A rousing speech on the dangers of Swedish nationalism is a bit of a turn-off. Photo: Getty
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2am in a gay bar in Stockholm is the best time to discuss the NHS

If you’re a Scene Lesbian, whenever you’re abroad, you feel obligated to have a quick look at what gays do for fun wherever you are.

There’s nothing sexier than socialised health care. Free education comes close but state-funded hospitals are the welfare state’s lacy knickers. Possibly. OK, maybe not. But it’s around 2am and I’m in a gay bar in Stockholm, discussing the NHS with a Norwegian woman. Ms Oslo is in her mid-forties; with her cropped blonde hair and polo shirt, she’s the sort of 1990s tennis lesbian I hardly ever get a chance to speak to in London, mostly because we inhabit different parts of the Scene.

According to my slapdash pre-Stockholm-trip googling, Torget is Stockholm’s version of somewhere like GAY in London: well established, cheesy and reasonably friendly. I’m the youngest person in it.

“So, how long have you been in Sweden?” I ask Ms Oslo, hoping to steer the conversation towards something more discussable over thumping Europop.

“Seven years now,” she says.

“Wow. So I’m guessing you like it here.” (Keep it boring.)

“It’s nice,” she begins. “I can’t stand the Swedes, though. Bunch of Nazis.”

I feel a Holocaust conversation brewing.


Why am I encouraging her?

In some of the best English I’ve ever heard, Ms Oslo proceeds drunkenly to outline the history of the Swedish far right – from Nazi collaboration to the various modern-day nationalist movements.

Ten minutes later, to the music of “Dancing Queen” (really), I’m trying to examine the chain of events that led to a Norwegian woman and me shouting about fascism in a Swedish gay bar.

If you’re a Scene Lesbian (even a reluctant one like me), whenever you’re abroad, you feel obligated to have a quick look at what gays do for fun wherever you are. There’s always a flicker of hope that you are about to strike glittering gay gold.

I was optimistic about Sweden. I imagined a rainbow-kissed utopia of tall, liberal Norse women: possibly the kind of thing Hitler would have had in mind, if he were a left-wing lesbian. Perhaps I was hoping for an army of gay Saga Noréns (the blunt bombshell from The Bridge). I’d let them take me hiking in pine forests. We’d drink from Thermoses together.

As it goes, I can’t see myself having a laugh in the wilderness with Ms Oslo. All this Nazi chat has me edging towards the toilets, where I’ll need to devise an escape plan, possibly by way of the window like in films. She’s affable, as is the Stockholm gay scene as far as I can see. But I’ve always wanted to steal into the night. And, with Ms Oslo still delivering a rousing speech on the dangers of Swedish nationalism, that’s exactly what I do.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Why the world depends on our attitude towards ten-year-old girls

A new report by the United Nation Population Fund finds that our collective future rests on how we support the world’s 60 million ten-year-old girls as they start their journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Take a moment to imagine a ten-year-old girl right now. What do you see? Is she in school? Is she laughing with friends? Do you imagine her riding a bike or playing ball? On roller skates or en pointe in ballet class?  With her nose in a book or her eyes on a chess board?

Or perhaps you imagined a different scene, one that still plays out daily in many parts of the world: a girl who wakes up in the morning and finds out that she’ll be married that afternoon and taken out of school forever, a girl who will be forced to start bearing children as soon as her body allows it, and will stop being a child and start being a labourer in the home.

This is the tragic reality for millions of ten-year-old girls as they approach puberty.

While in some places, age ten can be a time of exploration, expanding horizons and new possibilities, in others it can be a time where barriers emerge, limiting options, choices and opportunities.

Many girls are transformed from children with rights and aspirations, into brides, free labour or objects of exploitation – forever excluded from decisions about their lives and blocked from realising their full potential.

This is a grave and unforgivable injustice and a violation of girls’ fundamental rights. And whenever a girl’s future is derailed in this way, her household, community and nation also suffer.

With no freedom to make choices, get an education and find a good job, she will never have the power to participate in the affairs of her community and contribute to her country’s development.

But when a girl is protected from child marriage, is able to stay in school and make her own decisions about whether or when to become pregnant, the potential gains to her – and her society – are huge.

Each extra year a girl stays in high school, for example, delivers an 11.6 per cent increase in her average annual wage for the rest of her life. In India alone, there are over 12 million ten-year-old girls of whom nearly 900,000 will not move from primary to secondary school this year. If half of those 900,000 girls finished secondary school and later got a job, they could together earn almost $2m over the next 15 years.

In fact, if all the ten-year-old girls living in developing countries today were able to finish high school and make their own decisions about marriage and parenthood, they would together earn an estimated $21bn by the time they reach 25.

In most developing and middle-income countries, a girl who stays in school, gets a job and delays pregnancy will earn up to three times as much in her lifetime as her counterpart who does not finish high school and becomes pregnant as an adolescent.

And research has shown that a girl who makes a safe and healthy transition through adolescence to adulthood has higher status in her household and community and invests earnings back into her household, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of social and economic empowerment that can last for generations.

The benefits of keeping a ten-year-old girl’s life on track are indisputably large.

According to The State of World Population 2016, published today by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, keeping every ten-year-old girl’s life on track is possible, but it requires support from, and investments by, everyone around her – her family, community and government. Men and boys also have a critical role in tearing down the barriers that prevent girls from realising their full potential.

So what can be done?

First, end all practices that harm girls. This means, for example, enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage.

Second, enable girls to stay in school, at least through high school. Study after study has shown the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to become pregnant as an adolescent and the more likely to grow up healthy and join the paid labour force.

Third, provide extra support to marginalised and impoverished girls who have traditionally been left behind.

Make sure girls, before they reach puberty, have access to information about their bodies. Later in adolescence, they need information and services to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

And above all, take steps to protect girls’ – and everyone’s – rights.

We have every reason to prioritise the development of every girl’s capabilities. Our collective future depends on it.

Today’s 60 million ten-year-old girls will be 24 when progress towards the United Nations’ new development agenda is tallied in 2030.

That agenda aims for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no one behind. The real test of its success will be whether every ten-year-old girl today will be healthy, educated and productive in 2030.

The world cannot afford to squander the potential of even one more girl. Instead, we must do everything in our power to ignite that potential – for her sake and for the sake of us all.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is the United Nation Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Executive Director.