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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.