November 2007

Take: a loaf of bread (or equivalent quantity of whatever bready/caky stuff you have lying around that needs using up*, total weight about 1lb); half a pint of cream; a pint of milk; 6 eggs; some vanilla essence, cinammon and nutmeg (about 2tsp each); raisins.

[*We used a stale chocolate muffin plus a brioche loaf from the reduced section at the supermarket.]

1. Put the oven on, to about 180C (or 200C if your oven is as wonky as mine).
2. Chop or break the bread / cake / whatever into small pieces – doesn’t really matter but no smaller than, say, 1cm cubes. Maybe a bit bigger than that is better.
3. Put the bread into a large ovenproof dish e.g. a lasagne dish. Sprinkle raisins in amongst the bread cubes. Squash it all down tight. Squash, squash, squash.
4. Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them up, then add all the other ingredients and mix them up.
5. Pour the custardy stuff over the bread. Admire the little bubbles that appear as the liquid percolates down to fill in any remaining airspaces.
6. Stick it in the oven for about an hour, until a skewer comes out cleanly.

Makes enough for – 9 good sized pieces. (We have a square dish, so 9 is a good number….)


Add cocoa powder or grated chocolate to the custardy stuff, or dollop chocolate chunks into the custard (see picture), or mix choc chips in with the bread cubes, or use actual chocolate cake (stale, otherwise you’d just eat it, right?) or some combination of any or all of these – hey presto, chocolate bread pudding!

Add booze to the custardy stuff, and/or use raisins that have been soaked in booze – boozy bread pudding! Or add orange zest to the custardy stuff, use cherries as well as raisins, try different kinds of bread and cake – our minipud shown below was made with old gingercake and was looooovely… The world is your oyster :-)

Another variation is to make small bread puddings in ramekins or (as in the picture below) a homemade clay pot that your dad gave you in a fit of pottery-related enthusiasm. These will only need to cook for about 30-40 minutes or so.

(While cooking dinner)
HER: Are we putting mushrooms in?
ME: Yes we are. You don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to.
HER: I want to mummy.
ME: You want to eat the mushrooms?
HER: Yes, I like mushrooms.
ME: You like mushrooms? But you always say you don’t like mushrooms…
HER: No, mummy, you always say I don’t like mushrooms. But I do.
ME: Oh. Good.

The worse thing is, she’s right! I do (did) say lots of times that she doesn’t like mushrooms. And, often, I even said it completely unnecessarily, as in:

“Oh, yes, she is a very good eater. The only thing she doesn’t like at all is mushrooms.”

or “She will try anything, well anything except mushrooms anyway.”

or “You don’t have to eat the mushrooms if you don’t want to. I know you don’t like them.”

I’ve been doing exactly the thing that my mother always used to do which I found really, really annoying – assuming that a preference once expressed is set in stone, that just because Ariel really, really dislikes something this week means that she will continue to dislike it indefinitely. Which is especially stupid when the person you are talking about isn’t yet three and changes her preferences more often than she changes her vests.

And I’ve been doing exactly the other thing that I try so hard never ever to do – negative reinforcement.

I make a real effort not to say “you can’t do that” or “you don’t / won’t like that”. Instead I try to either keep quiet or, if it actually is necessary to say something, to make positive, specific, reasoned comments. Such as: “you’re a bit too little to climb up there right now – when you are bigger and stronger you can have a try” or “just have a little bit of that one to start with, it’s a very strong flavour so you don’t need much”.

The theory is that f I tell her often enough that she can’t do or doesn’t like something, then eventually she is likely to believe me!

And I fall down on mushrooms of all things. Mushrooms!

And Ariel makes me proud – because even though I have been accidentally programming her to dislike mushrooms, she has rejected my suggestions and decided to eat mushrooms anyway. Possibly to spite me.

What a strong, independent-minded, wonderful little girl she is. Hooray!

… reading the 8th Carnival of Radical Femnists, in which I have been featured (yay!)

… finishing my crocheted toilet roll dog (not for me, honest)

… mucking about with Ariel

Since I blogged a couple of weeks ago about “Extended” breastfeeding, I think I have worked something out.

Most of the people who criticise or condemn longer-term breastfeeding do, on the surface at least, accept that breastfeeding a child is in principle a good thing. Most of them understand, up to a point, that it is healthy for the child to have breastmilk. Up to a point.

Yet so many, many people think that once you cross some sort of line it becomes unnatural / selfish / harmful / wrong.

Why? It’s not plain ignorance, because even when information is offered it is ignored. There must be something deeper in action than mere reasoning from false premises, because even when you point out the flaws in the premises not one person is moved to change their view.

I think the answer is actually quite simple: pleasure.

As long as we are making our breasts available to our infant children for selfless reasons, child-centred reasons – as long as we are doing it out of necessity and/or because it is clearly more healthy or nutritious for the child than any available alternative – that is fine. It is laudable, and moral, and praiseworthy.

But as soon as it becomes apparent that we do it “unnecessarily”, breastfeeding is no longer fine. As soon as breastfeeding is more than a selfless sacrifice of our own body for the benefit of the child, it becomes self-indulgence. At best, it is lazy (and ultimately harmful) indulgence of the child. It breeds an unhealthy dependence, something like an addiction. It satisfies the mother’s selfish and pathological need to be needed.

All the anti-extended-breastfeeding comments seemed to point this way, imagining bad motives and harmful effects. And I think that these imagined motives, projected onto breastfeeding mothers and used to condemn us, all serve to deflect attention away from the unpalatable truth: that we do it because we like it, because our children like it, because it makes both nursing partners happy.

So why is it, then, that so many people find it so difficult to stomach the idea that for some nursing partnerships, breastfeeding is pleasurable?

The more I think about it, the more I think I nailed it in my Sensual Art post:

“If we think of sex [as something special, magical, unique, essential, vital, irreplaceable, crucial, needful... the Ultimate], we elevate and isolate sexual feeling to a point where the possibility of anything which is like sex but which is not sex becomes impermissible, an aberration, wrong.”

If we equate sensual pleasure with sex, then it becomes impermissible to allow that breastfeeding could ever involve sensual pleasure. And if we cannot compute the idea of breastfeeding being a sensual (and “therefore” a sexual) pleasure, we end up casting about for other explanations when mothers breastfeed “unnecessarily”.

We imagine all these unhealthy, pathological and downright sinister reasons because the most obvious reason (because we like it, dammit) is so inconceivable that even the most absurd alternatives are considered plausible.

What a great week – it has flown by! It has filled me with new enthusiasm for blogging too. Hooray! Not wanting it all to be over quite yet, I leave you with this, from Womanwords:

By the end of the C16th, snatch was used allusively to refer to hasty or illicit or mercenary sexual intercourse (with a woman) e.g. “I could not abide marriage, but as a rambler I took a snatch when I could get it.” (1621) Hence since the end of the C19th, snatch came to be used as slang for the vagina…

“The association of the vagina with a snapping jaw* – the vagina dentata – is a symbol of male castration fear which has appeared in primitive legend the world over. In psychoanalytic terms this is explained by H R Hays as follows: “The sucking infant, which had a cannibalistic desire to consume the mother, projects an instinctive memory of its own sadism into the female vagina and transforms it into a biting mouth.**” (The Dangerous Sex, 1966) This memory is one which can be revived in the male by heterosexual intercourse after which the once erect penis goes limp and thus seems to “die”, or is perhaps “killed” by the snatching vagina of a woman, viewed as a sorceress.”

* Sic. The vagina is (literally, if you go by etymology) a “sheath”, so cannot actually snap, jawlike or otherwise. The labia though? Yeah, jaws R us :-)

** As the mother of a sucking infant old enough to articulate her feelings about nursing, I can confirm that she does not wish to eat me, sadistically or otherwise. She just wants to eat the mo out of the “ends” (her latest self-created terminology***) of my boobs. From which I conclude – even apart from the improbability of a child projecting its “own sadism” into women’s vaginas without any prompting from weirdos like H R Hays and his ilk – that this theory is complete and unmitigated poppycock.

*** Which is an improvement on her previous decision to christen my left side “Mo” and my right side “Booby”. This led to a scene in which – after she had finished “Mo” and was annoyed that it was taking too long to change sides – she stood up and shouted “I WANT BOOBY! I WANT TO EAT BOOBY NOW!” Which, for the avoidance of doubt, was not intended by her to suggest that she actually had a cannibalistic desire to consume me.

I have written a few times on this blog about the practice of FGM as a horrific violation of women’s bodies that, apart from stripping them of bodily integrity, also has many long and short term health risks. Today I want to think not about why it must stop now (duh) but about how it can stop, what we can do to actually make it stop. Fine words and awareness-raising are just so much hand-wringing unless we actually get out there and make something happen.

The most obvious step is to change the laws. There are still many countries where FGM is lawful or where only the most extreme forms are prohibited. And we need to ensure that no country will refuse asylum or refugee status to a girl or woman fleeing from FGM. It is only very recently that even in the UK the risk of being subject to FGM has been recognised as giving a girl or woman the right to be granted refugee status here.

But legal changes can only ever be a small part of the solution. There is no point in changing the law unless people will comply with the law. This means either rigorous law enforcement or more realistically (especially but not only in countries where police forces are overstretched, underfunded, uninterested or plain corrupt) voluntary abandonment of the practice by the communities where it is currently entrenched.

How can communities be persuaded to abandon FGM? The obvious answer is to tell them that FGM is dangerous, and a violation of women’s human rights and human dignity, that it can kill. But many adherents to the practice know that already, and they still do it. So telling them again and highlighting the dangers as best we can might help, slowly, in some cases: but it won’t eradicate FGM any more than telling people that smoking is bad for them will eradicate smoking.

So telling them not to do it doesn’t work. Telling them how bad it is doesn’t work. Why not? Clearly there are reasons people want to carry out FGM on their girl children which go deeper than “because we’ve always done it”. These communities experience benefits from FGM which outweigh the health risk to the child, which outweigh any right to wholeness that she may have, which outweigh any risk of legal repercussions.

The Population Council has an FGM (FGC) page with lots of resources about anti-FGM actions that have been tried, and evaluation research that has been carried out to identify the best approaches to FGM eradication. I’m not even going to try and summarise the various reports and assessments on there, but having read through a number of them I can suggest that a few common strands do emerge.

One is that the most successful approaches were participatory, involving the whole community in discussing FGM and thinking about their own behaviour, with a view to making and sustaining a voluntary commitment to changing the behaviour.

Another is the importance of projects being focussed on specific, whole communities. The admirable organisation Rainbo has developed a framework (which it calls “Women’s Empowerment and Community Consensus”, or WECC) which recognises that communities cling onto FGM because they get something out of it and that we must therefore do more than threaten or preach: we must also understand the community needs that FGM satisfies, so that we can help the women and men who “benefit” from FGM to find alternative ways of satisfying those needs.

This approach can be seen in the following two reports, which aimed at designing an approach to FGM eradication focussed on specific communities by looking at the reasons why FGM is practised within those communities:

  • A 2004 Frontiers report found that the reasons for cutting in the Islamic Somali community in Kenya included “religious obligation, family honor, preserving virginity as a prerequisite for marriage, prevention of extramarital as well as premarital sex, and aesthetics” (but not as an initiation rite). The approach recommended was then a religious-based approach, combined with medical information, to show that this is a traditional practice that is contrary to Islamic dictates because of the harm it does.
  • A similar report focussed on the Christian Abagusii community in Kenya where the reasons cited were “tradition, cultural identity, symbolic maturity, control of women’s sexuality and fidelity, and marriageability” and where it was found that despite being illegal, most cutting is performed (albeit unofficially) in clinics by nurses and midwives. Here the approach recommended was to mobilise health workers by educating them about legal and medical issues, addressing the financial incentives they have for performing FGM (they are well paid), and encouraging them to advise their clients against the practice. The involvement of health workers and education about health risks was already having some benefits in reducing the severity of the cutting, and in some cases limiting cutting to a symbolic prick of the clitoris.

Finally, sadly, it is clear that FGM abandonment is a lengthy process, that does not happen overnight.

One model for this process is the progressive diffusion of anti-FGM attitudes. For example, this might involve “converting” community members and encouraging them to go out and “convert” their own family and friends so that eventually the tiny minority who are prepared to stand up against FGM within that community grows and grows, with the expectation that eventually not cutting will be the norm. There is evidence of some success at this approach, although no evidence of any community where this approach has made a dramatic impact even over the long term.

A different model is to involve a whole community, a whole village, so that the community arrives together at a decision to stop FGM – each member of that community lending support (and peer pressure) to the change. This again cannot be done overnight. First, you have to get the whole village involved in actually thinking about and questioning FGM – using medical and human rights information distributed through health and literacy programs; encouraging religious leaders and other influential individuals including health workers to openly condemn the practice; and empowering grassroots anti-FGM advocates. The next step is to support people through the transition from thinking about change to actually making the change, with an element being to address fears of social exclusion for uncut women: alternative rites is one strategy; another is to bring whole villages to make an “FGM-free” declaration that will help to reduce fears of ostracism. There is evidence that this whole-community approach can work in the longer term.

So what can we do? It is frustrating that the process is slow, it is frustrating that there is no easy answer, no quick fix. No petition to sign, no angry letter to write, no big corporation to boycott. What can we do? As outsiders, it seems to me that all we can do is to support the grass-roots movements and projects, to support people who are actually out there doing it. Donating what we can, and hand-wringing otherwise.

It seems so little, and meanwhile the cutting goes on.

This is the sort of thing that only a woman who has done footprinting with toddlers could contemplate: it takes a really surprising amount of organisation.

There are presently a number of campaigns going on to highlight and raise money for girls and women in developing countries, especially African countries, especially but not only Zimbabwe where, according to an often-quoted statistic, a packet of tampons costs half a month’s wages and women cannot afford them. (Having said that, they often can’t afford food either, even if there were food to buy.)

The problem is that girls and women find themselves unable to manage their periods hygienically or discreetly. This can cause various problems – it can make it difficult or impossible for a girl to attend school or a woman to work if they are unable to manage their blood, with obvious short and long term consequences for them and for their families. Some girls may also wish to hide their menarche from their fathers or other relatives because they know that this sign of sexual maturation is likely to lead to their being taken out of school and married off. So, yes, it is a big problem.

My concern, though, is to be clear on the root causes of these problems, and to understand the motivation of those who seem to offer help. Only then can we have any sort of idea what to do next.

The two big campaigns I have heard about are “Dignity, Period” which seems to be funded by Bodyform (who as Erika points out are owned by Nestle) and “Protecting Futures”, a North American campaign funded by Always/Tampax (owned by Proctor & Gamble). Where names like Nestle and P&G are involved, I am on my guard. Erika sets out pretty much every reason we have to be worried about the involvement of these big companies in the promotion of disposable sanpro for developing countries.

[Correction: Bodyform is not in fact owned by Nestle but by SCA, another global corporation, albeit with a less toxic reputation.]

Infant formula was heavily promoted by big-hitting global companies in poor countries, companies who presented themselves as giving aid and doing good works, companies who evidently did not care that they were destroying a healthy culture of breastfeeding, destroying women’s knowledge of breastfeeding in favour of a dangerous and unsustainable artificial product. They did not care that women in countries with little or no access to clean running water could not use formula milk without creating an extremely serious risk of killing their babies through infections, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and so on. They did it anyway.

A question I would like to ask Bodyform and Always/Tampax – how much money are you putting into promoting this cause, and advertising the campaigns? and how much money are you raising? Would it be cheaper just to buy a shipment of sanpro and send it over? Or is that missing the point?

Yes, it’s missing the point. Of course it is. The point of these campaigns is not to raise money or awareness or to do what would be most useful to the women and girls who are actually at the butt end of the problem – the point is to promote Bodyform, Always and Tampax in the West and to open up markets in the developing world. The point is to make us believe that BigSanPro is benevolent, and to make women in developing countries believe (as we already believe) that they need Western pads and tampons instead of more sustainable and/or traditional solutions.

Why isn’t dispoable sanpro aid a good solution? Here’s a few reasons:

  • When the campaign is over and the freebies have run out, the women will be in the same position as they were before.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they may find that their traditional knowledge has been undermined and overwhelmed by the Disposable Message.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because used sanitary towels will be piling up in the streets*.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they will be contributing to carbon emissions and environmental damage that is most likely to affect, guess who? – the very people that this aid has “helped”.

(*When do the rubbish collectors come round in Zimbabwe? Tuesdays? Thursdays?)

OK, so what might help?

Starting with actual menstruation products, I’ve heard recently about two projects which seem to have much more mileage in them than the Great Western Disposable Solution:

1. In an edition of From Our Own Correspondent at the weekend (I think you’ve just about time to listen to it, if you catch this post in the next day or two – it’s towards the end of the World Service edition), there was an item about a project in Uganda where a small factory has been set up to turn weeds into sanitary pads. Apparently these plants grow everywhere, and they are really absorbent naturally so don’t need to be processed anything like as much as the paper or cotton-based pads, so they are much much cheaper than buying imported Western sanpro. I imagine that they will also decompose much more rapidly than Western sanpro which is obviously also important. Women work in the factory, earning money to support themselves and their families, and everyone wins.

2. Poverty Action Lab are doing some research in Nepal into the viability of menstrual cups as a sustainable way for women in developing countries to manage their periods in an age where (sadly!) sitting on moss or straw for a few days just isn’t a realistic option any more. Every reader of this blog now knows what a fan I am of menstrual cups and even if you don’t it must be obvious that this is a far more sustainable solution than paper pads: you only need one of them, and it can be reused month after month for years; they are relatively easy to keep clean even without access to running water (rinse or wipe as often as you can, then boil it up once a month); no waste, no pad-miles, no bloody pads piling up all around the town… What’s not to like?

Turning away from sustainable menstrual products, I want to briefly mention some other issues that are highly relevant.

Access to clean, running water. If people had plenty of clean water to use, they could wash their pads, mooncups, camel skins, or whatever and would not need expensive, wasteful Western “luxuries” like disposable pads.

(And, apart from the 70,001 other problems of not having access to clean water, there is this one: if you cannot wash your hands after you change a pad, then you probably aren’t going to go to work/school even with paper pads. Ironically, the very thing that makes washable pads difficult to manage also makes the “saviour” paper pads difficult to manage. )

Access to clean, running water. This one’s so unbelievably important that I’ll say it again. Give some money to Water Aid (an actual charity, unlike Nestle or P&G). You can buy two taps for £12. Now that’s what I call a Christmas present.

Give them water, and they will go.

Appropriate toilet facilities at schools. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they do not want to deal with their blood in a shared, open latrine.

Give them privacy, and they will go.

Culture of shame, pubescent marriage and sexual harrassment. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they don’t want people to know. That’s a Western problem too – a blob of menses on a pair of white jeans being spotted by a boy they fancy is probably the most embarrassing thing that most Western teenage girls could think of… Yet in many places the girls face much worse than embarrassment: menstruation may be accompanied by genuine ostracism, by horror and disgust; menstruation as a sign of sexual maturation may be accompanied by increasing sexual harassment, even by male teachers, and by increasing pressure from relatives to get married, even before school is out.

Give them safety, and they will go.

Further reading:

New York Times: Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet

best quote: In Guinea, enrollment rates for girls from 1997 to 2002 jumped 17 percent after improvements in school sanitation, according to a recent Unicef report. The dropout rate among girls fell by an even bigger percentage. Schools in northeastern Nigeria showed substantial gains after Unicef and donors built thousands of latrines, trained thousands of teachers and established school health clubs, the agency contends.

New York Times: A Not-So-Simple Plan To Keep African Girls In School

best quote: The question, of course, is what’s in it for Procter? A great deal, marketing experts say. For one, girls who use free pads today can turn into paying customers when they grow out of the school programs. They could persuade their mothers and aunts to use the products. “When you need to change a culture, it’s good strategy to start with the younger generation,” said Jill Avery, an assistant professor of marketing at the Simmons School of Management… Lisa Jones Christensen, an assistant professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, who is familiar with Procter’s philanthropy programs, says that Procter receives special treatment when its containers hit Kenya’s docks. “No one is saying, ‘Just unload the pads, leave the boxes of Tide,’ ” she said. “This program is giving P&G a license to operate in Africa for all its products.”

School Sanitation toolkit

worst quote: Girls will not use [toilet] facilities that are situated in an isolated location because of the risk of rape or harassment. This problem of rape and harassment at school toilets has been mainly reported for the Southern part of Africa. In a Medical Research Council survey conducted in South African schools in 2000, over 30 percent of girls reported being raped at school.

Finally, I’d like to give an honourable mention to Grace, who is indeed a very nice woman, and inspired this post.

I seem to be glued to this blog today – it’s this “Qatif girl” case that I can’t get out of my mind. I just checked on BBC website and the latest story is all about the USA reaction and in particular George Bush’s utter refusal to condemn this unbelievable demonstration of Saudi Arabia’ state-sponsored misogyny.

There is still nothing on the reaction of our own government!

I have just written to my MP to ask him what our government makes of it all. If we all write to our MPs asking them to raise the matter with government then at least they will have to come out one way or the other, condemning what has happened (is happening) or not. That has to be something, right?

Writing to your MP is easy, you can do it online here, as long as you know your postcode and what you want to say:

My message is pasted below. Feel free to make use of it, but please bear in mind that, as WriteToThem rightly point out, MPs tend to take you much more seriously if you make up your own words (and the website doesn’t accept copy-paste messages anyway).

Dear [my MP]

I have been reading and hearing about a case in Saudi Arabia in which a 19 year old woman (described as “the Qatif girl”) has been sentenced to 6 months in prison and 200 lashes after she was raped by a gang of seven men.

I am completely amazed at this case, which is extreme even for Saudi Arabia. I note that some countries are making official representations to the Saudi authorities about it. For example, I understand that Canada has condemned the conviction and sentence of this victim as “barbaric” – which of course it is.

Can you please find out what the UK government response will be and whether some sort of official protest or condemnation will be forthcoming?

Thank you, etc

I don’t cry much because I’m a hardhearted bitch. This made me cry. Those kids.

(This has been around on all sorts of people’s blogs all year. I only just noticed it though…)

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