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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.