International Women's Day — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:50 pm on 1st March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 1:50 pm, 1st March 2012

My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Verma and to the usual channels for ensuring that, in the new cycle of parliamentary business, we did not lose our much-valued debate on International Women's Day, especially with this year's theme of women's contribution to economic growth.

The world is much changed since our debate last year-we have witnessed terrible natural disasters, widespread economic instability, and political and social upheaval in the Middle East. As chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, I want to concentrate most of my remarks on women in that region. Women have played a remarkable role in the uprisings in the Middle East and we should salute their bravery. Along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, I also pay tribute to Marie Colvin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and who was a good friend of many in your Lordships' House. Her bravery, and the bravery of all who put themselves in danger to bring atrocities to our attention, is humbling. Women across the world have lost a true champion with the sad death of Marie Colvin.

I have had the privilege of meeting some equally brave and extraordinary women in the Middle East and North Africa. We must support their inclusion in the new era, to ensure that they have a full role in the development of democratic Governments and the return to the much-needed economic stability and prosperity of the region.

I have spoken in other debates about the importance of microfinance and its ability to transform the economic capacity of women, and I do not apologise for returning to the subject now. In the Middle East and North Africa there are 2.2 million active borrowers, borrowing $1.2 billion. In Yemen, 94 per cent of microfinance borrowers are women; the figures are 85 per cent in Jordan and 69 per cent in Egypt. Women are less likely to default on a loan but more likely to use their profits to educate the next generation, improve their family's conditions and reinvest in their business. This has widespread benefits, for as women become more economically stable there are enormous impacts on their health and the health of their family and on infant mortality.

A 2005 UNICEF report-and I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK-states that women in developing countries are 300 times more likely to die from complications in childbirth than those in the industrialised world. World Vision UK's latest figures show that although the child mortality rate in low and middle-income countries was 56 per 1,000 live births in 2010, child mortality in low-income fragile states was nearly 150 per cent higher. Much of this is to do with access to good healthcare, family planning and, most important of all, education. Education has the most dramatic impact on the lives of women throughout the world and a subsequent impact on the economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has already mentioned.

However, there is still much to do in many countries to capitalise on this rich source of labour. Women outnumber men at universities in 11 out of 18 countries in the Middle East. I am delighted to be chancellor of the University of Bolton, which has a campus in Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE, where our degrees in engineering and business studies are much valued by women as well as men. In Saudi Arabia, women make up 58 per cent of university students. I was very interested in what my noble friend Lord Bates had to say-Saudi Arabia is a good friend of the UK, but that does not mean that we should not speak out when we see things happening that should not be. However, despite all the women going to universities in the Middle East, the unemployment rate for women in that region is much greater than for men.

One of the biggest challenges for new and existing Governments as their economies grow is that they will need an educated workforce and must find inclusive policies to encourage women to become entrepreneurs and businesswomen. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, spoke about needing role models. There are many shining examples of successful Arab women, such as my good friend Dr Afnan Al-Shuaiby, chief executive of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, which is chaired by our very own noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean. They are a powerful visual symbol of women at the top of an important Middle East and North African organisation.

Much of the success of women in the Middle East is due to enlightened rulers and Governments who understand the importance of women in society and to the economy. According to a 2010 McKinsey report, it is leadership that is crucial to breaking the gender difference-leaders of countries or leaders of industry will make the difference.

I would like to end on this note. It has been a pleasure to follow in this debate my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch. I became vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for candidates, on the same day as Mervyn-I hope the House does not mind if I call him Mervyn-was appointed CEO of Standard Chartered Bank. As someone who always practised what he preached and was a good supporter of women in the workplace, I asked Mervyn for his advice on how I could encourage more women candidates. I will always remember his wise counsel. He said that you do not appoint women to look modern, or for political correctness, you do it because it is the right thing to do-and because it is madness for any company or organisation to deprive themselves of such a large pool of talent. I could not agree more.

It has been a pleasure to take part in a debate that seeks to highlight the enormous benefits that women bring to the economic prosperity and stability of the world.