My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this International Women’s Day debate—for the fourth year running, I think. International Women’s Day provides us with the perfect opportunity to come together, to celebrate the remarkable achievements of women and to commemorate the great progress we have made and continue to make. Around the world today, women and men will be marking this celebratory occasion in various ways. There will be events in local communities, discussions in places of work, arts performances in schools and debates across countries, much like the one taking place today in your Lordships’ House, and it is a privilege to be just one part of these celebrations.
We have come a long way in a short time and we should celebrate all that we have accomplished. Last year, in particular, was an outstanding year for women’s progress, and I want to highlight some of our incredible achievements. We allocated £5 million of funding to mark the centenary of voting rights for women. This money funded over 300 projects that raised awareness of this crucial milestone and encouraged more women, in particular, to participate in democracy, building a diverse political system that reflects the nation it serves.
For example, the Courage Calls event built on the Ask Her to Stand model, featuring workshops hosted by parliamentary experts and discussions with serving MPs, and providing help and guidance for 350 women to get on that crucial first rung of the political ladder. I hope to see some of the women who participated enter Parliament as sitting MPs one day.
There was the Centenary Cities fund, allocated to seven towns and cities to celebrate their suffrage history. These cities hosted a range of exciting projects to celebrate as well as remember those individuals who helped to make votes for women a reality. Let me give your Lordships a taste of what was on offer. In Manchester, we had cycle rides through history, touching on the lives of some of the women who made important contributions to the cause of women’s suffrage. In Nottingham we had banner-making workshops, encouraging people of all ages to celebrate the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. In Bristol we had the Black Women 100 event, which unearthed stories about the incredible women of colour who fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I know that in Leeds, Bolton, Leicester and London there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other events, which took place as part of the celebrations.
Of course, we had the statue of Millicent Fawcett—the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square—and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in my home city of Manchester. It was a huge privilege to be part of the unveiling, and what made it so special and so significant for me was the fact that my daughter was watching from the building opposite, where she works. I know she wished to work for her employer due to its proven track record on gender equality, which makes me incredibly proud of her. I am certain that all these statues will serve as a reminder to all us of the courage of our foremothers, and will inspire future generations of women and girls to come.
In November, we hosted Women MPs of the World. More than 100 female MPs from across the world participated, and we witnessed history as the House of Commons Chamber, for the first time ever, was filled solely with women. It was a herculean task to pull it off. I must pay tribute to the right honourable Member for Camberwell and Peckham. It started as her idea and evolved into a collaborative effort of two political parties, three government departments and three arm’s-length bodies to fly in around 100 female MPs from around the world to participate in receptions, plenary sessions and workshops here in Westminster. It demonstrated the power the House has when we all pull together.
Last year’s work has left a lasting legacy that will undoubtedly provide greater opportunities and influence for women in our society. But the fight for equality did not stop last year. We need to carry forward the momentum from the centenary year to make sure that our progress towards gender equality does not stall.
We know that inequality still persists across the world. Globally, one in three girls or women has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. Every two minutes a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Over 200 million women living in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation. In the UK, we know that women are much more likely to have time out for caring, with lasting impacts on pay and progression. Nearly 90% of those not working due to caring for home and family are women. The gender pay gap still stands at 17.9%. Until we have true economic, social and gender parity, we will never be equal.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”. With that in mind, I want to look to the future. I want to talk about what the Government are doing to ensure we have better balance in our society and how we are delivering for women and girls.
Yesterday, the Government published the refreshed violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out how we are going further and faster in our response to these terrible crimes. Much has changed in the three years since the Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy was published. We have a better understanding of the effects on victims and have seen increased public awareness through the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which is welcome.
The refreshed strategy will implement a review of the criminal justice response to rape and serious sexual violence, which is crucial to ensuring that victims and survivors see the justice they so desperately need. I welcome increased reporting of these crimes, which shows that more victims have the confidence to come forward, but we must ensure that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the response through the courts are as robust and effective as can be. We will also develop guidance for providers and commissioners on best practice in supporting LGBT victims of VAWG, as well as reviewing our national statement of expectations to ensure that VAWG services delivered locally are as effective as they can be. Sadly, violence is something that touches many of our lives. We must do all we can across government, working with statutory agencies and specialist third-sector organisations, to support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
Later this spring, we will publish our gender equality and economic empowerment strategy, setting out our plans to address the persistent gender-based barriers that women—and men—face across the country at every stage of their lives. The strategy will focus on four key themes: entry and progression in the workplace, especially for those far from the labour market or in low-paid, low-skilled work; optimal choice over parental leave and childcare; economic well-being in later life; and attitudes and social norms about the roles that men and women play.
My right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities shared her emerging thinking about the strategy with a wide range of stakeholders on Monday this week. She set out that a key theme will be tackling the financial fragility that impacts on some vulnerable women and girls. As a compelling example of this, she announced that she will be convening an expert cross-sectoral task force to find sustainable ways to address period poverty in the UK, along with UK aid support for projects tackling period poverty and stigma globally.
The gender pay gap reporting deadline for year two is less than a month away. Our world-leading legislation meant that, for the first time last year, over 10,000 employers reported their gender pay gap, providing an unprecedented level of transparency, driving board-level discussions and pushing employers to take real action to close the gap. In fact, Bloomberg liked our model so much it has integrated our key measures into its gender equality index for investors.
Reporting is just the start; it is crucial that employers use their gender pay gap data to identify the barriers to women’s recruitment and progression, and take action to break down these barriers. We had 100% compliance last year and we expect the same this year. We saw the gender pay gap fall to its lowest level ever of 17.9%, but it will take until 2052 at this rate—