POW!er Profiles : Rachel Bell

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Like many incomers, journalist and campaigner Rachel Bell moved here from the Seven Sisters/Tottenham area of London in 2011 ‘because I had children – two boys – and we felt ready to leave. My partner needs to commute back into town and my friend in Whitstable suggested this area. We’d never been but the spring time beach, buskers and house swung it.'

Having moved, she quickly discovered the advantages of living in a small town: ‘I like the fact that once you dip into something that interests you, you can make connections really quickly. And they all live nearby! Amazing! Some of my favourite things are Tom Thumb Theatre, Windmill Community Garden, the Bus Café, bike rides to the Wheels and Fins and Garden Gate festivals. There are so many great festivals, By the Sea, Looping the Loop, Ramsgate Festival, Broadstairs Folk Festival, Margate Festival – there was some great children’s theatre in the park and all-women hip hop last year. Summer is a good time to stick around.’

After six years, so much has changed. ‘Gentrification has accelerated in last few years as we all know. I’m a mother, so I don’t go out as much as I’d like, but it’s nice to know I can see The Very Best or Kathryn Williams at Ramsgate Music Hall and Manchester By the Sea at the Palace Cinema if I want to. For kids and teens, we need updated parks, outdoor skateparks – stuff close by to get them out and engaged. The beach isn’t enough.’

Rachel presented a talk at POW! Thanet in 2016 on Challenging Gender Stereotypes and Building Resilience to Sexualisation and she is keen to highlight the issues girls face in an age that sees them sexualised on unprecedented levels. ‘Women’s contributions, roles, voices and opportunities are historically devalued and you only have to look to mainstream media to see what women are celebrated for – white, thin, sexualised bodies with opinions that don’t challenge the status quo. The scale of online misogyny – a concern at government level – tells girls and women that speaking up puts you at risk – from rape and death threats to MP Jess Phillips to the bullying of Lily Allen for apologising for refugee crisis to the vilification of footballer Ched Evan’s victim. We have to tell girls and women their experience matters. Global male violence against women and girls, in its many forms, is silencing and killing us. Post Trump, our freedoms such as the right to safe abortion are being taken away. This is the time to be an active feminist – to do what you can in your local community, be vocal against cuts to services that shelter women and children from male violence, get men’s sports teams joining White Ribbon Campaign, challenge stereotypes in films and TV that tell boys they need to be tough to be a man, that tell girls their looks are what matters most,
get schools and youth centres to invite A Call To Men to show boys they don’t have to be dominant and hide emotions to ‘be a man’ 

‘One in three women and girls will be a victim of male violence in her lifetime, be it child abuse, sexual bullying at school – from routine name-calling to being groped – rape on campus, harassment at work, on public transport, revenge porn, stalking or domestic violence. Men in England and Wales kill two women, who are their partners or exes, every week. These are all reported as random, isolated incidents. The normalisation of porn is a big issue. 88% of scenes contain violence against women (see Culture Reframed to understand why we must help young people talk about its messages) whilst its impact on how girls and boys feel about what is acceptable for a female body is shown by the surge in ‘corrective’ surgeries (just one of many articles on it here) Popular culture drenched in sexism and narrow, objectified stereotypes while men’s demand to despoil and exploit younger (homeless, impoverished, immigrant) girls, and boys, in prostitution and child abuse shows the extent of paedophile culture. Family Abuse and Teen are top themes in mainstream porn. Girls grow up in a culture, backed up by institutions, that tells men they have entitlements and ownership of our bodies. We grow up denied the right to live our lives free from male violence.’

The ticking time bomb has already exploded. A 2105 police report found 5,500 sexual assaults including 600 rapes in UK schools in a three year period. The NSPCC tells us more than 25% of girls aged 13-17 experience intimate partner violence. We need statutory Sex and Relationships Education because it is cruel and reckless to leave young people to navigate the digital, pornified world alone. Events such as POW! Thanet show everyone that girls get to define themselves, they decide what their value is. In our communities we can start groups that learn from Radical Brownies, Rock Camp, B Supreme, Femme Fierce and Girl Guiding – they all challenge limiting and harmful gender stereotypes. Girl Guiding’s annual surveys are a valuable insight into how held back girls feel and why. From very young, princess culture sends messages that feed into early sexualisation. Girls, and boys, need to see women in a diverse range of roles to know they are enough, that they can express their true selves and be someone too.

Globally, other issues such as equal access to education, healthcare, safe abortion rights, ending child ‘marriage’, ending femicide from India to Latin America, ending FGM and acid attacks, honour killings and shamings, religious fundamentalism that seeks to control women’s sexualities and freedoms, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the rebranding of prostitution as ‘sex work’ are all realities that everyone should know about to understand the why everyone should ally with feminism. Girls and women are the world’s poorest, making them the most vulnerable. Feminism in London in October this year is such an amazing place to educate yourself on all these global issues, for young women to know they are not alone and to promote understanding that feminism values the humanity of boys and men. I see more young men there every year. There is enough equality to go around. It is the system and culture that feminists seek to change, and that includes allowing boys and men to be the whole range of things they want to be, not be put down for failing to conform to one mould of masculinity that is ‘tough’, for government and institutions to value fatherhood, indeed all parenting! – and much more. My articles on Being A Man and Sexist Culture Grooms Sexist Boys are examples of harm of gender stereotypes on both girls and boys.

Rachel will be giving a talk at POW! Thanet on Teaching Consent to children as young as three through to teens and young adulthood. She explains: 'I consulted with expert providers in Healthy Sex and Relationships Education doing just incredible, urgent work. I’m a journalist and campaigner with a focus on  sexual violence and challenging gender serotypes and this talk grew out of a piece I wrote for a Sex Education special in TES on Teaching Consent.

Public attitudes and reports show that huge swathes of the public think that alcohol rapes girls and women. It used to be short skirts. Victims themselves are encouraged to take the blame for the rapes that shatters lives long-term. It is the culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies that needs to be challenged to stop rape and sexual assault. As an example, my talk will give young people clarity on who is responsible if someone is drunk and intimate acts are desired. It will help parents, carers and educators of pre-school and primary age children help their kids recognise that they own their bodies and can practise consent through non-sexual interactions. The onslaught of child abuse scandals, mainstream porn and findings by Children’s Commissioner Simon Bailey tell us we live in a paedophile culture. We can teach children that it is their right to refuse physical contact and to recognise abusive behaviours in a gentle age-appropriate way. Girls, especially, are socialised to be nice so need to know they can say ‘No’ if they want to.

Young people, teenage boys, teenage girls, educators, parents, carers and people, women and men, working with the community are all welcome at Cliftonville Community Centre on Saturday 11 March at 1.30pm. I will be speaking about the rape crisis and the normalisation of hardcore porn but as these are very real issues that affect many teenagers, I suggest it is suitable for those age 14 onwards (the average age boys first view porn is 11).'

Looking back on 2016's Festival, she feels: 'Post Trump, post Women’s March, I imagine and hope that POW!Thanet will politicise, smash myths about feminism being emasculating or man-hating or for lezzers too ugly to rape or whatever and get girls and women, boys and men attuned to the urgency of a worldview that recognises women’s rights as human rights. I hope it will teach young girls and women to value their experiences, talents and voices in a world in which gender stereotypes defined by someone are so entrenched they can hold them back. The evidence out there is abundant. Just this morning, yet another study highlights how young these messages get through.' 

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Image from the Women's March by Lorie Shaull