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Interview with Gina Martin: the journey of a working-class gal turned activist

13th June 2019
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Gina Martin has been – and done – many things in her life already: copywriter, art director, lead crew member on a yacht, freelance writer… she also rescued Spud, a dog, in Greece (he still visits her sometimes) and adopted a rescue turtle named Gary.

Earlier this year, we interviewed the writer, award-winning activist and law changer to find out more about her journey and fights.

Image courtesy of Gina Martin

Why did she start campaigning to make upskirting illegal?

She tells us: “I was so bored of brushing off sexual assault and of saying it’s just a part of life and getting on with it.”

In July 2017, Gina and her sister were at the British Summer Time festival in London's Hyde Park, watching The Killers, when a man took a photo of under her skirt – after she had relentlessly asked him to stop bothering her. After taking his phone and running to security, she went to the police - where she found that she could not do anything about it as the law did not cover this type of assault. They asked the guy to delete it, which he did, and a few days later the case was closed. “I grabbed the phone and took the phone to the police and they told me there was nothing they could do,” Gina explains.

It did not seem right to her that the charges were dropped. And that’s when she decided to act.

When asked about what fuelled her fight, she says: “We talk a lot about passion, but actually anger and negative emotions are really big motivators for change”. “[It] was happening to lots of people; and that motivated me even more. It wasn't about me anymore.”

So what happened next?

Gina's long journey of becoming an activist started by speaking up - a few days after her case was closed, she decided to write a post on Facebook detailing her experience. “My post went viral within days, on both Twitter and Facebook. Other women shared similar experiences with me and that's when I realised this was a bigger problem”, she told the BBC.

She started contacting people who had lived through the same experience, as well as politicians and organisations who could potentially support her. Finding lawyer Ryan Whelan, who offered to help for free, was of major importance, and he became a valuable support.

She also found support from ordinary people via her online petition (that ended up with over 111,000 signatures) and a strong ally in the person of Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse.

When talking about how to start campaigning, she tells us it’s speaking up which is “the hardest part. Once you do that – we have seen time and time again – the support is there.”

The Lib Dem MP introduced a Private Members Bill - called the Voyeurism Bill - to Parliament on the 6th March 2018, just before International Women's Day. It finally received Royal Assent on 12th February this year, and came into force on 12th April.

“Seeing it pass through was super emotional because it’s been the most incredible enlightening amazing experience, but also the hardest time of my life. It was incredible to watch it and know it’s done”, she explains.

The difficult life of an activist

Let’s not forget the difficulties that came with two years of grassroots (feminist) activism.

First came the online trolls: “It’s generally people telling me that I should have worn trousers, or I deserved it, or I’m attention-seeking, but they can get pretty horrible at points.

“At the very beginning it was really bad and I was getting a lot of rape threats.

“I still get a lot of stuff in comments, but, if anything, it shows me that people don’t get this, so let’s keep going”, she told the Press Association last year. 

And second came opposition from inside Parliament in the form of Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope, who blocked her bill by a surprised ‘Object’ in June 2018 - which delayed the vote to the following month. His own party condemned his action and fellow activist, Lorna Rees, strung up homemade knicker bunting across his door: “no one should be able to photo my pants unless I want them to”, Rees told us last year.

That unique objection in itself demonstrates the effectiveness of the tireless work of Gina, her lawyer and MP Wera Hobhouse, which led to cross-party and Government support as well as celebrity endorsements such as that of Holly Willoughby, Laura Whitmore and Dermot O’Leary. Supports also came from the Police and Crime Commissioners and campaigners.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, upskirting was already against the law. We asked her if she thought it was because kilts are a common clothing choice, especially for men: “upkilting is a massive issue.” “It was both genders dealing with that over there; it seemed that conversation had happened earlier than here.”

When asked about what made her become a feminist, Gina reminds us that “men aren't thriving under inequality either. We look at toxic masculinity, we look at suicide rates - there is a categorically horrific problem that we have with women, obviously a lot more than men, but they aren't thriving under inequality either. So to call you a feminist is to call yourself a believer in human rights.”

What about her work-life-activism balance?

“I’m so tired!” she laughs. “It has been incredible to do both, I needed to do both, I am not a middle-class person, and I don't have money.

“My lawyer was free. It costs a lot of money to campaign. To financially keep going I had to work.

“And also to show that not everyone is privately educated and privileged, that is changing things. A lot of working class people that still have to work and find the time to do this. It’s been a challenge, it’s been bloody hard.

“But it’s actually been a great support system for me, and I think it’s important to show that you care about something you can make time for it regardless."

 

Gina Martin's first book // Image credit: Camille Dupont

Any wisdom to share?

Now full-time activist and change influencer, she tells us she will focus on spreading her knowledge: I’m going to schools to talk to kids about consent." She also has a book, out now, that she hopes will inspire people to find the activist within themselves.

That book is Be The Change, which she built an activist’s handbook and in which she includes practical tips and reflections such as activism and privilege - something she has already openly spoken about on social media.

Her book launch is accompanied by a tour across the UK, which started yesterday at Waterstones Gower Street, at which she was joined by the #FreePeriods campaign founder Amika George.

It was a powerful evening, full of activists-in-the-making who came with pads and panty-liners donations – something Gina had asked for on Instagram the previous day. A proof, if any, that this activist will use her platform and privilege for fights she cares about.

And on a personal note, thank you Gina for signing my post-it note after I ordered your book to be delivered to another Waterstones - you literally made my day!

You can buy the book now through Gina's publisher’s site or at your local book shop. 

Lead image courtesy of Gina Martin

Additional reporting by Lara Alvarenga Silva




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