[Relevant document: Fifth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact, HC 385.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
It is a privilege to lead this International Women’s Day debate on behalf of members of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, who put forward the application. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its continued strong support for this debate as an annual event.
I want to start by sending my thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Sarah Everard, who are going through such a painful time. Her abduction has sent shockwaves across the UK. Sarah did everything to avoid danger. Let us be very clear: women are not the problem here. For many women, this news story will bring back memories of threatening situations they found themselves in through no fault of their own, sexually harassed on the streets when walking home from meeting friends, receiving anonymous threats of physical violence on social media, or sexually assaulted in plain sight in rush hour on public transport on the way to work. Many choose not to talk about this and not to report it for fear of not being believed or taken seriously. But the research shows that these sorts of events are part of women’s everyday lives, and that is why what happened to Sarah Everard feels so very close to home.
The shocking findings of the report published yesterday by the APPG on United Nations women show that virtually all young women have experienced the threat of sexual violence in public spaces and, indeed, that three in four women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment. Although the raw facts may show that it is rare for a woman to be abducted, the experience of young women is that the fear of sexual harassment, or worse, is ever in their mind, whether on a night out at the pub or after threats to their physical safety on social media, while for the one in six women who will be stalked in their lifetime, the fear of attack is very real.
So rather than telling women not to worry, listen to our experience. Understand why so many women relentlessly campaigned in this Chamber for change to make women feel safer by stopping the harassment and threats of violence in the first place. We should not accept a culture of violence towards women, we should not be complicit in covering it up, and we need to give women effective mechanisms to report what happens in order to expose the scale of the problem, call it out publicly, and punish those who perpetrate this culture of fear.
Reflecting on the past 12 months women have gone through in terms of their response to the challenges presented by coronavirus, at home women have been prominent in delivering on the frontline of health and social care, with two women professors, Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, helping to pioneer a global solution to the pandemic. In the US, Kamala Harris has become the first woman to be elected Vice-President of the United States, shattering another glass ceiling in the political world. Even closer to home, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, became the first woman ever to hold the role of Chairman of Ways and Means, bringing your infinite wit and wisdom to that important role.
While we acknowledge these significant milestones, the pandemic has brought existing inequalities into sharp focus too. Women have faced pressures in balancing work with home schooling and childcare. Domestic abuse cases have spiralled—up by 83%. When it comes to job losses, women have faced a heavy toll, with those aged 25 to 34 facing the highest unemployment rise. The Government’s mission of levelling up is very relevant to women. To mark International Women’s Day 2021, my message and hope is that a focus on levelling up for women is in place now more than ever before, both here in the UK and across the world.
We have record numbers of female MPs, yet still men outnumber women two to one in positions of power. A 50:50 Cabinet would help to ensure that women’s voices are heard where they need to be—right at the heart of Government. This week, as part of a whole host of International Women’s Day celebrations, we heard from the parliamentary archivist, Mari Takayanagi, about the remarkable contributions of early women MPs and the huge impact they had on law-making—how they spoke out 100 years ago in this place about the most sensitive of crimes against women, like FGM. These stories of courage can be seen in the work of women elected to this House today—women like my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), whose courage means that we have world-leading domestic abuse legislation and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a blueprint for others across the world.
We need more women aspiring to become Members of Parliament, so I warmly welcome the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry looking at the actions taken on gender equality in the House of Commons. I hope that we can conduct a second gender-sensitive audit as soon as possible, with a body identified as being responsible for putting its recommendations into practice.
Above all, we need 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse, which so badly affects women, particularly those in public life. We need the forthcoming online harms Bill to be more than a set of regulatory guidelines. We need laws that make it clear that online abuse is a crime, particularly with regard to posting intimate images online without consent. A safer, more respectful environment online will also lead to a kinder politics; I really believe that. In the meantime, let us stand up to those who gratuitously abuse women online—particularly women MPs and journalists—to help make sure that more women choose to stand for election and be leaders in our media too.
Women face barriers here in Westminster, but the same is still true of other sectors—in healthcare, for instance, where women account for more than three quarters of the workforce yet fewer than half have leadership positions. An out-of-date workplace with a presenteeism culture does little to support women, particularly when they have had children, so it was helpful to see the Birmingham Business School conduct research through the pandemic to show that flexible working can improve productivity. We need as a nation to adopt flexible working as standard, as part of levelling up for women and delivering a truly modern British workplace shaped around the whole workforce. We need to look closely at what Parliament should retain from the last 12 months of changed ways of working, so that we can play our part in modernising our workplace too.
In levelling up, we need to provide pregnant women and new mothers with better protections to stop them being pushed out of work simply for being pregnant. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that one in four pregnant women felt discriminated against in the last year. Outlawing pregnant women from being made redundant, as Germany has done, would help to stop so many women falling out of the labour market into low-paid work when they have children.
In this mission of levelling up for women, our voice on the global stage will be just as important. The Prime Minister has been a long-time advocate for girls’ education as central to levelling up for women across the globe. As the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office considers its new role, including championing international development through open societies, we need to continue to take forward this principled commitment to girls’ education, alongside the UK’s internationally acknowledged role in outlawing the other inequalities and abuses that women face—for example, abuse in conflict zones, forced marriage and the lack of a host of other basic human rights.
With the UK leading the G7 this year, there is a truly unique opportunity for our country to show leadership on the global stage in promoting gender equality. The UK Government ratifying the International Labour Organisation convention on violence and harassment—the first international labour instrument that recognises the right of everybody to work free from violence and harassment—would be an act of leadership and an appropriate start. Let us celebrate an astonishing year for women and call for a commitment to level up for women across the UK and across the globe, for a fairer society for everybody.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate, and I agree with every single word that she said in her excellent speech.
This International Women’s Day debate comes in the shadow of the menace of male violence against women. I am sure we all feel the same as the Home Secretary, who said that she is “deeply saddened” by the developments in the Sarah Everard investigation, and we all hope against hope that we will not hear the news that we all dread. But at the same time as the sadness, there is real anger among women at the threat that they face on a daily basis. That is not to spread alarm; it is to spell out the reality.
Here we are, in the 21st century, in a country where women and men expect to be equal, but we are not. Women, particularly young women, are terrified of the threat of male violence on the streets—men who try to get them to get in their car, who try to get their number, who follow them, who film them, who will not take no for an answer. Every young woman, every day, walks under this threat, so they adopt myriad strategies just to get home from work in the dark—choosing the busiest route, even if it is longer; keeping their keys in their hand; trying to go with someone rather than alone; getting a friend or their partner to map their location on a phone app; phoning on the way home so that they know they are expected.
Women will find no reassurance at all in the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s statement that it is
“incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets.”
Women know that abduction and murder is just the worst end of a spectrum of everyday male threat to women. When the police advise women not to go out at night on their own, women ask why they have to be subjected to an informal curfew. It is not women who are the problem here; it is men.
The criminal justice system fails women and lets men off the hook. Whether it is rape or domestic homicide, women are judged and blamed—“Why was she on a dating app?” “Why was she out late at night?” “Why had she been drinking?” “What are those flirty messages on her phone?”—and men find excuses, raking up her previous sexual history in court to try to tarnish her character and prejudice the jury. Let us hear no more false reassurances; let us have action.
Next Monday, we will be debating in this House the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. That is the chance for the Government to banish the culture of male excuses from the criminal justice system and, instead of blaming women, start protecting them.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who does so much in this place to champion women.
Last year in this debate, we were not learning how to run a Parliament remotely, and none of us had ever considered being able to contribute to a debate while admiring the cobwebs on our own light fittings. In the spirit of celebration, I am going to think of uplifting things to start with, such as the sheer fact that this centuries-old institution has learned to flex and change—to adapt to Zoom and remote voting.
I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), for having driven that agenda forward. We have seen more women contributing more often in Commons debates—more female voices in our Chamber, whether physically present or not—and that I celebrate. We have seen stunning contributions and campaigns from women right across the House and across Parliament, making desperately needed amendments and improvements to the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have seen women outside Parliament, such as Kate Bingham, who ran the vaccine taskforce determinedly, making sure that we got that roll-out.
We have heard from the Secretary of State for International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), about her support for the normalisation of flexible working. That could mean so much to women, and I look forward to an employment Bill coming forward that champions that.
But it is impossible for me to turn my contribution today into an unabashed celebration. It is not going brilliantly for all women—not here, not anywhere. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will speak later, and I know that she will have had to update that hideous, depressing list she is going to read out to add the name of Sarah Everard, so tragically killed while just walking home. Overnight, we saw an outpouring of stories from women about keys, headphones, clothes and sticking to lit streets. We all know the reality is you will probably not be attacked by a stranger, but the fear is there and the fear is real.
On this International Women’s Day, let us champion all women—gay women, who do not need conversion therapy; trans women, who want to be treated with respect and fairness. Remember, they are the ones most likely to suffer domestic abuse.
I wish to reference the work of the Women and Equalities Committee and its report on the gendered economic impact of covid. That was reinforced yesterday by the publication from the Office for National Statistics confirming that women have indeed suffered a greater economic impact from the pandemic—more likely to be furloughed than their male colleagues; more likely to be employed on a part-time contract and not entitled to statutory sick pay; less confident that they will not be made redundant.
We no longer have to look at health policy in the round because of the announcement this week of the women’s health strategy and the call for evidence, but apparently we still have to look at economic policy in the round and cannot accept data from the ONS that women have been harder hit economically. We will not get a female employment strategy, and I do not celebrate that.
I echo the comments made previously about the horrific news we are hearing about Sarah Everard. My thoughts go out to her and her friends and family.
Celebrating women for one day alone is not enough. Women’s issues are not challenges on the periphery that can be addressed in isolation, and the problems that women face are firmly embedded in our everyday politics, systems and lives. Year after year, the overall experience of women largely remains the same, and women are still more likely to experience inequality, poverty and abuse.
As with all forms of oppression, understanding how women are held back requires an ability to reassess everything as we know it, but through a different lens. For example, women make up the majority of part-time employment, and when we create an economy in which such work is often low paid and insecure, is it a surprise when women disproportionately suffer the consequences of that? When we have a Budget that will not implement a real living wage, we know that the consequences of that will disproportionately affect women. When we have a stigmatising social security system that includes things such as the rape clause, are we helping women?
I do not want to sound ungrateful for the progress we have made. Organisations such as Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid serve to educate me just as they inspire me, but as policymakers we must reflect on whether we are giving such organisations the support they need, and treating their opinions with the value they deserve. The inequality, harassment and poverty that women disproportionately experience does not come about by nature; it is enabled by our institutions and culture.
Human beings are varied and complex, and intersectional feminism provides a greater level of clarity as to how inequality can impact different people. For example, the experiences of a woman with a disability are likely to vary from the specific experiences of a woman of colour. Only by taking time to look through those additional lenses can we begin to unpick what enables that inequality, and learn how we can better support each other as women. Rather than trying awkwardly to cram women into institutions that undervalue them, and structures that were built long ago for men and by men, we must reimagine and reorganise those very structures, but this time build them with women, especially marginalised women, at the heart of everything we do.
I start by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is great to see the Chairman of Ways and Means—a woman—in the Chair, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate. When I left this morning, I told my husband that I was speaking in an International Women’s Day debate. He said, “But that was on Monday”, and I said, “Unfortunately we didn’t get time to debate it on Monday,” so I am pleased we are debating it today.
Time is short, so I will touch on just two issues. First is the UK’s leadership and role in combating the abuse of women globally. I was a Home Office Minister with responsibility for preventing abuse, exploitation and crime, and I saw some of the most grotesque and horrific crimes that can be inflicted. All too often they were inflicted on women. Breast ironing, female genital mutilation, forced marriage—things that are done to and forced on women around the world; things that should never happen to any woman.
The UK has had global leadership in this area, and I am enormously worried, given the mood music coming from the Government around our commitment to overseas aid, that we are not committed to those areas in the way that once we were. It is the UK’s leadership that has meant that we have seen reductions in these horrific crimes.
The UK’s leadership has also led to the focus on 12 years’ education for girls, which the Prime Minister championed when he was Foreign Secretary. The UK has led on modern slavery, which affects men and women, but predominantly women. Let us be clear: our overseas aid stopped Ebola becoming a pandemic. Those are real achievements that our aid budget has helped to deliver and I am desperately worried that we may see that as a nice-to-have rather than an essential. I call on the Government to ensure that we have a debate on the matter and a vote, so that parliamentarians can have a say on that manifesto commitment.
I want quickly to consider Parliament and this place. In my role as Chair of the Procedure Committee, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. It has been fantastic to see the way in which Parliament has adapted. We did not want to be in this situation in Parliament. We did not want to sit 2 metres apart, but we have to. We have adapted and women have benefited. Evidence to the Committee shows that more women have used virtual participation than men. More women have been able to enjoy the benefits of perhaps an even more family-friendly House. We are following the road map and are coming to the point where we end lockdown. We should look carefully at the things we have done in the past 12 months and consider what would work for the future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a great privilege to be the first female MP for Neath. I would not be here if it were not for the first female general secretary of Welsh Labour, Baroness Anita Gale of Blaenrhondda, who fought for all-women shortlists. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) succeeded Baroness Gale and the current general secretary is Louise Magee—three inspirational female leaders.
Gwenda Thomas, the first female Senedd Member for Neath, is a staunch advocate for equal opportunities. Margaret Coleman, widow of former Neath MP Donald Coleman, is the busiest octogenarian in Neath. Renowned soprano Katherine Jenkins, famous actress and singer Siân Phillips and singer Bonnie Tyler are from Neath.
During the 1984 miners’ strike, women were at the front of picket lines, organised valley support groups, and kept spirits up across south Wales. “Pride” was filmed in Onllwyn Miners’ Welfare Hall, called the “Palace of Culture” by my dear friend Hywel Francis. Dove Workshop was formed during the strike, by women for women. Its founders were Hefina Headon, Mair Francis and Lesley Smith. Dove Workshop retrained women to gain qualifications and is the birthplace of the Community University of the Valleys.
Women are pioneers in sport. As a former Welsh squash international with over 100 caps, and the only female Welsh squash national coach, I was awarded the Sport Wales Female Coach of the Year in 2008 for my contribution to squash. I am proud of our current Welsh squash senior internationals. Tesni Evans is ranked world No. 9, is a Commonwealth bronze medallist and British Champion two years running. Emily Whitlock is a former world No. 12. Ellie Breach, aged 15, and her sister Millie, aged 13, from Neath are both age-group Welsh internationals. Squash Wales held an International Women’s Day virtual session with Tesni, and more than 40 women across Wales joined in. I will continue to fight for squash to become an Olympic sport.
My friend Bethan Howell, captain of Seven Sisters RFC Ladies, a Welsh international and Ospreys player, is a fighter for women’s equality, on and off the field. I am proud to be patron of Seven Sisters RFC Ladies.
As a Labour and Co-operative MP, I will miss my dear friend Karen Wilkie, who is retiring as deputy general secretary of the Co-operative party in June, after 26 years of loyal service.
I thank my daughter Angharad from the bottom of my heart for her love and support. Angharad is my world.
Today, I feel pretty angry and sad: angry that women walking home in the dark have to be scared of the person walking closely behind them, and sad because for far too many women, even getting home safely does not mean they are safe from harm. So I say to all colleagues right across the House: let us never allow party politics get in the way of protecting women and girls. I want to use my short time today to raise an issue that would help women, and that is making flexible work standard.
In 1995, I was working for Barclays. At the age of 32, and five months pregnant with my first child, I was promoted to senior executive. Of 240 senior execs, only eight were women. I was told that taking on this massive new job would mean coming back quickly from maternity leave, and I naively leapt at the chance. Three months after Fred was born, I had fallen in love with him, but he did not sleep much and I was under huge pressure from my male boss to go back to work. I will not dwell on it, but after post-natal depression and 18 months holding down the job while seeking to go part time, and two miscarriages later, I took legal advice. The head of the UK bank had said:
“We have managed without female directors until now. We certainly do not need part-time ones.”
I was advised to sue for constructive dismissal and sex discrimination, but blissfully for me, I was now pregnant with Harry, and this precious pregnancy was not worth the stress of a court case so I took voluntary redundancy. The reason that I could have sued was that, even then, employers were not allowed to refuse to consider part-time work, and 25 years on, that is still the case, but the 21st century demands change.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I absolutely agree with everything she said in her remarks.
During my time in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a top priority was to make the UK the best place in the world to work, by encouraging flexible working as standard, transparency of employment terms and regular working hours. I planned to bring this forward in the employment rights Bill, so that applicants could propose their own working day as opposed to the employer setting the terms. Whether someone works in a supermarket or behind a desk, they should have the right to request a working pattern that suits them without negative consequences. Of course, employees can already request flexible working, but I have found that many fear to do so because of repercussions for their job security.
Flexible as standard can also be a huge advantage for employers. If job ads do not specify fixed working arrangements, applications will come from a much wider and more diverse pool of candidates. Employers must of course be able to refuse unrealistic offers, but enabling flexible as standard will, in my view, improved quality of life as well as productivity and diversity in the workplace. We know that women provide the majority of part-time workers and also the principal caring roles, so capturing all their talents will benefit both our economy and our society. So, as we look to build back better, let us put flexible work as standard at the heart of our recovery.
As always, it is a pleasure to speak in the International Women’s Day debate. International Women’s Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the contribution that women make, here and around the globe, and to look at how far we have come in the fight for equality and the distance we yet have to travel. Of course, this debate is taking place at a time like no other. The past 12 months have been incredibly difficult for all of us. Covid has brought disruption and worry, and to some it has brought heartbreak. It has also exacerbated the inequalities that were already present, and the means to challenge these things has been hampered by the outbreak of the pandemic. Sadly, this has exacerbated the inequality between men and women.
Only 9% of working-class women in the UK can work at home. The sectors that are most severely affected are dominated by women, including hospitality, education and healthcare. With schools and nurseries only partially open, it is women who are taking on most of the unpaid care, often reducing their hours or giving up their employment to look after children. It is women who are more likely to care for their older or disabled relatives and neighbours, and sadly, it is also women who will be trapped in their homes self-isolating with an abusive partner. Despite this, women and girls in the UK have been largely invisible from the debate and excluded from decision making.
Hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ pounds have been spent without considering the specific challenges that women are facing. For example, in January the LSE reported that 71% of women in the UK were in some form of employment, but three months later that figure had dropped by 5%. If they have remained in employment, women have seen their work volumes increase and have also experienced job loss. Furlough was impacting 2.3 million women in January this year. Although the extension is welcome, there should not be a cliff edge to that support. The uplift to universal credit, worth £1,040 a year to claimants, is due to be axed later this year. That must not happen at all, at any time.
Women have been adversely impacted and are the worst affected in this pandemic. There have been a few silver linings to the pandemic, and the opportunity for women to work from home and have flexible working is more important than ever. I call on the Government to take into consideration the findings of the Women and Equalities Committee in this regard.
Lastly, how often have we said to a friend on the way home, “Be safe—text me when you get home”? The fear alone should tell us we have a problem.
That is probably because my mother thought she would have been a better MP than I have been, and my wife, daughters and granddaughters are probably certain that they could be, too.
I want to recognise that there has been progress, but I also want to join the right hon. and hon. Ladies—colleagues—who have spoken so far. We will listen in silence to the next speaker, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), giving the roll call of those who been killed by men.
I echo the remarks that have been and will be made about the fact that cuts in our target for UN overseas aid will predominantly hit women—the women whom I have been dedicated to since I was a trustee of Christian Aid, and since I served on the Select Committee on overseas aid in the 1970s. I hope that the House will have the opportunity to say that the Government should stick to the promise that was proudly in the Conservative manifesto at the last election.
Domestically, it is not a question of, “Most men behave well most of the time, and no one can claim to be perfect,” or a question of, “Why are most women in a worse position?” The fact is that we all need to change. I hope that we can get to the stage where I do not have to carry a whistle on my keyring, and neither do my daughters and granddaughters.
People need to feel safe at work, when travelling and in their domestic circumstances. For that to happen, we need to find a way to ensure that people have the patience and courage to challenge behaviours in themselves and others that result in people feeling threatened and suffering violence, whether physical, mental or economic. I would like people to be able to be people. I recognise that we may be men, we may be women, we may be female, we may be male, we may be mixed, we may have other orientations or we may feel differently. That is not the point; the point is that we should be safe and secure, and we should be able to talk. For that, we need to encourage each other.
I hope that the elements of this debate will be reported in the newspapers, along with practical suggestions about what we can see in ourselves and around us. As Dr Richard Stone—one of the assessors, along with Sir William Macpherson, on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry—said in relation to housing, too often we ask the victims to put things right. He said that it is normally white, middle-class men in full-time jobs who have the power. It is our responsibility to join with others to make life better. Whatever our age, stage, race, background or religion, people need to be safe, and at the moment women do not feel safe. I am glad to have contributed, and I hope to learn from what I will hear in a moment.
I thank the Father of the House for his contribution, for his constant support in favour of this debate taking place here in this Chamber—for which we have had to fight over the years—and for his constant support also for the matters discussed here.
I am now going to temporarily suspend the time limit, because I appreciate that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is going to read a list of names. Members will know that the reading of lists is prohibited in this Chamber, but Mr Speaker has given special dispensation to the hon. Lady, as has happened in previous years, to read this particular very sensitive and very important list.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and thank you to all in the Speaker’s Office for their consideration. It shows that Parliament is very committed to this issue.
In this place, we count what we care about—we count the vaccines done; we count the number of people on benefits. We rule or oppose based on a count, and we obsessively track that data. We love to count data about our own popularity. However, we do not currently count dead women. No Government study is done into the patterns every year of the data on victims of domestic abuse who are killed, die by suicide or die suddenly. Dead women is a thing we have all just accepted as part of our daily lives. Dead women are just one of those things.
Killed women are not vanishingly rare; killed women are common. Dead women do count, and thanks to the brilliant work of Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project, and the academics and charities working on the femicide census, these women’s lives and the scale of male violence against women can be known.
Since last year on this day, these are the women killed in the UK where a man has been convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator in the case: Vanita Nowell; Tracey Kidd; Nelly Moustafa; Zahida Bi; Josephine Kaye; Shadika Mohsin Patel; Maureen Kidd; Wendy Morse; Nageeba Alariqy; Elsie Smith; Kelly Stewart; Gwendoline Bound; Ruth Williams; Victoria Woodhall; Kelly Fitzgibbons, who was killed alongside her two daughters; Caroline Walker; Katie Walker; Zobaidah Salangy; Betty Dobbin; Sonia Calvi; Maryan Ismail; Daniela Espirito Santo; Ruth Brown, Denise Keane-Barnett-Simmons; Jadwiga Szczygielska; Emma Jane McParland; Louise Aitchison; Silke Hartshorne-Jones; Hyacinth Morris; Louise Smith; Claire Parry; Aya Hachem; Melissa Belshaw; Yvonne Lawson McCann; Lyndsey Alcock; Aneta Zdun; Nikoleta Zdun; Mandy Houghton; Amy-Leanne Stringfellow; Bibaa Henry; Nicole Smallman; Dawn Bennett; Gemma Marjoram; Karolina Zinkeviciene; Rosemary Hill; Jackie Hoadley; Khloemae Loy; Kerry Woolley; Shelly Clark; Bernadette Walker; Stella Frew; Dawn Fletcher; Deborah Jones; Patrycja Wyrebek; Therasia Gordon; Esther Egbon; Susan Baird; Balvinder Gahir; Lynda Cooper; Lorraine Cox; Suzanne Winnister; Maria Howarth; Abida Karim; Saman Mir Sacharvi; Vian Mangrio; Poorna Kaameshwari Sivaraj, who was killed alongside her three-year-old son; Louise Rump; Julie Williams; Rhonda Humphreys; Nicole McGregor; Angela Webber; Carole Wright; Sarah Smith; Ildiko Bettison; Kimberley Deakin; Marie Gladders; Paula Leather; Caroline Kayll; Lauren Mae Bloomer; Hansa Patel; Helen Bannister; Marta Vento; Andreia Rodriguez Guilherme; Joanna Borucka; Azaria Williams; Catherine Granger; Eileen Dean; Sue Addis; Carol Hart; Jacqueline Price; Mary Wells; Tiprat Argatu; Christie Frewin; Souad Bellaha; Ann Turner; N’Taya Elliott-Cleverley; Rose Marie Tinton; Ranjit Gill; Helen Joy; Emma Robertson; Nicole Anderson; Linda Maggs; Carol Smith; Sophie Moss; Christina Rowe; Susan Hannaby; Michelle Lizanec; Wieslawa Mierzejewska; Judith Rhead; Anna Ovsyannikova; Tina Eyre; Katie Simpson; Bennylyn Burke and her two-year-old daughter; Samantha Heap; Geetika Goyal; Imogen Bohajczuk; and Wenjing Xu.
There has been much debate over what I would say at the end of the list. Her name rings out across all our media—we have all prayed that the name of Sarah Everard would never be on any list. Let us pray every day and work every day to make sure that nobody’s name ends up on this list again.
I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who—well, there are no words. There are no words at all.
I want to talk about the influence of women in my life. I can honestly say that in my life, when I have chosen parts of my career that have been male-dominated, I have had nothing but support from the male colleagues, friends and family members in my life. I would not be here today if it was not for their wholehearted support. But we need to remember that we do not have that support from every man in society. We have come a long way in the UK, but we still have a long way to go. That is true not only in this country but around the world.
I want to reflect today on the commemoration of Beatrice Shilling, the now renowned engineer who was awarded a gold star for doing a lap around Brooklands at more than 100 mph. That reminded me of my grandmother who was, in the 1930s and throughout the second world war, a military dispatch rider on a motorcycle. She travelled the length and breadth of the country on her own. When I started to drive as a young woman, she would ask me where I had been, but she could never understand where I had been if I talked about motorways. I had to talk to her in terms of A roads and B roads, because that is how she navigated the country. Often, in blackouts, she had to navigate the country totally in the dark.
I would also like to pay tribute to my mother, who in the late 1950s became a police officer. There were so few women police officers in those days that her police number was 5. She was seen as a great talent and became a detective, but to go into the criminal investigation department in those days officers had to have special dispensation to become a female detective if they were under the age of 21.
Without my grandmother’s and mother’s stories—without them recollecting what they had done—and without their advice about what I could do by being fearless, going out there and doing the job that I wanted to do, working with both male and female colleagues and friends to put something back into society, I would not be where I am today.
I pay tribute to the working women and our male colleagues who continue to support the great moves forward. I am so proud to be here, and thank you all very much.
It is 2021—it is more than 100 years since women got the vote and more than 50 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970. We have come such a long way, and although we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and fought for equality, we still have such a distance to go.
My children are growing up in a deeply unequal world with deeply unequal experiences. They are pigeonholed and they are stereotyped. Even now, in 2021, little girls are told to be kind, to be nice and to smile, while little boys are told to be brave, to be fast and to be strong. How often have we picked up a toy teddy beer, looked at it and said “he”—used the word “he” to describe it—unless it has a pink bow? In all of those cases, we will say “he” for those things. That is because this is drummed into us, and this is drummed into our society works.
We must consider this—we must look at stereotypes—and we must always consider intersectionality: we must check our own privilege. Younger women, ethnic minority women, bisexual women, trans women and disabled women are more likely to be domestically abused. Terry Pratchett wrote:
“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”
But I also think it begins when we remove anyone’s agency or we remove their right to make their own choices. Before we embark on criticising a focus that someone has, we should all check our own actions and we should check our own privilege. We have the ability to fight on behalf of others, but we have that ability because we have our own agency and we have our own rights to make choices. Before we can fight for anyone else, we need to have a measure of privilege that gives us that those options and the energy to do so.
The social security system and this UK Government have done what they can to remove that agency and to remove those choices. We can see that by the number of women who have had abortions during the course of this pandemic and have said that the two-child policy and the rape clause have created the financial situation that has forced them into this position. That is horrendous. In Scotland, we are putting dignity and respect at the heart of our social security system. Instead of drowning out the voices of sidelined minority groups with our own concerns, we should be hearing their voices, we should be listening to their voices and we should be amplifying their voices.
Before #MeToo women were experiencing sexual harassment, before George Floyd BAME people were being murdered and before Sarah Everard’s murder women were scared to walk home alone. We should not be waiting until somebody is murdered before taking their voices seriously.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate, and I agreed with every word she said. As for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), I just hope that, when she is on her feet next year, she will be speaking for a much shorter period of time and there are not so many women killed at the hands of man. As for my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to send her a virtual hug for her brave speech.
It is with a heavy heart that we are recognising International Women’s Day today, and the mood of the House has once again been dictated by the actions of men, not by the achievements of women. That is the reality of our day-to-day lives. It is the actions of men that dictate our lives and our choices, and for the next few minutes I want—I choose—to celebrate some phenomenal women in my constituency, particularly Helen Taylor-Thompson.
Helen Taylor-Thompson lived in the village of Nutley and, unfortunately, I had to attend her funeral last year. When Helen was around, she was wonderful in providing me with cups of tea and bits of cake. The reason why she is so important is that, at the age of 19, she signed the Official Secrets Act and began working for the Special Operations Executive, but she did not stop there. Later on, she raised over £3 million and set up the UK’s first hospice caring for people with AIDS-related illnesses. It was the hospice where the late Princess of Wales hugged or shook hands with a Mildmay patient, helping to break the taboo and stigma around HIV and AIDS. I wonder whether, if Helen Taylor-Thompson had been a man, all us would know her name, but she was a woman, and I want to put her name on record today.
When we celebrate the phenomenal vaccination programme, I hope that we do not whitewash the roles of women. I want women like those in my constituency to be recognised, including Charlotte Luck, the practice manager of the Meads medical centre, for having done so much work in ensuring vaccines are rolled out efficiently, and Dr Susie Padgham, a GP based at Saxonbury House surgery in Crowborough, who at one point was provided with over 1,000 extra vaccines and was able to get patients vaccinated in a short period of time. I hope that their stories are heard too.
I can speak about the progress of women and the fear and prejudice that we face, but I want to talk about the plight of Uyghur women, who are living the nightmare of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and in particular the brave woman Rahima Mahmut, who is a Uyghur survivor. We should carry her on our shoulders as she fights for the plight of women—women who are forced into being sterilised or having abortions and who have their children removed, all because they are Uyghur and based in Xinjiang. I hope that we can do much more within our power to support them.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, but it would be far more powerful if we had more than just three minutes to talk about the phenomenal progress that women have made and the work that we have to do.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing the debate. International Women’s Day is supposed to be a celebration, but even before the last 24 hours—given, for example, the progress of the Scottish Parliament’s inquiries into the handling of harassment complaints and, more generally, the notably more negative impact of the pandemic on women across so many areas of their lives—it has not really felt like something worth celebrating.
Mr Speaker reminded us earlier today that it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the live investigation in relation to the tragic disappearance of Sarah Everard. I cannot help but reflect that, of course, it is not all men; but particularly where men in public positions of trust are guilty of committing acts of violence against women, it could be any man, and women feel compelled to act accordingly. I retweeted a tweet expressing that sentiment last night, and my 16-year-old daughter liked it. She never likes my tweets. The fact that she chose to like that one makes me incredibly sad.
I also reflect on my own time in the police service. I was a trained sexual offences officer. I recall that early in the 2000s, my force ran a bus advert in Edinburgh advising women to think about what they drank and who they were with when socialising—basically a plan to prevent sexual assault. In my early 20s, as I was then, I probably thought that that was reasonable. It shows how conditioned we all are.
As part of my sexual offences role, I was responsible for taking the victim’s statement and then attending any medical examination. Securing evidence and productions and maintaining a chain of evidence is crucial, but I also witnessed the impact of that initial investigation on the women involved. Time is a factor—the length of time for a sexual offences officer to travel to wherever the assault was taking place, to take a statement, to travel to the place where the medical exam would happen and for the exam itself, with women not being able to wash or change in that time, in order to preserve evidence. It is an incredibly invasive process. No matter how empathetic the investigating officer is—and I like to think that I always was—they are not your friend; they are not your family member. The real tragedy is that, a lot of the time, all that comes to absolutely nothing. And of course, that is just in the cases of those women who feel able to contact the police and disclose in the first place.
So how do we choose to challenge? The challenge to the Government is: pass the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has been in the offing for four years; legislate to make misogyny a hate crime; and make sure that those occupying positions of trust are people we really can trust. Men need to step up. They need to be active allies. International Women’s Day is just as much about my 13-year-old son as it is about my 16 year-old daughter.
The final challenge is to ourselves. We need to do much more to ensure that when we talk about women and about discrimination and violence, we are inclusive. Wenjing Lin, 16, died on Friday at her family’s takeaway restaurant in Wales. The man accused of her murder appeared in court this morning. At the root of much of our debate around single-sex spaces is the fear of sexual violence perpetrated by men. Changing men’s behaviour changes that debate, and on International Women’s Day, that is a challenge that faces us all.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for organising the debate. It is a privilege to take part in it. I am the representative man who is here to take the punishment and the blame, and I do that—I do not shirk from that responsibility—because, despite everything that has been achieved for women’s rights, this debate proves that this is not a job that has been done; it is still very much a job to do. I think of things that have changed in my lifetime, such as the right for a woman to claim she has been raped by her husband, and, in retrospect, it is astonishing that they were allowed to persist in the modern age.
The main point I want to make is about the male blindness that still persists, which can so easily distort decisions. We need a political settlement in which it is impossible for decisions to be made that fail to recognise that, while men and women are equal, we have very different life experiences, which means that we need more women in the room when decisions are being formed. Look at how disadvantaged women have been in this covid crisis. How much do we think the Government have been able to recognise that?
If we want more women Ministers, I say to my colleagues on the Government Benches that we need more women MPs. I was tasked by David Cameron, when he first became leader, to increase the number of women candidates who could win Conservative seats. Up until 2010, only 9% of those on the Conservative Benches were women. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was first elected to this House, she was one of only 13 women Conservative Members. At that same time, the Labour party had 101. Today, we still only have 25%. I am very proud of that rapid improvement, but it is not enough. Can I just point out to my male colleagues that half the population are women?
I applaud the Prime Minister’s November statement that we should have a 50:50 Parliament, but how are we going to get there? Who stands in the way? It is the Conservative party, because we are not making this happen. Is the only way by legislation? I hope not, but we men have to understand why so few women come forward, why so many women MPs feel hounded and belittled by our political and social media culture, and why most women tend to have shorter political careers than men. I urge my male colleagues to join the Prime Minister in this ambition. This is not just a women’s issue. We men have to help to make this happen if we believe in it, or else the men are still the problem.
Our International Women’s Day debates are usually a chance for us to celebrate our achievements, our pioneers, our trailblazers—those fearless glass ceiling smashers. We sigh and roll our eyes in frustration about how much further we still have to go. We remember that in contrast to the 5,000 or so men who have sat here, still only 520 women ever have. But then we buck ourselves up, rally other women, encourage them, ask them to stand, cheer those who persist, be positive and push ourselves even further, looking forward still to the changes that are surely only just around the next corner. But not today. Today is for Sarah. I wish we could all tell her just how angry we all feel. I wish she could see how much she has touched our lives and that we continue to keep her in our prayers.
The women here know that this is the day we hear my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) read out that list. We bring tissues. We prepare ourselves mentally as well as we can to hear the names of all the women killed by men since she last read us that horrific list. We will ourselves not to cry in this place, but it is almost impossible not to be overcome as those names echo around the Chamber: ordinary and extraordinary women, mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, colleagues, best friends, neighbours—all loved, all the centre of someone’s world.
We know the statistics all too well. We know that every single day of every single week—pandemic or not—women are murdered by men. A very quick and basic search on a phone will reveal headlines such as “Three Women a Week Killed by Domestic Violence During Lockdown,” “Domestic Abuse Killings More Than Double Amid Covid-19 Lockdown,” and “Calls to Women’s Helplines Soar During Lockdown.” It goes on and on and on.
The outpouring of collective rage over the last 24 hours shows that women are tired. We are tired of having to pre-empt possible violence. We are tired of having to risk-assess every ordinary everyday action every hour of every day of our lives. We are tired of having to explain and justify every simple choice we make, every opinion we hold, every aspect of our appearance. We are sick of our voices going unheard, our calls for action being dismissed and delayed; sick of rules being changed to exclude us even in the oldest and seemingly most noble of our long-established institutions. Sarah Everard has reignited a fire within us, much like George Floyd did. Enough is enough. We must take a long hard look at society, at social media, at misogyny, at violence, at ourselves. Let us hope that next year’s list is virtually non-existent.
It is really painful to see the revelations that brave women are making individually on platforms such as Twitter. Every woman I know will have a similar story. If a man is reading some of those stories and is moved, shocked or upset by them, I promise them that the women in their life will all have lived some of those experiences themselves. Some of those experiences just need to be listened to.
It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see you in the Chair today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate.
As the first female Member for Sevenoaks and Swanley, I was going to use my time today to talk about women in the covid recovery and the need for flexibility in the workplace. I strongly support all that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) had to say, but I want to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) in talking about the heart-breaking case that we have seen and the developments in the past 24 hours.
What we have seen online is an outpouring of grief and of people’s stories about the harassment and violence to which they have been subject over a number of years. These terrors that we experience as we walk down the street, looking over our shoulder, clutching our keys because we are nervous that someone will come up to us, but hoping desperately that we will never have to use them are, sadly, universal experiences.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner said yesterday that such cases are rare. Yes, thankfully, it is rare that women are abducted in this country, but the roll call from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) is devastating. Incidents of women being harassed are nowhere near rare enough. A recent report from UN Women UK shows that almost all women—almost all women—have been sexually harassed. We must do more to address that.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has arrived in the House. I am pleased that it proposes to extend the minimum term for sexual and violent offenders and the power to end automatic early release. The Government should consider ending the standard determinant sentences for rape so that the Parole Board is always involved before these perpetrators are let out into the public.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, thankfully, is progressing well through Parliament and will create a legal definition of domestic abuse to provide clarity that domestic abuse can be financial, verbal and emotional as well as physical and sexual. Critically, it is about patterns of abuse over time. More needs to be done. We have seen from the outpouring of grief, upset, worry and concern that this exhausting pattern needs to end, and I hope that the violence against women and girls strategy, which is forthcoming later this year, will look at what more we can do on police harassment and on the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuting cases. Women have a right to feel safe and it is about time that we made that a reality.
I congratulate the right hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate.
Every 16 minutes, a woman or a girl is abused. Every three days, a woman is killed by a man. We heard the list read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). We must get to the root of this crisis. Inequality in society is fuelling the killing of women. The bullying and silencing of women’s voices contributes to the abuse that women receive. If a man was killed every three days, there would be investigations at every level of society. Unfortunately, though, at every level of society, a man still holds the power—whether it be economically, politically, in the media or the judicial system. One woman is killed every three days, but let us ask ourselves this: what are we really doing about it.
It is time for all those with power to stop being bystanders in this pandemic and get involved. Just yesterday, we read about Sarah Everard who it seems has been sadly killed. The suspect is a policeman who roamed the corridors of Parliament. I have made a freedom of information request to establish how many police officers—
I take the point, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have made a freedom of information request to establish how many police officers have been investigated for domestic violence. Recognised journalist Alexandra Heal won a Paul Foot prize for uncovering the shocking stories of how police forces handle domestic abuse complaints against their own officers. Justice for Women highlighted the injustices face by women who kill abusive partners. Why are so many women charged with murder as opposed to manslaughter if there is strong evidence of domestic violence? It is because, predominantly, men are making the judgments.
There was the recent case of Anthony Williams, who was sentenced to five years in jail for strangling his wife to death. She had her keys in her hand and was trying to escape. Judge Paul Thomas said that, in his view, Williams’s mental health was
“severely affected at the time”.
This is ridiculous. In 2019, Judge Hayden said:
“I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife”—
really, Justice Hayden? How about the fundamental right to life, or the fundamental right to say no? Lord Chief Justice Burnett said that the small number of sexism cases in courts gives a false impression. I say that all sexism in courts must be eradicated and judges removed.
We need more men tackling male violence against women. We need judges to be barred if they do not understand that any violence against women and girls is wrong. I welcome Baroness Helic’s amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill and I hope that the Minister will say that the Government will support it. We need to challenge and interrupt abuse at every level in society, so today, I challenge the judiciary. The pool from which judges are drawn is too narrow. Retention of women is dismal because of the abuse they suffer at every stage. Our judiciary is poorly served because of misogyny and discrimination. We ultimately need a wider pool if we are going to change the culture and structure. Let us start with three Ps—prevent, protect and prosecute.
I am fortunate: I am a white, heterosexual, well-educated woman. I am not a ’50s-born woman, and, as far as I am aware, I am fit in mind and body. I was married to the same man for 47 years and jointly raised two sons and a daughter. After leaving university, I received the same salary as men I worked alongside throughout my working life. Other women are not so lucky. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I challenge the treatment of these less fortunate women today. I can list only a few.
I was raised in a different era by my mother, who was born in 1919. I raised my family differently and, for my daughter, some things were easier than they were for me. We have laws now on equal pay, protected characteristics and statutory maternity pay, which makes me wonder why, last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, described pregnancy and maternity discrimination as one of the
“most urgent…threats to equality”
during this pandemic. I ask myself, is this to be a never-ending fight? The Government must introduce redundancy pay gap reporting by protected characteristics and reporting on the numbers of women who have been pregnant or on maternity leave when they were made redundant.
I challenge the gender pension gap that still exists today. Women, particularly disabled, older, minority ethic, from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and those with caring responsibilities, are among those who will have lower lifetime earnings for one reason or another. The gender pension gap is around 40%, more than twice the gender pay gap of 17%. This leads to £7,500 a year less pension for these women on average.
Finally, I also want to reference the results, which have already been mentioned, of a recent survey of 1,000 women commissioned by UN Women UK. Over 70% of UK women say that they have experienced sexual harassment in public. Only 3% of women aged 18 to 24 said that they had not experienced any of the behaviours that were asked about. Only 4% of women reported these incidents, with 45% of women saying that they did not believe reporting them would change anything. We all need to take this issue seriously. We are all aware of the tragedies that occur daily. We must make public places safer for all and we must desist from victim blaming.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, and for her wider work championing women.
I was recently looking at a BBC poll from the early 2000s about the greatest Britons of all time. It is striking because only 13 of the top 100 are women, and most of those are royalty. That is not because women cannot be great explorers, scientists or war heroes; it is because, until relatively recently, we were not afforded those opportunities. What we have been through this past year, and what we are still going through, is like a war. In previous wars, the heroes would have been great men such as the Duke of Wellington, Nelson and Churchill. This time around, people will remember the names of Sarah Gilbert, Catherine Green, Kate Bingham and many more.
Although it is always important to reflect on the progress we have made, today is a day to reflect on how much more we have to do. Since before I became an MP, I have been privileged to work alongside brilliant organisations encouraging women to stand in public life, such as 50:50 Parliament and Women2Win. We know that women are much less likely to put themselves forward, but if we are going to rebuild from this pandemic, we are going to need the very best talent, no matter what their background or gender. We simply cannot afford to miss out. Although we should do all that we can to encourage women to put themselves forward for what I think is one of the best jobs in the world, I am pleased that the Government are also taking steps to address some of the challenges that may put women off, particularly around intimidation and abuse.
Like many others, this week I have been horrified by the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Her family are in all our thoughts, as is she. As someone who lived in that area for many years, I have both made that judgment to walk home alone at 9 pm and also felt the nagging fear of doing so.
When one in four women has experienced domestic abuse, and nearly 80% of all women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces, we have to acknowledge that there is a lot to do on women’s safety. The responses that we have seen in the last few days show just how prevalent harassment and violence against women is. I know that I have experienced it: in the workplace, in a bar, in the street, on public transport and as a student—and that is completely in line with all the other women I know. As long as this continues, we will need the brilliant specialist services that we have. I constantly feel so grateful for East Surrey Domestic Abuse Services, and Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid.
I welcome the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill and the hundreds of millions of pounds that we have added to funding domestic abuse services during the pandemic, but they will always need more funding as long as abuse is on the rise. I think what they would actually like, more than anything, is for us to take away their custom. I look forward to the progress that we can make on this, particularly through the upcoming ending violence against women and girls strategy.
It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak in this debate. Until recently, thousands of women were detained indefinitely every year in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre on the outskirts of Bedford. Many of those women were survivors of rape, torture and trafficking, and had left their countries to find safety; yet, in the UK, they were locked up for weeks and even months on end, causing them huge mental distress.
In 2015, research by the charity Women for Refugee Women found that 40% of women that it spoke to had self-harmed while in detention. In the same year, the chief inspector of prisons called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern”. Campaigners, including women who had previously been detained in Yarl’s Wood, called for its complete closure—a measure that I have long called for. But the Home Office did not close Yarl’s Wood. The Home Office has now announced that it is planning to open a new immigration removal centre for women in County Durham. It has decided to open this new detention centre for women, in spite of the fact that the number of women detained under immigration powers is currently at an historic low
Immigration detention retraumatises women who have already survived serious human rights abuses. It is also often completely pointless. Home Office statistics show that in 2018, just 14% of asylum-seeking women who were released from detention centres were removed from the UK. This Government could not find resources in the recent Budget for any investment in areas that would help women towards greater equality, such as childcare, but they can find the resources to open an unnecessary detention centre that will retraumatise vulnerable women.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate. I draw the House’s attention to my interests set out in the register.
I want to talk about the position of women across the world and the deep poverty that disfigures our world. I think the whole House will accept that we cannot understand international development unless we see it through the eyes of a girl or a woman, because girls and women suffer most grievously from the effects of poverty. They suffer first and hardest from climate change, food insecurity, conflict and disorder. As we have heard, so many are in important caring roles, and they are often, in the developing world, the earners in families. Some 2.1 billion girls live in countries that, even before the pandemic, were not on track to meet any of the gender equality targets set down by the United Nations. One of the best ways of changing the world is to educate girls. If we educate girls, they marry later, educate their own children, tend to be more likely to be economically active, and adopt leadership roles in their communities. That is why the Prime Minister is so right to champion—to aspire to—every girl getting 12 years of education.
But all this great work will be prejudiced—British leadership will be prejudiced—if we break our promise on the 0.7% commitment. We have recently seen horrific cuts, often of more than 50%, in Britain’s role in this area. For example, in family planning—giving women control over their own fertility so that they can decide whether and when they have children—there has been huge British leadership since 2012 and before, but if these cuts go ahead, 8 million women will not get access to family planning. I have seen the powerful effect of British leadership in this area empowering women. I remember, on one occasion, watching 60 women sitting under a tree in Uganda hearing what was possible thanks to UK taxpayers. At the end, they were asked if they wanted to proceed to further consultation about contraception and women’s health, and every single hand under that tree went up. The cause of women’s empowerment will be set back if these fearsome cuts go ahead.
As chair of the G7, we are the only country cutting back. Only a week ago, France committed to 0.7% for the first time. Germany has reached 0.7%. The United States has added $15 billion to the aid budget. We are relinquishing our global leadership. Every story on the world stage will be about cutting life-saving support. One of the key aspects of global Britain is being trashed and binned. The Government must stop being timid and put this matter to a vote of this House. Failure to do so means that that they may be implementing an unlawful Budget from April. Let the Government ask the House its view on whether we wish to break the promise on which we were all elected just over a year ago.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight how millions of women worldwide suffer discrimination, persecution and violence doubly on account of their gender and their beliefs. Many are subjected to some of the most egregious atrocities on earth today, pressed into slavery, sexual or otherwise, tricked and subjected to human trafficking, scarred mentally and physically through the use of rape in conflict. Young girls are sold as a commodity, deprived of an education and, as a result, of a livelihood and any chance of flourishing or reaching their full potential, subject to systematic abuses such as early or forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour killings, or trapped in prostitution and poverty.
My duty, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, is to speak out against this. I am proud to be the first woman to have been appointed to this role. Many women around the world suffer lower social status or reduced legal rights, which can exacerbate the problems they encounter in trying to exercise their freedom of religion or belief.
It is good that tackling gender and belief-based violence is a priority for our Government. Let me focus on a few instances where the UK Government are taking action—although of course there is much more to be done. In Pakistan, the ongoing reports of forced marriage and conversion of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women and girls, reportedly hundreds of girls a year, are alarming. I raised concerns about this a few days ago at a virtual meeting with our high commissioner in Pakistan. I know that my colleagues in the Foreign Office share these concerns and regularly raise them with the Government of Pakistan. In Nigeria, officials have in recent months raised with the Nigerian Government the case of Christian schoolgirl Leah Sharibu, abducted by Boko Haram and the last of her group still not released. Our Government are providing a package of humanitarian and stabilisation support there, including for women, but more—much more—needs to be done.
Turning to China, reports of dehumanisation of Uyghur women there are deeply distressing. The Foreign Secretary recently addressed the UN Human Rights Council, saying:
“The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale. The reported abuses—which include torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation of women—are extreme and they are extensive. They are taking place on an industrial scale. It must be our collective duty to ensure that this does not go unanswered.”
Indeed, we must all ensure, as a true response to International Women’s Day, that they do not go unanswered. More needs to be done.
Finally, Yazidi and Christian women in Iraq suffered horrific crimes at the hands of Daesh. Iraq must ensure that minority communities displaced by Daesh are allowed to return home safely. No one should suffer or be coerced doubly because of their conscience or their gender. More needs to be done.
Recently my four-year-old daughter proudly declared that she wants to be a politician when she is older, because she wants to work to make life easier for other people. Her words came back to haunt me when I saw my six-year-old constituent Gabriella Ratcliffe, whose life has been anything but easy.
The story of Gabriella’s childhood is well rehearsed. She was separated from her mother, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, when she was still being breastfed at 18 months. At the age of two, she had to wear a sack over her head when visiting her mother in prison, and she celebrated her third birthday in the waiting room at Evin prison. By the age of four, she had forgotten how to speak English, and so lost the ability to communicate with her father, Richard. At the age of five, she travelled across two continents, from Iran to the UK, saying goodbye to her mother indefinitely and promising to be brave.
I often see Gabriella on my Zoom calls with Richard, and she once asked me if mummy would be coming home in time for Mother’s Day—a plea from a young woman about her imprisoned mother to her female MP felt particularly poignant on International Women’s Day.
Yesterday it was reported that the Prime Minister and President Rouhani had a conversation about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, and it was heavily implied that the £400 million debt that the UK owes to Iran was linked to my constituent’s case. I imagined being a fly on the wall, listening to two men at the top of their respective Governments discussing the fate of a poor woman who had been caught as a political pawn between the two countries, taken hostage and imprisoned for crimes she did not commit, mentally tortured for years, all to serve a diplomatic negotiation with an oppressive regime over issues including a debt dating back to the 1970s and the international arms trade.
For a lot of women we will hear about today, their tragedies have been caused by personal or local circumstances. Gabriella’s personal tragedy has been caused by global injustice, which has overwhelmingly been orchestrated by men. At this moment, Nazanin’s fate is held in the hands of men: President Rouhani, the judges in Iran and, of course, our Prime Minister.
I hope that Nazanin returns to the UK soon, and that she returns to a country that is on a path to true equality between men and women, where her daughter and my son can walk the same streets as equals.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who made a powerful speech.
“A woman is like a tea bag: you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
After the year we have had, Eleanor Roosevelt’s words certainly strike a chord. Women have spent more time home schooling and are more likely to have been furloughed and to have experienced anxiety and loneliness. I want to thank all the women in Rushcliffe, whose sacrifices have got their families and communities through this pandemic. In particular, I want to thank four incredible women.
First, Hetvi Parekh recently won the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award for her volunteering with Sewa Day. She has provided hot meals to frontline NHS staff, furnished a respite room in Queen’s Medical Centre hospital, and made 750 activity packs for children on low incomes, which I am told involved wrestling with a staggering 29,000 pipe cleaners. No task is too big, no challenge too daunting. She is currently collecting Easter eggs for children living in refuges.
Then there is Nicola Brindley, with whom I am working to set up a network of J9 safe spaces in Rushcliffe, where survivors of domestic abuse can go to get help. J9 is named after Janine Mundy, who was murdered by her ex-husband. Nicola has trained 60 people in Rushcliffe. She set up J9 in all Nottingham’s jobcentres and launched a programme to train a domestic abuse specialist in every jobcentre across the country. That work has saved lives from day one.
Farah Jamil set up Meet, Greet and Eat a year ago—a project that enables adults with additional needs to come together and create a place they can call their own. It helps participants build confidence, communication and practical skills. The group provides food bags and hot meals to elderly people, and it wants to set up a café and a social supermarket, providing opportunities for adults with additional needs to learn, grow and be themselves.
Jill Mathers started the Cotgrave Community Kitchen in 2019 to tackle social isolation. It gets everyone together for a nutritious meal at an affordable price. Refusing to be beaten by lockdown, Jill and her volunteers provide 200 weekly food bags and takeaway meals. She also runs a mini-market with donations from FareShare. She cooked 188 Christmas lunches for local pensioners. She hopes she will soon be able to open a community café, providing a social space, training opportunities and a market for locally grown produce.
Women are survivors. Women are fighters. As the stories of Hetvi, Nicola, Farah and Jill show, women are the heroes at the heart of our communities.
International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate women’s achievements, acknowledge the struggles that women continue to face and recommit ourselves to the ongoing fight for equality. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “choose to challenge”—a reminder to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.
It is clear that women in conflict zones carry some of the heaviest burdens. Horrors reported from Xinjiang reveal how Uyghur women in concentration camps have been violated as part of the Chinese Government’s brutal campaign to curb their Muslim population. The abuses they face include forced sterilisation and labour, sexual violence and rape, denouncements of faith and torture, all of which can be described only as genocidal acts. Action is desperately needed, so I implore the Government to consider sanctions and follow in the footsteps of America, Canada and the Netherlands in declaring China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide.
As the son of a Kashmiri woman, it pains me deeply that women in Kashmir live under some of the most difficult conditions in the world. They are subjected to mass surveillance and sexual violence, and many are half-widows. Their painful stories need to come to an end, but for that to happen there must be sustainable peace in Kashmir, which cannot be imposed by military means. Time and again, the UK Government have maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue, but the Kashmir conflict came about as a direct result of Britain’s actions. To assume zero responsibility is frankly offensive.
Global Britain is meaningless unless the UK leads the global effort to protect and empower those women. It is disappointing that the Government have cut aid at a time like this; aid is often the first and last hope of improving women’s and girls’ lives. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the UN penholder on women, peace and security, the UK is in a rare position to do more. I urge the Minister and the Government to grasp with both hands the opportunity that is in front of them to make a genuinely transformational change that will improve the lives of women and girls globally.
It is a pleasure to follow so many powerful speeches by Members on both sides of the Chamber and of all sexes in such an important debate.
I take part in this debate knowing that we are many in this Chamber, but not enough. Two hundred and twenty, to be exact, were elected in 2019 to represent their constituencies in the House of Commons. It should be at least 325. Actually, we are 51% of the population, so it should be a few more, but I would happily take 325. We have some way to go. Why? Historically, this place was built by men, for men, as women did not have the vote and could not be MPs until 1918. Its traditions and procedures were developed by and for men, and, in the most part, the hangover persists.
In 2018, before I came here, the “UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit” was published. It identified
“barriers…to equal female representation in Parliament, including:
The culture of Parliament,”
“reports of bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment;
The challenges that working in Parliament poses for family life, including the unpredictability of business and…long hours;
The financial impact of standing for Parliament; and
Online threats…in particular gender-based intimidation, harassment and violence”
against women parliamentarians and candidates.
There has been progress, of course—220 is an all-time high, women Ministers can now take maternity leave without having to quit, there is childcare, and the hours are not quite so long. I am grateful that I benefit from the stand taken by my colleagues and my predecessors.
However, one of the barriers highlighted in the audit has not improved; in fact, it has got worse. Online abuse, intimidation and threats impact all MPs, but I believe that gender-based abuse is the biggest single impediment we have as a Parliament, and as a country, to ever reaching true equality. Without doubt, women receive more abuse than men. Many women in this place suffer horrendous amounts of abuse. Being called a “slag”, a “bitch”, a “whore” and worse can be a daily occurrence on social media. We refuse to be victims, but we must call the abuse out for what it is, because it is one of the main reasons that women choose not to enter politics or public life.
I recently called out for everyone in my constituency of Ynys Môn to stand up to the online hate—to call it out, to report it and to make doing so as normal as the hate itself has become. The support I have received has been inspiring, but I have also been contacted by women who tell me that they will not stand for public office because they have seen the level of abuse that I receive. Often, it is their families and children that they want to protect, rather than themselves.
In this debate celebrating women’s achievement, I ask everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or political persuasion, not to ignore abusive comments, not to pass them off as banter and not to think that they do not matter, but to call out the hate. If we want a democracy that truly represents our beautiful, diverse country, then we as a society need to take a stand.
It is so important that we have this debate each year to honour the contribution of women across society. Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequality. Because of deep-rooted gender inequality worldwide, women and girls have experienced the pandemic differently. Some 47 million women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty this year, and 20 million girls, on top of the 131 million out of school before the crisis, may now never return to school.
We have seen a huge surge in gender-based violence. In some parts of the world, it has been called a “shadow pandemic”. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights and services have been dramatically reduced. That is why the Opposition have been calling for gender analyses in the UK’s international response to covid-19. Instead, the Government shut down the Department for International Development, which was renowned for its work on gender equality around the world, and now, as the Father of the House pointed out earlier, they are slashing the aid budget.
The Government must reverse their decision to cut their aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. That will threaten lives. Let me give an example. There has been a 60% cut to the International Rescue Committee’s health programme in Sierra Leone, which helps over 3 million mostly teenage girls in a country where one in 17 women dies in pregnancy or childbirth. The global covid response has abandoned women and girls. Another programme in Rwanda, which was helping over 200,000 young girls, has also been scrapped.
On International Women’s Day, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) and I launched a consultation on advancing gender equality in development. If we really want to understand how to address structural inequalities in our society and in the world, we must engage with communities and civil society, and understand the international perspective active in the global south. Will the Minister please speak to the Foreign Secretary and reverse the aid cuts that are taking place, because they are endangering so many women who are already in difficult circumstances? Only if we all fight together and stand in solidarity can we make a better, more equal world.
Like others, my thoughts are constantly with the family of Sarah Everard. I have daughters around the same age, and I can only imagine how devastated the family must be at what has happened. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her yearly reminder of the dangers that many women face, both here and around the world, as they continue to be attacked for their gender.
Last week I spoke to one of my oldest friends, Henrietta Blyth of Open Doors, on a Facebook Live chat. We talked about how Christian women around the world face the double danger of being attacked not only because of their gender, but because of their religion. We are seeing the systematic murder of women in leadership roles in places such as Afghanistan. Those women could be the future in a failed state and could make a difference, yet they are gunned down. On a more positive note, I welcome to her post Najla El Mangoush, who yesterday was confirmed as Libya’s Foreign Minister by its Parliament—the first woman to hold the post. I know that all Members of the House will wish her and her colleagues well in re-establishing peace and order in Libya.
The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Choose to Challenge”, and while I want more women to challenge for the leadership in their field, whatever it is, we must recognise that our ability to make that choice often depends on an accident of birth or nationality. I have been reading the World Economic Forum’s report on the global gender gap, which contains striking details on the subtleties of inequality. Without including women, who are half the world’s talent, we will not be able to deliver the fourth industrial revolution for all societies, or grow our economies for shared prosperity.
Technology is still overly dominated by men, but there is also potential for it to improve the place of women in the world. Technology offers us a means of education, and a channel for us to communicate with those who face oppression. It also offers a means for women, whose stories we might not otherwise hear, to get those stories to the outside world. Sometimes they are positive stories, but too often they are stories of abuse and neglect. Technology can help to empower women through education. “Knowledge is power” might be a cliché, but it is also a solution to reducing gender inequality. We should surely be using our foreign aid to harness the technology that women can use for education, business and leadership. The covid pandemic has shown us all how we can work differently, so in the spirit of this day, I “choose to challenge” every Government, organisation and non-governmental organisation to be more effective in using technology directly to empower women and beat gender inequality.
Women in my community have been shaken to the core by the abduction of my constituent, Sarah Everard. The ongoing investigation means that there is only so much we can say, but the response to the appeal and the investigation show that Sarah was much loved, and my thoughts and prayers go out to her family, her boyfriend, and her friends at this unimaginably difficult time.
Sarah’s disappearance has left so many women feeling unsafe. With the theme of International Women’s Day, I choose to challenge the disgusting victim shaming that we have seen since Sarah’s disappearance. It should go without saying that victims of gender violence are not to blame. Sarah did nothing wrong. All she did was walk home.
It should not be luck that sees us home safely at night; it should be our fundamental right, respected by all. So on Saturday, as the sun sets, I choose to challenge the reality that being a woman means I am not safe, and I will join Lambeth Councillors Anna Birley and Jess Leigh and others, who will be leading a vigil for Sarah and reclaiming our streets.
As we reclaim our streets in unity, I ask all women to remember what that unity means. Earlier this week, the world watched as a biracial woman recounted her struggle with mental health and her experience of racism. We then saw how easily and vocally people berated her and refused to believe her, even other women. I choose to challenge a feminism that is not intersectional and that all too easily forgets the impact of racism on so many women. It is wrong for those who have never faced racism to discount the experience of those who have, just as it is wrong when men discount our experiences of sexism and harassment. Our allyship cannot be selective.
In our country, one in four black women dies in childbirth. I know this pain all too well. My own pregnancy nearly killed me and my daughter did not survive. The children of black women have a 121% increased risk of being stillborn and a 50% increased risk of neonatal death. As women, we are told that it is just one of those things, but staggering health inequalities and outcomes tell a different story. When, like me, you relive the experience again and again, it is not hard to find instances where how you are perceived or if you are believed as a black woman make all the difference. I pay tribute to the work of the campaign Five X More, which continues to raise awareness and call for change. I hope the House will give Members time to fully debate the issue of black maternal health.
I choose to challenge a world in which all women do not have the equality they deserve.
The UK is a signatory to the 17 sustainable development goals, which I wish we discussed much more in the House. Succeeding in delivering them will lead to women and girls having the greatest opportunity to live full, safe and rewarding lives. That is not because the 17 goals are targeted specifically towards the life chances and rights of women and girls, but because we know that, sadly, women and girls are most likely to be adversely affected by poverty, prejudice, limited opportunities and poor quality water, to mention just a few of the injustices in the world.
The UK has reason to be proud of its role and record of raising those issues, which have an impact on world’s poorest people, as we meet our foreign aid commitments and responsibilities. However, to mark International Women’s Day, I call on the Government to review our progress on the sustainable development goals and especially the areas that most affect women.
The sustainable development goals cover 17 specific areas, but I want to mention just a few. When we adopted the goals in 2015, we said that we would commit to ruling out poverty, ending hunger, providing good health and wellbeing, ensuring access to education, delivering gender equality, providing clean water and sanitation, and giving greater access to decent work and economic growth. Those are just seven of the 17 goals and they all offer real hope, opportunity and improved life chances for women and girls around the world.
Given the Government’s continuing commitment to those worthy outcomes, I gently ask them to question themselves about the justification for the cut in our UK foreign aid. International aid has led the war on forced labour among migrant women and started to crack down on human trafficking. The UK has led the global action on that. Foreign aid has led to African women finding a market for their camels’ milk and been essential in the fight to end violence against women and girls in Lebanon. UK aid is critical in addressing the displacement of women due to conflict, climate change and, more recently, the covid pandemic.
As we mark International Women’s Day, will the Government consider what impact cutting international aid will have now and for years to come on the women and girls who need our help if they are to lead full and fulfilling lives?
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate to mark International Women’s Day.
I would like to begin by celebrating a number of women in my constituency who have gone above and beyond to serve our community during this difficult year. Dr Sam Parrett OBE, principal of London and South East Education Group, has done so much to ensure that young people were supported throughout the pandemic. Sue Stockham, an ovarian cancer survivor, is using her experience to raise awareness about the signs of ovarian cancer and the importance of getting help quickly during the pandemic. Carmel Britto is the founding director of LPF Kiddies Club, which offers educational enrichment to young children from African and Caribbean backgrounds. Kate Heaps is the chief executive of Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice. Yeukai Taruvinga is the founder and director of Active Horizons, a charity that works to support black and ethnic minority young people in Bexley. Yeukai grew up in Zimbabwe but came to this country after her political activism in Zimbabwe made her the target of a campaign of intimidation and violence.
And of course, there are the many women who have served on the frontline during the pandemic as doctors, nurses, carers, cleaners and other key workers. I am afraid I cannot name them all, but we must not forget the sacrifices they have made and the burden that has fallen on them. I also take this opportunity to support Unison’s campaign to create a lasting memorial to the matchgirls—the women who took strike action against poor working conditions at the Bryant and May match factory in east London.
As well as celebrating the achievements of women, this debate is an opportunity to talk about the challenges and barriers that women continue to face in all walks of life. Given the events of the last week, I want to talk about violence against women. My thoughts are with Sarah Everard’s family and friends at this awful time, but I also think of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. While those cases are particularly shocking, we must not forget that most violence against women occurs within the home. In the boroughs I represent, domestic violence is a significant problem. The pandemic and lockdown have only made this situation worse, with the Met reporting an 8.5% increase in domestic abuse incidents compared with the year before.
I will finish with three specific asks of the Government. First, the Government need to properly invest in and reform the sectors that overwhelmingly employ women—most notably, the care sector. Secondly, the Government must commit to be more transparent about the impact of policies and decisions on women, particularly black and Asian women, including through gender pay gap reporting. Finally, the Government must provide targeted support for women to recover from the pandemic, including investment in women’s mental health services, helping young women back into work and funding specialist domestic violence services.
This debate gives us a fantastic opportunity to celebrate women. As 21st-century women in Britain, we have so much to be thankful for: education, opportunities, free healthcare and full equality under the law. Much of what has been achieved over the last century has been about empowering women by releasing choices and freedoms that our great grandmothers could barely have imagined. We have the choice over who we vote for, choices over fertility, choice of career and freedom over our finances. Those achievements should be celebrated, and we are deeply grateful to those who have gone before.
But in recent years, the focus of progress has become too narrow, and some of the things we are now fighting for in the name of equality are actually reducing the choice, freedom and happiness of many women. So much of our recent attention in the UK has rightly been focused on trying to enable women to both work and have a family life, with more free childcare, more flexible working, equal pay and excellent maternity rights. That has certainly benefited many women, particularly those who are well paid, with careers that are stimulating, rewarding and influential. But many women do not have a career—they have a job—and for many women, if they had a choice, they would spend more time with their children and less time in the workplace.
Sadly, women in previous generations did not have the choice to work, but in modern Britain many women no longer have the choice not to work. Our individualistic tax system places a huge penalty on single-earner families, with UK families paying as much as 30% more tax than those in similar countries.
The penalty is so high that for a one-earner family to have the same standard of living as a single person on median income, the breadwinner needs to have a salary of £60,000—a wage that is simply unattainable for the vast majority of families. For many women, then, there is no choice but to work long hours, not in some stimulating, highly rewarding professional job, but in a job that pulls them away from their young children and denies them the time and energy that they want to spend on their families. A recent YouGov survey showed that 78% of mothers of pre-schoolers would prefer to work part time or not at all.
As we approach Mother’s Day, we need to recognise that mothers who invest time in their children are doing a great service to society, and that a woman’s value is not determined only by her economic output. Choosing to stay at home when children are small should not be a privilege that only the richest can afford and should not be seen as an inferior choice or second best. For progress to continue, we must enable women to have a genuine choice to spend more time with their children if they want to, including by looking at reforming the tax system to recognise family responsibilities. Let us celebrate International Women’s Day by committing to giving all UK women real freedom and real choice over both their work and their family lives.
In a debate to mark International Women’s Day, it should not be a revolutionary statement to say that sex matters. But it is and it does.
Despite the fact that men’s violence against women is a leading cause of the premature death of women globally, research in the UK and Europe is inadequate. Thanks to Karen Ingala Smith’s Femicide Census, we now have detailed, comparable data on femicides in the UK since 2009. In a report published at the end of last year, the Femicide Census examined 1,425 cases of women killed by men. It found that the number of women killed every year by men has stayed distressingly consistent over the past decade, at between 124 and 168 each year. This raises serious questions about the state’s response to men’s violence against women in the past decade.
The Femicide Census believes there is a lack of willingness to tackle the root causes of this violence, and identifies a number of systemic problems, including a lack of funding for and cuts to the specialist women’s sector and a failure to collate, store and make easily accessible transparent, disaggregated data on violence against women. We need this data because sex matters. Women are uniquely vulnerable to men’s violence because men are so much stronger than us. That is a fact of our different biological make-up. Sex matters.
This week, as women responded on social media to the horror of the abduction of Sarah Everard, one woman tweeted:
“Half my timeline is women being told they’re responsible for keeping themselves safe from male violence. Half is women being told they’re bigots for insisting on retaining existing protections against male violence.”
Her exasperation echoes that felt by many women. It feels like our society is going backwards. Women who speak up for women’s rights are accused of bad behaviour, while men accused of abusive behaviour are often shielded from the consequences of their actions.
Men are still largely in charge, and many women who get the top are too scared, once they are there, to challenge men who want to silence and control women. So they invent a new kind of feminism—one that is so inclusive and so kind that it will not dare name the problems that women face. Nobody wants to pit women against men, but we need to be able to name the problem of male violence against women. We also need to be able to acknowledge that sex does matter, without being labelled bigots. The high incidence of male violence against women shows us that sex is a reality that we cannot ignore. If we ignore the reality of sex, we distort reality in a way that will only make women more vulnerable.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate as the first female MP for Hyndburn and Haslingden.
International Women’s Day is hugely important in recognising women around the world. It is a time to reflect on the work that they do and a day to celebrate all that we have achieved. But women have significant battles to face whenever they try to succeed, progress or do something to make a difference.
“A little girl incapable of thinking for herself”; “A cut-and-paste MP out of her depth”; “A pygmy lower than vermin”—these are just some of the insults I have received since being elected just over a year ago. I have been objectified, patronised and threatened on more occasions than I care to count. My age, my looks and particularly my gender have been used as weapons to try to undermine my confidence and “put me back in my place.”
Sadly, my experiences are not unique or even in the minority. Indeed, I would be surprised if we could find one female Member of Parliament across the whole House who has not had some kind of threat or abuse, or just casual sexism during their time in office.
As my hon. Friend knows, my parents and quite a lot of my family live in her constituency. Their opinion of her is that she is an extremely capable Member of Parliament. She is also the youngest Member on our Benches. Does she agree that it is really important for young women to see strong women in this place?
I thank my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree.
On a day when we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, I wanted to share my own story and highlight that, even in 2021, the experience of men and women can still be very different. Even by highlighting this problem and making this speech today, I am encouraging the trolls, the incels and the other people who like to see me as a target. I will probably be accused of being a man-hater, or dismissed as overly emotional or seeking attention.
It is not just in politics that we see this. Women in every industry—from journalism to the armed forces, from law to business and those on the factory floor—report similar experiences. Many stayed silent until last night, as we read and heard about Sarah Everard. They opened up because they realise that this happens in everyday society. For the first time, I publicly spoke about being mugged at 12 years old. I spoke about it because of comments that hit home about “not walking down that street at night alone.” This is what we still see today in this day and age.
Through learning from other women and recognising the position I hold, silence is no longer an option. We need to speak about this because we need to break the norm. I am not saying that to suggest I am a unique victim; I am saying it because it is a widespread experience for women. We all need to stand up because it has to stop.
To finish, I would like to end with a quote from Malala Yousafzai:
“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
Today, I would like to celebrate the achievements of a few women that I am proud to have in my life. This year’s theme is “Choose to challenge” and these women have done just that—achieving great things, often in the face of adversity. These are women who deserve to have their stories shared and their names remembered.
I have a team of staff who are predominantly women. The newest member of our team is a young lady from Kirby called Melissa Rice. Remember that name and if you read one book this year, read hers: “Sobering: Lessons Learnt the Hard Way on Drinking, Thinking and Quitting”. I first met Melissa back in 2019 when she was living at Amy’s Place, a recovery house set up by the Amy Winehouse Foundation for young women who are overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. Even then, this was a woman who wanted to use her experience for good and for change. Melissa moved to Amy’s Place after spending time at residential addiction centres in Wiltshire and London.
After years of drinking and several attempts to manage her addiction at home, with the help of outstanding specialists and therapists Melissa has now been sober for over three years. Melissa chose to challenge her addiction and her book, which follows her journey in all its sometimes heart-wrenching glory, is outstanding in the way it challenges the perception of addiction and its associated taboos. It has made me cry, but it has also made me laugh out loud at times. Melissa is a strong young woman and I am so proud of her determination not just to turn her life around, but to help others to do the same.
Helping others is also key to the work of two other wonderful women who deserve to be celebrated. Powered by the belief that hygiene and being clean is a human right not a luxury, journalist Sali Hughes and beauty PR legend Jo Jones joined forces three years ago to set up Beauty Banks. This not-for-profit organisation collects discontinued and unused stock from an array of high street and high-end brands and redistributes it to those experiencing hygiene poverty. Sali and Jo chose to challenge the poverty that they were witnessing, and they challenged the beauty industry to do something about it. The results of their determination have made such a difference to the lives of so many. Beauty Banks: please look it up! The dignity it gives to so many is something that we should all be championing. So I say to all women today, and to all young girls who are the women of tomorrow: be strong, be determined, be supportive, be yourself and be proud of your achievements.
May I first say how nice it is to see so many men contributing to the debate this year? That has not always been the case in previous years, but the fight for equality for women is as much their fight as it is ours, and I am grateful for their support. We should all be champions of equality.
I was driving home last evening when the news about the arrest in the case of Sarah Everard was breaking. I was listening to the radio and a gentlemen journalist expressed his horror at the report that 97% of all women aged between 18 and 24 had experienced some degree of sexual assault or sexual harassment. I do not think that figure will come as a surprise to any woman in this room, because we spend all our lives dealing with the reality that some men objectify us and behave as sexual predators. It is so sad that it takes such a horrendous case as the one we are living through at the moment to bring that home, but this has become normalised. That is why I make no apology for continuing to fight for women’s safe spaces. This is our lived reality. Not a day goes by when we do not take a decision to protect our own safety; that has become part of the way of living as a woman.
There is so much I could say today, but there is so little time. I want to raise the issue of the criminal justice system. I am sure that many Members will have been horrified to see the sentence handed down for the murder of Ruth Williams. Her husband, who was her murderer, received a sentence of just five years. At a time when some people are mooting 10-year sentences for bringing down statues, I think that puts a very low value on a woman’s life. It feels to me that the criminal justice system is perpetuating a fiction that women in domestic contexts are effectively the property of their husbands or partners, and that is why we see such low sentences in cases of domestic abuse that lead to death. That really needs to be tackled.
In the few seconds I have left, I would like to pay tribute to Keira Bell, a very inspiring woman I had the good fortune to meet last month. Keira had the experience of being put on gender dysphoria treatment as a teenager. It led to hormone treatment and a double mastectomy, but she realised that her issue was not that she wanted to be a man; she was a lesbian. This brings home the real difficulty we have with gender dysphoria treatment for children. We must ensure that our pathways are safe and that we do not make young girls do things that are irreversible when the issue is their sexuality.
I am grateful to speak in this debate, and although it should really be a debate of celebration, I shall begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Sarah Everard. We all need to do all we can to ensure that the UK is a safe place for all women. I also wish to acknowledge the powerful and meaningful contribution from the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), who spoke a moment ago.
I now wish to turn my focus to the cruelty that so many women experience in other parts of the world. The brutal Chinese communist party regime in China has put hundreds of thousands of lives under threat. The women of the Uyghur Muslim community are being persecuted as we speak, in what our Government really need to accept is an attempt at genocide. In Xinjiang province, women have been sterilised en masse in an attempt to reduce the population, women have been forced to have abortions and women have been separated from their children as they go off to prison camps and their children go to orphanages. In the prison camps they are systematically raped by prison guards. They are beaten and their morale is broken. Footage has been found of large-scale forced labour where they are picking cotton, which then ends up on our clothes rails. It is devastating speaking about this, but what is even worse is that our Government are doing nothing. We sit back and merely condemn the Chinese regime, and the suffering of Uyghur women is getting worse by the day. I call for the Foreign Secretary to impose sanctions on the Chinese officials committing these abuses and to declare that it is a programme of genocide.
Women are also being persecuted for their faith. Open Doors UK has written about women and girls being at greater risk of gender-specific religious persecution, including forced marriages, sexual violence and emotional abuse. ActionAid UK has made it clear that the UK has a significant impact on challenging the oppression of women around the world. If we restored the 0.7% rate of overseas aid, which our Government tragically cut last year, it would make a huge difference to so many people’s lives.
We are co-leaders of the UN action coalition on gender-based violence. How can we hold that position with integrity while at the same time breaking our financial promises to charities and NGOs around the world? Today we are reminded of male violence against women. We have come so far as women, but there is still so much more to challenge. I ask hon. and right hon. Ladies from across the political divide that we are not divided on these issues.
I start by echoing the comments and sadness expressed by so many colleagues about Sarah Everard. I cannot begin to imagine what her family are going through, but I send my deepest thoughts and prayers to them and to the families of all those mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).
I entered the world of politics completely by accident in 2009. Little did I know that 10 years later, I would be one of the record 220 female MPs here on the green Benches, proudly representing Bishop Auckland. Some of those on the Opposition Benches may groan, but my accidental interest in politics was sparked after watching a video at school about our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Taking politics out of the equation, because at that time I did not know the difference between Labour and the Tories anyway, seeing a woman so unapologetically powerful and in the highest job in the land meant that I grew up never for a second doubting that a woman’s place could be in No. 10. Again putting politics aside, that is why I so warmly welcomed Kamala Harris becoming the first female Vice-President of the United States, because representation matters.
In the decade since then, so much has changed for women. Lazy stereotypes have been consistently challenged and we are seeing more representation across all walks of life. We have seen the first female winner of the Abel prize for mathematics, the first female Doctor Who, and we have even had the first Marvel film to feature a female solo lead with “Captain Marvel”. I am pleased to say I have a figure of her standing proudly in my office in Parliament.
In this place, much has been introduced to tackle the obstacles faced by women today and to try to demolish them for the next generation. We have had the Equality Act 2010 and the largest ever single investment to help end female genital mutilation. We are leading the world in promoting the right of every girl to quality education. We are protecting women. We have reformed divorce laws for the first time in 50 years. We will soon have the online harms Bill, which is set to challenge how we tackle harmful online content, and we are in the final stages of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, but we cannot legislate to change attitudes.
As this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to challenge”, I want to challenge the double standards that exist in society for women. A female worker is still more likely to face questions on balancing home and work life, as though home is where we women should be. If a man is a leader, a woman is bossy. If a man is considered, a woman is over-emotional. If a man speaks his mind, a woman is oversharing. A man can react, but a woman can only ever overreact.
To any woman wanting to enter politics at local or national level, this is a rallying cry. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced by fear. We will not stand for abuse, and we will be here to lift one another, because with every female elected, we see greater representation and, with that, the hope that one day a young girl watching this debate will see someone who looks like her, and she will know that she can achieve anything—becoming an MP, Home Secretary or even Prime Minister—because, after all, a woman’s place is anywhere she wants to be.
Can I, too, associate myself with all the thoughts expressed for Sarah Everard and all those mentioned?
International Women’s Day and this debate are a chance for us both to celebrate those who came before us and to commit to fight for a better future for the women to come. In celebrating those who came before us, can I start by putting on record my appreciation for the fantastic inspiring women of the Statue for Lady Rhondda group, led by the feisty campaigner Julie Nicholas, who are fundraising for a statue of Lady Rhondda in Newport as one of the next statues in the Monumental Welsh Women campaign? Newport East’s Lady Rhondda, a suffragette who campaigned for women to take their seats in the other place, has been described as the
“greatest global businesswoman of her era.”
She was the editor of Time and Tide magazine, which campaigned for gender equality, and she even survived the sinking of the Lusitania. Any one of these achievements would have secured her place in history, but she did it all. It is fitting that we celebrate her in this way, as you cannot be what you cannot see.
I would like to take a moment to thank all those dedicated women on the frontline as key workers in my constituency during the pandemic, as women are twice as likely as men to be key workers in Wales. I also want to put on record my thanks to Judith Paget and Sarah Aitken at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board; Jane Mudd, Newport City Council leader; Pam Kelly, Gwent’s chief constable; and all those carrying the enormous responsibility in their leadership roles in this unprecedented year.
I want to highlight research by the Welsh gender equality charity Chwarae Teg in its third “State of the Nation” report, which monitored the impact of women’s experiences, and thank it for the focus this brings on ensuring that we are not complacent. The effect of sector shutdowns, business closures and unemployment is falling disproportionately on women. Young women in particular are more likely to lose their jobs in retail and hospitality. Women are more likely to be furloughed, and 70,000 pregnant women and new mothers have been discriminated against in Government schemes. Women of colour, too, have been excluded from support schemes and have been hit particularly hard in their employment.
We know that women are more likely to carry out caring responsibilities and home-schooling, and as Chwarae Teg points out, now is not the time for the Government to be suspending gender pay reporting. If we do not know the scale of the problem, we cannot address it. In the words of the Women and Equalities Committee,
“this should have been a time for more—not less—transparency.”
The Government should review the impact of their policies on woman, and the recovery from covid must be an equal recovery. We have also seen the worrying rise in domestic abuse, and I want to thank Welsh Labour Government Ministers for our partnership working and for the focus they have put on tackling this issue by giving the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence sector in Wales extra funding this year.
Lady Rhondda wrote that the suffragette movement gave women
“hope of freedom and power and opportunity.”
It is vital, as we rebuild after this pandemic, that we progress from where we were so that every woman has the freedom and power and opportunity to live their life however they wish.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate on International Women’s Day as a Member from the original suffragette city of Manchester, home of Emmeline Pankhurst, and as a proud feminist. Women are the majority of the UK’s population, but only a third of the Members of this place. While I am sure there is a strong quality versus quantity argument to be made, that sits badly with the majority of us who value fairness. For me, the problem lies partly in the belief that it is perfectly acceptable for a young woman to have a male mentor or adviser, but it is seen somehow as unusual or undesirable for a man to look up to a women as a role model.
I was lucky enough to grow up with strong female role models, and I was later encouraged by some remarkable women on my way to this place. I would like to take a moment to thank them from this Chamber, because I simply would not be here without them. In particular, I would like to thank Judith Tope, who taught me the value of taking your duty seriously and yourself less so; Laura Evans, one of the most selfless, self-effacing and genuinely good people I know, and hopefully the next Mayor of Greater Manchester; and my noble Friend Baroness Williams of Trafford, who changed my life forever over a glass of wine in her kitchen simply with the line, “Why don’t you stand?”
It is mind-boggling to people of my generation that there should be any barrier to a woman being able to achieve her potential, and I have to hope that the idea will be utterly inconceivable to generations after. However, until they are on these Benches and the third, fourth and fifth woman Prime Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box, we have a job of work to do to remove structural injustices. I am proud to say that I have never needed an all-women shortlist to lose a selection to a colleague, and every woman who has beaten me has done so by being better than me. I would say that Conservative women are the equals of Conservative men, but some of them are very dear friends and I do not want to talk them down.
I pay tribute to women such as the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who stuck it out as a feminist in frontline politics when the derision and value judgments that still seep out of the darkest recesses of society were mainstream values. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), a fellow Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, took on the City boys’ club with a backbone of steel and a brain the size of Canada. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), an inspirational young woman, has achieved more in her 26 years than many of us have in our 30-plus, and, much to my chagrin, is my mother’s favourite MP. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) ran one of the most successful local authorities in the country before turning her attention to these Benches.
There is much more talent out there, and we have to recognise that the problem is not a lack of ambition or qualified candidates; it is a system that needs an International Women’s Day because, quite simply, the other 364 are men’s days. I join colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) in pushing to ensure that we as men do more to support strong women candidates into politics, and in working to ensure that more men and boys understand that a woman’s place is wherever she says she wants it to be.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) wished to be here, but she is detained on other work.
Our thoughts today are with the family and friends of Sarah Everard, and with all those who have suffered from male violence against women. It must end, and all men have a duty to play our part.
I wish to focus on endometriosis, a condition that can have a profound long-term negative impact on all aspects of life. Endometriosis affects one in 10 women from puberty to the menopause. It takes an average of eight years from onset to diagnosis. The delay has been unchanged for a decade, and in Wales it is nine years. I applaud the work of Health Ministers in Wales and England on endometriosis, and encourage them to ensure ongoing studies into pain alleviation, such as the use of medical cannabis.
This is not only a matter for Health Ministers. A recent study by the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis with Endometriosis UK found that 38% of those surveyed feared losing their jobs, and 35% had a reduced income due to the condition. Accessing support can be difficult. Statutory sick pay for a linked period of sickness lasts for up to three years, penalising those with chronic conditions. Hon. Members will recall that the period from onset to diagnosis is eight years in England and nine in Wales. Many of those most severely affected struggle to access personal independence payments and universal credit, partly as the assessment fails to recognise long-term intermittent conditions.
This pandemic has highlighted some of the outmoded patterns of our welfare system, which need to be reformed, but many with endometriosis were already painfully aware of the system’s deficiency. That is one reason why I will continue to campaign for better health and welfare provision, and make the case for the devolution of welfare, so that in Wales, with our higher rates of long-term illness and disability, we can create a fairer system for all in their time of need.
The world is not the same place as it was at the time of the last International Women’s Day. The challenges we face globally and locally have been unprecedented and have required unprecedented responses. I want to highlight some literally life-saving contributions by some amazing women in my constituency. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to thank all the women I would like to include—all the local champions, women who have volunteered in their local communities during this crisis, nurses, teachers, carers and key workers—so I will focus on the response to the pandemic itself and, in particular, the women across the public sector who have played a huge role in shaping the structures crucial to dealing with the situation we have found ourselves in.
First, I thank the local leader of my council, Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, the chief executive of City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Kersten England, and our director of public health, Sarah Muckle, for all their efforts and leadership during the pandemic and the vital work that they continue to do to help us come out of lockdown. I also thank vice-chancellor Shirley Congdon for her leadership of our university, which was ranked No. 1 recently for social mobility. With the contributions of the chief officer of the clinical commissioning group, Helen Hirst, and Mel Pickup, the chief executive officer of the local hospital, Bradford Royal Infirmary, which is in my constituency, we are looking forward to getting out of the lockdown soon. The joint senior responsible officers, Nancy O’Neill and chief nurse Karen Dawber, who are responsible for the roll-out of testing centres and vaccine roll-out, have worked tirelessly to ensure that the people of Bradford are supported throughout the pandemic.
Today marks a year since the opening of our first designated covid ward, ward 31 at the BRI, under the leadership of Sister Emma Barnes. I pay special tribute to those on the frontline, such as Dr Deborah Horner, our consultant anaesthetist, who led on the operational management and restructuring of services across the hospital during the pandemic; Sara Hollins, our director of midwifery services, who has transformed the service completely after being here for less than four years, not only reducing stillbirths by a quarter, but transforming services to respond to the pandemic; and our ICU matron, Marianne Downey, who has led the ICU through the most challenging of times.
We have lost so many loved ones during the pandemic, and Shaheen Kauser, our Muslim chaplain, has worked seven days a week providing loved ones with comfort and support during these most important times of grief and heartbreak. During this pandemic, I have found myself calling NHS staff, particularly our chief nurse Karen Dawber, at very unreasonable hours. Karen told me that her inspiring grandma, Joan Dawber, was a midwife, nurse and health visitor during world war two. In the ’60s, Joan was involved in the first trial of the TB vaccine, and now Karen is involved in the covid vaccine roll-out. The work of all these women and others across my constituency inspires me to do what I do, and for that I am very grateful. Here’s to International Women’s Day and to all these women—may we know them, may we be them, may we praise them.
I echo the sentiments that my colleagues have expressed today about Sarah Everard and her family.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”, and I am reminded of that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.”
The choices we make are ultimately our responsibility. To me, this quote says that life is about making choices and decisions, not just sitting back and accepting the status quo. Sometimes it is right to stand up and challenge, and to choose. We in this House have an awesome responsibility in that our choices and decisions impact directly on the lives of thousands, and indeed millions, of people around the country and sometimes the world. The choices we make matter.
As we think about this year’s theme “Choose to Challenge”, I think about all the women locally in Hastings and Rye who do not talk about making a difference, but who are doing it every single day in their actions, from Joe Chadwick-Bell, who took over as chief operating officer of the local NHS trust last October in the midst of the pandemic, and who has inspired and steered her team through some of the toughest months they have ever faced, to Natalie Williams, who runs the Hastings food bank and has tirelessly devoted her energy and enthusiasm to supporting and helping the most vulnerable in our communities.
Then there are those in local government, such as Becky Shaw, who is the chief executive officer of East Sussex County Council, and Jane Hartnell, who is the managing director of Hastings Borough Council. Both have shown grit and dedication over the last year to help in the response to covid-19. Frontline leaders, from Dawn Whittaker, the chief fire officer for East Sussex fire and rescue, to Jo Shiner, the chief constable for Sussex police, have shown tireless dedication to leading their teams and instilling confidence and security in the communities they serve as we have battled through these dark times.
I could keep going. From Katy Bourne, our police and crime commissioner; to Councillor Kim Forward, the leader of Hastings Borough Council; Rebekah Gilbert, the mayor of Rye; Jacki Monroe from the DWP; and chief inspector Sarah Godley at Hastings and Rother police, all these women and many others besides have chosen throughout their lives not to accept their lot. Instead, they have chosen to challenge, chosen to reach and chosen to be ambitious in the pursuit of serving others and giving back to the communities they call home. If we choose to embrace their light and inspiration, if we choose to shun the pessimism of others and if we choose to challenge, in time we can make this a more just and equal world. The leadership and inspiration of women that we see across Hastings and Rye will be recognised and commonplace in all four corners of this country and the world.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, just as it was a pleasure to deliver my maiden speech in this debate last year. I am grateful to be able to address the House today, as well as the newly elected chair of the all-party group on domestic abuse and violence.
In the short time that I have today, I wish to pay tribute to women who have been subjected to honour-based abuse. Honour-based abuse is often misunderstood. This is despite the fact that, in 2019 alone, the charity, Karma Nirvana, reported seeing a more than 60% increase in the people using its helpline. Honour-based abuse may be best described as a collection of practices, or a code, used to control behaviour in order to protect perceived beliefs and honour. Breaking this code is often seen by perpetrators as having brought shame on a family or a community.
All around the world, honour-based abuse can lead to horrific situations and outcomes. Two cases have been on my mind this month. In south Asia, a man was filmed carrying the head of his 17-year-old daughter, whom he had beheaded because of her alleged affair with a man of whom he did not approve. I have also been thinking about Ayesha Arif Khan in Ahmedebad who filmed herself smiling moments before she killed herself because she could not deliver enough dowry to her husband and his family.
Honour-based abuse does not always present itself in horrific murder and suicide, but it exists in day-to-day life and we would all do well to recognise that. We can do so when we think about how many women are policed or make decisions on the basis of the honour code. The question of what people will say deprives women of opportunities, choices, dreams and rights. The dangers of breaking the honour code are real, along with the associated risk of violence. I know that pain all too well.
Contrary to the common understanding of honour-based abuse, it is not something that is rooted in culture or religion. It is important to recognise it as a form of abuse that cuts across all countries, all cultures and all religions and none. Members may be surprised to learn that I felt that the comments made by a man in the public sphere recently might resonate with some survivors. He said, “I was trapped, but I did not know I was trapped. That is like the rest of my family. My father and my brother are trapped. They do not get to leave, and I have huge compassion for that”. It appears that a person does not need to be a woman, or even from an ethnic minority background, to experience the honour code—indeed, they might even be a royal.
There needs to be a statutory definition of honour-based abuse in the Domestic Abuse Bill. The racialising of honour-based abuse needs to stop. We need to see it in a framework that recognises patriarchy and inequality as the root cause of violence against women and girls, rather than placing it in a cultural context. Even though the devastating impacts of this type of abuse are felt in some communities more than others, we need our laws to lead the world in this way.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. It has been a pleasure to follow her work in the Westminster Hall debates when they were taking place and her continued action on this issue.
I rise to speak in this House as chair of the all-party group on preventing sexual violence in conflict, an initiative that I worked on with the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and have continued to work on since I was elected.
Before I undertake to describe what we can do, I would like to pay tribute to where we have got to with the Domestic Abuse Bill. It has been remarkable achievement for the Government, working across the parties, to get it to a place in which we can make a real and meaningful difference. Communities in my constituency are grateful to see the progress that has been made. Organisations such as SASHA, based in Totnes, are hoping that we will be able to pass this into legislation in due course.
I would like to speak about the international approach. Each year, the United Kingdom stands up on International Women’s Day and reaffirms its commitment to the millennium development goals for gender equality, reaffirms its commitment to women’s education, and reaffirms its commitment to seeing through the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. Unfortunately, this year, I can only think that these are hollow words, because the impact of the forthcoming cut in international development aid from 0.7% to 0.5% will place a significant burden on the way in which we tackle women’s rights. The way in which people in Syria, Libya and Somalia are able to be helped by the projects that we put forward is now cast into doubt. The reason we have pushed forward these policies is not that there is a legal obligation to do so, not that Parliaments and Governments of yesteryear decided to put forward an agreement that would hold and lock in Parliament, but because there was a moral duty for us to stand up for those who were most endangered around the world. There was a moral duty for us to be able to help those in some of the most difficult scenarios and circumstances in the world.
In the time that the Government have before there is a vote on this issue—and there must be a vote on the 0.7%—I hope that they will rethink their approach, maintain the 0.7%, and maintain our commitment to tackling women’s rights and eradicating gender-based violence. Make no mistake—gender-based violence is a pandemic. It is a pandemic that was here before covid and it will be here long after. If we have the strength and ability to push this, we can garner international co-operation, create new institutions, ring-fence spending and ensure that the United Kingdom is seen as a country that stands up for women’s rights across the globe and that is not shirking its duties.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a genuine honour to speak in this debate, in what has been an especially difficult week for women across the UK. It is crystal clear to me that this country has a severe systemic problem with male violence. As has already been mentioned, last week a 16-year-old girl died in disturbing circumstances, practically on my doorstep. South Wales police have since confirmed that the death, which took place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), is being treated as a murder, and last night a man was charged. Of course, we are all aware of the sensitivities around Sarah Everard’s case; my thoughts are with both families, as well as those who have lost a loved one at the hands of a male perpetrator.
I am extremely grateful to the people who have dedicated their lives to campaigning for real change. I continue to be inspired by the victims who bravely report their cases to the police, by the journalists and editors who choose to tell their stories, and by the families who continue passionately to seek justice on behalf of those who have been silenced. I am also grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips)—my good friend—with the support of the incredible Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project, has been able to use today’s debate to painstakingly list the names of the women who have died at the hands of a male abuser over the last 12 months. But it should not be this way. I fear that there are many more names that would sadly join that list if only their deaths were investigated and recorded in the usual way. If we are not clearly and centrally measuring the number of victims, how can we possibly be getting a grip or a steer on prevention?
Colleagues will be aware of the vastly complex issues around the way in which homicides involving females with domestic abuse markers against their name are measured and recorded in this country. There are families up and down the country—and more of them than we might think—who deserve clarity on the circumstances surrounding unexplained or sudden deaths. The situation can only change if more of us speak up on these issues. It has been incredible to hear so many colleagues touch on domestic abuse in their contributions today.
There is clear work that all of us in this House can be doing to support campaigners and grieving families across the country. We can reach out and ask our local police forces for the data. We can push for clear guidance on how police should approach the scene when a woman with domestic abuse markers has died suddenly or unexpectedly. We can legislate to give agencies—from GPs to local authorities to social services—the tools to share information that will allow the creation of a centralised database that has the power to speed up the police response.
We need to start counting women and making women count. The women whose lives have been lost at the hands of an abuser deserve a voice, even when their own has been silenced. I will not stop until I see practical reform. The system has failed these women, and it is our duty and honour to give them their lives in whatever way we can.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate.
International Women’s Day is a day to remember and to celebrate, and this year I want to celebrate the wonderful women in trade unions. My union, Unison, has nearly 1 million women among its 1.3 million membership. They are women working in public services, ensuring that our essential services keep going, and they include: nurses, healthcare professionals, healthcare assistants, cleaners and catering staff in our NHS. They have been so vital this year, above all others, and deserve so much more than the 1% pay rise proposed by the Government. There are also the women in local government, energy, schools, colleges, the police and social care, who have been undervalued for too long. I want to say a huge congratulations to our new Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea, who was elected by Unison members as head of Britain’s biggest union. Christina will do an absolutely brilliant job and make a real difference for her members.
I also want to mention some other brilliant Unison organisations and women here in the north-east with whom I work. The brilliant northern women’s network is headed by Pat Heron, Maria Alberts, Linda Hobson, our regional convenor Nikki Ramanandi, Josie Bird, our national Unison president, and so many others working to fight for what is important to women in work and in society—as well as, of course, our fantastic regional secretary, Clare Williams. There are so many more people I could mention, including in other trade unions, but time does not allow.
Trade unions are still needed by women in dealing with fairness and equality at work, but I want to mention the campaign backed by Unison to create a permanent memorial for an earlier group of women trade unionists—the match girls. Those women and young girls took strike action against the terrible conditions in the Bryant and May match factory in London in 1888. Their action led not only to better conditions for themselves and their fellow workers, but inspired many more workers, male and female, to organise and fight for better and fairer conditions at work. How sad it is to hear that there must be a petition to save the grave of one of the strike leaders, Sarah Chapman. I look forward to marking the 150th anniversary of the match tax protest in April. Perhaps we can also mark the day in this House. This struggle continues today. A survey of Unison female workers, including nurses, teaching assistants and council employees, showed that many feel on the brink of burnout in trying to juggle both work and home commitments.
But today we must also think of Sarah Everard, and my thoughts and prayers go out to her family.
I knew that I would not be the only woman in this debate who changed what she wanted to speak about because of recent events. The Sarah Everard case feels quite close to home for a lot of people, including me, and my thoughts are with her family.
Looking online last night, I was struck by the scale of many women’s concerns about their experiences of doing mundane, everyday things and feeling unsafe or experiencing harassment or attack. I did not see any women saying that it is fine and they do not feel like that. That is no surprise given the outcomes of the recent UN survey and all we have heard today, and that is really quite depressing.
Of course no woman should have to face this. None of us should have these concerns. We should not fear walking down the streets in the dark. I would like to tell you all that I am scared of nothing. That is pretty much how I try and live my life. I am not sure that it always works, but I do try. I do walk down streets in the dark. I will not be moved from the streets and I will not change my behaviour. But here is the thing: I do feel scared sometimes. I cross the road, I have my keys in my hand, and I think about where the streetlights are and where the dark alleys are. I am aware—vigilant—because, like all women, I have to be, and we all know that. We all have reason to know that, directly and indirectly. We know we need to protect ourselves.
This morning on BBC Radio Scotland, I heard journalist Jane Dougall speaking about her own experience, which was incredibly brave of her. She pointed out that all the calls to be careful and to do this or not do that—the calls to modify our behaviour—are not right. We need to be able to walk down the street without any of that. She was in her own driveway and, as she said, it does not get much more careful than that. Between that brave interview and the news about Sarah Everard, I have been thinking a lot about what women face when, without consciously thinking about it, we do these calculations about what we need to do to keep safe—all the “Text me when you get in”, “Oh no, I’ll be fine” routine. But sometimes it is not fine at all: the tragedy that Sarah’s family is facing and the huge hole that could be ripped into her family if the worst news comes. I know that feeling will never go away if that is what happens. Sometimes there is no positive end.
A wonderful, vibrant woman that I knew and loved never did make it home. She was just near her own front door, too, going about her business. I cannot adequately explain what that meant and how life-changing it has been for those closest to her, who, I have to say, are extraordinarily brave and strong. I can tell you that the police were, and remain, magnificent, and that my admiration for those left behind is beyond what people could imagine. But that should never happen to anyone.
This issue really matters, and we really need to talk about it more if we want things to change. It is a universal reality that affects women in every country, city, town and village in the world. Women experience low-level and high-level harassment and violence just for catching a bus or walking up the street—and I am not even getting into the issues online that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) described. We are not to blame. We do not need to modify our actions or behaviours. We are not responsible for the actions of men.
Indeed, women do not get attacked because of their actions; they get attacked because of the actions of their attacker. I know that some women are talking about reclaiming the night. So they should—so we should. The solidarity of women in all this has been very powerful, and I think that has everything to do with how recognisable and relatable this all is to women the world over.
I think what I am saying is uncontroversial and straightforward, but it has all been said before and yet here we still are. Hearing the concerns and fears of young women in particular, and knowing the increased vulnerabilities of so many because of covid and the additional challenges for women in minority and marginalised groups, we absolutely need this to be a continued focus for us all.
I am really grateful for strong women leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon, who always raises her voice in support of women—all women—day and daily, pushing back against stereotypes and barriers and making a measurable difference on gender equality in Scotland. I am also grateful for women more locally to me, such as East Renfrewshire councillors Angela Convery, Caroline Bamforth and Annette Ireland, all champions of women in my local community and all committed every day to supporting women in all walks of life—and goodness knows, they have made a huge contribution during covid.
Maybe that is what some of this comes down to. Maybe we need to get away from treating things as women’s issues. They are just issues; it is not a niche thing. Maybe the fears and concerns that we have heard so much about would be so much less of a problem if that was how we looked at the world. But for today, let us celebrate all women. I am glad of the progress we have made—there is much to be proud of—but I look forward to the day when we have made a good deal more progress.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I am disappointed that the Minister for Women and Equalities is not here to respond. That is no disrespect to the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), but the Minister should be here to respond.
Before I begin, I want to give my thoughts and prayers to the family, friends and loved ones of Sarah Everard and all the victims and survivors of violence against women. From my own personal experience, I know what it is like to walk in the dark feeling frightened, fearful and anxious, and I know that many Members across the House share that experience—in fact, I was not aware that many did, because my biggest fear was that I cannot see very well in the dark. We have so far to go to make our public spaces, both online and offline, safe for women.
Let me begin with the many contributions that we have heard; over 50 Members contributed. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made a powerful speech, reading out those names. Certainly, we all only hope that, going forward, we do not have to hear such a long list of names being read. Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), spoke about violence against women and girls.
Many Members spoke about the hugely unequal impact that covid has had on women, and I will come on to that. I also want talk about the plight of women across the world, which my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) really shed light on. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), not just for raising the most important points about black maternal health but for her bravery in sharing her own personal experience.
International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate all the gains we have made in the pursuit of women’s equality. I want to pay tribute to many of the brilliant women on whose shoulders I stand here today, from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who was elected as the first black female MP over 30 years ago, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and all she has done in introducing the Equality Act and championing the rights of women. The Labour party has been and always will be the party of equality. We introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970, the minimum wage laws and laws guarding against discrimination against women. I also want to pay tribute to activists such as the late Olive Morris, a member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, who went to school in my constituency of Battersea and was a tireless campaigner against racism and sexism. It is a shame that we continue to still have those same fights and struggles today.
This International Women’s Day falls a year into a pandemic that has had huge consequences for women. Issues such as domestic abuse and childcare have been sidelined throughout this year. Pregnant women and new mothers have faced discrimination in the Government’s job retention and self-employment income support schemes. Young women have been more likely to work in sectors shut down, and mothers have picked up more of the unpaid care work and more of the home schooling. Meanwhile, the childcare and social care sectors, in which women are more likely to work, have been hung out to dry. After a decade of austerity and negligence, these sectors are on their knees and are being ignored. Women have been on the frontline of the pandemic in our hospitals, our care homes, our schools and our homes, and yet the Government think that now is the time to give nearly 1 million women on the NHS frontline an effective pay cut. It is shameful.
With gender pay gap reporting suspended for over a year, we have no way of knowing what the cumulative impact of these failures will be. But we do know that black women are still four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women; that over half of victims and survivors of violence against women were turned away from refuges last year because of a lack of funding; that migrant women remain excluded from the Domestic Abuse Bill, with the funding announced falling short of what is needed; and that abuse against women—especially black women—on social media and in the press is going completely unchecked. This week alone, we have seen the Duchess of Sussex vilified by some in the media. The continued denial of racism in the media is unacceptable. Racism is real. It is a lived experience for many women, including myself.
At the Budget last week, we did not see any action taken to tackle the widening inequalities that have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Instead, we saw a delay to the cut in universal credit. We saw a complete failure for disabled women by not applying the £20 uplift to employment and support allowance. We have seen the Chancellor out there doing his bit with his high-vis and hard hat, sending a clear message about the industries he is interested in supporting. All the talk of kickstart, restart and recovery is meaningless for women unless the Government commit to equal opportunities. We need to see them publish data that guarantees that equal numbers of jobs are created for women and men, so that STEM and care are valued equally. I hope that that will be the case, as we run the risk of a two-tier recovery, which will only widen gender inequality even further.
I mentioned the Equality Act earlier, and I want to come back to it. I am concerned that it is being all but ignored by the Government and colleagues, including the Minister for Women and Equalities, who is not here today. There have only been two equality impact assessments published since the beginning of the pandemic, despite this being the biggest public health and economic crisis for a generation. There was no equality impact assessment of the Budget last week. It is a complete failure that these Acts are not being assessed adequately. It is unacceptable that equality guidance is being overlooked and ignored. Can the hon. Member for Lewes confirm whether the Government will finally commit to publishing impact assessments?
We have come a long way, but progress towards meaningful change for women is still too slow. In the light of this week’s events alone, I would like to know what the Government will be doing to address violence against women in public spaces and in the press. Is it not time that misogyny is made a hate crime? Will the Government immediately reinstate reporting on the gender pay gap? Representation and leadership matter. Diversity in decision making matters.
May I start by saying how delighted I am once again to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate? I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful contributions. There were too many to single any out, but it was poignant to have both the Mother and the Father of the House taking part.
While International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in the UK and around the world, it is also an opportunity to look at what more needs to be done. This year, covid-19 is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades, and everyone across the country has been touched by it in some way. We have heard this afternoon many examples of extraordinary women who have been at the forefront of the fight against this virus, including those working in the NHS to keep us safe, many of whom I have had the privilege to work alongside on the covid wards during this period. I pay tribute to them for their incredible efforts, bravery and strength.
The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day this year centres on women’s leadership and the importance of securing an equal future in a covid-19 world. We cannot underestimate the importance of this approach as we build back better following what has been a challenging year for many. The economic impact of the past year is complex and emerging, but as the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have all recognised, our economic response is making a difference. It is saving jobs, keeping businesses afloat and supporting people’s incomes.
In order to protect jobs for women, who are more likely to be furloughed, the Government have rolled out unprecedented levels of support, particularly in crucial sectors such as retail and hospitality, which employ high numbers of women and those from ethnic minorities and younger people, and the self-employment income support scheme has provided support for many of the 1.7 million self-employed women in the UK. As of 31 January, the scheme has received nearly 2.1 million claims from self-employed women across the three rounds of grants.
Despite the progress in changing the stereotypical views of the role of women at work, evidence shows that during the pandemic many women have been pressured into balancing work with childcare and home schooling. To help with that, the Government have enabled employers to furlough parents who are unable to work due to the closure of schools, nurseries and childcare services. I know that many will want to welcome and thank those who have worked so hard for the safe reopening of schools this week.
On the theme of women’s leadership in the covid world, we have seen some real-life heroines in the STEM sector, such as Kate Bingham, chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, and Professor Sarah Gilbert, who devised the Oxford vaccine. These women have quite literally saved lives, saved our economy and, quite frankly, saved our way of life, and they are role models for the next generation of women.
If we want to inspire young women, it is vital that we start early, and that is why we continue to encourage girls to take STEM subjects at school, college and university. While there is work to be done, there has been a 31% increase in entries by girls to STEM A-levels in England in the past 10 years.
The issue of violence against women has featured heavily in this debate, and the last 48 hours have hit home for all of us. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) put it so well, today we are all Sarah. My prayers and thoughts are with her and her family at this time.
Women and girls are still suffering from unacceptable violence. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), whose contribution has, unfortunately, become a sombre but important tradition in this House. Today she read out the names of women killed by men in the last year. Sadly, her list seems much longer than it was last year. I hope she does not take this the wrong way, but I look forward to a year when she is unable to make a contribution to this debate.
The home should be a place of safety and comfort but, for many, it is not. During this pandemic, the Government have listened to charities and the domestic abuse commissioner, and in last week’s Budget, we announced an additional £19 million of funding to tackle domestic abuse, with £4.2 million for a two-year pilot project of respite rooms to provide specialist support for vulnerable homeless women. The landmark Domestic Abuse Bill has been on Report in the House of Lords this week. It is on track to receive Royal Assent by the end of April, and we will publish our new tackling violence against women and girls strategy in the spring. This will help to better target perpetrators and support women in relation to these crimes.
The Government takes all forms of harassment extremely seriously, whether it is in the workplace, in the home or on the street, and I pay tribute to those across government, up and down the country, working to make the UK a safer place for women. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said, harassment is too regular an experience for women. I am inspired by many young women campaigning on these vital issues. In particular, I want to pay tribute to my constituent, Maya Tutton, and the Our Streets Now campaign, who are working hard to raise the issue of street harassment and the impact that it is having on the daily lives of younger women across this country. The tragic news of Sarah Everard this week emphasises their point, so I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement today, reinforcing the Government’s commitment to protecting women and girls from violence and harassment.
It is not just physical abuse that women have faced during the pandemic. We know that more people have spent time online and, although there have been many benefits to this, there has of course been greater risk of harm. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) said so eloquently how many female MPs—if not all of us—know only too well about the reality of online abuse and the constant toll of negative comments, which people would never be brave enough to say to someone’s face. Online abuse is unacceptable and our approach will make platforms responsible for tackling abuse online, including anonymous abuse, while protecting the rights of freedom of expression.
There is also more to do to improve the lives of women and girls internationally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) emphasised. One of our most visible commitments to this is ensuring that there are 12 years of quality education for girls around the world. This is a transformational development. Having volunteered in Rwanda on Project Umubano, teaching English in schools, I have seen at first hand the difference that education makes to women. There are perhaps a few Rwandan women speaking English right now with a slight cockney twist, thanks to my effort. Education is the key to breaking down barriers for women. In the last 10 years, the UK has supported at least 15.6 million children in gaining a decent education, over half of whom are girls.
In conclusion, I again thank all those who have contributed to this debate this afternoon and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for securing this debate.
This is probably the first time that two Marias have followed each other in a debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am very glad about that. This debate comes at the end of a week of events organised by the all-party group on women in Parliament marking International Women’s Day, with fantastic support from Mr Speaker, many right hon. and hon. Members, the House service, the Parliamentary Archives, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Fawcett Society and UN Women. This has been the first time that we have organised events in this way, but I do not think it will be the last. I also thank the APPG’s secretariat, the Fawcett Society and my parliamentary staff—particularly Rachel Edwards, for her extraordinary commitment to organising this week’s programme.
In a world where gender equality issues are so entrenched, it is right that we should spend some time thinking about how we can do things better. I thank every one of the 67 colleagues who wanted to contribute today, many of whom were not able to speak. Perhaps next year we should have a new tradition: a full-day debate to reflect the overwhelming support, to consider the issues that affect women’s equality and to mark International Women’s Day here, on the Floor of the House of Commons, at the heart of our Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.