My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Berridge for securing this important debate. I too congratulate her and my noble friend Lady Sugg on their new roles. I welcome my noble friend Lord Ranger to the House and congratulate him on his maiden speech. What an incredible woman his mother sounded—left with eight children on her own in that situation. It makes us all think.
Before I begin, I will draw attention to my various roles listed in the register of interests.
While, as we have heard, there is still no country in the world with true gender equality, we should be particularly proud of what the UK has done to try to help women and girls by highlighting the importance of gender equality and female empowerment at home and internationally. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that this work will continue.
There is so much I could talk about—we have heard about so many issues today—but I will focus on two particularly important issues. Women are not a homogenous group. Here in the UK, single older women are one of the most marginalised groups—ignored and voiceless. They suffer double discrimination—they are old and they are female. Older women in the UK are seen as a problem and a cost when they should be viewed as a hidden asset of enormous benefit to our society. Women never retire from unpaid, mostly caring, work but remain active and able often into their ninth and tenth decades. They live, on average, seven years longer than men so that, by the age of 85, more than 75% of women who have been married are widowed. We have already heard today about the plight of widows. There are 5.4 million people aged 75 and above and 14,000 centenarians, with women vastly outnumbering men. Society classes 65-plus women as old when, in reality, they have, on average, more than 20 years still to live.
Older women contribute much economic benefit to the UK, but it is uncounted and unacknowledged. Many grandmothers help with childcare so that family members can go back to work, or care for their elderly husbands. In addition, older women are often active in their community, helping with charities and, dare I say, politics. They organise events and act as the glue in community cohesion. They nearly always work for free and with little appreciation. We need to do more to recognise the contribution of older women and help maximise their role in our society. Staying healthy, active and involved helps stave off loneliness and reduces depression and mental health problems such as dementia. We need to do more on earlier identification and intervention to keep people at home, leading a fuller life for longer.
It is often a shock to families to find that chronic conditions are not covered on the NHS. Others have touched on the issue of carers. Staying at home or in a care home can be incredibly expensive. I hope that the Government are seriously looking at assisting with this. It is not easy, but it is important. I hope that the Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge will help but, most of all, we need to change our approach and attitude to ensure that our elderly are more cherished in society and not ignored or put on the rubbish dump of life.
I should also like to draw the House’s attention to the present situation of women in Afghanistan. Forty years of conflict have disproportionately affected them, and it is still one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman. Domestic violence is incredibly high—some say over 85%. One in five girls gets married before the age of 15 and almost 50% are married by the age of 18. Many are still illiterate.
However, since 2001, progress has been made. Under the Taliban, there was a mantra that a woman’s place was in the home or in the grave. When they were in government, almost no girls went to school. Today, this has changed. There is equality in the constitution and, in spite of threats, many women in Afghanistan now take part in public life. There are Afghan women in their armed forces and the police. They are judges, , ambassadors, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, MPs and Ministers. There can be no doubt that long-term stability and prosperity in Afghanistan will be enormously aided by women being able to make a full contribution to business, political and civic life. There has been much in the news recently about the US Government having signed a peace process with the Taliban—but there is not a woman in sight.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking Security Council Resolution 1325. Women need to be included in the peace process. Peace cannot be built in a country by leaving half the population out. We have encouraged Afghan women to come forward. How are we going to protect them from the brutality of the Taliban, who often target and kill prominent females? Can the Minister reassure me that the UK Government will demand that women are included in any ongoing peace talks, thus ensuring that their rights are upheld and they can have their rightful say in Afghanistan’s future?
As others have highlighted, 2020 is a landmark year for gender equality. I hope that the UK Government will continue actively to support women and gender-equality agendas both at home and abroad. As Gloria Steinem said:
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves”.