International Women's Day — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 1st March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills), Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:33 pm, 1st March 2012

My Lords, it has been a privilege to sit and listen to a debate that has encapsulated a huge range of topics and themes. Each contribution has provided the House with the richness, expertise, passion, compassion and humility for which your Lordships' House is so proudly known. The debate marked the 101st International Women's Day and I join my noble friend Lady Seccombe in celebrating safer motherhood.

Before I respond to the many questions and points raised by noble Lords, I will speak about how the Government are supporting women in developing countries with economic progress, through our DfID programmes and our support of the new UN Women agency. On taking office as Secretary of State for International Development, my right honourable friend Andrew Mitchell made it a priority to put girls and women at the heart of DfID programmes. Through both bilateral and multilateral reviews, he identified programmes that delivered and also those that failed to produce positive outcomes.

DfID's strategic vision for women and girls is guided by four pillars for effective action. Delaying pregnancies among females in developing countries-as many have spoken of today-and encouraging greater participation in education and employment enables women and girls to have better health outcomes for themselves and for their children. Evidence has shown that improving access to economic assets for women could see increases in output of between 2.5 per cent and 4 per cent. Increasing women's control over household income has a more positive impact on children as mothers tend to invest back more into their households and in the welfare of their children. Providing women with the means, through microfinance or tangible assistance such as seeds or livestock, has seen economic growth in developing countries, adding to women's ability to harness change and transform their communities.

We know that women make up 51 per cent of the world's population and that they produce 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the world's agricultural goods. However, they own less than 5 per cent of the world's titled land. The Government, through DfID, have set ambitious targets to help 18 million women to access financial services and 4.5 million women to strengthen their property rights by 2014. Economic empowerment increases people's access to and control over economic resources, financial services, property and other assets.

DfID's rationale for focusing on economic development of women and girls was reinforced by the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, which highlighted the importance of closing earnings and productivity gaps and improving access to productive resources such as water, electricity and childcare. DfID currently has over 20 programmes in 15 countries, delivering direct assets to women and girls across Asia and Africa, but we recognise that just transferring economic assets is not enough. We need to help change discriminatory social norms and laws.

Whether it is in developing countries or here in the UK, changing attitudes, mindsets and culture takes a long time, as many of us are so aware, as we continue in our sophisticated democracy to struggle with many of the issues that we see widely rampant across the globe. Noble Lords have mentioned violence against women, forced marriages, "honour"-based crime, female genital mutilation and human trafficking, alongside parity in pay and representation in both civic and political life. That is why these debates are so important.

The Government strongly supported the establishment of UN Women, which was formally launched in February last year; I had the privilege of attending that launch. It has a strong programme to support action to increase women's leadership and participation in the decisions that affect their lives; to increase economic empowerment; to prevent violence against women and girls and expand victim/survivor services; to increase women's leadership in peace, security and humanitarian response to conflict and crisis situations; and to ensure that a comprehensive set of global norms, policies and standards on gender equality and women's empowerment are in place.

Noble Lords are aware of our international champion to eliminate violence against women and girls, Lynne Featherstone. She is currently in New York attending the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women and will raise the issue of body confidence among young girls and women, a topic that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, alluded to. She has received strong support at the UN summit from many countries. She is working closely with all parts of the media and with business and has received active support from them.

I turn now to points raised by noble Lords. I have kept my own remarks brief because I think many of them will be covered in my responses. However, because there are so many responses, I will say from the outset that if I do not deliver all the responses in the time allocated, I will undertake to write and have a copy placed in the Library.

I felt that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was slightly disingenuous in her start. This debate has recognised a lot of the good things that were done by the previous Government and on which we are working. However, we inherited a deficit. We are struggling to ensure that we restore the economy. We know that difficult decisions have to be made and the noble Baroness is aware of that. We are protecting the lowest-paid. Our changes to taxation will lift 1.1 million people out of income tax, some 58 per cent of whom will be women. We are also providing families with more support for childcare costs.

My noble friend Lord Smith spoke of quotas. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, and my noble friend Lady Bottomley, do not like quotas. We think that it is wrong to make an artificial imposition when we want to ensure that those who take up positions are well supported, well qualified and able to do them. We want to make sure that the means to get into such positions are in place. That is the work that the noble Lord has done. The work is re-educating about and making people rethink how to get people placed on boards. Dare I say that for far too long-I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, mentioned it-boards have had very much a group-think mentality and have carried on in the same way that they have known for years. It is great that they have been shaken up to have a rethink about how their boards and their businesses look. My noble friend is wrong. Research from Norway has found that there is a connection between the introduction of quotas and an underperformance of companies.