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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 3:38 pm, 9th March 2017

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 11 January 1917 the conference agreed to consider the question of women suffrage by 18 votes to four and that they agreed that there should be some measure of women’s suffrage by 15 votes to six, but a Motion that it should be on the same terms as men was lost by 10 votes to 12. However, on 29 January he wrote:

“I made my proposition that vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, suffrage clause went forward!”.

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.