News & Current Affairs

September 10, 2008

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

The class gap must be narrowed in an effort to improve people’s life chances, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman has said.

She told the TUC annual conference that “equality matters more than ever” and “is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy”.

Ms Harman called for more “clarity of evidence” to suggest the government was making progress on the issue.

But the Conservatives accused her of re-opening the “class war”.

Union criticism

Ms Harman’s comments come after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in an interview with Monitor magazine that “social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted”.

They will be seen by many as an attempt by the government to rally the unions to Labour, after widespread criticism over the level of public sector pay and demands for a windfall tax on energy firms’ profits.

Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader and minister for women and equality, told delegates at the TUC conference in Brighton: “Equality matters more than ever and it is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy.

“We have made great progress on tackling inequality but we know that inequality doesn’t just come from your gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. What overarches all of these is where you live, your family background, your wealth and social class.

“While we have helped millions of people over the last ten years through policies like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage, we want to do more.

“To advance equality through our public policy, we need clarity of evidence and focus on the gaps in society and how they have changed over the last 10 years.”

Ms Harman announced that the government’s National Equality Unit would be headed by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics.

She said: “The robust evidence base that the panel will produce will help us properly target measures to address persisting equality gaps and build on the good work that we have already done.”

‘Sidling up’

Ms Harman accused the Conservatives of being “false friends of equality” and of “sidling up to the unions”.

For the Conservatives, shadow leader of the Commons Theresa May said: “I am astounded that Harriet Harman is dismissing the equality issues around race and gender.”

She added: “I also find it surprising that she should raise issues of social equality when she’s part of government that has been in power for over 11 years, presiding over a 900,000 growth in the number of people living in severe poverty and over a country that has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

“Labour has made poverty more entrenched and returning to the class warfare rhetoric of 20 years ago is neither helpful nor realistic.”


Do you agree with Harriet Harman? Has your child suffered due to a class gap? Has your family benefited through policies like Sure Start or tax credits?

Send your comments

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August 30, 2008

Two bodies found at arson house

Police have revealed that two bodies have been recovered from the burnt-out Shropshire home of a millionaire and his family.

Christopher Foster, 50, his wife Jillian, 49, and daughter Kirstie, 15, who lived at Osbaston House, near Maesbrook, are all missing.

The building was deliberately set alight early on Tuesday, police said.

The remains will be examined by a Home Office pathologist and postmortem examinations will be carried out later.

West Mercia Police said the bodies were found in the main part of the house overnight on Friday, but the search of the property is likely to take some days, possibly several weeks.

It is going to be a painstaking and lengthy process before the full examination of the house and its surrounds is completed
Supt Gary Higgins

Police said they were not able to give any further details such as the gender or age of the bodies which were found.

Formal identification would take place in the future and there were a range of techniques which could help, such as dental records and DNA profiles, Supt Gary Higgins said.

He added: “It is going to be a painstaking and lengthy process before the full examination of the house and its surrounds is completed.

“In the meantime, we will keep an open mind concerning what we may, or may not find.”

Mr Higgins said all possible lines of inquiry were being followed up.

Christopher, Jillian and Kirstie Foster

Special prayers will be said for the family at a church service on Sunday

Police have retrieved two computers from the house and are examining them as part of their inquiries.

Forensic teams were able to move into the main part of the house by mid-afternoon on Friday after access was delayed by falling debris.

Three horses found dead in a stable block, which was also gutted in the fire, have now been examined and police are awaiting test results.

Detectives also confirmed the bodies of three dogs had been found close to the horses and a large horse box, parked close to the gates of the property, had been removed from the site for forensic examination.

CCTV cameras from the property have also been taken away by police.

Firm in administration

Special prayers will be said for the Foster family at a church service in Maesbrook on Sunday.

The service, at St John’s Church at 1000 BST, will be open to members of the public and the media.

The Fosters had been at a friend’s barbecue on Monday evening before returning home later.

The fire in the house, thought to be valued at £1.2m, started at about 0500 BST on Tuesday.

Mr Foster, who made his fortune developing insulation technology for oil rigs, is listed as the director of Ulva Limited – a thermal insulation manufacturing company in Telford – with Mrs Foster named as company secretary.

The firm went into administration in August last year and a court order was issued in November for the company to be wound up.

A judge later found Mr Foster had spent the previous months stripping Ulva of its assets and transferring them to a new firm he had set up called Ulva International.

Anyone with information has been asked to contact West Mercia Police’s incident room at Shrewsbury or Crimestoppers.

August 20, 2008

Struggling with India’s gender bias

Struggling with India’s gender bias

The number of female foetuses being aborted in India is rising, as ultrasound is increasingly used to predict the sex of babies.

What would you do if your husband’s family did not want you to have daughters – and insisted you took steps to make sure it did not happen?

Would you walk out or would you stay on and take a chance?

What if the bias against girls is reflected across society? Would that mean you could not make it on your own?

Vaijanti is an Indian woman who says she faces this dilemma.

She lives in the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, perhaps the world’s most famous monument to a woman, the wife of a Mughal emperor.

“I had a lot of dreams in my heart,” Vaijanti says, “just like in the movies… but now I think of love as a betrayal.”

Vaijanti has taken her husband to court, saying he and his family insisted that she have an abortion because a scan showed she was expecting a girl.

Having already had one daughter, she says the pressure to abort the second child was intense.

So Vaijanti moved out of the marital home and now lives apart from her husband – with her two girls.

Gender skew

Testing and aborting for gender selection are illegal in India and Vaijanti’s husband and in-laws deny the charges against them.

Despite the obvious bitterness between her and her husband’s family, reconciliation is still possible.

Girl child

Girls still face discrimination in modern Indian society

But Vaijanti was unsure of what to do next. We wanted to find out if she thought India really is a country biased against young girls.

Despite the law, some Indians clearly are using ultrasound techniques to scan for female foetuses, in order to abort them.

Figures suggest as many as a million such foetuses could be aborted every year in India.

It is unlikely nature alone accounts for this gender skew – in Delhi, for instance, only 821 girls are born for every 1,000 boys.

Many Indian families regard daughters as a liability.

Expensive dowries must be arranged for their weddings and they frequently move into their husband’s households – making it less likely they will support ageing parents.

As Vaijanti had never travelled beyond Agra, director Nupur Basu took her on a whistle-stop tour of India.

In Rajasthan, she meets Jasbir Kaur, who left her husband after facing a similar predicament.

Told she should abort her girl triplets, she decided to go ahead and have them anyway.

She is a potential role model for Vaijanti, telling her: “You must educate your girls. Don’t lose courage. Don’t feel alone.”

Although millions of Indian girls are still left out of formal education, Jasbir Kaur’s three girls are doing fine in the local school.

Icon of globalization

In Delhi, there is good and bad news. Vaijanti meets women who have come into Delhi filled with hope, but end up begging on the streets.

In many places, boys are unable to agree to find girls to marry. Because of this, the nation will soon face an unimaginable crisis
Renuka Chowdhury
Minister for women

She also visits a disco for the first time in her life – no den of iniquity but a place where she meets some bright young women with good cheer and strong advice.

In Bangalore, there are also two sides to the picture.

This is the city that is world famous as an icon of globalisation and woman’s empowerment.

It has young girls working in IT, making good careers, and scooting around town on mopeds, listening to their iPods.

But there is another Bangalore – where some families still demand the expensive dowries traditionally given by a bride’s family to the in-laws.

And while Bangalore’s senior managers may encourage women, younger men may still question their qualifications and their right to work.

Finally Nupur also takes Vaijanti to Mahatma Gandhi’s retreat, where she hears that the revered leader was concerned about the bias against women.

Writer Tridip Suhrud says Mahatma Gandhi “would have been deeply perturbed with this entire social surge of… civilization to acquire this hard militant, masculine self-identity”.

He adds: “He would have fought it with femininity.”

‘Grave situation’

We wanted to make this film after a leading development expert, Kevin Watkins, suggested India had a curiously ambivalent role in the globalisation debate.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was conceived as a monument to an emperor’s wife

Its booming economy is cause for hope, and the government is clearly concerned about both gender and economic inequality.

But if huge swathes of the populace do not share the increasing wealth, the whole Indian model of development may be called into question.

Meantime, Vaijanti’s immediate concern is India’s missing girls – unborn because of the desire to have boys.

Vaijanti and Nupur call on Renuka Chowdhury, the minister for women, who says: “This is a very, very grave situation.”

She adds: “In many places, boys are unable to agree to find girls to marry. Because of this, the nation will soon face an unimaginable crisis.”

When Vaijanti left Agra she was quiet but watchful. At the journey’s end, she is calm and eloquent as she weighs up whether to seek reconciliation with her husband’s family.

“I feel at peace… I will go back to Agra now and think about what I should do for my daughters and myself. I will go back and think about my decision.”


A selection of your comments on this story:

Nowadays females are doing much better in many fields. I think it is time now that men pay a dowry to see how it feels. We as men would not have been here without women. In our family women have studied at a higher level than the men, so where is the difference? I have daughter and son, and as my daughter is older, I have explained to her that she will be the head of the household after us in all aspects.
Ganesh, Vijayawada, India

How very sad and so short-sighted to consider abortion because of gender. Some parts of China already face a serious shortage of women for the very same reason. Why can’t people recognise that both genders are valuable but for very different reasons? As someone who strongly advocates a woman’s right to reproductive choices, it seems to me that the worldwide problem is not gender, but rather overpopulation.
Lisa, United States

The practice of dowry-giving by the bride’s family devalues women in society and is responsible for the widespread practice of aborting female foetuses. The skewing of boys to women born to families represents a social time-bomb. The law in India must be rigorously enforced with immediate effect.
Shouvik Datta, Prague, Czech Republic

I don’t understand why in Indian and European cultures, the tradition of the woman’s family paying a dowry to the man’s came about. In Chinese culture, the dowry or “bride-gold” is paid by the man’s family – which makes a lot more sense considering how much labour and other economic benefits a housewife ends up contributing in an old-fashioned family.
Shi-Hsia Hwa, Penang, Malaysia

This article creates an impression that the cause of all the gender bias in India are males. That is not what I saw when growing up in India. Several of the discriminatory, abusive practices against females are carried on by females themselves. Many times men have no part in this, nor do they have such intentions.
Kamal, Portland, USA

India is definitely a country biased against young girls and I am stating this as a fact, being a girl born in India. It is still a matter of pride to bear a male child and people still express their deep sympathy for a girl child. It sickens and saddens me to see so much hypocrisy in our society where goddesses are worshipped in temples and female babies are aborted and killed at homes.
Anisa Chaudhary, USA

My mother was one of these ladies. She was married at the age of twelve and was pregnant by the age of thirteen and a half. My father found out that I was going to be a girl and ordered my mother to have an abortion. When she refused, he and my grandfather beat her. A tourist saw them and stopped them. My mother married this wonderful stranger who brought her here and accepted me as his daughter.
Nia, Johannesburg, South Africa

August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

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