WI spurns lavish monuments for community-based projects


Arts Correspondent

Self-defence courses for all women, better street lighting and community policing to help women and families feel safe are the sort of millennium schemes being urged by the Independent's last alternative millennium commission.

This group, consisting of five senior members of the Women's Institute in Wales, may have looked on paper a safe and conservative alternative commission. Instead, it proved radical and challenging.

Just like last week's alternative commisssion of sixth formers, our five women have rejected a key basic premise of the Millennium Commission - grand new buildings and cultural schemes that make a statement about Britain. Instead they want money spent on schemes to help women and families, and those living in rural areas. Rather than a new opera house, lavish festival or monument, they prefer government schemes to guide the nation in healthy eating and a national helpline for carers in the community.

The members of our alternative commission, all aged between 45 and 60, were: Rhiannon Bevan, general secretary of the national federation who lives in Cardiff; Katherine Hughes, rural affairs officer from Caerphilly; Mary Thomas and Bethan Williams from Dyfed; and Dilwen Phillips from Barry, south Glamorgan.

"We felt brand new buildings are a red herring," said Mrs Bevan. "Wales has the highest percentage of retired people in the UK and also the highest percentage of people on low incomes. We need investment in the rural areas. Also, more women are retraining and returning to work because of the decline in agriculture, and we need better quality childcare facilities."

Their deliberations showed a dual concern for women and for the difficulties of living in rural areas, and their recommendations reflected both concerns.

Members wanted adequate provision of rural transport and communication at local community levels to reduce the sense of isolation. They also called for the development of more cycle paths in Wales, investment in the development of community centres and village halls, and millennium grants to develop co-operative village shops as one-stop centres of information and advice.

The group insisted that there should be better provision of childcare facilities for women to assist them in returning to work or education and retraining.

The women were also concerned that the new millennium should be marked by schemes providing greater opportunities for women to serve on public bodies. "We are the ones who use the services, are the consumers, go to the primary schools, go to the doctors' surgeries, yet too often our voices aren't heard," said Mrs Bevan.

They were adamant that health and well-being should be an area of major concern for the commission, calling for schemes to guide the nation in healthy eating and access to sport for all, together with greater support for carers, including national and local helplines. They also wanted a nation-wide scheme of lifesaving courses taught and self-defence courses for all women.

But they also suggested two schemes that would uniquely mark the millennium. The first was a giant tapestry depicting village life throughout the country with each area designing their own contribution. The second was a national audit of villages showing what facilities they had and what facilities they needed. It would also become a historic record. The group proposed that the WI, with its 280,000 members, could organise this.

tNext week: ideas suggested by Independent readers. Send ideas to David Lister, Millennium, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London, E14 5DL.

The key proposals

8 Better child care facilities for women

8 Self defence courses for all women

8 Government scheme to encourage healthy eating

8 Safety provision for families, e.g street lighting

8 A tapestry depicting village life

8 Cycle paths for Wales

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