My Lords, as we come together in your Lordships’ House today, millions of people around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day: people who have travelled very different paths and faced difficult challenges but who are united in the belief that no country can truly flourish—socially, economically or democratically—if it leaves half its people behind. This year’s theme is, “Be Bold for Change”.
In some regards, it is a sad indictment that despite the integral role that women play in every aspect of life, we still struggle to be considered equal. In the opening years of the 20th century, courageous women joined hands and stood beside each other in solidarity. Outside this very House, suffragettes fought for women’s rights in our democracy, yet more than 100 years on, we are still striving to become a society that is truly equal. I feel a great sense of unity and purpose in this House, especially on the issue of gender equality, and I have every confidence that there will be a significant and meaningful debate today. But this debate goes way beyond our borders: the responsibility to raise awareness and tackle gender inequality in all forms is universal. It sits at the very heart of achieving fundamental human rights and equality for all.
In this country, we can be enormously proud of the progress we have made on gender equality. This Government have made great strides in ensuring that men and women are rewarded equally for their skills and abilities. More women than ever are in work, and the gender pay gap is at its lowest point, but we must persist. The new gender pay gap regulations, which will come into force next month, will provide greater transparency and move us significantly in the direction of eliminating the pay gap altogether. This progress, combined with our introduction of shared parental leave and pay, is also an important step in recognising the often undervalued work that women do. It goes a long way to addressing the impact of punitive career setbacks that occur when one parent takes on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.
I remember those painful setbacks myself. As a single mother, I experienced the immense pressure of wanting to be a perfect and indestructible parent while having to support my son and trying to lead a successful professional life. It is a balancing act that is often misunderstood and can be incredibly challenging and heartbreaking, which is why it is of the utmost importance that we give single parents the credit and support they deserve. Luckily, in my professional life I have had the privilege of working in some of the most forward-thinking, creative and innovative companies, and throughout that experience I have witnessed great women contributing their skills and talents to improving our lives through technology and innovation.
Technology has the power to be the great leveller. The internet represents opportunity on a massive scale and in theory empowers equally, yet when it comes to the question of women and their place in the technology sector, this rule does not seem to apply. Indeed, often it is quite the opposite, as men outnumber women and dominate senior roles. Women currently fill less than 30% of tech jobs in the United Kingdom. One explanation is that there are simply not enough women applying for these roles and even fewer girls studying science, technology and coding in secondary schools.
This was not always the case. In fact, women in the UK played a significant role in the beginnings of modern computing. The portrait of Ada Lovelace, which hangs proudly in No. 10 Downing Street, is a testament to this. The Countess of Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician who wrote the first instructions for the analytical engine which launched the birth of computing. We cannot forget the proud tradition of the pioneering women code-breakers of Bletchley Park—or women in science and technology the world over, for that matter. For example, there are those who worked for NASA, as portrayed recently in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures”. These brilliant African-American women scientists calculated crucial flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other successful space missions, but received faint praise at the time.
By the 1980s, the advent of home computing made the industry lucrative, and we started seeing advertising showing teenage boys playing videogames, making them suddenly the de facto experts in this once female-friendly business. Jobs in IT became high status, and as the pay packets grew bigger, men took over the jobs previously done by women. So much so, that in my first computer science class in 1980, there were just three women in a class of 400.
The Government want women back where they belong, taking the lead in computing. We were the first Government globally to introduce computing in the national curriculum, allowing pupils to learn computational thinking and creativity as active participants in the digital world. We worked with some fantastic organisations, such as the Stemettes, which provides effective mentoring schemes and events for young women and girls that give them confidence and the belief that they can succeed in science, technology, engineering and maths. Women Who Code, a global non-profit programme, is working to inspire women and encourage them to embrace careers in technology. Nationwide programmes such as the Code Club provide networks of volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs for younger children and girls in particular. In addition, the Government are supporting women entrepreneurs by investing £2.2 million as part of the superfast broadband rollout, which will enable them to access new markets and grow their businesses online.
The UK is a world leader in gender equality, and we take great pride in that. But outside the UK, millions of girls are kept from attending school, and this is a significant factor in poverty and lack of economic opportunity. UK aid has helped educate 5.3 million girls globally, giving them choice over their futures and the means to secure their livelihoods. We also played an important role in securing global agreement for UN sustainable development goal number 5, which is to:
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
Internationally, this Government have been a powerful voice for women’s protection and equality. We established a benchmark through the Modern Slavery Act, which gives law enforcement the tools to fight this appalling crime. It gives them the tools to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and enhances the support and protection available for victims.
Additionally, the Home Office is co-ordinating efforts across government, and globally, to tackle the crime of FGM and is supporting the work of the voluntary and community sectors, survivors and professionals who oppose this extreme manifestation of gender inequality and abuse. This work enables us to raise awareness and to become part of a wider conversation that empowers women globally to have open discussions, both online and offline, about this devastating practice.
I firmly believe that technology is a vital piece of the puzzle in how we effect female empowerment. Today, it is the means by which we communicate, learn, network, and engage with global markets. Digital technologies have great potential as tools for the inclusion of marginalised groups, enabling new kinds of participation in economic and political processes. Recently, we saw this potential in action as women organised online and marched in cities all round the world to defend their basic human rights. However, the digital world must also be safe, inclusive and empowering. That means building resilience through education and equipping all people with the tools to respond to and report harmful content, so that there is no opportunity to use the internet as a weapon against equality.
I know that many women have been recipients of hurtful, aggressive and degrading attacks online. Online misogyny is abhorrent. It is a global gender rights tragedy and must be addressed. We air our views on social media and we are punished with mockery, harassment and the threat of sexual abuse. For many this is compounded by racist and homophobic language. These tactics are used to undermine our human rights and dignity and to silence our voices. To that end, the recently announced review of domestic abuse and violence legislation presents us with an opportunity to simplify the existing wide-ranging legal protections and support people with the information and knowledge they need to protect themselves. Nobody should be left in any doubt of our commitment to ensuring that all women and girls live free from violence and abuse, whether online or in their communities.
Our commitment to this cause is exemplified by the work of the WePROTECT Global Alliance, which was founded and funded by this Government. Today WePROTECT works in collaboration with more than 70 countries, NGOs and law enforcement and industry leaders as part of a multi-stakeholder initiative to galvanise global action and eradicate child sexual abuse and exploitation online.
The newly announced cross-government drive on online safety, led by DCMS, will bring together the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice as part of a powerful co-ordinated effort to continue our work to make the internet safer.
We are also using new, technology-led communication to speak directly to young people and to help them recognise abuse. Our acclaimed teenage relationship abuse campaign, Disrespect NoBody, encourages teens to rethink their views on violence, abuse and consent. Young people need information and tools to build healthy, respectful and nurturing relationships. That is why last week, the Government announced a new duty on all schools to provide education on relationships as part of the PSHE curriculum.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP—works across the UK to tackle child sex abuse and to provide advice for parents and young people. This work is both national and international and ensures that online child sex offenders are brought to justice in the UK courts, including those involved in the production and distribution of child abuse material.
Of course, more needs to be done and today’s theme, Be Bold for Change, means that everyone is watching expectantly to ensure that we continue making progress. Progress will not come easily—no true progress ever does. However, I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords here today in embracing the commitment to never stop striving towards a truly equal society. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords of the advisory speaking time for today’s debate of seven minutes, at most, to enable the House to rise by 7 pm.
My Lords, I start off by being chastised. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for moving today’s debate. It is heartening to see that there are contributors from across the House, because we can solve these really difficult questions only if we work together.
Many women around the world will have had the freedom and the wherewithal to celebrate International Women’s Day yesterday by organising local events, social occasions or demonstrations and protests. We are lucky in this country that if we so wish we can do any of those things. However, many women will not have had those opportunities. Either their home countries will have strict social rules about the way women are expected to behave—many not allowing women to be out in public without a male escort—or any questioning of their Government’s policies or programmes will be seen as heresy and protesting as too dangerous. Then there are the women who are just too poor to be able to assemble for an objection or even to raise their heads. To be a poor woman in many parts of the world is to be dirt poor with no hope, no personal space and no rights. That is why we, who are by comparison so hugely privileged, must shout out for those women who cannot shout for themselves.
I am pleased that our Government have continued to commit 0.7% of national output to overseas aid and I would welcome the reiteration of that commitment from the Minister today. It is right that solid procedures must be in place to ensure this money is wisely and well spent. However, I am disturbed by the negative tone taken by the current Secretary of State for the department and I hope we can be reassured today that the right honourable Mrs Priti Patel is as committed to this work as we would like her to be.
Next week the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women will commence at the UN headquarters in New York. This year’s main theme will be women’s economic empowerment in a changing world of work. I have long believed that access to employment is the key to women’s equality. To have your own money in your own pocket is a major step towards independence and dignity. Key to achieving this status is the role of education and while the impact of goal four of the sustainable development goals has been remarkable, 57 million children globally are still not in school, over 50% of whom are girls. Poor families are much more likely to keep girls at home, either to help run the home or because limited money is always prioritised for boys.
While major programmes such as the SDGs are essential, local work is key. I am currently working to link up a charity in which I am involved with the work of an NGO called the Book Bus, which operates in a couple of African countries. It tours villages with a book bus and helpers, providing books and teaching children to read. Breaking down nervousness at the role of outsiders and persuading parents and whole families that children’s learning is key to all of their futures needs slow but respectful confidence building.
Equally, the local approach is essential in building the confidence of women and the support of men to encourage and enable women to participate in local life—generally an essential first step on the public activity ladder. It is a proven point that decisions made by both women and men generally lead to the most sustainable and effective outcomes. UN Resolution 1325, which requires the voices of women in peacebuilding processes, was not introduced as a sop but because we know solutions made by mixed communities produce better results.
This is a subject about which we could talk all day. Much is being done to help women to achieve their potential and much more continues to need to be done. I conclude with a small piece of information from 100 years ago. On
My Lords, there is a country where one group of women are allowed to be recognised legally only if they can prove their identity to the satisfaction of a psychiatrist for at least two years. It sounds like Russia. There is a country where women can have their legal identity denied indefinitely by a spouse. It sounds like a theocracy, such as Saudi Arabia. There is a country where some women, in order to obtain legal recognition, have to make an application to a panel which meets in secret, whose composition is never revealed, and when a decision is made there is no right of appeal. That sounds like China—but no, in all three cases I am talking about the United Kingdom. That is how we treat trans women, and men, in our country today.
While England, Wales and Scotland have made significant progress on LGB rights, our trans citizens face discrimination in public services, a damaging lack of understanding in the media by people who should know better, and physical violence. Transphobic hate crime reports rose from 215 in 2011 to 582 in 2015, but prosecutions remained steady at 20 per annum.
In January 2016 in the other place, the Women and Equalities Committee produced a report which made 35 recommendations. On
The Minister for Women and Equalities has a cross-government departmental role, because trans people face discrimination in a number of different aspects of government. In July, the Government said that they would agree an action plan—an update of the 2011 trans equality action plan, brought into government by my noble friend Lady Featherstone—and that they would monitor progress. We are still waiting, and I ask the Minister when that will happen.
The Women and Equalities Committee had evidence from all sorts of people, including legal and medical professionals, which stated that the inclusion of gender reassignment as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act was a huge step forward at the time, but it is now dated, and what we really need is an updating of that Act to make gender identity a protected characteristic. That could make a fundamental difference to the lives of these women. For example, it would enable political representation—we have no trans people in Parliament whatever. Some of us, in my political party, want to make sure that we give preference to some candidates from minority groups, which includes people from the trans community. In fact, we have adopted a candidate in a seat that we hope to win, but it would have been much easier to do if we had had that change in the law.
In the inquiry of the Women and Equalities Committee, people testified to the fact that the Gender Recognition Act was in its day pioneering legislation, but it too is dated. It has a medicalised approach and requires people to have a mental health diagnosis to confirm their identity. It runs contrary to the dignity and personal autonomy of applicants. The committee asked the Government within this Parliament to come up with proposals to change the Act in line with human rights legislation. The Minister for Equality said in 2016 that they would do that and make changes to demedicalise the gender recognition process. We are still waiting. When will it happen?
The gender recognition panel meets in secret. Is it monitored? How do the Government know that it is exercising its authority correctly? How do they know whether it is doing so efficiently or whether people’s rights are being abused?
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, will not be surprised to hear me raise the matter of the spousal veto, as it was a matter that we talked about during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. It is still the case that a spouse can withhold their agreement to a gender recognition certificate being issued to their partner who has transitioned. I cannot think of any other circumstance in which we would allow a spouse indefinitely to punish somebody to whom they had been close to prevent them obtaining the legal identity to which they should be entitled. When we have asked about this before, we have had numbers given to us of how many spousal recognitions have gone through, but we have never had the numbers of people who have been refused. We really do need to stop those women being indefinitely trapped in that situation.
We have done a tremendous amount in this country to lead the world in equalities legislation, but in this one respect we are lagging far behind. It is really important that we begin to pick this issue up very soon. Next year, we will have the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in this country. We left to the Commonwealth a terrible colonial legacy on LGBT rights, but we tell it that it should get better.
Trans women are bold and I think brave in doing everyday things, but they have waited far too long for change. The Government may have hoped that the report sank without trace and that some of us have not noticed, but we have, and we will continue to ask the question until these women get the equality and equal treatment that they deserve.
My Lords, first, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Following the noble Baroness, I was involved in the appointment of the last two chief executives of Stonewall, and I have been involved in the appointment of a large number of women to lead philanthropic and charitable organisations. I know how seriously her words are taken. I say that, along with my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, I am so proud to be part of the monstrous regiment of women—and I think that many of us in this House are. One of the joys and privileges of being here is that there are so many women who in their time have broken through barriers and have had a pretty tough and difficult time—but their tenacity, courage and resilience have seen them through.
I cannot help but have a sense of jubilation about some of the achievements in the United Kingdom. Whoever thought that we would have a woman commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. This is extraordinary. Whoever thought we would have a female head of the TUC, in Frances, who is such an excellent woman. Welcoming the Minister is a particular joy, because her background is very different to that of many of us, who battled on along rather conventional paths. She is an example of the modern woman—a technological expert, an entrepreneur and part of a modern generation. I am also pleased about the noble Baroness who will be winding up because her particular contribution in education is very much at the heart of all that we are achieving.
How can I not mention that now in Britain we have our second female Prime Minister? When I was young, many centuries ago, I never thought that we would have a single female Prime Minister, far less two. Did I ever think that we would reach 30% female MPs? Of course not. When I was an MP, there were 23 female MPs out of 600. I wore a black suit, a blue suit or a grey suit—I have not changed much—on the basis that, if I looked like a man, people would not be too disagreeable to me. We are lagging in the Lords with about 26% of females—that is because we move more slowly—but we have certainly been great pioneers.
However, in being excited about much that has changed in the United Kingdom, I do not for a moment want to underestimate the real issue of global disadvantages faced by women: the lack of education, financial empowerment and human rights. That is why I so celebrate the work of our Prime Minister Theresa May in her former job, on modern slavery, and the seriousness and focus that she gave to that. Within our own country, we all know that there are many women who are disadvantaged and who lack opportunity, freedom and the ability to develop their skills and personality. In celebrating what can be and what has been achieved, I would not like noble Lords to think that I underestimated all that needs to happen in the rest of the world and throughout the United Kingdom.
Frequently, this debate has focused on women in business. I think that we have had a rather exhausting conversation about women on boards, because I do not think that they are the single most important group of females in the United Kingdom. But the transformation is extraordinary. When I was first on a board in about 2000, the board meetings started, “Gentleman and Lady”—and that is how they continued. Now we have beaten the 25% figure of women on FTSE 100 boards, ahead of time. That was not done by quotas, legislation or other such techniques that many in this country revile, but by exhortation, good example and a healthy bit of naming and shaming. Cranfield University deserves a lot of credit for helping on the naming and shaming, and I celebrate that. Now the latest target is that 33% of the senior leadership positions in the FTSE 100 and 33% of the board positions in the FTSE 350 should be female by 2020, which we were told about yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.
Of course, it is right that the executive positions are much more difficult to develop and fill with females because of all the difficulties over career breaks—as well as unconscious discrimination, lack of aspiration or role models, and everything else that we understand. However, we now have seven FTSE 100 female chief executives. The first female chief executive of the FTSE 100 was appointed in 1997; we now have seven. The first FTSE 100 female chair came in 2002; we now have four. That is an extraordinary rate of progress compared with the context in which I was operating when I was in government. There is more to do, and I welcome all those who are supporting enlightened employment practices, such as Vodafone and many others who are helping people with their return to work.
I will move forward fast to say something about women and the arts. We all know that in history, “anonymous” meant a female author who did not like to declare her name. The appointment of Maria Balshaw to replace Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate—our largest, more impressive and iconic arts organisation—is extraordinarily exciting. There is a whole cohort of women: Diane Lees at the Imperial War Museum; Jennifer Scott at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; Perdita Hunt at the Watts Gallery; and many others.
I pay tribute to another woman, Dame Vivien Duffield, who funded the Clore Leadership Programme for the arts, which helped to develop and coach so many of those women. It is not possible to speak in the House without mentioning how, in the city of culture, only this weekend there is going to be a festival for women of the world, at which many female artists, such as Lucy Beaumont and Maureen Lipman, are appearing. Many of the new commissions, too, will be female.
Lastly, I will talk about one area where we must see more progress—universities. It is extraordinary that, when we started these debates, about 12% of vice chancellors were women; it is now up to about 20%, but there should be more. Minouche Shafik is taking over as the first female director of the London School of Economics—my alma mater—and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, is doing the same at SOAS. But the figures are low both for female vice-chancellors and female chairs. I am pleased that there are many female chancellors in this House apart from myself: for instance, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. We all enjoy it, but only one in three chancellors is female. I ask the Minister to give her own personal commitment to the Athena SWAN equality challenge programme, because it is through education that we are going to deliver the future. The Athena SWAN programme has so much to offer in universities, and with her support and encouragement I am sure that so much more can be done.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to participate in the debate which marks International Women’s Day and I thank the Minister for her introduction. I always learn so much from my colleagues in your Lordships’ House, who in different ways are supporting women in very different walks of life. My pleasure this year is tinged with sadness, in that we will miss hearing from the late Baroness Heyhoe Flint—a frequent and lively contributor on this topic, an inspirational role model as a world-class cricketer and, quite simply, a wonderful human being. I had the great pleasure to work with her in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics and her views on equality and sport were always challenging but always entirely authentic.
I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, because I am going to talk about women and boards—so she can go and have a cup of tea now, if she likes. Unlike her, I do not think we have done enough. It is now 24 years since I joined my first board as a non-executive director. For much of those intervening years, change was painfully slow. In the last six years, though, particularly since the publication of the Davies report, the atmosphere and composition of UK boards has been changing rapidly and very much for the better. By the end of 2016, we had achieved female board membership of over 26% in our largest companies, ahead of the target set in 2011, and approaching 20% for the FTSE 250.
This matters, not just because we need to harness the talents of all our workforce to be genuinely competitive in a global, and post-Brexit, economy, or because it is self-evidently the right thing to do to have leadership teams reflecting the kind of society they purport to serve. I would argue that, to make real progress, women must be deeply embedded at the highest level: in the key decisions around allocation of resources and in critical investment decisions, at a time when some of our hard-won rights have never been under more pressure, around determining culture and behaviours. Although that has always been a strong conviction of mine, I was heartened to see some empirical evidence to support this instinct. Among MSCI world index companies surveyed in 2015, two really interesting findings emerged.
First, companies that had strong female leadership reported a superior return on equity, a key business metric: 10% against 7.4% on an equal-weighted basis. That is pretty significant. Secondly, companies lacking board diversity tend to suffer more governance-related controversies—there is diplomatic language for you—than average. That absolutely chimes with my own observations over the years that women are far more inclined to speak up about what they regard as unacceptable remuneration proposals and far more inclined to take account of the consumer perspective. To me, return and reputation are two key drivers of value in a business and it was highly affirming to see that in those two areas the contribution of women appears to be making a real impact.
So, what has happened in the last six years that has made such a difference, and are we really at a tipping point rather than a plateau? I feel that four factors, as with most changes in public policy, have been at work here.
First, the Government have taken a clear philosophical lead about the changes they expect to see. The initial preference for key targets over explicit quotas was enough to incentivise most companies to wake up, smell the coffee and understand that this was, quite simply, their last chance to engage voluntarily.
Secondly, the time was simply right. There is a huge talent pool of able, experienced women, ready and willing—and, critically, expecting—to serve at the highest level in organisations. That has been one of the biggest single changes in my business life, together with the diversity of experience now on offer.
Thirdly, public opinion is aligned with this. In an era when our political leadership in the UK at many levels is female, where our academic leadership, our major not-for-profit organisations, our public bodies, our scientific and arts institutions—as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, described—have all embraced diversity, big business simply looks right out of step.
Finally, there has been a range of key enablers supporting the change. For both companies and individual women, the wide range of support and practical help is impressive. That has come in the shape of campaigning groups such as the 300% Club, led by serious business players. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, who was a leading light in that, in her suffragette purple today. We see it in the kind of excellent programmes such as the FTSE Cross Company Mentoring programme or in the excellent training and networking work done by the great Women on Boards group. In Scotland, my own initiative, the Norton House Group, works with board-ready women, to prepare them for and support them through their first board appointment.
Of course, some firms in the search community have transformed their attitude to diversity. The very best consultants not only have extensive networks of able people from very diverse backgrounds, but are also increasingly challenging chairs and senior independent directors to reflect on the candidate briefs they develop, specifically to challenge unconscious bias. That is a great step forward.
The face of British business is therefore changing. I believe strongly that this is a tipping point and not a plateau. As with all major change, however, we need to keep up the pressure until the change is embedded and normalised, and that will take time, effort and vigilance. But the UK is already a leader now among those countries that do not impose quotas and, indeed, ahead of some countries that do so but do not back those with meaningful sanctions. It appears that the voluntary approach, so far, is working.
Two things will help further with this. I feel strongly that mature, well-resourced boards could easily create space for an additional non-executive director and reserve that place for someone for whom this is their first board role. This would at a stroke widen the pool enormously. Secondly, I think that all search firms operating in the FTSE should annually publish their candidate data to show how diverse their shortlists have been. This will give companies a real insight into which firms actually take this seriously and help inform their choice when appointing these firms in the future. I am very proud to have added my own footnote to all this change. I was very pleased to chair the first company in the FTSE with an all-female senior line-up. As chairman of Grainger plc, I appointed a female chief executive, a female finance director and a female senior independent director. I had a call from one of our major shareholders on his discovering this. He remarked, “All the top jobs are held by women, Margaret. How could this have happened?”. I had a very clear answer for him. I explained that we had simply hired the best people.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for initiating this debate and for her generous introduction to it. I think that we all enjoyed it and learned from it.
It seems only yesterday that I had the privilege to stand before your Lordships in this very Chamber to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Women’s Day movement. Today, I begin with a quote from the esteemed American historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who once famously said:
“Well-behaved women seldom make history”.
Her quote sits well with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, “Be Bold for Change”, for millions of women across the globe will be coming together at this time in March for a common purpose—equality of opportunity. They all know a simple truth: that if we are mindful of our todays, then we are duty bound to make change to improve our tomorrows.
I will concentrate on women whose skin colour is black because they carry the burden of double discrimination. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to witness many advancements in the old world of race relations and the modern one of diversity and inclusion. Back in 1971, just 2% of the UK population were identified as not white. Today, that figure is 14%, and by 2030 it is expected to be nearer 20%. Despite this, ethnic minorities make up only 6.2% of the country’s small and medium-sized enterprises, contributing £25 billion to £32 billion to the UK economy per year, whereas women-led enterprises add around £70 billion per year to the economy. Yet I remain mindful that if women of the world are to win the global change we seek, battles closer to home must be won. With women making up 51% of the population in the UK and being responsible for the majority of household expenditure, closing the gender pay gap provides us all with a clear opportunity to tackle one of the challenges closer to home that we must win to allow our daughters and our daughters’ daughters to be seen as equal in the eyes of society.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. After the Second World War, the colonies were invited to support the mother country yet there was no special service provision for them. One of the hardest issues was the need for hairdressers to look after their hair. One of the problems with coming to a cold country when you have African Caribbean hair is that you have a lot of work to do to get it right. African Caribbean women throughout our metropolitan cities faced financial exclusion and were told by bankers, “We do not on principle lend money to black people”. They were forced to use the kitchen stove and the hair comb to straighten their hair so that they could cope in society. They needed to do that as the weather was bad. The fact that they needed help but did not get any did not stop them. Today, you can find hairdressers and beauty salons run by black women on the high streets of the towns of this country.
I know what those women suffered because I came here in 1951 and witnessed immigration. They had to help themselves. However, they received support from some people. Black women have set up groups such as Black Women Mean Business and the European Federation of Black Women Business Owners to facilitate progress. I have the honour to be the patron of the latter body. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for talking about it because it comprises an amazing group of women. Never having been involved in business, I find it very difficult to know what that body is doing but, by God, it is good. Each year we hold several meetings with people who are trying to ensure that we take our place lawfully, but wilfully, in a nation that still carries double discrimination: skin colour—and noble Lords know the other one.
Young women from across the spectrum are taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM subjects, in far greater numbers than in the past. We, in Parliament, must continue to encourage young women to be fearless in resisting the “geek” label and continue this trend, ensuring that the engineering and science careers of the future do not remain solely male bastions. Noble Lords will know from the newspapers that young black women play a great part in that.
My Lords, it is an honour, as always, to speak in this House, particularly as it concerns International Women’s Day, which took place yesterday.
The day is about celebrating women and their contribution to our societies, our communities, our Governments and our nations. But I hope that we do more than that. We are seeking action and we are seeking change. Indeed, as we have heard, the theme for the day this year is “Be Bold for Change”, and we must.
EY, which should be commended for its support for the day, has a clock on its website counting down to the day we reach gender parity. At least there is a clock, one might think. Indeed, the Spectator wrote a leader recently, essentially saying that the problem was being solved and that the pay gap only really existed for women over 40. I hope it is right because at present, the clock stands at 170 years until we reach gender parity. That is surely why we must be “Be Bold for Change”. Indeed, taking an international view, there is still much work to be done. The UN estimates that only 50% of working-age women are represented in the workforce, compared with a figure of 76% for men. And we know it is not because women are standing idle. It is because our economies simply do not recognise the work that many women do. If they are not in low-paid, low-skilled jobs, they are in the informal economy—in social care and domestic roles that, sadly, go unaccounted for. This is not choice; this is not gender parity. But what kind of change must be made and who is the change-maker?
The starting point for some is government and, indeed, there are things government can do. I welcome, for example, the UK’s move to gender pay gap reporting for companies with more than 250 employees. There are limits to what the law can do, but there are no limits to what business can do to drive forward workplace equality and bring the 170-year clock down to meet the UN’s Planet 50-50 goal by 2030. To those who ask, “What about profitability? Isn’t that the only thing business leaders should be concerned with?”, I ask them to read a report on harnessing disruption. Business leaders will be familiar with this challenge. Innovation is about profits, but it is also about survival. Anticipating change and incorporating it into your business is vital in a globalised economy. The report talks of such things as advances in digital and big data analytics—all important trends that, if missed, mean a business can find itself behind a curve it can never get ahead of again.
What do these trends have to do with International Women’s Day? The full title of the report is actually Navigating disruption without gender diversity? Think again! It goes on to explain that, without incorporating what should be a mega-trend—gender diversity—into the workforce, businesses are far more likely to miss disruptive technology. Indeed, a recent report from the Peterson Institute found that 30% female participation on boards can add six points to a company’s net margin—and 30% is not even gender equality.
Yet, the EY report says that 23% of business leaders expect no change to gender diversity in the next five years. So, despite debating it here, in this Chamber, at the heart of government, those who must do the most to “be bold for change” are not Ministers but CEOs and chairmen. They must do it, not because of government policy, not because of equality for equality’s sake and not because of International Women’s Day: they must do it if they want to survive and thrive. CEOs should look at whether they have done enough to attract and retain top female talent. That is the greatest hedge of all.
CEOs, business leaders and especially those like myself who sit in both political and corporate camps, need to ask themselves the same questions Emma Watson asked herself when she stood up in front of the UN and said:
“If not me, who? If not now, when?”
I nearly made it through a whole speech without mentioning Brexit but, alas, business leaders I speak to are rightly concerned about it. Actually, they should be just as concerned about whether they have a plan to attract the best talent to compete, without missing out on half the population. If they do not, the terms of market access, passporting, the single market and the customs union might not be what does for them after all. Top female talent might just be the best insurance they can buy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this important debate. I believe our different faiths in the UK can do much to promote the full equality of women in this country and further afield.
Equality does not mean we are all the same; it means equality of opportunity and of respect. There are a few things that men can do better than women and, from my own experience of having a wife and two daughters, there are many things women and girls can do better—like dominating family conversation and not letting me get a word in edgeways. My wife and children, however, always turn to my expertise in choosing clothes. It goes like this: we enter the shop and I go for the nearest chair to sit down, while they spend ages looking at different dresses. When they have narrowed the choice down to one or two, they come to me. I smile smugly and say, “This one”. They then look at each other, smile and say, “We’ll take the other one”.
In the past, the roles of men and women in the family were quite distinct, with the man being the major breadwinner and the woman the main carer. The welcome move to greater equality in society has resulted in wider acceptance that both roles are important and that there is nothing demeaning in men playing a greater role at home. While in our family I am still the hunter-gatherer—I frequently brave the charge of supermarket trolleys as I hunt for food—I also sometimes do the dishes and cleaning.
Sikh teachings place a strong emphasis on the equality of all human beings. Right from the start, Guru Nanak—the founder of the faith, born in 1469—made clear that this teaching of full equality and dignity included women. In a memorable line, the guru criticised prevailing negative attitudes to women, saying, “How can we call those who give birth to kings and rulers, lesser beings?”. In 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikh men the common name Singh—meaning “lion”, to remind us of the need for courage—he gave the name or title “Kaur”, meaning “princess”, to women, to remind them and others of their elevated status in Sikh society. On reflection, that seems to be a bit more than equality. I would rather be a princess than a four-legged beast.
Incidentally, when the Punjab was taken over by the British and the son of the legendary ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was exiled to Britain, his daughter became a prominent suffragette. In the Sikh marriage ceremony, the couple are reminded of their equality and their responsibility to work as a team in looking to the needs of the family and wider society.
The Sikh gurus were aware then—as is sadly still true today— that war is often used to justify brutal treatment of enemy women. Sikh teachings remind us that in times of conflict, women and girls should, as appropriate, be regarded as mother, sister or daughter and be treated as such.
Sikh teachings on the equality and dignity of women were way ahead not only of society at that time, but of much of society today. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. In some Sikh families, the still-negative culture of the sub-continent sometimes overrides religious teachings, with girls being treated less favourably than boys, promoting a false sense of male superiority. Today, Sikhs and non-Sikhs need to do much more to make the dignity and complete equality of women the norm, within our different faiths and in wider society.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, introduced so ably by my noble friend Lady Shields. I made my maiden speech in the International Women’s Day debate six years ago and I am glad to say that today I rise with a little less trepidation than I did on that occasion.
We all have our daily routines, do we not? My first is a cup of tea in bed with Bernard, trying to have a chat and distract him from reading the papers. My next is 120 squats while I clean my teeth. Then, as I cycle over Lambeth Bridge, I think about two things. The first is how lucky I am to have been born with the golden lottery ticket of life—to live in a largely generous, tolerant and fair society. The second, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, said, is to remember those who do not.
Every day I remind myself of the women around the world who are born to abject, grinding poverty and live utterly miserable lives. Those lives are blighted from birth. Often they experience FGM, followed by early and forced marriage, usually to much older men. Millions experience gender-based violence. Many are effectively slaves or are trafficked across the world. There is no escape for them. They have little or no access to any form of birth control, very little knowledge of sexual or reproductive rights and no choice of when or how to have their families. I particularly welcome the Government’s prioritisation of family planning and the forthcoming summit later this summer.
But the greatest injustice in these girls’ lives is the lack of access to education. We all know that the world would be a much better place if all girls went to school and that the key to helping developing countries solve their problems is educating their female populations. There are still 61 million girls across the world between the ages of five and 14 who are deprived of an education. In countries such as Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan there are millions of girls who never get the chance to enter a classroom.
If political leaders around the world would wake up to the benefits, and the essential justice, of educating the daughters of their countries just as surely as they educate their sons, their economic growth would be boosted, their population pressures would reduce, infant mortality would drop and child nutrition would improve. We in this country should be proud that our Government are so committed to supporting the women and girls development agenda. For example, through DfID, we have helped 6 million girls attend schools in Punjab province in Pakistan, and I look forward to the day when every girl has the same chance.
I very much welcome the appointment by the Foreign Secretary of Joanna Roper, a senior diplomat, as a special gender equality envoy. I look forward to hearing more about how she plans to support this agenda. I am sure that she will hold these girls in her heart, as we all do.
In my remaining minutes, I move swiftly to another topic. Next year will obviously provide an opportunity to commemorate the centenary of some women’s right to vote, but this year too marks a special milestone in that journey. Noble Lords may have visited the current exhibition in Portcullis House focusing on the anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference in 1916-17. Speaker Lowther, the ancestor of my noble friend Lord Ullswater, said at the time:
“I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm. I fear that the number and complexity of the issues, which will be raised as we proceed, will overwhelm us and it will be almost impossible to obtain anything approaching unanimity upon the more important topics which will come up for discussion”.
But after many meetings, and a number of votes, an agreement was finally reached that led to the Representation of the People Bill. One of the most dedicated women’s suffrage supporters at the conference was Willoughby Dickinson MP. He was the only one of the conference members with a perfect record of both attending and voting in Parliament in all the Divisions on women’s suffrage. Dickinson recorded that on 10 and
Sir Willoughby, I am proud to say, was my great-grandfather, and in the exhibition is a photograph of him with his daughter—my grandmother—as she took her seat in the House of Commons in 1937. I can only imagine how astonished she would be, as the only Conservative woman MP in 1945, to see, with the election of Trudy Harrison a couple of weeks ago, 70 Conservative women MPs and our country led by our second woman Prime Minister—something of which I am very proud. I think she would also be astonished to find me on these Benches.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for introducing the debate. I hope that I will not be considered a fraud by taking part in a topic which has a global dimension. My international involvement in women’s campaigns took place in the 1980s and 1990s, and I will be concentrating today on the impact of government policies on women in the UK.
In all the globe-trotting that I did, whether it was to a women’s conference in New York in the 1980s, with Gloria Steinem as the guest speaker and where I think I made a speech about the Greenham Common women, or to South Africa—I was in Soweto in the late 1980s to witness the founding of NEHAWU, a healthcare workers’ union with a majority of women members—I learned three things: first, that it is inspiring to be among women who are dedicated and supportive of each other; secondly, that role models are important; and, thirdly and most importantly, that women globally need no lessons from us in the UK about how to improve their lot. I was humbled by their commitment and by the sacrifices they had made.
However, in my contribution I want to say more about the pay gap in the UK, the care economy and the gender impact of taxation and social security policies. I turn, first, to the pay gap in the UK. Tuesday was a significant day in more ways than one—not just because of the debate on Brexit, where women had to fight to be heard on both sides of the debate, but because it was the day when the average woman worker stopped working for free before they caught up with men. In the 66 days since the start of this year they have been working for free.
The reasons are the same as they were when the Equal Pay Act became law 45 years ago: the undervaluing of roles predominantly undertaken by women, unequal caring responsibilities and outright discrimination, and all the factors recently confirmed in a report by the Fawcett Society. One key way in which this discrimination could be tackled was by making a claim to an employment tribunal. However, the introduction of fees by the former coalition Government has seen the number of applications fall by 80%. From January to March 2014, just 1,222 sex discrimination claims were made compared with 6,017 in the same quarter in 2013. This is a denial of justice. The introduction of mandatory pay-gap reporting is welcome, but it will work only if there is a requirement to publish an action plan on how employers intend to deal with the problem, with penalties for those who take no action.
I turn to the care economy. A new report by the UK’s Women’s Budget Group for the International Trade Union Confederation shows that investing public funds in childcare and elder care services is more effective in reducing public deficits and debt than austerity policies. If 2% of GDP was invested in care industries in the UK, it could create up to 1.5 million jobs. The women’s employment rate would rise by more than 5 points in the UK and the gender employment gap would be reduced by up to 25%. This is surely better than the Government’s unimaginative and unnecessary austerity policies.
Not surprisingly, we even have gender bias in economic thinking. As the ITUC report states:
“Under the UN-mandated System of National Accounts, investment in physical infrastructure counts as capital stock, whereas investment in social infrastructure is considered as government annual current spending”.
One is an investment, the other a cost. If the 2% of GDP on the care economy was applied in other countries, it would mean 24 million new jobs in China, 11 million in India, 2.8 million in Indonesia and just over 400,000 in South Africa.
The gender impact of taxation policies is one of the most insidious forms of sex discrimination. The Women’s Budget Group has welcomed the Chancellor’s promise to consult on ways to ensure that the taxation of different ways of working is fair between different individuals. It is to be hoped that those consultations will be meaningful. As the group has said:
“Income tax cuts benefit men disproportionately more than women because women earn less than men and rely more on public services that tax revenues fund”.
It continues to say that,
“poorer local authorities can raise less money but need to fund greater use of vital services Women stand to lose most from this inequality”.
A year ago, my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett asked a question about the impact on women of the raising of personal tax allowances. Of those who will not benefit at all from any rises in such allowances in this Parliament, 66% are women and 41% have dependent children. Raising the higher rate threshold benefits men. According to Treasury figures, 68% of those taken out of the higher rate tax band last time were men. That proportion will rise as the threshold is raised further to 2020. Those extremely costly measures worsen gender equality in two ways. They raise the disposable income of most men and erode the tax base for those who rely on government funds for benefits and public services. By 2020, the lost revenue due to the changes to personal income tax thresholds since June 2010 will be approximately £19 billion. This will be paid for by freezing working benefits and by cutting work allowances and reducing income disregard under universal credit. The latter alone will cost £3.5 billion a year. Both of these affect women: we still have a long way to go.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for introducing this debate. International Women’s Day was first observed over a century ago. Progress has been made around the world in the quest for equality. Today, women have gained the right to vote, to run for public office and to enjoy constitutional guarantees of equality in many countries. In many countries, women are active participants in the economy, are acquiring high level education and are playing a crucial role in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their families, communities and countries. However, there are still situations in the world where the struggle for human rights, equality and the rule of law continues at a heavy price.
At a glance, countries in south-east Asia—namely, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—have progressed well, and women there have held the highest ranks in politics and government. All these countries have seen female Prime Ministers. However, that is a superficial phenomenon limited to the ruling class of these countries, whereas the situation on the ground is very different. I draw noble Lords’ attention to Indian-administered Kashmir, where rape has been constantly used by the Indian forces as a weapon of oppression. The high-profile cases of sexual violence in the Kashmir valley show a pattern of intimidation and threats being deployed by the Government, the police and the military so that the cases do not reach trial.
Many victims of the Kunan Poshpora gang rape by the security forces, which took place in February 1991, have died waiting for justice and the justice system has failed to conclude the process of justice during the last 26 years. The victims have been disowned by their families, for reasons of “honour” and “shame” and no support system is available for them in society.
According to the popular newspaper The Hindu, on
“Last year at a seminar in Srinagar, women from Kunan-Poshpora, twin villages in Kupwara district of Kashmir, publicly recounted the night of February 23, 1991, when soldiers of the Indian Army invaded their lives, privacy and dignity. Masquerading as a ‘cordon and search operation to catch militants,’ the soldiers of 4th Rajputana Rifles, of the Army’s 68th Brigade, entered the villages and launched the most potent tool of repression used in theatres of political conflict — rape, sexual humiliation and sexual torture”.
It goes on to say:
“Sexualised violence in wars and conflicts is neither incidental, nor is it a question of sex. When 125 soldiers lay down a siege over a village, separate the men from the women and sexually assault more than 50 women, from ages 13 to 60, it is indicative of a systemic military practice. The intent was not only to terrorise and traumatise the people under assault—they are often accused of harbouring militants—but also sending out a message of retribution to the Kashmir resistance movement”.
The newspaper further adds:
“The survivors, who appeared in front of a large gathering in Srinagar, for the first time since the incident, were accompanied by Syed Mohammad Yasin, the Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara in 1991. Yasin broke down when he said: ‘I was shocked to see the plight of the women … A woman told me that she was kept under jackboots by the soldiers while her daughter and daughter-in-law were being raped before her eyes. A pregnant woman was not spared either ….’ The message of retaliation, humiliation and shame was palpable.
These victims offer suffer from double victimisation through neglect and isolation. The Kunan Poshpora incident is one of many thousands of such rape cases at the hands of the Indian security forces in Kashmir. There is simply no end to it.
In Kashmir, since 1989 the death of a male generation at the hands of security forces has left behind a population of widows and another group of women called half widows. The half widows find their husbands missing during the last 28 years and it is generally believed that they were taken out of circulation by the security services and the police. They are either in custody or have died during custody under torture. Unless there is a closure and a certainty about these missing people, these women cannot get married and are called half widows. Many of these women are unable to find work due to either lack of education, lack of opportunities, family commitments, cultural or religious barriers or fear of travelling alone. Hence they live under extreme agony, fear and poverty.
According to the Association of Parents of Missing Persons, a local NGO, more than 10,000 people were missing in Jammu and Kashmir. The Government has admitted that nearly 4,000 are missing. The Amnesty International report of
While the world is celebrating India’s economic growth, the world’s largest democracy lacks respect for human rights and equity, while its security forces are committing some of the worst human rights abuses with complete impunity. Kashmiri women are crying out loud to the human rights campaigners of the free world to consider them equal and support them to get justice.
My Lords, International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to celebrate the progress that has been made for women, but also to identify the continuing challenges and consider ways to address them. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Shields for her excellent introduction.
We should be proud of the UK’s recent global record on gender equality. We led the way in establishing a stand-alone goal as part of the sustainable development goals in 2015; we launched the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, or PSVI as it is known; and were the first G7 country to hit the 0.7% GNI UN aid spending target and to enshrine it into law. We have put women and girls at the heart of international development, and protecting women from violence and supporting survivors is a priority for our Government. However, in spite of all these efforts, there is still no country in the world where women have social, political and economic equality—even the UK—so where should we be looking to do more?
In much of the developing world, women struggle against patriarchal systems with societal norms and values that disempower them. In some countries, it is very difficult for a woman to function without her husband and harmful traditional practices, such as forced marriage and FGM, coupled with lack of education and no birth control, mean that women’s lives are severely limited. The reality is that equality is enshrined in many of these countries’ constitutions, but too often there is not enough political will to implement and enforce such policies on the ground. The UK can help with this by working with those Governments and by funding projects to work with men, as well as women, at grass roots. When male community leaders understand why gender equality benefits the whole of society, they can often be the biggest supporters. I have seen this in countries such as Mali, where I visited a village project that had persuaded people to stop the terrible practice of FGM.
At next week’s Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the UN in New York, the theme is women’s economic empowerment. When women are given the opportunity to earn a living, they not only lift themselves out of poverty but help to transform their countries. Too often, however, women are confined to the home, unable to choose how many children they have, and are expected to carry out unpaid care work. Nowhere do women suffer more than in conflict countries, where they are disproportionately affected. All too often, they become the victims of the sexual violence that rages—as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, has referred to in the case of Kashmir—which then becomes embedded into society, even after the fighting stops.
I am a member of the steering board of the PSVI and was also a member of the Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, which published its report last year. We visited the DRC, and in Goma and the surrounding area we saw, with glaring clarity, the terrible effects of sexual violence on survivors, so I hope that the UK will continue to give a clear lead on this and encourage other countries to take similar action against it.
In countries where women are already the poorest, war also creates millions of widows, who become the most neglected and vulnerable of all. This in turn affects the welfare of their children, denying them education and well-being, and has a negative impact upon the future health and prosperity of the country.
The year 2000 saw the adoption of the ground-breaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This resolution was established to specifically address the matter of women in conflict around its four pillars of protection, prevention, participation, and relief and recovery. But 17 years on we still struggle to ensure that women play a part in peace processes. This is in spite of evidence that when women are included, there is a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting 15 years. This lack of inclusion is seen startlingly in the Syrian peace process, where a Syrian Women’s Advisory Board has been set up in a consultative capacity and, once again, women have been excluded from having a full place at the peace table.
The UK was one of the first countries to adopt UNSCR 1325 and this year it is working on a new national action plan. Progress has been made in recent years, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Anelay, who works tirelessly in her role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. I also mention Tom Woodroffe, who has so ably led the wonderful team at the Foreign Office.
I also congratulate the MoD gender champion, General Messenger, on his outstanding work, and the progress made at the MoD. All UK troops deploying on overseas missions now receive training on women, peace and security and PSVI; more military gender advisers are being trained; and all relevant military doctrine will be gender-sensitive. However, still more can be done. I very much hope that the UK Government will consider making a commitment to ensure that a significant number of participants at any UK-hosted peace, security and aid events are women and will speak out strongly against international peace processes that exclude them.
While I am delighted that the UK has contributed $1 million to the UN global acceleration instrument to address the funding deficit on the implementation of UNSCR 1325, as well as additional funding over two years to support research at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security, I hope that a proportion of UK development aid for fragile and conflict-affected states can be spent on women, peace and security. Most importantly, I hope that there can be an increase in funding for women’s rights organisations at the grass-roots level and more support for women human rights defenders.
I want also to draw attention to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, which is often described as the international Bill of Rights for women. The UK has never nominated anyone for a seat on the committee since the convention’s inception in 1979. Although elected members of the committee sit independently of their nationality, it is clear that they bring their state’s culture and outlook to the table and that they can have a profound effect on the committee’s deliberations and conclusions. A number of vacancies on the committee are scheduled to come up for election in June next year. Given our long-standing commitment to women’s rights and our proud position as a world leader on gender equality, surely we should be nominating a woman from the UK. We need to lead by example, so I ask my noble friend the Minister for an assurance that this will happen, and I trust that we will not be given more excuses.
In conclusion, while we have much to celebrate today, there is still more that we can do. Among other things, in May there will be a London-hosted conference on Somalia. 1 hope that the Government will be including the voices of women from Somalian civil society and once again showing the lead—by being bold for change.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on giving us this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of many women. I would like to introduce some examples of inspirational women and men who are working to promote the well-being of women and girls in some of the most challenging situations in our world: education in the conflict areas of Sudan and South Sudan; maternal and child health in areas of continuing conflict in Burma’s Shan State; and gender equality in Pakistan and the UK. I shall conclude with a celebration of success in Canada.
First, please travel with me in imagination to Sudan’s Nuba mountains this January and climb a rugged mountain for two hours to meet families hiding in caves for fear of aerial bombardment. There we meet people suffering snake bites and dying from malaria with no medicine. Yet their priority for help is education, especially for girls. Schools are deliberately targeted by Government of Sudan bombers, so education and exams have to take place out of doors, using the respected Kenya curriculum. When it is time for exams, 1,000 students converge and invigilation is undertaken on the mountainside. Our valiant partner, Nagwa, asks every student to bring a large stone. As they gather, she tells them, “When you hear the Antonov bombers approaching while you are doing your exam, you will place your exam papers neatly under your large stone. You will then run and hide in the caves. When the bombers have gone, you can return. Your exam papers will not have been blown away by the blast or the wind and you can continue your exams”. That is exam pressure with a difference, and many of those students perform as well as their counterparts in Kenya.
Moving to the tragic situation in South Sudan, I have had the privilege of visiting South Sudan more than 30 times, many during the previous war when 2 million people perished, 4 million were displaced and tens of thousands of women and children were abducted into slavery. Many are still missing and their families continue to grieve. But the people there still yearn for education as a priority. The Anglican bishop, Moses Deng, of the diocese of Wau in Bahr El Ghazal, recognises the importance of education, especially for girls. He has supported the establishment of a school delightfully called “A Girls’ School Which Boys May Attend”. The girls do attend, and so do the boys, and their achievements are amazing. They attain some of the best results in the country.
Moving rapidly to Burma, the Burmese Government continue their military offensives and grave violations of human rights in ethnic national areas such as the predominantly Muslim Rakhine State, the predominantly Buddhist Shan State and the predominantly Christian Kachin State. Among many local NGOs doing magnificent work is the SWAN Shan Women’s Action Network, which promotes maternal and child health in the conflict-affected areas of Shan State. But SWAN has great difficulty in obtaining funds, especially since DfID adopted a policy of using intermediary organisations to implement and monitor DfID support. SWAN claims that it cannot access these funds because of bureaucratic complexities and, as a consequence, it is in acute need of resources to continue its life-saving work.
We heard an identical concern being expressed by Bishop Moses Deng, who is desperately trying to obtain funds for life-saving food for thousands of internally displaced persons who have fled from conflicts to his diocese. He also says that he does not have the resources to meet the complexities of DfID’s requirements. I therefore ask the Minister to request that DfID makes funds more readily available to smaller indigenous NGOs carrying out life-saving work in remote and high-risk areas not reached by big aid organisations. I am thinking of organisations such as SWAN in Burma and local churches in South Sudan.
I turn briefly to the suffering of women caused by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination abroad and in this country. Last year I went to Bangkok to meet people who had to flee for their lives from the application of sharia law in Pakistan and the failure of authorities to maintain justice for victims of allegations of breaches of sharia law. Time permits only one example. Esther escaped from Pakistan with her family after her eldest daughter was abducted, compelled to convert from Christianity to Islam and forced into marriage. She told me, weeping, “I was terrified. I went to our neighbour’s house to find out who took my child. I fought them to regain my child. I still bear the scars on my arm”. The authorities refused to intervene. The family fled to her brother’s house, hiding in fear until they were able to escape to Thailand.
Now, sadly, I turn to causes for concern on our own doorstep here in the UK. Noble Lords may be aware of my Private Member’s Bill seeking to address the suffering of women from religiously sanctioned gender discrimination, and I thank noble Lords present who support that Bill. Of course, gender discrimination may occur in different faith communities, but with the growth of sharia councils, many Muslim women suffer in ways that would make our suffragettes turn in their grave. Forms of gender discrimination include asymmetrical access to divorce. The husband can divorce his wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times; she has no reciprocal right. If they have not had a legally registered marriage, women have no rights and are often left destitute and helpless. Also, many men indulge in polygamy with four wives, although bigamy is illegal. Polygamous marriages may be desperately unhappy, as recorded by the courageous Muslim woman Habiba Jaan. Muslim women share their anguish with me when they describe being married into polygamous marriages—and their divorce. One lady wept as she told me she received her divorce through the post, saying, “I never thought this could happen in a democracy. I feel betrayed by Britain”.
Other disturbing examples relate to violence and killings in the name of so-called “honour”. Time does not permit me to give examples now, but many are on the record in the Second Reading debate on the Bill. The women who have had the courage to come forward to tell their stories are doubtless the tip of a huge iceberg. I am very grateful to the Muslim Women’s Advisory Council and to British Arabs Supporting Universal Women’s Rights for speaking out with courage about what is happening here.
The Government are still refusing to consider any proposals to ameliorate the suffering of these women until their review has reported. But there are measures that could be implemented quickly and could bring some relief. I ask the Minister to pass on this request for some of these measures to be adopted by the Government as a matter of urgency.
I finish on a note of celebration—in Canada. Following a protracted grass-roots campaign, spearheaded by the renowned Muslim women’s activist Raheel Raza, the Parliament of Canada passed a Bill in 2015 reinforcing Canada’s commitment to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls, including so-called “honour killings”, and helping to ensure that discriminatory practices, including polygamous marriages, do not occur on Canadian soil.
I hope that today’s debate will highlight the urgent need to address utterly unacceptable practices of violence and discrimination against women and girls, wherever they occur, and, by providing examples of inspirational women who can serve as role models, will help to support initiatives to promote justice, equality and the rights of women everywhere.
My Lords, I am grateful that your Lordships’ House is again acknowledging this important day. I welcome that we pay tribute to the achievements of so many women and continue to push for full and proper gender equality across the world. Women are the pillars of our families and communities. They have played invaluable roles in our history, including during the two world wars, yet they struggle to gain equal treatment. Much progress has been made since the first International Women’s Day more than a century ago. However, there is still much more to be done.
I shall address the situation of women in the Islamic world. I appreciate that there is a negative perception among some people relating to the role and status of women within the Muslim community. I believe that we all, in particular the Muslim community, must develop a greater appreciation of this perception and do more to tackle it. This means ensuring equal rights and opportunities in a social, educational and economic context. As is the case in all other religious and non-religious circles, we must always seek to achieve genuine parity between men and women. The Muslim community must also speak with a louder voice on gender equality and do more to mark occasions such as International Women’s Day.
It is important to look at the facts in order to understand the challenges. In Islam it is believed that the most important person in one’s life is the mother. We are taught the respect and dignity that should be provided to them. Muslims in fact believe that paradise lies at the feet of the mother. We should also remember that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, worked for a lady whose name was Bibi Khadija. In fact, Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, married Bibi Khadija, who was the first person to become a Muslim. It is therefore important to realise that females are not secondary to males in Muslim life.
With regard to education, girls actually now comprise an encouraging 43% of full-time Muslim students. A study last year also found that more Muslim women than men are now obtaining degrees. The same study found that average scores in school tests at ages 11 and 14 were higher for Muslim girls than for Muslim boys. Every year I present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers and I can say that girls always outnumber boys in relation to high achievement. However, there is a problem for young Muslim women more widely, particularly for those not in education. Only 29% of Muslim women aged between 16 and 24 are in employment, compared with 51% of women in the general population. We need to investigate this paradox of increased education but low economic activity.
There is a disturbing disparity between single and married Muslim women’s career aspirations. Single women are one and a half times more likely to be in employment than married women. This unacceptable situation must be looked into as a matter of urgency. I would like to see dedicated programmes promoting the empowerment of Muslim women, perhaps most notably in workplaces. This could be in the form of providing practical training to assist with employment, or comprehensive childcare services. It is important that the Muslim community acknowledges these disparities and works with relevant organisations to help remedy the situation.
I must also mention that there has been criticism of sharia councils in some quarters, particularly among Muslim women. It should be noted that these are mediation services and do not claim to be making decisions that are legally binding. There is evidence that some decisions made are unfair to women. It is important that the deliberations and procedures of such a system are fair to men as well as women if the sharia councils are to have the confidence and respect of the people. Equality, equity and fairness must always be maintained at the heart of any system of dispute resolution. I would like to see the establishment of a national body, self-regulatory in its constitution, of which every sharia council should become an accountable member. Furthermore, I would like to see each sharia council have at least one female adjudicator.
Another social ill faced by some women is that of forced marriage. There are unfortunately no reliable statistics available on this in the UK. The hidden nature of such activity means that incidents often go unreported. However, I pay tribute to the work of the Forced Marriage Unit, the information it collects and the support it provides to victims.
I must emphasise the difference between arranged marriage and forced marriage. Arranged marriage requires the free consent of both parties. Forced marriage is where pressure or abuse is used to force one party into giving consent. I emphasise that Islam does not permit forced marriages. The bride and the groom must be asked by the imam in the presence of witnesses whether they both consent to the marriage before it can take place.
I emphasise that forced marriages unfortunately occur across a number of communities and religious groups. In 2014, forced marriage became a criminal offence. I believe it is as important that we educate all communities about the dangers of it. All communities must ensure that it is understood that forced marriages are forbidden and, more importantly, work towards changing cultural attitudes where it is a problem. I pay tribute to all the charities which work so hard in this area, such as the JAN Trust.
I have spoken many times of the pride I feel in living in a country where those of different cultures and faiths live alongside each other in relative peace. The United Kingdom is a symbol of tolerance and inclusivity to the rest of the world. It is therefore important that all communities work together to lead the way in promoting gender equality.
My Lords, for well over 20 years I have worked extensively on human rights, women’s economic empowerment and education of children. I strongly believe that these are the important areas which will promote gender equality in an increasingly globalised world. I am always proud to stand in this House and speak on International Women’s Day. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for today’s important debate.
The United Nations says that our planet should be 50:50 by 2030. In essence, we need to achieve gender parity. We have already achieved so much, but much more remains to be done. We now have our second female Prime Minister, which is another landmark for the United Kingdom. As more and more women are able to achieve their goals and the “glass ceiling” begins slowly to be eroded, it shows that women can reach the top if they work hard. It is this pursuit of more women being in powerful roles that we should celebrate and embrace.
If around 50% of the world’s population does not have a voice of its own, we will not have the world we could and should have, with a more balanced and equal society in all its forms. As the sustainable development goals show, there is still a great need to help many women in the world today who do not have the kind of lives that they should have. They are not able to go about their daily lives without discrimination, which holds them back from their goals, desires and dreams, and from truly achieving their potential. This is why goal 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. It is to be commended that DfID’s work in shaping the SDGs and its continued policy of promoting gender equality mean the UK is at the forefront of pursuing an equal world free from discrimination.
The UN’s focus on the world of work and on economic empowerment helping women to become equal players on a level playing field will have benefits for all, but to achieve it we have to do more to ensure that women are engaged from an early age. We need to ensure that they not only have access to good quality education at an appropriate time, but are not discouraged from entering traditionally male-dominated professions, so that their influence can be felt in many more spheres of life. Some women in the developing world do not get access to even basic education. This is why goal 4 of the SDGs is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning for all. Here I declare an interest as chairman and founder of the Loomba Foundation. It has recently embarked on a new project in partnership with Rotary India Literacy Mission to skill-train 30,000 impoverished widows—1,000 widows in each of the 30 states of India. They will receive literacy, numeracy and skills training to enable them to face the challenges in their lives.
Sadly, widows in many developing countries and countries of conflict are at the front line of discrimination, where they face unprecedented levels of human rights abuses, ostracisation and ill treatment. Their double discrimination is compounded by the lack of awareness many people have about the plight of widows and how they face many more hardships because of a cultural norm that deems it acceptable to treat them badly. More importantly, research published in 2016 in World Widows Report, which was commissioned by the Loomba Foundation, shows that the problems faced by widows are a formidable bar to achieving the SDGs and that it is crucial to the goals to help widows and to improve their situations dramatically. It is very reassuring to know that DfID, through the key policies of the Government under the leadership of the Secretary of State, puts women and girls at the heart of its agenda, which promotes gender equality globally.
Finally, I highlight the UN Women initiative HeForShe. Women will achieve equality faster if the British Government encourage men to recognise that women should be treated equally and with respect and dignity. It is strange that out of some 30 speakers today, only five are men.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Shields on bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House to mark International Women’s Day and on her excellent introduction.
As we have heard, the UN’s theme this year is “Women in the changing world of work”—a title as fitting now as it would have been on the first International Women’s Day more than 100 years ago. Since then, there have been huge steps towards gender equality in this country and in many places around the world, with women increasingly carving out a place in public life and obtaining vital civil and employment rights.
We should be proud of the progress made in this country. We have record numbers of women going to university. Girls are outperforming boys at school and staying in school longer. However, despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, as, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said, women in the UK still earn 19.2% less than men. A large part of the discrepancy is due to higher numbers of women in part-time work or taking time out of work to have children—but this is not the full story. Women working full-time still earn 9.4% less than men. Equal pay for work of equal value does not ring true when women’s work is still overwhelmingly undervalued and concentrated in lower-paid sectors. Women dominate the lowest end of the pay scale and hold 59% of minimum-wage jobs. This must change. As my noble friend Lady Brady said, businesses are key to this.
My father, who sadly died when I was in my early 20s, always said to me, “Getting a good education is a key. It unlocks doors and nobody can take this away from you”. How right he was, but this is no less important for women and girls living in poverty around the world. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin said, 61 million girls between the ages of 5 and 14 are denied the opportunity to attend school; 15 million do not even get as far as primary school. This is a global disgrace that shows how far leaders are from achieving sustainable development goal 4: inclusive and equitable education for all by 2030.
There is a whole host of reasons for this, including gender roles in the home, violence against girls, forced marriage and early pregnancy. But one blindingly obvious reason remains: education is hugely underfunded globally. UNESCO estimates that an additional $39 billion in education funding will be needed each year to achieve SDG 4 by 2030. The UN theme of women and work focuses specifically on unlocking the potential of women in the workplace across the planet by 2030. We all know that this will never happen if we fail to increase girls’ participation in education, as well as the quality of that education.
As I have already said, the impact of education on improving women’s economic empowerment is unparalleled. This is aided by DfID’s increased investment in family planning services, from £90 million in 2010 to an extra spend of £195 million per year since 2013. This UK aid has enabled 9.9 million more women to use modern methods of family planning—which is key.
UK aid via DfID is key, and I am delighted that the Conservative Government have promised to deliver a decent education to 11 million children, including 5.3 million girls. However, more still needs to be done. Despite UK aid to education, aid to global education has declined in recent years—and so has progress, particularly for the most marginalised girls in the most isolated communities. DfID must ensure that education remains a key priority. It has a great opportunity to demonstrate this commitment through greater support of the Global Partnership for Education later this year. The GPE does fantastic work to strengthen education systems and get girls in school and learning.
Lastly, I will touch on food. Food and good nutrition are the building blocks for further opportunity and educational attainment. Undernutrition can have a devastating impact on the physical, cognitive and mental development of women, girls and the unborn child. When I talk of undernutrition, I am not talking about starvation during famine or war but of often-hidden deficiencies of crucial nutrients, which lead to stunting, wasting and reduced immunity to diseases. In Pakistan, for instance, which I visited recently and to which the UK gives significant aid each year, 423,000 children die before their fifth birthday, and nearly half the children suffer from stunted growth and wasting. Many are young girls.
In addition, 500 million women are affected by anaemia worldwide. This disease, caused by iron deficiency, is responsible for a fifth of maternal deaths. In 2017, women should not be dying simply because they do not have the proper nutrients to sustain their bodies during pregnancy. DfID is undertaking some excellent work to empower women through better nutrition, and UK aid helped to save the lives of 103,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth between 2011 and 2015. But the pressure to improve nutrients in food must continue.
We are asked to be “Bold for Change”. When it comes to improving the lives of women in this country and around the world, we need to be bold. We need to properly finance education and prioritise equity until every girl has the opportunity to succeed. We need to consign preventable mortality in childbirth to the past and give women the nutrition that they need to thrive. If the last 104 years have shown us anything, it is that none of these issues will simply disappear overnight. This year, we must think creatively and holistically about how we tackle the stubborn challenges that women still face both at home and overseas.
We need more concerted global action to meet the needs of women and girls in humanitarian situations. I entirely agree with the Secretary of State for International Development when she says that women must,
“have the opportunity to play a full and active role in business, politics, peacebuilding and shaping the future of their country”, in order to “achieve security and prosperity”. To my mind, to do anything less is not to care for half of humanity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for initiating the debate today and for her introduction to it, but also for the work that she was doing long before she came to the House of Lords. I also declare my interests as in the register.
On this International Women’s Day, never has there been a time when women’s rights have been more challenged. What does Brexit mean for women? Britain leaving the European Union following the referendum will result in another threat to women in the UK. The vote casts a shadow of doubt on the stability of the human rights of women, maternal and paternal leave, equal access to employment and salaries, and many other issues that make the United Kingdom a recognised leader in this field. Other countries have followed us: many women around the world have united to ensure more balanced rights for women on topics ranging from equal access to education and medical services, 30% representation of women on corporate boards, and equal pay and parity. I hope we do not lose any of these over the next few years.
Since 1915, the question of women’s rights in areas of conflict and post-conflict times has posed many obstacles. Many countries and people have worked very hard over the last 100 years to get some resolution on the issue of women being used as a tool of war. There has been a focus to involve women in the peace talks, and at every level. Five years ago, with the support of the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague—now the noble Lord, Lord Hague—we saw more concrete developments at the UN and concords ratified by countries in the United Nations. Britain has made great commitments on PSVI and will not attend peace talks, if possible, without women at the peace table, including local women as they know the real requirements of their communities.
In times leading up to conflict, during conflict and post conflict, when families are trying to flee war-torn areas, the institution of education is often completely lost. Many times the schools become the headquarters for the peacekeepers. Furthermore, only 2% of development and humanitarian aid is spent on education. It is unbelievable. What does that say to all those families and individuals who have had their way of life disrupted? Millions of people are deprived of education but it is crucial wherever you are in the world. It is as crucial as other nutrition. Without education the future has negative consequences for these victims who we would love to see become survivors. It is difficult to make up lost education for these children.
Women and children suffer the most during global displacement. The numbers of displaced people have not been this high since 1945. The majority of displaced people—and there are more to come, unfortunately, as we know—are women and children who have no access to a home, food, clean water or education. Women assume the brunt of childcare and often become ill in the inadequate situations they find themselves in. There are no real hospitals in the refugee camps or real medical assistance. The children are most vulnerable with the lack of security, safety and nutrition. We know what this does to a child. Every day that a child misses proper education and nutrition their long-term life is marred. This is a heavy burden on mothers who are just trying to survive and who worry about the future of their children. Children may be stolen by traffickers or their parents may be prepared to let them go for a small sum of money, being told they are going to a better world. Girls may be married off because their parents feel that being a child bride might be a better way for them.
Three years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hague, then Foreign Secretary, held a very successful convening of government leaders, INGOs, the international defence community and many others. As a result of this convention, a number of commitments were made that continue today around the world. I call on the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to hold another convening in the next six months to discuss the progress achieved and the future priorities for tracking sexual violence in conflict. Britain has been leading the world on this issue, including training, funding and our stance at the peace table. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has been doing unbelievable work globally. She has taken to it and really held the mantle. It is important now that we consider where we stand and the future of this big issue. I mentioned earlier today the number of displaced people and the situation for all those living in camps and in war-torn areas. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will consider another convening in the next six months. It does not cost much money.
Women and children are a priority in peace talks. The United Kingdom has played a leading role, with Scandinavian countries and others, to ensure that peace talks include the rights of women and children. The focus is not just on peace. As we know, in one or two cases peace was done in a day but it lasted five minutes. Peace takes time and there have to be women there. When you have women at the peace table, peace lasts at least 15 years. The peace talks I know best—although I have read about Angola, Bosnia and Kosovo—are the Northern Ireland ones. Peace has held there because some women in this House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, and others were there from the beginning, before people even realised that there was going to be peace. It is really important that local women are involved in peace talks because it is women who know when they have had enough of war.
We must work together globally to ensure that the rights that women have fought to gain over the years are not taken away, and we must continue to strive for equality. We have to build an equal future with men and women working equally around the globe.
I am sorry, but I have a little frog in my throat. I am sure it will go away. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for introducing the debate. I am sorry that I am not with her on the technical side.
In 1990 I came to your Lordships’ House and, at that time, I was the only Asian in the House, man or women. I increased the number of non-white Members by 100%. The only other person here who was non-white was Lord Pitt. I bring this up to point out how much the House has changed. It is worth thinking how much we have changed—and how much more women are doing today than they were in the House when I first came. They are Ministers, they are leading and they are on the Front Bench. We did not get that sort of thing from women when I first came, and I feel that it is a matter of pride that we have moved forward in ourselves. I have friends who have been here a longer time than me, and we have moved on—and that is a good sign.
I have picked up a couple of things from other speakers. The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Singh, talked about their faiths. There is no doubt that what the founder of the Sikh religion said is probably the most wonderful statement for people to live by. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said how women are respected in Islam. Maybe they are respected in their religion or faith, but they are not respected in practice, either in the Sikh religion or in Islam. I am sorry that neither noble Lord is here, but I really do think that we have to get away from what the faith says to what people are doing—because they are not doing what their faith says.
The next thing that I wanted to say refers to what the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, said about how few men are speaking in this debate. Without men’s support, women cannot move forward. It is a fact—we all have to work together, and the men have to work with us. So I am very disappointed that there are so few men speaking.
I know that it is a little bitty, but I just want to point out that I always feel that living in this country is a little like living in heaven compared to most other countries, especially the developing countries. People who have not been to other countries, or have not stayed in them, do not know. If you go as a tourist it is not enough, but if you have lived in any other country or you have visited to learn about that country, you will know that living here is like living in heaven. It is such a pity that most British people do not realise what they have and what they have achieved, for everyone.
I know that there is a long way to go for women. Part of the reason for that, if I may say so—it may be an unpopular statement—is that women themselves are at fault in many ways. They do not support each other and they are not sisters; they are rivals rather than sisters. When women learn how to support each other and how to work together, it will help a great deal. Please can all the wonderful ladies who have been involved in all sorts of things tell other women to support each other, because I have seen that they do not? I myself have experienced not being supported by women in different areas that I have worked in. That is by the by, but it is an important thing for us to remember. We need to be supportive of each other and help each other to move on.
My interest is mainly in developing countries, because my origins are from India. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said something about there being an enormous amount of money in India. There is—in very few hands, and they do not part with it, not a penny. There is a new law in India that 2% of net profits should go to corporate social responsibility. Very people do that, though, and most of the middle-level businesses do not even know that they are supposed to do so. That is bad, given that, according to the World Bank, Indian billionaires could wipe out India’s poverty overnight. They will not do it because they do not spend any money; some people say that that is why they are rich, and perhaps that is so.
I have set up a charity called Women Matter. Our object is to find work for women that is paid—in developing countries, not in the UK. If a woman earns a little bit of money in Nigeria or India, for example—or anywhere—her life changes. She changes; her family changes; their health changes; everything changes. Education is essential, and the mother who earns a little money is very keen to send her children to school, much more so than the one who has nothing. There is no self-awareness in women in developing countries. They do not realise that they are worth anything because they have been told from birth that they are worth nothing. It is extremely important that we work with getting them access to economic empowerment, because with that comes self-awareness, self-respect and understanding of what their family needs.
I will give you an example of that. Bangladesh is not a remarkable country, as we know; it has not got a remarkable Government. We all know that, too. But do you know what has happened to Bangladesh? There are all those garment factories, and many girls and women working in them. It is better than India on every major tick-box: better education, better food, better family planning, and better in economic terms. There is an example for us. Women need not the Government but access to finance, because everything runs with money. Please, everyone, think about that, and see what you can do to get women some work.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure and privilege to participate in this International Women’s Day debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for highlighting the importance of promoting gender equality here and across the world. It is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Aspirations are to create a world where women and girls can find role models and mentors in the careers they are interested in and inspire others to become leaders regardless of their gender—and of course challenge male-dominated industries.
Last year leaders across the world pledged to take action as champions of gender parity, not only for International Women’s Day but every day. The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap will not close until 2186, which is a very long time to wait. I am sure we all agree that bolder actions are required to accelerate gender parity, here and across the world. We may ask for parity, yes; but the real action is in making it happen and making real, tangible progress, where incremental milestones can be achieved.
It is pleasing to know that the FTSE 350 will see women occupying 33% of boards, but we still have to wait another three years for that to happen. It is interesting to note, though, that the disparity of women in executive, rather than non-executive, positions has seen a greater improvement. I feel that this is about supporting a voluntary approach to improving boardroom diversity, rather than a rigid, mandatory quota system; it works better and is more acceptable. In achieving a radical change in the number of women in executive positions, business leaders need to have a level of insight in their own organisations. Restrictions and lack of support inhibit female progression. Good practice would see regular reviews embedded in workplace policies and practices so that businesses can invest in their female workforce and promote leadership and management development. I congratulate those forward-thinking CEOs and business leaders who are the drivers of that change.
We have a devolution agenda in progress and we must ensure that we embed equally representation and commitment into this early process. The northern powerhouse is part of a wider drive to put more money, power and local decision-making into the hands of local authorities. Some 40% of local councillors in the northern powerhouse region are women, but women make up just 21% of council leaders and only one of the seven chairs of the established and proposed combined authorities in the northern powerhouse region are women. Of 134 senior leadership roles, 96, or 72%, are occupied by men. The northern powerhouse brings together clusters of authorities as part of that decision-making process. This is a unique opportunity to shape the future. As I alluded to earlier, women remain underrepresented in local government as councillors in political decision-making roles, particularly at the senior officer level. Therefore, the devolution deal offers a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with gender equality and women’s representation in our politics. We must actively encourage this and make sure that we do not simply recreate old inequalities. We must make the most of the incredible pool of talent to be found in women.
International Women’s Day is a fantastic opportunity to take stock, recognise the progress that has been made and celebrate the amazing women, past and present, who have fought battles, and who continue to fight every day in the name of equality all round the world in many difficult and dangerous situations and in very dangerous countries. The barriers in those countries are huge, particularly as regards overcoming poverty and a lack of access to education, and many suffer violence on a day-to-day basis.
As I said, today is an opportunity to remind ourselves how much further we have to go. It is a moment in time to remember that there is so much more to do to encourage women to be bold in the pursuit of change. The mission continues to raise aspirations, promote mentoring and champion role models through creating a network of aspiring, emerging, pioneering women and girls. We need to hold on to the saying, “You can be what you want to be”. Whether at school, work or home and in public life, it is important for our children and grandchildren to see the principles of equality and fairness in action. We need to see a lasting change here in the UK and internationally.
My Lords, I rise to speak in this debate to welcome the 10th anniversary of the report of my noble friend Lady Corston into women in the criminal justice system. Although International Women’s Day should be a cause of celebration, there are still too many women incarcerated around the world, including in the UK. Therefore, the Corston report remains relevant.
The women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled between 1995 and 2010, from under 2,000 women to over 4,000. The numbers have since declined by over 10%, from 4,279 women in April 2012 to 3,821 in April 2016 according to the Prison Reform Trust—whose briefing I acknowledge for this debate—but the UK has still one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in western Europe.
The 43 recommendations of my noble friend Lady Corston provided a road map for women-specific criminal justice reform. The aim was that of systems change, of a,
“distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.
To achieve this change, five key areas are essential.
The first is the expansion of, and sustained funding for, women’s centres in the community as one-stop shops to prevent women entering or returning to the criminal justice system. Secondly, liaison and diversion schemes should be extended and rolled out nationally to divert women away from custody and into support.
Thirdly, there should be specialist community support, including mental health support and accommodation for women affected by the criminal justice system. I very much welcome the Homelessness Reduction Bill currently before this House which obliges local authorities to take into account and advise women who need housing on leaving prison. Currently, women are systematically deemed “intentionally homeless” for going to prison and, in too many cases, they get no help on release. Only with more supportive accommodation can the cycle of repeat offending be halted.
Fourthly, there must be sentencing reform, with greater use of alternatives to custody and women’s community support services. Finally, and crucially, there should be co-ordinated, joined-up working between all agencies involved in the lives of women affected by the criminal justice system.
I am grateful to the campaign group Women in Prison, which this week published a review of the Corston report 10 years on. It calls for a joined-up approach that takes into account the root causes of women’s offending. Only by ensuring appropriate housing, mental health support and gender-specific women’s community support services can real progress continue to be made.
It is now increasingly understood that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Over half of women in prison have been victims of domestic or sexual violence. Over half have experienced abuse or neglect as a child, and a third grew up in care. Serious mental health problems are endemic in women’s prisons and are often a response to trauma. Some 84% of women’s prison sentences are for non-violent offences such as theft, which are often related to poverty and addiction. These women do not pose a threat to the public.
Most women serving short prison sentences are back in prison within a year. A prison place costs £42,000 per year—over 10 times more than a community sentence of £3,000. So prison makes no sense on economic or rehabilitative grounds and, I would argue, makes the situation worse for women and their families. A few weeks in prison, on remand or sentenced, is enough time for a woman to lose her home, job and children. When women leave prison, six out of 10 have no home to go to and nine out of 10 have no employment. Nine out of 10 children with a mother in prison are forced to leave home to go into care or live with relatives.
In 2016, 22 women died in prison—12 took their own lives, which is the highest number on record. Currently, 21% of self-harm in prison is by women, although they account for only 5% of the total prison population. The last 10 years have seen progress in certain areas of the criminal justice sector in relation to women—notably through the network of one-stop-shop women’s centres established following the Corston report. However, many of these centres are now at risk through lack of funding.
I look forward to the Government’s promised strategy, to
“reduce the number of women offending and ending up in custody, including through early and targeted interventions”, as revealed in the recently published White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform. However, the Women in Prison group has expressed concern that the small custodial units recommended by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which were to be reserved for a very small number of high-risk women, have not materialised as she envisaged. There is concern that the planned community prisons will be built in addition to the existing estate and will, as such, serve to increase prison places for women.
More work needs to be done with sentencers. The Corston report said that,
“Defendants who are primary carers of young children should be remanded in custody only after consideration of a probation report on the probable impact on the children”.
Guidelines now state that the best interests of the child are to be taken into account when sentencing parents. This is welcome, but still mothers are imprisoned.
Another area of great concern is the number of women still imprisoned with mental health conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommended that,
“Sentencers must be able to access timely psychiatric reports and fail to remand in custody/sentence if not available”.
However, there is an issue in getting these reports as well as a lack of mental health referral places available, so judges or magistrates are likely to remand someone who is in the community and at risk of further offending due to their mental health issues rather than refer them for more appropriate treatment. It is therefore vital that community mental health and other such services are sufficiently secure, in terms of commissioning and funding, to ensure they remain a real sentencing alternative.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this debate and conclude that, 10 years on, the need to encourage government to implement the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Corston remains essential. Let us “Be Bold for Change”.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this debate, and I would like to concentrate on a subject that I know she has worked hard on—the harmful effects of pornography on young girls and women, not just in the UK but across the world.
This country is leading the fight on safeguarding, and other countries are watching what we do to combat this invasion of every part of our global society. Some might say that porn has been around for a long time but the rise of the internet has turned it into a global industry with a multi-billion pound turnover each year, exploiting women in order to make profits.
Pornography is having a major impact on a large number of young girls here in the UK who say that it has negative effect on their lives and on how they are perceived and treated in society. It encourages the use of derogatory language about girls and young women. Many believe that pornography influences how women are portrayed in the media and online, as it shows harmful views and far too often shows women as sex objects. However, it also affects mental health and causes depression, anxieties and self-harm. It contributes to women being treated less fairly and creates unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies. It normalises aggressive or violent behaviour towards women and sends out confusing messages about sexual consent. It puts pressure on girls to have sex before they are ready and to perform sex acts, because boys copy what they see in pornography. Worst of all, as reported by the NSPCC, there have been more incidents of child-on-child sex abuse. The thought of all this pressure on girls makes me weep.
I recently received correspondence from Girlguiding on why we need less porn and more education in our schools. One girl said, “Imagine sitting happily in a lesson, concentrating on whatever subject is before you, only to be jolted into shock as you see an explicit image being passed around the classroom under the desks by boys”. This sort of thing is happening to girls as young as 11 in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds all across the UK.
According to Girlguiding, 60% of girls aged 11 to 16 report having seen boys of their age viewing porn on their phones, and all too often boys are using it to make girls feel uncomfortable or pressured, passing it off as a “bit of banter”. However, we need to identify this behaviour for what it is—sexual harassment, used as a weapon to bully, hurt and intimidate others. It gives boys the impression that it is normal to be violent or dominant and to act in a forceful way around girls, both during sex and in their wider relationships. But young people cannot escape these images.
One way to tackle this scourge is through legislation, and thankfully that will happen through the Digital Economy Bill, which will introduce age verification for access to online pornography. This will go some way to protect children and young people from the ability to easily access pornography. It will reduce the exposure to pornography and the harm it can cause on a global scale. I fully support this policy, which I have been advocating for several years. I have longed for this to happen. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for her relentless campaign, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her sterling work in this area and in helping to make this legislation possible, especially as she has a global influence on this type of policy. She made a promise to me and to this House that it would happen, so I thank her for keeping that promise.
I also pay tribute to the lead that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has taken in tackling violence against women, especially in the Digital Economy Bill. The Bill will provide a means of enforcing the strong standards in this country concerning violence towards women in an online as well as offline environment so that prohibited material, which includes extremely violent pornography, will be blocked. It would be good to hear the Minister confirm this. Any suggestion that we wanted to make space in an online environment for violence against women as entertainment would clearly send quite the wrong message, fostering a world in which this violence could become more and more normal and acceptable. That will not do.
I also strongly believe that social media and search engines should play a role in ensuring children are not exposed to pornographic content by blocking or closing down offending sites, as many of them come from outside the UK. There should be an expectation for all internet platforms to address violations and companies should take responsibility for how their platforms are used. A recent report about Facebook not taking down child pornography groups is an example of how this irresponsible attitude exists right now.
Alongside this responsibility comes quality personal, social and health education and age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which should be taught in all schools to teach young people about the benefits and risks of using the internet and how to stay safe online. The scale of pornography that children and young people are having to cope with is becoming an epidemic and needs to be counterbalanced with education. Girls have to understand how they can be in control in any situation they find themselves in; to have the courage to stand up and say no; to develop high self-esteem and to feel worthy. All this comes through education and inspirational role models.
It was wonderful to hear Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, at last announce that sex and relationship education will become compulsory in all schools. It should, of course, be age appropriate and I hope that the lessons that most young people attend will cover things like consent, sexting, sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexually-transmitted diseases, healthy relationships and gender equality. These are issues that can build a well-rounded attitude of how to cope with life.
Although the subject of today’s debate is about women and girls, it is the effect of porn on boys and young men, and their attitudes to women which is deeply concerning because it is women who bear the brunt of emotional, sexual and domestic violence. Unless we get a grip and wake up to the dangers facing society we will leave behind a terrible legacy which will echo across generations to come. Therefore, we must be bold global leaders in the field of helping to protect, inspire and motivate girls and women to have the courage to stand up for themselves and not be forced into doing things they are uncomfortable with—never. That should be our legacy to girls and women everywhere across the world.
My Lords, there cannot be many speeches in the House of Lords which begin with a mention of disposable nappies—this may be a first. I do so today because it helps to illustrate the theme of my speech.
I became aware of Valerie Hunter Gordon only when she died in October last year. She had been an army wife in suburban Surrey in the late 1940s. She had two babies and a third on the way—she went on to have six children—and was borne down by domestic drudgery. In those days, the old-fashioned towelling nappies had to be soaked in chlorine, washed, dried in a mangle and ironed. She did the maths: seven nappies a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year meant about 2,500 soiled nappies for every baby. Then she had her light-bulb moment. She created her own nappies: a disposal pad inside a waterproof garment. It was a success for her and her friends and created a great demand for these disposable nappies. She went to commercial companies to try to interest them, but they showed no interest at all. One has to ask how is it that these companies showed no interest and that in America, the land of inventiveness and enterprise, no one had thought of inventing disposable nappies. The answer is simple: in those days companies were run entirely by men who had never changed a soiled nappy before.
As I said, I only became aware of the name of Valerie Hunter Gordon when she died in October last year. Four days later, another remarkable woman died in Japan, Junko Tabei. She had wanted to be a climber, to conquer the highest mountains in every country in the world, but in Japan women were told they had to stay at home. However, she was not having it, and somehow managed to join an all-male climbing club. Many of the men refused to climb with her and so, in 1969, she set up a ladies climbing club and, six years later, she climbed Mount Everest.
This brings me to another lady who died recently, Margaret Pereira, another remarkable woman who conquered her own metaphorical Everest. She was a brilliant forensic scientist who joined the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory. She became an expert in the analysis of blood—crucial in investigating criminal cases and vital before the introduction of DNA analysis—and was involved in many famous and notorious criminal cases. In those days women did not go to court because it was thought unsuitable for women to be involved in sordid cases. She said that she wanted to go to court and was told, “You cannot. Women do not do that kind of work”. She dug her heels in and she did go to court—she was involved in many cases, including the Lord Lucan case—and she went on shattering glass ceilings. She became head of the Forensic Science Service and president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences.
I wish to mention just two other extraordinary women who have died recently. One was the intrepid journalist Clare Hollingworth. It was her brilliant scoop in 1939, spotting German troop movements on the Polish border, which, in effect, announced to the world the start of the Second World War and gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “breaking news”.
The other person, who was referred to earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, is our former friend and colleague in this place, Rachael Heyhoe Flint. Let me read to you the opening paragraph of her obituary:
“When she was a young girl, Rachael Heyhoe was playing cricket in the middle of the road, with dustbins for wickets. Suddenly, the police rolled up and everyone scattered. ‘They hauled my brother and all his friends out from behind various hedges and wrote down their names’, she recalled. ‘Then I came out and said, “Do you want my name, please, because I was playing cricket as well?”’ And the policeman said, ‘Oh, no, girls don’t play cricket’”.
In the end she took on the cricket establishment, hitting it for six. She was a pioneer of women’s cricket, captained England and got the MCC to admit women.
All these women, in their own way, broke through the glass ceiling for others to follow. They show us how tenacity and determination can break down barriers of prejudice and discrimination, whether of gender, race, sex, religion or disability. They were and are great role models.
After 100 years of resistance, where have we come? We can take some pride and recognition, but not equality, for granted—there are miles to go. On every national and international platform, men continue to assert and define rights—rights to legislate and lead—while women continue to share responsibilities and bear sanctions without options on the division of their labour. The 2017 theme, Be Bold for Change, is a call for action for gender equality. Since January this year, we have seen the emergence of a new, bold resistance.
Yesterday, women across the world again demonstrated that they are prepared to challenge the status quo, stand in solidarity and oppose division and hate. New hope for activism has emerged in the guise of the movement to resist the new agenda of rising nationalism. Women are organising from every corner of the globe, standing shoulder to shoulder, knowing that changes may yet take more time but none the less prepared for the long battle ahead for sanity and justice. Those of us who marched against the attack on Iraq were plagued with a sense of defeat at not being able to stop our Government on their onward march to destroying world peace.
If there were any such doubts about the validity and impact before the women’s march began on
Despite the many barriers mentioned by my noble friend Lady Howells and the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, there are changes afloat across the world in many countries. I was truly inspired by the many women leaders I met this year, particularly in Morocco, UAE, Turkey, Sudan and the US, where remarkable women are visible and active, leading government departments, universities, businesses and NGOs in their country, just as many women are doing in the UK. Many among them are dealing with the current global refugee crisis.
Having previously visited a small refugee camp in Athens with a group of parliamentary colleagues, I cannot comprehend the condition of Syrian women and their families fleeing their war-torn conflict zone. Women and girls make up 50% of the refugee population. They face insurmountable challenges, particularly if they are fleeing alone with their children, or if they are pregnant, disabled or elderly, and many human rights defenders have become anonymous in the face of humanitarian catastrophe.
Although my family and I have experienced war, it is not possible for me to comprehend the level of desolation of modern warfare, so we will have to remain resolute. Alongside providing security, shelter and basic needs, we have to remain vigilant and continue to ensure that services are available to protect women against rape, early marriage, violence and abuse.
In regard to this work I would like to pay tribute to two organisations: the women-led organisation Global One, which works in Lebanon, and Islamic Relief, for its persistence in so many dangerous zones and in particular for supporting vulnerable women in refugee camps. I also pay tribute to Dr Shaikha Al Maskari, a much respected UAE businesswoman whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know and who has dedicated her time, energy and personal funding to numerous refugee camps. I salute them all.
Bringing matters home, women NGOs have suffered massively from government cuts this last year. Among the casualties were two iconic women’s organisations in Tower Hamlets. They have been closed down, I believe, as a direct result of male leadership and local authorities not valuing or understanding the needs of BME women—discarded with disdain for women’s empowerment. I also wish to reiterate that women’s organisations in the vanguard, including Southall Black Sisters and the Newham Asian Women’s Project, among many other women’s empowerment projects, have seen drastic cuts in their programmes, rendering vulnerable women hopeless and helpless.
That brings me to my final few points. Muslim women have become a symbol of many of the ills of our society, including the inability to prevent radicalisation. Sadly, this is an oversimplification, if not a deliberate confusion of Islamic traditions within the constraints of a patriarchal society’s proscription and practice. Discriminating against women is as evident among Muslim families as anywhere else in Britain and the world. Unfortunately, the triple whammy is that women often have to negotiate choices between emancipation and Islamophobia. I will resist detailing the teachings of Islam, for we know how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I commend the ongoing scholarly work of the honourable Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah in contextualising women’s rights within Islam. He reminds us that Islam forbids injustice and makes an explicit distinction between Islamic teachings and societal traditions and practices.
Yet again, discussions around the lives of Muslim women have been mounted on the usual parody of forced marriages and sharia councils, with repressed, hapless women intellectually bankrupt of self-dignity. This happens at the hands of a small number of vociferous voices both within this Mother of Parliaments and outside in general, with two government inquiries into the impact of sharia councils not paying the required attention to a wide range of economic and educational concerns, in addition to the impact of Islamophobia. I would indeed welcome some attention being paid to equality of opportunity for the 49% of people in higher education and the dismal level of female BME representation in public office and on company boards.
Added to this onslaught, the Casey report piled on a timely attack, coming on the back of divisions and fear post Brexit—this was a case in point—offering the usual junket of references directly out of the pages of the previous misguided Cantle hyperbole on communities. It is as though the authors themselves are living in their blessed cocoons of a new nationalism based on veiled vitriol and lack any solutions for or comprehension of the danger of generalisation, portraying all women as living in repressive parallel alien community structures and whipped-up hysteria. It begs the question of whether the way the report portrayed Muslim women should bear any responsibility for the corresponding rise in hate crimes against Muslims, particularly women—or is it being suggested that the victims themselves should bear the responsibility for being attacked for living in an overprotected patriarchy? These generalisations reinforce division. They are dangerous and simply wrong. They keep Muslim women out of power and out of office. If the Casey report is to be implemented, I would ask the Minister what kind of programme is being proposed and what the Government are doing to involve Muslim women leaders in the delivery mechanism—not only those on its own list of approved mouthpieces but those with credibility on the ground.
Does the Minister accept that the Maria Miller report on employment needs more serious consideration by the Government? Surely, economic engagement is likely to lead to the greater empowerment of women. A staggering 30% of Muslim women are out of the economy, albeit that I quote the figure with caution because I do not accept that a full and credible assessment has been made of the true figure of BME women who are either out of or on the periphery of employment. What are the Government doing to utilise the Miller findings to help economic and employment integration?
Finally, I understand the frustrations of women around the world whose place in society is defined and judged—ill judged—not by their contribution to Britain, not by their intellectual capacity and skills, but by their clothing, culture and faith. To address these inequalities as lawmakers, we have to demonstrate that we are prepared to be bold in order to create the necessary change.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Shields. This annual debate to celebrate International Women’s Day gives us all an opportunity to applaud the successes of women around the world, while recognising the injustices in so many spheres that still prevail today. Every generation has its goals, some ending in failure and some in limited success, while some are a complete triumph.
One of our many achievements, after years of badgering, was the introduction of the independent taxation of women. Prior to this, the income of a woman was added to that of her husband, who then paid tax on the full amount. Obviously, there were problems ahead. Margaret Thatcher saw these problems which many families faced, so legislation followed under which men and women were taxed separately, having their own allowances. Some women had saved a little nest egg to cushion against the possibility of future difficult times. Usually this was unknown to their husbands—for fear of it being known that they were committing an offence—and held in a secret building society account. The change to double tax allowances for a family made for a much more open and healthier tax regime, as well as being a lifeline for some women.
A debate of this nature deserves a few minutes spent on struggles. In 1917, the First World War was in its third year. Men throughout the world were fighting in various operations, but the main battleground was in Europe. Strangely, this gave women worldwide a release from the constraints of the home and the freedom to serve their country and hold important roles in the community. The battle for universal suffrage continued worldwide.
In 1917, Canada passed the Wartime Elections Act, allowing the vote for the wives, widows, mothers and sisters of soldiers serving overseas. This was the first time that women had been allowed to vote at a federal level in Canada. That year also saw the foundation of the Women’s Indian Association, which, two years later, went on to obtain partial suffrage. A god-daughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of the Maharaja of Punjab was a major suffragette, who majored on the idea of “no taxation without representation” to fight her battle. The same year, amidst the fall of the Romanovs, the Russian League for Women’s Equality obtained suffrage for women from the provisional Government and, happily, it survived into the communist era.
British men were stuck in the hell-hole that the trenches had become. Women were not only keeping the home fires burning but developing into a mighty force locally and nationally. Emmeline Pankhurst and all the courageous women who fought the long and hard battle for universal suffrage were upping their fight, and suffering hardship and derision in the process. The international theme for this year, as we have heard, is “Be bold for change”. These women faced a barrage of abuse from those who were happy with the current situation and wanted no change; they were certainly bold women.
As an optimist, I always see a glass half full, and I marvel at successive generations who have continued the fight and gained progress—even if too slowly. But now the pressure is irrepressible, and in all aspects of life women hold positions of seniority. Today, it is difficult to open a newspaper without reading about a woman being appointed to a high-flying position. Last week, the Foreign Secretary appointed a senior envoy to fight sexual discrimination worldwide, and I was particularly pleased to note that the headline did not even refer to her as a woman. On Tuesday, an article predicted that the gender gap was closing and that women graduating from 2020 could be the first to close the gender gap. If this is so, it will indeed be a triumph, even if it has taken decades to achieve.
I believe that pressure must never stop, otherwise we will slip backwards, particularly in some communities where women are seen by men as chattels, treated without respect and, in some cases, with physical violence. There are many unacceptable behaviours that continue in this country that shame our society. Each year in the past Lady Rendell would speak of the horrors of female genital mutilation, bringing public attention to these appalling practices. I pay tribute to her not only for educating me but for campaigning whenever and wherever she could.
So we must be brave and bold and keep our goals at the forefront of our minds. I hope that the warriors of tomorrow have the same vigour as our forebears.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to celebrate the achievements of women and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her part in this. Today, I shall talk about sportswomen in the UK who, through their determination, skill and personality have blazed a trail of success and equality, nationally and internationally, and have empowered girls and women in doing so. Sport used to be a much more male-dominated activity. This has improved due to women themselves, to the encouragement of Governments and organisations set up to encourage women to do sport, and to specific initiatives. I shall discuss some of these today. Even some sports which were once dominated totally by men have become female orientated, such as rugby and boxing. We are not totally successful in providing examples of good practice but the drive is there.
Before I go on I want, like the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, to pay tribute to my friend and cricketing comrade Lady Heyhoe Flint. I had the honour of welcoming her into your Lordships’ House after her maiden speech. We were on opposite sides, both in cricket and politically. We got on, we had jokes and we respected each other. Rachel was an example of providing global inspiration through her sports and also through her enterprising leadership in boardrooms. Her record was quite extraordinary: an England international in both cricket and hockey and honorary life member of the MCC, that male bastion. As captain of England between 1966 and 1976, she never lost a match. She had a magnificent test batting average.
She was not only a great sportswoman but a great charity fundraiser: president of the Lady Taverners, of which I am a member, and which raises funds to enable young disabled people to play sport. She was, remarkably, a director of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and a board member of the England and Wales Cricket Board, one of the first two women to be so. In the House of Lords as a Conservative Peer, she was influential in regulating ticketing, among other things. She was very funny, a great after-dinner speaker and not always, I am glad to say, terribly well behaved. Rachel was a phenomenon whose legacy is not only her influence on girls in sport but in encouraging women to continue their careers working with sporting institutions. She would be sad to know that a recent report by Women in Sport shows that the FA, the RFU and the England and Wales Cricket Board are at risk of losing government support because they do not employ enough women in senior positions.
This is not just about statistics or meeting targets, it is about understanding that women contribute positively to boards in all fields—in industry, business, charities, sport and so on. I think that it is essential to have women on boards, as has been proved by research. More than 7.2 million women now play sport and do regular physical activity. The campaign by Sport England called This Girl Can has enabled the gender gap, which once stood at more than 2 million, to narrow to 1.55 million. Yet there is more work to do. When asked, 13 million women said they would like to participate more in sport, yet just over 6 million of them are not currently active. The organisation Women in Sport champions the right of women and girls to participate in sport from the field of play to the boardroom.
The Women’s Sports Trust focuses on using the power of sport to accelerate gender equality and stimulate social change. The Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation works with the Government, sports bodies and the sports industry to increase the involvement of Muslim women in sport, highlighting role models and increasing participation.
Many organisations encourage women in sport. The England Cricket Board’s Chance to Shine is a hugely successful initiative to encourage children in inner-city schools to play cricket in a quick and interesting way. Since 2005, around 1.5 million girls in state schools have taken up cricket. Women’s cricket has blossomed since England played their first test match in 1934, where they beat Australia 2-0. We are now ranked second in the world. The success of the England women’s team has often been the envy of the men. This year, we hold the World Cup, where we will have such splendid teams as India and Australia.
The 2016 Olympic Games saw Team GB’s best ever performance, with 67 medals. Women won more medals in total than men in the case of 29 countries. There were outstanding performances by women in many areas. In hockey, British women won the first ever gold, were unbeaten in all their games and beat the favourites, Holland, in the final. Did anyone see that marvellous game? It was splendid. I do not have time to go on to talk about athletics, rowing, sailing, equestrian events, gymnastics, boxing and other sports where women thrived. In the Paralympics, Team GB won 147 medals, 85 for women, including a remarkable 40 golds.
Magnificent sporting achievements in Britain and elsewhere have an impact globally on women. They are tokens of courage and persistence—of “I can do it”—for women all over the world. To overcome gender inequality, women need confidence, self-esteem and high goals. I think that success in sport, in physical activity, can help boost that confidence and self-esteem and develop ambition. Many girls and women will be proud of those women achievers and proud of their own achievements. Women’s sport has developed and will continue to develop, helping girls and women to achieve the best they can in all aspects of life. I hope that this Government will continue to back sport for women and girls and back gender equality in senior positions to create a new generation of women who aspire and succeed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for securing this debate, which has been very entertaining, particularly the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne. I do not think that I have ever heard nappies mentioned in this Chamber before. I can still smell the nappy sand bucket. I am glad that the noble Lord appreciates the hard labour put in by our generation of women before disposable nappies.
We have heard a lot in this debate about the “empowerment of women”; it is a phrase that everyone loves—women must be empowered. On the encouragement of women into the workplace and to become socially and economically active we all agree, but women cannot be empowered until they have power over their own bodies and are in control of their own fertility. This is crucial. Some of my colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group are nodding, because they have heard me say it ad nauseam, but it is so important to recognise.
Women cannot be empowered if, as many girls in the world still are, they are subject to FGM, married far too young and then expected to go on bearing children until they die. Pregnant, breast-feeding or dead is sadly still the lot of millions of women all over the world, because more than 220 million of them still have no access to contraception or safe abortion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, mentioned.
We know from the work of the late Professor Hans Rosling—I have to mention him in this debate—and others and from international bodies such as the World Bank that the simple intervention of making contraceptives available without coercion will enable women to have smaller families which then have better access to education, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin. It is crucial for the empowerment of women. Children who are educated contribute to their country’s economy, and that country gets richer. It is good for it, and it is good for us. Ultimately, less aid is needed, there are fewer migrants and there are more and better trading partners. If we want to be really hard-headed about it, we could try telling the tabloids that.
I make no apology for repeating this message year after year, and I will continue to do so until I leave this House in my coffin, or before. I know that the Government have got the message, and I thank them for that and commend them for the work they have already done in this field, but will the Minister answer some questions when she sums up? It has not yet been mentioned, but following the imposition of the gag rule by President Trump, in a form even more draconian than before that will cut family planning services all over the world, what extra contribution will the Government make worldwide to make up the deficit? How will they ensure that safe abortion is still available, particularly after rape in conflict situations, which we heard about from the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, earlier? We must maintain this service for those dreadfully tragic cases. Will the Minister tell us about the conference planned for July this year and whether an announcement about extra funding will be made then?
The problems of women refugees concern me hugely. They and their daughters, often travelling without their men, are at risk of rape and trafficking—we have already heard that. In the Middle East, I visited the Zaatari camp in Jordan and heard how little girls are being married to total strangers because they will be safer with a husband to protect them in the camp. Sanitation facilities are poor, and women are frightened to use them. Healthcare, and maternal healthcare in particular, is scanty, although Zaatari camp is a pretty good camp. The women are in a constant struggle to feed their children and keep them safe.
Here I must put in a special plea for Palestinian refugees, some of whom have been displaced three times in their lifetime. Palestinians were treated well in Syria when they fled Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein. Noble Lords may remember that they went to Iraq in the first place because they fled their homeland. Since the civil war began in Syria and rebel groups started to hide in the camps, the Palestinians have been bombed and driven out. The health need of these women is enormous. UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides for Palestinian refugees in particular—is grossly underfunded. It is a desperate situation for it now, and it is responsible for this group of refugees. Will the Minister tell us when the Government will give more funds to UNRWA?
Finally, I want to address problems much closer to home, those in this country. While we are working hard to help women in developing countries, our own women are beginning to be neglected. The Royal College of Midwives has already warned of an acute shortage of midwives, especially for older women who nowadays give birth having launched their careers, hopefully. They need much more attention and more staff. More midwives are needed. What are the Government’s plans for increasing the number of midwives working in the National Health Service?
Last week, I was at a conference at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on abortion services. The shortage of doctors who can perform abortions, and the more tricky late abortions, in particular, is now very serious in this country. Only King’s College Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital can do abortion after 24 weeks, so women—desperate cases who need a very late abortion for the sake of their own health or for other reasons—have to travel a long way. It is desperate. This is because many commissioners now buy abortion services from the private and voluntary sector where no training takes place. This is really rather worrying, because it means that young doctors studying obstetrics and gynaecology cannot receive adequate training and experience because their hospitals are not providing the service, so they do not see it happening. What is going to be done about this problem and how will the Government ensure enough trained doctors to carry out this vital service in our own health service?
To conclude, I return to international development. I congratulate the Government on what they have done in the field of women’s health and for not giving in to the siren voices in their own party led by the tabloid press, which thinks that overseas aid is a waste of money. I congratulate them, but urge them to go on doing more.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those already given to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this very important debate. Noble Lords have spoken with such knowledge and passion on wide-ranging subjects and I pay tribute to them. I want to single out the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, for reminding us, if we needed reminding, of the struggles that black women have faced. I also thank my noble friend Lady Barker for drawing our attention to the difficulties that transgender women face in the UK today.
Maybe I can encapsulate the debate thus far as one in which speakers have greeted progress to date with caution, because much remains to be done. The World Economic Forum’s methodical approach in putting together the Global Gender Gap Report gives us an invaluable tool for keeping track of progress made across the globe. It shows us that across the four areas it tracks—economy, education, health and politics—in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, the UK has slipped from ninth place to 20th place out of 144 for gender parity, only just ahead of Mozambique. I hope that these figures have set alarm bells ringing, illustrating as they do that much remains to be done at home.
However, this debate is about the UK’s role in promoting gender equality globally. There, too, the progress we have made to date must be vigorously protected. I will concentrate the rest of my remarks on four issues: the global gag rule, FGM, the role of older women and DfID itself. On a recent visit to Sierra Leone with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, I saw for myself the essential work carried out by DfID working in partnership with organisations such as Marie Stopes to mitigate the effects of child marriage, gender-based violence and FGM. Gender-based violence was an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, who is not in his place, brought to our attention. Gender-based violence is practised as a weapon of war by those depraved enough to continue it.
We have heard a fair amount about the global gag rule already from the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. I emphasise how different this global gag rule, which has been brought in by the Trump Administration, is to the one practised under the Bush era. The implications are devastating. Rather than impacting $600 million of foreign aid, the expanded Trump version will affect $9.5 billion of aid that currently goes to projects where organisations champion women’s right to abortion. The Government in the Netherlands have already announced the creation of a fund to counter the global gag rule. When the noble Baroness responds to the debate, can she say whether DfID will join them in making a similar commitment? It has done so in the past.
I want to focus for a moment on FGM. According to recently published NHS figures, there were 5,484 newly recorded cases of female genital mutilation in the UK last year. Although we are making slow but sure progress in developing nations, I am certain that action here at home will send a strong message to developing countries that this practice has no place in the modern world. Will the noble Baroness also address in her response why we are failing to get the message across in health settings and schools and, secondly, why we have still seen no successful prosecutions to tackle this crime in the UK?
I will also say a few words about recognising the critical contribution made by older women to the economic well-being of their family and communities, as carers, shopkeepers, traders and entrepreneurs. Some time ago, I was an ambassador for a microfinance charity called Opportunity International and saw for myself the enormous trust that was placed in the hands of women, often older women, to multiply the money that was entrusted to them. Not only did they do that, but they were meticulous in keeping up with repayments, as it was a source of pride for them to be able to do so, thus ensuring that children and the vulnerable were beneficiaries. This point was made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, as well as by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. It is clear that in addition to moral and rights-based arguments for gender equality, there is a notable and substantial economic argument—study after study has shown that. In her concluding remarks, could the noble Baroness address what measures the Government are taking to ensure that the sustainable development goal to leave no one behind encompasses older women?
DfID has come under sustained attacks from elements in the media. It must do more to resist these and speak up for the millions of people across the globe who rely on it for the leadership it shows—often on pioneering projects that others shy away from, such as the girl group, Yegna, labelled “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls” by the Daily Mail. This transformational, award-winning project, using popular culture, was thrown to the dogs in the face of attacks by the tabloids. Yet it is a prime example of where a bold stance by the Secretary of State would have enhanced her reputation. I am sorry she did not take that opportunity. The soft power wielded by DfID throughout the world cannot be underestimated, and as a leading political and development player, the UK has a vested economic and moral interest in promoting gender equality.
My Lords—and Ladies—first I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for bringing this really important debate to mark International Women’s Day. We have had, as usual, a great debate over a wide range of subjects relating to women and girls from all around the world, and I thank all noble Baronesses, and all noble Lords, for their contributions.
The global theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change”, as many of us today have mentioned. It is about encouraging ground-breaking action to drive the greatest change for women. The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. It aims at addressing women’s economic empowerment in the context of globalisation and the ongoing technological revolution.
One of the key challenges for women is their low representation in leadership positions. The World Economic Forum produces an annual gender gap index, which ranks countries by the extent to which women and men have equal opportunities. It includes economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. On this index, the UK is number 20; last year, we were number 18. On the IPU ranking, based on the percentage of women in the lower, elected House of Parliament, the UK is placed 47th; Rwanda is ranked first, with 61.3% women. Can the Minister explain why the UK has dropped down to 20th place? What measures would she suggest to improve our ranking? How we can move further up the IPU rankings?
Where there is good representation of women in elected legislatures, it is usually because special measures have been put in place, such as happened in the devolved institutions. In Wales, in the first elections in 1999, the Labour Party had special measures which meant that a good number of women were elected to good seats, and that has continued. We now have 41.7% of Members of the Welsh Assembly being women. In Scotland, 34.9% of the Members are women.
It is 99 years since women were first allowed to become Members of Parliament. In that time, only 456 women have been elected as MPs, compared with 4,738 men. That makes 8.8% women and 91.2% men. In the House of Commons today, there are 195 women, which is 30%, and 454 men, which is 70%. We are improving, but it is all very slow.
The Commons Women and Equalities Committee report published on
Next year, we will mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave women the right to become MPs. I am aware there are already plans in Parliament to mark the occasion. Does the Minister agree that, in the week of International Women’s Day next year, we should have more than just our annual debate? Will the Minister agree to have discussions with me and others to see whether we can agree on a good programme of events to mark this occasion in your Lordships’ House, without of course impinging on what is already being planned? I think we could have a great time next year, marking this great occasion. I have to say that 100 years is a long time to wait for women’s equality. We owe it to future generations of women to take positive action now.
Another thing I want to talk about is gender-based violence. The UN recognises this as direct discrimination against women, perpetrated against them because they are women. Domestic abuse, as a form of violence against women and girls, is internationally recognised as a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls. Eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls is essential for the realisation of fundamental rights, equality and non-discrimination. The British Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that there were over 100,000 prosecutions for domestic abuse in 2015-16, the highest level ever recorded. Where gender was recorded, 92.1% of defendants were male, and 7.9% of defendants were female.
Specialist support services for women, such as refuges, are a lifeline for women and girls escaping domestic violence, but women’s domestic violence services are in crisis. Women’s services have seen their funding shrink rapidly since 2010, and one-third of local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services was already cut by 2012 and even more since. Can the Minister explain why funding is being cut from these vital services which do so much to help and support women and children at a time when they need it most?
I look forward to the Minister’s response, but before I sit down I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, on her recent marriage. I am sure that the whole House will join in giving her our best wishes. We wish her and her husband a happy and long life together.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today. The contributions have been fresh and very thoughtful. International Women’s Day is a time for coming together, and I really appreciate how many speakers have reached across social and political differences and recognised the work of other people. My noble friend Lady Seccombe mentioned this, and I pay tribute to her for her many contributions over the years in these annual debates.
The UK is an international leader in promoting gender equality, with many in this House and the other place working tirelessly to protect the absolute right of all young people, whether boys or girls, to follow the path and fulfil their potential, free from tired and outdated stereotypes and unnecessary barriers to progression. Achieving gender equality is by no means straightforward, and there is no silver bullet. It is a complex and challenging issue; the breadth of subjects that we have heard today attests to that, from women in prisons to women on boards, and from women in their role in the economy to women and their role in peace, and also the impact of pornography on girls and young women.
In responding, I have tried to group some of these issues by subject. Noble Lords may occasionally feel that I am bouncing around somewhat, for which I apologise. If I do not respond today, I shall write.
First, on the role of women in the economy, I thank my noble friend Lady Bottomley for raising important issues so early on in the debate in so many areas in the economy and beyond, such as the arts, and her celebration of so many successes, so far at least. It was an uplifting contribution, as was that of my noble friend Lady Brady, who highlighted why business must attract female talent. It was my noble friend Lady Redfern who reminded us of the paucity of female council leaders and the impact that that will have and the consequences for the northern powerhouse initiative.
I am proud that Britain ranks as one of the best places in Europe for female entrepreneurs. There are around 1.2 million SMEs in the UK that are majority women-led. These businesses contribute an estimated £110 billion to our economy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howells, who is understandably not in her place, raised the issue of the double discrimination of black women and their role in the economy. The Government take the matter of BME women’s employment very seriously indeed, which is why we launched the Ruby McGregor-Smith review to look at this—that is, the review of my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith. The review looked at race in the workplace and published its findings earlier this year. It found that the UK economy would benefit from a £24-billion-a-year boost if black and minority-ethnic people progressed in work at the same rate as their white counterparts. It revealed that people from BME backgrounds are still being held back in the workplace because of the colour of their skin, costing the UK economy the equivalent of 1.3% in GDP a year, which is completely unacceptable. We are therefore taking action on the report’s recommendations and setting up the Business Diversity and Inclusion Group, chaired by Margot James, which will bring together business leaders and organisations to co-ordinate action to remove barriers in the workplace and monitor employees’ progress.
Women on boards were mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ford, Lady Howells, Lady Goudie, Lady Massey and Lady Redfern—but, notably, definitely not mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bottomley. We know that companies with more diverse boards and senior executives can access a wider talent pool and better represent the society that they serve. That is why we as a Government are supporting and promoting the Hampton-Alexander review’s targets for one-third of FTSE 100 senior executive leaders and one-third of FTSE 350 board directors to be women by 2020. Currently over 23% on the boards of FTSE 350 companies are women. That is more than double what we had in 2011, just a few years ago. We have exceeded the target set by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, of 25% women on FTSE 100 boards: there are now 26%. We are well on the road; I think we can all see that. The ultimate destination, though, is not yet in sight. I was interested to hear the ideas of the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, on how improvements might be made.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, specifically mentioned the gender pay gap. I am very proud that this Government have delivered on our manifesto commitment to require large organisations to publish their gender and bonus pay-gap data. What gets measured gets managed—and what gets measured publicly gets managed even better. She went on to say that there are no penalties if action is not taken. I beg to differ. We believe that the risk of brand and reputational damage will support compliance once gender pay gaps are made public. Furthermore, failure to comply would be an unlawful act and fall within the existing enforcement powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission has, and will continue to receive, sufficient funds so that it can fulfil its role properly.
Turning from the economy to education, it is right that we talk about the education of girls across the world, as mentioned by my noble friends Lady Jenkin and Lady Manzoor. I am proud that the UK is a global leader in educating girls. Since 2010 the UK has supported 11.3 million children in primary and lower secondary school, which includes 5.3 million girls, and worked through global partners to train 380,000 teachers. In conflict-torn South Sudan, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, we have helped 170,000 girls get an education. In Afghanistan we have given over 300,000 girls access to school. In Kenya our work has given disabled girls the chance to attend a mainstream school for the first time. The UK will continue to improve girls’ access to education, by helping 11 million children gain a decent education in 2015-20 and supporting 6.5 million girls in school.
My noble friend Lady Bottomley made comments about higher education. We as a Government are committed to achieving gender equality in all areas of life, including academia. That is the logic behind the Athena SWAN charter, which was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in higher education and research. By being part of Athena SWAN, higher education institutions are committing to a progressive charter, adopting a commitment to gender equality within their policies, practices, action plans and culture. We encourage all higher education institutions to sign up to that. In schools and for girls and young women, this Government are leading the way—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, are ensuring that PSHE is mandatory in schools and in the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill.
The contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, was most interesting about the paradox of the education level of Muslim women versus their involvement in the economy. I hope that he will take forward his obvious passion for the subject and collaborate with others in the Muslim community to come up with some specific recommendations. I encourage the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, to contribute to any work that goes on. She also mentioned the Casey review. As we know, that was only recently published. The Government are considering the Casey review’s findings and recommendations very carefully, and will publish plans for tackling the issues raised very shortly.
On international matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, talked about the Government’s commitment to overseas aid spending. I confirm that the Government remain fully committed to spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid. This is enshrined in law. It is the goal of this Government, and specifically of the Secretary of State, Priti Patel, to make sure that they are completely focused on ensuring that, after detailed consideration, taxpayers’ funds are spent in the most effective way. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any further funding commitments in the future.
I wish to talk briefly about something mentioned earlier today. The UK is a leader in anti-corruption measures. Corruption has a devastating impact on the lives of women, men and children, particularly in developing countries. Only today, we discussed the Criminal Finances Bill, which has cross-party support and will further our efforts and those of our allies internationally.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke about sexual violence in conflict, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hussain. Sexual violence in conflict is something this Government are committed to ending. That is why DfID, the FCO and the MoD are working to expand the reach and implementation of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, focusing on Iraq and Syria in particular. The UK is committed to ending all violence against women. That is why we were instrumental in securing dedicated targets within the sustainable development goals on ending all forms of violence against women and girls. DfID doubled its programmes on violence against women and girls from 64 to 127 in 2016. In 2013, the UK made the largest-ever donor commitment to tackling FGM, with £35 million to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM over five years.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, referred to Kashmir. We recognise that there are human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir, including allegations of rape and sexual violence. Any allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. Perpetrators must be brought to justice.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, talked about women’s role in the peace process. The UK Government’s ambition is to put women and girls at the centre of all our efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, promote peace and stability and prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. In doing this we can support UK interests in stability and security more effectively. We all know that women are a vital part of conflict resolution. Evidence shows that women’s participation in peacebuilding increases the probability of violence ending within a year by 24%, and peace agreements are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women exert a strong influence. The UK’s work on women, peace and security is outlined in the tri-departmental national action plan. It brings together the UK’s diplomacy, development and defence efforts and provides a policy framework to ensure that the provisions of UNSCR 1325 are met.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson commented on CEDAW. I suspect that she will not be happy with my response. The UK has never put forward a candidate for the CEDAW committee. This is an issue that we keep under review and consider further each time there is an election for these positions. We are very committed to our responsibilities under CEDAW and will submit our periodic review to the UN this summer. This review will set out the progress we have made towards achieving gender equality since 2013, the year of our last review. I shall endeavour to press further, lest a more appropriate response be forthcoming.
The gag rule has been raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Sheehan. The UK firmly believes that supporting comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, through proven, evidence-based public health interventions, saves lives and supports prosperity. We will continue to work with all our partners—including Governments, the UNFPA and civil service partners—to deliver this. On the issue of safe abortion, the US and the UK are not likeminded. Research shows that restricting access to abortion services does not make abortions less common; it only makes them less safe. The UK will continue to show global health leadership by promoting and supporting comprehensive, evidence-based sexual and reproductive health and rights. We will keep our contribution to these services under review as the landscape changes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, mentioned funding for Palestinian refugees specifically. The UK is one of the largest donors to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides services to some 5 million Palestinian refugees, including 70% of the population of Gaza. This ongoing UK assistance supports the provision of basic services to refugees across the region, including in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The assistance is focused on support for the most vulnerable, including women and children.
On more domestic matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, talked about the report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee on how we will be able to improve the proportion of women elected to the House of Commons. The Government welcome the report from the WESC and are committed to improving opportunities for women in every workplace, including in the House of Commons. Parliament should be representative of the population we serve. We should take the opportunity to celebrate the progress that has been made. We have more women than ever in the House of Commons and, indeed, in your Lordships’ House. However, it is clear that more must be done. Tackling this issue will require a concerted effort from all political parties, as well as from the Government. The Government are therefore considering the committee’s recommendations carefully and will respond as soon as they can.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, talked about the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on trans people. Ensuring that transgender people are protected from discrimination and able to achieve their full potential is a priority for the Government. We are grateful to the committee for looking at this important issue and we responded to its recommendations in July 2016. Furthermore, we shall publish an update to the trans action plan in due course.
To further support transgender people in the UK, we have also committed to review the Gender Recognition Act 2004 with a view to demedicalising it, streamlining the process and improving gender identity services. NHS England is increasing spending from £26 million to £32 million this year and will run a national procurement of adult gender identity services in order to award new contracts in 2017. The NHS and others are developing a national workforce and training plan to reduce waiting times.
I turn to a contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, who talked about forced marriage. We believe that everyone should have the right to choose whom they marry—particularly me, clearly—as well as when they marry or if they marry at all. Stripping people of their choices and their choice to marry cannot be tolerated. That is why the Government are committed to ending the practice of forced marriage in the UK and overseas. We have established a dedicated Forced Marriage Unit, which supports people at risk of forced marriage. In 2015 alone, it provided advice in 1,000 unique cases. We will continue to give victims and potential victims of forced marriage and domestic violence the best possible support and protection.
Turning briefly to an area raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, we are aware that there is a need to increase the number of doctors who are trained to provide abortion treatment and care. The president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is leading a programme of work to address this issue, working with the Department of Health.
I turn, finally, to women in sport, a subject raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ford and Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. Sport can play a fantastic role in physical health and well-being, as well as bringing people together. There should be no barriers to participation, whether as a result of gender or disability. That is why Sport England has developed the This Girl Can campaign, which works to eliminate fear of judgment, to normalise women taking part in sport and physical activity, and to change perceptions of what sport is.
Baroness Heyhoe Flint was a fantastic athlete but also a champion of female participation in cricket and sport more generally, paving the way for many women who came after her. That is why I was very pleased to hear that the International Cricket Council had created an award in her honour to celebrate the best female cricketer each year.
I express my heartfelt thanks to all noble Lords who contributed today but, in particular, I thank the four noble Lords—five; I apologise—Lord Singh, Lord Hussain, Lord Sheikh, Lord Loomba and Lord Sherbourne, for participating, and I commend them on their bravery. I am, however, disappointed that more noble Lords of the male type were not able to join us today. I very much hope that, if I stand here in a year’s time, we will achieve 50:50 participation in the debate, if not in the numbers in your Lordships’ House. Women must not be excluded—but we cannot do it on our own.
This debate has demonstrated that progress has at times been hard won. It has also reminded us, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, my noble friend Lady Hodgson, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lady Jenkin noted, how fortunate we in our country are relative to so many women in the world.
The theme for this International Women’s Day, as my noble friend Lady Shields and other noble Lords noted, is “Be Bold for Change”. I finish by imploring Members of this House to use those words as a beacon to guide their extraordinary efforts in the future.
House adjourned at 6.28 pm.