Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:46 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:46 pm, 11th March 2020

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

I congratulate Theo Clarke on securing this debate. I am impressed at how the topic manages to combine both Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day.

This year, 2020, marks the start of the decade of delivery of the sustainable development goals, which affect the whole of the Commonwealth and beyond. I am sporting my SDG badge to highlight that important commitment, and I hope that colleagues across the House support it too. Recently, I found another way to support the global goals: having them as a screensaver on my mobile phone. By doing so, I earn money that I can donate to my chosen goal. I urge other Members to do likewise—to literally be the small change that we want to see in the world. The two goals that are particularly appropriate for this debate are SDG 5, on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and SDG 8, on full and productive employment and decent work for all.

As we approach the Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda, including that of the Commonwealth Business Forum, it is important to ensure that women’s voices are heard in those important debates. Too often, such discussions are dominated by men. As a result, not only is no action taken on issues that affect women, but those issues are not even on the agenda. Open trading arrangements and the reduction of border barriers between countries can be of particular benefit to small women traders. They can promote women’s economic empowerment, as well as fit with our commitment to SDG 5.

I want to focus on the topic of period poverty. First, there is an issue of opportunity. Someone who does not have access to sanitary products will miss out on opportunities to participate in school or work. According to ActionAid, one in 10 girls in Africa misses school because they do not have access to sanitary products, or because there are not safe, private toilets to use at school. Every time a girl misses school owing to period poverty, an opportunity is denied, resulting in lower educational attainment and fewer chances to make an economic contribution through future employment. It is important not to underestimate the scale of that problem in the Commonwealth. According to ActionAid, in Kenya alone 50% of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary products, and 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women cannot afford period products.

Despite those challenges, alleviating period poverty can in itself create business opportunities for women across the Commonwealth. Lilypads is a social enterprise that works domestically and internationally. It has developed a reusable pad, which it manufactures in Nairobi, Kenya. Part of its mission is to develop low-cost pads, which can be supplied individually. Crucially, Lilypads helps to train women, who can sell the sanitary items in their communities as a way of generating income. It is in the business of creating opportunities for women. Culturally, it supports conversations that prevent menstruation from being a topic that simply cannot be discussed. Period poverty is experienced by women all over the world. I am pleased that steps are being taken both domestically and globally to eradicate it. Whether in Cupar or Kenya, Berwick or Botswana, no woman should be prevented from participating fully in her community by her inability to access sanitary products.

We must reflect on our domestic approach and adjust our international approach, and the same is true in reverse. Our commitment to the global goals does not just mean changing how we look at development work; it means changing our perspective and our policies at home too. The goals apply here. That is particularly relevant to SDG 5. This is not just about looking at what we do domestically and expanding it internationally; it is about looking at what we do internationally and replicating that domestically where appropriate.

Last year, Penny Mordaunt committed the Government to helping to eradicate period poverty worldwide by 2030. I am sure Members across the House will agree that that is a laudable aim, but a year is a long time in politics—especially this last year, in which we have had, as of today, one Budget, two Prime Ministers, three Chancellors and four Secretaries of State for International Development. Last week, I presented a Bill on period poverty, the purpose of which is to require the new Secretary of State to report to the House on progress on the 2030 commitments, to ensure that they do not drop off her agenda. I am pleased that my Bill was sponsored by hon. Members from across the House, including the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), alongside my six female Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I urge the Minister to update us on the progress that is being made towards the achievement of the goals and the UK’s involvement in that. There is a clear and obvious case that eradicating period poverty is, in and of itself, a worthy end towards which the UK should continue to make an important contribution. Women who are currently excluded from trade and investment opportunities in the Commonwealth will surely benefit.