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Thursday 9 March 2017

Statement by BARAC UK & Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice representatives on withdrawal from the Women of the World (WOW) festival

Statement by Zita Holbourne, Co-Chair:  Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) UK & Donna McKoy, Chair: Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice (SRCfJ).
During this week commencing 6 March, we have been in dialogue with Jude Kelly, Artistic Director at the Southbank Centre regarding the decision to host a rapist at the Women of the World (WOW) Festival this weekend, in ‘South of Forgiveness’. 
Whilst we respect the right of Thordis Elva to deal with being raped in the way she feels is right for her, we do not accept the imposition of her rapist's presence on other women, some of whom may also be survivors of rape and at risk of being further traumatised by his presence. That WOW could ever have considered it acceptable to schedule a male rapist to address a woman's festival with no apparent concern for the impact of his presence, or the response, is astonishing. We also take issue with some of the implied messages in the presentation of their story. For example…
Elva’s rapist, Tom Stranger, has never been prosecuted for his crime, yet he is being provided a public platform that literally and figuratively elevates him, and appears to glorify rape.  
Elva and Stranger speak of meeting in South Africa to discuss the rape referencing the inspiration received from Truth and Reconciliation, the restorative justice that followed the abolition of apartheid, as one reason for this being an appropriate meeting place. We find this entirely inappropriate given that what we see today are the lingering and oppressive political and economic legacies of apartheid continuing to haunt South Africa.  
Elva speaks of a "normal" person who is raped "drinking a bottle of vodka and going to therapy". This is concerning on several levels. What constitutes "normal"? Isn’t the implication that the alternative is to be "abnormal"? The suggestion that all women drink alcohol ignores millions of women who for many and varied reasons (including personal, religious and/or cultural reasons) do not drink alcohol. It also disregards women who are displaced, living in poverty, or deprivation, who have no access to healthcare or therapy, women who because of stigma, shame or fear cannot or will not be in a position to tell anyone that they were raped, women who may be raped at knife point during conflict and war.
Jude Kelly has said that we need to change the focus of the discourse on rape from the victims to the perpetrators, but there will always need to be a focus on women who are victims of rape, because they are the ones impacted.
Whilst discourse on men as perpetrators needs to take place, we feel the decision made by the organisers of the WOW Festival to host a man who has never been prosecuted or sentenced for his crime, who has a book deal and tours the world promoting the book like a celebrity, is misguided.
We were pleased to learn that Jude Kelly had listened, not just to our voices, but to the voices of countless other women raising concerns about the presentation, and was removing the session from the Festival. However, we are concerned that the statement issued by WOW refers not to the importance of the women who raised concerns, many of whom are survivors and members of support groups, but rather to the importance of the event.
The fact that it will still take place at the same venue a couple of days later is deeply disappointing. The event has now been opened to the public and it has also been confirmed that WOW ticket holders will be invited to the talk at no additional cost. In this way, as stated by Jude Kelly, it will "enable as many people as possible to contribute outside a festival context". It is still, therefore, a WOW event. It is broadening the potential audience and further elevating the talk and disregarding or marginalising the voices of those who raised concerns. The statement reads as if the conversations she had, including with the two of us, were calling for the talk to have more prominence rather than what we were actually doing, calling for it to be removed from the Women of the World, an event designed to celebrate and honour women.
Sarah Reed was the victim of sexual violence whilst in hospital. When she defended herself, it was Sarah not the perpetrator who was arrested. Despite suffering a diagnosed mental health condition, she was imprisoned in Holloway, denied her medication and died in her cell under suspicious circumstances. An inquest into her death commences in April. Why is a rapist's voice elevated above Sarah's and the voices of other women like her?
We work in the trade union movement and communities to campaign for equality and justice. We see no equality or justice in providing a platform to a rapist who has never been punished on which to promote himself.
We have been invited to a "replacement" session on Saturday but feel unable in all good conscience to participate. We also do not feel it appropriate to participate in the sessions for which we were originally scheduled. Additionally, will we not be participating in the talk rescheduled to take place next week at Southbank. We have withdrawn from participating in this year’s WOW Festival for all the reasons stated above.
We will continue to support and work with WOW. However, in this instance, it is vital that we hold our allies to account and challenge their oppressive and inappropriate practices however difficult it may be.

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