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Feminism Is on the Move Again, But There Is Still a Lot of Work to Do

02/03/2015 16:58 GMT | Updated 02/05/2015 10:59 BST

Feminism is fashionable. All the time that I've been writing about women's rights, journalists have asked me, 'Why are women scared to call themselves feminist?' But now, with Taylor Swift saying she is a feminist and Emma Watson leading a feminist campaign, with Patricia Arquette talking about equal pay on the Oscars stage and Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez shouting their support, there's no reason why anyone should be nervous of calling themselves feminist any more.

Some feminists are a bit sniffy about this move that feminism is making into the mainstream, but I am delighted. I love seeing young women crowding out feminist debates, I love the packed audiences at women's festivals. I think it's great that hundreds of thousands of people sign petitions with feminist messages.

It's easy to forget how feminist debate used to be corralled into such a small arena centred around the Guardian women's page and Silver Moon Bookshop. I remember when it was quite a stretch for any newspaper to allow a writer to put a feminist frame on a story, even if it was about violence against women. That's changed. The way that we speak about women's experiences from female genital mutilation to pornography to sexual violence to street harassment has undergone a profound shift as feminist ideas have moved more firmly into the mainstream.

But that doesn't mean that it's time to rest on our laurels. On the contrary, now is the time that we have to match this shift in awareness with action. It's great that, say, more survivors of abuse are able to speak out about what they suffered, but are they getting the support they need? While services to survivors are being starved of funds, more media interest is not going to help those who need it most. Let see all the debate matched by a bit of money, and then we can start to talk about change.

And it is still the case that many women are being left out of this rise of interest. Eight years ago I set up a charity, Women for Refugee Women, that works with women who have had to cross borders to survive. The understanding of the injustices that women face across the globe has definitely improved since I started working in this area. The government has, for instance, started a new initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict and has done sterling work on trying to protect girls from FGM. But when women cross borders to flee from these very abuses, it's a different story.

For instance, one woman I know well fled her country because she did not want to be a cutter in the female genital mutilation rituals of her village. Her mother and her grandmother had been cutters before her and after her mum died the elders of the village were forcing her to take on her ancestral role. Rather than cut the clitorises off little girls, she fled. Instead of working with her to understand the situation she fled from, the UK Home Office locked her up in Yarl's Wood detention centre for five months without a lawyer or an interpreter. Because her phone was taken away from her when she was detained she wasn't even able to let her sister or daughter know where she was. She is now out, but she still doesn't have asylum and she is deeply depressed and scared. When you next hear British politicians talking about how well they support girls at risk of FGM, remember her.

Another woman I know was raped in prison in her home country as punishment for being a lesbian. Her mum helped her get out and flee to the UK for safety. But here, the Home Office said she wasn't a lesbian; she has long hair and wears make up, so maybe she didn't look the part. So they locked her up in Yarl's Wood detention centre where she descended into paranoia and confusion, unable to deal with being watched by men night and day. 'When I entered there I wasn't myself. I was messed up... I was so agitated and they bring me to the room and I was lying in the bed. There was two officers in front of me, watching me. If I wanted to go to the toilet they would be around me. And I said to them, "I don't want male guards." That night there was only male guards in Yarl's Wood... Then I scream and shout, I shout, I shout, I shout, I shout until I fell asleep. After my condition started to get worse. Now they were watching me every second... if I wanted to do anything they were watching me.'

I'm glad that feminism is on the move again, but we all know there is still loads of work to do, especially for women who face the double or triple disadvantage of being the wrong colour, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality... Until the voices of such women are heard as loudly as Taylor Swift's and Emma Watson's, the struggle isn't over.

Natasha Walter is the author of Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, which is being reissued on 8 March with a new introduction. She is giving two lectures and participating in a panel event in Cambridge as Humanitas Visiting Professor of Women's Rights 3-8 March - http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25903