Object AGM… time for a regional group in Northern Ireland.

Last weekend I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the AGM of feminist activist group Object, of which I am a member. I’m expecting some of you will have heard of them, given the media spotlight they’ve been pushed into over the last year, emerging as the face of progressive feminism in the UK and attracting the support of many young women who are sick and tired of the climate of sexism and objectification in which we are forced to live.

I’ve been a member for a few months now and have been hugely impressed by their successes. Janice Turner, writing in The Times, colourfully summarises their ‘Stripping the Illusion Campaign’ which brought about a change in the licensing of lap dancing clubs which allows local councils to classify them as ‘sex entertainment venues’. It was a campaign won on the victory of common sense over profit – given that clubs are currently licensed in the same classification as cafes, the public responded to Object’s requests for support with agreement that we should call a spade a spade.

At last Saturday’s AGM we heard more about the campaign as well as the even more ambitious ‘Demand Change’ campaign which also resulted in changes to the law after months of public awareness, petitioning and lobbying MPs and Peers. The subject of this campaign was the urgent issue of sexual exploitation which enslaves people, particularly women and girls, in our own towns and cities. Object, in partnership with Eaves, were seeking a clause in the Policing and Crime bill which would render the consumers of the sex trade open to prosecution if they use the services of people who have been forced or coerced. After a lot of work by a relatively small group of dedicated and passionate activists (women and men) Clause 14 passed. And guess what folks… it freaking applies in Northern Ireland too. No shit.

Fiona McTaggart, MP extrordinaire, spoke on Saturday about her experience of the campaign and her thoughts on what the next stage should be. Her feeling is that those same activists who made this happen should work on embedding this change in the consciousness of our communities. As yet, no one really knows about it. It will no doubt be implemented slowly and will require the efforts of local people to engage with local government to lobby for policy to be developed and local policing to call for proper strategy so that those who deserve prosecution for their disgusting disregard for the suffering and fear of another human being can be properly dealt with. McTaggart describes herself as a libertarian but criticized the liberal assumption that the rights of individual women to sell their bodies and individual men to buy them, should not be tampered with. She quoted the UN special envoy on trafficking in reminding us that such liberal ideology is all well in good in theory but it reflects nothing of the reality of prostitution “as it is actually practiced” in every country in the world. Those who call for the legalisation of sex work ignore the facts that have emerged from countries who have been pursuing such experiments over the years. While we are still some way from the Nordic model which recognises the need to protect women and prosecute punters, what Clause 14 does is begins to tackle the demand side of this industry with the potential therefore to cut the constant supply of women and girls brought here under false pretenses and forced into sexual slavery.

Personally, I want to get on board with this. I don’t want to wait a couple of years for NIO to get their act together and filter this through while women in brothels in our own wee country continue to suffer and pimps and punters continue to sustain their pain.

In addition, Object have been conducting regular actions (Feminist Fridays) against newsagents who stock lad mags and display them on eye level, often at the same shelf height as children’s comics. The aim is to have these sexist mags that represent the damaging pornification of our culture, kept where they should be – top shelf, with the rest of the porn and covered to the title so parents don’t have to explain to their impressionable children why the lady has no clothes on and is bending over for all the men to look at her private parts. In March there will be a nationwide Feminist Friday and I think it would be great if Belfast was on the map.

I know a few brave people are keen but I’m convinced there are way more than that. 44 of us protested the UlsterTrader ad. If we organised a monthly activist meeting with Feminist Fridays and plans to lobby for the implementation of Clause 14, how many of you would come along? I’m excited just thinking about it.

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