At the time of writing, I’ve just returned from NUS Women’s Conference 2016 where, in my capacity as Warwick Women’s Officer, I acted as the Union’s voting delegate and representative. Thus far in my time as Women’s Officer at Warwick, I’ve felt wholly welcomed and motivated by women I’ve corresponded with across NUS, and Conference was much the same. I met delegates from all over the UK, discussed problems faced by the national women’s movement, voted on motions, attended plenaries and engaged with workshops. We also voted in our new leaders for the year, which saw Hareem Ghani elected NUS Women’s Officer - the first Muslim to hold the position. From all of that activity, it would be a shame not to share some of the highlights with those I am accountable to on my own campus!
Unions across NUS had submitted motions for debate prior to the conference, and these were spread out for discussion and voting across the three days. A whole spectrum of issues were brought to Conference floor, including (but not limited to) abortion rights, feminism and interfaith, women of colour’s mental health, PSHE, Queer representation, childcare, supporting student survivors, accessibility, and a fairly meta motion on how we should write motions. The majority of these motions passed, including the decision to introduce a full-time Trans Officer to NUS, which will make its way to National Conference for further approval in a few weeks’ time.
A discussion was also raised around the topic of working-class representation within Unions and the NUS, which is a conversation that appears to be rippling through NUS at the moment and is something that I’m sure we could facilitate at Warwick as well. Three pro-choice policies were passed, with one of the contributors from Birmingham Guild asking for help on an upcoming demonstration against pro-life campaigners in their city on 14th May 2016.
It wasn’t all about policy, though. As insightful as it was to read about what unions want and expect from their movement through these motions – and I hope that Warwick students can contribute policy in upcoming years – much of the conference’s value came from the workshop and plenary sessions.
The first plenary on education featured Leeds Education Officer Melissa Owusu, NUS VP FE Shakira Martin, Dr Jessica Gagnon and Dr Victoria Showunmi, which allowed for a hugely empowering conversation about the specific issues that women of colour face in the education system. Melissa recounted how her degree didn’t look like her – for example, being taught that black movements are reactions to white movements, rather than often pre-dating them. Shakira, whose work in NUS is focused on school-leavers’ education, offered a rousing speech on the lived experience of education; she vented that students care about surviving, not procedural motions. Further striking comments made by Shakira detailed how we can’t access feminism until we access education, and how we should use oppression as a driving force, not as our dwelling point.
Next, a plenary on violence against women brought together activists protesting multiple forms of violence. Katie Russell from Rape Crisis spoke of the importance of meaningful partnerships between SUs and crisis centres; Warwick’s partnership with local centre CRASAC is only going to strengthen in coming years as we collaborate on preventing sexual violence on campus and supporting survivors when it happens. Also relevant to Warwick SU was the speech from Rowan Davies of Sisters Uncut; a Coventry group of Sisters Uncut has recently been founded to engage in direct action against cuts to funds which help survivors of domestic abuse. Other panellists spoke about FGM, the state of gendered violence in Northern Ireland, and the actions of Femen against Muslim women.
Creating an intersectional movement understanding of everyone’s needs was a subject widely covered through workshops and another plenary I attended. Fope Olaleye, a student at Newcastle University, encouraged delegates to educate themselves about others’ oppressions rather than leaving it to marginalised groups to educate everyone else. Jess Bradley from Action for Trans Health, said: “Inclusion isn’t being nice, it’s about caring for each other so we can be dangerous together.” Meanwhile, activists Antonia Bright and Samayya Afzal shared their experiences of campaigning against detention centres and supporting refugees respectively. Some top tips coming out of the intersectionality workshop were to consider the aim, content, accessibility and advertising of every campaign to ensure inclusivity.
The other workshop I attended was on ‘Tackling Lad Culture’, which was very student-led. We conversed about the challenges we face at our unions and universities, and tried to formulate solutions. Tellingly, when feeding back to the wider group, every group had something to say about sport clubs and the way in which lad culture is reproduced through them - whether it be through their drinking culture, initiations process or ‘pack behaviour’. Other issues that were identified were how each campus appears to have a block of accommodation that is held up as the bastion of lad culture, and how local club promoters facilitate lad culture in their promotional material. I look forward to working with Ted Crowson (Sports Officer Elect) and Marissa Beatty (Societies Officer Elect) in the coming year to see how we can make every club, society, group and space on campus respectful of others and accessible to all, in a way that isn’t seen as ‘boring’ or ‘imposed’ by those involved.
Coming out of Conference, then, I’m as enthused as ever to further educate myself, campaign and get to work!
NUS Women's Officer-Elect: @HareemGhani
Sisters Uncut, Coventry: www.facebook.com/SistersCovWarks
What Women Want Census Campaign: www.thisiswhatwomenwant.org