My Lords, I too welcome this debate. It was great to listen to my noble friend Lady Berridge’s opening speech, and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Sugg on her new role as Special Envoy for Girls’ Education. She will be fab.
All women must thank each other for their roles in life, whether as mothers at home—they do not get the recognition that they should—carers for loved ones or city high-fliers. Instead of being negative, let us celebrate one another. Listening to such great speeches in your Lordships’ House, we could make a great encyclopaedia. We could be a force for women all over the world in the future. It is not constitutional, but it would be great to do a high-five at the end of this debate.
I feel privileged to take part in this debate and listen to noble Lords with great expertise and knowledge speaking from the heart. Above all, the dignity and respect that they show in speaking about such horrific topics is something to be proud of, because this is supporting equal rights for women. Working together is the only way to break down cultural mindsets and open doors.
We work in a great, historic building, yet at times the media ridicules it. History is very important. As one who loved history at school, I feel that, sadly, we now must fight for it. We must keep banging the drum for our history. Two years ago, I had the great privilege of listening to a speech by Helen Pankhurst, the great- granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. Although known for the Suffragette movement, we need to understand what those women went through at the hands of the prison guards who force-fed them while they were on hunger strike. They went through the pain, horror and trauma of hunger strike, only to be tube-fed and go through that cycle of pain, horror and trauma again. We must understand this, as they fought for our right to vote today.
At the same time that Helen Pankhurst spoke, at the Women of the Year event in Birmingham, there was a keynote speech from actresses Sally Lindsay, a northerner who is in “Coronation Street”. She spoke of her woes at being a woman in a man’s world and about not fitting into the beauty criteria. She calls herself “a gobby northerner”—that is why I like her—and, more importantly, she was very down to earth, but being a woman in the acting world is not as simple as it appears on the screen. She also mentioned her documentary, “Emmeline Pankhurst: Making of a Militant”. It struck me how she wanted to see Emmeline as a person. What turned a loving mother into a militant general leading an army of women who changed the face of Britain? This great suffragette was ridiculed relentlessly, but when printed word for word, what she said is amazing, and would be seen today as a good PR coup.
Life then was so challenging, yet today, even with all our home comforts, women are still guilt-ridden, still being judged as bad role models when not seen to be doing what they are supposed to do. Taking politics out of this, Emmeline was a warrior and an activist and, never more so than now, her words are important as we see the #MeToo movement in America.
My noble friend Lady Seccombe’s speech about toilets leads me to say that, as a Mancunian, I was amazed that in Manchester and other cities there were once no women’s toilets because it was frowned upon for women to be alone. If they were found alone, it was completely acceptable for the local police—any man, in fact—to assume that they were prostitutes and search them. I think that is illegal sexual abuse today. We speak of our high streets failing. Women’s toilets only came into existence when shops appeared, and they were designed by men. That is why, to this day, there are queues for women’s toilets wherever we go but not for men’s. Do not get me started on the prices of women’s tights and men’s socks; equality is still to come there.
People say that I am gutsy and inspiring, considering what my family and I suffered 12 years ago. While I truly am grateful, I am embarrassed at the same time: as a mother of three daughters, this was the only avenue I could take. It was not the one I personally wanted, because a duvet and a bottle of pills looked more inviting, given what I was going through. Over the years I have met many inspiring people—people who have been traumatised or abused, who have sought help and not found it but have given help to the most vulnerable. Two years ago, I was proud to chair the international Safeguarding Summit, with the support of the Minister and my noble friend Lord Bates, who is behind me and to whom I say, “high-five”. Listening to survivors of sexual abuse in our aid sector made me see another world. The films of their stories have never left me. As a mother, it is hard to think of a mother whose child is so hungry that she is raped to give that child a custard cream. What a society we live in.
I had the privilege of attending the UN a year later. I was invited by the victims’ rights advocate, Jane Connors, to meet other rapporteurs—I love all these titles— and hear what happens on our global stage. I was delighted, because it was the end of my term as Victims’ Commissioner. It is appalling that we talk about technology when that technology is used to kill, rape and abuse people.
Can the Minister ensure in her new role that no mother needs to be raped to feed her child? I know only too well that life is not a practice run. Life is precious, and it can change in seconds. I woke up a wife and went to bed that night a widow. I am proud of the woman I am, here in your Lordships’ House, and I am very grateful to colleagues for their friendship. I went through hell to become that woman, standing here. My three daughters, Zoe, Danielle and Amy, my heroines, need to know that they are strong women because a strong woman raised them.