Labour Party Conference 2014, Manchester

24 Sep

Party conference season is, I always think, a bit like freshers’ week at university. A new term (Parliamentary), lectures (talks in the conference hall), tutorials (fringe events) and a vibrant social life with silly drinking games (of course the latter doesn’t happen at Conference and the hotel bars are a bit more expensive than the Student Union bar). As well as an opportunity to enthuse Party members and introduce new policies, it offers charities and other policy wonks the chance to mix more freely with the political classes.

This year Mothers’ Union is attending all three party conferences, and the Labour Party kicked off the season this year.

In the build up to the next election, Labour introduced a number of new policies. On Sunday, Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, announced Labour plans to revive SureStart, increase free childcare to 25 hours per week for 3 and 4 year olds of working parents, introduce childcare support at schools from 8am to 6pm, and require all teachers to be qualified. In her speech on equalities, Gloria De Piero, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, announced that the Labour Party would ensure the public sector monitored the race, gender, disability and socio-economic status of their staff in an effort to tackle discrimination and disadvantage.

On Monday, Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Secretary for International Development, announced that Labour would put human rights at the heart of international development, provide funding for the International Labour Organisation, help prevent migrant workers from being exploited in Qatar in the build up to the World Cup 2022 and put universal health coverage at the heart of the world’s development ambitions.

And today, Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Home Secretary, announced that a Labour Government would bring in a new law on violence against women and girls, which would provide new powers to tackle female genital mutilation, tackle economic and labour exploitation across the world, introduce compulsory sex and relationship education into schools, and bring in new laws and a commissioner on domestic and sexual abuse, and fund a national network of refuges.

I had a couple of useful meetings during the week. I met with Sharon Hodgson MP to talk about our upcoming participation in 16 Days of Activism Against Gender violence and our concerns about the need for greater prevention work; the difficult funding and commissioning environment facing services that support victims and survivors of gender-based violence; and the need for resourcing perpetrator programmes. I also met with Jack Palmer from the Church of England and Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss the policy priorities of Mothers’ Union, and the Church.

Fringe events proved stimulating and thought provoking. LabourList hosted ‘Dads’ Army’, along with the Royal College of Midwives, Barnardo’s and Working With Men, where the panel spoke about the importance of treating dads as dads in their own right, not just partners of a mother after having given birth; the impact of fatherlessness on children’s lives; and the importance of giving fathers decent paternity leave and pay. Women’s Aid hosted a fantastic event on ‘Can survivors of domestic violence count on Labour?’ We heard from a survivor about her experience; from Polly Neate of Women’s Aid about the challenges the women’s sector is facing in terms of funding cuts and the need for coercive control to be better understood and criminalised; and from Vera Baird QC, who is drafting th Bill for the Labour Party on violence against women and girls.

In all, this year’s Labour Party Conference has been far more instructive than those following their defeat in the 2010 General Election. The moto throughout the conference was “When we win the General Election in 2015…” and this is perhaps is what has given impetus for some more clearly articulated policies.


Mothers’ Union Myanmar – care for the elderly

18 Sep

Saturday 13 September

I am lucky to find myself back in Myanmar for a short time, and today to my complete surprise, we found time in our schedule to go and visit one of MU’s most successful projects here in Myanmar – a care home for the elderly. The home is located about an hour outside of Yangon, in very rural countryside. As an indication of how fragile things remain in Myanmar, I was required to seek permission and register with the government, as a foreigner, before visiting the area.

Mothers’ Union Myanmar set up this home back in 2005, with members pledging 10 bricks each to the building of the site. Since then, the home has grown and developed to its current size. It is a modest facility;  it only has capacity for 20 women and the women share dormitories together with very basic facilities. What I saw today really moved me because as with so many things here in Myanmar, challenging situations are met gracefully, with a quiet but steely-eyed resolve to serve the community.

The home accepts women of all faiths and none – currently they have 8 Christian residents and 8 Buddhist residents. This is again indicative of the way that MU in Myanmar operates – while very much being an organisation of the Church, they are aware that they operate in a context where the majority religion is Buddhism and the MU recognise that the needs of families are similar regardless of faith and ideology. The way that MU is able to positively interact with, and engage, the Buddhist community here in Myanmar can teach us so much about what we are called to do, and who we are called to serve, in our Christian faith.

The ladies sleep in two shared dormitories (separated by ability/mobility), and they are looked after by 3 full time carers who cook all their meals and provide round the clock care. The carers have recently finished nurse training, while a local Doctor visits once a month to ensure these women receive due medical attention.

Impressively, the home is entirely self-sufficient; MU Myanmar receives no external funding to support the running costs (which are around 800 US dollars per month when the home operates at full capacity) which means that all 8,000+ members throughout the Province are relied on to support the home. This is no easy task, and encouraging contributions and donations can seem like an uphill battle at times, as many of us I’m sure, will understand! While these costs may not seem like a huge amount in a Western context ($3,400 fundraised in 2013 amid great need for funds elsewhere in the Province) it is so affirming to see such a commitment to provide quality care for the elderly, amidst many other great challenges that the MU here are trying to respond to. So often, care for the vulnerable and elderly can be seen as a low priority, and Myanmar is no exception to this. The women cared for in this home have so many stories, with such a rich history of living through more than 8 (or even 9) decades of tumultuous change in Myanmar, but for different reasons they find themselves alone in later life, dependent on the love and provision from the MU through this care home.

As someone whose elderly grandmother has struggled with different (and largely impersonal and clinical) care options in the UK while being treated for dementia, and amidst an ongoing discussion in the UK more generally about care provision for the elderly, I couldn’t help but pause and reflect… What could we learn from MU in Myanmar about the way we care for the elderly and vulnerable in our communities?

We hear often of the amazing work being done by our grassroots members all around the world, but only recently have we been able to more widely publicise the work being done in Myanmar  (and even now, I am careful to wait until I am out of the country before I post this blog). Please continue to keep the members of MU in Myanmar in your prayers and give thanks to God for their unwavering commitment to build on the work started by Mary Sumner all those years ago.Home for Aged 3 Home for Aged 2 Home for Aged 1

Successful second workshop in Guyana for ‘Awaken’ programme

13 May

In a hot and clammy room last week, 15 facilitators from across the Diocese of Guyana (made up of clergy, MU members and youth leaders) came together to spend a week learning about the next stage of the ‘Awaken’ process (otherwise known as Church and Community Mobilisation Process).

The journey began in 2011 when the Mothers Union first prioritised CCMP as the way forward for the Diocese, and in 2013 the first workshop was held. This recent workshop is the second of four workshops to be held to build the skills and confidence of facilitators, empowering them to go out into their church, then their community, to engage with locally identified needs and challenges, having first focused on what the bible can teach us about issues of poverty and social challenges. Already many of the facilitators have completed a series of interactive and thought-provoking bible studies in their own church communities and much of the feedback has been positive; “we didn’t know the bible could be so accessible and relevant like this” and “we are so hungry to study the bible more in this way” were just some of the comments facilitators received. So often the bible is presented to poor communities as something that is ‘black and white’, and something that only the privileged can access and debate. But through CCMP, church communities are encouraged to think deeper about bible scripture, and explore what it might say about how they should interact with their fellow communities. CCMP is ultimately about switching mindsets from dependency and fatalism (someone else will help me, I can do nothing to help my own situation) to one of hope and empowerment (as a community we have these resources and we can work together to solve our own problems, we don’t need to depend on anyone but God) and this transformation is already starting to begin in grassroots communities across Guyana.

As we’ve previously discussed on this blog, the journey is a long one, and quick wins won’t happen. But the change we see will be lasting, and deep, and Mothers’ Union will be responsible for helping to facilitate that! With several more workshops to go, the facilitators in Guyana need your prayer and encouragement  – even more so given that they are the only Mothers’ Union group to be doing Awaken (CCMP) outside of Africa, and they will hopefully become a strong case study for other countries in the region to be able to adopt CCMP.


Here the facilitators are preparing their role plays for the bible studies; this is Jesus walks on water.



Some of the workshop was spent reviewing creative skills such as drawing – so much of Awaken is based on being able to creatively help people to visualise the bible as well as their challenges and ideas, so it’s key that the facilitators feel confident in their ability to deliver things creatively!



Here, (from L-R) Thelma, Patricia, Father Alfred, Corville and Albertha are demonstrating the different ‘lenses’ people view life through, as part of a discussion in understanding how people approach life and why that might be.



And in this last photo, you can see some of the facilitators who are joined at the table by some community members. We spent one day of the workshop visiting a church community of one of the facilitators, near New Amsterdam. Here the facilitators were encouraged to practice their newly learned skills for getting to know a community; in this picture the facilitators are drawing a seasonal calender getting the community members to fill in as much as possible. Along with resource mapping, and a history timeline, these three skills were taught to facilitators to enable them to go out into their communities and map out all of this information as the next stage in the process. When this is done, the needs and challenges will emerge, as identified by the communities, and the next stage of the process can begin – finding solutions to those problems and dreaming dreams as a church and community. 

Hopefully this gives you a bit more insight into what goes on in the CCMP process; it can often sound more complicated than what it really is all about – connecting churches and communities back together again; mobilising them to act together to solve their challenges. And MU is at the heart of this!




Side negotiations outside the conference room

21 Mar

Side negotiations outside the conference room

Friday 21st March: The Waiting Game

21 Mar

At this point in negotiations in 2013, we had just been let into the conference hall to hear governments finalise the agreed conclusions. This year, however, I am sitting on the floor in the lounge area, wondering what the outcome will be. The most contentious issues, including sexual and reproductive rights, the family (on which I shall write about in more detail later) and national sovereignty have been left to the end and now negotiators are under pressure to reach compromise agreements. Maybe by the time I’ve finished writing this there will be some news…

Earlier on today I attended the final Eucharist with my fellow Anglicans. Alice Medcof, a Mothers’ Union member from Canada presided, and Imaculee Nyiransengimana, our Community Development Coordinator from Rwanda gave the sermon…

Our UK negotiator has just informed us that unfortunately things are not progressing well. After side negotiations within country blocs, certain groups are putting forward language that would weaken the agreements. The CSW Chair also popped out and he stopped to chat to us, explaining how long winded some of interventions were, but also how important it was to stop and consider issues of discrimination, no matter how small a minority of people it affected.

It’s just a matter of waiting now.

Thursday 20th March 2014: *Newsflash*

20 Mar

The agreed conclusions have been going rather slowly, despite the facilitator’s efforts to keep the pace up and be nearly done by lunchtime today. Yesterday evening we met with our negotiator from the Government Equalities Office and he did not have much of an update, other than everyone wants their two cents’ worth of input; and that posturing and attempted compromise continues.

This evening I have just received the latest version and a few more paragraphs have been agreed completely, with a few more nearly agreed. Of the ones nearly agreed, a few bits of our wording relating to women’s inheritance rights and equal access to justice have remained in. One paragraph that has been agreed addresses internet safety, although we can’t claim credit for that one!

I suspect the session will continue well into the night with interns being sent off to buy pizza and strongly caffeinated fizzy drinks. I, meanwhile, have enjoyed a session with the Anglican delegation (including our lovely Mothers’ Union members), reflecting on the past two weeks, and am now scoffing cough sweets to battle the dry tickle in my throat.

More to follow; until then, happy first day of spring to you all.


Maria Miller and Sir Mark Lyall Grant welcoming NGOs to CSW

20 Mar