International Women's Day

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:29 pm on 5th March 2009.

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Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 5:29 pm, 5th March 2009

I congratulate Cathy Peattie on bringing this important debate to the Parliament. International women's day is celebrated worldwide and provides a welcome and necessary opportunity to highlight and raise awareness about women's issues, in their varying complexity.

The motion mentions, among other things, women's representation and welfare as aspects of women's rights that still need to be addressed. Who could doubt the validity of that statement, given the incidence of trafficking, which has been described as the new slave trade? Trafficking involves predominantly women, but also children, in what has become a growth industry both globally and on an intrastate basis. The last point is worth emphasising and was effectively brought home to me when I attended the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference on trafficking in London. There is a common misconception that trafficking takes place exclusively between states, but in reality it is also a thriving domestic trade. If today's debate succeeds in making people in general more conscious of and vigilant about the abuses that are being perpetrated on their doorstep, it will have been worth while for that reason alone.

Violence against women is a key welfare issue. In that area, at least, there is some small glimmer of optimism, as the subject is at last receiving the attention that it merits, through domestic violence awareness-raising campaigns such as the highly successful breaking the circle of violence campaign that was launched just before Christmas in the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, in conjunction with Strathclyde Police, North Lanarkshire Council, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and Scottish Women's Aid. The campaign, which ended recently, has had remarkable results in encouraging the reporting of abuse and educating the public about the insidious, complex and manipulative nature of domestic violence, which has such a devastating impact on both the victims and the children involved.

Also to be welcomed are the provisions of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill, which is being considered by the Justice Committee and will reform the law on rape. The bill's provisions bring clarity to the concept of reasonable belief of consent, for example. It is to be hoped that, in doing so, they will help to prevent some of the travesties that take place in courtrooms, where the victim often feels that she, not the perpetrator, is on trial.

I turn to the other aspects of the motion. The first is the gender pay gap, which—like death and taxes—seems always to be with us. When scrutinising the 2009-10 Scottish Government draft budget, the Equal Opportunities Committee focused on the issue of equal pay in local government and the escalating cost—already running into hundreds of millions of pounds—of the 40,000 outstanding cases. Oral evidence that was taken recently from Audit Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has been relayed to the Local Government and Communities Committee, which is to pursue the issue.

Meanwhile, the Equal Opportunities Committee has produced guidelines to help committees mainstream equal opportunities in their work across the equality strands, including gender. Among other things, the guidance suggests ways in which committees could scrutinise the Scottish Government's approach to equality impact assessment and its responsibility under the public sector equalities duties. The guidance was discussed recently by the Conveners Group, which brings it another step closer to adoption.

Finally, it is hoped that the Conveners Group's agreement to the Equal Opportunities Committee's request to commission research into sexualised goods aimed at children will result in useful material and evidence to help us get to grips with the root causes of low esteem in girls.

As the motion indicates, many aspects of women's rights are still to be addressed. The various events that are planned to celebrate international women's day will help in that process.