If it was a normal year, right now, I’d be at Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. I’ve been lucky enough to go pretty much every year since Jude Kelly started it eleven years ago. Every time it’s incredibly thrilling and exciting on arrival – all these AMAZING women from all over the world and walks of life in one place! The colours, the incredible outfits, the buzz in the air! As the weekend opens with Jude Kelly’s welcoming speech, I’m frantically marking off the talks and workshops I want to attend, nervous to miss anything. At that point, I’m still thinking about what I’m getting out of the weekend, which is fine, but I’ve not quite remembered the whole point is that as soon as I walk through those doors, I’m not an ‘I’ anymore, I’m part of a ‘we’. It’s not long before I’m struck with such an enormous sense of humility and LOVE for womankind, for my sisters from Afghanistan, India, Mexico, Bradford, the Philippines, Poland, Somaliland, Ireland, everywhere. It’s not long before I remember, again – as women, we have no country, we are each other’s country, we are as one. I put down my timetable for the weekend and just breathe. Just feel grateful to be privileged enough to hear these women speak, after everything they’ve lived through, and to bear witness to what they have to tell. To believe them, to cry with them, to laugh and dance and sing with them and then to say, “where do we go from here?” The ability that women have to transform PAIN to POWER astounds me every day.
Each year going to WOW galvanises us, pushes us forward, gives us hope as we see that change is possible. In 2007, 2008 and 2009 I was involved with V Day, a global organisation committed to ending violence against women and girls. I performed in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ twice and once in ‘A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer’. During this time, V (then known as Eve Ensler) came to meet us all and she told us about what was happening to women in the DRC, the mass sexual violence as a weapon of war that women there have faced, and still do, since 1996. The conflict is centred around control of the minerals that we use in our electronics here in the West. The scale of the horror of what was happening there was too much to take in. And yet, somehow, women were rising up and fighting back. She told us about the City of Joy, a women’s empowerment centre she was building there. The whole day blew my mind and I’ve never been able to forget what I heard that day. As Millicent Fawcett once said, “courage calls to courage everywhere” – and now we need to stand up and be counted more than ever. Around the world, women have been forced back into the homes because of the pandemic and feminists are worried we’ve been set back a generation.
Last Tuesday, V came back to WOW online and in conversation with her friend, the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy. One of the things they talked about was how the incredibly bold and brave women are leading the farmers protests in India right now. My good friend Anna McIntosh is currently in Poland reporting on the women fighting back against the near total abortion ban that’s taking effect there. Knowing that women around the world at this moment are standing up and demanding basic human rights makes me feel there’s no excuse for me to not speak up and use whatever platform I have here in the UK.
Not that we don’t have huge amount of work to do here. If anyone actually ever did believe the myth that we have equality here in the UK, it has been exposed totally by the pandemic. It’s been an incredibly hard year for women, mothers and grandmothers especially. Women are even more trapped in abusive relationships and lacking the vital support of their community of other women. Women are on the front lines of care work, we are 65% of the UK’s public sector workers, we are home-schooling, we are juggling too many things, we are barely coping. Women are taking on more and more unpaid labour and are working more than ever. The Office for National Statistics report on ‘Parenting in Lockdown’ states: ‘During the first weeks of lockdown (28 March to 26 April 2020), in households with children aged under 18 years, women were carrying out on average two-thirds more of the childcare duties per day than men.’ We need many, many more men to step up and proactively take on childcare and home management. We need many, many more men to listen to women and follow their example. We need men to come to WOW to listen and learn. As Jude always says, “if you are a woman, or you love a woman, or you know a woman – WOW is for you.”
So, everyone, come along to WOW this month and have your eyes opened. You could well find your tribe, you might even find yourself starting a campaign, you may well feel more understood and you’re sure to gain a new perspective. You can learn about everything from women in Greek myths to how to do your own plumbing. I’ve been to some brilliant events online so far this year and there are so many more to come, take a look at the programme.
In the words of my inspiration, V, “Go boldly with your heart”. I think this is a mantra for all of us in 2021.
Nat Cotterill, March 2021