The movement created by the Women’s Institute is often associated with cooking and crafts but it’s so much more than that, playing a huge role in tackling some of the most important — and often difficult — issues that have faced the world over the last century.
Since its formation in 1915 the Women’s Institute has become the U.K.’s largest voluntary organisation, with around 6,600 WIs boasting a total of 212,000 members.
In 1943 the WI passed a resolution for equal pay for women doing the same work as men and was represented for many years on the Equal Pay Campaign Committee. Members of the WI campaigned for equal pay in many professions, including teaching, alongside other women’s organisations. Thanks to the Equal Pay Bill in 1970, it is now illegal to pay men more than women for the same work.
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) has never shied away from discussing difficult issues and was one of the first organisations to talk about AIDS, using its ties with local organisations to educate the public and encourage conversation. WI members took part in a government campaign to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS and organised public meetings in response to the BBC’s “Face up to AIDS” challenge.
The NFWI became one of the founding members of the Fairtrade Foundation in the early 1990s and since then has worked to increase the number of products carrying the Fairtrade certification mark. The lives of over 1.4 million farmers and workers and their communities have been improved as a result.
The Great Milk Debate
The NFWI launched the WI Great Milk Debate in 2007 to try to improve the dire situation facing the dairy industry. Over 15,000 people took part in 100 debates to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by dairy farmers, and the importance of supporting the dairy farming industry, and discuss the ways in which the prospects of the industry could be improved.
Care not Custody
After the son of a Norfolk WI member took his own life while in police custody, the NFWI passed a resolution calling for an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems. Working with the Prison Reform Trust on the Care not Custody campaign, the WI has succeeded in securing government backing and a total of £75 million for schemes to make sure those with mental health issues who go through the criminal justice system get the right support and treatment.
Keep Britain Tidy
The Keep Britain Tidy campaign has been going strong since 1955, set up by a conference of 26 organisations, including the WI, which had passed a resolution at its 1954 AGM to start a national anti-litter campaign. The 1958 Litter Act was widely attributed to the campaign, showing how much the WI has transformed litter policy.
WI Carbon Challenge
The WI has always devoted time to environmental causes. In 1988 the movement joined other organisations in lobbying the government to take action against CFCs. In 2005 a resolution was passed to protect natural resources, leading to a nationwide day of action that saw WI members return excess packaging to supermarkets to encourage companies to reduce waste. In 2008 the WI Carbon Challenge was launched, with 10,000 WI members pledging to reduce their carbon footprint by 20 percent.
Breast Cancer Screening
Back in 1975 the WI began to discuss the importance of breast examination, lobbying the government to introduce screening clinics. In 1988 the national screening programme was introduced and today this service saves around 1,300 lives every years.
Family Planning Services
In 1972 the WI passed a resolution for mandatory family planning services, which led to the legal obligation on local authorities to provide such services under the NHS Reorganisation Act of 1973. By 1974 family planning was a regular part of the free NHS, largely due to the extensive campaigning by the WI for free contraception regardless of age or marital status.
The WI launched the More Midwives campaign in 2012. Working alongside parenting charity NCT (National Childbirth Trust), the NFWI talked to 5,500 women about their maternity experiences and used this information to campaign for improvements in care for pregnant women and their families and action on staffing gaps. Since the launch of the campaign the Department of Health and NHS England have commissioned new guidance on safe staffing for maternity services.
Find out more about the Women’s Institute.
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