International Women's Day — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 1st March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 3:08 pm, 1st March 2012

My Lords, like a number of other noble sisters, I made my maiden speech during this debate last year, and I am glad that my heart is not pounding quite as fast as it was on that occasion. Preparing for today's debate has given me an opportunity for reflection. I take this opportunity to thank many noble Lords on all sides of the House for their welcome, advice and friendship over the past year in helping this new girl to find her way.

Unlike many noble Lords, I did not come here with a particular focus, background or expertise, which meant that I have had the chance to develop my own interests. I am honoured to be chair of the new Conservative Friends of International Development. From the successful launch and subsequent activity of that group, I have started to learn more about where our international efforts should be focused. Everyone in this Chamber knows that empowering women is a top priority for DfID. To quote the Secretary of State:

"Educating girls, along with vaccinating children, are two of the most decisive interventions you can make in development".

As we have discussed, educating girls has the chance over a generation completely to transform societies. There are 3 million girls in school in Afghanistan today, where there were none 10 years ago.

Today is the 101st International Women's Day. Let us take a brief look, with the glass half full, at our own country's successes. As I have mentioned previously, every party increased its number of women MPs at the last election. As co-chair of women2win, I assure my noble sister Lady Thornton that our eyes are firmly fixed on ensuring that we increase our numbers in the next one, but I am not going to reveal how. Twenty-one new women have been appointed to FTSE 100 boards since the report of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was published last year. The 30 Percent Club is also doing excellent work in raising awareness, transparency and accountability for gender representation in the private sector. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, mentioned, the work conducted at Cranfield University in creating the female FTSE to assess and urge boards to act has been vital. Its report has proved crucial in identifying solid reasons to have women on boards-and putting to task those companies which have failed to act.

We also use today to celebrate what now seem to be the milestones of generations gone by: a woman's right to vote and my right to speak in this very Chamber. However, we also recognise that these rights are still denied to millions of women who are nowhere near equality as we know it here. As long as these women are struggling, we should continue to focus our thoughts on them on International Women's Day, so that, by the 110th International Women's Day celebrations, issues such as representation will have been resolved.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and others have mentioned, the past year has been a milestone for democracy as we have watched the populations of Middle Eastern and north African countries rise against their authoritarian leaders. On our televisions screens, we have seen men and women stand side by side in their fight for democracy. These women must be allowed to do more than protest. They must be given an opportunity to become active participants in the new Governments. All the statistics show that, by empowering women, countries grow and become more stable.

But we now know that empowering women is not just about doing what is considered "right". By engaging in paid work, women become economic actors, not only improving their own families' quality of life but giving them the opportunity to send their children to school. By simply investing in sexual and maternal health, which we all take for granted, a woman's life can be transformed. A thousand women die giving birth every single day and these deaths globally cost $15 billion each year. With the correct access to information, family planning and maternity care, these women can take charge of their own lives.

Let us take a look at some specific examples where women are making progress. In India, 94 per cent of women are in the unorganised sector, earning a living through their own labour or small businesses. However, their work is not counted and hence remains invisible. The Self Employed Women's Association is a unique example of support for women led from within-more than 100,000 Indian women are now members of SEWA and campaign to address problems they experience with self-employment. Their campaigning has led to many improvements within India for women.

Let us take a look at opportunities for women to start up businesses and some practical ways in which we in the West can support them. Other noble Lords have mentioned microfinance, but one example of an inspirational organisation is Kiva, a non-profit organisation with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. Once the business starts growing with sustainable revenues, the loan is paid back and is in turn reinvested in the next start-up. The Conservative supporters of Kiva alone have lent $11,000 in start-up funding. From providing loans to farmers and shopkeepers to helping meet the cost of buying a taxi, the Conservative Kiva Group has helped many women increase their quality of life. Such women are far more likely to pass on this knowledge to their children while contributing to the economies of their country.

I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to the launch next week here in Parliament of the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index. Largely developed at the University of Oxford, the index will bring science and rigour to the measurement of empowerment in agriculture. By identifying where and for what reason women are being excluded, and by analysing their inclusion in decision-making, involvement in production and control over income, the index brings us closer to knowing how truly to tackle the problems that lie ahead in terms of bringing equality to women.

Encouraging and financing women's business potential, letting women have control and choice over their family lives, as well as increasing access to education and full employment, will help further to empower women.