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UN Women

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

I explain for the benefit of the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I pass on the recommendation of the Backbench Business Committee that the Member opening this debate, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), whom I shall call in a moment, should speak for no more than 15 minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House recognises that around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender; notes that underlying inequality between men and women is the driving force that results in 70 per cent. of the world’s poor being female; recognises that empowering women will drive progress towards all the Millennium Development Goals; welcomes the launch of UN Women, the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, on 1 January 2011; recognises that the agency is an example of UN reform to improve efficiency and co-ordination; and calls on the Government to provide support to the new agency to ensure it has the resources required to end the discrimination that keeps millions of women in poverty.

May I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee, and in particular its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for choosing to hold this debate in the week in which we celebrate not only international women’s day, but the centenary of the first international women’s day? Some Members of this House and people further afield have questioned the need for this debate, and have suggested that there is not much interest in the subject. The fact that you, Mr Speaker, have put a time limit of eight minutes on speeches, and the number of Members I see in the Chamber prove simply and beyond doubt that those people are wrong. We need this debate. I am the first to say that we will not change the world by having a debate in the House of Commons, but it is our duty to ensure that the issues before us are kept high on the political agenda in the United Kingdom and across the world. That is what I hope this debate will achieve.

In 1911, on the first international women’s day, women in Britain were still fighting for basic rights, including the right to vote, as we all know. I like to think that if I were 100 years older, I would have been an ardent suffragette, although I am pretty sure that I would not have been an ardent socialist suffragette. I would have needed my own movement to separate the two. I am sure that every Member in the Chamber this afternoon, and not just the women, would have supported the suffragist movement.

I was privileged in New York three years ago to be one of the UK Parliament’s representatives to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. When I met and listened to the presentations of women from all over the world, it struck me forcefully that the problems that our great-grandmothers struggled with at the time of the first international women’s day a century ago are still faced by most—not some, but most—women across the world today. As the motion states,

“around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender”.

I welcome the setting up of UN Women, which is properly called the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I congratulate our Government on their support, particularly through transitional funding, for the new organisation. We all know that the United Nations has not always been the most efficient of organisations, but we must recognise that the new agency is an example of UN reform and is intended to improve efficiency and co-ordination. I welcome the Government’s approach to that aspect of the UN. The agency will not be just a talking shop. It is through empowering women that we, as an international community, will drive progress on all the millennium development goals, which everyone in this House supports.

I applaud the appointment of Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, as the first executive director of UN Women. Most Members will agree with what she said when the agency was launched:

“Think of how much more we can do once women are fully empowered as active agents of change and progress within their societies”.

She said:

“My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can do.”

[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I heard a little, “Hear, hear.” [Hon. Members: “Hear! Hear!”] Thank you very much. Every woman, and indeed most men, in this House will agree with that statement—there is no limit to what women can do. To put joking aside, I never say that women can do everything that men can do.

I will be careful in my remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker, to respect the rules on parliamentary language. As I heard Jenni Murray, the excellent presenter of “Woman’s Hour” on the BBC, say earlier this week, “I will be very sparing in my use of the F-word. I will try very hard not to mention feminism.” [Interruption.] I am being goaded into mentioning feminism. I will mention it and I will also mention equality. However, although the concepts of feminism and equality are good to talk about, they are not what this debate, the motion and our aims are really about. I prefer to talk about empowerment. The point of empowering women, rather than just helping them or saying that they ought to be equal, is that doing so and giving them the practical skills that they need can make a difference in the societies in which they live and operate. It may come as a surprise to know that women earn only 10% of the world’s income, even though they work two thirds of the world’s working hours—and I bet that does not include looking after the children. Evidence shows that when women earn and manage their own money, they are more likely than men to spend it on educating and feeding their children.

I am not being narrow-minded and concentrating on feminism, and I do not argue that men have got everything wrong and that women can put it all right, but I do argue that wasting the potential skills and abilities of half the world’s population because of discrimination is simply appalling. If we really want to help developing nations, as well as continuing to help our nation, Europe and the western world, we must recognise the role of women.

I do not have time to develop all the details of the work that has to be done, but the House knows them well and many speakers will develop these points this afternoon. We have to tackle violence against women in all its forms, here in our own country and especially across the world and the horror of such violence in war zones. We have to tackle trafficking, forced labour, the fact that women are deprived of education, the fact that women need to control their own fertility to have any chance of empowerment or being able to contribute to their society, and the fact that women’s health is ignored in so many parts of the world. There is also, of course, the continued fight for democratic representation. I look forward to hearing what many colleagues will say on those and other subjects this afternoon.

I have been talking about women across the world, but let us not pretend that we have conquered the problems here in Britain. We can look around us, because 22% of MPs are women. I am sure other Members will agree that when we meet people at UN meetings and other international gatherings, they are astounded to hear that in Britain, just over a fifth of Members of our precious and much-respected House of Commons are women.

My hon. Friend is sounding a bit like a vicar we used to have when I was a child, who constantly used to blame those who were in church for those who were not.

My experience, having sat on a selection committee, is that some of the people who are hardest about not selecting women candidates for Parliament are, perversely, women on selection committees.

Absolutely right; my hon. Friend is totally correct. We have all been through it, and I have seen it. I know that it happens in our party, and I hear anecdotally that it does in other parties, too. He is also right to say that those in church are blamed for those who are not there. We need more women to come forward to be part of the democratic process, but we need to make it possible for them to do so. If I were to cover the points that I have made many times before on that subject, I would take far more than the five minutes still left to me, but I hope that other Members will address it this afternoon.

We have a long way to go, but I also say to the House—and I mean it—that the percentage of women in the House is not what really matters. What matters is making our voices heard when we are here. What matters is punching above our weight, and let us face it, our weight is generally much lower than that of our male colleagues. There is now a critical mass of women in this place that there was not when I first came here 14 years ago, and it is up to us to make our voices heard. That is exactly what we are doing this afternoon.

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is an important, subtle difference between working in an environment that is predominantly male and working in one that is male-dominated?

The hon. Lady puts it very well. The environment in which we work is both predominantly male and male-dominated, but we might not be able to change the former as quickly as we can change the latter by making our voices heard. I am pleased to see that so many women and men are here to do so this afternoon.

If our democratic deficit is bad, the deficit is even worse in the business world. I draw the attention of the House to Lord Davies’s excellent recent report, which identifies the loss to our economy because so few women are on the boards of UK companies. Once again, we cannot insist on their being there, but we can create the conditions that make it possible for them to live up to their aspirations and the aspirations that we as a society have for women.

At the same time, two thirds of low-paid workers in Britain today are women, and across the country, two women die every week as a result of domestic violence. Throughout the work force, women still earn an average of 16% less than men. It is not by changing the law that we can change those things and the others that are wrong, but by changing the attitudes of society. That is why it is important that we talk about these matters in the Chamber.

The great tragedy of the lack of women’s representation, the lack of women in top places in industry and the lack of women doing the jobs that they could be doing is that it is a waste to our economy and our society. The pursuit of equality is not just a philosophical end. If we take the empowerment of women seriously, then across the world, and especially in developing countries where it is so desperately needed, we must give women the chance of good health and good education, to develop skills and contribute to the work force, and to give their children the health and education that will strengthen future generations. If we empower women, we will let them teach their children that co-operating, living together in peace and respecting other people is a more worthy ideal than the old-fashioned way of fighting for territory and proving oneself the stronger man.

By empowering women, we will be able to instil in future generations the idea that the most important goal is respect for fellow human beings and basic human rights. We have come a long way on basic human rights. We believe—let us take this message to developing countries, too—that people should respect their fellow human beings and accord them the same rights that they would wish to have themselves. No matter what a person’s colour, what country they come from, what their religion is, what they look like or what they sound like, we would wish to accord them equality.

As we celebrate international women’s day, and as we ensure that we keep all those issues high on the political agenda, what chance do we have as a society, and further afield across the world, of according basic human rights and human dignity to the world’s minorities if we cannot start by according those rights and that basic dignity to half the world’s population who happen to be women?

I am pleased that we are able to have this debate, and I look forward to Members examining in greater detail the issues that I have raised. I thank the House for coming together this afternoon to ensure that those of us who are privileged women in a developed society can speak up for our sisters across the world who need our help.

I can honestly say that it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. I wish to speak about two issues: the suggestion in the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that a women and equalities audit Committee should be established in the House, and what is happening to women in Egypt.

The common thread is CEDAW, the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Its custodian is UN Women, the new body led, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, by the remarkable woman who was the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. CEDAW is a legally binding international agreement, and by ratifying it, states commit themselves to reporting to the CEDAW committee on a periodic basis.

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I were appointed as Labour’s first Ministers for Women in 1997, we found the CEDAW agenda had become invisible. However, over the years, Labour Ministers for Women and women Back Benchers ensured that progress was made, culminating in the Equality Act 2010, which was achieved through the dogged determination of Labour’s deputy leader.

The UK’s last periodic report to CEDAW runs to 164 pages, detailing the groundbreaking changes made by the Labour Government to advance women’s equality, yet we always knew that it was not enough to have progressive ideas and Ministers for Women driving forward legislation. We always argued that all Government Departments must pass the women and equalities test of whether they were discriminating. In the Equality Act 2006, we introduced the gender equality duty on all British public authorities, but there was no specific role for Parliament. It is time that Parliament is given the power to scrutinise the Government on women and equalities.

The current Government’s reckless economic policies deserve particular scrutiny. The Treasury attempted to produce an equalities impact assessment of its spending decisions, but the Women’s Budget Group says:

“The Treasury provides almost no quantitative data on how men and women will be affected…and excludes most aspects of the Spending Review from its analysis”.

The WBG’s analysis finds that the Government’s programmes represent

“an immense reduction in the standard of living and financial independence of millions of women, and a reversal in progress made towards gender equality.”

Most damningly of all, the WBG argues that

“the Coalition is happy to restore an outdated ‘male breadwinner, dependent female carer’ model of family life”.

Surely no women Members came to the House to promote such a return to the 1950s, yet Parliament does not have the tools and resources to test those claims. Only a new Select Committee, in the form of an audit Committee, could hold this and later Governments to account on women and equalities. I hope the House seriously considers this proposal.

Let me turn to events abroad. So often, women are the victims of wars that they never started, and too often excluded from the peace they helped to win. After 9/11, I worked with Afghan women and went to Kabul on two occasions. I have never met braver women, and their struggle is far from over. That same struggle now faces the women of the middle east. In Tunisia and Egypt, they have had a phenomenal victory, but they know that it is only the beginning. All too soon, the usual male patterns are emerging. Sharon Otterman, reporting on Egypt in the International Herald Tribune, stated:

“The panel of eight legal experts appointed by the military authorities to review the constitution did not include a single woman.”

I saw that again and again in Afghanistan—at every stage efforts were made to exclude women, and to explain that now was not the time for women to demand their rights. However, rights postponed are rights denied.

I share the right hon. Lady’s concern at the lack of women’s voices in the creation of the new structures in Egypt and at the fact that there are no female experts on the constitutional committee. More worryingly, the new draft rules on who can lead the country assume that the President will always be male, by saying that Presidents must not be married to a foreign wife.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—that is a shocking indictment of what is happening, and as I said, it is all too typical.

The good thing is that women in Egypt are fighting back. A coalition of no fewer than 63 women’s groups started a petition to include a female lawyer on that constitutional review. In the past few days I have been in touch with women activists in Cairo. Mozn Hassan, who runs Nazra, told me that women, especially young women, from all classes and political ideologies were involved in the revolution. Breaking out of their traditional roles, they protested, led human rights groups, helped injured people and protected checkpoints. They succeeded in creating public space for women and a dialogue between women and men.

Nazra is very clear about its future direction. It sees its task as a group of women activists to ensure that its advocacy and grass-roots work is political, and part of the political demands being made in Egypt. Social mobilisation is one of its main tasks, and it is working hard to ensure women’s rights are a priority in the transition. Guaranteeing gender mainstreaming in the constitution, to which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred, is one of its immediate demands.

I want to give the last word today to Nawal El Saadawi, the world renowned writer and feminist, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the 1980s. Nawal has inspired generations of Egyptians. In 1972 she lost her job in the Egyptian Ministry of Health because of her book, “Women and Sex”, which argued against female genital mutilation. She was later imprisoned and put on trial several times. She spearheaded changes to the law on children and the banning of female genital mutilation in 2008.

Nawal was part of the coalition that organised the women’s protest on international women’s day, and I heard from her that evening. She appealed for our support for global and local solidarity for women and men against all types of injustices and inequalities in the world—between countries, races, classes, sexes and religions. She told me that

“Almost half of Egyptians, mainly women, live in extreme poverty”.

Nawal knows better than most of the colonial exploitation and military aggression against women and men in the countries of the middle east. After five decades of personal struggle she is still determined to fight for equality and democracy in Egypt. I hope the House pays tribute to her and all women of the middle east, and indeed the world, who still campaign, on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day, for equality, justice and democracy.

I echo the thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring time in the Chamber for this debate, and particularly thank its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), and the other hon. Lady on the Committee, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). I understand that the decision to hold this debate today is seen by some as somewhat controversial, but the decision is nevertheless the right one. I shall speak about the international context, including the new UN agency, UN Women, and the role of women in conflict and foreign affairs, and briefly about the amendment.

The arrival of UN Women represents an historic opportunity to transform the lives of women and girls across the world, who are too often affected by discrimination and injustice. The aims—rightly—are far reaching, ambitious and unprecedented. Transforming attitudes at the highest levels of government that exclude women from the top global decision-making tables is perhaps one of its biggest challenges, and indeed one of the most important. By addressing the previous gaps and inadequacies of the UN system, UN Women has the potential to facilitate much stronger and more systematic engagement with women’s rights. The creation of UN Women is a recognition that gender is as important as any other development issue, and represents a promise to drive progress.

I am pleased that the Government and the Opposition have supported the agency from its inception, because Britain can in that way present a united case internationally. However, it is important that that support is matched with appropriate levels of financial support and practical help. Funding is a huge challenge—it cannot be overestimated—for UN Women: $500 million is needed to run the programme in the first year alone, followed by at least $1 billion a year after that to enable it to have an operational presence on the ground. The Department for International Development’s review of multilateral aid published just last week recognised that UNIFEM had failed owing to constrained resources. With only 230 staff, UN Women has inherited UNIFEM’s under-resourced infrastructure. We do not want to set up an organisation to fail from the start, so ensuring that this issue is addressed is vital.

The UK’s response is very important. Many other countries are deferring their announcements and pledges until the UK has said what we will do.

Although on the face of it the UK Government’s position—to defer a decision until the action and strategic plan have been confirmed—seems reasonable, is there not a concern that in order to show leadership, we have to give stronger commitments ahead of that strategic plan to allow this to be developed more coherently?

We need to do both. We need to make clear our commitment and offer every possible assistance in the swift development of the strategic plan. One of the challenges facing UN Women is to create a range of indicators that can monitor properly what progress is being made on women, peace and security goals. Under the current structure, that will take two years, but that is too long. I know that DFID Ministers have agreed with that, so anything that the Government can do to assist in driving this forward more quickly would be helpful. This is money well spent. Last year’s World Economic Forum global gender report draws a clear correlation: countries with greater gender equality have more competitive economies that grow faster. We need to be very robust about that.

We have moved away from a situation in which war and conflict were about engagement between two sets of armed forces fighting on a particular location. Wars today are characterised by violence directed against citizens and innocent people, particularly women and girls, who get caught up in fighting and unrest. It is important to recognise the role of women not only as victims within conflict, but in reaching across battle lines to call for peace. Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, commented:

“Women’s contribution to the search for durable peace is remarkable, unparalleled, but most often overlooked”.

In the past 25 years, only one in 40 peace agreement signatories was a woman. UN Security Council resolution 1325, in 2000, captured the essence of women’s contribution to peace. It calls on the international community to live up to its responsibility to include women in conflict prevention, peacebuilding and reconstruction, while protecting human rights during conflict and preventing gender-based violence. As a result of its sister resolution, 1888, we welcome the appointment of the first special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict, Margot Wallstrom, and I understand that she was recently in Parliament and that many Members were able to meet her. She is now leading the investigation into the shocking sexual violence that took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Widespread violence against women and girls continues to fuel conflict and insecurity. It is often framed as unrelated to gender-based violence during peacetime, as if war happens and suddenly this violence erupts. Actually, however, the only difference is the degree to which perpetrators can act with impunity during war owing to the absence of the rule of law. All too often, this violence has been bubbling under the surface during the apparent peace. A shocking statistic is that 87% of Afghan women experience domestic violence and live with that constant insecurity. That only extends the cycle of conflict, violence and marginalisation, so it is important to deal with violence against women not only in conflict, but in apparent peacetime.

The UK was one of the first countries to develop a national action plan on implementing resolution 1325, but we still need to ensure that we have a coherent national plan and policy looking at the issues of women, peace and security.

I am in full agreement with everything that the hon. Lady says. Does she agree that one of the worst forms of violence against women is trafficking, the majority of victims of which are women being trafficked into sex slavery? Does she think that it would be a good idea to sign the EU directive against trafficking?

There was an exchange about that during Women and Equalities questions. When in opposition, I was one of those arguing strongly for the previous Government to sign the directive, so I would welcome it if this Government could do so, and I look forward to their announcement on the matter with great interest.

Trafficking is clearly a very important issue. However, I would not say that it is one of the worst examples of violence against women. I think that day-to-day violence against women, particularly by partners and husbands, which affects women not just internationally but in this country, is often ignored or swept under the carpet, so I welcome the Government’s plan to raise, and campaign on, sexual consent issues in order to deal with those problems, particularly among teenagers. The role of the education system cannot be overestimated. In particular, I know that there is a move within the Government not to require schools to adopt as mandatory any parts of the curriculum that are not absolutely necessary. I would argue that sex and relationships education, particularly emphasising the importance of sexual consent, is vital and should be in the education system.

The hon. Lady is highlighting the significant issues in our country. Between 2009 and 2010, 74,000 cases of domestic violence in this country were prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service. We need to ensure, therefore, that we change people’s attitudes towards prevention, rather than simply looking at the final outcome.

I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend says.

I have heard expressed the view that women’s rights are an add-on or a luxury—something to consider when we have dealt with everything else—and that they are a bit fluffy and a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but that they might not always be possible. I hear that frequently in discussions in the House on issues such as Afghanistan. People say, “Well, we didn’t go in there to sort out equality for women.” I do not think this is a luxury only possible in developed and western societies, however, and I disagree that it is paternalistic or imperialist to impose the UK’s value system on countries with different cultures. It is pragmatic and practical—and, in my view, it also happens to be morally right. However, it is right even if we look only at the pragmatics.

On economics, if a country does not educate half its population, it will lose out on talent and will not have as much economic development. Women are an integral part of building a lasting peace. I welcome what Hillary Clinton has been doing on this as Secretary of State by unashamedly putting women and girls back on the foreign policy agenda as a matter of urgent priority, rather than a sideline issue. In her first five months in office, the word “woman” was mentioned 450 times in her speeches. It is refreshing to hear that at such a high level. I know, from speaking to Ministers in this country, of their clear commitment to the issue, and I urge them to continue in that, despite some of the voices trying to suggest that this is a fringe issue. Whether in Afghanistan, Egypt—as we have discussed—Iraq or Tunisia, involving and empowering women is part of creating successful, stable and economically prosperous societies.

I do not have time to deal with the amendment in detail. However, I believe that a women and equalities audit committee would enable us to question Ministers on exactly those things, and produce reports to ensure that the issue is high on the agenda.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), with whom I agree about resourcing UN Women. I met recently representatives of Voluntary Service Overseas who discussed UN Women with me. They emphasised how the new agency was created in response to a concern that the UN system was failing women.

Very little is being asked of the UK Government in global economic terms. The UK, which was crucial in establishing the agency, is being asked to commit £21 million in annual core funding—just 0.2% of the UK’s overseas aid budget—to UN Women. UN Women is now in a most precarious and parlous position. The Government have stated that one of the Department for International Development’s six priorities is to lead international action to improve the lives of women and girls. As my friends in VSO say, therefore, the Government should step up to the mark and commit the funds. Without even the most minimal of financial input to keep it going, UN Women will continue to lack not only the staff, but the presence necessary to reach out to, and work with, women across the globe.

We know that many other countries are looking to the UK for leadership on UN Women, owing to our pivotal role in setting it up. In this case, why not make that a cause of great pride, by turning our commitment to gender equality into something concrete? I look forward to hearing the latest from the Minister on that, and I commend the Government on their support for the agency.

When I discussed international women’s day with my senior parliamentary assistant Debbie Fenn recently, she referred me to a book written in the early 1980s, “The Triple Struggle”, a compilation of the experiences of Latin American peasant women in their own words, put together by Audrey Bronstein. The “triple struggle” referred to the three major ways in which those women experienced hardship: they were women in a society dominated by men; they were peasants, and as such lived in a state of collective poverty; and they were inhabitants of the third or developing world. Although the book was written in 1982, the themes remain. It is of paramount importance to record and highlight the ways in which those at the sharp end—those facing the worst oppression and subjugation—battle, learn, develop and refuse to be victims.

Stemming from the Bangladeshi aspect of my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, it is Bangladesh that I know best when it comes to aid issues, charitable activities and, in particular, women’s development. I have now visited the country on a number of occasions, including on a VSO placement with my wife Dr Sheila Fitzpatrick. I strongly commend the VSO’s parliamentary scheme, in which a number of colleagues have also participated. Sheila and I have developed a close and ongoing link with Shishu Polli Plus, known as Sreepur Village. I would like to say a few words about how the place has affected me, showing me how our efforts and actions in the UK can translate into something significant and meaningful when we work with others—and in particular with women—in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Part of the theme of this year’s international women’s day is about providing a pathway to decent work for women. This aim or objective is very much what Sreepur is all about. I should declare an interest, in that I am a patron of the charity and my wife Sheila is a trustee. Three of the nine trustees are MBEs, which says a lot about the charity: Rubina Porter from Merseyside, who was most recently honoured; Trisha Silvester, the chair of the charity who runs the UK headquarters; and Pat Kerr, the founder and inspiration behind the village. Pat was a British Airways cabin crew member and set up the orphanage over 21 years ago with the help of friends and colleagues. To its credit, BA has assisted over the years, and Derek Palmer, Pat’s husband, is also a trustee. Colleagues of my generation may remember the Desmond Wilcox documentaries on the BBC that gave publicity to what is a great institution.

Sreepur Village provides a loving environment, food, clothing, education and vocational training for destitute women and their children. Thousands have benefited over the years. Sreepur Village also runs an outreach programme in the local community. Details are available on the Sreepur website. Sreepur Village is quite a place. Words such as “awe-inspiring”—or, more commonly these days, the Americanised “awesome”—are often bandied about without meaning much. However, some places really are awe-inspiring, or simply inspiring, and Sreepur is one of them. I should also mention Khadija Sultana, the executive director in Bangladesh, and Maureen Fox, the administrator here in the UK. Colleagues have probably got the idea that I am talking about a lot of amazing women who are the core movers of the charity.

VSO has also started the Godmothers campaign. What marks out VSO is its core belief. It does not lift people out of poverty; it gives them the tools to climb out of it themselves. What is impressive and moving about the Godmothers campaign is the notion of a group of people watching over UN Women—and, in my view, watching over not just the organisation of that name, but flesh-and-blood women in the world who need our solidarity and support. The aim of the Godmothers campaign is to see UN Women properly funded. The organisation was given that name because it was originally anticipated that it would be women who would wish to watch over UN Women, but there are men, too. There is also an understanding of what has hampered previous UN women’s agencies, and there is a determination that the new agency should not be thwarted in similar ways.

Together, “u” and “n” are two big letters; “un-” is a small but deadly prefix. Words such as “unworkable”, “unproductive” and “untenable” are all pretty miserable terms. Worst of all, in terms of being of tangible assistance to the women of the world, is “unsuccessful”, because if this kind of work is unsuccessful, it means a failure not only to improve quality of life, but to save lives. The stakes could not be higher. That is not what the Godmothers want to see; they want, and I want—and, I am sure, the whole House wants—UN Women to work to its fullest potential.

The sentiments expressed in the motion and the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), which I also support, are laudable. I would probably choose to speak more of nurturing, supporting and encouraging the self-empowerment of women than of “empowering women”, as the motion suggests, but the basic premise is that women in our one, big world matter. There is no point talking about the big society if one half of it is not heard, not reached and not included. I look forward to other contributions to this debate.

Ending violence against women is a priority for UN Women, and it is this issue that I would like to speak about today. My first experience of domestic violence came when I was about 10 years old. My mother had been inspired by Erin Pizzey and, with some other women, helped to set up the very first women’s refuge in Carlisle, where we lived at the time. I remember going to the refuge with my mother sometimes. I would sit at a big old brown table, pretending to be getting on with my homework, but really I was watching her work. I would see her surrounded by people who were truly in need.

Before becoming an MP, I was a practising solicitor for 23 years. I should declare an interest, in that my firm looked after around 13,000 clients in the south London, Surrey and west Kent area, many of them needy and vulnerable victims or children. Every year we sought hundreds of non-molestation orders and occupation orders under the Family Law Act 1996. I remain very proud of the work that my staff still do and of the contribution that the practice makes to community safety in the area.

For me, domestic violence is a scourge. It does not discriminate; it permeates age, race, class and gender, although 75% of victims are women. The youngest person for whom I had to obtain an order was a little baby; the oldest person was a 90-year-old woman who was being abused by her alcoholic son. I have had many multi-millionaires in my office seeking protection. I have also had many young girls who had literally nothing to call their own.

Domestic violence crushes self-confidence and self-esteem, which are the prerequisites for aspiration, motivation, success and the ultimate goal of social mobility. One of the most disturbing statistics—one that continues to haunt me, and one that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) also mentioned—is that two women in this country die every week because of domestic violence. From a zero tolerance point of view, I think that things are better now than they were in the ’70s. There is a wide range of laws and support organisations in this country to protect victims, but there are still some major problems: problems with implementing our laws and with eligibility for legal aid; no recourse to public funds; not enough done on prevention; and ongoing scepticism greeting women and children when they report violence.

Scepticism in our society is the reason we still hear comments such as “Why didn’t she leave him?”, or “She probably wound him up.” Such comments reveal an underlying suspicion that somehow the woman is to blame or is responsible for the violence inflicted on her. We know that there is no excuse for violence, but society desperately needs to understand that message too. The message needs to start at schools, with our young people. We need to talk to them about respecting themselves and respecting others, and about gender equality and empowerment.

Recent NSPCC research found that one in four girls, some as young as 13, had been hit and slapped by their boyfriends. That is absolutely terrible. It is awful because it is creating a breeding ground for abusers and for the abused. Domestic violence is abhorrent and inexcusable. Every time I hear about a bad incident, it makes me wonder what sort of world we are living in, and how we can improve it. A big part of the answer is that we need a seismic change in attitudes and behaviour, as well as an acceptance that our rules, laws and regulations are not going to fix the problem on their own. I hope that UN Women, with its ability to mobilise, advocate, co-ordinate and champion, will be a global catalyst for much-needed change.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). Her powerful speech provided evidence of why we need debates such as these. I know that we can create parliamentary consensus around such profound issues, and that we all share many of the views she expressed.

I also echo the comments of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—this job does wonders for my geography—and congratulate the members of the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. The hon. Lady said that international women’s day gives us a real opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the past and recognise the hard work that many women have put into them. It also gives us pause for thought as we remember the many difficulties that remain and the efforts that we still need to galvanise around as we seek to improve the lot of women. She pointed out that this is a particularly special international women’s day, as it is its 100th anniversary. I am delighted to be the first ever woman to represent the east end of Glasgow in this Chamber and that the city of Glasgow has two women representing it at the same time. That is a great achievement, but I shall keep working until we have more than that.

Of course we want to reflect on international issues on international women’s day, and the choice of UN Women as our subject is particularly helpful. I should like to reflect on the work of the UN in Palestine, and to focus on the issues relating to women there. I undertook a recent visit to Palestine that was sponsored by the Council for Arab-British Understanding. We have discussed on many occasions the ways in which to create a peaceful solution in the middle east, and I appreciate that there are different views and perspectives on how we should pursue that agenda. Sometimes I think that, in the grand sweep of the political narrative, women’s voices are not heard and their experiences not understood. Therefore, by definition, a complete political understanding cannot be reached, and complete solutions cannot be reached if we have only a partial understanding of the situation. In our debates on the middle east, the experiences of women, the pressures they face, the desperation they feel and the daily grind of their day-to-day lives have not featured strongly enough.

On my visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, I saw that women’s access to educational institutions, to places of employment and to health care clinics had been severely limited by the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. Obviously those issues affect men and women, but my conclusion, following my visit and the reading that I have done since, is that those factors have a disproportionate and particular impact on women. That is what I would like to talk about this afternoon.

The annexation wall, which has been built across 85% of Palestinian land, appropriates land, disconnects communities and restricts access to medical care and workplaces. I saw particular evidence of how the day-to-day management of life has been affected by it. Routes to school have had to be changed, for example, making it difficult for women to get their children safely to and from school. There is evidence of women having had to give birth at checkpoints because they could not get through them in time to get to hospital. There were no guarantees that anyone could get to their medical appointments. Furthermore, young women in particular are now finding it difficult to get to universities. Their families are nervous, rightly or wrongly, about what women might experience going through the checkpoints.

I visited an area just outside Bethlehem called al-Walaja, where I met a mother of young children who was living in very difficult circumstances. Access to the land was severely restricted, as was the family’s income as a result. She was living with the stresses and strains of her family situation, with young children to manage, and with that huge wall right outside her front window. We need to reflect on the daily grind of those people’s lives. The wall restricts freedom of movement, and time and costs are greatly multiplied by its presence. There is a permit regime associated with it, and 500 other obstacles, including road blocks and checkpoints, are now imposed on the day-to-day lives of Palestinian women and their families.

There is a range of other issues involved. Permit regulations have an impact on family life. Couples and families are often effectively prohibited from living together. Many families are separated, particularly when the father is unable to work near his family. That has an enormous social and economic impact. We must also remember the military detention of children, often for throwing stones. Families might not know the location of their child, who can be held for up to eight days without access to the family or a lawyer. These are huge issues that are themselves worthy of a debate.

I want to focus on the impact of all these factors on women. During my visit to the west bank, I was overwhelmed by the unbearable pressure that they face, particularly mothers, who might not participate in the political sphere but who have to try to manage the day-to-day consequences of the presence of the wall, the demolitions, the hostility of the settlers, the necessity to manage the permits, the identification rules that do not permit people to live with their families and, most overwhelmingly of all, the poverty and lack of economic opportunity.

I know that Palestinian women are demonstrating on international women’s day, and campaigning to have their interests represented in their own political movements and representative organisations. They have had some success. Recently, a national plan to combat domestic violence has been adopted in the Palestinian territories. I think that it is the first Arab territory to adopt such a plan. I hope that we, as women in this Parliament, can use our influence here, in the United Nations and through other avenues to draw attention to the issues that Palestinian women face. We must show our solidarity with and support for women who are struggling in their own communities and whose day-to-day issues need political attention. I hope that international women’s day will give us the opportunity to focus on not only our own experiences but those of women internationally, especially those living in such desperate circumstances who have rarely been heard.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), with her powerful advocacy for the women of the middle east and her description of the very difficult lives that they are living out there.

I welcome UN Women’s ambitious and wide-ranging plans for women. Talking about the differences and similarities between men and women can be tricky, but does it counter the strong, rational argument for equality to raise the clear differences that exist? For instance, if we say that women are more likely to fight for peace, do we make it less likely that they will be taken seriously in a military scenario? Can we discuss differences without falling into the trap of stereotyping men and women into caricatures of themselves—the pink team and the blue team? It might be tricky, but it is dishonest to ignore the clear differences between men and women—the positive differences that create better outcomes.

There have been several references this week to the report from Lord Davies on women in the boardroom. I should like to draw the House’s attention to a report that came out this week from the City law firm Eversheds, which carried out a study of 234 listed companies. It showed that corporate governance issues had absolutely no effect on the share price, except in one area. The fact that there were more women on the board of a company had a positive influence on the share price. Let us hope that fund managers will pick up this important news and perhaps make it obligatory for the businesses they invest in to take on this particular aspect of corporate governance.

I am not here to raise the issue of equality on my own behalf or for women like me, as I recognise that I have had many privileges, but the issue is vital for less developed countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) pointed out, it is perhaps our duty, particularly on international women’s day, to raise this issue for other women. It is because of the differences and the vital but different contributions women can make that we need to fight for their opportunities and influence those outcomes when we can.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that so many women in needy countries are taking out micro-finance loans to provide for their children shows how the role of women is absolutely essential to feeding so many children in less developed parts of the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution; in fact, I am about to talk about a similar situation. As she implies, the difference women can make to managing their families in the developed world can create an opportunity for non-governmental organisations and perhaps UN Women to focus on women as providers in their own communities.

The human rights case for equality is, I believe, glaringly simple. Girls and women should not be disadvantaged because of their gender, and where that is the case, we need to remove the barriers in their lives. We know what a lot of those barriers are: they are to do with education, health, and taking action against violence, and the UN Women initiative will focus on those. I feel sure that few would disagree with that.

As a former civil engineer, one of my passions is the delivery of clean water and sanitation, which is also a gendered issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that if we are to liberate women from the long haul of bringing water to their families, which inhibits their ability to access education and other health services, it is important to deliver clean water to their communities, giving them some free time to spend on other issues?

I wholly endorse what the hon. Lady says: clean water is indeed essential for communities and we should work with women to bring it about.

I believe that the differences I mentioned can be seen at two ends of the society—first, in small communities through women’s commitment to their families; and secondly, in government through women gaining significant representation. I do not underestimate the commitment of men to their families; it is just that they often show it in a different way. Let me illustrate that with the example of the Barefoot college at Rajasthan in India.

As some colleagues may know, the Barefoot college is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1972. It is a solar-powered school that teaches illiterate women from impoverished villages to become, among other professions, solar engineers. The college takes women from the poorest villages and teaches them the necessary professional skills without requiring them to read or write. For the past five years, it has focused on women who have come over from Africa in order to take the skills back to their native countries.

The point about focusing on women is that, as this NGO’s experience shows, they go home again and take their skills to their families and communities. The Barefoot college chooses to train for this particular solar energy course only women aged 35 to 60 who will want to keep the skills and the benefits in their community. I am afraid that the college describes the men as “untrainable”! The women, it says, are less likely to use the training as a means to move into a city or build up skills to take away from home. A certificate is not required at the end of it. The founders deliberately focus on women to make sure that the skills go home with the trainee.

The college trains women to build, install, maintain and repair solar electrification systems for off-grid electrification. Training takes six months. Once the course is completed, the equipment, along with the women who built it, is sent back to the villages where it is used to electrify the houses and schools. After five years of solar training since 2006, 97 villages in Africa have been electrified by their own trained women—a fantastic result. This initiative provides women with employment, confidence and purpose and it deliberately focuses on women as the natural supporters of their families.

I do not know about untrainable men, but my hon. Friend is making a really important point—that countries that fail to invest in the education of girls and women are denying themselves 50%, or half, of their own natural resource. It seems to me crazy that countries such as Afghanistan are not willing to invest more in women’s education. It is just self-defeating for the country as a nation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and I thoroughly agree with him. A similar point was made by our colleague, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who argued that this is not a trivial issue to be put at the bottom of the list, but one that should be at the top for the benefit of the whole of society, for the economy and, above all perhaps, for peace.

Trained, empowered women—illiterate or not—are more likely to have the confidence to raise their voices, and getting more women to participate in government is essential. Women such as those I have described at the Barefoot college will have the confidence to make an important contribution and perhaps get into local politics and eventually, we hope, national politics. There are many routes to getting more women involved in the business of government—education, mentoring, and, yes, even quotas—but it is essential to remove the barriers that stop their involvement.

Women may have some different priorities, views and interests from men. As we know, women are more than half the population and they need to be represented in Governments internationally. I welcome the UN Women initiative to promote that. It is essential to achieve it not just for equality as a human rights issue, but to get the best outcomes for everyone and particularly for women. In some countries, if women are not included in the conversation, they can be ignored or worse. As one east African woman politician succinctly put it to me: “We worked out early on that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I beg to move, at end add

‘and that in order to promote equality of women, democratic governments should ensure they have effective mechanisms for parliaments to scrutinise policy and performance in tackling inequality and injustice; and to that end calls for a women and equalities audit committee in this House.’.

I want to thank Members of all parties who have at some point signified support for my amendment. Its aim is to ensure that we in the UK have effective scrutiny of the Government on issues that affect women and other groups protected under the Equality Act 2010.

I was privileged recently to attend the United Nations for the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and I listened directly to Madame Bachelet setting out her priorities for UN Women. The first was the representation of women, expanding women’s voice, their leadership and participation. I believe that this amendment goes directly to that issue.

The second priority was tackling violence against women. Let me say that at a time when, according to the UN, more than 1,000 women a month are being raped in the Congo, I am deeply shocked that my Government have proposed amendments to the draft Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which would mean that it would not take effect in circumstances of armed conflict. I hope that Ministers listening to this debate will think again about that.

The third of Madame Bachelet’s priorities is peace building, and I would like to echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) about the important role women can play in building peace. The fourth is enhancing women’s contribution to the economy. The fifth is that gender equality should be central to all planning and budgets. As Madame Bachelet put it:

“Having been a minister and a president, I know that heads of state and heads of government have so many different challenges… Usually women’s issues are not relevant for them…they think that…other ministries…are…dealing with women. But that doesn’t happen. It has to be mainstreamed, pushed in a very specific way. We need to work on showing more clearly—with stronger arguments—how important women are as an economic actor, as a political actor, as a social actor, so that presidents and prime ministers can see how they cannot lose the important contribution that women are in the community.”

We know that we have not achieved that here. Frankly, if we had, we would not have endured a situation in which in recent tax and benefit changes men lost £4.20 a week, whereas women, who are paid less and have less wealth, lost £8.80 a week.

I propose having an audit committee so that we can look specifically at every Department—not just those whose Ministers have a particular responsibility for women’s issues—and ensure that progress is made. We know that, for example, the Home Affairs Committee already does a good job in dealing with issues of inequality relating to race in home affairs, but we need an organisation that can get down to auditing, and we have a model in the Environmental Audit Committee. I spoke to the Chair of the Committee, who recalled a 2006 report that it produced on DFID’s programmes and climate change. At that time it had no way of assessing the impact of those programmes on climate change, but now it has a proper mechanism, and I believe that we could achieve the same in relation to the gender impact of Government policies.

A research report on the Environmental Audit Committee, produced by Turnpenny, Russel and Rayner, states:

“We find that some of EAC’s recommendations, particularly in relation to making the prospective environmental impacts of the Budget more explicit, have been incrementally absorbed into government thinking and processes. In some cases, the Committee has been highly effective in drawing together evidence to criticise powerfully the government’s performance…A cross-cutting perspective can provide a distinctive take on problems, or help challenge established ‘world views’ of departmental… Committees.”

The EAC provides a powerful model, and we know that many other countries have similar parliamentary committees. Of the 27 European Union states, 10 have specific committees, and other countries such as Australia, Canada, Russia and India have them as well. They represent an important part of Parliament’s role in holding Government to account.

Madame Bachelet’s priorities must be implemented through elected women as well as women in civil society. I believe that as elected representatives we have a particular responsibility to make our Government accountable in this regard. I have a feeling that we may have taken our eye off the ball a little during the Speaker’s Conference on equal representation. It worked like a Select Committee and produced an effective and unanimous report, but we were concentrating on women’s representation in this place rather than the way in which Government policies affected women’s lives beyond it.

I should be interested to know whether the hon. Lady proposed the establishment of such a committee during the last Government’s time in office and, if so, what response she received. I think that many of the points that she is making are extremely sensible.

The hon. Lady is right to ask why I did not do that. I think that the Speaker’s Conference took up energy that could properly have been directed towards a broader equality impact assessment. I was proud to be a member of the Conference—which, as I have said, worked rather like a Select Committee—but its focus was relatively narrow, and it was not able to give wider consideration to the impact of Government policies on women’s lives.

The committee that I propose could serve as a useful tool for all of us. I know that achieving our aim will be difficult—for instance, Select Committees have limited budgets and we may need to start small—but I believe that the committee could prevent some of the mistakes that Departments currently make because they do not think fully about the impact of all their policies on, for example, women.

I referred earlier to rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was privileged to hear Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues”, talk about her work in the DRC helping women who had been victims of rape. She said:

“I think of Beatrice, shot in her vagina, who now has tubes instead of organs. Honorata, raped by gangs as she was tied upside down to a wheel. Noella, who is in my heart—an 8-year-old girl who was held for 2 weeks as groups of grown men raped her over and over. Now she has a fistula, causing her to urinate and defecate on herself. Now she lives in humiliation.”

I do not believe that the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Defence Committee discuss matters of that kind—they have plenty of important things to think about—but an audit committee of women might be able to persuade them to do so. I know that many Members find such issues hard to talk about in Parliament, and I am glad that there are now more women on both sides of the House than there used to be, because we find it easier to discuss them than men do. We know how much cruelty is involved.

As Eve Ensler pointed out, when rape was used as a weapon of war in Bosnia we intervened and stopped it, but rape is still being used as a weapon of war elsewhere. Our Government need to intervene, and UN Women needs to intervene. That is one of the reasons why it is UN Women’s second highest priority. I believe that the committee I have proposed could enable every Department to ensure that the needs of women and girls are not overlooked, as they so frequently are. I am prepared to admit that they may be overlooked by accident, but that is not a sufficient excuse. We need to ensure that the needs of women and girls cannot be overlooked, even accidentally.

The United Nations special war tribunal in Sierra Leone has established that the use of rape as a weapon of war is a war crime, as is the enlisting of child soldiers. I can tell the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—who made a powerful speech—that Select Committees do discuss these issues, and that over the years the International Development Committee, among others, has pressed for a recognition of the emerging norm of responsibility to protect and to ensure that the international community bears down on those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. The challenge for Governments and, indeed, for the House of Commons is often how and when to intervene effectively, and I suspect that that challenge will detain the House over the coming weeks in the context of Libya. Tragically, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) pointed out, one of the longest-living UN agencies is the agency for displaced Palestinians. We need to have regard to all these issues.

Those of us who have been privileged to make visits overseas will recall being humbled by the sight of women involving themselves in projects. Listening to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I was reminded of a visit that I made to Bangladesh. Women had taken over the central reservation of a highway—public land—and planted mahogany trees. They would have to look after the trees for 20 years before they could harvest them, but they were confident that between them they could make the project work, and that it would give them a community asset. All of us, wherever we have been in the world, have seen projects like that, in which women have taken on the burden of looking after communities and leading initiatives at the same time. Whether the projects are agricultural or involve looking after HIV/AIDS orphans or community bakeries, women are often at the forefront.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse made all the comments that I wanted to make about UN Women and the need for the Government to support it, so I shall not repeat them. During the most recent session of International Development questions, the Secretary of State said that Ministers wanted UN Women to do for women what UNICEF has done so successfully for children, and it would be fantastic if it could indeed do that. We all recognise that DFID’s budget is finite, but I hope that it can find some resources for UN Women.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the work of Voluntary Service Overseas. I too have had the privilege of working with VSO in Nepal, and helping Dalit women to draft amendments to the Nepalese constitution. Dalits are at the bottom of the pile and Dalit women even further down than that, but VSO enabled them to help and empower themselves, which I think is very important. This year, I am due to go to the Thailand-Burma border to help and support some women’s projects there. The Voluntary Service Overseas Volpol scheme is a brilliant initiative, and I urge any Members who have not yet had the opportunity to avail themselves of the opportunity to investigate it, as we learn an enormous amount from such experiences.

Because of the general election, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report of last year did not get the coverage it perhaps deserved. Although I was chair of the commission at the time, the report team was chaired by Fiona Hodgson and its members included my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). The full report can be found at The evidence to the commission about women human rights defenders yielded numerous examples of women who were abducted, tortured, and sexually and physically abused, and whose families had been brutally attacked and threatened. There were also examples of such women being labelled as whores and witches and having been ostracised from, and stigmatised within, their families and communities because they wanted to advance human rights not just for women and children but for the community as a whole.

As Amnesty International has observed, while many human rights defenders endure risks across a spectrum of gravity, because of women human rights defenders’ gender and the particular rights they defend, they confront additional risks that can carry the gravest of consequences. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made clear in what was an excellent opening to the debate, women make up two thirds of the world’s 1 billion illiterate population, half a million women a year die from pregnancy complications, women make up 70% of the world’s poor and perform 66% of the world’s work, but have 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property.

The commission made 22 recommendations and I will not detain the House by going through them all, but I encourage Members and others who are interested in these issues to visit the website and take a look at them. We suggested that the Government should seek to raise public awareness of the work of human rights defenders and the specific dangers faced by women who fight for human rights, including gender-based violence, family reprisals, cultural stigmatisation, and loss of property rights. There are a number of positive and constructive recommendations, including that the Government should honour and implement the commitments made under international treaties and conventions on the protection and promotion of women’s rights, including those in the universal declaration of human rights, the millennium development goals, the Beijing platform for action and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. We also wanted support to be given to the work of the UN special rapporteur and promoting the new UN agency for women.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I apologise in advance for being unable to be present in the Chamber for all of it, as it coincides with a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s response to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report into housing benefit reform. As a member of that Committee, I am also keen to spend some time in that debate.

I agree with those Members who have said how pleased they are that the Backbench Business Committee has made time for this debate this afternoon. I and other Members who were present at some of the Committee’s sittings know how hard its Chair and some Committee members, including the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), have worked to achieve that.

It is appropriate that this debate coincides not only with the centenary of international women’s day, but also Fairtrade fortnight and the week of the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill. Each of those individual events speaks to the issue of women’s economic independence, which is what I want to address this afternoon.

As has been pointed out, women constitute a little over half the world’s population, but we are still the poorer by far. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has just pointed out, 70% of the world’s poor citizens are women. Here in the UK, too, women face a greater risk of poverty as a result of a gender pay gap that still stands at 19.9%, and which is much higher if we look only at part-time work. Men’s median pay is 52% higher than women’s, and only 12% of the occupants of our boardrooms are women. Therefore, when we are asked—this question was raised at the Backbench Business Committee—why a specific debate on women’s issues is necessary, I say that the numbers speak for themselves.

This problem is not inevitable; it is not just the way things are. It is not a reflection of innate gender differences; it is a problem of societal structures, and it requires structural solutions. It matters too: it matters not only for women’s own economic independence, but also because when women prosper economically so too do children. When women have money, they spend it on their kids. Because that spending benefits the wider economy and the community, it promotes general economic and social justice.

It is especially appropriate that international women’s day and Fairtrade fortnight should coincide with the date of our discussion, because the changing economic structures of international trade could serve to offer a model of how economic justice can work for women and, by promoting the position of women, can work on a broader frame. Fairtrade products that empower women economically are important for the environment and for the communities and economies in which they are established, and are an important route both for economic growth and social justice.

I am following my hon. Friend’s argument closely. This is not just about fair trade. Some 30 years ago, I was working in Malaysia and visited the factories of multinationals including Bosch and Motorola, all of which were full of women making products such as car radios. Actually, those women were being liberated from the patriarchal oppression of village peasant existence, but many of the liberal and left community around the world say, “Oh no, they’re being exploited.” Does my hon. Friend agree with Joan Robinson of the London School of Economics, who said there’s only one thing worse for a woman than being exploited by a multinational, and that is not being exploited by a multinational?

I am sure my right hon. Friend would not wish to suggest that there is a continuum of exploitation and a point on that continuum at which women—or, indeed, men—ought to be satisfied to find themselves located. He raises an important issue about the relative roles women perform in paid work and the domestic sphere.

The economic justice questions that we are discussing are not just challenges for developing economies; they are a challenge for us here in the UK too. As we know, here in the UK women struggle to balance caring responsibilities with paid employment. The majority of child care is still undertaken by women, and although many men fulfil caring roles, it is women who are most likely to drop out of paid employment when they start to have caring responsibilities. Many male carers perform their caring responsibility alongside paid work however, and as a result do not suffer the same degree of economic disadvantage.

In recent years, the debate about the appropriate balance and recognition we should give to paid work, domestic responsibilities and caring responsibilities has become distorted, and we need to revisit that. That is not in order to trap women back in the domestic sphere, but to open up a debate about the value we should give to the caring role, and to make sure our societal structures properly recognise that role and offer both women and men a genuine choice about participating in paid work and wanting, and needing, to take time to fulfil domestic responsibilities. That is not an argument that, when I was as a young feminist in the 1980s, I would have believed I would have heard myself making. However, as I have watched that choice for women squeezed out by successive male-led Governments of both the left and the right, I have to say that a gender issue is a choice issue, and choice and economic independence go hand in hand.

Does the hon. Lady agree that carers play a central and vital role in our society and that without their playing that role our social care system in this country would entirely collapse?

I certainly do and, together with the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), I am very proud to be a parliamentary ambassador for carers week this year. I hope that we will have the opportunity to highlight exactly the sort of contribution that carers make and to which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) refers.

I wish to take a moment to talk specifically about the position of lone parents, which was the subject of hot political debate 10 or 15 years ago. It has rather dropped off the political radar but, regrettably, that is not because their battle is entirely won. It is still the case that more than 90% of lone parents are women—lone mothers—but it is very important to recognise that very few women have set out to bring up their children alone. None the less, one in four children in this country will spend some time in a lone parent family, and those children and families face an exceptionally high risk of poverty. Of course it is right that we should do all we can to sustain sustainable relationships, but it is not the mark of a civilised society that we allow those who are growing up in households where relationships have ended to find that they do so in poverty.

May I thank the hon. Lady for her support in obtaining this debate with the Backbench Business Committee and say that she was most eloquent? Would she like to emphasise the need to break the myth that women who are bringing up children alone have been teenage mothers—the vast majority of these women are not? As she said, they do not choose to be in that position and, of course, all women and men in that position deserve our support.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, because the average age of lone mothers is now 35 and just 3% of them are teenagers. There is a very wide gap between myth and reality, as she rightly said.

In conclusion, we need and must have a debate now on the way in which we secure and sustain the economic independence of women throughout their life course, whatever their family circumstances. That is why I am particularly pleased to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). Women’s lives have changed dramatically, even in my lifetime. However, despite the progress that women such as me—well-educated, professional women in well-paid employment—have enjoyed over the past five decades, it is still women who bear the brunt of poverty in this country. Inequality on pay and, importantly, on pension protection reflects the fact that there is still too much segregated employment, and that we still have a social security system that fails to provide adequate support and an education system that still too often squeezes down girls’ aspirations. This is still the fifth largest economy in the world, and we cannot tolerate a situation in which women continue to live in poverty. It is unnecessary, wasteful and unjust. It is a scandal and we need to ensure that every one of our economic and social policies thinks women and thinks how it can address that injustice. So in this UK Parliament, which is aptly, if sometimes incorrectly, characterised as the “mother of Parliaments”, I say that we must establish the scrutiny body that the amendment proposes. In the week that marks the centenary of international women’s day, I hope that parliamentarians in this House will commit themselves to doing just that.

It is a pleasure to contribute to today’s debate and to follow Members who have covered so many important gender equality issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in particular spoke powerfully on the issue of domestic abuse.

I wish to focus on issues affecting women in conflict zones. As chair of the all-party group on women, peace and security, I, like the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), visited New York in February. I did so not only to celebrate the launch of UN Women, but to try to understand the impact that the new agency will have on women, peace and security policy and to find out where it will fit in the now bewildering architecture of the UN.

Major-General Cammaert, the former UN peacekeeping commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said the following in 2008:

“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.”

That reflects the exponential growth of conflicts that target civilians, especially women and girls, as a means of intimidation and ethnic cleansing. Last year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in the DRC, many of which were described so eloquently by the hon. Lady. The abuses that these women are subjected to are among the most horrific ever imagined. As if the international community’s failure to protect them is not bad enough, these women are then routinely denied justice or any engagement in the peace and reconciliation negotiations that follow.

As most hearing this debate will know, Security Council resolution 1325 finally recognised, in 2000, that sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, and women’s participation in peacebuilding, were the responsibility of the UN Security Council and a security priority. Since then, there has been no shortage of supportive language reaffirming the Security Council’s commitment to the cause. Governments and civil society alike have welcomed this progress, but beneath the rhetorical gloss, cracks in the masonry of international commitment are easy to find.

Although the UK has a good record in this area—it is considered the unofficial Security Council lead on resolution 1325—there are those, both here in the UK, as well as in the international community, who disagree that resolution 1325 is a security issue at all. Others accept that sexual violence should be addressed as a security issue alongside other protection of civilian issues, but believe that women’s participation in peacebuilding is a development issue which can be left until after the peace has been made.

The impact of that inconsistency can be seen in the recent emphasis that has been put on tackling sexual violence as a 1325 priority. Security Council resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1960, and the appointment of the Secretary-General’s special representative, Margot Wallstrom, all represent significant and vital progress on tackling sexual violence, but they also show that in the current geopolitical climate it is easier to get action on the protection of women than on participation of women. The impact on the ground is clear. The DRC has seen the groundbreaking conviction by a mobile court of the senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi, and eight other soldiers for their role in a mass rape in the eastern DRC. That is a huge step in ending the impunity of perpetrators of sexual violence, but the DRC is still one of 31 current armed conflicts arising from failed peace processes and not a single one of those peace processes included women at the negotiations. Despite all the vocal support for resolution 1325, there has so far been negligible improvement in women’s participation in peacebuilding.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful and important case. Does she share my anxiety that if what is happening in Afghanistan at the moment leads to a non-military next stage, unless women are really involved, negotiations with the Taliban could mean that the country reverts to some of the horrors that we have seen there before?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I share her deep concern that women’s rights in Afghanistan may be seen as a cost that can be taken on board in order to achieve peace. I also share her belief that such peace would be unsustainable and would lead to a descent back into conflict.

Everything I have been describing means that the fact that the new head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, has named women, peace and security as one of her focus areas is highly significant. UNIFEM never had the status or the budget to keep the issue effectively on the UN agenda. The role that Michelle Bachelet manages to carve out for UN Women will, therefore, make or break the future of women’s participation in peacebuilding. The challenges she faces are manifold: she has to attract sufficient funding; she must navigate her way through the impenetrable UN bureaucracy; she must negotiate the web of inter-agency allegiances and territorial claims; and, perhaps most importantly, she must prove herself, through sheer force of personality, as a leader to be reckoned with in the constellation of UN actors.

Is the hon. Lady aware that, according to a parliamentary answer I received this morning, we will give more than £1 billion to India in the next four years under our development aid heading, despite India having more millionaires and billionaires than we have? I am not against India in any way, but it is rather odd that our allocation of money for international work has so far excluded any UK funding for the very agency that the hon. Lady is so rightly praising.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I shall move on to funding issues soon.

If Under-Secretary-General Bachelet and UN Women cannot achieve the formation of the role that is needed for the organisation, and cannot do so quickly, they will have no hope of beginning to challenge the entrenched gender inequalities that are so prevalent in conflict and post-conflict scenarios. Women’s participation in countries that are now hanging in the balance, such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia—to name an obvious few—will fall back off the agenda at the Security Council and elsewhere. UN Women will have proved to be a useful panacea—a rhetorical device that represents the form of action without the power or the outcomes. On the other hand, if UN Women achieves the formation of that role—there is every hope that it will do so—that might prove to be a turning point and a crucial advance in the argument that peacebuilding and conflict-prevention policies that do not involve women at all levels are fatally weakened and undermine the progress on global stability objectives.

As a historical leader on women, peace and security issues on the international stage, the UK is of course pivotal in whether UN Women sinks or swims. I am glad to see that the coalition Government have signalled in action as well as words their continuing commitment to the resolution 1325 agenda. Central to that commitment are the appointment of the Minister for Equalities as a 1325 champion and the Government’s national action plan to implement 1325, published in November. That plan is a significantly more sophisticated document than its predecessor and includes a robust monitoring mechanism that includes a formal process for reporting to Parliament. That is welcome. I look forward to playing my part in the all-party group in holding the Government to account on their delivery of that plan and its adaptation to developing international situations.

The UK has further opportunities to offer the international leadership necessary to ensure that UN Women lives up to its potential. I shall mention just two. First, the Government’s building stability overseas strategy is being formulated by the FCO and DFID and is intended to set out the Government’s plans for addressing overseas conflict in the future. Given events in Libya, I would say that it is becoming ever more urgent that women, peace and security perspectives should be embedded in that plan, not as an afterthought or box-ticking exercise but as an integral part of the Government’s approach to conflict prevention and resolution.

Secondly, in order for UN Women to achieve its stated aims, which dovetail perfectly with UK foreign and international development policy, it needs UK funding. It is reasonable to wait for the strategic results plan in June before committing a specific amount, but I would like to make a couple of general points on that. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, has said that DFID requires

“a strategic plan that sets out a clear results framework outlining targets and expected impact.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 596W.]

Will the Minister tell me whether DFID is working with the team that is developing the strategic results plan at UN Women to ensure that it is aware of DFID’s priorities and the criteria for funding?

The amount needs to be appropriate to UN Women’s remit. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2010 budget was $5 billion; UNICEF’s was $3 billion. To play in that ballpark, UN Women needs a budget of at least $1 billion. This is not just about status, although that does matter in setting UN-wide priorities; it is about capacity. DFID’s review of multilateral aid, published last week, stated explicitly that UNIFEM had failed adequately to address gender inequality issues specifically due to “constrained resources”. If UN Women is to have the impact necessary to challenge entrenched gender abuses and inequalities, it needs a reach similar to that of UNICEF.

The UN has set a minimum funding target of $500 million for UN Women, but so far only $55 million has been pledged. The UK has the opportunity to lead the way in funding UN Women. Given the exact correlation between the coalition Government’s stated foreign and international development policy goals and the strategy set out so far by Under-Secretary-General Bachelet, that seems to me like a win-win situation.

In the words of the Nigerian permanent representative to the UN and president of the UN Women executive board,

“no one can run fast on one foot.”

A security agenda that thinks it can do without women’s participation has been a limping beast. Let us hope that UN Women can start being part of the remedy. Let us hope that we can begin to meet our commitments on protection and participation of women in conflict. Let us agree once and for all that these women are far from simply passive victims. They are in fact powerful agents of change and no less than the missing link in our peacekeeping policy.

Three or four years ago, I was at a NATO parliamentary conference where they had the usual list of speakers. The Foreign Minister from Georgia made a Government speech that was fairly moderate and not very exciting or controversial. The next speaker was the leader of the Russian delegation, who said, “In my country, we have a saying that there are two things you cannot have a discussion or a debate with: a woman and a radio set.” That kind of approach might still be prevalent. In this debate, if I may say so—this is in no way meant to be patronising—the quality of the speeches from all the new Members who were elected in May and who sit on both sides of the House has been absolutely outstanding. I hope that those speeches are career-enhancing interventions, urging former bosses to spend a little more on UN Women’s work. I wish well all the hon. Members who have spoken.

I want to comment briefly on one issue of women’s rights: the question of trafficking. We have focused a lot on what the UN should do and what we might do in Afghanistan and the Congo, and I support all that, but supporting women can also begin at home. There is a major trafficking problem in this country, as there is internationally.

The figures are difficult to get hold of at times. I got into terrible trouble a year or so ago, because in a debate during the last Session I quoted the Daily Mirror, which in turn was quoting a Home Office research study, saying that up to 25,000 women had been trafficked into the UK. That was pounced on by those great defenders of women’s rights, the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme and The Guardian. Articles were run and there were debate sessions on “Newsnight” in which Jeremy Paxman attacked me as if I were some wretched Government Minister, and it was said that all those figures were invented and that there was no problem with trafficked women. A lady from the English Collective of Prostitutes said that all prostituted women were happily working without any obligation. That kind of blind refusal by the liberal left of our community is matched by the fact that too many of our officials—it was as bad under the previous Government as it is under the coalition Government—refuse to accept the need for effective policing and intervention on the issue of trafficking.

In the light of some of the earlier discussion about domestic violence, does my right hon. Friend agree about the importance of using law and enforcement in trafficking, as we have done in domestic violence? That provides clarity about what is right and wrong. When I was first involved in work on domestic violence, I found that people did not treat it as a crime, so there were not many prosecutions.

I entirely agree. There was a very good three-part series on trafficking on Channel 4 last autumn, narrated by Helen Mirren. It was interesting to see that not a single male using the services of trafficked sex slaves was held, questioned or even put in front of some minor magistrate’s court by the police. As was the case with domestic violence, we need the moral exemplary publicity provided by convictions or court cases. Until men have to face their responsibilities for the use of trafficked women, we will not make real progress.

I take heed of the right hon. Gentleman’s warning about statistics, but the Home Office currently estimates that about 4,000 women have been trafficked into the UK and the sex industry. We have talked about wanting the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking and I add my voice to that call. Does he agree that it would help if the Government, when dealing with the sexual enslavement of women, were willing to tackle demand by criminalising the purchase of sexual services, which would protect trafficked women and others?

I agree with the hon. Lady. That figure of 4,000 was produced by one report last autumn and has been fairly comprehensively rubbished by many experts in the field. We do not know the figures. Our former colleague, Anthony Steen, the chairman of the Human Trafficking Centre, has said that he has spoken to senior police officers who know of 2,300 brothels in London. He said:

“They reckoned that 80 per cent of those working there were from abroad, and they estimated that 4,000 were trafficked. And that was just in London. My view is that the national figure is probably in excess of 10,000.”

After a long campaign for which I pay tribute to a collection of women Ministers, including the then Home Secretary and Attorney-General, some of whom are still with us and some of whom are now outside the House, the previous Government made a small amendment to criminal legislation saying that it is a crime to pay for sex with a woman who has been trafficked or coerced. To my knowledge, however, there has not been a single prosecution for that crime so far. We have been able to curtail kerb crawling by taking photographs of kerb crawlers’ cars, publishing their registration numbers and in some cases putting them in front of magistrates. That is the only language that abusers of sex slave trafficked women understand.

Some of our newspapers have adverts in the back for massage parlours and brothels.

I was not going to take another intervention because of this funny rule we have, but the hon. Lady made such a wonderful speech, so how could I refuse?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and will keep my intervention short. Will he say a little more about the fact that many of those who are trafficked are very young children and that young women leaving the care system are also involved—not just immigrants?

Had I more time, I would love to go into those issues. The official body in charge of these issues has noted that a large number of Asian girls and, sadly, a surge of Vietnamese girls are being trafficked into the UK, and that several dozen leave and disappear from care, particularly local authority care. That is one of the themes that I shall be pursuing in my parliamentary work this Session.

I earnestly appeal to Ministers—we have two outstanding Ministers on the Front Bench, who really care about this issue—to send us some hope and allow a little ray of sunshine to penetrate the gloomy clouds of South Yorkshire, whence I must return shortly, and to shine upon the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Sheffield, so that their leader can rise to his feet and say from the platform tomorrow, “I may be known locally as the Sheffield fraudmaster, but I persuaded the Prime Minister to change our policy on the EU trafficking directive and I can announce that Britain will be signing it.” Then some of us might be prepared to forgive the Liberal Democrats for many of their current sins.

I should like to quote the Archbishop of York. In a powerful intervention late last year, he said:

“Sex trafficking is nothing more than modern-day slavery. This is women being exploited, degraded and subjected to horrific risks solely for the gratification and economic greed of others. I am therefore stunned to learn that the Government are opting out of an EU directive designed to tackle sex trafficking.”

I get down on my knees to the Archbishop of York.

In considering the treatment of women around the world, there is a big problem with whether we are prepared to be brave enough to say that some of the classic religions of the world and their political expressions are deeply inimical to women’s rights. I shall put it no more strongly than that, but I refer to practices such as forced marriage and the fact that we have just had a terrible riot in Egypt in which a Christian Coptic church was burned down. Why? It was because a Christian boy fell in love with a Muslim girl, whose parents felt that her honour had been abused and so they had the right to go and kill someone. Then they were killed and the reaction was to burn down a church that had been there for hundreds of years and insist that a mosque be built in its place. Unless we say, within our communities to our Muslim friends in Britain, that we have to consider the role of religion today in oppressing women, we will not make much progress.

Finally, I want us to look again at the degradation of women, their commodification into sex objects and the fact that men and young boys now think it quite normal to fly to Baltic states or to east Europe for a weekend of going from one sex parlour to another. The situation has changed utterly and this kind of new approach from young men has arrived in recent years. There is a notion that legalising prostitution would somehow make things better, but where that exists in Nevada, university students say that one cannot rape a prostitute. These are difficult areas that go to the heart of masculine and male concepts of women and their rights. Unless we are prepared to tackle those concepts—and I strongly welcome the tone of the contributions to the debate—I fear that in three or four years’ time we will not have made the progress that the House wishes to make.

It is always a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), and that is particularly true following the vital points he made about human trafficking. It is a huge privilege to speak in this debate, on this historic day, on this key issue about equality and empowering women. On such an historic day, we need to look at what more has to be done to put women on a par with men in equality terms. Equally, we need to mark today as a celebration of great things that great women have achieved around the world.

I am fortunate and privileged to have worked, before entering Parliament, as a special adviser to such a great international stateswomen as Benazir Bhutto, the twice former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who led with conviction in empowering people and who paid the ultimate price in her fight for democracy and empowering women and citizens in her society. She became the first woman to be elected the Head of an Islamic State in 1988. As Prime Minister, she became a role model for women around the developing world in male-dominated societies. They saw that they too could be future leaders of their country. She had 86,000 primary and secondary schools built in her term because she saw education as a means of empowering citizens in her country, particularly women. Under her government, 100,000 female health workers fanned out across the country, bringing health care, nutrition and pre and post-natal care to millions of the poorest citizens. Under her Government, women were given the basic right to participate in international sports, women’s police departments were established to help women who suffered from domestic violence and women’s banks were established to give micro-loans to women to start small businesses.

Today, we pay tribute to women such as Benazir Bhutto who are great role models for women around the world, and Aung San Suu Kyi, another of the courageous women who fight for democracy. In Brazil, it is great to see another female leader, Dilma Rousseff, as president of her state. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that there are more women in the Parliaments of developing countries.

In Burma, women make up only 4% of the membership of its lower House. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only 8% of MPs are women. The figure is the same for Ghana. In Kenya, the figure is 9%; it is 7% in Nigeria, 6% in Somalia and in Yemen it is 0.3%. That is completely unacceptable. On that basis, I welcome DFID’s commitment to link international aid to programmes that empower women.

My hon. Friend described how a female president of Pakistan made such a difference for women locally. Given that example, does he agree that for countries that are not fortunate enough to have women representatives in their political system, the formation of organisations such as UN Women will ensure that women’s issues are not forgotten on the political stage?

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. In 2008, Benazir Bhutto was one of the seven women awarded the UN human rights prize, and as my hon. Friend says, we need to highlight such things.

Nearly all the countries in the world have signed up to the UN international convention on civil and political rights, but the key issue is implementation. We must ensure that women have the rights enshrined in such conventions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the crucial reforms to ensure that women achieve those rights is reform of the security and justice sector? If that does not happen, women will never have the opportunity in some countries to enforce their rights.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point. We must ensure that there is security and justice. Those elements are enshrined in agreements such as the universal declaration of human rights and the UN conventions on civil and political rights; the problem is that they are not implemented. It is great that countries sign up to conventions, but unless we put them into practice, nothing will change. It is important that they are implemented.

With more women in boardrooms, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass through women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one might think that women had gained true equality. The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally compared with their male counterparts. Women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Globally, women’s education and health are worse than that of men, and there is greater violence against them.

I very much welcome the fact that international women’s day has been marked as an official holiday in 27 countries, such as Afghanistan, China, Moldova, Mongolia and Cuba. I hope in due course that we can move to that position as well.

My hon. Friend mentioned women’s education. Does he agree that it is the key to everything we are discussing? Unless women are educated, they will never become political leaders, surgeons or lawyers and be all that we want them to be. It pains me to think that there could be women who have the potential to cure diseases or to solve world problems, yet that will not happen because those women will never be educated.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. She is right. If we want to empower people, we have to give them skills, and the basic skill is education. That is why under DFID’s commitment to developing countries, a large part of the money is going to education. My hon. Friend is right; without education, people cannot be master of their own destiny.

Gender equality is not simply a basic human right; its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

I conclude with a quote from Martin Luther King:

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

It is always the right time to fight for women’s rights and equality.

As one of those who made the pitch to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate, I am grateful to the Committee for agreeing to hold it in the Chamber. The fact that there was some resistance to the proposal reminds us that we have to be ever-vigilant and ever alert in fighting for women’s equality. We should not take things for granted. We have won a great deal. Compared with our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, our lives have been transformed. Nevertheless, we need to be careful; we should not sit back and assume that everything will carry on smoothly.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) spoke of the need to encourage women to take up representative roles. It is not always enough simply to set up mechanisms.

Is my hon. Friend aware that two weeks ago my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) spoke at the Newcastle university international development conference, where the majority of participants were women? There were fabulous workshops on how we can help women overseas and I am glad to report that all the members of the organising committee were women—I must confess an interest; one of them was my daughter.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. Women have obviously proved that they can organise things and be very effective.

The party organisation in my city recently held a training event for people it wanted to encourage to stand as council candidates. Those who came, both men and women, were given information on what being a councillor involves. At the end of the meeting, a number of women came up to the organiser and said how daunted they were and that they doubted whether they would be able to do the job, but virtually all the men went away thinking that they could do the job easily.

How true.

Those responses demonstrate that even after all we have won, there is still a need to put in the extra effort to encourage women, give them confidence and bring them forward. It is important that we make every effort to work across the Chamber on many of these issues, and I am heartened by much of what I have heard in the debate. Like the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who made a powerful contribution, much of my early work before being elected to this House related to family law, so I know the difficulties women face.

It is sometimes easier to reach out across the House when talking about things that are not happening in this country, because it is perhaps easier to agree on what needs to happen in places abroad. It is slightly harder when talking about matters closer to home, but what I want to say relates to the UK. That is not intended to detract from the powerful speeches that have been made on the position of women in the developing world and the important work that needs to be done. In fact, it has been very humbling to hear some of the stories that Members have told, which we must always remember, but just because we are privileged as women to live in these times, as has been said, that does not mean that we should not fight for further improvements.

I want to speak to the amendment and about why I think it is important to have a committee that can look across the piece and see how things join up. The example I will give is that of the recent changes that have been proposed, are about to be made or have been made that affect the position of women who are separating or divorcing. When looked at departmentally, those changes might seem quite small, but when joined up, they are quite significant. That can be a traumatic time for both men and women, but women, who are often financially weaker in that position, are most affected. All the research still shows that after separation women end up poorer. Slightly oddly, many men end up either no poorer, or richer.

What has been happening that will change women’s experience? One change is the proposed loss of eligibility for legal aid, which in my view will affect women’s ability to get a fair financial settlement. The law can enhance and protect women’s rights, but if it is not there to fight for them, it might not be able to do so. The second change relates to the Welfare Reform Bill. The time that I had to speak on the Bill was reduced to two minutes yesterday, so I did not have the chance to discuss its child maintenance proposals, but they are linked to what I want to say now. More emphasis is to be placed on people reaching their own solutions, but putting up obstacles and charging will make it more difficult for women to try to enforce maintenance.

I am sure that the hon. Lady has much more experience of these matters than I do, but does she not agree that one key problem, which we see in our surgeries and postbags, is the absolute failure of the Child Support Agency to deliver a fair and equitable solution for both men and women? The welfare reforms could help to make a difference and ensure that women who, as she rightly says are often disadvantaged by separation, get their fair share.

I am certainly not going to suggest that the CSA, in its long history, has been so wonderful. Indeed, the initial legislation for it was an example of not taking account of the views and opinions of people who know about an issue.

In my experience, it was always hard to enforce maintenance. We could get orders and agreements as solicitors, but enforcement was extremely difficult, especially in respect of those who were quite willing to swap jobs and to evade payment. The self-employed were always particularly difficult to reach, but we could have told the then Government about that. If the views of the experts had been better integrated, we might have had better legislation and better enforcement, and I do not see how putting obstacles in the way of people exercising such powers is going to be helpful.

When there is a power differential between people, many women are wary—even as it is—of pursuing claims in case that rebounds upon them or their children. We can and will, I hope, debate those proposals further. My aim is not necessarily to win support for that point of view at this time, but to say that, when we link up what is happening on legal aid and on child maintenance, we see that there is a cumulative effect, and it is important to look at that across the piece.

There will also be a more limited choice of housing for women who are separated. Those who deal with housing and homelessness know that one of the biggest reasons why people present as homeless is that their relationship has broken down: two into one house does not go. It does not just happen to women, but women are often given priority for re-housing in the homelessness system because they have to care for children, and the suggested changes in homelessness provision will make it more difficult for women and their children to obtain settled and secure accommodation. It is not right to suggest that short-term private lets are the solution to homelessness. People may want to choose that solution, but it should not be forced upon them.

There are pending changes, which we do not know the details of, to mortgage interest payments for people who currently claim income support and will in future claim the new universal credit. When I worked as a solicitor, I could sometimes obtain for women an ability to stay in the former matrimonial home if we were able to secure an arrangement whereby the mortgage was paid, particularly in the transitional period. They hoped to get employment and to be self-supporting, but at that point they were not, and mortgage interest payments were often an important part of the package, so we need to know what is happening with them. Changes to tax credits will make it more difficult for women after separation and divorce to work, as will changes to how child care is funded.

If we have all those measures, and cumulatively they have an effect that each one might not seem to have in itself, it is important that we audit them. Therefore, I urge people to support the amendment and to put just such an audit committee in place.

I very much welcome the fact that we are having this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and others on their tenacity in pressing the case for it with the Backbench Business Committee.

I should like to focus my remarks on one specific aspect of the violence and injustice done to women in our world—I am afraid that it is not a comfortable one for the House—which is the terrible practice of female genital mutilation. This is a practice that the United Nations has stated it wishes to end within a generation. I am sure that UN Women will be taking the lead on this work, but it is a mighty task that Ms Bachelet and her team will take on. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to such mutilation. The practice is most prevalent in western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the middle east. The cutting is often practised on girls as young as 12 or 13, often precipitating their dropping out of school and not carrying on with their education. Education, as we have all agreed throughout this debate, is one of the essential keys to greater equality, dignity and progress for women.

I am grateful to VSO for its briefing on this issue and for drawing my attention to the Orchid Project, which is run by a former VSO volunteer, Julia Lalla-Maharajh. That organisation has a simple vision—a world free from female genital cutting. Interestingly, one of its key findings has been that, difficult though it is, trying to avoid judgment and blame when working alongside communities in the developing world has been more helpful for them in trying to effect change from the grass roots up. Whatever laws are passed against FGM in some countries, in reality they are unenforceable if it is culturally embedded locally and supported by civic and religious leaders. There is a vital need to work from the bottom up. I understand that the Department for International Development has found that this is consistently true locally.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 is a major and very worrying problem?

I certainly do agree, because this is happening not only in the developing world but here in our country—in this city and in my constituency.

In the developing world, trying to ensure that girls are able to take educational and economic opportunities is absolutely vital, and challenging social norms by having locally led solutions is proving more effective. One of the findings has been that more educated and less poor girls will grow up to be women who are less likely to subject their own daughters to this procedure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) drew our attention to the fact that this terrible practice is a problem not just in the developing world, but that it is also a problem for many countries in the developed world. Here in London, the number of reported cases of FGM has risen in recent years. These awful procedures are happening in this city, and in other UK cities as well. A clinic at a major London teaching hospital sees about 350 such women and girls a year, often with horrible complications. The Metropolitan police have intervened in more than 120 cases since 2008, but despite this practice having been illegal for many years, as we have heard, there has been not one prosecution. The police often put this down to the problems of trying to get people to give evidence in very difficult situations and not being sure that they can secure such a prosecution if they bring it to court.

While refraining from judgment may be more likely to effect change in the developing world, we cannot refrain from judgment when such mutilation is happening in our own country. We have to be clear and robust in saying that it is a crime in our country, and that no excuses can be offered. The Met have been very clear about this.

May I put it to the hon. Lady, first, that the police are sincere in these investigations, but are hampered by other priorities and other areas where they feel they have to work? Secondly, if the police, the authorities and the doctors know that this crime is happening, perhaps we need to look at the court and evidence system, which prevents any sanction or any message going out into the community, at least in Britain, to say: “You should not be doing this.” I am thinking of a version for sexual crimes, including rape, of the Diplock courts that we set up in Northern Ireland. That may sound illiberal, but we really need to tackle this with convictions that can then be publicised in the newspapers, sending a signal to these communities that it has got to stop.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I think that we should consider all those things. That the number of cases is rising, not falling away to nothing, tells us that there is a growing problem, not a diminishing one. We should therefore be considering all possible solutions.

I have a good degree of confidence that the police, certainly in London, are taking this matter seriously. Senior local police officers contacted me ahead of this debate to say that if there was an opportunity to raise this issue, they would be grateful. I am convinced that it is on the agenda, although I am sad in a way that it has to be on the agenda of police working in my area and across London. It is part of their strategy to prevent violence against women and girls. The message from the police is clear to all those in positions of trust, whether they be teachers, lecturers, social workers or religious leaders: it is their duty to report these things when they find out that they are going on, and they should know that the police will take them seriously. The consequences of not reporting such abuse are terrible. If abuse against the oldest girl in a family is reported, it might prevent all the younger siblings from suffering the same thing. It is therefore important to tackle it.

There is a big challenge for police and health practitioners in exploring what information they can legitimately share within the bounds of medical confidentiality. That perhaps goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) about looking at fresh approaches. Obviously, midwifery services and certain screening services pick up on this abuse more than other parts of the health service do.

I hope that Members across the House can send a signal from this debate that culture is no excuse for violence and the mutilation of girls and women in Britain. It must stop now. I hope that UN Women will take up the cause of ending female genital mutilation within a generation. I hope with all my heart that it is successful, and I hope that it gets generous support from the UK Government.

We are having a good and informed debate, which follows a similar debate last week in the House of Lords. I encourage Members to read the Hansard from that debate, which is very interesting. Among the notable contributions is that of the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) raised her eyebrows when I arrived in the Chamber today. She asked whether I was hoping to speak in the debate and I confirmed that indeed I was. I therefore feel that I should, at the outset, lay out my qualifications to speak. I feel qualified to speak because, after painstaking research, it has been revealed to me that exactly 50% of my ancestors are women. That pattern, believe it or not, has been repeated generation after generation. It is not just through the past that I have an interest, but through the future: I can inform the House that, so far, 100% of my descendants are female.

In this debate, we are really talking about the interconnectivity of people across family, society and nations. We all have an interest in ensuring that all of humanity is empowered, has rights that are respected and is allowed to capitalise on opportunities. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) told us that women earn 10% of the world’s income. I did not know that and was genuinely surprised and shocked that it was so low. Unfortunately, too often the chances for a good section of humanity are blighted because of the two similar chromosomes, XX.

Much of the Arab world, specifically across north Africa, is in flux. That situation needs help now, and will need help when it settles. UN Women should be there to give a lead when the opportunity and the need arise. We should commit our £21 million to UN Women now. The fund has a target of $500 million, although I understand that it should have had a target of $1 billion. As it stands, it has only $55 million. There is much energy and enthusiasm behind UN Women. A new world order could be approaching with the changes in the middle east. Surely UN Women should be able to hit the ground running and help societies that are reforming and changing, and where help is wanted and needed.

Baroness Gould said in the other place last week:

“Human rights and equality are two sides of the same coin”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1181.]

I think she was right. The five aims that have been set out for UN Women are expanding women’s voice, leadership and participation; ending violence against women; strengthening women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peace processes; enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and ensuring that gender priorities are reflected in national plans and budgets. All are equally laudable, but the fourth aim strikes me especially strongly, particularly because evidence shows that the benefits to children are immense. Research from Asia, Africa and Latin America, which has been touched upon, has found that improvements to food security and nutrition are associated with women’s access to income and their role in household decisions and expenditure.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember that my late mother, who was a strong woman and in charge of the household budget, put herself last in the queue for everything. Her strength was her selflessness. I suppose I should point out that research unfortunately shows that when men are in charge, there is a greater propensity for alcohol and tobacco spending. I shall move swiftly on from that point.

Actually, that is a really important point. We often talk about the creation of jobs in developing countries through inward investment and say that it helps families, but in fact, where those jobs are to do with minerals and mainly men are employed, most of the money that those guys earn is spent on the mine sites themselves. The role of women in employment and how money gets passed into families is fundamental.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I had not actually thought of. We can think back to periods in our own highland history. When men were away working together in such jobs and operations, the propensity for alcohol spending on the site was exactly as he points out.

Like other Members, I have had the opportunity to go abroad. I went to Cambodia with VSO’s political volunteering programme in September 2008, and from that experience I can see exactly the benefits of an organisation such as UN Women. I commend VSO for that scheme. The learning curve was steep for me on a multitude of issues, and I am still learning, of course. I should like it to consider expanding the scheme to other sectors outside politics, because it was very useful. Those who control levers in society could engage with the professional bodies in this country that are needed in developing countries.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most depressing things for parents of daughters, as we both are, is the lack of understanding of some of our young women about opportunities in the global perspective? One of the saddest statistics that I know, which I read recently, is that whereas 32% of teenage girls want to be models, only 4% want to be engineers. That is a deep indictment of our society, and initiatives such as he mentions will help to raise the profile of opportunities for women globally.

I thank the hon. Lady for that valuable contribution. I have not had a conversation with any of my daughters about modelling or engineering, but my second daughter keeps telling me that she wants to look after the sheep when I go. I do not know whether that is a model profession.

There is an opportunity for us to engage with professional bodies whose work is needed in countries across the world, which can do something very important. Perhaps we even need to engage with the much derided financial institutions in this country and with individuals of high net worth, who could be shown the needs that exist and ways to help practically. They could simply have their hearts touched.

I was recently in Rwanda with an organisation called Results UK, which I am grateful to for taking me there. Rwanda is one of Africa’s most progressive and impressive societies. Its economy is growing by 6% year on year, health indicators are going the right way, HIV is down to less than 2%, tuberculosis is really falling owing to being treated along with HIV, participation in education is growing and agricultural techniques are improving. The country is ambitious and has a “Vision 2020” for changes and improvements that will hopefully be brought about in the next nine years.

Rwandans are returning home, and I met a very impressive young woman, Dr Angelique, who had returned from Boston to drive Government training of health professionals. Her drop in salary was matched only by the size of her commitment. I thought she was impressive enough, but she then took me to a meeting, along with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), chaired by a formidable woman, Dr Agnes. Her view was that 2020 was just around the corner. In that particular meeting, data corrections were required from various bodies for the health training plan, and she told those bodies that she wanted the improvements within three days.

May I offer the hon. Gentleman an apology? I have known him for many years, but have not realised that he is a key ally in the women’s agenda. I am glad to stand corrected. I will quote him endlessly in Scotland as a supporter of our agenda.

On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman and I share a commitment to Scotland. Women in Rwanda have achieved very significant levels of representation, but likewise, the Scottish Parliament has significant representation. Does he agree, first, that there is a key link between women’s representation in a given institution and the promotion of a women’s agenda, and secondly, that it would be disappointing if the Scottish Parliament went back on that? We need to do something about that.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point and perhaps anticipates what I was going to say.

The Health Minister of Rwanda told me that the nation’s wealth was its human capital and that Rwanda hopes to maximise that in the years come, and contrasted that position with countries that think their wealth is in resources. The people in Rwanda feel that they are all important. Needless to say, Rwanda has pulled itself up by the boot strings in the last few years and, as the hon. Lady just said, it has the highest rate of women in Parliament in the world. Doubtless that is an example of using all the people and all the talents to the benefit of the country. A Senator in Rwanda asked me to spread the good news about his country if I were ever given the opportunity. I have such an opportunity now. His phrase was, “It has a great climate for investment in a good climate.” I hope that Rwanda goes from strength to strength in the years to come.

That is part of the story in Rwanda, but bringing about change, as I saw in Rwanda, is often not complicated—it is not rocket science; it just takes will and intent. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said earlier, it is not a luxury to move forward with the women’s agenda, which benefits everybody.

Can the UK Government ensure that a group with five aims in that direction hits the ground running? Let us not wait to commit again to something that we intended to commit to anyway. Let us instead signal and lead that. By committing money, we can encourage others to do likewise, and give women a better chance and greater hope for the future. That will also help men in future, because helping women today helps the children of today, who are the men and women of the future. Can we commit our £21 million annually of core funding to the UN Women’s fund?

I should like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and to pay tribute to Wajeha al-Huwaider, a remarkable woman—an author, journalist and human rights campaigner—who has done so much at great personal cost to raise the profile of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Women in Saudi have the status of perpetual minors and are denied the most basic human rights. Those abuses stem from the male guardianship system and the strict gender segregation in Saudi. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report spells out what that means in practice. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian—normally a father or husband—who is tasked with making the most basic decisions on her behalf. An adult woman will sometimes have her son appointed as a guardian.

Fully competent adult women are treated as legal minors, with little or no authority over their lives, bodies or well-being. Every Saudi woman is affected, regardless of her economic or social status. Adult women must obtain permission from their guardian to study, work or travel, and many are denied the right to make even the most basic decisions on behalf of their children. All hon. Members know that whenever women are hidden away, with few rights, the risk of domestic violence is increased, but the male guardianship system makes it almost impossible for those women to gain access to justice even when they are subject to violence.

Officials may—and frequently do—demand a guardian’s consent even when no law or guideline requires it. Many women have been asked to produce written consent from a male guardian for medical treatment. The Saudi authorities insist that the rules are being relaxed, but in practice, I am afraid that they are not. In theory, a woman—only over 45, mind you—may travel without permission. In practice, however, many women without written permission from their guardian are turned away at airports.

Wajeha al-Huwaider first came to international attention on international women’s day in 2008, when—rather shockingly—she drove her car on her own. Subsequently many Saudi women tried to follow her lead, and one woman was seriously injured after being forced off the road. Following that, women were so ostracised for such actions that they ceased.

This was not always the case. Wajeha al-Huwaider described how in her grandmother’s day women had much greater freedoms: they were allowed to work in markets, travel freely and go abroad without permission; there were not the same dress restrictions; and they could divorce and remarry easily without being ostracised. I am afraid, however, that that is no longer the case in Saudi Arabia.

As women in this country and across the world look forward to the Olympics, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from the Olympic team, and have no access to public sport at all. Not only is it impossible for a Saudi woman to participate in a football match, for example, but she is banned from attending one as a spectator. That is truly shocking. From a letter of support from both sides of the House to Wajeha al-Huwaider last year and subsequent correspondence, we know that she is not seeking to westernise Saudi society; she is seeking fundamental human rights. Women must be free to travel, study and access medical care, and to escape from violent and abusive relationships without the consent of a male guardian.

Saudi Arabia has vast wealth and vast opportunities to spread that wealth, but half its population are among the most deprived people in the world. As we move towards the Olympics, I ask the Minister to use this opportunity to highlight the fundamental right of women to take exercise—a right denied to Saudi women. Will she join me in calling for all countries participating in the Olympics to allow women not just to sit in the spectators’ gallery, but to take their rightful place on the starting line?

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who took this good opportunity to highlight one of the great injustices in the international world. I believe that by talking about these things and working across the House, we can bring appropriate pressure to bear on such repressive regimes. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for working so hard to secure this debate, and also the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who battled against the forces not of evil, but perhaps of darkness to get this debate on the books. It is greatly appreciated.

I want to speak on the question of what women want. In my view, they want nothing that Mel Gibson has ever been able to offer, but the same things that men want: in this country, they want strong communities, not streets scarred by crime, violence and fear; they want a world-class NHS, not a country in which the chances of surviving breast cancer are worse than they are 20 miles away in France; they want excellent schools for our children where teachers are free to teach, motivate and drive our young people to achieve all that they can; and they want a dynamic economy that creates jobs, generates taxes and means that we can afford strong, robust and sustainable public services. I think that the Government are delivering all those things. For Opposition Members to say that we are ideologically targeting women by cleaning up the messy economic legacy we have been left is frankly absurd and does not do those hon. Members, for whom I have great respect, any favours.

Women and men also want an end to discrimination and injustice in this country and globally, which is why I strongly support the launch of the UN Women initiative, which will work collectively to address some of the problems we have heard about today—for instance, the fact that 70% of the world’s poorest people are women, and that women generate only 10% of the world’s gross domestic product.

I want to use something that has been happening locally in my constituency for almost three decades as an illustration—a microcosm, as it were—of what can happen when the knowledge, resources and commitment of the global north are exchanged with the global south. The Marlborough Brandt Group, which was set up in the wake of the Brandt report, has worked to build exchanges, linkages and transfers between leafy Marlborough and a Muslim community called the Gunjur in south-east Gambia. One of the interesting and unexpected results of those linkages has been the enormous solidarity that has built up between the young women of both communities. The head of the organisation, Dr Nick Morris, e-mailed me to say:

“When I first went to Gunjur 25 years ago village meetings were held under a mango tree and only men were present. Now, 25 years later,”

meetings are still held

“under the same mango tree,”

and women are not only present, but are

“in the front row and are leading the”

programme. He continued:

“A…literacy programme run by women for women in Gunjur and surrounding villages”—

a programme funded by DFID since 1995—

“has empowered women to make choices.”

He quoted the case of Fatou Gibba, who

“went on to study to be a teacher and…now runs the main pre-school in Gunjur where over 2,000 children,”

in what is a small community,

“have had a headstart before attending the Government primary school.”

Given the example that my hon. Friend has just described, does she not agree that the crucial thing that women want is the opportunity to take part in decision making and to choose what is best for their communities, and that where they are involved in these processes, they are stronger and produce the more resilient communities that she mentioned at the beginning of her speech?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Involvement in formal and informal decision-making processes is the key to achieving many of the objectives that we all share.

The idea of focusing resources on issues of inequality has enormous local and global benefits. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said earlier, it is insane to miss out on the opportunity to educate over half the world’s population. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that frequently comes up when I am justifying our laudable commitment to maintain DFID spending. I say, “Look, surely we are all better off if we develop and invest in the world’s poorest populations,” and in this case in the world’s very poorest people.

Does my hon. Friend think that we can do more through international collaboration to ensure that we help businesses, education and people right round the world?

I absolutely do, and that is why we both support the valuable launch of this UN agency and our Government’s commitment to provide it with funding and support.

If this afternoon’s debate comes to a vote, I shall of course be supporting this excellent motion. I would also—if we got to this point—vote in support of the amendment. As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and I have discussed on several occasions, having worked together on a number of all-party groups, such organisations would provide a powerful cross-party focus for some of the things that actually matter. When we make tough spending decisions, we of course have to think about what they look like in the round. One of the unintended consequences has affected funding for citizens advice bureaux. I am happy to say that in my constituency and county of Wiltshire we have maintained CAB funding. However, as a Government—we know that Ministers share this view—it is important that we should maintain funding in the round for such important organisations.

I will finish with the example of my campaign to provide the option of having an opt-in system for internet porn, which the hon. Lady also supported—indeed, she was involved in the debate. This issue provides a fascinating example of how men and women can come at something from very different points of view. The idea has been on the table several times, but when we first had the debate, the industry said, “No thank you—far too difficult to implement and regulate.” However, we then funded some research that showed that although only 73% of men thought it a problem that our children were watching extreme internet porn, 93% of women thought that it was a significant problem. The majority of women said that they would like an opt-in system, which would give them the option of not having this stuff piped into their homes. That was an interesting example of how such committees can look at policy in the round and put a different focus on some of the recommendations.

It is an honour to participate in this debate today. I cannot think of a time in this Chamber when I have heard a higher number of excellent contributions from both sides of the House. My short speech will concentrate on the UK, and it will be somewhat lighter than some of the serious and sometimes harrowing contributions that we have heard.

I shall start with an anecdote. When I was very young—this was shortly after the Equal Pay Act 1970 had been introduced; it is that long ago—I was elected as a student governor at Dudley technical college, where I was doing my A-levels. I remember to this day the first time I piped up on an issue, only to be told by an elderly matriarch, “That’s it, my dear! Throw your brassiere over the windmill!” In my political life, I have been told to do some very strange things, some of which would have been physically impossible, but that one sticks in my mind. At least I got the point that speaking up is a very good thing for a girl to do.

In the 40 years that I have been conscious of equality issues, however, I have been deeply disappointed at how short a distance we have come. I strongly support the main motion today, as well as the excellent amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and other colleagues. She made a fantastic case for the creation of an equalities audit committee. Unless we audit these issues and measure how well we are doing, we will always be fobbed off with a long line of patronising excuses for why we cannot do certain things. After 100 years, we are still so far away from achieving equality, and we really need that extra strength. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the possibility of introducing such a committee.

Colleagues have talked about many topics today but, in the short time available, I should like to concentrate on women in the workplace in Britain. Work is key to dignity, self-worth and independence, in whatever country we are talking about—or at least, it should be. Too often, women are undervalued, patronised and, occasionally, worse. We sometimes reach positions of influence, however. A Conservative colleague told me a joke the other day that just about sums up our situation. Let us picture a cartoon of a boardroom. The board members sitting round the table are all men, with the exception of one woman. The chairman says, “Yes, that is an excellent suggestion, Miss Carruthers. Now, would one of the men like to propose it?”

Lord Davies recently published his excellent report, “Women on boards”, but he stopped short of recommending quotas for boards. He said:

“Many other people told us that quotas would not be their preferred option”.

Well, of course they would not! Those people are locked into a syndrome of appointing “people like us”—not only white middle class men, but white middle class men who went to the same school and probably belong to the same club.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also important to make the point to companies that it is in their own interest, as well as that of the women, to appoint women to their boards? It has recently been proved that the share price of a company is much more likely to go up when there are women on the board.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. In fact, I was about to say that, if only those people would take a look, they would see a wealth of talent that is not like them, but that has different, fresh perspectives and can bring wealth to the business because it can see different angles and opportunities. The gauntlet has nevertheless been thrown down for those companies, and Britain’s 100 biggest companies have five years to double the proportion of women on their boards from the current average level of one in eight to one in four—or else they will face mandatory quotas.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the great impediments to achieving that number on the boards is that many of us often hit our career strides just as we hit our reproductive peak—and it is a ghastly problem, as many of us know, managing children and careers at the same time? Support for more flexible working and more co-parental leave is critical to achieving the sort of targets to which we both aspire.

I totally agree, and I am wondering whether the hon. Lady has read my speech, as I was just about to come on to that. I hope that the threat of quotas will speed up the process of appointing far more women to company boards. In fairness, I know my description was a bit of a caricature, as there are some good measures in place to convince boards of the economic benefits that would follow and that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) mentioned.

The coalition Government are delivering some good things for equality. As the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) just mentioned, the right to flexible working for all will be a great equaliser. Employees without children will potentially benefit from greater flexibility, too, which is great for our well-being agenda. Research demonstrates that people who have a balanced life and are able to work flexibly are more productive, more loyal, absent less and suffer less stress within the work environment. Everybody wins from that situation.

The division of maternity leave between parents is another important step towards introducing the concept of equality in the home as well as in the workplace. Men usually want to play a more important role in caring for their children, although our friends in the press have yet to understand that, as the Deputy Prime Minister was vilified for having the temerity to want to take a share of the child care with his working wife. These measures will help, although we still have a long way to go towards a time when workplace culture measures an individual by the contribution they make, not by the number of hours they are physically present.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one area where we have the opportunity to make up one of the most disproportionate representations is in the area of STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects? We have a Government who are happily committed to enhancing the low-carbon, high-tech economy, so does the hon. Lady agree that we could make a lot of progress in this area in a very short time?

I totally agree with the hon. Lady and I could talk about it all afternoon; unfortunately, I have only two minutes left.

On the continuing vexatious issue of pay, the gender gap is still more than 15%. I am disappointed that we did not enforce section 78 of the Equality Act 2010, which required companies with more than 250 employees to introduce pay reporting. If companies are not held accountable for the inequalities they perpetrate, what incentive is there for them to change? They remain able to sweep the figures under the proverbial carpet and carry on paying women less than men.

That is why I have today tabled early-day motion 1571 on the gender pay gap, which urges the Government to look again at the issue in 2013 and legislate to introduce pay reporting if a marked improvement is not seen in the next 18 months. I hope that hon. Members from both sides of the House will be minded to sign this early-day motion. If this threat stays over the heads of the unwilling, we can hope for ongoing improvement. This is one area where we can make all the difference. As to all the other grave issues that other colleagues have raised today, we must all keep fighting to use our relatively privileged position to do all we can to assist.

I thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who was determined not to back down and who received considerable support from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). That proves that women should not take whatever is thrown at them, but should stand up and be counted—which is what they both did, and I thank them for it. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who tabled the motion and who produced an excellent summary of women’s issues both nationally and internationally.

It strikes me that we may have made history today. Probably for the first time in a debate such as this, more Conservative Members than members of all the other parties combined were present at the start. That is a step forward for our party. I also applaud the men who are present for the debate. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), this is not a luxury or fringe issue but one that involves the suffering of human beings and economies, which affects us all. It is therefore important for us all to be here.

Let me begin on a positive note. Women have made significant contributions to society over the centuries. We need only consider Boadicea, the British Celtic warrior queen who led a revolt against the Roman occupation; Joan of Arc; Queen Victoria, who presided over one of the largest empires ever seen; Florence Nightingale; Emmeline Pankhurst; Marie Curie; Mother Teresa of Calcutta; and of course, last but not least, an incredibly talented woman and amazing role model—our former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister in Europe. Evidence suggests, however, that women are being held back from making a full contribution. Internationally, women in all parts of the world still suffer violence and discrimination. Across Europe the average gender pay gap is 17.5%, and in the United Kingdom, despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, men still earn more than women in most job categories.

There are many ways in which we can tackle those issues. I want to focus on two key areas: empowering women and addressing violence against them. There is no doubt that empowering women in the world will be good for the global economy, not to mention the overall security of the world. The United Nations has argued that the empowerment of women is perhaps fundamental to the achievement of many other millennium development goals, given the multifaceted role typically played by women as mothers, leaders, students, decision makers, workers and voters.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although women make up 70% of the world’s poor, UNIFEM’s budget in 2009 was just 1% of the total UN budget?

I agree. Much more needs to be done.

I welcome the launch of UN Women and the comments of Ban Ki-Moon, the leader of the United Nations, who said:

“UN Women is a recognition of a simple truth: equality for women and girls is… a basic human right… a social and economic imperative.”

As we have already heard today, schemes to empower women have led to very positive results in developing countries. MicroLoan Foundation, a charity in Chiswick in my constituency, has demonstrated that working on a micro scale often delivers significant benefits. The foundation provides small loans for women in rural parts of Africa to enable them to set up their own self-sustaining businesses. Those who receive the loans—about 20,000 women so far—are treated as business people rather than recipients of charity. They are expected to pay the money back when their businesses are up and running, and an amazing 99% do pay it back. The money is then lent to a new group of women, and a virtuous circle of investment is thus created.

Education is another key part of empowerment, and we still have much to do internationally in that regard. In sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and south and west Asia, women do not have easy access to education beyond primary level, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). It is therefore incredibly important for us to continue our education work.

Closer to home, much remains to be done to achieve the goal of empowering women, first by putting women on company boards. With the celebration of international women’s day this week and the publication of the Lord Davies report last month, much has been said recently about the need for more women at senior levels in UK companies. The evidence is now clear: companies that have more women at senior levels perform better, with stronger stock market growth, higher returns on sales, capital invested and equity, improved decision making and better corporate governance. Yet only 7.8% of the directors of FTSE 250 companies are women, and more than half of those companies have no women at all on the board. I welcome the publication of the Lord Davies report, and his call for our largest companies to aim for a 25% minimum proportion of women board members. However, I also want to challenge the chief executives of the FTSE 250 companies to include diversity in the performance objectives of senior executives, so that they are measured on that and remunerated accordingly.

Is my hon. Friend aware that an organisation called the 30% Club has been set up in the City by a number of chief executives, in order for them to work together to achieve higher representation of women on their boards?

Yes, that is an excellent initiative. There is another scheme under which the chairmen and chief executives of various boards mentor the next level of senior women in the City, which is working extremely well.

The second area I want to address is women’s entrepreneurship. Again, there is a lot we need to do. The Federation of Small Businesses published a report suggesting that women in the UK could make a much more significant contribution to the economy. Currently, women constitute only 29% of the self-employed population in the UK, despite making up 46% of the active working economy.

In respect of both that point and the issue of women’s representation in larger organisations, does my hon. Friend agree that there are two types of discrimination at play: an ageist attitude as well as an attitude against women? Does she also agree that, given that from now on women will be working for much longer and flexible working will be far more widely available, women will be more able to fulfil their desire to have both a family and a career?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We must have flexible working in order to make progress. We need more examples like Cath Kidston in Chiswick in my constituency. She has set up her shops from scratch and has been incredibly successful. In the UK, 150,000 start-ups would be created per year if women started businesses at the same rate as men.

The third area I want to talk about is very dear to my heart: women in politics. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) talked about Rwanda and how well it has done politically. We currently have the highest number ever of female representatives in the House of Commons and the Lords, but it is still low; it is still just 22% in the House of Commons, and more needs to be done. That is why I have set up the all-party group for women in Parliament to look at how we can take the issue forward and work together across the House to make sure that we keep delivering change and give women the opportunity to get into politics. The key is for women to work together, act as role models, and reach out and mentor the next generation of women in politics. We must also break down the barriers that undoubtedly still exist.

Does my hon. Friend agree that better and more affordable child care is also part of the process, in that it enables women to get out of the home and back into the work force as wealth creators, entrepreneurs and taxpayers?

I agree entirely; that is a very good point.

In conclusion, I want to talk about violence against women—another subject that is extremely close to my heart, first, because it is a major issue for me in Hounslow in my constituency and, secondly, because Refuge was set up in Chiswick in my constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) have discussed this subject very well and have laid out some of the major issues that we face. There have been more than 1 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales in the last year. That is a huge figure. We need to talk about the problem more, and to try to speak to the next generation in schools and elsewhere to convey that domestic violence is completely unacceptable.

I am almost finished, so I shall not give way.

The Home Secretary has spoken firmly on the issue of violence against women and girls, saying that our

“ambition is nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 52WS.]

I also congratulate the Mayor of London on what he has done to quadruple the number of rape crisis centres in London. We have a duty to keep talking about what women have achieved across the globe and about the challenges and issues that still exist. That is why this debate is so important. By collaborating and working together we can achieve so much more and deliver a real change across the world.

First, may I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not being here at the beginning of this debate? I am very pleased to be able to participate in it.

It seems appropriate, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of international women’s day, to be welcoming the formation of UN Women. I welcome not only its formation, but the fact that it has set itself some challenging tasks. It seeks not only to be a global champion for women and girls, but to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, to empower women and to ensure that they achieve equality as beneficiaries of development aid, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security.

UN Women is very much to be welcomed, but we might wish to reflect for just a moment on why it is essential to have such an organisation. Some of us who have pressed for UN reform for many years are very glad to see it and think that its setting up is not before time. One of my arguments for a global body examining what is happening to women’s rights was the failure to deliver on the millennium development goals. We know from a series of recent reports that little progress is being made on wiping out poverty in the world’s poorest countries, and the situation is being made worse by the global recession. Although aid to developing countries is at an all-time high, it is still £13 billion short on commitments for this year.

The progress has been particularly slow for women, who bear the brunt of poverty and its effects. According to research by the children’s development organisation, Plan International, girls are still far more likely to die before their fifth birthday than boys, and mostly from diseases that can be prevented, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Many rich nations that pledged aid are reneging on their promises, which is having a knock-on effect across the range of MDG targets. The overall level of donations in 2010 was estimated at about £108 billion, but that represents an £18 billion shortfall on commitments. The situation is having a disproportionate effect on women, because the least progress has been made on achieving the targets set for MDGs 4 and 5, on reducing maternal and child mortality, and helping women access reproductive health care.

That means that a huge task has been set for UN Women, and I want to discuss that in the context of a country that I know very well—Afghanistan. A number of us will know that women in Afghanistan suffer dreadfully from the impact of poverty and a lack of rights. The situation is improving, and we should note that, but there is still a lot to be done. We believe that about 87% of women in Afghanistan suffer some form of domestic abuse, and that about 60% to 80% are forced into marriage. There is a very low level of participation in education there, too. Again, the situation is improving, and many more girls have entered education, particularly primary school, since 2002, but a low level of participation in higher levels of education remains. Life expectancy is very low, at only 44.

It would be totally wrong to present women in Afghanistan as victims. The many women whom I have met, including parliamentarians, are extremely strong and resilient and they want to play a more active role in their society, not only at a social level and in governance but in the economy. I was pleased to see that DFID recently put an additional £85 million of funding into micro-finance initiatives. I have seen some of those initiatives in Afghanistan. They give women a lifeline in a number of ways. Not only do they give them a job and the means of earning a living, but, because women are seen to contribute on the economic front, their status in their family and wider kinship group changes. We hope that that can be built on for the future.

We also know that a lot of our aid money is helping women to play a much greater role, and not only in governance. We must remember that 25% of the Parliament in Afghanistan is made up of women, although they need a lot more encouragement and support to find their voice. Through the UN, many women in Afghanistan are being encouraged to play an active part in their security and police forces. There is now a commitment to try to ensure that 30% of the police force is made up of women.

Like my hon. Friend, I have been impressed by the women of Afghanistan. Is she confident that the voices of those women will be heard in any negotiations about the future of Afghanistan in which forces from the US and the UK might talk about withdrawal, leaving them to whatever is left behind?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. By being vigilant, we must ensure when we withdraw on the military front that strong support structures are left in place, so that the many gains made by women in Afghanistan remain and are built on. We need to support the women parliamentarians—they will be the people who will be there and who will be able to put the monitoring systems in place.

The UN has funded a number of referral centres that are giving women in Afghanistan a safe haven and have been established in the 34 Afghan provinces. If such improvements are to continue and to be further developed, it is essential that UN Women gets the resources that it needs. Some of the preliminary figures are worrying—at the moment, only about 10% of the $500 million target is in place. We all need to press for additional resources.

We have all spoken about the women who are in Parliament in Afghanistan and we know that if things are to improve for women we need more women in politics and in decision-making structures. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other networks helpfully enable us to share our experiences and to learn from women in different parliamentary contexts. If we are to continue to do that, we must be careful about the messages that we send from this country about women’s potential and what we do to support women. I am hesitant about introducing some party political conflict into the debate, but I am concerned about the impact that the cuts are having on women in my community. Not only are jobs being lost. Cuts are being made to child care and the public services on which women rely, changes are being made to the Child Support Agency and there is a lack of opportunities in housing. Our universities and colleges might even become less open to women in the future, if women are concerned about debt. I hope that the Government will consider that point and adopt the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) to implement a gender audit. I shall support the amendment and the main motion today.

I was not going to speak at all, but I have listened to the debate and thought I would try, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if it comes out rather badly. I want to talk about the courage of women, especially the courage that I have witnessed. First, I remember watching a woman walking out of Srebrenica holding a baby, in 1993, when we arrived there. She held her head high. We were tired and hungry, but we looked at this woman who had lost everything and we were inspired: here was someone very special. A few days later, I saw a woman who was going to be shot. She was holding a baby and in what were apparently the last few moments of her life she sheltered the baby. She was not shot—we avoided that—but that shook me to the core.

I know that my mother learned to parachute at the age of 22 at Ringway airport, when she joined the Special Operations Executive, and I remember seeing my wife, Claire, in Bosnia, in 1993. I was sitting in my tank watching an artillery barrage in the valley below when I saw a person walking down the road in the middle of the barrage. I put my magnification on and saw that it was a woman; more than that, it was an International Committee of the Red Cross delegate whom I knew—now my wife, Claire. I drove down there, opened the hatch of my vehicle and asked, “What the heck do you think you’re doing?” [Laughter.] Please do not laugh, because it happened. She said, “Would you please go away? You’re bringing fire on to my position.” I said, “What are you doing?” and she replied, “I’m going to the front lines to register prisoners.” “Would you like me to escort you?” I asked. “Certainly not!” she said, “We don’t want soldiers around us when we do that sort of thing.”

My view is that women not only civilise war situations but calm them. It is absolutely crucial that women are involved in any peace process because they are at the core of our society. In my experience, they are the only people who stay looking after the children when the men depart. They never give up their responsibility to children. That makes them not only equal but very special. I fully endorse the idea that women are equal in all senses, but I also think that they are more than that: they are very special because they do things that men do not—sometimes. Of course, they are impossible in some respects. My wife is French and I have been trying to make sure that her English is perfect, but, my goodness, does she ever learn, “I’m sorry, it’s my fault”? No, she does not. Seriously though, I fully believe that women are terribly important in the peace process. On that note, I think I will sit down because I have caused enough suffering.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for an excellent contribution.

It is a great pleasure and honour for me as a new MP to speak for Labour from the Front Bench. In government and opposition, and throughout its history, the Labour party has fought relentlessly for women both in Britain and internationally.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and members of the Backbench Business Committee on securing today’s debate on UN Women, in the week of the centenary of international women’s day. It is disappointing that, unlike past years, Government time was not found for this important debate. Let us hope it does not symbolise a lack of commitment to women by this Government.

As we recognise and celebrate 100 years of women’s advancement, it is clear from the debate how much more there is still to do in our own country and around the world. Members on both sides of the House spoke movingly of the importance of UN Women and its potential contribution in the coming years.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) spoke of the importance of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and of the Equality Act 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about his VSO work in Bangladesh. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) spoke movingly about the plight of women in the Palestinian territories. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) spoke powerfully about the experience of women who face sexual violence and rape in many conflict zones.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about the pay gap between men and women in this country and elsewhere. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr Macshane) told us of the plight of women faced with trafficking and prostitution, and many other powerful contributions were made by Members on the Opposition Benches.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke of the importance of this once in a lifetime opportunity for us to back UN Women, to fight for women’s interests around the globe. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also referred to the importance of providing women with support, especially to ensure that they can play a strong role in peace and security initiatives. There were many powerful contributions from both sides of the House, often based on direct experience in countries around the world as well as in the UK.

I turn to the substance of the debate: why UN Women is such an important agency and why it provides such a unique opportunity for our generation to tackle the challenges facing women around the world. Only 19% of the world’s parliamentarians are women. That is not good enough. We must do more to empower women in political life. Many Members spoke about that issue. We must do more to ensure that our political institutions hold their Governments to account on policies affecting women, as the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough powerfully highlights.

A third of the world’s female population have been beaten, abused or coerced into sex. Women have the right to live free from violence, and the world must do more. As we know, women’s rights and interests are often an afterthought in matters of war and peace. We must do more to strengthen women’s participation in peace processes and conflict resolution, as was highlighted in the debate. We must do more to empower women in terms of their life chances.

I am proud that in the UK my party did a huge amount to improve women’s representation in Parliament. Other parties have followed suit, but only 20% of MPs are women and in this Government only four Cabinet Ministers are women. I hope that we will see many more women on the Government Front Bench in years to come.

As much as I enjoy debating with the Under-Secretary, I am sure that the irony is not lost on him that the Government’s International Development and Foreign Affairs teams are both male-dominated. I hope that in future we will see women in those teams speaking up for women in this country and around the world.

To ensure that the hon. Lady’s last point does not deflect from the most substantive parts of the debate, I think it is helpful to note that our spokesman in the other place is Baroness Verma and that our coalition partner’s spokesman is Baroness Northover. I would be most grateful if the hon. Lady would let us know the names and gender of all members of Labour’s International Development team at the time of the previous Government’s departure.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Under Labour, there were many women in Cabinet posts, but not enough. I hope that we can work across the parties to ensure even greater representation of women in positions of power in this country, because we are a symbol of progress around the globe and have a responsibility to ensure that more women are in positions of power.

Let me move on to the issue of violence against women. Women still bear the brunt far too often in conflicts around the world, facing sexual and domestic violence as well as human trafficking. Whether in Haiti, Congo, Afghanistan or Darfur, women have been exposed to brutal attacks, often as deliberate tools of political and ethnic violence. Mass rape is used as a weapon of war. I am only too aware of just what that means, as someone who was born in Bangladesh, a country that gained its independence 40 years ago in a war that cost 3 million lives. To this day, that society remains haunted by stories of rape and brutalisation. In other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women are far more likely than soldiers to be victims of violence. In south Kivu in the DRC, around 40 women are raped every day.

Women most need protection against sexual violence in times of war and conflict, yet the Government are watering down the European convention to combat violence against women—an international agreement that would protect women against domestic and sexual violence—arguing that it should apply only in peacetime, not in conflict situations. They are refusing to treat violence against women as a violation of human rights. As we have heard, the Government failed to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking. Those policies, if supported, would save lives and protect millions of women around the world.

On economic empowerment, we will not unlock development and economic growth in developing countries unless we ensure that women have the same rights as men to access finance, the workplace and education, and have the same property rights. We will not meet the third millennium development goal without tackling gender inequality. Women do two thirds of the world’s work and yet receive only 10% of the world’s income. Here in the UK, as has been mentioned, women are bearing the brunt of the cuts. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has shown so powerfully in her campaign for the Fawcett Society, women are being hit by the cuts much more than men are.

There is also a political and moral side to development. It is why we fought and won the argument about landmines, and it is why we believe that democracy, civil society and empowerment are essential to development. For women, globally, it means that we need an organisation, such as UN Women, not just to champion poverty reduction, but to improve the status of women. That is why we need to fund UN Women.

Britain has been a leader in international development, and if we delay support, we risk holding others back, so I repeat our calls to unlock the core funding that is so desperately needed for UN Women. Ministers repeatedly assured us that, on the conclusion of the multilateral aid review, a decision would be made on funding UN Women, yet no decision was made, and now we are told that a decision will not be made until June. I therefore ask the Minister: are we going to see any movement on transitional funding between now and June? We have heard talk of between £1 million and £10 million being released. Can we have an assurance that, if it is released, it will not represent the total allocation? We also call on the Government to support fully the European convention on combating violence against women, and to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking.

The motion before us rightly places tackling international gender inequality at the heart of our support for UN Women, and I hope that this House will give its wholehearted support to that and to UN Women. I hope, too, that Treasury Ministers see the strength of feeling in the House in this debate and unlock that badly needed funding for UN Women. I also hope that by the time we celebrate international women’s day next year, we will see a flourishing UN Women, working with the UK Government to empower women throughout the world.

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), because she demonstrates that there is genuine, sincerely felt and broad unanimity across the House about the importance and dynamism of the agenda, and about the cause to which we all adhere.

It is a genuine pleasure to be here on the centenary of international women’s day to celebrate the achievements of women past and present. Great strides have been made in the recognition and promotion of women’s rights, but it is important to recognise that, whatever strides have been made, there is much more that needs to be done.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). Her opening speech was so excellent that I hope it will become a candidate for one of the greatest parliamentary speeches of the 2010s, because, along with others to whom I pay tribute, she not only battled to have this debate at all, and in the way in which we are having it, but absolutely nailed the universality of the cause, the importance of it here in the UK and internationally, hence a DFID Minister is answering today, and how important it is not to lose sight of the absolute core argument, which is about empowering women wherever, however, at all times and without any let-up.

I was deeply impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech, and she put her finger on something very important: if we are to have any chance of achieving the millennium development goals, we have to focus not only on women and girls, who are central, but on adolescent girls, because they are the key to stopping poverty and, above all, inequality surviving from generation to generation. She made a very powerful point about optimising the world’s interest by removing all discrimination, above all, against women, and it is by that means that the greatest amount of peace, respect and security can be secured for our world.

We have had a series of outstanding speeches. Many people have contributed, and I will try to do justice to the contributions in the time available. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made a very powerful series of points about the need for, and indeed evidence on, consensus and leadership, and the need for the UK to demonstrate leadership in the drive forward. I will come to the answers prompted by the questions put by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who spoke for the Opposition, but I did note that it is very important to agree on how much the national action plan becomes a core focus of what we can do to move things forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) made a powerful and well-researched speech. She said that peace and security in Afghanistan should not be at the expense of women having to revert, or even approximately revert, to anything like the terrible conditions and cultural impacts that they have had to suffer in times past. We should all get right behind that. She described the importance of Ms Bachelet embedding the role of women in security and peacebuilding, as much as anything else, at the core of her agenda. I note that she was pleased to make mention of the importance of UN resolution 1325 as regards the equalities agenda in Nepal.

Has the Minister made any inquiries about the shelter programme in Kabul? There has been great controversy about the Afghan Government trying to take over the shelters that are being run by NGOs, and women there feel very strongly that they could be in real difficulty were that to happen.

I am aware of that problem. We are talking to a series of international partners very urgently; indeed, one of my ministerial colleagues is not far from the region at the moment, and I know that he is seized of the issue. As the right hon. Lady has intervened, I add that I thought her comments on the position of women and girls in Egypt were very powerful. She talked about working through partners throughout the middle east and north Africa, as well as the importance of constitutionality in underpinning rights. Her reference to the testimony of Nawal El Saadawi made a deep impact on the House.

Speaking of impacts on the House, I turn now to the tremendous speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). It was truly moving. I think we all felt that she not only fully understands domestic violence but is able to try to see round the corner as to how we can truly tackle it in all its abhorrence and inexcusability. In the course of her inspiring speech, I was particularly touched by her reference to the first women’s refuge being set up in Carlisle. By complete coincidence, I am familiar with that because my own mother has had an involvement in helping and assisting it through the nursing profession. I pay tribute to that wonderful institution, which my hon. Friend’s mother was so instrumental in founding.

My hon. Friend was right to show how important it is to understand the connection with education in affecting the attitudes and behaviours of boys and girls alike in being able to make progress. I felt—as, I am sure, did the whole House—that in speaking about women and girls in the United Kingdom, she spoke for girls and women around the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke with a background in VSO, which has been terribly instrumental for many people who have had the opportunity to work abroad. They made some important points about leadership and ensuring that we allow testimony to inform policy and follow recommendations, whether from the Conservative Human Rights Commission or the Godmothers campaign.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said that she had been born abroad. I share that experience, having also been born abroad. These things give one an insight, whatever the circumstances, into some of the issues that take us a long way from our own setting and our own experience, and that can only be useful, we hope. I will of course return to the resourcing of UN Women, which has been a feature of many of the speeches.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a very powerful and deeply passionate and committed speech. I respect her for her views and her experience in raising these issues. She talked about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and about her wish to see how we can drive forward this agenda—how we hold people’s feet to the fire and really influence things. That is what lay behind her amendment. I promise to cover that properly when I get to the substance of my prepared remarks.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) made an important point about access to education, which is so restricted at the moment in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) illuminated the issue with an enjoyable, anecdotal speech. Above all, she made the significant point that girls must be encouraged to have the confidence, as early as possible, to speak up. That will so often carry them through in later years to break through many of the ceilings and barriers that have been put in their way, and further the cause.

The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) made an important contribution on trafficking and made a number of interventions. Above all, he asked how we can monitor the progress of the new law to ensure that it has the desired effect. He said that there is some evidence that the very nature of prosecution could lead to some people not presenting the problem in the first place. That evidence is still very uncertain, which is why it is important that we keep a close eye on how it can be monitored. However, the cause is unarguable.

The testimony of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) made it clear that when women are given a full chance, they surface everywhere on merit. It is vital to recognise above all that it is only false barriers and discrimination that keep people back.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) drew the important conclusion that we should be vigilant in ensuring not only that people have access to paid work, but that the caring role has a value, particularly in relation to children. That point was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his passionate speech and his testimony of what he saw on the front line as a soldier. It is vital that the role of carers and lone parents is central in this argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) touched on an issue that is always difficult to raise in this House, but that it is vital we give a proper hearing to, and that is the absolute abomination of female genital mutilation. I witnessed this issue last year when I visited the hospital in Bo in Sierra Leone. About 82% of the women in Sierra Leone have suffered genital mutilation. It is important to find champions in the older generation of women to help to ensure that younger girls are not subjected to it and to break the cultural expectation, which is driven by the totality of the family, rather than just the men. There are also serious cases of women dying of fistula, which is part of the problem. Going to the fistula clinic in Bo is obviously harrowing, but equally, it is an inspiration for all who are passionate about making the right decisions for development and about driving for results that will make a difference.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for raising the work of the Marlborough Brandt Group in Gunjur in south-eastern Gambia. Although she credited the Department for International Development with funding it, I had yet to become familiar with it. She said it was important to root our efforts to empower women in the recognition that we must focus on women and young girls.

The next in this series of outstanding speeches that I will react to is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who gave a balanced speech, despite saying at one point that men were untrainable. She talked about the Barefoot college, which trains women in solar electrification systems that can supply villages with electricity off-grid, and said that 97 villages had trained their own women. I must confess that solar electrification is an area in which I am certainly an untrainable man. That said, it was a powerful example of precisely how we should be thinking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) raised the difficult but important issue of how it can be acceptable for the Olympic games to have a culture whereby women from Saudi Arabia are not eligible to take part. I undertake to have discussions with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics and to ensure that we come back with a considered response on that important issue, which is about the fundamental right of women not only to enjoy and participate in sport, but to be able to participate in all competitions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) encouraged us to sign up wholeheartedly to all the UN initiatives and to what UN Women is doing, and he rightly encouraged us to have more women in Parliament. He also focused on how to deliver results, which is totally consonant with the approach that DFID has taken in the reviews of our bilateral and multilateral programmes. The results of Lord Ashdown’s humanitarian and emergency response review will be announced shortly, when he has concluded it.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I think I have pronounced that more or less correctly. I had to go on holiday to South Uist last summer to ensure that I had mastered the constituency’s name.

Unfortunately it is not Budget day, and I am not the Chancellor.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar made the call for immediate funding, and I promise that I shall come on to that. He talked about the need to strengthen women’s participation in conflict resolution, which was a theme of a number of the important contributions today. We in DFID are examining the centrality of women and girls in delivering all aspects of development, which is necessary partly because of their deep adherence to peace and security. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, we need to enable them to carry out the added role on which they will never let up even if there is total equality—ensuring that children have the very best safety and the best context in which to be raised and thrive. That was an important part of the debate.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who spoke at the end of the debate, made a powerful addition to it. She centred her remarks on the fact that our own experience here in the UK is informative for programmes that we design to be effective and drive through results in some of the poorest countries. Those programmes reach some of the most wretched people, above all women, who, as has been said many times, make up 70% to 80% of those affected.

I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), as she happens to be my sister’s MP. She talked about a range of matters, and she introduced the important point that we must challenge people at all levels. It is right to challenge FTSE 250 companies and recognise that there are as many brilliant business women as there have ever been business men. We need to ensure that they are given exactly the same levels of responsibility for entrepreneurship and management, and that they feel there is always the possibility of progression and never a glass ceiling.

Despite many advances, we are still faced with enormous challenges, particularly in the poorest countries, although I do not in any way want to decry the serious challenges that still exist in our own society. Every year, more than a third of a million women die completely avoidable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth. It is vital that we take steps that will be transformational. We know that women own less than 10% of the world’s property and that, globally, 10 million more girls than boys are out of school. As many as 41 million girls worldwide are still denied a primary education. In some countries, as many as 60% of women say that they have been physically or sexually abused by their intimate partners. That puts in context some of the points about female genital mutilation, important though they are.

Women and girls continue to bear a greatly disproportionate burden of global poverty. We know that gender inequality lies behind the slow progress—very slow in certain places—towards the off-track millennium development goals, particularly MDG 5 on maternal health. Progress is also lagging on most targets under MDG 3 on gender equality, including those on secondary education, political participation and access to paid employment.

An important point was made earlier about water and sanitation, and the fact that it is vital to recognise that if we want to make it likely that girls will stay on into secondary education, we have to provide latrines and fresh water in schools so that they do not feel the embarrassment of the onset of puberty and menstruation. That is often one of the reasons why they leave school for ever and are subjected to an early marriage, which it would have been possible to avoid.

If we are to be transformative, UK support must make a difference, as it is doing. For instance, we supported the Ghana Government to remove health service fees for pregnant women, which led to a 50% increase in the uptake of maternal health services. Since May, the coalition Government have put girls and women at the very heart of development—they are front and centre of all our programmes; a stream running through everything that the Department does—and we are making strong progress. The Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber today, as ministerial champion to lead our efforts to tackle violence against girls and women overseas. She is helping to ensure that we implement our important action plan.

Our work with multilateral partners is vital in helping us to achieve results for girls and women. The UK has played an integral, leadership role in the successful establishment of UN Women, which is why we have a place on the executive board. Let it be said that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and the Conservative party have given full, unequivocal support, not only in opposition, but in government, to accelerating initiatives and leading as champions.

I was asked about the Secretary of State. He met the head of the agency, the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet the day after her appointment in September and again at Davos in January. Baroness Verma attended the official launch of the agency in New York on 24 February, and everyone is actively encouraging donor support for it. We are in very close contact with the UN Women transition team and are offering at this point $1 million of transitional funding in the current financial year, a high level secondment and any other support that is asked of us, so that we can help to ensure that the agency gets off to the strongest possible start, which answers some of the questions that I was asked in the debate.

As was agreed with Miss Bachelet—the letter was handed over by Baroness Verma on 24 February—the core funding will be announced after the strategic plan, which will be available in June, to ensure that its priorities and the results that it will deliver are detailed. Members on both sides of the House have asked us to ensure that that funding is in place, as is right and reasonable. I hope that no one in the House regards spending UK taxpayers’ money as necessary until there is a clear plan of the results that we seek to achieve for women and girls worldwide. In the meantime, as I said, the transitional funding of $1 million can be accessed, which will ensure fast progress, which is important.

On international women’s day, DFID published its new strategic vision for girls and women—the various documents are on the website—setting out what the UK will do to achieve transformative changes in their lives, which includes saving the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth and 250,000 new-born babies; giving at least 10 million women access to modern methods of family planning; getting 9 million children into primary education, at least half of whom will be girls, and 700,000 girls into secondary education; working in at least 15 countries to prevent violence against girls and women; and getting about 2.3 million women access to jobs and 18 million women access to financial services.

It is right that the amendment was selected—I can see the hon. Member for Slough poised to intervene—but it is a matter for the House and not the Government to decide on Select Committee formulation and so forth, as I think she recognises. Therefore, considering how to take such a proposal forward is a matter not for the Government, but for House officials, who will no doubt canvass opinion. If I may give her some encouragement, the key to sustainable, transformational improvement for women and girls here and internationally is chasing those results, and to ensure that we drive for effectiveness. I fully recognise that audits can be a very useful spur for action—soundings will need to be taken on that—but one must recognise that audit processes look backwards. The question that we have been debating today, and on which there has been unanimity across the House, is about how we ensure that we are rooted for the future. Wherever we are on the spectrum, we need to ensure that the improvement is transformational, urgent and accelerated, and UN Women is probably one of the best ways of championing that across the world in all different countries’ circumstances and cultures.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks, and I have been heartened by the support from across the House for my proposal. However, I accept that it is a matter for the House and that we need to engage other people in these discussions, so I intend to withdraw my amendment to ensure that we can finish the debate in the tone in which we have conducted it—absolutely unanimously.

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Lady, because she has taken the sense of the House in how the debate has been conducted. We have heard not just excellent speeches, but a great sense of determination to make this new step work in a much more transformational way than before. Without question, Government policy, DFID and other Departments recognise that to achieve the results in empowering girls and women here and across the world, we have to increase the opportunity for girls and women to make informed choices and control the decisions that affect them. We need the laws to protect their rights, and we need to increase the value placed on them by society and the boys and men around them. We will know that we have succeeded only when women and girls themselves tell all of us—that is women and men—with confidence that their lives have improved sustainably and will continue to improve. I fully endorse the motion on the Order Paper.

I thank the Minister sincerely on behalf of the whole House—that is an unusual thing to happen—for his support for today’s motion, for his and the Government’s support for the new UN Women agency, and for how he has assiduously taken onboard all of today’s points and made reference to them. No doubt he will take them on board in the future. That means that this has been a useful and constructive debate. I mention in passing that he deserves congratulation on what he has done not as a Minister—well, as a Minister as well—but long before that in setting up the excellent charity, the Malaria Consortium, which does a wonderful job in combating malaria, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. We should bear in mind that it is mostly women and children who die of malaria. On behalf of the House, I praise him for the work he has done.

We have heard this afternoon many speeches in a serious debate on a serious motion that actually means something. For the sake of time, I will not refer to any speeches in particular, except for that from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is important that we tell him that he is absolutely right; it is true that women are impossible, and it is entirely deliberate. We are also determined and never give up. [Interruption.] I think that was a “Hear, hear” from my hon. Friend.

I am sorry that I cannot support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). However, I agree entirely with the intention of the amendment, and she is right to put it before the House. She has drawn attention to the fact that it is up to all of us, as Members of Parliament, in every area in which we are working, and in every Department, to hold the Government to account in tackling inequality and injustice. The House has delivered a strong message this afternoon that this Parliament is determined to fulfil its international duties in driving forward the millennium development goals, by empowering women for the greater good not just of women, but of the societies everywhere in the world in which they live and where they can have influence.

Here at home, new Members of the House will not appreciate that in recent years we have made enormous breakthroughs. I pay tribute to some of the hon. Ladies in the Chamber this afternoon for their work in ensuring that gender equality is taken seriously in this place. It is not so long ago that it was not taken seriously. Some of us have had to fight very hard to get to where we are now. That does not mean that we have won—we have a long way to go—but now most Members of Parliament, if not all, see the point of marking international women’s day, and that equality is worth it not just for its own sake, but for the sake of utilising the talents and abilities of the whole population of our country, not just half of it. The message is simple: where women are oppressed, society suffers; where women are set free, society prospers.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises that around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender; notes that underlying inequality between men and women is the driving force that results in 70 per cent. of the world’s poor being female; recognises that empowering women will drive progress towards all the Millennium Development Goals; welcomes the launch of UN Women, the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, on 1 January 2011; recognises that the agency is an example of UN reform to improve efficiency and co-ordination; and calls on the Government to provide support to the new agency to ensure it has the resources required to end the discrimination that keeps millions of women in poverty.