Classy And Fabulous

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous” – Coco

Thanks, Coco, for that inspiring bit of wisdom. I want to have a chat about femininity and its place in my life and the struggles it has invited and the joys it has delivered.

The thought about femininity struck me as I was painting my nails a beautiful shade of turquoise and mulling over the concept of myths in relation to feminism. No doubt, these ideologies have stumped many a woman the world over, but indulge me for just a bit while I have a rant about how “femininity” (because scare quotes are actually really needed here, and I’ll explain why in just a sec) has impacted my life (how very out-of-the-ordinary of me, I know!).

So basically, “femininity” is a social construct, put in place yonks ago by someone random (I’m sure I could research this and find plenty of fun facts that probably relate back to religion, but whatever) and since then, it has bewildered, frustrated, and delighted the masses. The ideology goes something like this:

Girls/femininity = PINK!!!, sugar, dresses, make-up, softness, silence, grace, beauty, infantilisation, shallowness et cetera

Boys/masculinity = BLUE!!!, getting dirty, trucks and soldiers, boldness, loudness, action, effortlessness et cetera

Obviously these ideologies are way more complex, but I’ve just simplified that because it’s almost 11 PM on a Monday night and I couldn’t be arsed to write anything eloquently. Heaps more have just popped into my mind, but I’m sure you get the drift. The whole thing is bullshit. Now, let me get reflective here. I am the first-born girl in my family; I have two younger sisters. Being the typical “first girl”, I got dressed entirely in pink and ribbons and adornments, essentially rendering me a glorified marshmallow for the first five years of my life. This isn’t really anyone’s fault in particular. This is just how ideologies work in our society (see: Girls/femininity = PINK!!!). I’m sure I wore shorts from time to time, and obviously must have worn different colours, but the majority of photos show me dressed in something classy and fabulous and behaving very well indeed. A lot of that has to do with my mother raising me with civility and manners (something that every child should be raised with, just FYI), but I wonder if I would have been allowed to go outside and get dirty more often had I been born a male? If screaming fits and temper tantrums would have been received with obvious frustration, but also an underlying sense of pride at baby boy’s strong voice and rambunctiousness, instead of the scorn at wee little girl’s spoilt brat antics?

My sisters did not receive such stark femininity thrust upon them. My middle sister was paraded in purple, always mischievous and up to no good, which was a delight to many (and still is). The boxes were slowly being ticked off: my parents had the proper, bookworm, princess, as well as the witty, adorable, mischief-maker. And then along comes my youngest sister. Who was, for some unknown reason, dressed in blue and given relatively gender-neutral toys to play with. Was this because my parents understood that Girls/femininity = PINK!!! was utter bullshit? Or was it just because they had exhausted all of their preconceived notions of what being a girl was all about on the first two? Regardless, my youngest sister was always more action-packed, dirty, unruly, and just plain boy-ish as a child — the complete opposite of what I was like.

Some may argue that that is just our personalities. That’s just who we are. And I guess to some extent that is true, because we still are different to this day, and that’s beautiful because we’re unique, adult women who have forged our own identities separate from what was dumped on us as infants. But what if the way we were dressed and presented to the world as children deeply impacted our personalities and how we see ourselves? Maybe I am more insecure and shy than my youngest sister because I was brought up to be more quiet, more sensible, more bookish, more ‘feminine’, as opposed to loud, and dirty, and active, and confident.

I went through a huge identity crisis around the age of 12. For a few years, I refused to wear skirts or dresses. I refused to wear pink, and totally abhorred any colour close to it in the spectrum as well. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to defy my boundaries. I wanted to change.

In actual fact, I love pink. I love dresses. I love make-up. I love accessorising. I love making myself feel good with external additions and adornments. This is not vapid. Or shallow. Or vain. People (women) have been led to think this about “girly-girls” in order to discredit what it means to be “feminine” in today’s society. Ariel Levy says it best in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly stuff’ and rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever — these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.” 

Basically, for years I rejected what I genuinely liked in order to break free from an image that I was forced to grow up with. Somewhere along the line, I learnt that femininity = bad and I wanted out. It took me a long time to accept that being “feminine” and being not-so-“feminine” is okay. We are all just people (oooh profound!). If I want to wear something ridiculously frilly and curl my hair and wear tonnes of make-up because it makes me feel good, that is fucking spectacular. If I want to not wash my hair for a week, rock a pair of track pants and a clean (but slightly blemished) face because it makes me feel good, that is also fucking spectacular. And it isn’t my place to judge anyone on the way they look, or how they dress. Jafeel?

So, in summary, Coco, girls should be whatever the fuck they want to be because they are all beautiful, fantastic creatures who deserve love and the freedom to discover their own unique femininity or femaleness or masculinity or maleness or whatever. And for the record, I am classy and fabulous, just the way I am.

~ Sarah Groundwater

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News Roundup – April 2013

Spiffing Sports

Over 100 of Australia’s best and brightest sportswomen have converged on the nation’s capital for a one day conference, to celebrate Canberra’s centenary and recognise The Canberra Times’s award for ”Best Coverage of Women in Sport in 2012” by the Australian Sporting Commission. The conference will wrap up with a list of Australia’s top 100 female athletes: among those to be honoured, star swimmer Dawn Fraser and sprinter, Cathy Freeman.

A five-stage Tour of Britain for female cyclists is in the final stages of planning, to take place in the spring of 2014. Race director, Mick Bennett, confirmed the decision to European media and outlined the need for an increase in publicity within the arena of women’s competitive cycling. “It seems an obvious and logical step forward given the strength of women’s cycling in this country and the enthusiasm for the sport generally… It’s a great sport and all that is needed is more opportunity for the women to race.”

The first ever round of the Tasmanian Women’s Motocross Championship was held on March 23rd, and saw 14 women compete in this typically male-dominated sport for the first place title. Sarah Knee, a local racer from Launceston, currently competes in both co-ed and women’s only races and was delighted with the opening of the women’s championship to support the increase in female participants. …

They Said What?!

Alex Bilmes, editor of British Esquire magazine, has defended his publication’s “honest” portrayal of women with a few particularly unenlightened statements at a 2013 London panel discussion on ‘Feminism in the Media.’ Sifting through his quotes was an ordeal unto itself; the following comments are perhaps the most cringe worthy offerings. “I could lie to you and say we’re interested in their brains as well, but on the whole, we’re not. They’re there to be beautiful objects. They’re objectified.”

We’re at least, or possibly more, ethnically diverse [than other magazines]. More shape-diverse. We also have older women. Not really old, but in their 40s… Cameron Diaz was on the cover three issues ago. She’s in her 40s.

Brazil’s human rights boss has warned that gender equality could undermine the classic maternal roles of women and turn society, quote unquote, ‘gay’. The following comments are excerpts from Marco Feliciano’s recently published book. ‘When you stimulate a woman to have the same rights as men…. her part of being mother starts getting diminished… I see a subtle way how this affects the family, when you stimulate people to release and liberate their instincts.’ Feliciano has been slammed by Brazilian Feminists for his views. Economics professor Hildete Pereira de Melo, from the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, has labeled the statements as ‘delusional, misogynistic and homophobic.’ Which just about sums it up, really!

Women of Words

(Trigger Warning: this news segment contains a brief mention of sexual assault and rape.)

Melbourne writer and Herald Sun contributor, Alice Clarke, has responded to the recent trend of celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry rejecting Feminist labels. “It’s OK, I guess, not to be a feminist,” she writes in a recent column. “We all get to have our own opinions and that’s great (though if you don’t believe in equality, you have some issues to work out).” Her article tackles the current problems of gender stereotypes and victim blaming in cases of sexual assault – the message to women being, don’t invite rape, instead of a much needed educational standard that teaches people not to commit rape. She ends by imploring men and women to embrace Feminism, to understand that the fight for gender equality in Western society is not null and void but an absolute necessity.

Jackie C. Horne, a writer, independent scholar and author of the site Romance Novels for Feminists, has come out in celebration of a modern wave of romantic literature that moves beyond the “bodice ripper” genre popular during the 1970s. She recognizes these authors as taking ideas that were once novel or provocative – the idea of powerful, self possessed heroines – to be givens. Houston author Delphine Dryden is very much aligned with Horne’s views but still sees problems for women in the world of erotic literature, noting that some writers are too quick to fall back on tropes of slut-shaming and female helplessness. She posits the presence of heroines who can make choices as a critical starting point for Feminist authors – a woman who acts, rather than being “acted upon.”

SAVE Gender Studies at UQ!

The proposed eradication of the Gender Studies major at UQ – part of a wider scaling back of humanities subjects across the country – has sparked fierce opposition from UQ students and members of the UQ Women’s Collective. The first meeting of the counter campaign, ‘Save Gender Studies at UQ,’ attracted over 30 students and staff on the Great Court at St Lucia. An educational forum is planned for Thursday, April 11th, to precede a larger rally in opposition of the university’s cutback. Members of the Women’s Collective will be handling a social media campaign through the creation of a video, informing viewers on the importance of gender studies at a tertiary level.

If you consider yourself a bit of a tech head/actor extraordinaire/directorial genius and like to get involved in the video (or in any other aspect of the campaign) check out the Facebook page online or express your interest within the UQWC Facebook group!

http://www.facebook.com/pages/SAVE-Gender-Studies-at-UQ/498494313540373?fref=t

~ Laura Howden

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A Letter To

“A Letter To” by Joanna Horton

This poem will be featured in the upcoming Wom*news: Bodies issue, out next week.

You were not.
Little pea in a pod
Little bean; little usurper.
You were not. But you were mine.

This time it won’t be.
But still you’ve left
your mark; I see
your doubles, curled up
curled into their mothers.
I always turn my face away.
I know it all too well.

This letter is for you.
Call it crude; my weak attempt
to fill the space you’ve left.
You won’t let me forget.

This letter is for you.
I sign it: Mother

~ Joanna Horton

Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome

by Johanna Qualmann

Women in the Roman Republic and Empire are one of the most elusive parts of history. They are spoken for, but never speak; represented, but rarely for themselves. Where women feature in historical literature, the patriarchal tradition of moral history casts them into established literary archetypes: the virtuous maiden, the regal mother, the evil stepmother, the avaricious whore. And often, mentions of women in ancient Roman literary sources can be seen as reflecting opinions of the men they were associated with more than their own personalities.

At the intersection of archaeological and literary evidence, women’s historiography becomes especially interesting. Accusations of debauchery, greed, promiscuity and even treason abound – and yet, coinage, portraiture and honorific titles tell a different story. Such is the case for the four women in this piece: Fulvia, the woman who rallied armies; Livia, the virtuous matron turned evil stepmother;  Agrippina, ambitious mother and poisoning mistress; and Faustina, the depraved adulteress accused of treason.

Fulvia – the antithesis of respectability

Coins of Fulvia in 41 BC, depicted as the Goddess Nike.

Fulvia Flacca Bambula (80 – 40 BC) lived during the late Republic in a time of civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus). She was the first Roman woman to be honoured with her image on a coin; but her association with Athena (the goddess of war) on one side shows that she was not the virtuous matron she should have been. Literary sources represent her as the antithesis of respectability: wealthy and high born, but cruel and vicious, always lusting to possess more wealth and power. She incited riots on her first husband’s death, and apparently took great joy in mutilating Cicero’s severed head with her golden hair pins.

Her third marriage to Mark Antony brought her the most notoriety, and while he was away on campaign she managed his supporters in Rome. Some sources even claim that she took up a sword herself, and together with magistrate Lucius Antonius mobilised eight legions for Mark Antony’s side in the war. In 41 BC she is said to be the most powerful figure in Rome. But her power was short-lived: Antonius lost a major siege to Octavian and Fulvia was forced to flee and died from illness soon after, allowing Antony to denounce her and reconcile with Octavian. Both men then used her as a scapegoat for the entire civil war, though how much of her portrayal is propaganda is unclear.

 

Livia – the evil stepmother

Livia Drusilla (58 BC – AD 29) was the second wife of the emperor Augustus and the first Roman empress. Throughout her life she was portrayed as the quintessential Roman matron: virtuous, pious, respectable, an empress devoted to her family and her husband.

Coins of Livia, minted by the senate, depicted as Piety.

She was given the honorific title augusta by Tiberius in AD 14, which meant that she could mint her own coins, hold her own courts and wear the imperial regalia reserved for the emperor, and later also given the title mater patriae (mother of the fatherland). After her death in AD 29 she was deified by the emperor Claudius.

Despite her titles and honours, Livia’s portrayal in history is predominantly negative. Sources writing about the Augustan period are uniquely critical of the whole imperial family, so it is unclear how exaggerated her character was. Livia was painted as a woman driven by ambition and desire to control the men in her life – the only way for her to have a political influence. She constantly interferes with Tiberius’ politics, bullying and scheming behind the scenes, and embodies the archetype of the evil stepmother, by ruining her stepdaughter’s whole family. Tacitus continuously describes her as novercalis– characterised by unmotivated animosity. The image of Livia as a cold, Machiavellian,

Livia from ‘I, Claudius’.

political mastermind has even continued in modern media, in the book and BBC television series I, Claudius and HBO series Rome. She remains the “conniving bitch” of the Augustan period – whether justified or not.

 

Agrippina – poisoner and seductress

Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 – 59) was the seductress and poisoner of the Julio-Claudian period. Known primarily as the fourth wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero, her portrayal is one of the most negative in Roman history. Like Livia, Agrippina also accumulates titles and honours,

Portrait of Agrippina the Younger.

but in writers such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio, she epitomises the archetype of the prostitute. She is described as motivated by extreme jealously, using seduction and fear to gain power over men. In one scene of his history, Dio condemns her as a tyrant, usurping masculinity by wearing a gold chlamysor military cloak. She is also sexually deviant, marrying her uncle and making advances on countless men, as well as drinking too much wine. Her misdeeds culminate in her rumoured poisoning of Claudius and manipulation of her son Nero into the role of emperor.

Interestingly, her portrayal changes in reference to the emperor Nero, and she is reduced to a secondary character in the story. She simultaneously becomes the bad influence explaining Nero’s despotism, and the “wise mother,” the only one who can keep him in check. It seems Nero soon grew tired of her involvement, and had her murdered in AD 59. Once again, it is unclear whether her overall literary portrait tells us anything about her actual character: because the period in which she lived was held as contemptuous and immoral, she might have simply been reduced to an archetype or a cautionary tale.

 

Faustina the Younger – mother and whore

Faustina the Younger (AD 125? – 175) was the wife of emperor Marcus Aurelius. She was celebrated for her fertility, bearing fourteen children after a long chain of empresses who had no children of their own. Her husband describes her as a devoted and loyal wife, the epitome of Roman womanhood, and granted her the honorific titles augusta and mater castrorum (mother of the camp) in reference to her popularity among the army. Her coinage celebrates her fidelity, modesty and fertility.

However, a different picture – of sexual depravity, shameful lust and immorality – is painted by literature and history. The anonymous author of the Historia Augustaerecords her having affairs with her son-in-law (whom she subsequently poisoned), soldiers and gladiators, and it is even rumoured that Commodus, the emperor succeeding Marcus Aurelius, was the product of one such affair. Other writers describe her “cruising for sexual

Faustina the Younger, pictured with her children and praised for her fertility.

partners” among naked men at the beach. She was even accused of treason when associated with a governor in Syria who proclaimed himself emperor when Marcus Aurelius once fell ill; when in all likelihood she was simply seeking protection in the case of her husband’s death.

Whatever the true case may be for all these women, there is certainly a disjunct between the different ways their characters were portrayed – where they are portrayed at all. How unfortunate that these strong, independent female figures will never be able to speak for themselves out of the depths of history.

~ Johanna Qualmann
This article is featured in the current herstory issue of wom*news!
You can find more of Jo’s writing at her blog A Life Unexamined.

References
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Women: The Forgotten Half Of The World

Women: The Forgotten Half of the World
By Madeline Price

Warning: Article contains potentially triggering discussion of abortion, childbirth and related diseases.

 Maternal health in third world countries has never been on the decline, simply because it has never been at a high enough standard from which to decline. Every single day, more women die in labour than can fill five jumbo jets – that’s over 1 700 women each day – yet the maternal health of women is not a forefront issue for the global society. Maternal health has been all but forgotten by the organisations, by the people, claiming to change the third world.

            The horrific standards of third world maternal health were first discussed in the late 1990’s within an article written by Peter Adamson, the founding editor of New Internationalist. Back then, the estimated figures surrounding maternal health were shocking. Today, they are horrifying.

            In 1997, it was conservatively estimated that over 200 000 women die each year from uncontrollable haemorrhaging alone, during childbirth. This haemorrhaging would be treatable in a western facility; a luxury rural, third world women cannot enjoy.  Another 75 000 women die from attempting to abort their own pregnancy, many of whom are merely teenagers. Daily, over 50 000 women attempt such an act, using sharp objects inserted into the uterus – a straightened coat hanger, a knitting-needle, a sharp stick. Survivors of such procedures often must live in crippling discomfort.

            Furthermore, another estimated 100 000 women contract and die of sepsis, where the bloodstream is poisoned by an infection from an unhealed uterus or retained fragments of placenta. Somewhat smaller numbers perish from anaemia so severe that their vital organs begin to fail. Finally, a further 40 000 women die from obstructed labour, where the baby’s skull, already asphyxiated by this stage, repeatedly grinds down upon the tissues of a pelvis that is just too small. In 1997, it was estimated that just over 1 600 women die each day from problems related to maternal health.

            These figures may be shocking, but they pale in comparison to the present day estimates. In 2001, UNICEF released figures revealed from their own research and data collection, predominantly that, a women in sub-Saharan Africa stands a one in 16 chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. In comparison, women in the developed world stand a mere one in 2 800 risk. Similarly, in 2005, the World Health Organisation proclaimed that over 536 000 women died during childbirth or pregnancy in that year alone. Of these 536 000 deaths, 95% occurred in Africa and Asia, whilst 4% occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a mere 1% occurred in the remainder of the developed world. This mere 1% equalled the lives of 2 500 women, a number made all the more astounding with the realisation that it is just one percent of the problem.

            UNICEF, however, purported another important point in relation to maternal mortality: women aren’t the only ones who suffer. In 2001, it was estimated that greater than 20% of the diseases in children below the age of five directly correlates to poor maternal health and nutrition, in addition to the quality of care throughout delivery. Furthermore, annually, over eight million babies die during delivery or their first week of life.

            Upon releasing these latest figures, UNICEF remarked that ‘[i]t is no exaggeration to say that the issue of maternal mortality and morbidity, fast in its conspiracy of silence, is in scale and severity the most neglected tragedy of our times’. James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank takes it one step further in emphasising, ‘[w]hy is it that a woman dies every minute? The answer is that people don’t care. We assume that women are there. We have never taken enough concern about the rights of women [sic]’.

            By far the most reliable and confronting record of maternal mortality remains the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR). This measures the number of deaths to women due to pregnancy-related complications, including childbirth, per 100 000 live births. To compare, Ireland, the safest place on earth to go through pregnancy and childbirth, has a Maternal Mortality Ratio of just one. This means that, for every 100 000 births, only one woman is lost.

South Asia, on the other hand, has a MMR of 490. This includes the development capital of India, which, for all its claims of progress in the economic stakes, still provides women with a one in 70 chance of dying during childbirth in her lifetime. Comparatively, sub-Saharan Africa has a MMR of 900, whilst Sierra Leone takes the cake at 2 100 deaths per 100 000 live births. Globally, a mere 13 third world and developing countries account for over 70% of maternal deaths.

            However, as was alluded to earlier, maternal death isn’t the only issue of concern under the broad spectrum of maternal health. For every woman who dies during childbirth or pregnancy, another 30 suffer lifelong pain, illness or permanent disability.

            Whilst obstructed labour, sepsis and anaemia are all widely known, the most common and horrific injury is that of fistula. This occurs predominantly during prolonged labour, when tissues within the birth canal are deadened from days of pressure from the baby’s skull.  Following the removal of the deceased baby, these tissues slowly start to fall away, leaving gaping holes. These holes allow for leakage from the bladder and rectum into the vagina, causing uncontrollable flow and incontinency. Without an operation to repair the fistula, the woman suffers abrasions to her genital area and sores down her legs due to the acidity of her urine leaking from her bowels, a foul rotting smell emitting from her body and social exclusion.

            Often, and specifically within rural regions, the woman is branded as cursed, moved to a hut far on the outskirts of the village and forced to live out the remainder of her life fending off wild animals at night and making do within her hut during the day. Whilst figures are inaccurate due to the inability to collect adequate data, it is estimated that over 80 000 women develop fistula every year, and an unknown number commit suicide, believing it is preferable to life.

            However, among all this morbidity is a ray of hope – maternal mortality, unlike more complex problems such as sex trafficking and world poverty, can be solved.

            Take, for instance, the recent example of Cuba. Cuba, defined as a third world country, has been revolutionary in its ability to align the healthcare facilities of its rural population with that of its urban population. Under Castro, Cuba initiated a system of health centres, known as polyclinics, in which doctors and nurses were responsible for a given group of families within a specific district, offering a ‘universal, institutionalised system of free rural and urban health care’. By eliminating both the costs of health care and the concentration of decent care within only the major cities, Cuba brought it’s maternal health back from the brink and up to first world standards. This lead to infant mortality decreasing from 36 per 1 000 live births before the revolution, to a mere eight in 1996, a reflection upon the increased maternal healthcare.

            Similarly, other programs worldwide have shown a decrease in maternal mortality correlates directly to an increase in health care facilities and the use of birth attendants. For example, between 1990 and 2000, the use of birth attendants increased from 42% to 52% – a ten percent rise – with a potential decrease in maternal deaths. These improvements, however, were restricted to the regions of South East Asia and Northern Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, showed slow improvements of a mere three percent.

  This lack of improvement showed one of the major problems with solving maternal mortality issues – culture. Culture plays a major role in any achievable solution to maternal deaths. For instance, in Ghana, a woman who is suffering through troubled or obstructed labour is seen as proof of infidelity, leaving the woman to stall in calling for assistance, instead choosing to appease the gods to help with her delivery. Similarly, cultural rules in Papua New Guinea do not allow the use of a birth attendant, as it is believed that female blood is contaminated and could sicken, even kill, a birth attendant. Such cultural rules and beliefs dictate what solutions would be viable and achievable in various regions.

            It must be emphasised, however, that these cultural rules do not only apply to those in the third world. A study of a sect within the United States, whose members were well nourished, wealthy and well educated, but did not accept modern medical care, proved that high levels of maternal mortality could exist in the western world, due to cultural rules. In this particular sect, the maternal mortality ratio was over 100 times the U.S. average, being equivalent to that of rural India.

            In light of the cultural rules that dictate various aspects of the societies that most require help, solutions that encompass and consider these rules are required. Whilst birth attendants do increase the chances of survival and improve maternal health, such a solution will not work in countries like Papua New Guinea and Ghana. Similarly, expensive facilities in urban areas will not improve maternal health as much as polyclinics in rural areas would. In order to solve the worsening crisis that is maternal health, solutions need to consider the problems they will be solving.

            After all, maternal health is an issue that affects everyone, let alone those 536 000 who perish each year.

 ~ Madeline Price

References

Kristof, N. and Wudunn, S. (2009) Half the sky: how to change the world, United States: Random House, pg. 110.

Adamson, P. (1997) Deaf to the Screams, New Internationalist

Jones, A. (1999) Maternal Morality, Gendercide Watch (online) http://www.gendercide.org/case_maternal.html, accessed the 25th of January 2012.

UNICEF (2001) Millennium Development Goal: Improve maternal health, UNICEF Organisation (online) http://www.unicef.org/mdg/maternal.html, accessed the 25th of January 2012.

World Health Organisation (2003) Maternal deaths disproportionately high in developing countries, WHO (online) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/releases/2003/pr77/en.index.html.

Davies, R. (2011) Maternal health – an international cause worth fighting for, The Guardian (online) http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/18/maternal-health-uk-government-framework, accessed 25th January 2012