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Guest blog: Women’s Institute in the 21st Century

Today the Wales annual conference of the Women’s Institute takes place in Llanelli. NFWI-Wales Chair Margaret Lloyd Jones reflects on the Women’s Institute in the 21st Century.

By Margaret Lloyd Jones

The first WI in Britain was established 95 years ago

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI)-Wales is the largest women’s organisation in the UK, with 210,000 women in England,Wales and the Channel Islands. In Wales we have 16,000 members belonging to 500 groups.  We are proud that the first WI in Great Britain was established in Llanfair PG in September 1915.  Up until the mid-1960s the WI was primarily a rural organisation, but today groups exist in cities, towns and villages across the country.  In Cardiff alone there are 10 WIs across the city.

Ninety-five years on from the formation of the first WI, the organisation today is just as relevant and necessary in the 21st century as it was in 1915.  Women want to know more about the organisation and to be part of it. We have 1,461 followers on Facebook and over 4,500 followers on Twitter. We are continually attracting new members. Between October 2010 and January 2011, the WI recruited 5,408 new members and between 300 and 350 new member packs are sent out weekly.

Not only are we getting new members; we also seeing the formation of new WIs popping up all over the place. Today we have WIs in universities and colleges, with Pembrokeshire College a prime example of this.  We are seeing WIs being set up in workplaces and meetings taking place in informal settings such as local pubs. We also have a WI located in a women’s prison inSurrey.

Traditional skills sit comfortably alongside modern values in the 21st Century WI

The values of the WI are just as valid today as they were in the earlier days of the organisation and this is why it continues to thrive in today’s society.  The WI provides all kinds of opportunities for women – from enabling women to play a part in their community and in sporting activities to learning new skills and making friends.  Education and training is at the heart of the WI and members and non-members are privileged to be able to attend training courses at the WI’s own residential adult education college,DenmanCollege, nearOxford, which has over 200 courses on offer.  Over recent years we have seen a resurgence in enthusiasm for home cooking and crafts and these traditional skills continue to be a key part of the WI.  Most importantly, the WI is great fun to be part of.

The WI empowers and gives women a platform to get their voices heard on issues that matter to them and their communities.  Every year, resolutions are discussed and voted on at the AGM and, if passed, are taken forward by the membership. Current issues on the WI agenda include climate change, violence against women, fast fashion, farmgate milk prices, country of origin food labelling and maternal mortality across the world.

The strength of the WI is its army of members who play a pivotal role in influencing politicians and decision-makers.  Since June last year, members have been putting pressure on the UK Government and MEPs to support mandatory country of origin labelling on all meat and processed meat and fish products. The campaign is seeking to achieve clear and accurate information to enable consumers to make informed choices about the foods that they buy.

Only last week, the WI presented an 8,000-strong petition to Stephen O’Brien MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, asking the UK Government to keep their promises to improve maternal health globally.  Every day, more than 1,000 women die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth around the world.

At the AGM in June, members will be debating and voting on two resolutions – the closure of local libraries and proposed mega farms – and, if passed, these will be taken forward as campaigns.

Climate change is just one issue on the WI agenda (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre)

I recently revisited the mandates passed by the WI over the years and it became very clear to me that since the early days of the movement, it has been forward-looking with the issues it has addressed and has been at the forefront of campaigning for women’s equality.

The WI had an impact on the struggle for women’s rights at the beginning of the 20th Century and helped women to become active citizens in the years straight after women received the vote.  At its AGMs between 1915 and 1925, the WI discussed resolutions on women taking up their place in society; for example, standing for election to local councils and supporting the appointment of women to public posts. These resolutions are just as relevant today as women continue to be under-represented in public life. Only 25% of local councillors inWales are women.

The WI is playing its part to address the poor representation of women in public life through our

The UK's first WI was established in Llanfair PG in September 1915 - in four years the organisation will celebrate its centenary

Women Making a Difference project.  Through this project, we are empowering women across Wales to get involved in public life and have successfully engaged with women who are under-represented in decision-making processes such as ethnic minority women and disabled women. Many of these women have now gone on to become school governors; town, community and county councillors; and to sit on local partnerships, trusts and similar bodies. Others are pursuing their ambitions to become magistrates, lobbyists and Assembly Members.

The WI looks forward with optimism to its centenary in 2015.

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