Monday, 25 July 2011

Fighting stereotypes

A Daily Mail reporter ‘reliably’ informed their readers on Saturday that joining the Women's Institute is number 15 in a list of 30 “telltale signs you're really getting old”. This reliable information came from a poll of 2,000 respondents “from a wide age range” put out by a mutual assurance company.

How wrong could they be?! Joining the WI is NOT a sign of ageing – I joined at the age of 23 I am in no doubt that many thousands of current members joined in their early 20s and 30s, and I’m sure that some were even younger; there is some special ingredient in the organisation that keeps its members joining year after year.

The same reporter should have attended the Open Day at the NFWI's headquarters in London only last Wednesday to recognise the young age of members, but let's never forget that the WI is for every woman; there are no other criteria for becoming a member of the largest women's organisation across England and Wales.

The Daily Mail might like to check out the webpages of Buns and Roses WI, Fulham WI and Westcliff WI among many other WI groups of vibrant women of all ages – why don’t you come and join us and fine out how much the WI can offer?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Summer of activity

The WI has certainly been busy in the fortnight since the COOL vote took place in Strasbourg, with a number of internal meetings and the July NFWI Board meeting taking up several days. All of these meetings deal with the true heart of the WI. The NFWI Trustees consider everything from procedures to opportunities, from costs to plans for the future. We review what has recently taken place and always with an eye to what the next steps must be.

This year we have one new board member who joined us after our AGM in early June. An article in the latest issue of our magazine, WI Life, tells how she balances life on the Board at the same time as balancing a full time job. This is something that has to be addressed by both the National Board and Federation Boards of WIs since so many members work; day time meetings are not always suitable. Are we ready for a paradigm shift and how will it come about? At this stage I am not sure but I do believe it must happen sooner than later.

I am constantly delighted when new members of all ages tell me that joining the WI has been the best thing they've done. I mention this because quite recently I have been told just that by both a 24 year old and an 81 year old member. This certainly goes a long way to prove that there is something for every woman in the WI. In this instance, they enjoyed meeting different people and hearing of so many issues that they could get involved with through the campaigns for the younger member, and the opportunities to attend such a variety of events she would not otherwise have had from the older member.

Indeed, new members are coming in all the time. Where there is a group of women wanting to open a new WI, we have WI Advisers, who are members that have been recommended by their federations to open WIs. They do many other things besides, but in the last few years the demand for new WIs has been exceptional. WI Advisers work tirelessly throughout their federation in all weather conditions, often going to unfamiliar halls and venues, which is never easy in the dark, nor in the light for that matter – I know, I've done it! Last weekend I spent a couple of hours at our college, Denman, in Marcham near Oxford speaking with a group of WI Advisers. They were there to discuss their role and all that it has entailed in recent months, as well as to learn about new initiatives and methods of recruiting and retaining members. These women are particularly passionate about the WI and all their time and effort on behalf of members is appreciated by everyone. We must not forget that all they do for the WI is in a voluntary capacity.

And speaking of working in a voluntary capacity, last week I appeared as a witness at the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee to represent the NFWI. Confronted by questions from 21 MPs from across the parties in Portcullis House, I spoke of the three key areas of concern regarding women who suffer domestic violence: the way the new proposals will disproportionately affect women, how the proposals put women at greater risk of violence, and the fact that women who do suffer domestic violence also usually need help with a much wider range of issues. (For more information see visit Legal Aid 2011 under Campaigns on the NFWI website.)

Closer to home, celebrations are happening for WIs reaching their 25th and 90th anniversaries, and members holding wine and cheese parties to attract new members. These events are wonderful, caring and they really do work – why not organise one for your WI?

I know I say this often but it really is true: the WI really does provide something for every woman.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A step in the right direction to COOL

The European Parliament voted on regulations on country of origin labelling yesterday. How much of the WI's COOL campaign came into fruition? Our mandate, accepted just a year ago, calls for “HM government to introduce clear mandatory country of origin labelling on all meat, poultry and fish products sold in this country.” Law on food regulation is set at a European level and after years of discussion, MEPs have voted on an agreement to introduce mandatory country of origin labelling on fresh meat. Currently, beef is routinely labelled with its county of origin, but for other meat, such as pork and lamb, ‘country of origin’ often refers to the place in which a food last underwent significant change. This is misleading to say the least.

Is this outcome a win for the COOL campaign then? Well, whilst it is a step in the right direction, we are obviously disappointed that it will not go further. The WI took new research to MEPs in Strasbourg and we have been working hard to build up the evidence base that members need to take this debate forward, particularly in the light of planned future impact assessments.

Back in the UK, our own government has favoured a voluntary approach to county of origin labelling. While this is starting to have some impact, a survey of 6,000 WI members indicates that with substantial variation in the ways that different producers and supermarkets label their products there will still be plenty of room for improvement for some time. Earlier this year, 87 WIs visited 135 supermarkets to take a snapshot look at products on their shelves and the findings were stark. With 50 supermarkets carrying products with no country of origin labelling, it really makes me wonder if a voluntary approach is viable.

Consumers want to know what they are eating and where it comes from for a wide range of reasons. I see no reason to avoid telling of an animal’s place of birth if it is reared and looked after in a proper fashion in ways that conform to legal standards. It is simply not right that consumers are forced to rely on the good will of retailers.

The campaign continues…

Monday, 4 July 2011

Legal Aid Bill, Parliament week and the Big Feastival

Last week, just hours before the second reading of the Legal Aid Bill on Wednesday afternoon, the WI was invited to a round table discussion by the Law Society about the detrimental effects the proposed new Act would have on those, who until now, have been eligible to claim legal aid. MPs, Lords and other organisations involved with the work that the current Legal Aid Act occasions were also invited. The WI is interested in the impact the new proposal could have on women who suffer domestic violence following a history of campaigning on legal aid since campaigning for the protection of the legal aid system in 1994. More recently, the WI launched a programme of work on tackling violence against women. Only those women suffering an extreme case of physical violence would qualify for legal aid under the new recommendations should they determine to bring a case against the perpetrator.

Those who suffer violent attacks and realise the need to extricate themselves and possibly their children from an abusive relationship have been able to apply for legal aid up until now to help. Under the new proposal, they would likely have to find themselves in intensive care before being able to qualify – such is the type of the injury required to qualify.

The Bill does acknowledge psychological abuse but victims of domestic violence often have far more complex needs, and advice on a range of issues such as housing, debt and much more will be excluded from the system.

The NFWI is not against reform of the legal aid system, but in its current format, the new Bill would adversely affect some of the most vulnerable in society. Alternative models to these proposals need to be pursued urgently.

There is still quite a way to go before the Act is on the Statute book, but how long does it take? The journey of a Bill put forward by an MP and all the stages it goes through to become an Act of Parliament could be just the thing for people to engage with during Parliament Week set for 31 October to 6 November this year.

The history of our Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords is fascinating – not only to historians – and it is well worth taking a tour of the Palace of Westminster if you are in London. I am reliably informed that if you fancy listening in on the proceedings at the House of Commons then it is best to arrive in the late afternoon; settle back to hear and see history being made before your very eyes.

A new chapter in the history of the WI began this weekend with the WI tent at The Big Feastival on Clapham Common. This was an event that combined county shows with village fetes and was expertly coordinated by the Shoreditch Sisters WI. The WI Tent was fully decked out in retro style brought together cookery, baking, clothes, make up, hair styling, sewing, embroidery and so much more, whilst representing what the WI is really about: women. It was a real hive of activity and a superb recruiting event – go WI!