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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:54 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 1:54 pm, 5th March 2020

It is an honour to speak in this debate, and a particular honour to follow the maiden speech of Apsana Begum. I confess that until now my only insight and knowledge of her constituency was from “Call the Midwife”, so the hon. Lady has brought me up to contemporary times. I am sure she is right that her predecessor would be proud, and her father, too, and I am sure that her constituents have in her a strong defender who will make strong arguments and address the challenges she outlined today with passion. I congratulate her most warmly on her maiden speech.

While we are talking in this debate from the four corners of our United Kingdom, and indeed looking globally, I want to beg Members’ indulgence and narrow down the GPS tracker to BN23 7EA—Langney Primary School, in my wonderful home town of Eastbourne, where last week I joined the children for their equality day. They had all dressed up to match their future career ambitions and job aspirations. The Prime Minister will be pleased to learn that public services were well represented, with perhaps some future police and nurses in their number, and writers and journalists, too. There were one or two children dressed as Spiderman in the mix, so that will take some careful signposting in the years to come, and one princess, so definitely the need for a plan B there. However, at the tender age of seven, eight, nine and 10, they are being taught to believe that they are stepping out into a world of opportunities and that whoever they are—girls or boys, and whatever their background—their future is theirs and they can be whatever they want to be. Their ambitions are high, and I was hugely impressed. They grilled me later, so there were definitely one or two journalists in the mix. That is what progress looks like, and it speaks well for the future.

International Women’s Day has been celebrated for 100 years and more, and in that time tremendous change has been brokered in our nation. Women did not have the vote in the world my grandma was born into, but, in an historical blink of an eye, I have the honour of being Eastbourne’s first woman MP, again—I hope the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse does not drink from the same cup as me by tasting a defeat and then being called back to this place to make a second maiden speech; her first maiden speech was admirable and quite enough.

This is a day to mark just how far we have come since International Women’s Day began. But we are still marking it because its original aim—equality for women the world over—is still to be fulfilled. The World Economic Forum 2017 report predicts it could take another 100 years before the global equality pay gap between men and women is fully closed. That gap is most marked in lifetime pay and in political leadership. Women make up half the world’s population, yet their voices are still not heard in equal numbers in the places where decisions are made. They need to be, and our institutions need to look like the people they represent.

According to the United Nations, only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women. In the UK, 34% of House of Commons Members are women, as has been stated. However, on that front Sussex is leading the way, and East Sussex is practically Amazonian. In Sussex in 2005 a solitary one in 16 seats was represented by a woman; there was a doubling of numbers to two in 2010, and a magnificent seven in 2019. I am delighted to say that today my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, will be closing this important debate.

My own constituency of Eastbourne has women of influence in positions across the sectors—from the chief reporter at the Eastbourne Herald and the chief executive at the chamber of commerce to the police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne. Those women and so very many more are the important role models we need the next generation to see.

Progress is relative, of course, and problems persist; that is why debates such as this are timely. Domestic abuse in all its forms is a devastating crime that leaves people living in fear. Our PCC Katy Bourne has done tremendous work in this area, and I welcome the fact that this week the Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced to the House. That important legislation will protect and empower victims and see perpetrators brought to justice. I hope that it will command the support of the whole House. When Jess Phillips read out those names, I am sure that all of us here felt the full weight of the responsibility to do all we can to turn the tide and change the culture. Every one of those names represents someone’s mum, daughter, sister or cousin.

There is more, too. We know that in the UK women are much more likely to have time out for caring, which then has lasting impacts on pay and progression. Nearly 90% of those not working because of caring for home and family are women. However, more girls are going into STEM subjects, there are more women in employment and leadership, and the pay gap is closing. Despite that, the work is most certainly not done.

Sadly, there is much to do in other countries, too. Even basic access to education or the right to vote is not guaranteed for millions of women. Add to that young girls forced into marriage and female genital mutilation and we all know that there are considerable challenges ahead for too many women globally. International Women’s Day is an important marker in the sands of time. In Britain, we have come far and we can be proud of our progress towards equality. We must continue to use our influence to ensure that that progress is for every woman in every country.