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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 6:15 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, there is one area where women have never been the equal of men and I pray never will be, and that is in their propensity for physical violence and war-making. Wherever you look in the world, both past and present, and you see scenes of violence, it will be invariably be the men pulling the triggers and wielding the knives. By contrast, the women are seen cradling the bloodied bodies of their children in hospital or weeping over the graves of their loved ones. You might say that it was ever thus and the evolutionary psychologists would agree with you. They would point to innate characteristics which suggest that when a baby boy picks up a stick, it immediately becomes a weapon or a sword, and when a baby girl picks up a stick, it becomes a wand or a toy. They would say that this stems from the male role in most animal species to be aggressively defending territory and competing for hierarchy.

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has suggested that the male body is evolving slowly away from aggression, but while we wait for that to happen, the nature of modern warfare and conflict has changed much more quickly. There were times when men would disappear off into an open field or clearing and slug it out with their opponents, observing some basic rules of chivalry. Today, warfare has changed and now the battlegrounds are cities, the tools are aerial bombardments and the targets are homes, schools, hospitals and marketplaces. Women have become weapons of war, subject to horrific sexual violence. This has led a UN peacekeeping operations commander, Major General Patrick Cammaert, to observe:

“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.”

One has only to look at the carnage in places such as Syria and to contemplate whether the situation would be same if the leaders of Syria, Russia and Turkey were all female.

We need humility because this is not just a problem for other countries. The latest available figures for England and Wales show that men are responsible for 85% of all crime, 88% of violent crimes against the person, 90% of murders and 98% of all sexual violence that occurs. What can we do about it? Well, one thing would be to get more women into positions of real power. It is a core truth of development that women are less prone to initiate violent conflict, less corrupt, and tend to prioritise health and social care in development. In summary, women in development are the nearest thing you can get to a triple-word score. You just have to look at Bangladesh and Rwanda to see that that is the case.

How can we get more women into positions of real power? I have three suggestions for my noble friend on the Front Bench. The first is that I am delighted that she has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Girls’ Education. Some of the best development work I ever saw was through funding scholarships through Commonwealth funds and the Chevening Scholarship programme. Is there a case for an exclusively female scholarship fund that would seek to invest in leadership skills among females in the worst-performing countries in the Women, Peace and Security Index—which are, for the record, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Sudan and Chad: a kind of “Women2Win Goes Global”, if my noble friend Lady Jenkin will permit me to say that.

Secondly, we need to do more to divert male aggression down less destructive paths. This is not a new idea. In 776 BC, Iphitos, King of Elis, lamented the endless cycle of wars and violence in the Peloponnese and conceived a sporting games that would allow young men to channel their youthful aggression and achieve glory and respect from their peers without killing people. That led to the formation of the ancient Olympic Games. Here I declare an interest as a member of the International Olympic Truce Foundation board of the International Olympic Committee. My second suggestion is therefore that we invest more in competitive sport opportunities for men and boys in the worst-performing countries on the Women, Peace and Security index. This is consistent with the approach we take, for example, in promoting boxing clubs in England and Wales to tackle the growth in knife crime.

My third suggestion is to have more women in leadership roles nationally and internationally, and to lead by example. It is 75 years since the formation of the United Nations and we are still waiting for our first female UN Secretary-General, despite having extraordinarily able candidates—such as Amina Mohammed—to choose from. NATO has been in existence for 68 years and has had 13 Secretaries-General, all male, despite having eminently qualified deputies such as Rose Gottemoeller. Will my noble friend commit to the Government supporting only female candidates when these two roles next come up for appointment?

I am afraid that we are not doing much better here, as has been mentioned. We have had more female Prime Ministers than female Foreign Secretaries or female Secretaries of State for Defence. The office of Foreign Secretary was established in 1782. During that time, according to my calculations, there have been 86 male Foreign Secretaries and one female, Margaret Beckett. In only one of the 238 years of the office’s existence has there been a female Foreign Secretary at the helm. The record shows that no new wars were initiated during that year.

The Defence Secretary post was established in 1794 under the distinctly un-PC title of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. The UK Secretary of State for Defence has been run by men for 226 years of its existence, less 85 days. The 85 days were the entire tenure of my right honourable friend Penny Mordaunt, despite the fact that she is the daughter of a paratrooper and named after a battleship—HMS “Penelope”— represents Portsmouth and was a naval reservist and a former Minister of State for the Armed Forces. Contrast that with the leadership of DfID, which has been in existence for 23 years and has had 11 Secretaries of State, six of whom have been women. Fourteen of the 23 years have seen a female Secretary of State at the helm.

These are my calculations. Will my noble friend undertake for someone from the Government Equalities Office to write to me with their calculations and to add in the number of female Permanent Secretaries at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence—and, for that matter, Cabinet Secretaries? I assure her that this last task will not take very long at all. As I am manifestly bereft of any vested interest in such matters, I will then undertake to write to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Government Chief Whip to ask whether, as representatives of the party that has given our country both its female Prime Ministers, they could address these issues in future appointments by who I am glad to say remain Her Majesty’s Government.