My Lords, empowering women is critical to both sustainable economic development and resolving many of the world’s most challenging conflicts. I declare my interest. Many in this House will be aware of my own foundation’s work to empower widows in the developing world, so will know that I speak from some experience of the tangible benefits that arise when women are empowered, both economically and socially.
I am particularly grateful that we have the opportunity to debate this important issue today, in the run-up to the fifth UN International Widows Day on
Women are still too often the victims of unacceptable discrimination in all societies, whether this be economic, social or political. Across the developing world, women are prevented from taking leadership roles, reaching their economic potential and contributing to securing a sustainable future for their families and the communities in which they live. This is particularly problematic in post-conflict situations. In this House, we recognise that women have a right not only to live healthy lives but to play a full and equal political, economic, and social role. This is also the collective view of all countries represented at the United Nations. Indeed, there is a wealth of UN legislation to support it. But, despite welcome progress in some areas, such commitments are still too often poorly implemented and monitored. More needs to be done if the potential power of women, including widows, is to be unlocked.
Empowered women are an asset for any society. They can lead to stronger economies, greater social cohesion and a more valid and legitimate political system. This issue is not, therefore, just about women; husbands, fathers, children and communities will all benefit in a multitude of ways if women are empowered. Part of the solution to empowering women must be at the political level. Women remain marginalised from the political sphere in most countries of the world. This is the result of a combination of discriminatory laws, practices and attitudes and gender stereotypes, as well as lower levels of education, lack of access to healthcare and the disproportionate effect of poverty.
In 2013, just 20% of national parliamentarians were female, a slow but welcome increase from 11% 10 years ago. There is now significant research to demonstrate that empowering women politically at any level has tangible benefits for development. For example, research on panchayats, local councils in India, showed that the number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62% higher than in those with male-led councils. This is not just the case in developing countries. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage has been identified. Imagine what could happen in the UK if this House, or indeed the other place, was to have a greater representation of women.
Political empowerment of women is therefore priority number one for ensuring development issues that affect women are on the agenda wherever they need to be. Secondly, there needs to be greater focus on the economic empowerment of women to create strong and stable societies. Investing in women’s economic empowerment directly facilitates increased gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit children and families. But women still too often face discrimination, meaning that they lack the education to be able to access economic opportunities. When they access work, it is often in the low-paid and insecure sectors. I was struck by the following statistic. If women had the same access as men to productive assets, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by 4%, translating to up to 150 million fewer hungry people. Economic empowerment must therefore be a priority.
Thirdly, in terms of conflict resolution, UN Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, calls for equal participation by women in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and for the mainstreaming of gender perspectives into conflict prevention, peace negotiations, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction. In 2009, the UN Security Council called for the development of global indicators to track the implementation of this resolution. Despite this, there has been a large-scale failure to make progress and there continues to be underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding processes. But women need to be involved in peacebuilding, partly as a matter of right but also because they are in practical terms crucial to creating lasting peace. As I have already outlined, women are essential to economic development, and this is even more vital where men have died or been dislocated by conflict. This requires the education of girls and the expansion of access to economic opportunities for women, for example through credit schemes and training. The exclusion of women in the peacebuilding process can lead to their economic capacities being underutilised.
Women also play a critical role in re-establishing social cohesion and political legitimacy after conflict. Women face specific threats in the aftermath of conflict. This is particularly the case with sexual violence. Where women are not involved in peacebuilding, it is more likely that their rights will be violated. Involving women in peacebuilding offers the opportunity to redress existing inequalities and to rebuild a better society in which all members feel a sense of ownership, something that surely increases the chances of lasting peace.
However, women’s involvement is being held back, partly because women are not a homogenous group, and their needs can vary dramatically in post-conflict situations. Consider the different needs of ex-combatants, victims of war crime and widows, for example. We cannot treat them all the same. This will require more time and resources to ensure that all needs are addressed and that women from different parts of society can be included in the process. As a country, we must support the implementation of the UN’s seven-point action plan on women’s participation in peacebuilding, ensuring the participation of women and girls in conflict resolution, planning processes, financial decisions, civilian capacity and political representation and ensuring legal rights and economic empowerment.
We should also support wider campaigns around violence against women, such as the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, and we must ensure that, in addressing the needs of women, men are also involved. Gender injustices will be addressed only if men also believe in them, buy into them and support them.
I want to turn to the plight of widows. No women are more vulnerable and more discriminated against than widows, particularly in circumstances of economic underdevelopment or in post-conflict situations. Widows are the victims of double discrimination: first, because they are female, and secondly because they are widowed. Becoming a widow in the developing world can have far-reaching consequences for individuals and those dependent on them. They can include: impoverishment and the intensification of existing poverty; increased health risks, including malnutrition; infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases; and social marginalisation, for reasons of stigma or because the affected widow has resorted to begging or prostitution. Many widows face quite appalling physical, sexual, economic and mental abuse. According to a comprehensive report on the plight of widows worldwide, to be published by the Loomba Foundation on
This is a very significant development issue. The deprivation faced by widows and their children is a human rights issue of such magnitude that it demands recognition and action by international bodies and special consideration in development programmes. I will therefore close my contribution today with this challenge to the Government as they contribute to the UN discussions on the post-2015 development framework: the new framework should include a stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality and women’s rights and, unlike the previous millennium development goals, all future goals should specifically refer to areas such as widow’s deprivation. Only this inclusion will ensure that all women benefit in each country, including widows, who are too often invisible in such situations and in progress reporting. For the future success of sustainable development goals, making widows a particular focus will enable help to reach some of the most vulnerable women on earth, giving voice to a group of women silenced by their circumstances and without the means to make a change to their lives for the better.
Sustainable, workable and realistic future goals rely on ensuring that the people who need the help of the goals are at the forefront of their implementation. More often than not it is women who find themselves in need of the assistance the MDGs endeavour to provide. Therefore it makes sense to ensure that women are empowered to implement these goals and are in a solid position to take on the difficult task of sustaining them to make future growth and stability possible. Focusing on women, and especially widows, not only gives a voice to many who do not have one and are not able to participate in any meaningful democratic process but ensures that their voice is heard within the context of their problems and their struggles, helping to ensure success for future sustainable goals. I beg to move.