My Lords, hopefully, your Lordships will consider that I am a man just about to speak. Although I have already had the opportunity to congratulate the Minister from the Dispatch Box on her appointment, for the avoidance of any doubt, I would like to do it again—congratulations. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate today and for his strong and powerful commitment to the empowerment of women, in particular his highlighting of the plight of widows. It is only because of his commitment that International Widows Day is celebrated by the United Nations. Like him, my mother’s widowhood has shaped my view of the world.
The first and most important policy to have in place is one to enable women to be in charge of their own lives and to be decision-makers, not always on the end of a handout or someone’s largesse. The right reverend Prelate gave positive examples of meaningful involvement at local, regional and national level in the allocation of resources and services. If women have control over these things, they will have the confidence to resist and report sexual violence. As my noble friend Lady Kinnock highlighted, there is an increased awareness of sexual violence in wartime due to the significant impact of armed conflicts on civilian populations.
Violence against women as a tool of war remains one of the least prosecuted crimes—we have to do better to ensure action against the perpetrators. However, we must be tough on not only the crime but its causes. We must tackle the underlying problem of lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. As we have heard in this debate, the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was a landmark decision through which the situation of women in armed conflict was specifically addressed. It called for their participation at all levels of decision-making on conflict resolution and peace-building.
However, we have to recognise that to make real progress, we must ensure the words of the seven Security Council resolutions, recommendation 30 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing commitments on women, peace and security, and other initiatives such as the UNGA declaration on ending sexual violence, are translated into practice. They cannot be just words. Turning promises into action is vital as, despite many gains, progress across the millennium development goals has been uneven for girls and women. The MDGs did not effectively address the factors which underpin gender inequality.
The United Kingdom—I am proud to say United Kingdom in the sense that it is not just one Government—has pushed for a post-2015 framework with a strong and explicit commitment to gender equality. Indeed, in response to a Question from my noble friend Lady Kinnock earlier this year, the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, committed the Government to,
“a stand-alone goal geared to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment”.—[ Official Report , 9/3/15; col. 438.]
The noble Baroness also confirmed that there should be “rigorous mainstreaming” of gender equality concerns across other priority areas and goals of the post-2015 agenda. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister repeated that commitment in those strong terms.
Too often women are systemically excluded. Women’s role in peacebuilding should be supported at a local as well as international level. Women’s socioeconomic and political participation is key to resolving and preventing conflict, but also to changing, as we have heard in this debate, the damaging social norms that persist.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I believe it is essential that we also focus on the other practical steps required for progress, including funding dedicated to WPS; funding to local women’s rights organisations as well as systemic consultation with women to give them a platform to highlight the barriers they face and the solutions; an approach that focuses across the pillars of UN Security Council Resolution 1325; and, as we heard in this debate—more importantly for my noble friend—co-ordination across defence, diplomatic and foreign policy. We need to challenge the root causes and social norms that cause violence against women and girls, and women’s lack of participation.
The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action gave world leaders the opportunity to take stock of progress at the national and global level. The conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women held in March welcomed the progress made towards the full implementation of the Beijing declaration through concerted policy action at the national, regional and global levels. It recognised that this is essential for achieving the unfinished business of the MDGs and for tackling the critical remaining challenges through the post-2015 development agenda.
The UK’s self-assessment concluded that, despite the progress made, discrimination is still prevalent in this country. Globally, many of the seminal achievements of the original 1995 Beijing conference are at risk, as we have heard in the debate, and in not just places of conflict but other areas where cultural shifts affect the rights of women. This is particularly crucial in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. We must not allow the clock to be turned back. Women and girls must be free from the fear of violence, coercion or intimidation and have the freedom to choose how many children they want.
The United Kingdom is seen as an important global player in promoting women’s rights. It takes the lead on women, peace and security issues at the UN Security Council and galvanised global action through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative. Like many in this debate, I pay tribute to the last Government for their focus on women and girls in their development work, and their consistent advocacy of women’s rights at the Human Rights Council. I also acknowledge their work in helping change global opinion on the issue of gender-based violence. It is important that we build on this record by using their influence to ensure that the gains of recent years are not lost. It is vital that the UK’s work on Beijing+20 is conducted in co-ordination with preparations for the adoption of a new global development framework. What steps is the Minister’s department taking to ensure that the UK not only defends the gains of the last 20 years but sets out its vision and priorities for the next 20 years of advancement of women’s rights at home and abroad?
My noble friend Lady Prosser referred to the debate on the implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure cross-departmental priority for that action plan? What steps is she taking to ensure that priorities identified go beyond simply a one-term government and reinforce global initiatives, notably the UN Secretary-General’s seven-point plan on women’s participation in peace-building?
The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence, taking many forms, is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights. Women’s empowerment and the protection of women’s rights are our greatest weapons to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls.