Tobacco has a long and variable history; despite it’s use in rituals, it is so potent it can kill through skin contact alone but is also so addictive it fuelled a war against Native Americans. Our mixed perspective on tobacco only increases when we turn to An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:

“In medical opinion tobacco has gone from hero to villain, from miracle wonder to a tool of the devil. Some of the darker aspects of tobacco include its links to smuggling, piracy, the development of the slave trade”

In terms of the plant’s qualities, it contains the alkaloid nicotine that wards off insects however, it is also addictive for humans as I’m sure you know. It is the addictiveness that has led to the tobacco plant’s success with it now being grown en masse. I do think it’s important to note that whilst nicotine is a powerful neurotoxin, much of it is destroyed when burnt. This means cigarettes are comparably safe when compared to eating the leaves, which is exceptionally harmful.

Looking back in terms of social and historical importance, the cultivation of Nicotiana goes back as far back as 5000 BC and human use for smoking, dating back at least as far as the first century BC when it was used by the Mayan people for smoking in sacred and religious ceremonies. It’s use then spread through neighbouring tribes including use by Native American Shamans in religious rites and ceremonies such as before a battle, a hunt, an expedition or peace talks. It was also part of a sacred ritual that provided a link between the human and the divine worlds. Protection from approaching storms could be acquired through and offering of tobacco, it was left on graves as offerings for ancestors and tobacco also sealed peace treaties. For the latter, there could be a special pipe known as a peace pipe and those who were in disagreement would hold the pipe between them and would be encouraged to smoke together.

The spirits were said to be a fan of tobacco but couldn’t get it for themselves, instead only being able to get it through the Native Americans through smoke and offerings. The Native Americans in turn had received the tobacco as a gift with the giver varying, for example coming via the Kinkajou, the animal which led me to the wonderous rabbit hole of tobacco.  

In more recent Native American literature, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about leaving a gift of tobacco before tapping a maple tree for syrup and how the offering is an expression of gratitude. She does not (as a botanist) assume that the plant recognises the offering, but in offering it, she is reminded of the debt she owes to the plant. She also writes about how “when the Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth, the plants that grew are special gifts to the people sprung from her body”. Of most relevance is the gift of tobacco that grew from her head. But other gifts include sweetgrass, strawberries, corn, squash and beans.

“With their tobacco and their thanks, our people say to the sweetgrass “I need you”.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Another contemporary writer, Linda Hogan, writes about tobacco ties which are squares of cotton that hold tobacco and are tied with twine and strung together. They are called prayer ties and each tie has a prayer, intention or gratitude held within it. Anyone coming into contact with the prayer tie is blessed by the prayer or intention.

Heading back to precolonial times, the Native Americans also used tobacci for curing a number of ailments including asthma and depression. The potential for healing would later be “discovered” in Europe.

So, how did Europeans discover tobacco? Well, it’s important to note that history depends on the lens that views it firstly, so the term discover comes with a heavily colonialist connotation and I want to note I am writing this as someone who has access to historical information in Britian. This means my version will come with the bias of the materials I have access to.

That out the way. It is believed that in 1492, Christopher Columbus first came across tobacco when the leaves were gifted to him by the Native Americans. As Columbus and other Europeans started to take up space in North America, smoking tobacco played a key role in the negotiations. Whilst initially this strange leaf based gift was rejected, within a century tobacco had migrated to India, Japan, Africa, China, Europe and the Middle East.

In the 1500s, Europe started trying to grow tobacco in Central American and by the mid 16th century, Sir John Hawkins took the questionable honour of being the first person to introduce tobacco to England. He was also the first English slave trader… Giving us a hint about the direction the tobacco trade is headed…

The first known European to smoke tobacco was Rodriguo de Jerez who returned to Spain with it, lit up in public, frightening his neighbours as smoke came out of his nose and mouth. So terrified was the community that he was imprisoned by the holy inquisitors. In spite of this brutal introduction, Spain would go on to lead on exploring tobacco as a possible medical resource; it shortly became a miracle cure able to help with multiple illnesses and ailments including toothache, worms, halitosis, lockjaw, coughs and cancers.

Over in England, Sir Walter Raleigh popularised smoking at court, not always smoothly; he was once soaked with beer by a servant who, upon seeing his master smoking, thought he was on fire and so helpfully put it out!

If we consider further supposed healing properties of tobacco at the time, we find it was thought to ward off the plague, a belief so strong that boys at Eton were forced to smoke a pipe every morning or be flogged.

As with many things that seem to take focus away from religion, tobacco would go on to be banned. Tobacco shops had begun opening in 1610s and by a decade later, the pope had banned use of tobacco in holy places. The reasoning being that snuff was related to sneezing which in turn was related to sexual pleasures.

As all of this was going on, it was discovered that tobacco doesn’t grow well in Europe and so England, being the colonising money makers they were (are?), they started to look for places they could grow it. The American colonies were, in their minds, an excellent place to grow a crop that had established demand. In fact, tobacco plantations were so successful that they brought in substantial customs revenue to Britain and as crops increased, so did the need for people to work in the fields; that is to say slaves.

Tobacco and slavery seem to have gone hand in hand once Britain became involved… With Virginia passing various racial laws and in 1705, legalising lifelong slavery:

“all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not Christians in their native country… shall be… slaves, and as such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to Christianity afterwards.”

As an aside, Christianity has had a big role to play in suppressing sexualities and gender identities around the world as colonialisation happened, although that’s a topic for another day.

Of course, tobacco had to be moved from where it was grown to the customers:

“The produce of the colonies, both legal and illegal, had to be conveyed in ships between colony and mother country, and as the colonies grew more prosperous there grew a demand for European furniture and other luxuries. This trade also encouraged the development of unlawful industries, including smuggling and privacy… So important was the tobacco trade that, even when Britain was at war with the French in the mid-18th Century, a special treaty was concluded to allow the lucrative business to continue.” – An Empire of Plants

As that quote illustrates, the growth and trade of tobacco was highly valuable and in Britain, it would allow urban and industrial development. By the 1720s, Glasgow for example, was handing over half of all the American tobacco brought into Britain.

Back in the states, Virginia settlers thought of tobacco leaf as ‘as good as gold’ and it was used as a local currency; they even paid the passage for their prospective brides in tobacco. This use of tobacco as a currency lasted for 200 years.

Beyond America and Europe, we find Alaskan native tribes who make something called punk ash  by mixing tobacco with the ash of a burned mushroom that grows on birch trees. By combining it, the effect is much stronger as ash helps deliver it straight to the brain.

In India, creamy snuff is popular among women and is sold in tubes a bit like toothpaste and similarly contains cloves and spearmint. It was recommended that you brush with it morning, night and any time you’re in a state of despair.

A takeaway from this post is that tobacco has long been seen as healing despite it being harmful to those imbibing it today, and to the many lives affected in the historic and current production processes.

Whilst the history of tobacco isn’t great nor is the more recent story. In fact, tobacco industries have had a horrible habit of targeting marginalised communities.

By 1960, all US states had laws preventing the sale of cigarettes to minors and in 1970, President Nixon banned cigarette adverts on radio and TV despite being a keen pipe smoker himself. Whilst this sounds a positive move, it left tobacco companies in need of new ways of reaching potential customers and that led to some unsavory tactics.

If we zooom forward a few decades, we find a 2016 report from the Truth Initiative that looked at how tobacco has played a unique role in LGBT history as a result of businesses intentionally targeting this community:

“While the stress associated with social stigmas, discrimination and the coming out process, more prevalent alcohol and drug use, and exposure to bars and clubs all play a role in the tobacco use disparity, predatory marketing practices are critical to understanding the truth about tobacco use and the LGBT community.”

Data in 2021 reiterated the higher use of tobacco by LGBT communities, noting that:

“For years the tobacco industry has made efforts to appeal to LGBT consumers through things like targeted advertisements in LGBT press, cigarette giveaways, and free tobacco industry merchandise. Today, the LGBT community is among the hardest hit by tobacco.”

As well as targeting LGBTQ communities, the tobacco industry has also used their predatory marketing practices against black communities. But how did we get to this place?

Many years ago, health warnings about smoking came into mainstream ways of thinking. Fearing for profits, the companies responded by advertising directly to women eg with Virginia Slims which used the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”. The male law makers responded critically as it was their wives who were being endangered by tobacco which was now known to be unhealthy. Then, with women out of reach, tobacco companies turned to children. This took forms such as Joe Camel using a cartoon character in 1987. Again, this was too much for the family men in charge of law and decision making.

So, to avoid potential legal battles, the tobacco industry turned to communities that law makers didn’t care about; black and LGBTQ people. At the time, both groups were upsetting law makers in their efforts to make society fairer through the civil rights movement and so were seen as an enemy to the state. Following the logic of my enemy’s enemy is my ally, tobacco companies started donating to black groups and sponsoring music events where black people would gather. Benson and Hedges put an advert in a gay magazine and another company targeted a specifically gay neighbourhood. Both companies aligned themselves with LGBTQ and black people to increase profit. As the law makers and government didn’t care as much about these “other” people, laws weren’t put in place to protect them in the way it had been for women and children. This led to higher tobacco use in LGBT and black communities which in turn resulted in increased health inequalities. Alongside this seemingly ally-like behaviour, tobacco companies were still donating to anti-gay lobbies.

As we all knew starting out, tobacco is not a neutral topic but I hope I have been able to provide a varied and nuanced take on such a controversial topic.


Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Dwellings by Linda Hogan

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave

Tobacco Free Life

LGBTQ Tobacco Use – Powered by Rainbows


An Empire of Plants by Toby and Will Musgrave:

LGBTQ Tobacco Use – Powered by Rainbows

Tobacco timeline

Truth Initative

To be bi…

…is to be a slut, but let’s unpick that a little more…

You must be greedy because you have all that choice of partners…but expect to be rejected by both straight and gay people, and prepared to experience biphobia from everyone. Something that’s somehow all the more painful when it comes from the queer community; you don’t experience oppression because you can pass for straight so you’re not really part of the LGBT+ community. Your life is easy cos you get to turn off the ‘gay’ part of ourselves and just be straight.

The LGBT+ community is right to reject you because you’re a) experimenting and using them, b) using queerness to be more interesting and/or c) you’re letting down the gay side of the team when you have ‘straight’ relationships.

You must be very indecisive, the only reason you’re bi is cos you can’t choose a side. And you’re probably indecisive because of being so greedy – why choose when you can have everything and everyone? Alternatively, you are just afraid to commit and settle down with one person… Probably because you’re selfish and unstable…

Another reason it’s so easy to be bi is all the choice! You never need to be without a partner or someone for a one night stand.

But it’s important to realise that bisexuality isn’t a real thing, you must be a lesbian and not wanting to admit it because you’re in denial or you’re confusing friendships with women for something more. You’re not attracted to her; you want to be her.

In fact, bisexuality (as much as it’s considered ‘real’) is all about attention seeking. You’re trying to get the attention of the men you’re so desperate to be with. If the man gets takes the bait, you might even bring the other woman into the bedroom for a threesome! Lucky guy!

As someone who’s bi, you inevitably have an insatiable sex drive (perhaps the real reason you won’t pick a side) and therefore you must be promiscuous and a terrible choice for a long term relationship. And when it comes to sex, you’re probably really kinky – after all sex is right there in the label! For the same reason, you can’t be a bisexual virgin, how do you know you’re into men and women if you’ve not had sex with both?

If you do end up in a long term relationship, you have finally chosen a side; you’re straight or a lesbian. And if you haven’t fully committed to the side you’ve picked, there’s a very high chance you’ll leave your partner for someone of the opposite gender eg, you may leave your female partner because you decide you really want a baby and as we all know, the only way to become a parent is when a man and a woman come together for ‘special time’. The only way you’ll be happy is if you’re in a relationship with a man and a woman (despite us all knowing bisexuality is just a social construct designed to arouse men).

To come out as bi involves demonstrating your bi-ness by getting out your logbook of past sexual partners. You then need to count up men and women you’ve had sex with (sex is important, a relationship that didn’t get sexual doesn’t count – remember sex is in the label) and they need to balance, or nearly balance. If they don’t, if you have more encounters of a different gender* then you’re straight and confused, if you’ve had more of the same gender, then you are gay and afraid.

*there’s more than two genders, for me bisexual means being attracted to people of the same gender, and other genders, not being attracted to men and women.

Obviously this is sarcastic.

I will soon be doing a post about how being bisexual means you’re more at risk of interpersonal abuse, being raped and more likely to experience things like depression and anxiety.

Big Green Bookshop Book Club

I recently signed up to the Big Green Bookshop Book Club. Once you’ve paid your subscription, they send you a very interesting questionnaire. It’s not too long but it really made me think. Essentially it helps them get to know you and your reading tastes and with that information, they then choose a book for you and pop it in the post.

I’m always up for finding new books and new authors and supporting independant shops, especially independant bookshops! So I thought I’d give it a go. I chose to start with the 3 month option and see how I found it (so far I’m loving it, except for the moment of panic when a parcel arrives and I think I’ve forgotten I ordered something!).

So far I’ve recieved two books; Lanny by Max Porter and Feeding Time by Abam Biles. I haven’t read Feeding Time yet but I’ve just finished Lanny and what a book! I don’t tend to reread books but I think I probably will with this one as there’s so much you can pick up on the second time round.

A paperback copy of Lanny by Max Porter

On the surface it tells the story of Lanny, a boy who lives in a village outside London, with all the odd characters you find in books about village life! And of course, those characters have lived in the village for generations, making Lanny and his family very much outsiders.

But Lanny is no ordinary boy, and this is no ordinary village. This is the village of Dead Papa Toothwort who has woken from his slumber in the woods….

And that’s all I will say about the plot and the characters, you should read it for yourself and enjoy the wandering rhythm of the story being revealed.

What I do want to say is how wonderful the language is and how poetic this book is, and how astute the observations are:

“He slides across the land at precisely the speed of dusk…. English seasons roll out of bed… we nurture things slowly and we kill things quick… I’m waxed leaves and hard flint, storing tomorrow’s sunshine in my bark, invisible…”

Max Porter

How beautiful is that?! How soul nourishing and gorgeous?!

At one stage, Lanny is building a bower, like bowerbirds do, and filling it will the best stuff he’s found. And I wondered to myself, what would I put in my bower?

A bower must be decorative, with a carefully arranged display of objects; a dowry.  These objects include shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, bones, berries, plastic, glass or anything else the male bowerbird may find. And it’s not a rough and ready affair.  The male spends hours arranging his display, truly dedicating himself to the task.

I am looking around my flat and thinking about what I am drawn to… my bower would be feather lined, adorned with seashells and pretty bits of stone. There would be gnarled twigs and fairy lights. A space for precious, well thumbed books and well loved teddy bears. Another for photos and sentimental jewellery. Lines from poems and phrases from poems yet to be written. Bubbles, the kind you got as a kid, often in a party bag, and the scent of lemongrass. Tufts of wool retrieved from branches and conkers still with their shine.

My bower would be filled with treasures from nature, memories and words.

What would you put in yours?

Dear blog…

Dear blog,

I am sorry I have so rudely abandoned you in favour of other endevours… Please trust me when I tell you I think of you with fondness and longing and will return to you one day, hopefully one day soon, brimming with words and love!

I hope you will indulge me whilst I tell you what I have been focussed on… Please do not be jealous. I have been writing for the local paper and taking flack in the comments section. I have been building a website for York Disability Rights Forum, including (do I dare tell you…?) writing blog posts for it. I am so sorry my dear blog… I have also been helping with social media for the Forum and meeting with people and writing so many things that at the end of the day there are no words left to rush out of my fingers.

There was also the endometriosis operation and, once again, my feeding tube fell out… There have been new carers to meet and begin training… And in between all of this, I have squeezed in meetings with my poetry group and tried to spin thoughts into poems.

There was the disability and sex conference which was great and I really want to tell you all about it, hopefully soon.

For now dear blog, please do not hate me for my absence, I still love you and wish to be back with you soon,


Invisible Women

I have just finished reading Invisble Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s been on my to-read list pretty much since it was published and it didn’t disappoint.

Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued.

If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.

In Invisible Women, we learn how the world has been built for and by men, with the male body being the default for human body. It highlights how, over and over again, women are ignored, erased and, as the title suggests, invisible. This is a systemic issue that has a significant impact on women’s lives. 

The focus taken in the book is the absense of women in data and the knock on effect that has. For example, when planning cities and transport, the standard day pattern used to inform decisions is that of a man.

Of course, taking a stereotypical man as representing the entire male population is problematic in itself, but extending the stereotypical man to represent the entire population, including women, is worse. 

Speaking in generalisations, men tend to get up, go to work in one trip, work and return home. Often this involves a 9-5 job that takes the man from a suburb area to a business zone. Sticking with generalisations, women will get up, take a child to school, continue on to work, then after work drop by a supermarket, then pop by an elderly parent’s before picking a child up from childcare and returning home. 

If you think about using public transport, the man here is taking two journeys and the woman is taking six. The man is likely finding it easier because public transport is often set up like spokes on a wheel, funelling people from outside the city centre inwards. The woman probably has to travel from spoke to spoke, rather than down the spokes and will almost certainly find it harder and more time consuming. 

Clearly, taking travel data from humans in general would help lead to decisions that are helpful for all people, eg public transport that reflects the routes people want to travel. Not considering women even inpinges on our sense of safety:

“A UK Department for Transport study highlighted the stark difference between male and female perceptions of danger, finding that 62% of women are scared walking in multistory car parks, 60% are scared waiting on train platforms, 49% are scared waiting at the bus stop, and 59% are scared walking home from a bus stop or station. the figures for men are 31%, 25%, 20% and 25%, respectively.” 
– Invisible Women

The data impact routinely impacts women, whether it’s working in offices with air conditioning set for male comfort or having your heart attack ignored because it isn’t displaying in the way that a man’s heart attack does. As a less serious example, emojis were male until 2016 and the phones we use them on, are designed with mens hands in mind. If you’ve ever noticed voice recognition seems to work better for your male friends than your female friends, then you’ve hit upon another area of male bias.

Other issues raised in Invisible Women include the contribution women make to the world in unpaid work such as looking after children, cleaning and doing chores and taking care of elderly parents and disabled relatives.

“In the UK up to 70% of all unpaid dementia carers are women, and female carers are more likely to help with bathing, dressing, using the toilet and managing incontinence. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be providing intensive on-duty care for someone twenty-four hours a day, and to have been caring for someone with dementia for more than five years.”
– Invisible Women

And when it comes to health and care, women are even impacted by the way medication is researched, with “nearly all pain studies hav[ing] been done exclusively in male mice”.  To say nothing of how rarely our pain is believed and how undertreated women’s pain is…  But that’s probably fodder for a different post… 

To sum up, go and read this book, especially if you are a women, but please read it even if you aren’t.

China’s One Child Policy

Warning: talks about abortion, human trafficking and forced sterilisation

China’s one child policy was in place between 1979 and 2015 and, as the name suggests, it was about limiting families to having one child.  There were exceptions, for example ethnic minorities were not subject to the policy and in the 1980s, a change meant that rural families could have a second child if their first was a girl.  If both parents were only children, then they themselves could have two children.  At some point, it was also possible to apply for permission for a second child if the first had a disability. 

In 2013, there was a partial relaxation that meant if one parent was an only child, the couple could have two children.

In 2015, China announced that every family now had the right to 2 children.

“The policy has in one way or another affected the life of every single person in China – which is every fifth person on the planet.”
– Mari Manninen

It is likely one of the most extreme and controversial birth control policy that humanity has seen. 

So why did it come into being?

Controlling population growth was thought to be the key to increasing economic prosperity and standard of living.  In 1957, Mao Zedong said:

“Our country has so many people, which no country in the world can compare with.  It would be better to have fewer births.  (Re)production needs to be planned.  In my view, humankind is completely incapable of managing itself.”

By the mid 1960s, China had developed its own version of the contraceptive pill and had “expanded the national distribution and propaganda network devoted to promoting birth control” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).

Across the globe, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was concern about population increases and by the late 70s, China’s population was approaching one billion.  To tackle this, in the 1970s, a campaign was established to reduce the population and it had the slogan ‘later, longer, fewer’; get married later, wait longer between children and have fewer children.  This campaign came with heavy coercion and enforcement and in the 70s the average number of children per family dropped from almost six to under three.  By 1979 the one child policy was officially introduced.

Before we look at how the policy was enforced, I think we need to consider gender. 

UN statistics say that China has over 60 million missing girls, girls who should have been born or shouldn’t have died as children.  Research carried out in rural China in 2000 showed that if a family had a boy and was pregnant again, 40% had an ultrasound the second time round.  If the first child had been a girl, that leapt to 70%.  However, this leaning towards boys precedes the one child policy; killing baby girls wasn’t uncommon in the 1930s and 40s but had since decreased, until the 1980s.

There is a myth that Chinese parents only wanted boys but it’s not so clear cut and it’s important to take into account cultural expectations for each gender.  Men are the ones who would be expected to support their aging parents and alongside the introduction of the one-child policy, what little health care and elder services there were for farmers, were slashed, making it even more important to have a boy.  Further if you only have so much food, you had to prioritise which children would get it.  Think about children as an investment in your future.

This seems horrific and brutal but reflects the traditions of the culture – men would carry out the heavy work on the farm, they were the ones who’d earn money and help to secure the family, they were the ones who carried on the family line and it is the men who make the offerings for the ancestors. 

Families did still want girls but it seems to be as well as a boy, rather than instead of.

Of course, for any policy such as this to be successful, enforcement is crucial.  As we’ve already noted, methods predating the policy were strongly coercive and methods once the policy was implemented were no gentler.  They varied locally but were often intrusive and brutal.

Birth planning enforcers would keep detailed records about the women of child bearing age in their area.  This included any previous children, details of their menstrual cycle and their use of contraception.  In some places, pregnancy tests had to be taken regularly and exams were carried out to check they weren’t pregnant.  All of this meant that they could identify illegal pregnancies in the early stages.  These birth planning enforcers oversaw villages, neighbourhoods and were even found in work places. 

Each region had their own pregnancy quota, as did some factories, and women had to apply for permission.  Village quotas were stopped in the 2000s but potential parents still had to apply for permission before getting pregnant.  If you wanted to apply to have a second child – ie if your first child was a girl or was disabled – you had to wait until your first child was at least 4.  Today, with the two child policy, there is no need to wait and permission is no longer required.  However, it is required that parents register online or with the local family planning office when a pregnancy begins.

If you managed to avoid the stern eye of the birth planning enforcer and had a child without permission or outside the policy, you could expect to be fined.  If you didn’t pay the fine (and in some cases, even if you did), the child would not be given a hakou, an official household registration record.  Without it, you essentially don’t exist.  You can’t go to school, work, get healthcare, get married or even get on a train.

As the fines are an important source of income for local government, it is obviously in their interest to enforce them.  In 2012, fines for unpermitted children amounted to the equivalent of 3 billion euros.

It is hard to know how many unpermitted children exist, but one estimate puts it as high as 25 million.  That’s 25 million people who have no rights and no access to basic services.  And any children those unpermitted people have, will also have no rights.

Manninen quotes 18 year old Zedong in her book Secrets and Siblings:

“I felt like I had no worth.  Even dogs have papers, but I had nothing.  Everyone looks down on me… It’s not my fault I don’t have hukou… Even foreigners were able to get official papers to live in China permanently while many Chinese couldn’t even get the basic hukou.”

As well as being fined, you would risk losing your job, having your home and property damaged, stolen or destroyed and in some cases you risk being illegally detained.

“Sometimes a family would lose their bicycle, or their radio.  They might have holes chopped in their roof.  Often the family pig would be confiscated.  In the worst cases, the disobedient family’s house would be razed to the ground.”
– Manninen

If you did get pregnant and it was discovered before birth, abortion was ‘encouraged’.  According to statistics, up to 13 million abortions are performed each year in China and the number will be higher if you take into account illegal abortions.  This works out at one abortion for every one hundred people in China.  Abortion is common in China and easy to get, further women are entitled to at least two weeks off work to have one. 

Regular harassment and pressure to get an abortion was not enough, and forced abortions could be carried out at any stage of pregnancy, with one woman reporting that she had been forced into one at 9 months.  The viability of the foetus was not relevant to the procedure.

This left millions of women facing the choice to have an abortion or face a fine and risk losing their job and more.  If a girl was born, they then faced another issue; should they let their child die so that they could have a boy?  Whilst it did occur, child abandonment became less common towards the end of the regime, with only seriously ill and disabled babies being left on the side of the road. 

As a disabled person this hits me hard, but in a world where you can only have one child, having a disabled child who isn’t going to be able to provide for you in your later years, has long term consequences.  As does the cost implication of meeting additional needs.  Further, in China it is often considered shameful to have a disabled child.

As well as abortion pressure, there was also pressure to be sterilised or to have an IUD inserted.  In rural areas, once you had one child, you were required to get an IUD and there would be 6 monthly checks to ensure it was still in place.  After a second child, one of the parents would be sterilized.

In rural areas, sterilisations were brutal.  They were often performed without anaesthesia, with women laid side by side on the ground and the operation performed right there. 

Inevitably, all of these practices have had a long lasting impact on the country as well as the individual people who’s lives have been touched by the policy.

There is a regularly touted statistic from the Chinese government that the policy prevented 400 million births, fuelled the economy and improved wellbeing.  The birth rate figure used here is based on overly simplistic assumptions.  Further, given that “at least 70 per cent of the decline in fertility from 1970 up to the present was achieved prior to the launching of the one-child policy” (Whyte, Feng & Cai) and coercive birth control enforcement was already in place before the policy, it seems unlikely that the policy had much effect. 

When it was introduced in 1979, the one child policy was “based on politics and pseudo-science, rather than necessity, much less on good demography.  China could have achieved further progress in lowering fertility with some version of a two-child policy, a choice that would have sharply reduced the human suffering caused after 1980” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).

As well as aiming to reduce population growth, the policy was implemented to improve the economy and the quality of life for the residents, however:

“[The] economic reforms may have lifted 500 million above the poverty line, but that still leaves nearly a quarter of its 185 million retirees living on less than a dollar a day.”
– Mei Fong

But there is an upside to the policy, those girls who were the only child were the beneficiaries of the family’s resources and some have thus had the opportunity to receive a higher level of education and support than they otherwise might have.  In 2010, a quarter of Chinese women in cities had a university degree, double the number in 1990.

“The death rate of women and children has also fallen, and their health has improved due to fewer births and fewer mouths to feed.”
– Manninen

Of course, nothing is so simple and the increased education and career opportunities for women has led to a higher number of single adults.  So called ‘leftover men’ are found in rural areas and are less well off and less educated whereas ‘leftover women’ live in cities and are well educated.  This creates a disparity – the men who are available for marriage are not likely to want the kind of women who are and vice versa.

Men, for example, are stereotypically looking for young, beautiful women who haven’t been married before and parents often echo, or push, this thinking.  For example, there are wedding markets where parents come to advertise their unmarried sons and daughters, sometimes without their knowledge.  The continuation of the family line is important and parents see it as their duty to find their child a wife or husband.

The term ‘leftover women’ has been coined to pressure women to marry young and to deter them from being career orientated but the reality is that there are more unmarried men than women.  According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by now China should have 30 million more men of marrying age than women.  That’s the same as half the entire UK population.

It is this gender disparity that has resulted in women from China and surrounding countries being trafficked and sold to be wives.  One study estimated that, in a four year period, about 21,000 women and girls from northern Myanmar were forced into marriage in one Chinese province alone.

As well as the impact on the children who were born under the policy, there is the effect that it has had on the older generation.  By 2050 it’s estimated that more than a quarter of the population will be over 65 and that poses the question, who will support them?  If they had one child, that child will have grown up to become an adult facing the burden of supporting their elders alone.

“…because of the one-child policy, each young Chinese faces supporting four grandparents, two parents–plus however many children they bear. Shanghai recently passed a law requiring children to visit parents in nursing homes. This oppressive, upside-down pyramid–known as “4-2-1” in China–is another reason Chinese are reluctant to add to their burden by having more kids.”

And then there are the families who were unable to have a child, or whose child died.  People look down on childless couples and in some places they face discrimination, finding it hard to get into a retirement home or get a burial plot.  The concern is that without children, there won’t be enough money for continued payment or maintenance fees.  There is also no one to support them with other needs as they age.

As the Time quote suggested, there seems little appetite for having more than one child, even though the policy changed in 2015.  Although there was an increase in births initially, there hasn’t been much lasting change. 

The government is now trying other initiatives to raise the rate; some areas offer longer parental leave, financial support and in some areas it’s now harder to get a divorce or abortion.  Lowering the age for marriage and offering free or subsidised pregnancy care are other ways that China is attempting to increase the birth rate.

Whatever happens next, I suspect the burden will once again fall disproportionately on women, whether through forced marriages, through trafficking or through forced childbearing.


Secrets and Siblings, Mari Manninen

Challenging Myths About China’s One-Child Policy, Martin King Whyte, Wang Feng and Yong Cai

Reinventing China’s Abortion Police, Lucy Ash

One Child Policy, Last Week Tonight

China’s Unmarried ‘Leftover’ Women, Vice Asia

One Child Policy, BBC

From the archives.. Trees and Forests

If trees and forests interest you, you might want to check out the Urban Tree Festival which is happening this week. There’s a wide range of online talks so you can attend from wherever you live!

Where in the world…

I don’t know why but the other day I started thinking about where I have been, which countries I have visited and thought I’d expand the list into a blog post.

Picture heavy!

Wales is where most of my early holidays were. Generally on the beautiful Llyn Peninsula with its beautiful beaches and cliffs and little villages.

Where fairies dwell...

I went to Denmark when I was about 7 and would love to go back. We stayed by a beach which sounds lovely but a storm had washed up hundreds and thousands of jellyfish… It was hard to see sand between gelatinous blobs…

When I was 14, I went to the south of France on an exchange trip. I also went to Disney Land Paris that year on a Girl Guide trip. That was also the year I went to Austria, skiing, and came down with the flu in the airport going out…

I went back to France a couple of years later, in a campervan with my family. We drove down to the south and wound our way back north. We repeated the trip, with a different route, when I was 18.

Snails in France

Somewhere between France and France, we headed north to Scotland for a few nights.

I went over to Ghana to volunteer in a remote village when I was 19 for a few weeks. We helped to build a school and I learnt to plaster, a skill I have not used since… I also learnt how to carry buckets of water on my head!

A young boy in Ghana

Whilst we were in Ghana, we were invited to attend a funeral in Togo so we trekked from our village to their village. It was the funeral of the estranged wife of the chief of the village we were staying in. The border was marked by a small stone on path, a path which was only wide enough for single file people.

Next up was Rome in 2008. It was incredibly hot, and my sensible sandals managed to give me so many blisters that I crumpled in a heap on the pavement and cried…

St Peter's
Circus Maximus

I spent a lot of time in Scotland during my last year at uni, specifically Glasgow, more specifically the West End with it’s wonderful cafe and book shops. That autumn we wandered through Kelvingrove Park with crisp leaves on the floor…

Autumn Colours

2014 was the year of travel. I had a little extra money and was starting to become more disabled by my health. I knew I needed to go on some of my dream trips before I physically couldn’t. First up was a combined trip to Bali and Lombok.

DSC_0095 (3) MO
Sunset in Bali
DSC_0049 (2) MO
Water Temple in Bali
The beautiful beach where I spent my birthday!

A few months later I had a long weekend in Brussels.

There was a trip to Edinburgh and my final trip that year was back to Scotland. I took the train, a bus, another bus and a boat to the Summer Isles. There I spent a week surrounded by water and heather, writing, doing art, making books and reading.


Next up was Cambodia where I saw fireflies for the first time, along with the ruins of temples and river dolphins.

DSC_0096 e bw

The last time I went out of England, was a trip to Ireland. Despite it having been horrible weather the week before, I struck gold and the sun shone brightly. As with Bali, Lombok and Cambodia, this was a tour run by people who lived in and loved the country. We were a small group and we got to go to some off the beaten track places.

DSC_0368 (2) levels shadows
DSC_0308 (2) levels

I hope this little run through of my travels has taken you outside of your home for a little while. Where in the world have you been? Where in the world would you like to go?