NEWSMAKER: Campaigning for sexual health - Anne Weyman, Chief executive, FPA

Emma Maier

Anne Weyman has always had a desire to understand how the world works. Her quest to uncover the mechanics of social interaction and grasp how we fit into the bigger picture has had an almost unsettling effect.

She has taken a diverse path in life, studying subjects from opposite ends of the academic spectrum and pursuing a varied career in the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Weyman's curiosity initially drove her to study physics at university in an attempt to find some answers. But she was left unsatisfied, and, after five years working in accountancy, she went back to university to study sociology.

"I thought that science would be a good basis for understanding the world, but I discovered that it was too abstract," she says. "I realised that I was more interested in people, so later I studied sociology."

These experiences have helped shape Weyman's approach to working in the voluntary sector.

"It is a very good underpinning and means that I can speak to many different types of people with some degree of understanding," she says.

"Having a scientific background has given me a much more evidence-based approach, which is very important in this field, and the accountancy also means that finances do not hold any fear for me."

After joining the voluntary sector, Weyman, 60, never looked back. Her time at the National Children's Bureau prepared her for dealing with controversial policy areas and campaigning for sexual health and reproductive rights. During her time there she founded the Sex Education Forum, the Drug Education Forum and the National Forum on Aids and Children.

This diverse experience has played a major role in preparing Weyman for the challenges posed by her position at FPA, formerly the Family Planning Association, and has actually helped her to bring focus and stability to the organisation.

As the charity embarks on its sixth annual sexual health week and nears its 75th anniversary, it is an outwardly confident organisation. It has built an established reputation for providing information, running community projects and campaigning on often delicate and controversial sexual health issues.

But this outward stability disguises the family planning charity's recent turmoil. Until the 1970s, the Family Planning Association ran clinics across the UK and campaigned vociferously to get the service provided free of charge by the NHS. Then, in 1974, the Government finally relented.

When the initial euphoria wore off, the charity was plunged into an identity crisis.

Ten years on, when Weyman stepped in as the fourth chief executive in two years, the association still lacked focus and direction.

"The organisation was in a pretty desperate state," she says. "The finances were in total disarray and it was more of a collection of individuals without a common direction than an organisation. There were people who felt that it wouldn't survive."

One of her first tasks as chief executive was to establish a discernible role for the organisation. "Until the mid-1970s, FPA was very big with a huge membership base and lots of volunteers," she says. "We had to identify a new niche and accept that the organisation could never go back to how it was."

This task was made more difficult by the fact that the Government had begun working in areas such as teenage pregnancy, which, in the past, would have been the preserve of FPA.

Despite the challenges, Weyman gently etched out an identity for FPA as the only sexual health organisation that is serving all age groups UK-wide.

Working from this premise, she identified the range of topics that the charity was to focus on. This involved broadening the scope of the organisation to include sexual health as a whole, while, at the same time, accepting that they couldn't do everything.

As a result, FPA stopped working on issues relating to the menopause and started providing comprehensive information about puberty, relationships, pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections to schools, parents and young people. In 1998, the charity changed its name from Family Planning Association to FPA to reflect these changes.

Weyman's next job was to improve the financial situation of the charity.

"It was a simple case of spending more than we had coming in, so we had to increase income and decrease costs," she says.

During Weyman's tenure, FPA has matured into a well balanced and focused organisation. In 2002, she was rewarded for her efforts when she was given an OBE for services to family planning. As the charity works towards its 75th anniversary in 2005, Weyman is pleased with its progress.

"We have a good future ahead of us," she says. "We are the perfect size - small enough to allow close working relationships but big enough to have in-depth expertise."

However, she insists that there is plenty to be done. A new parliamentary policy team has recently been taken on to build on FPA's advocacy work and Weyman foresees an increase in partnership work to set up more community projects. "There is always something that can be improved," she says. "If there wasn't, I wouldn't be here - I must admit have a very low boredom threshold."

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