FPA - Sexual Health Charity
This week I’ve hopped across to Belfast and bounced over to London to support the work of national sexual health charity FPA (Family Planning Association). I can tell you that it’s been an eye opening week in more ways than one…
Time for change?
I’m going to start by telling you something I didn’t know and you may or may not know either. The Abortion Act 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland and as such 95% of women are unable to access abortion in their home country even if they have been raped, are a victim of incest or diagnosed with a foetal abnormality. Abortion is prohibited in nearly all circumstances except where it can be proven that there is a direct threat to a woman's life, which in practice means very few cases indeed.
FPA’s campaign ‘Time for Change in Northern Ireland’ seeks to give women in Northern Ireland the right to choose. It is vital for me to emphasise at this point that FPA is a pro-choice organisation. To learn more I visited FPA’s office in Belfast. From here the organisation provides support and information on all aspects of sexual health, relationships and gives factual information on the options available to women facing unplanned pregnancy, including those available in other parts of the UK. Indeed statistics from the Department of Health reveal that 833 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England in 2015 to access abortion services. They cannot access abortion free on the NHS and have to pay privately for the service. The principle alternatives available to a woman are to continue with a pregnancy that they may be unable to cope with or buy abortion pills illegally online, risking imprisonment and risking their health as they have no medical support or assurance about what's in the pills.
Mark and Ruairi at FPA told me of incidents where women and a man have been prosecuted for procuring a drug online. The FPA office is itself well known locally because it has become a target for anti-abortion group Precious Life. Protesters regularly picket the entrance to target women going inside seeking information and advice. Protesters have learnt the patterns of employees' and women’s appointments - they brandish posters of aborted foetuses, leaflets expounding a false risk of breast cancer after having an abortion and chalk graffiti frequently lines the pavement. Clearly this topic is highly emotive, the majority of people who are anti-abortion are not extreme and I respect that you may hold your own beliefs on the subject. Whichever side you fall on however there can be little doubt however that the situation as it stands does little to alleviate the distress, isolation and stigma felt by women.
In the interests of balance, a report by Both Lives Matter came out this week which criticised the use of extreme stories to promote a pro-choice agenda and takes the viewpoint that 100,000 lives have been saved by the rejection of the 1967 Abortion Act. Others say that one story, however rare or extreme, is one story too many. You will have your own opinion on this matter. Certainly it is difficult for women to think clearly in all of this noise. The point FPA are highlighting is the very absence of that clarity and choice for women and in turn questioning the criminalisation of people in what are already distressing situations.
Curious, I wanted to get some more answers so I headed up to Stormont, Northern Ireland’s assembly with Ruairi to attend a meeting with members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) on the subject. As luck would have it, our meeting was shelved due to events in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the resignation last week of Martin McGuinness. We decided instead to sit among the melee of journalists and broadcasters from around the world in Stormont waiting for Sinn Fein to announce they would not be nominating a replacement for McGuinness. At just before 5 they did just that, triggering an election in early March. Whilst not strictly what we had planned, in a surprising turn of events I was able to glean a great deal from spending time at Stormont with Ruairi. In the waiting hours Ruairi introduced me to countless politicians and journalists. To many people in Northern Ireland, FPA is associated pure and simply with abortion and that is something many politicians will not want to associate with. An initial warm handshake can in some cases be followed by a clamming up, stumbled apology and a hasty departure!
FPA has made great strides in getting the issue even on the table here but sadly many of the private members’ bills the FPA and others have worked hard to get tabled will now fall away and the FPA must start the lobbying process again. It is likely to be a little while before the subject is given any great airtime since it will not be in the interests of MLAs to associate themselves with any controversial issues now in the run up to an election. Although some this week like David Ford, former justice minister, have come out in support of pressing on for abortion reform. It just shows you that the future of this issue is very much uncertain.
I am conscious that I could fill a blog on this campaign alone but that would do a disservice to the breadth of services the FPA provides. However if you have been moved by this and want to take action then the FPA please go here to find out more information and what you can do to help.
Let’s talk about sex
So now you know a little bit more about the campaign side of things but what if I told you that these guys have been talking sex for the last 87 years? Well they have. In fact they established themselves in the early 30s. So believe me when I tell you that they know their stuff about sex. In fact you’ve probably already come across FPA you just didn’t know it. You see all those sexual health leaflets in GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals? Well more likely than not they are produced by FPA and not, as you would think, the NHS. These guys are about more than just leaflets and abortions campaigns however. Armed with expertise, heritage and a non-judgemental approach the FPA is widely respected by healthcare and education professionals and has become a thought leader certainly in the sex and relationships education (SRE) space. (Known as relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in Northern Ireland.)
On Tuesday I went out with Jo, an RSE advisor to deliver their ‘Just Ask’ project and find out just what it’s all about. Just Ask is an innovative project running in Northern Ireland which aims to improve the sexual health of people with learning disabilities, helping them learn how to participate in society and have healthy, safe and fulfilling adult friendships and relationships. Our first stop was Tor Bank School in Dundonald and I was immediately reminded of my 11 year old self at school, our class in giggle fits when one girl asked “does your vagina tickle when the sperms swim in?”. Prior to that I remember vividly the night my parents told me about the birds and the bees and indeed despite my young mind already swimming, they saw fit to rip the plaster off in one fell swoop by dropping in a final point of clarification about Father Christmas. It was the night I lost my childhood. I didn't sleep a wink.
Anyway before I overshare any further, I’d better tell you more about Just Ask! Jo and I met two six formers, Calvin* and Imran* who tell me about what they have been learning about the importance of our personal space and that of others. FPA works to introduce these simple but important concepts at a very early age. The reasons for which are twofold, firstly to help children with learning difficulties to enjoy positive friendships and relationships and secondly as sadly statistics show that this vulnerable group are most likely to suffer abuse.
We spoke to some year eights and I got some very frank advice on the importance of deodorant and underarm hair! It was fantastic to see the boys talking openly and comfortably with Jo about these topics. So much so that Calvin even taught me a few chat up lines he’d learnt (not as part of the Just Ask program I hasten to add!) including the ever successful “are you from Tennessee? because you’re the only ten I see around here…”. Well I’ve certainly heard worse!
Our next stop was Dr B’s in Belfast a cafe run by Barnardos, Northern Ireland. Dr B’s trains young people with learning difficulties for a career in the catering industry. Jo and I met with manager, Lesley, who has been with the cafe over 20 years. As if it wasn’t enough that they serve a lip smackingly good pulled pork brioche, Dr B’s has had some phenomenal success stories. A number of young people have since gone on to work in some of Belfast’s top restaurants, including the prestigious Merchant and Clayton hotels. One trainee Michael* has severe learning disabilities, meaning that he was prevented from obtaining his NVQ qualifications. Michel worked closely with Dr B’s and though their training program secured employment at the Clayton, providing vital support caring for their plants and performing maintenance on the card locks in each of the 170 rooms. Michael is so at home in his new role, he has made friends, found a purpose and is a highly valued member of the Clayton team. Michael’s nomination for employee of the year is a testament to the success of this program.
FPA work together with organisations like Dr B’s to provide RSE to the young people and prepare them for life and relationships in a work environment. Jo covers subjects like practicing safe sex as well as advice on relationships, where to go on dates and what to watch out for if dating online, such as not giving out personal details to people you don't know. Whilst it may sound obvious to you and I, sadly there will be those out there seeking to exploit people with a learning disability. Indeed with the volume of sex on the internet, the topic can be a minefield to navigate and there are many misconceptions. The FPA’s work in this field provides more of that vital clarity we spoke about earlier.
My day ended with a quick tour of Belfast and visit to Kilcraggen Urban Farm to meet one of the service users of the Just Ask program, Neil*. Neil is in his forties with a learning disability, he lives and works on the farm and knows just about everything about the animals there. For someone referred to amusingly by local school pupils as ‘the dirty lady’ (a reference to the relationships and sexuality education) Jo is naturally good humoured, approachable and non judgemental. She also really loves her job providing RSE and I can quite see why!
My time in Belfast was short lived and so I darted to FPA’s offices near Shoreditch after arming myself with a flat white minus the hipster sit up and beg bicycle! I met with the lovely team there and we set to work on an exciting new (top secret) project in conjunction with Public Health England and IE Design to look at the online provision of sex information. Much juice and crisps were consumed, cool ideas were bounced around and we even had time to look at some retro advertising run by FPA back in the 1970s.
The following day I shadowed Miguel an SRE advisor on a visit to discuss a service user with severe learning and physical disabilities, Adam*. Adam is a 24 year old man with needs and has expressed a desire for a girlfriend on both a friendship and a sexual level. Adam's mother and carers have encountered some challenging behaviour which it is thought stems in part from his sexual frustration. A care plan is being worked through to consider ways to best advise Adam on matters such as masturbation given his physical limitations and to provide him access to materials so that he can explore his sexuality as an able bodied twenty year old would do. The work they are doing with local authorities in this area is fairly ground breaking and it is naturally a delicate area.
I suspected that this week would have a few surprises in store but I hadn't fully appreciated the extent of FPA's reach and the depth of the issues at play. If you would like more info on anything I've talked about here then please do check out their website.
* Names have been changed to protect identity.