 June and is set to be a very important moment for our feminist community.

The past year has been fantastic!! It all started with a residential in the lovely Downhill hostel where a bunch of BFN’ers plotted a full year of activism, made great friends and ate amazing feminist & ethical food (courtesy of the wonderful Rita and her BOXA) .

Since then we have organised Peer Support Nights with films, craft-making and feminist fairytales, a monthly book club (cheers Emma!), a Diva Disco , two absolutely brilliant poetry events and Orlaith’s genius idea Scundered.

We had an amazing Culture Night with the Feminist Photobooth and the Wander of Wonder Women walking tour, craft-making and film night with Outburst, events on Reproductive Justice at the Human Rights Festival, and an enormously successful Reclaim The Night march in November.

We held a course on Feminist Economics and a full day workshop/activist training  at Vitamin F, as well as the Defending the Defensible workshops for developing effective counter responses to some of the most challenging arguments that feminists face.

We produced outstanding responses to the consultations on women’s political representation in Northern Ireland, the changes to the abortion regulations and to the human trafficking bill. Last but not least interesting discussions have been taking place in the Facebook Group! And the list goes on!

So here is why everyone who is free and interested should come to the meeting:

  • BFN is growing in numbers and in profile! This brings us to the point where we have to make some decisions about how far we go down the route of more formal structure and how much we choose to stay closer to a grassroots model. The only way we can make decisions like that is by getting the views of everyone who feels that BFN is important to them! Do have your say!
  • It has been 1 year since BFN adopted a new style of organising with subgroups to oversee different elements of BFN activity. We would be very keen to hear from you about how well you think that has worked and how we might improve it in the future!
  • The subgroups are not set in stone! We need new ideas, new members, new perspectives!
  • Everyone that engages in the Facebook group (by posting or simply reading), or is interested in feminism, or has attended any BFN event should feel entitled and welcome to join the meeting. So don’t be shy! Come along by yourself! Bring your friends! Bring your family!
  • The principles of the meeting are that everyone attending is equal and equally entitled to propose ideas and make contributions!
  • The Facebook group has grown considerably (which is great!) but that also requires that we discuss how to make the most of it and how to make it better
  • BFN gathers so many bright people with interesting ideas and great minds. We should pull all of these fantastic skills together to think about the next year of activism!
  • Finally BFN is also about creating interesting discussions, friendship and support for each other. Being feminist activists can be challenging! We need to know that we have each others’ back and we are not alone!  Also, often the most brilliant ideas come out of those laid-back conversations with like-minded people. So, come along to hang out with fellow feminists!

In other words, please do come to the meeting if you have ideas to share, if you want to listen, or if you are simply just curious about BFN! 

Come along if you want to have interesting discussions and if you want to hang out!

Come along if you would like to be more involved (only as much as you can and want to)!

We have another year ahead to plot a feminist revolution and an amazing network of people who can really make it happen!

Hope to see many of you there! Join our event page now, ‘Mon!

Belfast Feminist Network Annual Meeting
Saturday 27th June

10am – 4pm
Queen’s University Students’ Union


Menstrual Hygiene Day 28th May 2015


Let’s talk about periods or ‘that time of the month’, ‘Aunt Flo’, ‘having the painters in’ – whatever you call it! It is important to remember that not every woman has periods, and that not everyone who has periods is a woman.

For most of us that do have periods they can be anything for a mild inconvenience, to a horrendous few days that you generally have to pay tax to manage. But imagine how hard it would be without any of the VAT attracting sanitary products, or a clean safe bathroom to use them. Yes we might have the odd cringy moment where a tampon escapes from your handbag, but imagine living somewhere where the stigma around periods is so strong that you would be segregated from society for, let’s face it, up to a quarter of the year for a good few years.

Today, May 28th, is the second Menstrual Hygiene Day.  Menstrual Hygiene day aims to build awareness of the benefits of good menstrual hygiene to the lives of people worldwide. It seeks to break the silence and shame around menstruation.

Good Menstrual hygiene is essential for girls to continue with education. UNESCO estimate that 1 in 10 African girls do not go to school during their period, and eventually drop out altogether with the lack of facilities being a contributing factor.

There are health risks associated with poor menstrual hygiene. In rural India, where sanity protection like pads and tampons are not readily available, women use leaves, newspapers and even ash instead. Using unhygienic methods of dealing with their period leaves people open to developing infections, with garment workers in Bangladesh missing an average of 6 days a month (and 6 days pay) due to vaginal infections.

In some countries there is a huge stigma around menstruation. In Nepal many areas practice ‘chaupadi’, where women and girls are isolated from their families while menstruating and have to sleep in small sheds. This is detrimental to their health and wellbeing, as well as making them vulnerable to animal attacks, and even rape. In many other countries women are seen as unclean while on their period, and forbidden from cooking food or taking part in activities.

There are some positive steps being made, in Ghana girls attendance at schools increased substantially when they received free sanitary pads and puberty education. Women in Nepal are challenging the practice of chaupadi, with some areas now being ‘chaupadi free zones’.

Issues around menstrual hygiene exist much closer to home as well. In Northern Ireland homeless women are having to manage periods without the money to buy sanitary protection, or anywhere clean to use it. This prompted the #thehomelessperiod campaign on twitter (more info here http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/04/10/homeless-period-women_n_6991340.html)

If you would like to do something practical for menstrual hygiene day, consider donating sanitary products, or a monetary donation to the Welcome organisation who support homeless people in Northern Ireland. You could also consider donating sanitary items to your local food bank. If you would like to help address the global situation, you can donate to WaterAid or Oxfam.

Defending the Defensible Events: Abortion

The Belfast Feminist Network are hosting a series of ‘Defending the Defensible’ events.

Invited expert speakers will host an informal conversation among members focused on the most challenging issues feminists face (such as abortion, sex work and men’s rights activism) and challenge you with the most difficult counter arguments feminists face daily.

These events will encourage you to further develop your stance and equip you to face those challenging counter arguments head on in a safe space with like minded people.

The first event on Tuesday 26th May will be on abortion.

Expert speakers will firstly explore christian arguments against abortion, followed by a consideration of reproductive justice in the wider context of feminism’s pursuit of equality. An overview of human rights arguments will be provided, and the situation in Northern Ireland placed in a global context.

We’ll then explore and discuss the most common anti-choice arguments that are faced, considering where they stem from, and examine rebuttals.

This will enable you to become confident in articulating pro-choice views on abortion, and in dealing effectively with any challengers.

Tuesday 26th May 
18:00 – 20:00
Réalta Civic and Social Space, 48 King Street, Belfast BT1 6AD

Join the Facebook event or RSVP to belfemnet@gmail.com