I beg to move,
That this House welcomes International Women’s Day as an important occasion to recognise the achievements of women; and calls on the Government to join in this international event and pledge its commitment to gender parity.
I am honoured to lead this debate today and pay special thanks to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) for supporting the application to the Backbench Business Committee, on which I remain the only woman member.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity for all of us to use our voices to celebrate the amazing women of the world. It is also our opportunity to send a rallying cry out to the world about the hardships and injustices women everywhere still face. With each passing day, it seems that right now the women out there need to hear us in here and how we support them more than ever before.
It will surprise no one that the subject that I will speak about today is violence against women and girls. Before my rallying cry, I want to reflect on where we were last year and where we are now. As I closed my speech on International Women’s Day last year, I declared that the women murdered in the UK deserved better than what they got. I pressed this House to hear their names and feel their pain.
I have been proud to be a Member of this House in the past year, where parliamentarians, including my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Hove (Peter Kyle), myself and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and many others, called on the Government to overhaul a family justice system that leaves women and children damaged and unsafe. Our calls were heard, and an establishment—an actual establishment, in this time when we talk of establishments—that others said we would never change will now begin to improve. From this place, a message was sent to women living in fear, and hundreds of them have contacted me to express their gratitude.
Last week, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) did a thing that few will manage in their time here when she pushed her Bill to ratify the Istanbul convention through this place to its completion, regardless of those who wanted to stop it. That Bill will mean that a Minister will stand at the Dispatch Box in this place every year and lay out to us exactly how they are going to protect vulnerable women and children.
Yesterday, the Government finally heard the calls that have echoed round this place for over six years and made sex and relationship education compulsory. We have waited too long for this, but the euphoria felt by myself and many campaigners across the House made me want to cartwheel down the halls.
The work over the years of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and many others means that girls will now be safer. These changes in the past year are not exclusively due to but have been led and pushed through by the women in this place, with the support of amazing women’s organisations such as Girlguiding, Women’s Aid, IC Change and many other female-led organisations.
The issue that the hon. Lady has rightly drawn to our attention has international implications. Does she agree that one of the most important things we can do is provide the incentives for girls to remain in school much longer? That reduces the opportunity for early marriage, from which so many of the evils of which she has spoken flow.
I absolutely agree. Every time a girl stays in school in any part of the world and uses her education to stand up and speak for the other women in the world, the whole world becomes a better place. Women with voices matter. Women with voices change things. Women with voices in here give hope and protection to women without a voice at all. I am proud of our efforts, and today I will lay down another marker and say that there is still much to do.
Last year, I rose to my feet in this House and read out the names of the 125 women who had been murdered by men. I decided that I would do that every year while I still had the privilege to be in this place. While we have achieved many things here, I hope that this list once again reminds us of all the reasons we must keep going. I want to stress that this list is the Femicide Census, which is collated by Karen Ingala Smith. The list is made up of all the women killed where a man was the perpetrator or is the principal suspect. While the majority of these deaths can be attributed to partner violence, they are certainly not all in that category and include all the women murdered by men they did not know in the UK since last International Women’s Day. Their names are:
Lyndsey Smith; Robyn Mercer; Paige Doherty; Carrie Ann Izzard; Lynne Freeman; Jodie Betteridge; Joanna Trojniak; Amina Begum; Natasha Sadler; Laura Marshall; Elizabeth MacKay; Marie Johnston; Norma Bell; Tracy Cockrell; Helen Bailey; Leigh-Anne Mahacci; Jean Ryan; Coleen Westlake; Nasreen Khan; Laraine Rayner; Fay Daniels; Louise O’Brien; Xin Liu; Natalie Hemming; Becky Morgan; Iris Owens; Julie Cook; Khabi Abrey; Anne-Marie Nield; Maria Mbombo; Maria Erte; Sonita Nijhawan; Dawn Rhodes; Sylvia Stuart; Andrena Douglas; Karen Hales; Jade Hales; Jo Cox; Helen Fraser; Jean Irwin; Nijole Sventeckiene; Agnieszka Szmura; Sarah Nash; Albertina Choules; Allison Muncaster; Fiona Southwell; Emma Baum; Claire Hart; Charlotte Hart; Tracy Gabriel; Samia Shahid; Nicola Haworth; Lenuta Haidemac; Hannah Pearson; Margaret Mayer; Darlene Horton; Gregana Prodanova; Lynne Braund; Donna Williamson; Xixi Bi; Mia Ayliffe-Chung; Shana Grice; Alison Farr-Davies; Melinda Korosi; Hayley Dean; Annie Besala Ekofo; Zofia Sadowska; Elizabeth Bowe; Nasreem Buksh; Zoe Morgan; Jackie Pattenden; Natasha Wake; Mandy Gallear; Lucy Jones; Vicky Bance; Alice Ruggles; Sophie Smith; Jodie Wilkinson; Pardeep Kaur; Ellia Arathoon; Belen Trip; Natasha Wild; Deeqa Ibrahim; Lisa Skidmore; Rebecca Johnson; Linda Ordinans; Holly Alexander; Andraya Webb; Umida Eshboboeva; Angela Best; Claire Nagle; Hayley Wall; Nicola Woodman; Eulin Hastings; Victoria Shorrock; Leonne Weeks; Kiran Daudia; Kulwinder Kaur; Anita Downey; Ann Furneaux; Chrissy Kendall; Gillian Zvomuya; Amandeep Kaur; Tina Billingham; Hannah Dorans; Catherine Kelly; Hang Yin Leung; Karina Batista; Humara Khan; Hazel Wilson Briant; Margaret Stenning; Avis Addison; and Julie McCash.
Let these women be our inspiration. Let these women be the ones who drive us. I would ask each and every one of us to remember these women, one of whom was one of us. We must remember them when we make our decisions and when we use our votes and our voices. We have a responsibility to be the voices of these women, now they are gone. On this International Women’s Day, let us remember why we are all here and let us raise our voices.
Order. Before I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I must inform Members that there will be a time limit of five minutes on other Back-Bench contributions and that, if there are too many interventions, that will have to be reduced.
It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). She is right to say that we are here to raise our voices. Another hon. Member who is particularly good at raising her voice is the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), to whom we should all pay tribute for the way she works on behalf of women, not only in her constituency but throughout the country. It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I should also like to thank the members of the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to hold this debate, and to hold it here on the Floor of the House. I hope that it will become entrenched as part of the parliamentary calendar from now on. I also want to thank the numerous organisations that have so carefully prepared briefings for us today. They include the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Women’s Aid, the Young Women’s Trust and Relate—the list goes on. Without their experience and frontline work, our debate would not be as rich as it is.
We are here on a daily basis, and we are reminded daily of the challenge that we still face in achieving equality. The job is far from done. When I tell people that I was only the 265th woman MP ever to be elected in this country, they cannot believe it. Indeed, I was the first ever female MP in north Hampshire, though I am proud to be joined on these green Benches by at least two other female MPs representing Hampshire and leading the way on women’s issues. I think that there was another in our midst earlier.
I sat in the Chamber yesterday to see the swearing in of the newest Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison). It was heartening to hear that she is the 456th woman MP. Things are changing, but there is still a steep hill to climb. To mark International Women’s Day, it is right to applaud the work of organisations such as Women2Win, led by my noble Friend Baroness Jenkin, and 50:50 Parliament, and also individuals such as Professor Sarah Childs and our very own Mr Speaker. All are absolutely committed to ensuring that there are more women in this place after the next general election.
Women’s lives have changed for the better over the 100 years since we were given the right to sit in this place. We have a record number of women here and record numbers of women are in work. The right to request flexible working benefits thousands of women, and the gender pay gap has been all but eliminated for younger women. There are no more all-male boards in the FTSE 100, which the Government felt was a significant milestone that demonstrates the importance of female representation at the heart of decision making. I am therefore somewhat surprised that a third of Government Departments—eight out of 25—have all-male ministerial teams, so we may also need some targets there.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be Bold For Change” and we must all be bold. There can be no hiding places. Women’s Institute research shows that 70% of women still feel that they are not equal to the men in this country, that women are judged by different standards, that women who stay at home to raise children are not valued in today’s society, and that despite record numbers of women in work the way that our workplaces are structured means it is still difficult to balance work and home life. We understand all that. Those problems have not gone away. We must continue to modernise our country’s approach to reflect how women’s roles have changed, not simply try to retrofit women into a workplace designed for a different age.
Men are also central to any change. Working Families’ “Modern Families Index” shows that men want change, too. So many families now have two full-time working parents—one in three—and 47% of dads want to downshift to a job in which they can better balance work and family life. A third of dads would even take a pay cut. The sorts of false choices that women have been forced to take for generations are now being forced on men. One of the many reasons why the Women and Equalities Committee is looking carefully into the role of fathers in the workplace is so that we can solve such problems for them as well.
The establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee has given hon. Members the opportunity to drive forward the scrutiny of Government equalities policies and particularly of how those policies affect women. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s support for making the Women and Equalities Committee a permanent feature. The value of the Committee’s work is clear to see. In our report on sexual harassment in schools, which was published last September, we uncovered disturbing levels of sexual violence against girls in schools. Indeed, it was the third Select Committee report to call for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory for all children in all schools.
With the support of more than 40 other Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that was due to be debated next week. The amendment, which also had the support of the Chairs of the Health and Education Committees, was intended to make relationship education compulsory. I am delighted that the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson), did so much work on this and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has been able to take the idea forward and will put it in the Bill for the Government to press on with next week. That is the sort of change that cross-party working can achieve. I also put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her support in ensuring that that work was truly cross-party. Organisations such as Barnardo’s and Girlguiding worked hard on making sex and relationship education a top priority for politicians. We should thank them for that hard work and their assiduous campaigning.
I want to highlight the work done and progress made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. This week, she announced a review of online abuse, which will be of benefit to women in particular, and sits well alongside making relationship and sex education compulsory. I urge the Government to support a Law Commission review of online law, particularly the need for anonymity for adults who are subject to online abuse through images in what is commonly known as revenge pornography. The revenge pornography helpline was put in place by this Government and provides victims with invaluable help. Is the Minister able to update the House on its future?
All of us will acknowledge that the Government have made great progress on several issues that particularly affect women. I acknowledge the personal role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in championing the cause of stronger legislation around domestic violence. The Government recognise the complex nature of domestic abuse and coercive and trolling behaviour. I pay tribute to the campaigning work of Women’s Aid in this area, which demonstrates that domestic abuse is not simply about physical violence. Training for police officers is critical if the legislation is to work as intended, so is the Minister able to tell the House how many police officers have received approved training on domestic abuse issues?
Time is short today, but there are a few more issues that I want to shed light on. It is right that Parliament scrutinises issues, including how they might affect vulnerable groups, and the Government are to be applauded for recognising that an exemption is needed around new child tax credit limits, which will come in next month, for women who have children conceived by non-consensual conception or rape. We must ensure that our policies do not penalise women who live in an abusive relationship, perhaps in fear of what might happen if they leave. They are perhaps one of the most vulnerable groups of women. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that that group are not penalised as a result of the actions of the men they live with?
Our country has done so much on the world stage to champion women’s rights, and we should proud of our international reputation. I am sure that Home Office Ministers carefully followed the national refugee women’s conference in London this week. We need to look at how to ensure that women refugees in this country are properly supported. However, the sustainable development goals that the Government signed up to begin at home. In advance of the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York later this month, I hope that the Minister is able to reaffirm this Government’s specific commitment to implement sustainable development goal 5 in this country. How do the Government plan to ensure that the devolved Administrations are compliant with SDG5? Is there a plan for the harmonisation of women’s rights across the UK? Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and to reproductive rights is central to the sustainable development goals. My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) and the then Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard for that goal. We must fight hard for women’s rights internationally, but we also must fight hard for every woman in this United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, and not hide behind the fact that such matters are devolved.
We will not make the necessary progress unless we lead by example. We need to address the lack of women in this place, the fact that some Departments have no female Ministers, and the need for the permanent scrutiny of equality issues. We must be bold for change, and we must advocate that that change is as strong at home as it is abroad.
I have spent much of my time in this place encouraging and celebrating women. At the turn of the century I made a study of how much difference the 101 Labour women who were elected in 1997 made, and it was clear that it was because of women in this place that, for example, our defence forces started focusing for the first time on the needs of the families of those who fight. It was because of women in this place that Budgets started resourcing women’s purses, rather than men’s pockets. Frankly, it is very sad that since 2010 the tradition, which started in 1999, has been reversed. I hope that when the Chancellor delivers his Budget on International Women’s Day he might go back to recognising that it is time for women to benefit at least as much as men, if not more. After all, we put our money into the pockets of children, and men use their money for their own pleasure—I generalise, but it is true.
My speech will concentrate on violence against women. We all have constituents who have been groomed by pimps, beaten up by violent partners or subjected to forced marriage or genital mutilation. It is important to think about how we help them. Rather than just supporting the expert organisations—in my case, East Berkshire Women’s Aid and Sewak Housing—we must ensure that organisations that are not so expert actually realise their own failures. One organisation in Slough is very good at promoting itself but, frankly, is not very good at protecting women. I have called out Jeena International on those things because it cannot offer people a service and then let them down.
We also need to try to increase resilience among women by helping them to be aware of and to resist the risks of grooming, and so on. I have tried to create a network, largely of south Asian women in my constituency, that aims to build their resilience and that of their sisters. It aims to raise women’s awareness of things such as how to help their sons deal with porn on the net.
I will finish by focusing on some of the most vulnerable women in the world. Yesterday I had the privilege of hosting a meeting organised by Khalsa Aid, a flexible, opportunist aid organisation led by the Sikh community in Slough. Khalsa Aid has been working with Yazidi women. When Daesh overran the Yazidi community, many women starved and expired of thirst after they were abandoned on a hill. What happened to the other Yazidi women afterwards was more degrading that most of us can imagine. They were bought and sold like radios or books. They were raped, beaten up and forced to watch their children being raped. Their sons were kidnapped so that Daesh could try to turn them into terrorist jihadi fighters.
Daesh developed a kind of bureaucracy with rules for using the people who are owned. One of the 15 rules states:
“The owner of two sisters is not allowed to have intercourse with both of them; rather he may only have intercourse with just one. The other sister is to be had by him, if he were to relinquish ownership of the first sister by selling her, giving her away or releasing her.”
That is today. That is the reality of slavery. We call modern slavery “slavery” in the UK, but this is ancient slavery. It is horrifying to look at the price list. A woman of between 40 and 50 years old is worth £27—that is her price. Daesh publishes the prices because it wants the money to buy bombs with which to blow us up. Terrifying, a child under nine is worth four times as much—£109 is the price of a young girl.
Those women have participated in an exhibition called “I am Yazidi” that tells their stories and shows photographs of them. I hope to bring the exhibition to this House, but in the meantime I encourage everyone to see it.
Ravi Singh of Khalsa Aid told me about one woman who managed to fight off her rapists, who then turned on her daughter. After her daughter’s abuse, her daughter said, “Mum, it’s your fault.” The woman does not know where her daughter is now, and she is terrified that her daughter still believes it is her fault. That is the extremity of violence against women, and we should work in solidarity against it.
It is an honour to speak in this debate about International Women’s Day, a privilege that few women across the world are yet able to enjoy. I congratulate our determined and passionate colleague the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this debate and on continuing her great mission in this House.
I am proud to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor as MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Mabel Philipson, who was only the fourth woman to be elected to this place—she was first elected in 1923. I am only the 378th woman ever to be elected to this House, of a total of 456. I very much hope that the number increases sharply in the years to come, and we all have a part to play in encouraging women who are already passionate about their families, their businesses, their communities and their country to play their part in shaping the future of our nation by standing for election to this place. Our latest arrival, No. 456, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), is a walking example of that, and she is the woman who took us across the line—the total number of women ever elected to this House is now greater than the number of men currently serving in this Parliament.
I shall focus my remarks on the women who serve in our armed forces, often in unsung roles. They work just as hard as their male counterparts, and often harder. Many of us civilians are perhaps unaware of the huge strides that women have made in their crucial roles protecting our nation. We are perhaps already aware of the vital part that women played, through necessity, during the great war and the second world war, when women stepped up, ably and with great passion, to take on the roles left vacant by the men who had gone off to war.
During the first world war, 100,000 women served in the uniformed services, primarily as nurses but with few officially close to combat. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed in 1917—100 years ago—and provided women with jobs as telephonists, clerks and chauffeurs. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was created in the same year and saw women taking on domestic work within the Navy, freeing up men for combat roles. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was formed a year later, with women working as drivers, cooks and record keepers.
Beyond the uniformed services, women took on a range of roles left vacant by the men who had left for war. From working in munitions factories to driving trains, women rose up to fulfil what had been seen as “male” roles. Of course, many of those women were forced out of their job once the surviving men returned to the UK, but their ability to take on such roles demonstrated to society how capable women are and what a valuable resource they are to our economy. Just a year after the end of the war, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender.
Women have played an integral role in our armed forces for a century, but what of their role today? As of October 2016, there are 15,380 women serving in our armed forces, making up just over 10% of the total across the three services, with more women serving in the RAF than in the Army and Navy. That represents an increase of three percentage points over the past decade, but there is clearly much more to do. Just as we need more women serving in this place, the talent of women to serve and defend our nation must be harnessed more effectively.
The value of having more women in our armed forces extends beyond their individual contributions. The female of the species brings a different perspective to the challenges of war fighting and peacekeeping in the modern age. The presence of women during peacekeeping operations brings an opportunity to gain access and insight to local communities that is simply not permissible for our male military personnel.
As they serve, women are quietly proving that they are an invaluable asset to our nation, from Royal Navy officers Captain Ellie Ablett, recently promoted to command HMS Raleigh, and Commander Eleanor Stack, who has taken command of HMS Duncan—one of our Type 45 destroyers which I had the privilege to inspect last year—to Commodore Inga Kennedy, the most senior female officer in the Royal Navy; Major General Susan Ridge, our most senior female Army officer; Brigadier Sharon Nesmith, who was the first woman to command a brigade of 5,000 soldiers; and Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West, the most senior woman in the RAF. Those women, and the 15,000 serving across our three armed services, are an inspiration to girls and women today who, when pondering their future career choices, can be inspired by the leadership of those amazing women in leading roles in the armed forces.
The future of our nation’s great asset, the finest armed forces in the world, is safe in the hands of its women and men, and I look forward to continuing my efforts to encourage more young women to study maths and the sciences and then to take up careers as engineers, medics and musicians, pilots and navigators, submariners and logisticians, linguists and intelligence officers. Those are all rewarding career choices both within the armed forces and as civilians with the extra military skillset of personal self-discipline, commitment and passion for a chosen trade.
This time next year I hope to be able to report that the statistics for women in our political networks and our armed forces have continued to grow, and I also hope to report that my recent application to join the Royal Naval Reserve has been accepted. I encourage other colleagues to consider applying too.
I wish to focus on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen, charity worker, mother, daughter, sister and wife, who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost a year now. Nazanin lives 10 minutes down the road from me in west Hampstead. Her life was not very different from mine until she went on holiday to visit her parents with her two-year-old daughter Gabriella, who is also a British citizen. She was detained at the airport and, following trumped-up charges, handed a five-year sentence.
Long periods of Nazanin’s detention have been spent in solitary confinement in a wing of Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Her health has been deteriorating further and further, and her mental health has also been affected. Last week, she tried to walk to the prison clinic, but could not physically make it there and collapsed. After she came round, many hours later, she could not speak for hours on end. Doctors at the hospital in Iran have said that she needs immediate treatment to prevent long-term damage.
Nazanin’s detention, and her lack of legal representation and access to her family, fit the UN’s criteria for torture. It is therefore not a surprise that the UN has said that her detention is unlawful and arbitrary. Some 800,000 people have called for her release, and Nazanin’s family and I took a petition to the Foreign Office with the signatures of 200 MPs from different parties.
This country is not perfect in our treatment of women in prison, and more than half a million women and girls are currently in appalling conditions in prisons around the world. The excuse we often hear for criminal justice systems not having gender-specific options is that the proportion of women prisoners is too tiny to require circumstances to be changed. That is not a good excuse; we must ensure that the needs of female prisoners are met.
It was no surprise when in 2010 the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to adopt the Bangkok rules, the first international instrument to address appropriate conditions for female prisoners around the world. The rules also outline safeguards for the children of female prisoners. Iran has signed up to the Bangkok rules, but it has flouted them at each and every stage of Nazanin’s detention.
I ask the House to bear with me as I read out just how those rules have been flouted. Rule 23 states:
“Disciplinary sanctions for women prisoners shall not include a prohibition of family contact, especially with children.”
Try saying that to two-year-old Gabriella, who spent her second birthday without her parents and has not seen her mother for the best part of the past year. Rule 26 states:
“Women prisoners’ contact with their families…shall be…facilitated by all reasonable means”,
especially when they are detained in prisons located “far from their homes.” Try saying that to Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who has had barely any phone calls with his wife. Those that he has been allowed have been monitored by Iran’s revolutionary guards.
Iran has signed up to the Bangkok rules, and so have we. As I said, our record is not 100% positive. We need to look at our prisons and the way in which our female prisoners are treated, but that does not mean that we should shut our eyes to abuse in other countries. We should be shouting loudly to make sure that Nazanin, a British citizen, is reunited with her family and brought back to this country. I went to the Foreign Office with a Government Member, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), but the Foreign Secretary did not come down to receive the petition, and he has repeatedly declined my request for a meeting.
I shall end on this. I am a female Member of Parliament, and I ask another female Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister, to do something to secure Nazanin’s release so that she can be brought back to west Hampstead and reunited with her family. The Prime Minister has said that she wants to be a compassionate leader; if there was ever a time to show compassion, this is it.
It is an honour to follow that passionate speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change”, so that is the theme of my speech.
In medieval times, a women who killed her husband was guilty of not only murder but petty treason, because she had betrayed someone superior to her. Her punishment was to be drawn and burned alive. In comparison, a husband who murdered his wife was hanged. Why was the woman’s crime worse than the man’s? Because she threatened the established social order, in which each person had, and knew, their place. By killing his wife, the man did not threaten that order.
The law was changed in 1828, and four years later the Reform Act 1832 gave the vote to 300,000 more people, but none of them were women. Between 1870 and 1904, women’s suffrage was debated 18 times in this House. In every vote on the matter from 1886 onwards, a majority of MPs were in favour of allowing women the vote, but we did not get it until 1918.
I shall read out some of the arguments that were made against women being given the vote—arguments that we probably still hear when we are going about our business, delivering public service. They included that women are by nature subordinate to men; that men are made for public life and women for private; that allowing women to vote would, heaven forbid, allow them to think that one day they could become MPs—an idea that was self-evidently absurd; that only men should legislate for women because only men know what is good for women; that we have no grievances, and if we do, they can easily be put right by men; that politics would get women over-excited and lead to nervous breakdowns; and that if women had the vote, they would be pestered on polling day.
Political parties had their own motivations. For the Labour party, votes for women would just enfranchise more of the propertied classes; for the Conservatives, women voting would lead to socialism; and for the Liberals, women were too conservative by nature, so the Liberals would lose elections.
Not everything has changed, but some things have. I want to put on record the women we must acknowledge who came to this place before us. The first female MP to take her seat was elected in 1919. We got our first female Cabinet Minister in 1929, our first female Prime Minister in 1979, and our first female Speaker—the legend that is Baroness Boothroyd—in 1992. Yesterday, in 2017, when my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) was sworn in, we got our 456th female MP, finally surpassing the number of male MPs currently.
It has taken us close to 700 years to reach this stage, and we still have a long way to go. With only 30% of our MPs being women, we are behind Italy, Germany, Norway and Rwanda. I want to send out a message today to any young girl or woman who is listening and wants to enter politics. I want her to hear loud and clear that everyone in this House will welcome her wholeheartedly.
We have moved on from the medieval age; we are now in the technical age. We are among the first generation of parliamentarians who have had to deal with modern technology and the access it gives the public to their politicians. Those of us who use social media know what it is like occasionally to go on to Twitter and Facebook and see a barrage of abuse from trolls. These faceless and nameless cowards need to be called out and challenged. When the Minister responds, will she say what more can be done to put pressure on social media companies and search platforms to encourage them to take down the hate and abuse that is focused on women just because of their gender, faith or heritage? It would be a grand day if, when all the women in this House saw a fellow female parliamentarian being abused just because of who she was, we all went on to social media and drowned out that hate.
I shall finish by thanking some of the female leaders in and around my constituency. Five of the eight East Sussex MPs are women: my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd); my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield); the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas); and me. We have a female chief executive of the county council, Becky Shaw, and a female police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne, as well as dozens of fantastic female councillors at county and district level who have mentored me and are inspiring leaders in their communities. They are the ones who show, each and every day, that politics is very much the business of women.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and all the female Members who have spoken in the debate so far. Notwithstanding the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), it is a shame that there are not more men participating in this debate—[Interruption.] I am pleased that he has saved us all some time.
The theme of this year’s day is, “Be Bold for Change”. It is a call for women and our allies—I thank the few men who are here—to think outside the box, to envision, to be more inclusive, to ensure we have a more gender-equal and fair society, and, ultimately, to be the change that we want to see in the world. Yet today, despite all the progress that we have made, there are still too many women who are adversely affected by cuts, pay disparity, domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and female genital mutilation. I could continue, but the list only reminds us of how far we still have to go.
I am pleased to say that, last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) made history in this House by ensuring that the ratification of the Istanbul convention will proceed. I am grateful to all women’s aid organisations, both in Scotland and across the UK, and to IC Change, which helps to deliver the services on which women rely every day.
Although I welcome the Government’s actions on the gender pay gap—I was proud to sit on the Committee overseeing legislation on that matter—they do not go far enough. It is simply not good enough if a baby girl born today has to wait until 2041 to achieve gender parity. I am pleased that the Government are taking action but, as always, I want to push for more.
I want to highlight some of the bold and courageous women from my constituency who have acted for change and made a difference. Those women have shaped my world view and my view of politics. They are one of the reasons why I am standing here today—this is not the institution that I aim to be in but, none the less, I am here.
I recently went to see the film “Hidden Figures” which documents the untold story of African-American women working at NASA, challenging gender and race stereotypes. The fact is that, all too often, many women who do both ordinary and fantastic jobs every day remain hidden in our society. We should recognise them, although no films are made about a cook, a cleaner or an ordinary woman who works hard but does not earn the same as a man.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the election of Winnie Ewing in Hamilton in 1967. She was a lawyer who became the second ever SNP MP. Therefore, being a young girl growing up in Hamilton meant knowing about strong, passionate women who believed that they could change things in politics, and I hope that that is what I am here to do. Winnie Ewing went on to be known as Madame Ecosse in Europe, and she led the way in fighting for many of the protections that we enjoy today. We must ensure that Brexit will not remove those equality protections. Winnie was unquestionably bold and she acted for change. As well as increasing representation in this Parliament, I wish to see an increase in women local government representatives after the elections in May.
Hamilton was also the home of the late and great Margo MacDonald. Margo challenged the established political order in 1973 in the Govan by-election, and she went on to have a long and successful career in journalism and politics. Sadly, Margo lost the battle with Parkinson’s disease, but she never lost the courage to fight for what she believed in. She was indeed bold and brave in striving for change. Like me, she wanted Scottish independence—I remain resolute that I will see that in my lifetime.
One more great woman who inspired me from a young age is Horse McDonald, who grew up in the area of Lanark. She is a role model for many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Her play “Careful” outlines her own experience of growing up in Lanark. She displayed bravery at a time when being an openly lesbian musician was challenging to say the least.
I have named just some of the inspirational women from Lanark and Hamilton East, but, as I said earlier, there are many more who do ordinary jobs and live ordinary lives, and also deserve to be recognised.
Let me outline one final matter that I wish to change. The Prime Minister has committed to review domestic violence legislation, which I welcome, but I ask her to consider the cross-party calls for a review of the child maintenance tax for domestic violence survivors. I have gone on at great length about that, but if the spirit is to be bold and to ask for change, I will continue to do so.
There is still much work to do. As we celebrate women across the world, let me quote some words from Maya Angelou:
“If you don’t like something, change it.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and her excellent speech—indeed there have been many excellent speeches so far. I am pleased that there are so many women who are being bold and who are bringing about change in this place, and I am proud to be one of them.
I am deeply proud of being Telford’s first ever Conservative MP, and of overcoming the odds and obstacles to make that possible in what was once a safe Labour seat. However, I am prouder still of being Shropshire’s first female MP since 1929 and of overcoming the odds and obstacles to make that possible, because that was the greater challenge.
No one should underestimate the difficulties and roadblocks that, inevitably, are still there for women who want to come into Parliament and get the voices of women heard. It may not be as difficult as it was in 1929 when Edith Picton-Turbevill was elected to be MP for The Wrekin, or in the days of my family member, Janie Allan, who was a militant socialist suffragette arrested for smashing windows in Downing Street. In 1912, she was imprisoned in Holloway where she was force fed.
I have no doubt Janie Allan would be proud, and probably also amazed, that I am here and can go to Downing Street to make my voice heard without the need to smash any windows, and that when I do so, the Prime Minister is a woman. I pay tribute to Janie Allan for her daring; she was a bold woman. I also pay tribute to the women who came after her who enabled us to be in this place today.
Sometimes, we minimise the difficulties that women face in getting into Parliament and in staying here. Sometimes, we prefer just not to talk about it. However, if we pretend that there are no problems, we do no favours for the women who are still to come to this place.
The increase in women MPs since 2005, when there were only 17 female Conservative MPs, has created transformational change in the make-up of the House of Commons and it has transformed the things that we talk about and the debates that we hold, which is to be welcomed. We must pay tribute to Baroness Jenkin, our Prime Minister and the organisation, Women2Win, which has helped so many women over those years. Today, seeing 70 women Conservative MPs in Parliament, is a proud day, but the work is not yet done. For more women to stay in Parliament and to follow on behind us, we need to speak out about some of the obstacles that we experience. That will make it easier for the women who come to this place after we have gone.
I am becoming increasingly concerned about a tendency to treat certain crimes, where women are predominantly the victims and men predominantly the perpetrators, as gender-neutral crimes. It is suggested that, as these crimes can happen to men too, they are not about gender relations, and that the male/female dynamic is irrelevant. I do not agree with that. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is not in his place to hear this part of my speech. An example of where that is happening is child sexual exploitation. The perpetrators are men and the victims are almost entirely women and yet, because there have been some male victims, we are told that it is a gender-neutral crime. If we fail to understand that some crimes are predominantly committed by men against women, we cannot tackle the causes and we cannot provide the support that women need to recover from these crimes.
Child sexual exploitation is about the exploitation of a power imbalance between men and women, and it is where men groom and trade young girls for sex with other men. If we do not see it in those terms and we say that child sexual exploitation is a form of child abuse, that gender is irrelevant and that the perpetrator’s gender is irrelevant, it does not take us any further forward. This is a crime perpetrated by men against women, and let us not pretend otherwise.
I do not have much time left, so I shall cut to the chase. I began by talking about the difficulties that still exist for women to get into this place and stay here; I want to add that most women do not want any special treatment or favours. No one wants to be perceived as complaining. In fact, when I first came here, I did not want to be labelled as a woman who would speak up only for women’s issues, and I steered clear of the Women and Equalities Committee, but I am now extremely proud to be a member of it and to have had a complete change of heart. I want to be a voice for other women whose voices cannot be heard.
I want to use today’s debate to highlight an oral history learned at my mum’s knee about the match women of London’s east end, who took control of their lives, setting ablaze a fire of trade union activism that not only secured better conditions at work for themselves, but inspired an era of labour organisation that would see workers’ rights entrenched and a political party of labour founded.
These courageous, poor, ill-educated women worked in appalling circumstances at the Bryant and May factory in east London. In 1888, they came out on strike to secure safer working conditions. Yet their story has been misrepresented and their impact on the early days of the labour movement has been underestimated—they were not the ones writing the histories. Their victory is attributed to Annie Besant, although not in the version I heard from my mum; in fact, she had never heard of Annie Besant. Let us give Annie her due—she did much to highlight the horrific working conditions at the factory—but she was opposed to the strike. She tried to dissuade the women from going on strike; she feared for them.
The version of history in which the defenceless waifs of London’s underclass were rescued by the principled, sympathetic middle-class champions has been comprehensively debunked by the amazing, remarkable, redoubtable author Louise Raw. In her brilliant book “Striking a Light”, she meticulously details just how the match women, led by five workers—Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin—knew their own minds, designed their own tactics, led their own movement and forged their own history. They were the true leaders of the match women’s strike.
Witnesses at the time were in no doubt of the significance of the event. The Star newspaper reported:
“The victory of the girls...is complete. It was won without preparation—without organisation—without funds...a turning point in the history of our industrial development.”
But the true story of the match women is so much more than just proud local women’s history. These women were and are integral to our national story. History records that it was the heroic London dockers of 1889 who spurred the foundation of the labour movement. But the record needs to be clear that it was London’s working-class women, a year earlier, who were the vital spark of trade unionism. The men learned from the women—they learned from their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters and their neighbours. John Burns, a leading trade unionist at the time, told the striking dockers—men—to
“stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the match girls, who won their fight and formed a union.”
Today the leaders’ names have echoed in this Chamber. But it ain’t enough. We have no memorial to them—their fight, their impact and their place in history. I have asked the Government before, and I ask again: please put pressure on English Heritage. We need to get this changed. I have tried, and so far I have been unsuccessful. English Heritage does not seem the least bit interested, despite its recent commitment to reflect diversity in its blue plaque scheme. I want a blue plaque on the site to recognise the true leaders of the match women’s strike and the 1,400 women who came together to withdraw their labour, demanding and winning safer and fairer working conditions. We need a plaque to remember the women who organised, who fought and who won against massive odds—women who were instrumental in founding a political labour movement that continues to fight for fair pay and conditions for all of Britain’s workers.
I am delighted to speak in this important debate and to follow the very powerful speech from the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who can count on my support for her campaign.
The UN’s theme for International Women’s Day this year is
“Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”
and the global theme is “Be bold for change”, but 2030 is only 13 years away, and there is still much to be done. The Prime Minister has called the gender pay gap—the difference in earning power between men and women—a “burning injustice”. I could not agree more.
We still have some way to go in the changing world of work in the UK. British women still have 71% of the economic opportunity that men have. Yes, there are other countries that are doing much worse, but the UK should be a leader in this area. Sadly, we are not.
UN sustainable development goal 5 describes gender equality as a world issue. It is a sad statistic that between 1995 and 2015, global female labour force participation decreased from 52% to 49%. Only 69% of women are employed in the UK, compared with 78% of men. The global gender pay gap is 25.5%, but the UK gender pay gap is 19.2%. That is not something to be proud of. We cannot lecture other countries around the world that we have it better. If the current trends continue, it will take 70 years to close the global gender wage gap, but the Government have vowed to reduce it within a generation.
If we are going to be bold for change, we will have to look very hard at where we can make a difference. One way to address that is by looking at older women in the workplace. I want to focus on women returning to work, particularly older women. One of the findings from the gender pay gap inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee, on which I serve, was that women who have been out of the workplace for more than six months find it difficult to get back into employment. The longer they are out of work, the harder it is.
I set up the all-party group on women and work with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) to look at the barriers to work. Our group has proved to be incredibly popular—we have standing room only at most of our meetings. There is still a definite need—I wish it were not so—to help women in the workplace. Our first all-party group inquiry was about women returning to work. We published our report in January, and it seems to have struck a chord with employers and women up and down the country.
There are some very good examples of companies that are already doing it, but we need to do much more to get people on board and to see the wisdom of tapping into the life experience and work-related experience of older women employees who are keen to get back into work. In my view, companies that cannot see the potential are missing a big trick. To put it quite simply, there is a huge pool of talent out there.
People take time out of the workplace for all sorts of reasons. The biggest reason is caring responsibilities, whether for children or for elderly relatives. Some people, including me, took time out because we think that parenting is the most important job in the world and we wanted to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that view. For others, childcare costs are an enormous barrier for women who want to return to work. Having 30 hours of free childcare will help, but I fear that too many men and women are not taking time out to look after their children because they are worried about getting back into work. Taking time out of the workplace is a huge financial commitment, but more would be prepared to make that choice if they knew that they would not struggle to get back into work at a later date. Families would be in a better place to budget, too.
The more social investment and measures that Governments can put in place to balance work and family commitments for both men and women and to recognise the importance of looking after children, the better. I am pleased that the Government have recognised many of those points in their policies, but we need to take it further. For instance, our group’s report found that few people were taking up shared parental leave—just 1% of men are taking it up. It is considered complicated and unwieldy.
There is little recognition of the work that women—it is predominantly women—do when they are at home. We have to stop this idea that just because someone has taken time out of the workplace, they are any less capable. My heart sinks when people dismiss mothers or fathers who are staying at home; what is more important than bringing up the next generation? It should be treated as equally important as going back to work.
Many women who have been out of the workplace for some time have lost confidence and do not know how to start, but several organisations are addressing this. We are incredibly grateful for people such as Julianne Miles, the co-founder of Women Returners, who contributed to our report. Companies need to be flexible in their approach and in their conditions. They must not see a gap in a CV as a barrier and show a reluctance to employ someone. Employing older women and men is a huge economic opportunity, especially if we are going to live until we are 90, as the predictions are for South Korea. I challenge all companies: be bold for change and lead the way.
I rise to speak as No. 404. Obviously, none of us should simply be a number, but being only the 404th woman to be elected to this place seems astonishing to me, in this day and age, when we would all like to believe that we had moved beyond all that. But we have not. Both at home and further afield, the life chances of women and girls are too often hindered by barriers, sometimes insurmountable ones, that should not be there.
We all know of exceptional and inspiring women in the public eye who have overcome those barriers, against all the odds, but there are many women who plough through more quietly and are just as influential, and who are no less impressive for being out of the public eye; women such as my late mother-in-law, Harbhajan Kaur, who spent her young life in rural India, where she taught other young women, before moving to Scotland and raising her own family, teaching her own girls to be strong, independent women, as she was. Today we must applaud all the individual women around the world who are pushing against the barriers.
I recently saw an Indian television advert about a cheery chap called Gurdeep who ran a sweet shop selling piles of delicious-looking ladoo. His shop was called Gurdeep Singh & Daughters, and the message behind the advert was that girls can do anything that boys can, which of course is true. In some ways it is a great shame that in 2017 we even need to say that. But we do need to say it, and that holds true here just as much as it does in India.
In too many ways we are nowhere near where we should be. Last year, the median average earnings for full-time female employees was £12.82, as opposed to £14.16 for men; less than 27% of FTSE 100 company directors were women; and in this House—well, it has a long way to go. I am pleased that the Scottish Government are very focused on action to make a difference to these and other areas of women’s lives, and we do need action. We need action here, too, such as the brilliant work of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who did such a great job in shepherding through her Istanbul convention Bill. We do need frameworks, which is why the Scottish Government’s commitment to gender equality is so influential. These commitments, and role models such as our First Minister, make a significant difference to women’s lives and the aspirations and beliefs of our girls.
Those things also make a difference to the aspirations and beliefs of our boys. As a mum of fantastic boys, I believe that I would be doing them a huge disservice if I did not spend time ensuring that they understand that girls and boys, men and women, are equal in value, in ability and in every way. So the fact that equality for women is at the heart of our vision for an equal Scotland, and seeing that commitment in action in those who influence us, makes a huge difference. It is important for all our children to see these principles of equality and fairness in action in public life, as well as in their own daily lives.
We all know someone whose commitment to women’s issues and to equality has inspired us. We in this place must amplify that, live it every day and show it, so that all our young people have every prospect of success, whatever their identity. When I was a wee girl, I cannot say that I was inspired much by the most famous female politician of the day—even then I knew that she did not speak for me. But I also knew perfectly well that I could do whatever I wanted with my life, and be whoever I wanted to be, because I was inspired by another politician much closer to home: my own mum. She lived a life that was very far from ordinary, and she believed in her girls in a way that every child deserves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, she was the change that she wanted to see in the world. That is what we all need to do in this place, here in our Westminster ivory tower. We are in the most privileged position. If we do not use it to push the rights of girls and women, we are letting ourselves down, we are letting our girls down, and we are letting our boys down, too.
Let us rise to the occasion. Let us not just come here every year and agree—I think that largely we do agree—that the rights of women really do merit some attention. Let us all commit this year to making a concerted effort to do the big things and the small things, to make the decisions and to change the policies that really will make a difference.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing achievements of women around the world. I therefore want to begin by marking some of the great accomplishments of women from my constituency of Ogmore. Norah Isaac, who was born in Caerau, was one of the greatest 20th-century Welsh authors and a passionate advocate of the Welsh language. Norah’s accolades include being the first woman ever to be a head teacher of a Welsh medium school, and later, at Trinity College in Carmarthen, establishing the first ever Welsh drama department. Sian Lloyd, from Maesteg, is one the UK’s longest serving weather forecasters, after spending 24 years at ITV Weather. Aside from her meteorology work, Sian is also known for her charitable efforts, including her support for the Prince’s Trust.
The achievements of women have built our world to what it is today, but unfortunately so many women are supressed and limited by a world that still favours men. I want to encourage each and every male Member of Parliament to use the platform that we have been given to highlight that injustice. It is our duty in Parliament to highlight injustices, and one of the greatest injustice that remains in the world today is the barriers preventing women from succeeding.
The situation for women in the UK should embarrass us all. In the workplace, according to the Opportunity Now campaign, for every £1 a man earns, a woman earns 81p. One in 10 women have experienced sexual harassment at work, and over half of tribunals involve some form of sex discrimination against women. There are unfair pressures on women that men simply do not face in day-to-day life. For example, one in five women are carers, and they can face even more significant difficulties balancing work life with other responsibilities.
On a global level, only five countries have gender pay gaps below 10%, and some have a disparity of close to 40%. Internationally, only 1% of land is owned by women, and only a fifth of managers are women, in all walks of life and professions. Progress is being made, but in my opinion the speed is far too slow.
I passionately believe that men must be far more vocal on these injustices. Ultimately, the fight for gender equality should be led by women. However, as allies in the fight, we male Members of Parliament must use the platform that we have been given to highlight the injustices.
I want to focus for a moment on the scale of femicide in the UK. In December I raised in this Chamber the femicide census published by Women’s Aid and nia. The report details the cases of nearly 1,000 women in England and Wales who have been killed by men since 2009, demonstrating the absolute worst product of sexism in the UK. It showed that the majority of women killed by men are murdered by their former or current partner, in what the report says is often “the final act of control” in an abusive relationship. Following the release of those data, Women’s Aid and nia called for long-term funding of specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence services, as well as additional funding for specialist projects for women to exit prostitution. The partnership also called for a specific recognition that post-separation is a significantly heightened risk period for women leaving abusive relationships.
That report and the subsequent recommendations were published on Wednesday 7 December. The following day, in this Chamber, I called on the Government to make a statement on what they will be doing to put a stop to any more women being killed at the hands of men through domestic violence. I am disappointed to say that, 12 weeks later, there has been no public response from the Government on those recommendations—I am happy for the Minister to correct me if that is not the case.
I am pleased by the action being taken by the Welsh Government down the road in Cardiff Bay. The Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 improved the consistency, quality and join-up of service provision, introduced a needs-based approach to developing strategies that will ensure strong strategic direction and strengthened accountability, and worked to promote the awareness of, and to prevent, protect and support, victims of gender-based violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence. Since the Act became law, the Welsh Government have consistently looked for new ways of tackling domestic violence.
I started my speech by naming two women who are famous for their accomplishments in various fields of expertise. I will end by paying tribute to the many women in my constituency, and probably in every constituency, who frankly are the lifeblood of our communities, be they the women who run the football clubs, the youth clubs, the scouts and the guides, or the business leaders, the managers, the public servants and the entrepreneurs, and all the women who hold public office, in this Chamber and every council and Assembly Chamber across the land. Their leadership is vital, their achievements are many and, frankly, they do a damn sight better job, often with more complex lives, than many of the men I know who do it.
May I say how pleased I am to represent the Liberal Democrats in this debate on International Women’s Day, as the 454th female MP? I am proud to say, in contrast to some previous Members’ contributions, that I am not the first, nor even the second, woman to have held my seat. I am, in fact, the third Liberal Democrat woman to represent Richmond Park, and I am extremely proud of that.
One of the advantages of being a London MP is that I get to go home to my family every evening and spend time with them every morning. As the mother of young children, this is a particular blessing to me, but it does mean that I live a life of contrasts. Yesterday, for example, I spent the first part of the morning trying to get my son to clean his teeth and my daughter to brush her hair. I then travelled into Westminster and challenged the Prime Minister in the Chamber about her spending priorities for education. Of the two things, the latter was more remarked upon—it was heard by Members here, recorded in Hansard and shared on Twitter—but getting my son to clean his teeth was the greater achievement in many ways. It took more ingenuity, effort and emotional commitment, but nobody noticed, cared or applauded me for it.
It often sounds ironic or self-deprecating to refer to the tasks of motherhood as being more taxing than tasks carried out in the professional sphere, but in this case, I am not being ironic; it is precisely true. We are so used to underplaying the work we do as mothers and in the home that we do not think anyone will take us seriously if we talk seriously about it. So today, in the spirit of the motion to recognise the achievements of women, I want to celebrate the everyday, unacknowledged, unrewarded and unnoticed achievements of women.
I start with childbirth, which is probably the ultimate feminine achievement. Women are often told not to make too much of a fuss about childbirth, with people saying, “Millions of women all over the world and throughout history have done it, and most of them don’t have access to pain relief,” “It’s the most natural thing in the world,” and so on. But the births of my three babies continue to be the most profound experiences of my life. We do not actually talk all that much about childbirth. Yes, we discuss the timing and order of events such as what we were doing when we went into labour and how long it took, but we have not really developed a language to talk about how it feels or how it makes us feel. We just do not have the words. Although the experience leaves a lasting imprint, it is never fully acknowledged. The memory of childbirth remains with us—unshakeable and unshareable, but never fully expressed. I want to take advantage of this occasion to say what a huge achievement it is to give birth, and how proud we, as women, should be of our capacity to do that.
I also want to acknowledge those first weeks and months of a baby’s life when a woman gives herself over entirely to looking after her child. We all choose different ways to do this, but the achievement is the same. Whether our children are now fully grown adults or still small children, they are only here because their mothers kept them alive in those early weeks and months. Again, the effort and sacrifice that takes is often dismissed or overlooked, so I tell mothers everywhere to be proud of what they did because their children would not be what they are without them.
The long days and short years of childhood that follow are full of minor, unacknowledged successes such as wrestling them into coats, coaxing them to sleep and getting them to eat vegetables—the hard, hard work of persuading resisting children to do what is best for them. Each tiny triumph is a building block to a better person, but the reward is a very long way away, and nobody will remember the battles fought to make it happen. So, to every mother who managed to get her children up, dressed, teeth cleaned and to the school gates on time this morning—particularly in their World Book day costumes—not just this morning, but every morning: be proud and do not underestimate yourself. It is a great achievement to raise children.
I am conscious that people will think I am stereotyping women by referring only to their achievements as mothers. If am doing that, it is because I want to focus on the things that only women do and only women can do. I am just as proud of women who achieve great things in a professional, creative or sporting field, especially if they do it against a background of gender bias, but I want to focus on the things that only women do. I do not want to ignore the role of men in childrearing. All the fathers I know are as equally involved in the unglamorous, difficult bits of parenting as the mothers, but this debate is about International Women’s Day, and we should acknowledge that, globally, the vast majority of childrearing and domestic work is done by women. The truth is that this is why our achievements in this sphere are so often overlooked and underappreciated. It is because this work is done by women that it is so often ignored or taken for granted.
I am as grateful as any other woman of my age that social progress has enabled me to have a broader life than just being a wife and mother, and I am glad that so many other women are also making the most of opportunities to leave their homes and go out to work. It makes a positive difference, not just to them and their families, but to our economy and society. However, it means that women are not at home to do the unpaid domestic labour that they might have done 30 years ago and have done for centuries. We have found ways to outsource the tasks of childrearing and domestic upkeep, and meet the costs of that from our own pocket, but the job of looking after sick and elderly relatives is now increasingly being met by the state, and we need to find ways to meet the costs of social care that result.
I have been absolutely inspired by what I have heard this afternoon. In fact, I have rewritten my speech a good deal as I have been sitting here, but I am going to make the one that I originally started with. When I was asked to take part in the debate, I was also asked whether I could give the perspective of an older woman. I resisted for all of about 10 seconds, because I have now fully embraced my age.
A mother gives her child the best future she possibly can. She teaches her children what her mother taught her. My mother was born in 1919 and was an intelligent, caring woman who only wanted what was best for her three daughters, but she was raised in a time when men ruled. One of her favourite expressions to me was, “Marion, hen, don’t argue with your father. Just know that you’re right.” I could never take that advice and I frequently argued with my father, but I could only actually do that when only he and I were there, because he still had to be seen as the man of the house, and as untouchable and unarguable with it.
My husband was raised by his mother and four older sisters, although women are still a complete mystery to him. His mother insisted that George did not have to do any housework. Why should he? He had four sisters; I have heard frequently over the past 46 years how they felt about that. Many years later, he actually said to our daughter, “Rachel, why haven’t you tidied up?” My daughter said, “Why haven’t you asked my brothers that?” And he said, “Because you’re a girl.” I am not denigrating my husband—I actually asked him whether it was alright to tell these stories, because he knew I was going to do it anyway—but I just want to point out how much progress has been made in this regard. My husband would be horrified and absolutely heartbroken if his granddaughters did not receive equal opportunities and pay, and equality across the board. This is how progress has been made. It has not been easy and it is still ongoing work, but we have made progress in the Fellows household.
I have personally been discriminated against in my lifetime. I secured an exciting new job setting up jobcentres across the east coast of Scotland in 1974. When I phoned to confirm the final arrangements for starting, I mentioned I was pregnant and was told, “Goodbye.” I never started that job. It is vital that the kinds of tests that I had to face are never, ever revisited. Although there are laws to protect us, it is attitudes that matter, and attitudes have to change.
When I started working, I actually got equal pay with the men I worked alongside in Midlothian County Council. However, when I was a councillor in 2012, before I entered this place, I found myself on a member-officer working group on equal pay. The women on North Lanarkshire Council who did the best and worst jobs—home support assistants, lollipop women and all that—had fought for 10 years, but only when they went to a woman lawyer, Carol Fox, was their claim finally made. That should not happen.
I realise that I do not have much time left, but the one thing I want to say is that this is not about me, my family or the UK. I went to one.org last night, and I want to say, here and now, that I fully support its “Poverty is Sexist” campaign. It is vital that we educate women across the world. I quote the African proverb:
“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family”
and a nation. Let us do that. Please Minister, let us make sure that there is absolutely no cut to what we give to women internationally.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
I, too, would like to address the need for an ambitious change in attitudes and culture, as well as for legislation to protect the victims of rape and sexual violence. There were 35,798 complaints of rape in this country between 2015 and 2016, but just 2,689—7.5%—resulted in convictions. Some 90% of rape victims are female, and 10% are male.
Last week, I was very fortunate to visit Argentina with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I spoke with Diputada Victoria Donda about the huge protests in the streets last October, following the drugging, rape and brutal murder of 16-year-old Lucía Pérez. According to the popular movement Ni Una Menos, which means not one woman or one girl less, one woman is killed every 30 hours in Argentina, and there are still protests on the streets outside the Congresso today. That is despite the fact that a law was passed in 2012 against so-called femicide.
However, legislation without enforcement, and without cultural change, is not worth the paper it is written on. As today’s motto reminds us, we must be bold—bold enough to engender change on all levels, from the attitudes of the police, to the process of the justice system, to, most importantly, outcomes and the experiences of victims. I attended the police parliamentary scheme last summer, and it was interesting to see the work being done with the police to address attitudes. We must not be satisfied that legislation alone will make a difference; we must address the culture in all stages of the criminal justice system, be that the police or the courts.
Following my private Member’s Bill last month, the Government have—I am proud to have, I hope, contributed to this—announced a review of section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. That is a move I wholeheartedly welcome. The Act sought to prevent rape complainants from being questioned about their previous sexual history with a third party in all but exceptional circumstances. The Act came into effect in 1999, but that is not what rape complainants experience when they go into court. Some 36% of rape trials overseen by the Northumbria court observers panel last year included questioning about the prior sexual conduct of the complainant with a third party. The number of harrowing individual cases I have heard indicates that that draconian tactic is still employed by many defence lawyers across the country.
The brutal cross-examination of rape victims re-traumatises the vulnerable at a time when the system should be protecting them. It is not a matter of proving whether a rape complainant is lying; it is a cynical strategy to discredit complainants’ characters by portraying the complainant as promiscuous, in a way that makes them less credible to the jury. Irreparable harm is done to victims under the noses of judges in our courts. The procedures that are supposed to be followed under the 1999 Act are, in many cases, disregarded. This victim-blaming attitude needs to be stamped out in not only the justice process but our society as a whole.
On this, our International Women’s Day, we are being reminded to “Be Bold for Change”. At home and abroad, we have an obligation to change not just legislation but perceptions of rape and sexual violence to ensure that all victims, regardless of their gender, have the confidence to come forward and report these serious crimes. I hope all Members in the House will join me as we continue to battle to change not only the laws but the attitudes that fail victims in this society and abroad.
It is a pleasure to follow that inspiring speech.
Yesterday, Labour Women made a short film for International Women’s Day. One of the things we were asked to do was to complete the sentence, “I want to live in a world where”. I said I wanted to live in a world where violence against women was eradicated and where rape was no longer used as a weapon of war. However, I wanted to go on to say that I also wanted the statistic that every week two women are murdered by their partner or ex-partner to be eradicated. That figure remains stubbornly the same, and no amount of awareness raising, improving of police handling of complaints and passing of laws, such as Clare’s law, appears to make a dent in it.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), those two women per week are not statistics but real people—colleagues, friends, mothers, sisters and daughters. Leading up to their deaths, there is usually a catalogue of assaults—not reported—with partners pleading that they will change, and a repeat of the cycle of violence.
Imagine the trauma of being a child growing up in that situation, seeing the two most significant adults in their life fighting; going to bed at night wondering whether the night will be broken by yet another argument; worrying all the time; and, sadly, in many cases, thinking that all this is normal because it is all that they have experienced, living in a state of permanent high anxiety.
The fallout from domestic abuse is wide, yet the figure of two deaths per week sticks stubbornly. I was pleased to hear our honorary sister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), talk about that issue earlier. We need to do something about the funding of women’s refuges. Too many women are turned away, and it is still not a statutory and, therefore, a funded duty of councils to provide domestic abuse services.
As this debate is about International Women’s Day, I want to talk about the plight of women around the world. In any conflict, women often have fewer resources to protect themselves. With children, they frequently make up the majority of displaced and refugee populations. War tactics, such as sexual violence, specifically target women.
However, women are almost completely missing from peace negotiations following conflict. The international community has recognised that women’s contribution is vital to achieving and sustaining peace. In 2000, the UN Security Council passed the historic resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It calls for women to participate in peacebuilding, to be better protected from human rights violations, and to have access to justice and services to eliminate discrimination. Yet, almost 17 years on, more than half of peace agreements make no mention of women. We face new threats, including climate shocks, global health pandemics and violent extremism directly targeting women’s rights. Now, more than ever, we need the women, peace and security agenda.
I want to finish with these words:
“When you have warfare things happen; people suffer; the noncombatants suffer as well as the combatants. And so it happens in civil war…there is a good deal of warfare for which men take a great deal of glorification which has involved more practical sacrifice on women than it has on any man.”
Those are not the words of our sisters from Nigeria, Iran, Sri Lanka or anywhere else around the world; they are the words of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913. Yet they still ring true and have relevance to the international community of women today.
This week, it was my pleasure to be able to vote on the design of a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst to be erected in Manchester, as a welcome relief from the many statues of men in our city. In the borough of Rochdale, we recently erected a statue of Gracie Fields, and Bury in Greater Manchester is working on a statue to commemorate the wonderful and much missed Victoria Wood, so I go back to where I started: I want to live in a world where it is no longer unusual to put up a statue of a prominent woman—not just in Greater Manchester, but the world over.
It is an absolute pleasure to wind up this debate on behalf of the SNP. As I often say, this Chamber always feels like a different place when there are mainly women in it, not least because we do not hear funny noises or sounds that are unrecognisable to most of us. This certainly feels like a period of reflection.
I pay tribute to the many women MPs who have spoken out in the past year with great bravery, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), who spoke here a while ago about her rape. Many across the Chamber have spoken of the domestic violence and assault that they have faced. I salute them all, and I am sure that everyone watching does, too. It takes tremendous courage to speak about such personal issues in such a public forum. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who spoke about mothers. We should remember those who have lost mothers over the past year, as well as how much mothers contribute to what we have to offer our children and the rest of society.
As I said, this Chamber can often feel like a different place. Our levels of tolerance often have to increase depending on who is speaking and what they are saying. I pay particular tribute to our Tory colleagues who, on certain occasions, need to have much higher levels of tolerance than the rest of us, but achieve that with such grace. I am grateful for the many brilliant contributions that they have made today.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who always speaks with great eloquence, passion and knowledge about victims of domestic violence, started the debate with another awe-inspiring speech. The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) spoke about Yazidi women and brought home the terrible plight that they have to endure, which we really must do something about. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) spoke eloquently about women in the armed forces, to whom we pay continual tribute.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) spoke about social media. I had the pleasure of being on a programme with her and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley about how social media abuse can affect women disproportionately. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) reminded us about the important—perhaps the most important—job of men and women in bringing up their families. What can seem like small triumphs at the beginning of the day in getting children to do minor things are actually major triumphs, and we should never forget any of them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who spoke about her husband, George, whom I have met—a wonderful individual. If he is not a feminist through choice, he is certainly one through submission.
We have heard about the main theme of International Women’s Day—and, indeed, that of the UN’s International Women’s Day. We support both excellent themes. I would like to reflect briefly on the achievements of women in the past year. Since the last time we gathered for this debate, Taiwan, in May 2016, elected its first ever female President, with 56% of the vote. Last year, Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, officially inaugurated the first ever women-only university in Kabul. Here in the UK, we saw women taking up positions of leadership, not least the Prime Minister.
Progress is being made, but there is much more to do, particularly in the professions. Women remain significantly under-represented, given that they are 51% or 52% of the UK population. Research shows that we have more female lawyers than ever before, but that does not mean that our legal system has a real gender balance. We also see many more female journalists. I pay tribute to Sophy Ridge, with her new programme on Sundays, and Emma Barnett, with her programme on Radio 5. I have no doubt that they face a very different level of scrutiny from that of their male counterparts. I hope that Members will join me in saying that we are with them as they try to deal with all the stereotypes while producing excellent programmes. Again, however, having more women in journalism does not necessarily mean that our reporting of politics is more gender balanced.
I would like to mention some experiences of women in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), as usual, made an excellent speech about equality. She mentioned Winnie Ewing, the first female SNP MP, who, after she came down to Westminster, talked about being stalked at night:
“I first noticed the problem in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Wherever I sat this MP sat opposite...Then I noticed that he has started to follow me along corridors, appearing behind me without saying anything...I set through the dark Chamber and into the Public Lobby to go to the stairs leading to the Members’ Entrance, from where I could ring for a taxi. However, as I left the Public Lobby, I saw the door swinging in front of me. I felt afraid but I went on through the door and down the steps…As I turned a bend on the stair, there was my stalker right in front of me, looking very sinister indeed. I tried to humour him as I wanted to reach the cloakroom—where there was an attendant—without anything happening. He kept staring and following me, but I made it and breathlessly told the cloakroom attendant what was going on.”
That was in 1970, and this is of course 2017, but in 2017 you get barked at in the Chamber. I am sure that I speak for all women in this Chamber when I say that we have had more than enough of this nonsense. While Winnie, Nancy Astor and Barbara Castle were isolated here, I genuinely do feel that if we work together, in our greater numbers, we can make real, positive change. It is not about fighting for equality for equality’s sake—it never is—but making sure that this Parliament is more a place of representative democracy. Having a female Prime Minister does not mean that we have a Parliament built on equality, because in 2017, as we have heard, only 30% of the MPs sitting on these Benches are women. However, we have made progress, and we should celebrate that where it occurs.
I would like to speak briefly about violence against women. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on her excellent work on her private Member’s Bill to ratify the Istanbul convention. She has demonstrated how working across this Chamber can really make a difference. The debate on that Bill was one of the brighter days of my time down here at Westminster. Around the world, more than 35% of women have experienced either physical or sexual violence. Intimate partners are responsible for 38% of women’s murders. The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network believes that there are 5,000 honour killings internationally per year. Of those, there are thought to be about 12 honour killings in the UK each year. UNICEF claims that at least 200 million girls and women alive today, living in 30 different countries, have undergone female genital mutilation. The World Health Organisation estimates that 3 million girls a year become at risk of this procedure. These are shocking statistics.
Of course 2016 was a difficult year, with our solidarity being put to the test by Trump’s election. It is now more important than ever for women to stick together, as we know how to do so well. On next week’s agenda for Westminster Hall, we see a debate to which I am very much looking forward on an e-petition relating to high heels and workplace dress codes. I am really interested in whether there can possibly be a contrary opinion to women being able to wear what they want, when they want, whatever that may be, but I have no doubt that one will surface from somewhere.
We can and must continue our work to achieve a gender balance in Parliament, in journalism and in civil society. We need women in all parts of public life, not because that is good for women but because it is good for all society. While we do not agree on everything—of course we do not—and there is not a singular female view, there are opportunities for those of us from across the political spectrum in all parties, and those who belong to none, to come together about the things that really matter most.
It is a real pleasure to speak in such an important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing it, and thank her for her ongoing commitment to women’s equality. Her passion and dedication to women, and particularly to ending domestic violence, is second to none. This House is definitely a better place for having her in it, and I am grateful for her contributions.
Before I first came here I had been blessed, because my previous careers were first in the arts and then in healthcare, which are professions dominated by women. It was therefore quite a shock to come into this place, not just because of the small number of women here, but because our voices are very rarely heard. I came into Parliament to give a voice to those who do not have one, so I was quite surprised to find that our voices were shouted over, and that we were belittled, called hysterical or not engaged with at all. That is something that we have to change, and it is why I am so grateful for debates such as this one.
As a result of that, it is important that I give over most of my time to reinforcing the sisters in this place and giving their voices an extra platform. I start with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who proposed—perhaps half-seriously—quotas for ministerial appointments. I am grateful to her for talking about the revenge porn helpline. It is superb that the Government have introduced lots of great legislation on that, but the cash needs to follow the policy. She was right to say that domestic violence is not just physical violence.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made an incredibly upsetting and powerful speech, which was very appropriate for this Chamber. I hope that we can debate the issue that she raised further. She championed Yazidi women, who are being persecuted, bought, sold, raped, exploited and commodified by Daesh. We need to do more to stop this barbaric form of slavery. I urge the Government to do all they can to prevent it.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) was right to give us the history of women’s roles in the armed forces and to explain how far we have come. I am grateful to other Members who raised the impact on families.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) spoke about her constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is imprisoned in Iran and suffering extreme ill health. The Iranian Government are breaching the Bangkok rules that they have signed up to. There are half a million women in prisons worldwide. I also want to raise the fact that Holloway prison is being sold off, which is likely to put pressure on women. I do not think that prisons are the right place for women. The number of women I have met in my constituency who have been imprisoned for evading the TV licence, or for stealing nappies because they could not afford them, shows that there is something very wrong with the system.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) did a good job of giving us the history of women’s rights and women’s interventions that brought her to this place. I am particularly grateful to her for welcoming all young women and girls into politics, and for telling them that if they come here, we will support them. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) highlighted the great women who inspired her. It is right that we pay our respects to the women who give us the power to keep going and who inspire us to believe that we can do this.
The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) has been doing some superb campaigning around child exploitation. She is right to say that we often talk about violence as being gender-neutral, but a lot of it is not. We need to call out gendered violence and name it for what it is.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) gave another powerful speech. It frustrates me that it is down to us to correct history and draw attention to the fact that in 1888, the match women, led by just five remarkable women, changed history. They effectively created the labour movement. The match ladies were—I steal this phrase from my hon. Friend—the spark that started the trade union movement, and yet there is no memorial for them. English Heritage needs to listen, and I support my hon. Friend’s campaign. I do not just want a blue plaque; I want a statue. It is only right.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) talked about the gender pay gap. It is so frustrating that we consistently have to go back to the gender pay gap, and to the obstacles that prevent us from closing it as quickly as we would all like. I am grateful to her for raising the issues that prevent women from returning to work and make it much more difficult for them to reach their full economic potential. How lovely it was of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) to talk about mothers and boys. She highlighted the importance of inspiring them by demonstrating equality in public life.
I am grateful to have the voice of the honorary sister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), here. I make a lot of speeches about gendered violence and gender inequality, and I tend to speak to rooms full of women. I am looking forward to the day when debates in the Chamber about women are attended 50:50 by men and women. My hon. Friend was right to highlight great local women and to say that men have a duty to combat abuses against women. He was also right to highlight the fact that 12 weeks on, he is still waiting for a response to his questions.
We welcome the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). It was interesting to hear her put a personal spin on the complex balance between parenting and working—one that is not helped by this Chamber, but one with which we in this Chamber have a duty, legally, to help other women. In the contribution of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), I loved the line: “Don’t argue with your father. Just know that you’re right.” Unfortunately, some of us did not get the follow-on sentence; I am grateful to her mother for saying that. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving living examples of progress. Sometimes, it feels as though we are making achingly slow progress, so I thank her for showing us that progress is being made.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) highlighted the fact that only 7.9% of rapes result in successful prosecutions. I commend her for the work that she is doing to try to address that. She is campaigning for changes in the attitude of the police and in the processes of justice. We must, as she rightly says, address culture and not just legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) is a great campaigner, particularly around the fact that two women a week are murdered by their partners. I am grateful to her for drawing attention to the impact on children, the broader family and the community. So often their voices are not heard, and there is usually no support for the people who need it the most. I am also grateful to her for raising the fact that funding for refuges is decreasing all the time. It is concerning that because of the funding cuts, local authorities are now using generic providers rather than giving vital specialist support. I agree that the provision of refuges should be done with statutory, central Government funding, rather than being a duty that falls to local authorities.
Finally, I echo the voice of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), who saluted all the women—particularly, but not exclusively, those in this Chamber—who have, over the last year, had the courage to come forward and use the horrors that they have experienced to try to change legislation and attitudes.
International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the start of the 20th century. Its roots can be traced back to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. I can only see it as a sign that this year’s International Women’s Day falls on the same day as the spring Budget, and I urge the Government and the Minister to make sure that this Budget works for women.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and other Members on securing this really important debate, and all the inspiring female MPs—and, indeed, one brave male MP, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore)—on taking part in today’s significant debate, because International Women’s Day is significant. It is an inspiring annual event that celebrates the achievements of women, both past and present day. It is a great opportunity to take stock of how far we have come, but also to keep fighting for what we believe in around the world and to look at how far we still have to go in our own country. I am grateful to Members from both sides of the House for their thoughtful contributions.
I am incredibly proud that we now have our second female Prime Minister, and that our Parliament is becoming more diverse. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) said, it has been 700 years in the making, which is painfully slow by anybody’s standards. She is right to call on any women watching our proceedings today to come and join us. As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) rightly pointed out, it is the presence of women in the Chamber that is changing the situation we are talking about. The reason we are having this debate is that there are so many more females MPs, and that is the only way we will make the significant changes we want.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change”, and the Government want to be bold for change. It is only through being bold, being courageous and taking risks that we can create the lasting change we all want. No country can truly succeed while half its population is left behind, and despite the conscious efforts of many men and women over the years, barriers to equality do exist. The Government are committed to tackling such barriers to equality wherever they manifest themselves. That is why International Women’s Day is for everyone, and we know that gender equality is not a zero-sum game: true equality enables both men and women to be who they want to be, unconstrained by outdated stereotypes and unconstrained by assumptions about what it means to be a woman, or indeed a man.
I know that Members on both sides of the House share the Government’s commitment to driving forward this agenda. I am particularly grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee, which rightly holds the Government’s feet to the fire all the time. It is very hard to believe that this Select Committee only started to exist in June 2015, given the breadth and range of its inquiries so far. Its work is rightly recognised and respected, which is why I am very pleased to announce today that the House of Commons intends to make the Women and Equalities Committee permanent. This is a very fitting testament to the energy and commitment of all members of the Committee, but I must pay special tribute to the very dynamic leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I pay tribute to her and all the members of her Committee for their work and their amazing achievements in this important space.
Not only is gender equality the right thing to do, but it is good for our society and really good for our economy. It is essential to unlock the potential of women in the workplace. We need to build a stronger economy that fully utilises the talents that women have to offer. I am very proud that there are more women in work than ever before and that the gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been, but we must go further. The Government are committed to eliminating the gender pay gap entirely, which is why our bold and groundbreaking legislation coming into force next month will require businesses, voluntary organisations and the public sector to publish both their pay and bonus gaps. The regulations will shine a light on the difference between men’s pay and women’s pay, and we hope employers will lead the way by publishing early. We have also set the standard for highly productive, agile working practices by bringing in shared parental leave, extending the right to request flexible working, and providing 30 hours of free childcare a week for working parents of all three and four-year-olds so that men and women alike can balance work and family life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who is the excellent co-chairwoman of the all-party group on women and work, rightly celebrated the skills, talents and experience that older women can bring to the workforce. On 2 February, the Government published our “Fuller Working Lives: A Partnership Approach” document, which sets out the key actions the Government are taking to support older workers to remain in the labour market. That is not just great for business. I was struck by the words of one woman who had just gone back into the workplace after many years of caring responsibilities when she told me, “It’s the first thing in my life I have ever done for myself.” Those words have really stayed with me.
We want to support women and girls throughout their lives, but to get the whole picture we must look at everything—from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond. In education, we are committed to increasing the number of girls studying STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. We are also supporting girls and boys in school by giving them the tools they need to be safe, confident and able to develop healthy and respectful relationships. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced yesterday our plans for 21st-century relationships and sex education. Our proposals will ensure that children of all ages and from all backgrounds will have the opportunity to learn what positive, healthy and nurturing relationships should look like. The building blocks for this will start in primary school with relationships education, and continue in secondary school with relationships and sex education.
We have made great progress at the very top of business, where female representation has gone from strength to strength. We know that companies with more diverse boards and senior executives can access a wider talent pool and that they better represent the society they serve.
To ensure that girls and women thrive, succeed and go as far as their talents can take them, they must have the right to live safely and free from all forms of violence. The key to that is a strategy to prevent violence against women and girls. Sadly, many Members, like women across the country, have had their lives invaded by the new threat of online violence. There is no doubt that that insidious misogyny limits the benefits women can gain from the digital world, but there should be no public or private space where violence should be allowed to continue. That means eradicating violence and abuse of any kind, anywhere—online, in our workplaces, in our communities, and in every home.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked about the future of the revenge porn helpline. I am very keen for its important work to continue and we are looking closely at how we can continue to support it. In addition to the £80 million already committed to provide services and support for victims and survivors, the Prime Minister recently committed to reviewing the legislation on domestic violence and abuse to transform the way we think about and tackle violence, and that basic right to safety. We are determined to ensure that the law is working to protect women and girls so that intervention and prevention, not crisis response, are the norm.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley again this year read out the list of women killed at the hands of violent men since we were last in the Chamber for this debate. This year, the names included, of course, one of our own, Jo Cox. Every life lost is a tragedy; every name is a name too many. No girl should be in doubt of her right to succeed free from fear and the threat of violence.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) spoke compellingly about her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She drew attention to the plight of women and girls in prisons overseas, but specifically to the tragic case of her constituent, and I will personally take that up with No. 10.
The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was absolutely right to outline the pain and suffering that the Yazidi women endured—we should never forget that. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who is a force of nature, spoke about the importance of educating girls internationally, and we are supporting 5.3 million girls in school, including girls from the most marginalised communities. We have also helped 36 million women to get access to financial services and are spending more than any other country on bringing an end to female genital mutilation. Those examples underline our commitment to promoting gender equality at home and overseas. I am proud that we are a world leader in this work.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked about the number of police trained in dealing with domestic violence. All new recruits undertake a public protection learning programme, of which domestic abuse is a key feature. New police training called “Domestic Abuse Matters” focuses on recognising controlling and coercive behaviour. That has already been rolled out in five police forces, with many more in the pipeline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) made an excellent speech on behalf of women in the armed forces. She is a feisty champion of the armed forces. Despite some excellent initiatives, more remains to be done, but we have raised our target for recruiting women in the armed forces to 15% by 2020.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) spoke beautifully about the match ladies. I remember going to see a play about them when I was at school. It was so inspiring and I certainly back her call to have those ladies recognised.
International Women’s Day is a fantastic opportunity to take stock, to recognise the progress that we have made and to celebrate the amazing women, past and present, who have fought the battles, and who continue to fight every day all around the world in the name of equality. It is an opportunity to discuss how much further we have to go, and a time to remember that there is so much more to do and to remind ourselves to be bold in the pursuit of change.
I shall be incredibly brief. I thank the Backbench Business Committee—I am thanking myself—for allowing us to have the debate. I thank everybody who spoke in today’s debate with much passion and consensus.
One of the names I had to read out today was that of Jo Cox, my friend and colleague. Her voice should always be heard in this place, so I shall let her have the last word. When Jo Cox was asked what sort of feminist she was, with the idea that we are all terribly divided, and that “I’m this sort of feminist, you’re that sort of feminist”, her answer was, “a massive one”.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes International Women’s Day as an important occasion to recognise the achievements of women; and calls on the Government to join in this international event and pledge its commitment to gender parity.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This week, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) was in my constituency. To his credit, he informed me that he was going to be in my constituency for a Conservative fundraiser. I offered to go with him, but he rejected my advances. Today I opened my local paper, the Camden New Journal, to read that he had described the “pygmy” nature of the Opposition. Do you, Mr Deputy Speaker, think it was appropriate for him to use the term “pygmy” when he was in the constituency of the shortest MP in Parliament? I await your guidance.
The hon. Gentleman is normally a very courteous Member, and he did give notice. I know the hon. Lady will have a quiet word in his ear, but knowing the Member I am sure there was no intent. If there was, she will need to come back to me.