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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.