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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 2:53 pm, 9th March 2017

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 23 February 1917 a protest on International Women’s Day led to 12 days of revolt in Petrograd, formerly St Petersburg. On 2 March, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Russian revolution was on its way. As John Knox said back in the 16th century, beware “the Monstruous Regiment of Women”.