26 Jun 2014

Mothers changing the world

By Vicky

When we think of innovators, we often think of young men, but this view is pretty skewed. At the ‘Mothers of Innovation’ conference the focus was on a demographic that is rarely highlighted: mothers that innovate. Geraldine Bedell, in her Nesta backed research on mothers as a force for social change, points out that there is a common discourse that  “mothers are popularly thought of as nurturing, caring and safe, whereas innovators are thought of as dynamic, focused and abstract.” The Mothers of Innovation conference instead celebrated ideas and creativity from mothers all over the world.

The highlight for me was a talk by Karyn McCluskey, the co-director of the Scottish Violence Unit, which has reduced gang violence in Glasgow to the lowest it has been in 20 years. Through McCluskey’s work, violence in Scotland is now classed as an infectious public health issue: ‘You catch it, you pass it on’. Karyn worked in the police force for 20 years, where she realised that the existing police methods were not working and that we needed to think differently to prevent the problem. She understands that gang members are often from isolated homes where domestic violence is routine, and being in a gang can give them a sense of belonging which they otherwise lacked.

McCluskey has an astonishing way of presenting, she makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. She is also a single mum, with an 11 year old. It was inspiring to hear the story of such an incredible innovative woman, who has stepped outside of the system and made a significant difference in the world.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder and CEO of The Orchid Project also gave an inspiring talk on the work she has done tackling Female Genital Cutting (FGC). She has developed a deep insight into understanding FGC as a social norm, and the reasons why communities think it is the right thing to do. She discovered that you can’t simply go into a community and tell them that what they are doing is harmful and wrong. Communities need to come to the decision collectively, through a process of deliberation and public declaration, in the presence of friends and family. The Orchid Project has helped stop FGC in nearly 7,000 communities.

I left the conference with an overwhelming sense of respect for the achievements of all of the women who spoke. It really made me think about what women gain from motherhood, rather than what they miss out on. The experience of raising a child gives you a ‘radial shift in identity’. As Bedell points out in her research “you are at the beck and call of something tiny, vulnerable and demanding -you can’t afford to be knockered sideways or down from failure”. Mareilla Frostrup also touched on this in her opening speech; “Motherhood changes you. It can give you the impetus to change the world – it makes you more employable, not less.”