National Federation WI

The Women's Institute Movement in Britain  started in 1915.  During the First World  War it was formed to encourge countrywomen to get involved iin growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.

Since then the organisation aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary organisation in the UK.  The WI celebrated its centyenary in 2015 and currently has almost 220,000 members in approximately 6,300 WIs.

National federation of Women's Institutes

NFWI AGM Bournemouth - Wednesday 5 June 2019

For a National Conference virgin it was a formidable sight. More than six thousand women in one place, for one reason. No wonder the male speakers professed themselves nervous.

With a shimmer of silver hair everyone rose for a rousing Jerusalem, and then down to business. We are all well versed in the arguments for and against the two resolutions. There were persuasive and often moving comments from the floor, but suffice to say that the one calling for action on declining bus services was passed 96% to 4%, and that for action to encourage women not to fear the smear 97% to 3%. Apparently the idea of having a resolution every two years instead of annually has been considered but was rejected, as annually enables us to keep abreast of pressing issues.

New appointments, finances (they are healthy) were also approved, with the good news that National Federation trustees are committed to increasing the proportion of subscriptions kept by WIs. Healthy too are the many, many activities rolled out nationwide under the WI umbrella. Partnerships with national bowls and walking netball associations have meant that the WI now has its own qualified teachers, and in September we are all encouraged to make the most of Performing Arts Week.

However, the main emphasis of the day was on campaigning – not only focussing on the 2019 resolutions but also following up on those of previous years and on new initiatives.  An End to Plastic Soup is one of the most successful, and news to your delegate was that there is a network of 100 Climate Ambassadors. These are WI members who raise awareness in their local communities of the things that can be done in the fight against climate change, all with the backing of NFWI’s Public Affairs unit. Every WI can have one, or presumably more – if you are interested email pa@nfwi. Also, there is mass rally planned outside Parliament on June 26 – see The Time is Now under Climate Change on the NFWI website.

The second campaign to be highlighted was that adopted in 2008 to end the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems, which brings us to the first speaker of the day, Lord Bradley of Withington, Chair of the Care not Custody Coalition.

A former Labour MP and deputy chief whip, the affable Lord Bradley spoke of the honour he felt in being associated with the WI as a force for good in helping the mentally ill. Since 2011, based on that 2008 mandate, significant steps have been taken under the auspices of the national Liaison and Diversion Service. Under this scheme:

Lord Bradley summed up by observing that there must be continued investment in mental health services. There is no point in Liaison and Development if there is nowhere to refer cases on to, and at present 15% of the NHS budget is spent on mental health as opposed to 85% on physical. On a positive note, mental health is now increasingly on the agenda, due in no small part to the tireless support of the WI.

The afternoon speaker, chosen to keep us all awake, was the very entertaining Maggie Philbin, familiar as past presenter of Swap Shop and Tomorrow’s World, and now CEO of the award winning organisation Teentech. After finding fame on Swap Shop (a show that also gave Delia Smith her first break) she was invited to join Tomorrow’s World and demonstrated many new inventions, including an electric blanket that knew where your ‘hot bits’ were. Maggie presented it in pyjamas and provoked a number of complaints.

It is for Teentech however that Maggie has won plaudits – an OBE and the title Digital Leader of the Year. Through a stint at BBC Berkshire she found that the prevailing attitude of schoolchildren in the area, especially among girls, was that science is boring. Thus Teentech was born, to promote the idea, particularly  among young people from disadvantaged areas, that the world is changing fast and that decisions should be made by all of us, not just the lucky few who make a fortune.

Needless to say Maggie had many funny stories to illustrate how she made technology fun, but here is just one. Challenged to think of ways to make life simpler, better or safer in all kinds of areas – such as education, transport, health, food, and retail –a group of boys came up with the idea of a condom that would change colour depending on which STD was being transmitted. The faces of the Westfield shoppers asked for their thoughts during the boys’ research mission were apparently a picture! What may well have begun as a prank went all the way to the final at the Royal Society, by which time, Maggie says, “There was nothing they didn’t know about STDs!” They won the Future of Health category and were featured on over 300 breakfast programmes around the world as an “and finally....” piece.

Bringing the day to a close, NFWI Chair Lynn Stubbings spoke of the four founding values of the WI – fellowship, truth, tolerance and justice. From helping out at fetes to campaigning at the highest level, that is what the powerful brand of the WI is about, “So get out there and tell the rest of the world what they are missing!”

More shimmering silver, Jerusalem, Land of my Fathers in Welsh (twice,as no one knew quite where to start), God save the Queen,  and then home.

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