Demeaning or just a bit of fun?

This week saw the UK begin the process to leave the EU. A big day with major implications for all of us in Europe. Amongst many potentially messy issues, Brexit could lead to another Scottish independence referendum.

So on Tuesday Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the leader in Scotland met to discuss the future.

TheLegs-it Daily Mail, the biggest selling paper in the country chose as its front cover a picture of the two women, seated, angled to show their legs. The headline hilariously noted, “Never Mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

There was up-roar as a result. Lots of people who don’t like the Daily Mail were offended by its demeaning representation of two influential women. One politician tweeted, “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back. #everydaysexism”

Others[1] saw the absurdly unequal treatment of men and called for similar photos of male politicians (eek no, not Boris Johnson’s legs!)

Many women and men were offended because the photo and headline WERE sexist and though the full article was actually quite insightful about the two women, we should not have to put up with the repeated references to women’s shoes, legs, sexiness or dowdiness when their appearance has nothing to do with the person’s competence.

It happens way too often. Three weeks ago, Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer with a famous husband, was at the UN with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was a slave of IS and talks powerfully of her horrific experiences. She is incredibly brave to share her story.

But what did the media talk about? That Amal wore a wonderfully fetching yellow dress (Bottega Veneta, in case you want to know) and pulled off “an enviably flawless maternity style as she carries twins.” Some chastised her for wearing high heels when pregnant, however if she had worn sensible flats, she probably would she have faced other critics.

Nadia Murad, who does not wear designer clothes and is not married to a celebrity, was mostly ignored.

Do you see a pattern here? These women have been reduced in value to their outward appearance and even though every parent stresses to their daughter that looks are not important – ‘it’s character that counts, darling and you do not want to go out of the house dressed in a way that is only about looking sexy’ – that is all nonsense if the media continues to fetishise over Amal Clooney’s heels or Theresa May’s legs.

Sometimes the references to a woman’s fashion sense are actually fun and quite admiring, or at least harmless, but when intelligent capable women are judged purely on their looks, it is demeaning.  And if we make a fuss, we are accused of not being able to take a joke, or of being menopausal and a bit erratic.

Julia Baird is an insightful Australian journalist and broadcaster. Fascinated by the pressure on women in politics to be ‘likeable’, she has commented, “What we often fail to portray is the incredible complexity of women in powerful roles, and what we’re capable of. [This is] largely because we are so blinkered by expectations of female behaviour – of what a powerful woman or a feminist looks like.”

So I don’t think it’s good enough to dismiss the sexist headlines as a bit of fun or a light-hearted (can’t you take a joke) look at women of influence.

Such language is part of a bigger picture of discrimination that blinkers us to the rich variety of women in our world – women who wear high heels, women who wear trainers or women who have only enough money for a pair of plastic sandlas. To put us all in a box labelled, #looksareallthatmatter, is not much of a joke.






[1] Like Carol Midgley, in The Times


Using our wealth for women

My blogs never usually mention giving money – so next month, you can relax. But just this once….

Over the next two weeks, thousands of women from every UN country will be in New York. They won’t be marching or doing much shouting.

They will instead be making their voices heard at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). A plethora of events will cover different agendas, from high powered celebrity packed celebrations to small, slightly amateurish affairs on the fringes. The CSW is the biggest UN gathering aside from the General Assembly. There will be politicians, professional feminists, charities and faith groups.

It’s expensive to be there and this year I won’t be making the trip. Lack of money is the biggest barrier to having a voice.

Last year, the leader of evangelical women in the Caribbean and I were there, sharing a budget room, meeting people, attending events and telling anyone who would listen that women in local churches around the globe deserve a voice. Jenifer Johnson from Barbados is a strong leader: she has her own radio program dealing with a range of relationship issues from a Christian perspective; and she runs the only shelter on the island for women who need to get away from abusive homes. She is consulted regularly by the government on these social issues because she is intimately involved in the lives of local women.

At the CSW, Jenifer spoke at an event organised by a faith group, Side by Side, about how she is working with churches to alert them to abuse and trafficking (girls and boys are victims). She also trains pastors in how to talk about healthy family life.

Women of faith can be sidelined at the UN but they have important views on education, family, health and work. They also want to learn how to advocate more effectively.

I would love to be able to have funds so more women can go to events like the CSW. I would love to see more capable women like Jenifer training others. Women like Fortuna in Kenya, Lona in South Sudan and MayPan in Myanmar.

It is not easy to get money to train, develop and inspire Christian women in leadership. Those words don’t go together in Christian fundraising circles. We will give money to see women lifted out of dire poverty via micro-credit, which is great. We will sponsor girls to get an education, which is very needed.

But somehow, the next step, of seeing young women being trained as leaders in a Christian context becomes too hard. Women are victims of violence, of poverty, of maternal mortality. But they can also deliver solutions if they get opportunity and encouragement.

So this week on International Women’s day (the 8th) and  with Mothers Day around the corner, I’m asking  for women and men to help me develop confident and equipped women leaders in the Church, at the UN and in business.

Let’s use our wealth for women. And then let’s pray that the money will be multiplied as it is used for leadership projects. Those empowered women will in turn train, equip and encourage many thousands more.

I’m asking for money so women from places like Egypt, Barbados and South Sudan, can have leadership training and development opportunities for the benefit of the whole Church.

If you live in the UK                                                                                                                         Please make your donation by bank transfer to Transform Network.                                     Bank: HSBC   Account Name: Transform Network Sort code: 40-06–34                       Account Number: 01411616     Reference: Women’s Commission

If you live anywhere else eg USA, Canada, Australia                                                                 The easiest way to donate is online                                                                                                  Please designate your donation – Women’s Commission

All these accounts are audited. The money will go to the Women’s Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance to develop women in leadership.


A spoonful of reason

Common sense is not so common – Voltaire

We need a spoonful of common sense and a large dose of wisdom in 2017 after the year that brought us post-truth.

But it’s not looking hopeful. Some nonsensical (or worryingly dangerous) events that have caught my eye this year (and it’s only week 2!):

Glasgow University has warned theology students studying ‘Creation to Apocalypse: Introduction to the Bible (Level 1)’ that a lecture on Jesus and cinema sometimes ‘contains graphic scenes of the crucifixion’. The university says it has a duty of care but I wonder whether they have warning signs outside university bars?

The New Year’s Honours in the UK included many wonderful awards for those who have served the community and delighted the nation with their achievements. But Dominic Johnson, associate treasurer of the Conservative Party earned a CBE, maybe because he gave David Cameron and his family a home to stay in when the PM left Downing Street after the Brexit result.

Easter eggs have already been seen on shelves in Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s, 100 days before Easter!

Judges in Israel have been harassed and threatened for their ruling that an Israeli soldier is guilty of manslaughter for killing a suspected Palestinian terrorist who had already been subdued. These threats come from a part of the community that feels it is OK for Israel to act in any way it wants if it suspects terrorism. And this aggressive jingoism is not just happening in Israel.

Nigel Farage has been given a new job as host of his own radio show, so he can sprout his views in the time honoured tradition of shock jocks in the USA and Australia. I had thought the UK was too sensible to allow free rein to a man who thinks Trump is going to be a great president and who criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for being too gloomy for pointing out social injustice.

People who confronted Jesus (the powerful, the religious, the crowds) often weighed in with half-truths or controversy hoping to catch out this man they could not understand. By turns, Jesus was wise, gentle, debate-ready, scathing or silent in his responses.

May we all be wise in how we respond to the half-truths and hysteria in the media or at the office. And I pray for common sense.






Decisions to enjoy

Sometimes we seem to have far too many decisions to make and it can be confusing, unsettling. We long for black and white choices.

My mum, in her late 80s, ponders how she will give money to charities at Christmas time. But what decisions does she make among many good causes?

My niece and her husband are trying to make wise decisions about study and work – balancing the need for an income to provide for their young family, and their desire to prepare for church ministry.

And of course at Christmas, there are numerous opportunities to upset the relatives if we make the wrong decisions.

But actually, we are blessed to have choices.

For many hundreds of years, ordinary women and men didn’t have time for anything other than supporting their families, couldn’t have freedom to travel, could not choose to be single or who to marry, and did not have spare money to spend or give away.

I have been thinking of Joseph’s choice to love and protect Mary when he found out that she was pregnant. He could have cast her aside or he could have quietly broken off his commitment (as he was tempted to do) but he chose to stand by Mary and protected his family even though that meant exile.

God trusted Joseph to make the generous, kind and Godly decision. He asks us to make such decisions too, so that we counter the world’s selfishness with consistent generosity.

Philanthropist Deanne Weir puts it this way, “Pick something that interests you, take the time to get informed. Then just give what’s reasonable to you.”

So this Christmas, enjoy pondering how to give in a good way, just like my mum.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

“Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Have a wonderful Christmas doing good and sharing generously.


Gender and locker room banter

This week saw the US Presidential race sink to new lows as Donald Trump’s appalling language about women and his alleged behaviour took up the media’s attention and serious policy slipped further down the agenda. What a sad election this is.

The fact that Trump has tried to excuse his language as locker room banter is an insult to most sports people in locker rooms, but also a reminder that macho behaviour can become misogynist very quickly. In the UK this week, another footballer accused of rape was cleared in very murky circumstances.

Gender inequality and injustice are still rampant. I see it daily in the work I do.

The debate about gender is about us! And the truth is that gender is still a big deal here in the UK, in the US and many other western nations, but especially in the developing world where being a girl means fewer opportunities and fewer resources.

We all need to have a view because we are all impacted by the lives of women and girls. We all have mothers. Many of us have daughters and sisters.

So let’s remind ourselves what gender injustice looks like around the world.

About 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.

Even before girls are born, they are at risk – there are 170 million ‘missing’ girls in Asia because of sex selective abortion.

Trafficking is a major industry – involving billions of $ and up to two million people a year. The majority are female and poor – abused as domestic servants, working in factories or brothels, intimidated, with no rights

Almost 700 million women globally were married before their 18th birthday. Around 250 million were married before 15. Although it’s hard to have accurate numbers because the issue is not considered important.

Girls of 13, even 12 sent to an uncertain and dangerous future of hard work, risky pregnancies and lack of love.

Of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, ambitiously set in 2000, and which ended last year, the one that had lowest success was No5 – to cut maternal mortality by ¾. Doesn’t that tell us something about the priorities of many developing country governments – money for guns or sports stadiums, but not for maternity clinics.

The World Heath Organisation says complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the 2nd highest cause of death in girls 15-19.

How do we respond to this tidal wave of gender injustice?

Do we say complacently, ‘Well things are slowly improving’ Do we get angry about all the things that are wrong?

Or do we decide to take positive action –

pray, give money for community projects, educate our own girls and boys about these injustices

Do we speak out?

We need actions that acknowledge that every life is valuable because God thinks we are all valuable – regardless of whether we live in Kensington or a Calais refugee camp or a one bed hut in Kenya.

Can I get a bit religious? In the days of the early church, Paul, one of the leaders, came across a slave girl who was trapped in exploitation as a fortune teller. He sets her free from an evil spirit, he frees her from economic exploitation (much to the annoyance of the slave owners) and gives her the chance to have a new life. And he gets thrown into jail for tackling injustice.

It’s a story that takes up just 4 sentences but it shows us what life can be like when we take the time to care for girls who are trapped. The girl had no choices when Paul met her – she was a slave in every sense. And she was set free in every sense.

We need to remind ourselves of the value of a spiritual underpinning to the practical support, help for the family, teaching and empowering that we can offer girls and women.

I want my daughter to have dreams and hopes and to be able to have choices about family and career or both or … without being judged, without having to shatter glass ceilings. I want girls living in economic and social poverty to see their dreams realized too.

God promised to give beauty in exchange for ashes, wherever they live and whatever restrictions society may impose.

Donald Trump’s sleaziness must not triumph.




Women, work and worth

I must admit that my literacy about aspects of the economy would not get me an A*.

I have my head around the difference between fiscal and monetary policy and could even define quantitative easing but details of the financial crash of 2008 just don’t stay in my brain.

And if you look at media aimed at women, you’d think money was only good for spending on personal indulgences. Saving? Wise management? Don’t worry your blonde-highlighted head about that.

But women and men need to be wise about money, so we can have enough for our needs, be content with all we have and give generously to those who have need.

We also need to understand how we can make the economic system fairer. Nations of the world have come up with goals that address some of the ‘unfairness’ of our world. But are their plans in line with God’s economics?

SDGsThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed a year ago by all nations at the UN. Behind the scenes, nations and researchers are busy working out how to tackle the mighty challenges of 17 goals and 169 targets (target 170 was not to have so many targets!) And technocrats want to see how they can collect accurate data to measure success and shortcomings.

The Goals are relevant to all nations because we ALL have to show we are meeting targets on poverty, environment, access to education and economic well-being. For us in the western world, this could be a challenge as we will have to admit that we have economic poverty and poverty of opportunity – that far too many people get left behind.

Some of the targets are interesting because they strongly encourage all men and women to have access to economic resources and meaningful paid work.

Christian charities and churches have been very good at providing education opportunities. The first Sunday Schools were set up to give children from very poor families who worked 6 days a week in a factory or mine or farm, the chance to learn to read and write. The teachers were motivated by twin desires – to improve the children’s life chances and to enable the children to read the Bible. Whether it’s a mums and toddlers group in the church hall, or a church primary school, or after school homework clubs, across the world, we still value learning.

We know that education is a route out of poverty but we haven’t concentrated so much on the quality of work those children are offered when they finish education.

We need to look at our attitudes to work and economic participation, make sure they align with Biblical values and then see how the values implicit in the SDGs measure up.

I’ve picked out some SDG targets that specifically mention women.

Target 1.4 says: By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance…

(And a linked target 5.5 asks for national laws to ensure this)

Ruth and Naomi would agree with this target. It is about giving equal access and opportunity to the vulnerable – widows in many places still can’t inherit land or property, and many women still need a man’s permission to access money or open a bank account.

Access to credit, and to land ownership will help women have economic security.

And maybe churches have a role in letting women and men know their rights. Naomi knew the laws about kinship redeemers and she used her knowledge to ensure security for Ruth and her.

Target 8.5 says: By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.

The capable and multi-tasking woman in Proverbs 31 would agree with this target. ‘Decent work’ is a wonderful term. We want to see all people use their talents to the full and be given fair pay. An interesting issue though, is the right of women (or men) to do unpaid work as a full time mother, or carer, or to volunteer her skills at church or in the community. In the desire to give women access to decent work, we need to make provisions for volunteering and caring. A first step is to appreciate in economic and social terms the contribution women (and it is still mainly women) make to families and communities.

Across the world, some women will be fighting to leave the home and get paid work, others will want p-t work and others will want a full-time career. And some women want to full-time mums.

It is dangerous to say one model is more Christian than another. We are all different and have different roles to fulfil at different times. Economically, we want to see women and men with the right to take up opportunities.

Target 8.7 says: Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.

These crimes against children should be the concern of all churches. We should be involved at a practical level, at a praying level and in our economic decisions.

Back to my first point. So much of our charity and care directed at helping women and children, ignores the economics of inequality and unfairness. But Boaz realised that charity to Ruth and Naomi at harvest time was not enough. He knew he had to follow God’s standards to restore Ruth’s inheritance. What a man of faith! And what a women of faith Naomi and Ruth were to behave honourably and boldly to receive blessing.


When sex is monstrous terror

Along the dusty roads in Bukavu Eastern Congo (DRC), tiny women walk huddled over with 30kg loads of firewood. They are human beasts of burden forced into this tough work because they are victims of poverty and violence. Many have been raped, some are widows, which means they face social rejection as well as pain.

Armed militia (and the army) have rampaged through eastern and northern DRC for a generation – they are themselves brutalised by the war and turn against anyone who is more vulnerable: women and girls have been raped, mutilated and forced to see their families killed; their crops are burnt and everything stolen. Even though the conflict is meant to be over, 40 women are raped every day around Bukavu and the actual figure is bound to be higher because there is strong stigma against women who tell their story.

Attacks against women are also common in Egypt. There is very little sex education in villages but girls understand that forced sex is a danger and that it is they who will be blamed, not the boys or men, if they get pregnant.

When sexual violence and religion are mixed together, my heart is crushed.

Last week, Soad, a 70 year old grandmother in a village in upper Egypt, was stripped naked and paraded around her village. Her ‘crime’? It was rumoured that her son, a Christian man, was having an affair with a Moslem woman. Seven homes of Christian families were burned down on the same day.

Different forms of violence and terror, all aimed at women and girls.

I am horrified by the extent of violence but I am also concerned about how we respond to these incidents of sexual violence.

There is a hierarchy of concern common in all media. To put it bluntly, young women or girls get more sympathy than older women. There was an outpouring of sympathy when 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria were abducted by Islamist militia. It was indeed a terrible crime but it also fitted with a narrative of Moslem terrorism so it received massive coverage and hashtag sympathy (#BringBackOurGirls). But over 2000 women have been abducted by Boko Haram since the Chibok girls went missing and there has been hardly a murmur in the West. Are we embarrassed that we have not defeated evil? Are we tired of the same stories? Or has ISIS taken over as the major story about Moslem extremism?

Our blinkered take on sexual violence shows up when we consider acid attacks against girls in India, often related to marriage or stalking. They do not attract mainstream outrage. According to the BBC, over 1,000 girls and women in India suffered acid attacks last year. And it is troubling that some people blame the victims and say their suffering came because they behaved badly!

There seems to be a limit to our compassion – we get fatigued by poverty, disaster and violence and care less than we ought. We want quick fixes – based on money and some prayers. We don’t want to acknowledge that healing and restoration can take many years of hard work and persistent prayer. The conflict in DRC has been going on for a generation, so the media and our hearts have moved on to the next disaster.

We also allow sex and sexual violence to pervade our screens and maybe that makes us de-sensitised to the reality of suffering that women and girls endure. Pornography is everywhere, often in the guise of drama. Detective shows seem to compete in a race to be more and more explicit about violence against young, naked female victims.

In Game of Thrones, a blockbuster TV series, rape and sexual violence are an almost casual part of the storyline, used to impose power, but also to titillate and improve ratings.

Apparently the author of the books on which Game of Thrones is based, says he was trying to “convey an accurately medieval sense of how the powerful prey upon the powerless, including men preying on women”. Even if that’s true, the TV show has gone further just for the sake of showing more violent sex, that has little to do with the original plot.

So are we complicit in promoting the very behaviour and attitudes that we say we abhor?

When sex is a monstrous terror used to frighten and destroy, we should be shocked and we should act.

We should be ‘innocent as doves’ so that our response to sexual violence is never dulled.

And to encourage us that women are responding to the issue, let me tell you about Nabila Nakhla, who heads up the work of women in evangelical churches in Egypt. She is a strong woman of faith. She and her husband could have left for a safer home many years ago, but they feel that God wants them in Cairo. She and her team work with teenage girls, educating them about sex, relationships and self worth. Now she is extending her work to widows and the first course begins this week on June 28th at a safe house outside Cairo.

Pray for this work that is done by churches in Egypt, for the work done in DRC and India – that those who refuse to give in to despair will have strength and hope.

 You can donate to Tearfund UK’s work in DRC with vulnerable women here

 You can donate to the work of the Women’s Commission in Egypt here. Please click on Women’s Commission in the dropdown menu.