Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:51 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:51 pm, 11th March 2020

I warmly congratulate Theo Clarke on securing this debate. She is clearly very experienced and committed to the issues she has raised, and it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I also enjoyed listening to Wendy Chamberlain. There is interesting work going on around the world. There are lots of challenges and lots of ideas, and it is good to know that so many of us are so committed.

Fundamental to all this is education. Unless the UK Government seriously address inequalities in work and education in their role as Commonwealth chair-in-office, little progress will be made on business and investment. There is little time to make the impact we should be making. The UK has been Commonwealth chair-in-office for a year and a half; it has only six months left. The UK Government have been fairly slow in pushing for positive social change in the Commonwealth, and I hope we do not waste those precious final months. That is not to say that there are not positives or that the UK does not play any part in that positive progress—it would be wrong to claim that—but are we doing enough?

Let me start with the positives. From 2017, when I lost my seat, to 2019, I spent quite a bit of time working overseas. I did a lot of work in the Gambia, which is a Commonwealth member, on behalf of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID. I therefore know from first-hand experience that there is truly meaningful work going on that is funded by the UK. I would love to say more about my experience, particularly in the Gambia, but that is perhaps for another day.

Let me also acknowledge some of the progress that women have made in the Commonwealth. First, a girl is as likely as a boy—in some countries more likely—to attend primary school. That is an improvement. Secondly, in the Parliaments of 13 Commonwealth countries, 30% or more of members are women. Thirdly, in most countries, women can now expect to outlive men.

However, it remains the case—I do not put this at the door of the UK Government; it is for all of us across the world to resolve—that only one in five Commonwealth parliamentarians is a woman. That means four in five are men. Only seven of every 10 girls attend secondary school. Thirty-two countries do not mandate equal pay for work of equal value, 19 do not have laws prohibiting early marriage, and 89% of Commonwealth countries have at least one piece of legislation on the books that holds women back economically in terms of starting or growing a business. That is unacceptable, and it must be addressed before any real economic progress can be made.

On early marriage, as it is the week of International Women’s Day, I want to pay tribute to a truly inspirational woman, who is a tribal chief in Malawi. Since being appointed a few years ago, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto has annulled more than 1,000 child marriages and sent all the girls back to school. She is in charge of 551 village head men—they are all men. If one of them allows a child to be married, she dismisses him immediately—zero tolerance. That is why she is known in Malawi as the marriage terminator.

I spent some time in Malawi during recess. I went with Oxfam to two villages, where we met girls who had been married and had babies as children, and had dropped out of school. When they were encouraged to return, they said they could not because they had to breastfeed their babies and school was too far away. Oxfam gave them bicycles so they could go to school, cycle home at lunch time to feed their babies, and return to school. They no longer have to choose between their children and the education they need to create better lives for themselves.

Even if every country sorted out the inequality in education, the well-documented relationship between trade and gender would remain. Women are disproportionately affected by trade policy decisions, particularly in developing countries, as we have heard. As the UK leaves the European Union and forms its own independent trade policy, the Government have an opportunity to show leadership and develop a truly gender-responsive approach to trade policy. I hope they make the most of that opportunity.