Rising for justice: a conversation with Helena Kenn

Tell us about the launch of One Billion Rising in the Houses of Parliament last Thursday.

“One of the exciting things is seeing a new generation of women, another new wave of feminism. It feels that this time we might achieve some goals that we haven’t achieved so far. As someone who has been active in the Women’s Rights movement since the 1970s it was wonderful to see a room full of young women, feminists, in their teens and twenties who want to see change. They are fighting against cruelty against women, inequalities, degradation. There are still things we need to sort. There were campaigners against FGM, for women in asylum, women in prison, campaigners to stop sexism. There was a 17 year old young woman who argued wonderfully for respect for girls. Girls as young as 12 are expected to act out sexually; it is so hard for girls who are often derogated; there is no mutuality in their relationships, no respect towards them. It can make their life wretched. Yvette Cooper MP spoke about crimes against women. Every week two women will die of the hands of their partners. She said that if two men a week would die in a football match the public would be up in arms.”

How have things changed since you started your work to further justice for women?

“When I started bringing those issues up judges thought I was a wild feminist, and other women thought I was rocking the boat. Often in male dominated spheres women need to adopt male perspective in order to survive and do well. That is why I am out there to help younger generations.  Feminists are accused of hating men and hating fun. One Billion Rising is a joyful day of events in which men will join in. We are asking what it is like living in a world in which women experience this level of violence. We know that in Syria there is so much trafficking, rape of girls; in other societies girl children are not as wanted, and their sexuality is removed through FGM”.

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Baroness Kennedy has just come back from Iraq where she was on a human rights mission. She spent time in women’s’ prisons and talks about the double standards women face: “Many women are there for crimes against morality, such as walking with a married man, sex outside of marriage. Men are not charged with the same offences. In terms of the legal systems we know that those problems face women everywhere. The reason is that the legal system has been made by men. It is not surprising that a feminine perspective wasn’t in there. The reality of women’s life was not there. Gradually we see the system is starting to change”.

Baroness Kennedy has been working in the last 30 years within the legal system to advance justice for women, campaigning to amend laws, making additions to the law, and in the past 15 years as a Labour Peer she is taking part in making those legal reforms. “It is hard to reform a system which essentially is the problem. You don’t get change in the law without campaigning. History of social reform teaches us that people in power don’t give it away”.

So, then, what is the place of One Billion Rising in the context of feminism and justice for women?

“One Billion Rising is about men and women saying this isn’t good enough and we have had enough. When the demand is great enough issues of gender and justice will be on the G8, G22 agendas. We shouldn’t talk about equal pay in separation of discussion of violence, No woman should talk about equal pay without talking about her sisters who are suffering abuse. We should think about not living in a world in which women wake up being afraid of another beating. We should not be living in fear”.

Since you have arrived as Principal of Mansfield, you have inspired many of us to rethink our place within the feminist movement and to take a clearer stance on issues of gender and justice. What should the readers of the Cherwell and young women do to further the feminist cause?

 “They should not be afraid of the title feminist. No decent man should be fearful of a woman who sees herself as a feminist. Feminism is about demanding equality. One Billion Rising is about making voices heard and not suffering silently when women are marginalized or derogated and for women to encourage in each other a sense of our own value, that we have to love who we are and not try and be someone else. Once we know our self- worth we are not going to accept bad things done to us. That is why we must get out there and dance!”

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One Billion Rising for Justice is a global call to women survivors of violence and those who love them to gather safely in community outside places where they are entitled to justice – courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not.  It is a call to survivors to break the silence and release their stories – politically, spiritually, outrageously – through art, dance, marches, ritual, song, spoken word, testimonies and whatever way feels right.

Details about the One Billion Rising campaign can be found here