The annual meeting is where all the WI representatives come together to vote on the activism topics that we will focus on for the next year. This year the topics to be voted on were “Prevent the Decline in Local Bus Services” and “Don’t Fear the Smear”. The meeting includes delegates from WIs who vote on the topics, WI advisors who help individual WIs to get involved in national campaigns, as well as observers who are any WI members who wish to come along.
We began the trip bright and early on Tuesday morning catching the coach from Knutsford. We travelled down all day stopping off for lunch in Bicester and arriving at The Village hotel in Bournemouth by 5pm. There was a lovely meal in the evening for all WI attendees from the Cheshire Federation, as well as the Nottingham Federation who were also in the same hotel.
On Wednesday morning we headed down to the Bournemouth International Conference Centre along with more than 4,000 other WI delegates, advisors and observers. There was a selection of stalls to look around before we headed in to the main conference room. The stalls included WI merchandise, Denman and MyWI, all promoting what they contribute to the organisation.
The conference was opened by Lynne Stubbings, NFWI Chair who spoke about all of the success we’ve had in campaigns over the last year. These include Walking Netball, Plastic Soup and the National Gallery tours about the future of the female nude in the time of #metoo.
The first activism topic to be discussed was “A Call Against the Decline in Local Bus Services”. Jackie Howsham from Burniston & Cloughton WI stood up to speak on why she had put the resolution forward. Jackie explained that due to government cuts over 300 bus services have been reduced in the last year alone. This has had a big impact on local high streets due to the loss in footfall, as well as the impact on the mental health of those left isolated and alone in rural areas.
We then heard from specialists on the topic, Darren Shirley from the Campaign for Better Transport in support of the resolution, and Paul Buchanan from Volterra who spoke against the topic. Once the experts had spoken, anyone from the audience who wanted to give their perspective on the topic was able to speak. This included women whose children miss out on after school activities due to the lack of buses, elderly people who are forced to continue driving and others who recognise that bus companies are run for profit, not for communities.
To finish off the morning Rt. Hon. Lord Keith Bradley spoke about his work reviewing prisons in the UK, which was inspired by the WI’s 2008 campaign Care not Custody. He explained that 4,000 women are currently in custody in the UK, for 10 years Lord Bradley has worked to improve prison services and everything that happens from arrest right through to release from prison and beyond. He described how the use of remand and short sentences does not currently work well for prisons, or female prisoners and this is an area he is currently focusing on.
Just before lunch a fellow Cheshire Federation member, Dorothy Monkes was presented with the Huxley Cup for floral design.
Over lunch we had a photo on the steps of the conference centre for all the members of the Unofficial Women’s Institute group on facebook. We all wore daisies on the day to help us recognise each other. Watch out for our photo in the July edition of WI Life magazine.
After lunch we returned to hear the debate on the second activism topic of the day, “Don’t Fear the Smear”. This resolution was proposed by Cheshire Federation’s own Sheila Knotts from Disley WI, who spoke passionately about the need for the WI to get behind this campaign. Smear tests save 5,000 lives per year but 3,000 more could be saved if more women went for their tests (1 million women don’t attend). We are now at a 21 year low in attendance.
Rob Music from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust spoke in support of the resolution, attendance is particularly poor for women under 29, women over 50 and LGBTQ+ women who mistakenly beleive they cannot contract the HPV virus. Rob spoke encouragingly about the future of a home HPV test which is currently being trialled. There was no expert speaker against this topic, so a WI representative gave some key points for the delegates to consider.
The audience were then able to contribute to the debate. Some moving stories were shared including a women who had lost three friends to cervical cancer, all over the age of 70. The current cut off for tests is 65 and although an increase in age had been mentioned, this story suggests the tests are needed until the end of life.
The final speaker of the day was Maggie Philbin, of Tomorrow’s World and Swap Shop fame. Maggie shared her work with TeenTech who inspire children to consider futures in science and technology through workshops, programmes and awards. Maggie told the story of a group of boys who came up with an idea for a condom which changes colour according to the sexually transmitted disease the wearer or partner has! This idea recently won the TeenTech health innovation award.
After Maggie’s talk we learned the results of the resolution votes. Both activism topics will be taken forward with “A Call Against the Decline in Local Buses” taking 96% of the vote, and “Don’t Fear the Smear” taking 97% of the vote. The National Federation will now campaign on both of these topics and encourage local WIs to do what they can over the next year.
We closed the conference by singing Jerusalem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and God Save the Queen.
Everyone from the Cheshire Federation then took a stroll along Bournemouth beach, with some ice cream, while we waited for our coach back to the hotel. The next day, after a good nights sleep and a delicious breakfast, we headed home stopping off in Abingdon, Oxfordshire for lunch. We finally arrived back in Knutsford and all said our goodbyes until next time!
What should the WI activism topics be next year? Leave your ideas in a comment below.