Let's stick to the really important issues. Like bingo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"WATCHING these films made me feel inadequate as a man and a doctor," an MP observed as we sat in uneasy silence in a committee room at the House of Commons last Tuesday evening. We had just seen a series of short films made to publicise the Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights drawn up by the International Planned Parenthood Federation - a dry-sounding document whose impact on women's lives, if it is ever implemented worldwide, will be far-reaching. Legalistic language, such as "the right to the benefits of scientific progress", means that people should have access to the latest knowledge about methods of contraception and protection against HIV - not just an issue for women but one which, like the other 11 clauses, affects them disproportionately.

This aspect of the charter has been brought to life in a series of one- minute dramas which show Latvian child prostitutes waiting nervously for clients in a brothel and an Afghan woman dying in childbirth because her Taliban husband will not permit her to see a male doctor. It's hard-hitting stuff and I was curious to see how the MPs and peers who turned up for the screening would react. They had been invited by Martyn Jones, the Welsh MP who chairs the All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, and the viewing included a couple of short documentaries about female genital mutilation. Six thousand girls are mutilated every day in Africa and Mr Jones described the films as "very gruelling". Surveying the small gathering, he added: "I wish we had more members of both houses here to see them."

A peer in the front row was the first person to react when the viewing was over. "I don't mean to criticise," he began, addressing the producer, Charlotte Metcalf, and the IPPF's assistant general secretary, Pramilla Senanayake, "but I rather felt you were giving Western people a sense of superiority. I'm not being negative but 10 years ago this was regarded as a cultural matter." Cultural practices that harm people, Ms Senanayake responded, should not be defended on grounds of tradition. And the problems addressed in the films - young women being driven into prostitution by poverty, say - are as relevant in Glasgow as they are in Guatemala City.

AT OTHER screenings in this country, Charlotte Metcalf has been accused of being "anti-man", as though dramatising the plight of women is an attack on their husbands and fathers rather than on outdated assumptions. Interestingly this reaction was not shared by the male actors she used, many of them from the countries where the dramas are set. The Afghan exile who played the Taliban husband threw himself into the part, confiding that he loathed what the Taliban were doing to his country and particularly to Afghan women. But the air of unease which surrounds the films may explain why Charlotte has been unable to persuade anyone in British television to show them. They've recently been screened in The Gambia, where each film was followed by a studio discussion and a phone-in. In Britain, no one at the BBC or Channel 4 has been able to find even a 12-minute slot for them.

So you'll have to accept my word for how effective they are and what a step forward the charter is for women. It does overlook one issue, however, which was drawn to my attention by a lavish visual display as I left the House of Commons. "The Bingo Industry shouts for fair play", it declared, announcing that "76 per cent of regular bingo players are women". Prostitution, HIV and genital mutilation suddenly fell into context; the pressing gender issue for British MPs is, obviously, a woman's right to play bingo.

BACK in the real world, the Prime Minister explained in Friday's Daily Mail that he had never endorsed the phrase Cool Britannia, which was an invention of "foreign journalists" to describe the "exciting changes" they've discerned in Britain. Cool Britannia, Mr Blair observed sniffily, implies "passing fashion, something of little lasting value" - the very last sentiments anyone would associate with New Labour or thrilling projects like the Millennium Dome. Mr Blair, or whichever member of his staff is charged with writing cheerleading articles in his name, admitted that "countries cannot be marketed like soap powders" but offered his own slogan to describe what's going on under New Labour: "Best of British".

No verb, no noun, and the spin doctors have failed to detect echoes of the "I'm backing Britain" campaign launched in the 1960s by that outstanding entrepreneur and Labour MP, Robert Maxwell. "Modern Britain," insists Mr Blair, "is good for business. That is why I go on about creativity, innovation, the importance of education." And go on he does, boasting about his "historic" meeting with the Prime Minister of China, Zhu Rongji. "Here is a prime minister, a moderniser if ever I met one, who is pushing through a programme of reform that will have huge economic implications."

The Chinese government's "modernisation" programme has little to say on human rights, a subject on which its record is shameful. But Mr Blair is a busy man and can only be expected to deal with one injustice at a time. Last week he turned his attention to an abuse of human rights here, namely the incarceration of Deirdre Rachid from Weatherfield. The Prime Minister is not allowed to intervene in such cases, conceded an official statement from No 10. "However, as a member of the public, he is entitled to a view and he believes that it is clear to anyone with eyes in their head she is innocent and she should be freed."

Mr Blair's decision to champion the cause of a character in a television series must have come as a surprise to the families of servicemen shot for cowardice during the First World War, who are still waiting to find out if their relatives are going to get the pardon they deserve. It must also have impressed Reg Kray, who has completed the 30-year tariff recommended by the judge at his trial but heard last week that his parole application has been turned down. Like Myra Hindley, he can now be classed as a political prisoner, in the sense that no government wants to risk the opprobrium of letting him out. But there aren't many votes in human rights and Mr Blair, as we've seen, prefers to concern himself with the fake controversies of soap opera.