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International Women’s Day

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 4 March 2010


Moved By

To call attention to the International Women’s Day global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to introduce this debate on a subject on which much of my political work has been based, and I am grateful to my party for giving me one of its valuable time slots for the debate. However, I confess that it is with some trepidation that I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who, with considerable persuasiveness, opened a similar debate coinciding with International Women’s Day in both 2008 and 2009—and a few times before that as well. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has been the chairman of the Women’s National Commission for almost the past three years and has a distinguished career in furthering women’s interests, both nationally and internationally. She and I entered your Lordships’ House in the same intake in 1993 on the nomination of the then Prime Minister, John Major. The list included four men and four women—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will agree that it was a vintage year. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is not in her place today to give us the benefit of her views.

I must declare some interests. First, I was one of the early members of the 300 Group, the aim of which was to get 300 women of all parties into the House of Commons and, indeed, many of our supporters have now found their way into the other place and your Lordships’ House on all sides. However, I regret to say that we failed to achieve our numerical objective, despite the Labour Party’s introduction of all-women short lists which resulted in a substantial increase in the number of women MPs in 1997. My own party is considering imposing a similar requirement.

The problem is not a dearth of suitably qualified women candidates; it is often the attitude of the local selection committees. I well remember my first interview as a potential candidate. The chairman’s opening words to me were, “Before you sit down, Mrs Miller, can you tell us whether your husband is aware that you are here tonight?”. Being naïve, as I was in those days, I did not realise that I was already sunk without a trace before I had begun and I started to answer him politely. It was only after a moment or two that I realised I should have replied, “No, he thinks I am out at a disco with the milkman”. I and most women candidates can tell similar stories of sexist questions raised by selection committees—often, I regret to say, by women members, whose attitude seems to be that a woman’s only place is in the kitchen.

It is regrettable that in the 24 Parliaments from 1918, out of a total of some 16,000 seats, only 613 women have been elected. In Rwanda, 56 per cent of Members of its Parliament are women; and the constitution of Bangladesh, a Muslim country, requires a minimum number of seats to be reserved for women, who are, nevertheless, also able to stand for the unrestricted seats.

The second interest I declare is as a founder and co-chairman of the Women into Public Life campaign, in which the 300 Group, together with the Fawcett Society, sought for more women to receive more public appointments. This has achieved some success and progress continues to be made, but not enough yet to achieve the parity that both equality and recognition of the talents of over half the population deserve.

In the other place, there are 19 Select Committees, each connected to a specific government department. They are intended to be powerful instruments of oversight. Of the 238 committee members, only 18.5 per cent are women—which is less than the already low proportion of women Members of the other House—and only two of the chairmen are women. The Monetary Policy Committee has had four women members compared with 22 men, and the Appraisal Committee of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence—NICE, as it is known—has had four women out of 16 members. In the judiciary, there is only one woman member of the new Supreme Court; there is no longer a woman head of a division of the High Court; and the small number of women High Court judges, circuit judges and recorders shows that there is unfulfilled scope for more women judges. The number of women civil servants is 53 per cent, which is indeed a due proportion of the population, while the proportion of women who have reached the grade of senior civil servant is 33 per cent, which is a great step forward towards the Government’s commendable target of 39 per cent within the next three years.

To their credit, the Government, with full cross-party support, have in some areas consistently supported efforts to improve the status and rights of women. However, it must be noted with some regret that the number of women appointed by the Government to boards of public bodies has fallen by some 5 per cent in the past five years. If I had to mark the Government on achieving equality in public service appointments, I would say, “Doing fairly well but much more effort is required”.

I turn from history to the concept of International Women’s Day, and in particular to this year’s celebration of that date. It comes under the umbrella of the United Nations. It is intended, in the high-sounding words of that body, to,

“look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development”.

Organisations, women’s groups and even Governments around the world choose an annual theme that reflects global and local gender issues. This year’s theme, if local and national organisations choose to adopt it, is “equal rights and opportunities and progress for all”.

Checking the appropriate websites, I have been able to find only 10 events scheduled for the United Kingdom, three events in the USA, three events in Canada and eight in Australia. I have not extended my search further because I am sure that my point has been made: as well-meaning as the concept of International Women’s Day is, and as worthy as its objectives undoubtedly are, the associated activities are too disparate, too diffuse, sometimes too obscure, too low-key, too transient and, above all, too unco-ordinated to achieve any realistic impact, especially when an event may not get more than a few lines in the local paper and, at the very best, a soundbite lasting just a few seconds on the early evening TV news. This is an inadequate reward for all the efforts that the organisers put into their individual events.

If I have any call to make in this debate, it will be on the Government, of any complexion, to take a greater lead in arousing interest, not only on International Women’s Day but on every day in the objectives that they should be covering. I will return to this later.

I want to draw attention to the numerous and serious issues that currently affect women around the world, even in so-called enlightened countries. While not in any order of significance, some of the issues, many of which overlap, are the inequality of rights and opportunities; the denial in some places of education to girls; the under-representation of women in legislatures and Governments around the world, including the European Parliament; violence against women and girls, especially in the home, and sexual violence; human trafficking; forced marriage; so-called “honour killings”—I am pleased to note that, with the help of recent legislation, the immigration service is now making some attempt to inhibit the forced marriage practised by some communities in this country—and female genital mutilation, not only that which is practised in their remote home countries but that which is also illegally forced on girls in western countries.

The “glass ceiling” affects commercial and industrial boardrooms. It is a matter of great regret that the gender pay gap exists around the world. Women are used as cheap labour, not only in many third-world countries but in industrialised countries, including the United Kingdom. In Britain, although legislation exists to give rights for underpaid women to seek redress via an employment tribunal, it is rarely effective.

I have used the word “regret”. I also regret the fact that the Government themselves are guilty of fostering underpayment in the Treasury, where there is a difference of £10,000 per annum in top positions and £20,000 per annum at Ofsted. In fact the gender pay gap has widened in many other government departments, including the Foreign Office, Defra, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Borders and Immigration Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Land Registry. I look to the Government, of whatever party, to remedy this injustice without delay and without all the specious excuses about “pay restraint”.

The UK Government have ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. However, there is still often a failure by the police and authorities to recognise the women as victims and not as criminals or illegal immigrants. As well as prosecuting the traffickers and the people who control the women, the prosecution of their clients would be a useful weapon. Of course, I realise that the so-called “oldest profession” is never going to be eliminated and that many women enter it with a degree of self-choice, but the coercion and the violence that often accompany it should be stamped out.

In the same way, much still needs to be done to encourage police to treat women who complain of rape in a more sympathetic and less sceptical way. Here, though, I am encouraged by statements by the police authorities that they are trying to change the ethos of the detectives who deal with this particularly repulsive crime. We will need to wait and see if actions match the warm words. The fact is, however, that recorded rapes of females increased by 4,500 a year between 1999 and 2009, but there has not been a corresponding increase in convictions and in the past five years the average sentence has dropped by over nine months.

The Home Office has revealed that repeat violence—I emphasise, repeat violence—accounts for 66 per cent of reported domestic violence. I welcome the experiment introduced by the Government to create specialised domestic violence courts, which fast-track cases to be heard by specially trained magistrates. Let us hope that this experiment proves to be a success and is rolled out throughout the country.

I also look forward to the Government introducing the proposed new domestic violence protection orders. However, a new phenomenon has arisen in the timeless issue of domestic violence against women, and it is quite horrifying: violence by male youths—teenagers and just older than that—against girls and young women, often drink-fuelled and often after refusal of sexual favours, and sometimes to control whoever else the girl may be in contact with. Research by the NSPCC suggests that one in four girls, some as young as 13, has been hit by their boyfriend, and one in nine has been beaten up, hit by objects or strangled. This problem has escalated to such an extent that the Government have launched an advertising campaign to educate young men against this form of violence, and from next year lessons in gender equality and preventing violence in personal relationships will be included in the already overcrowded school curriculum.

Commendably, the Government have invested in quality support services for women, including for victims of trafficking, of “honour”-based violence and of female genital mutilation. They have provided sexual assault referral centres and independent domestic advisers. This is an example to other Governments, but it is not necessarily the extent of what needs to be done.

Today’s debate is to call attention to International Women's Day. However, that important event, celebrated as it is to varying extents around the world, is, as I said in my opening remarks, just transient. It is merely a token fig leaf covering the multiple major problems for women of being economically, socially and politically disadvantaged and the physical and mental violence endured by women around the world.

All the political parties of this country can be proud of the steps that it has been taking in combating the many issues that I have referred to, but I would like the United Kingdom to do more. Last Friday, “Newsnight” reported a suggestion that the United Nations should create a new agency dedicated to women’s interests, in the same way as UNICEF works for children. I agree, even though I do not entirely relish the idea of a new expensive bureaucratic United Nations agency, but I seriously doubt if those members of the UN whose political and religious ethos actually consigns women to second-class status would support it. I would like the United Kingdom, whoever the Government are, to take the lead and remedy this situation.

In concluding her speech on 6 March 2008, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that creating an equal society must be our goal. I agree with her. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I am delighted to be speaking in this debate after the noble Baroness. As she said, she and I came into your Lordships’ House on the same list many, many years ago. We have debated from the Front and Back Benches on both sides of the House, during which time she has championed the cause of women not only in politics but also in business and industry. Over those many years, she has been proved right. We have seen a growing body of evidence that diverse workforces are best placed to deal with the challenges of business and industry. We have also seen that gender equality is not a luxury; the economy really benefits from having a diverse workforce, in which the inclusion of women is paramount. Indeed, some economists now say that social capital is the true engine of our economy.

I cannot remember a time when this has been more important. This is one of the deepest recessions that I have known and we need growth to work our way out of it. Women provide a source of significant growth in business numbers in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the United States, there would be approximately 600,000 extra women-owned businesses in this country. Just think what that would do for growth.

This is why we need an Equality Bill and this is why the Government are right to pursue family-friendly policies. However, there is no magic formula. International comparisons are difficult. In Sweden, for example, despite its family-friendly policies, only 1.5 per cent of senior managers are women, compared with 11 per cent in America. Quotas may work in Norway, but I am not sure that they would work here. We have to work out our own effective gender equality policies and practices.

Fortunately, to help us to do this we have some important research. Recently, the Government Equalities Office examined diversity on public and private boards of directors. They found that many of the obstacles faced by women are arguably similar to those faced by other underrepresented groups, such as people from ethnic minorities or disabled people. They identified the obstacles at three levels: individual, interpersonal and process.

The research showed that, contrary to popular opinion, there are plenty of women able and willing to work in business and industry and to sit on boards. Stereotyping leads people to underestimate their competence, aspiration and merit. That is why we need to encourage the aspirations of women and why line managers must give others confidence through coaching and mentoring within the working environment—the kind of thing that the Chartered Management Institute does to support female managers.

The research also found what we all suspect: members of underrepresented groups are excluded from the influential, informal networks that are crucial for career progression. This kind of culture is inhospitable to women, which is why the Women in Management Network is so important. Again, the research identified something that we all know: in many cases the recruitment process is unnecessarily opaque, with unclear selection criteria and practices that are open to bias. If we are to have diversity in this country, the appointment process has to be much improved.

These findings seem to apply to women going into business and industry generally and not just to boards of directors. It also seems that these are as much failures in corporate governance as in process. If the voluntary code of corporate governance does not deal with this, it will encourage a move towards corporate governance by legislation. The Financial Reporting Council is currently consulting on changes to the UK corporate governance code to encourage more diversity by not restricting the talent pool. The consultation closes tomorrow, so perhaps the Leader’s office could send a copy of this debate to the council as a contribution towards the consultation.

My Lords, one has only to look around this Chamber to see what can be achieved by women in their various fields, given the opportunity. However, I want to use this debate to remember all those women worldwide who have not had those opportunities.

Education was a given for our generation. We all accept nowadays that education, and education of girls in particular, is linked to the economic growth and development of third-world countries; the millennium development goals illustrate this. However, in developing countries many women have their lives ruined by poor health. I have received good healthcare throughout my life and was able to continue my career and bring up my children, but my sisters in the third world have no such luck.

Men between the ages of 15 and 44 face no single threat to their health and lives that compares to pregnancy and childbirth and its complications, yet millennium development goal 5, which calls for improvement in maternal health, has progressed the least. Women’s empowerment and investment in girls’ education are smart economics, but they will be no use unless women are able to bear children in greater safety.

I declare an interest as a long-time officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. Last year we reflected on the work that Sarah Brown is doing with the White Ribbon Alliance to promote maternal health. We often hear that, because of the lack of simple obstetric care, a woman dies every minute—that is half a million women dying every year. We have to add to this figure the millions of women in developing countries with permanent disability and ill health following childbirth whose lives, and those of their families, are ruined every year. Reflecting on this carnage, I asked last year whether these women would not be better off dead and “Better off Dead?” became the title of the all-party group’s report on maternal morbidity.

Obstetric fistula and/or total prolapse caused by obstructed labour over days reduce usually very young women to stinking wrecks, who take little part in family life and work afterwards. They are sometimes driven out of the family home altogether. The luckier ones, maybe, are allowed to live in a hut in the yard with the animals. Some develop contractures and limb disabilities due to lying curled up in a cramped space. Female genital mutilation often contributes to this—the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has mentioned that and I must also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, who has campaigned so hard on the issue. Added to these conditions are untreated eclampsia, chronic anaemia and infections, unsafe abortion, haemorrhage and, of course, chronic mental health disorders. They are all mostly preventable and treatable conditions. This is maternal morbidity.

Why does the world continue to let this happen? If men suffered in the same way, even the poorest countries would have done something about it by now. Lack of political will, few women in positions of influence and the low status of women mean that scant attention is paid to the problem. What is needed is the provision of simple, cheap drugs such as magnesium sulphate and Misoprostol, better trained health attendants, safe abortion and, above all, family planning to end the drudgery of large families. There is a huge unmet need for family planning; do not let anyone persuade you that there is not. Those countries that heard the message and acted on it are already getting close to the millennium development goals. Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Malaysia have done well but even Bangladesh, with all its problems, is bringing down its family size because of the good provision of family planning services.

I could speak for a long time; sadly, I do not have that time. We in our fortunate lives must make much greater efforts to ensure that women the world over share our good fortune. My Lords, read our report and press for action.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for putting the subject on the agenda and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for mentioning the women in the rest of the world. I would like to talk about women from the rest of the world who are among us but not treated equally. I declare an interest as the patron of Solace and Refugee Action York. Both work with refugees; I work particularly with women.

In this country, we are extremely fortunate to have recognised the differing needs of women in detention. The landmark decision piloted by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has allowed doorways to be opened for the differentiated treatment of women. Unfortunately, in the case of women detainees in detention centres, such rights are not recognised or respected. Many are detained without having committed or being guilty of anything, and without any criminal charges, while their destiny is being decided. The doors of their homes are broken open. They are dragged into prison-like conditions in detention centres, often accompanied by their children. Sometimes the children are on their own; according to Sir Al Aynsley-Green, then Children’s Commissioner, 2,000 children were detained in 2008, the last year for which we have data. Families are split up. One mother in Yarl’s Wood detention centre has been there for 11 months while her children—British citizens—are looked after by families.

The facilities open to such women are appalling. They have been so bad that women went on hunger strike in February, 20 of them for three weeks. One of my colleagues contacted one of them; they were asking for fairer immigration hearings, for better access to bail for detainees and for the law to be put into practice to stop the forcible and degrading removal of women and families. Denise McNeil said of her conditions that there was no water in the tap and no flushing toilets. Because she was on suicide watch, her telephone conversations were being monitored. Her children are staying with families; one goes to school and the other does not. Verna Joseph, who is from St Lucia and was another striker, won her case with the Home Office. She cannot go back because of what happened to her; she had been kidnapped and raped. She has been in Yarl’s Wood for six months and says that she is illegally detained. She cannot walk around without being observed and her letters are opened. A third hunger striker tried to hang herself. She complained that lies were being told and said that, if she did one session of cleaning, she earned £1. One carton of orange juice costs £1.20 and there is a charge of 10p a day for a mobile phone. Even basic survival is difficult.

Matters are not helped by the new detained fast track—DFT. Human Rights Watch suggests that women with complex asylum claims, often based on rape and violence, are rushed through. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the women in Yarl’s Wood are victims of violence. There are women such as Fatima, whose husband is powerful in his local area, who are subject to domestic violence. There are women such as Xiuxiu from China, who was trafficked into England. Once they are put on DFT, they are immediately taken to Yarl’s Wood and interviewed. If refused—in 2008, 96 per cent of claims were—they are allowed two days for appeal and then the appeal is heard within 11 days. From start to finish, the process takes two weeks. That is simply not enough time for vulnerable women who are not accustomed to talk to strangers about terrible things that have happened to them to get themselves together, let alone get their evidence together. Some cases being considered by the Home Affairs Committee in the other place were exacerbated by accusations of racial discrimination.

Plainly, detention in a secure unit cannot be in the best interests of asylum-seeking women. The detention of women who are abused and cannot speak for themselves is unacceptable in a civilised society. We would not wish it to happen to our own women, so why do we inflict it on others? There are many humane and non-custodial alternatives and I hope that we move towards those.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for facilitating the debate and for her excellent speech introducing the topic—as usual, with some merriment in it. International Women’s Day is an important event in our calendar each year, and we have wide and interesting debates on it. Today, I want to talk briefly about women in Latin and central America and their achievements.

As the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Latin America, I meet many women from Latin and central America. Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Bolivia as part of a parliamentary delegation. La Paz, its capital, is different from any city I have ever visited. The women, in their brightly coloured shawls, with their bowler hats on their heads at a jaunty angle and their babies strapped to their backs, are a joy to behold. I never did discover how the women kept those bowler hats on. They used no elastic or hat-pins; it is quite a miracle.

With the Evo Morales Government in Bolivia promoting women and equality as a central part of their policy, the women we met truly believed that their time had come. He was re-elected in January this year as the Bolivian President. At his inauguration, one of the prominent pillars heralded was equal rights for all. He has opted for balance in terms of gender, regional representation and social class. The new Bolivian assembly includes women campesino leaders and former presidential representatives. The new Cabinet is 50 per cent made up of women, and every effort is being made to give more responsibility to women. That includes women being appointed as the new Minister of the Interior and the Minister for Rural Development and Land, the latter being a former campesino leader. Elizabeth Salguero, a feminist deputy for La Paz during the last parliament—she is now the MAS candidate for the mayor of La Paz, with the elections taking place in April—is delighted and says that she never expected to see such commitment to women. That is a great forward step for women in Bolivia that we can applaud today. I wonder whether whatever Government we have in power in the future will prove as positive towards the women in this country.

I wish to talk briefly about a different country in Latin America—Mexico—and about a project of Pro Mujer, an organisation which financially assists women to better themselves in a number of Latin American countries. This is the story of Irma Torres, who is described as a social entrepreneur. Five years ago, she received a $150 loan from Pro Mujer to start a business in Mexico. Today she employs 18 people. Irma runs a water purification business out of her home. With her husband as her business partner, she meets her family’s needs while providing potable water to her community. She used to work at a water purification plant, where she was underpaid and mistreated by the manager. Her three children suffered too. The older siblings had to go without shoes or milk. Alfonso, Irma’s nine year-old son, suffered from asthma but there was no money for a doctor or medication. In 2004, Irma left her job and joined Pro Mujer. She started her own water purification business and began to turn her family’s life around. Today, all of Irma’s children wear shoes and get the nutrition they need. Alfonso sees an asthma specialist and has not had an asthma attack in over a year. The community benefits too. Irma gives her neighbours discounted water, employs community members and donates water for every community event—another success story.

El Salvador is a smaller but important country in central America. In its recent report to the UN Human Rights Council working group on its universal periodic review, El Salvador outlined the work of the Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women. This institute is responsible for overall policy for promoting the comprehensive development of women in El Salvador and, interestingly, stresses that part of this policy is a life free of violence within the family, the working environment and social, political and economic spheres. To further this, 13 departmental offices have been established throughout El Salvador, co-ordinated by the institute.

In the time available, I have been able to give only a brief outline of some activities in the women’s field in Latin America, and, of course, these are three good examples. I could have raised some of the many difficulties that Latin American women face, but on International Women’s Day I wanted to be positive rather than negative. I hope that this brief speech has been of interest to your Lordships.

My Lords, I gently remind colleagues that everyone is running to nearer six than five minutes. The Minister will therefore have no time to answer some excellent contributions.

My Lords, I shall try to keep to that.

In considering this debate, I thought that I would take a look at the early years of the last century to see how women were regarded in those days. It was a delight for me, as an ex-professional, to learn that in 1900 women were allowed to compete in the Olympics and that a British woman, Charlotte Cooper, won gold for the women's tennis singles. This is nicely balanced by Amy Williams’s gold a couple of weeks ago at the Winter Olympics, though I suspect that even Charlotte Cooper might be a little overawed at the method of winning it!

In December 1903, Madame Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize. She repeated the feat in December 1911 after she isolated pure radium. In contrast, in January 1904, the Pope ordered Catholic ladies not to wear low-cut ball gowns, and in 1905 the Women’s Suffrage Bill was talked out in another place. One MP stated during the debate that men and women differed in “mental equipment”, with women having “little sense of proportion”. A mere eight years later, in March 1915, the UK Government appealed to women to sign up for war work and devised a register of those willing to do so. Newspapers of the time reported the comments of foremen praising their new workforce for their energy, punctuality and willingness. Twenty-four years on and they were called upon again, serving in the Armed Forces, taking part in special operations and playing a vital role in the underground resistance to the German takeover. Others took to the land, making a large contribution to the survival of this country as the renowned Land Girls.

Since then, women have continued to work in agriculture but their role has expanded. They are employed as scientists, researchers, engineers, agronomists and advisers. Some are senior managers in the food industry. Women have become partners in farming, formed their own businesses, initiated diversification on farms, created new businesses and dealt with the proliferation of paperwork. They are fully exposed to the stresses and strains caused by the outbreak of disease among livestock and crops. This country has some outstanding women in the vanguard of agricultural progress, such as Christine Tacon, general manager for the Co-op farm group. Christianne Glossop, Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales, Caroline Drummond, chief executive of LEAF, and Caroline Cranbrook, a very well known campaigner for local foods, to name but a few. Of course, I can never forget my noble friends Lady Trumpington and Lady Shephard, both highly respected former Agriculture Ministers.

Thousands of women in Britain continue to make an important contribution and today we applaud their enthusiasm, commitment and skill. In Africa, too, where the average farm is less than two hectares, women play a vital role in feeding the people, making up 80 per cent of the workforce in sub-Saharan Africa. The Christian charity, Send a Cow, recognises this by helping them to grow enough food to eat, sell the surplus and develop a small business in the longer term. It provides training, livestock, seeds and ongoing support. Its excellent pass-on scheme ensures that the first female offspring of each donated cow is passed on to another needy family and thus, with the minimum of paperwork and maximum female influence, livestock and knowledge are shared.

Another woman who has made a huge difference is Kenyan, Wangari Muta Maathai—I hope that I have pronounced her name correctly—who founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organisation focused on planting trees. She was elected as an MP and served as an assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I must also mention the Sierra Leone project supported by Soroptimist International. The money it has raised has helped to support healthcare, education, secure housing, and access to income generation for women in Sierra Leone.

None of this work would be possible without the generosity of thousands of people giving to this and other overseas charities. British families have a tradition of generously supporting other countries. Water Aid and Christian Aid are internationally known, but small schemes make a huge difference. It is right that, at this time, we remember ways in which we can help each other. I thank my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon for giving us this opportunity today.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for securing this timely debate. I will speak about an issue that has had a profound influence on women’s social and economic well-being, as well as on their physical health and happiness. That issue is contraception, which has enhanced women’s rights as a whole, as well as their reproductive rights, both nationally and internationally. I am so pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, mentioned family planning.

I declare an interest as president of Brook Advisory Centres and a patron of the FPA and Women and Children First. I realise that many men have supported contraception but many of the early pioneers were women. How brave those women were in those days. Now, of course, there were many ancient ways of trying to prevent conception—for example: wearing asparagus; applying medicated steam to fumigate the vagina; or using a pessary of crocodile dung and honey. Crocodile dung was not readily available in north-west London or New York, so it is as well that women set about being more practical and brave, as I said.

Annie Besant, in 1876 defended an American booklet on population, The Fruits of Philosophy. She had many battles with the law. In the early 1900s, Margaret Sanger, an American nurse, promoted birth control methods and was indicted and convicted as a public nuisance. Marie Stopes, after many battles, opened the first birth control clinic in the British Empire in Holloway, London. Working-class women flocked to it—2,000 attended a rally that same year. Affiliated clinics were opened one by one. In 1924, Margaret Lloyd and a friend raised £100 to set up a clinic in Ladbroke Grove. They were moved by pity that few uneducated or poor people had access to family planning. Prejudice against women taking control of their fertility was rife. Some women who attended the early clinics had to be secretive about using a method of contraception. One woman in the Midlands told a family-planning worker that she had to hide her contraceptive cap “up the chimney”—I do not think that was a euphemism for part of her anatomy.

After the Second World War, contraceptive advice through Family Planning Association clinics was at first provided only to married women. Clinics asked unmarried women to come back after their honeymoon. Others were asked to bring a letter from their vicar or family doctor to prove that they were about to be married. Woolworths did a great trade in small brass curtain rings which women wore as wedding rings when visiting a clinic.

To return to the bold Marie Stopes, letters to her now published reveal the depth of fear and ignorance about sexuality and birth control. Bertrand Russell was told before his first marriage that the use of contraception had made his father epileptic. A doctor was reprimanded for helping a woman who, in the eyes of a critic, did not belong to the “Society of Confirmed Virgins”. Marie Stopes herself did not know it all. Her advice to a woman who believed she had gonorrhoea was:

“You acquired it quite innocently from a school lavatory, the seats of which are very dangerous and have been the cause of many wrecked lives”.

She recorded that one woman took 12 Beecham Powders a day and another gunpowder to try to induce an abortion. The horrors of back-street abortions are well known: how much better to have enlightened education and services.

Contraceptive and sexual health services must be protected and developed both nationally and internationally. The Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, chaired by my noble friend Lady Gould, who unfortunately cannot be here today, published a report providing compelling evidence of the economic and social case for contraceptive services, preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The Department of Health has committed to a three-year investment in contraceptive and abortion services, yet commissioning structures, the building of strategic partnerships and investment in prevention still require more development. Can my noble friend the Leader of the House restate her support for services which are so essential to the health and well-being of women and families?

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Tonge, the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and others have already reminded us that we still have a long way to go. The chilling account from the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, of the behaviour towards women in detention and their children is something this House should address closely. It is not to the credit of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others made clear that we are also making some advances. That is important to lay down. It is not only in Britain but in many other countries—not least developing ones.

My point will be brief owing to time but I want to make it strongly. It is a radical and strong point. Cherie Blair said in her memoirs that most women in politics had defined themselves in terms of their relationship to men. The first great wave of women leaders in the developing world over the past 20 years have almost invariably been either the daughters of great leaders—such as Benazir Bhutto or Mrs Gandhi—or their widows—such as Mrs Aquino and almost all the leaders of Bangladesh and of Sri Lanka. These women, remarkable though they have been, have been taken seriously only because of the relationship they had to some leading male. Excitingly, there is now a new kind of women’s leadership developing. It is about that that I want to address my few remarks.

Look at the list of countries where 40 per cent or more of the people involved in representative democratic leadership are women. We all know in this House that the list consists of virtually every Scandinavian country—Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark—and some other, rather surprising countries in western Europe about which I have another word or two to say. Every one of those countries with more than 40 per cent representation by women meets the normal criteria of what it is to live a civilised and cohesive life—the rule of law, the acceptance of educational opportunities for women as well as men, objections to violence and a strong emphasis on conflict resolution. We are looking at a new division in the world. It is not the traditional division between the developed and the developing worlds but between those societies that are genuinely balanced between the genders and those subjected to what can only be described as continuing patriarchal power.

We can be quite precise about where most of that second group are. They are most of the Arab world, the Maghreb, Russia and central Asia—countries which do not meet the human rights criteria I have laid out. They are still addicted to the old patriarchal power of male attitudes and have not yet accepted that both genders are essential to a civilised and decent society. If you look not at the list of the rate of economic growth but, in our own Library, at the United Nations Human Development Report—the crucial measure of the quality of life and not just the quantity of economic output—in the top 20 countries are all those that have 40 per cent, or near it, female representation in their cabinets and parliaments. That is a staggering difference and one we would be unwise not to take seriously. The patriarchal countries still suffer in economic and social development from their rejection of the contribution that women can make. The United Nations has pointed out that this is one of the most marked distinctions between developing countries that are doing well and those that are not.

I remind the House of one striking example of this. In South Africa, every committee engaged in the creation of a new relationship between white and black had on it at least one woman. Nelson Mandela insisted that there was female representation on all those committees from beginning to end and from top to bottom. South Africa is an example of the great contribution that women have made. Another country, Bosnia, is still plagued by extreme conflict and secular prejudice and hatred. In the wisdom of the West, we imposed the Dayton agreement. There was not a single woman representative on that. Absolutely no time was given to the issues of whether there were equal rights for and representation of women. Perhaps most seriously, in a country where rape was deliberately used as a weapon of war, there was no discussion of rape. I beg to put my case. It is a radical case but I believe it to be true.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate and on her speech. I use my few minutes to talk about women, development and health in the poorer countries of the world. I will draw attention to two major, continuing problems facing women in these countries, and the way in which women are building their own future and are truly worthy of celebration today.

I start by following the noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Massey, on maternity. At the time my mother was born in 1915, a woman in this country had about the same chance of dying in childbirth as is true in many poor countries today. For example, in Bangladesh it is about 1 in 200 or 250. That is not an extreme example. In places likes Afghanistan and Sierra Leone a woman has a 1 in 8 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. I mention my mother because so much has changed. The difference is extraordinary from 1915 to now. We know how to make the difference: the science is the same. This is about science and resources. We know how to treat a woman in pregnancy to ensure, by and large, that she and the child have a safe outcome.

However, there are deeper issues here. At least half the problems in many poorer countries are about social issues. They are problems such as in northern Nigeria where women cannot leave the house without permission of the man and so cannot get to services. They are issues about contraception, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, already mentioned, where the simple truth is that the more pregnancies a woman has, the more she is at risk of dying in childbirth. Some very interesting research has been done on this; for example, in Ghana, where a study looked at three different communities where women had different degrees of autonomy and independence. It was interesting to note, as one would perhaps predict, that in those areas where women had less independence and less autonomy, maternal mortality and maternal morbidity were higher.

There is a similar and less well known fact about blindness. Eighty per cent of blindness is preventable or treatable; 90 per cent of it takes place in poorer countries. Here again, we know what to do. We know what the scientific and technical issues are and we know what resources are needed, yet—and this is much less well known—women are about twice as likely to go blind. This is not about genetics; it is because women are more at risk with childcare, more in contact with disease, more in contact with dirty water and more likely to get diseases such as trachoma, that awful blinding disease which strikes the eyelids. They are hit in a second way, because they are less likely to get treatment. I suggest that these two examples around health are similar to other diseases and that there is a great need for further social change.

These social issues which affect women’s lives are not just about men’s behaviour and male hierarchies, although they are fundamentally important. African women friends tell me how much of a role women play in child-birthing practice, in how girls are educated and brought up in family traditions and in the things which constrain them and their opportunities. There is an echo here, I guess, of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the attitude of women on political selection panels of 30 years ago. These are genuinely societal issues.

In drawing attention to these problems, I recognise that today’s debate is about celebration. In development circles, we all know how micro-finance, the giving of small loans and credit to women, is leading to extraordinary economic growth and extraordinary improvements in societies through the opportunities that it provides. We also know that the education of women is probably the most important health intervention that one can make. The evidence suggests that if a girl has five years of education, her child is 40 per cent more likely to make it to the age of five. We can see this throughout poor countries, with many wonderful examples of women individually and collectively leading the way. I think of Ghana, where the Queen Mother’s Association—your Lordships may reflect on how many other countries have a Queen Mother’s Association—is taking the lead in tackling maternal mortality. I acknowledge the part played by Sarah Brown as patron of the White Ribbon Alliance in advocating and working with First Ladies globally to help them to lead on this issue, although I note the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in her remarkable speech, that First Ladies and Queen Mothers are dependent on monarchs and presidents who are normally men. I see the importance of education also in the women of Bangladesh with lesser status, who have massively reduced childhood death from water-borne diseases through a shared programme of education. One sees it everywhere in the growth of small businesses and in the development of the arts and cultural activities. There is much to celebrate and much still to work for.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, on securing this debate. When a similar debate took place about six or eight months ago, there were 12 speakers and only one of them a man: that was me, and I felt extremely uncomfortable. Today, we have 26 speakers and five of them are men, so we have certainly made some progress, but it also goes to show how far we have to go before there can be a genuine balance of representation along gender lines.

The eighth of March marks International Women’s Day. When we celebrate it, it is worth bearing in mind that it was initiated by the socialist movement, especially by the Socialist Party of the United States. That may surprise your Lordships, but it did exist in those days, and it took the initiative in sponsoring women’s day. The day used to be 28 February and was transferred to 8 March in 1913. Next year, I am told, we mark the global centenary year of International Women’s Day, when I am sure that we will conduct this debate even more vigorously than we have today.

During the past 100-odd years, much has been achieved and the position of women has changed considerably for the better. There is greater appreciation of women’s rights; there is greater recognition of their needs; and there is increasing education of women at all levels. There is also greater awareness of, and resistance to, domestic and sexual violence, and to many other practices such as dowry, female genital mutilation, honour killing and female foeticide that obtain in many parts of the world.

However, in spite of those improvements, we still have a long way to go, in developing countries as well as in the West. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said, it is worth remembering why changes have taken place in some developing countries and not in others. Three factors in particular have played a very important part. One is education. It is striking that development in women’s education is closely correlated with the human development index. One could contrast, for example, Sri Lanka, with 92 per cent female literacy, and Myanmar, with 32 per cent female literacy. In the country that I come from, India, one could contrast Kerala, with female literacy of 97 per cent and a very high human development index, with a state up in the north, Bihar, where female literacy is 38 per cent and the human development index is extremely low. Education therefore plays an extremely important part.

The second factor which has played a very important part is democracy, which gives women a sense of dignity and power, and a determination to take control of their own affairs. Democratic countries have by and large done much better than non-democratic countries where the human development index is concerned.

The third factor has to do with active civil society associations. When they take up women’s causes and give support to women with problems, the literacy rate among women tends to be high, and many of the social practices which hold them back tend to be contested and fought.

I turn to Britain, which in some senses is the centre of our debate. We have made considerable progress under Labour during the past few years. In 1992, female representation in the Commons was 9 per cent. It began to go up in 1997 and, today, it is 19.5 per cent. Female representation in the Cabinet was 7 per cent; today, it is 17 per cent. On boards of public bodies, it was 25 per cent when Labour came to power; it is 33 per cent today. In senior grades of the Civil Service, it was 12 per cent in 1997; it is 29 per cent today. Among officers of the Royal Air Force, it was 8 per cent in 1997; it is 15.3 per cent today. Among university professors, the profession to which I belong, it used to be 8 per cent; today, it is 18 per cent. It is obvious that things have improved considerably, but there is still a long way to go. In the private sector, the picture is rather depressing. Just 11 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have sufficient women as directors; 22 per cent have no women directors. Of the banks, partly responsible for our chaos, only 8 per cent have female directors. If we had more, perhaps that chaos could have been avoided a long time ago.

We can learn much from Norway. In 1984, 83 per cent of companies there had women on their boards; today, it is 100 per cent. Five factors are responsible for things moving faster in Norway and Scandinavian countries, all of which we need to bear in mind in our struggle in our own country. First, government pressure is very important. Secondly, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a very important role to play. Thirdly, freedom of information is important in finding out how certain companies behave and how they promote. Fourthly, private and public pressure is necessary to change the organisational culture of those companies. And, finally and most importantly, where equality is equated with uniformity women make less progress because their differences are not taken into account. Therefore, we need to define equality in such a way that differences are fully taken into account and fully reflected in the policies and practices of the organisations involved.

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon. This debate is important, because while we all recognise that much progress has been made to the lives of many women in the world, and that is to be congratulated, there is, ashamedly, a lot more to do.

I will concentrate the few minutes available to me on women in and from the Indian subcontinent. As someone born in India—a country that has had a woman Prime Minister, a woman president and a woman Speaker of the lower House—in the great city of Amritsar, Punjab, into a Sikh family, and proud of my historical roots, it is also important that I raise the issues that need highlighting again and again. While we think that we are immune to their impacts here, sadly that is not the case.

Where education has been allowed to play a major role in the lives of women, there has no doubt been positive progress to the outcomes of those women and their families. But large parts of the Indian subcontinent are still rural, and there remains huge poverty both rurally and in the cities, even though the economies in the region are growing at a phenomenal rate. For example, while India has a predicted economic growth rate of around 8 per cent this year, 400 million people live on less than a dollar a day. All countries in the region recognise that investment in education and training is the way forward to ensure that people are lifted out of poverty. In fact, on a recent visit to India, it was a great joy to meet the Minister responsible for education. He was determined that education should be available to every child in India—a huge task, but one that has the determination of the Prime Minister behind it. That is a positive step, especially for girls.

I emphasise education as the key because it enables women to seek employment and to access services in their own right, and ensures that they know exactly what they are signing when unscrupulous men ask for signatures. While women from better-off or better-educated families live lives very much like those of the liberated women in the West, dowry, widowhood, the colour of your skin or just being a female remain huge disadvantages in these countries. While we may abhor these burdens imposed on women and girls, sadly these practices remain as traditions in many Asian families, even in Great Britain. Therefore, it is important to recognise that these practices continue to exist and that often, because the nature of these traditions is closely linked to cultural expectations, people feel resistant to challenge them.

If we are to improve the outcomes for those females who depend upon us to be their voice, whether we witness cruelty and abuse here or know of its practice in other countries, we need to challenge the politicians and communities here and of those countries to respond.

As someone who has supported women who have suffered terrible abuse at the hands of men, usually from their own families, and having always stood up for those wishing to go on to higher education because they were articulate and competent, I know how hard it is to change mindsets. But if those do not change, traditions do not change and cultures do not evolve. Wishing that your baby had died at birth must be the hardest thing that a mother can bear when she finds out that she has given birth to a girl. Sadly, for many families in the Indian subcontinent, that remains a reality, and let us not be lulled into thinking that it does not happen here.

I pay tribute to all men who are enlightened and who value the great strength that women bring. It is vital that they play their role in helping to resolve the issues that we face. However, it is the role of women to ensure that they are enlightened. My mother empowered me with confidence and self-belief, but it was my husband who supported, and still supports, everything that I do.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on securing today’s debate and on her sparkling and challenging speech. I think that all noble Lords would agree that while there is much to celebrate in the hard-fought-for achievements of women internationally, there is still a great deal more to do in achieving real equality of opportunity for women.

In the UK, the Equality Bill currently going through Parliament will, suitably amended, be a positive step change—of that I am quite certain. However, we need to remember that today’s world is global. Thus our concern and help for equal opportunities and women’s achievement must also be global. Differences in wealth between countries and in the ways in which women are treated are huge. It is on how we can best help to increase global equal opportunities and achievements for women that I wish to speak.

We will not succeed in improving the lives and achievements of women without first securing progress for girls. Women whose development has been stunted by malnutrition, who have been denied an education, and who have become accustomed to abuse and exploitation in their childhood, will find it harder to claim equality and realise their rights in adulthood.

Plan International is an organisation that is a mover and shaker in this area. Its reports over the past three years, The State of the World’s Girls, have highlighted some of the shocking discrepancies between young women's treatment and opportunities which combine to hamper development efforts. The reports outline how, in many countries, the birth of a boy is to be celebrated while the birth of a girl is a cause for commiseration. Male infant and child mortality rates should, in fact, be higher than those of females, as girls have a biological advantage over boys. Despite that, most of the 10 million children who die before the age of five every year are girls.

One of the saddest consequences of the discrimination faced by young women is that they often have a shorter childhood and are forced to take on adult responsibilities earlier than their brothers. Their productivity and work in the home, caring for family members and carrying out domestic chores, which are increasingly recognised here, are seldom recognised there. The loss of childhood can have serious and dangerous consequences. Nearly 50 per cent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 15. One in seven of the world’s girls will be married before their 15th birthday, and pregnancy-related illnesses are among the leading causes of death for young girls aged between 15 and 19 worldwide. The younger the girls are when they give birth, the higher the risk of complications and death, as other noble Lords have mentioned.

Despite all this, we know that where they are valued, supported and invested in, girls can transform their lives, their communities and their countries. Educated and empowered girls are agents for sustainable change. I have two examples which I had intended to read to noble Lords, but there is no time. A 100-country survey by the World Bank found that only a 1 per cent increase in the number of female secondary students boosts a country’s annual per capita income by 0.3 percentage points on average. That is an amazing figure. India alone misses out on potential economic growth worth around US $33 billion each year through underinvestment in girls. In developing countries, more than 60 million girls of primary age are out of school—more than all the girls in North America and Europe combined.

While there is no magic bullet that can ensure that the millennium development goals are met, education, particularly secondary education for girls, should be a catalyst to hasten the achievement of all other MDGs by creating a demographic dividend whereby young women will have fewer children, reducing the number of financial dependants per worker, while at the same time spurring increases in per capita wealth.

I hope that when the Leader of the House replies she will be able to confirm that helping girls worldwide to achieve an education and skills for life will continue to be a top DfID priority.

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for bringing this debate to the Chamber.

In recent years, major changes have taken place in our society. Relationships between men and women are not as they were 50 years ago. Women are more likely to be financially independent, participate in paid employment, be well educated and expect to be treated as equals. Yet we have an hour-for-hour gender pay gap of 22 per cent. The gap is more than 40 per cent if you compare the rates earned by part-time women workers. We have women corralled into a narrow range of labour market areas. We have more women qualifying as doctors and lawyers, while their numbers are not reflected in consultancies or partnerships.

Many of these problems would be better addressed, and solutions identified, if decision-making bodies were more evenly balanced, enabling the voices of women as well as men to be heard. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that ideal. Women occupy only 19 per cent of seats in the UK Parliament and make up only 11 per cent of FTSE 100 directors, and only 33 per cent of non-executive directors on public boards. As long as decisions on strategy, direction, employment policies and so on are made by groups of people who are unrepresentative either of their workforce, customer base or society at large, those decisions will not contain the richness of life's diverse experiences.

Our Government have taken a number of initiatives to try to remedy the diversity deficit on public sector boards. Both the Women's National Commission and the Government Equalities Office are running programmes up and down the country that bring in women with board experience to encourage and assist other women who would like to get more involved.

Changing the male/female balance on private boards is trickier for government. Such decisions are rightly made by companies themselves. I do not believe that male directors make deliberate decisions to keep women away from company boards: I think that most of these people have no idea how to bring about change. They do not think about how to advertise, or how to ensure that the image of the organisation will appeal to women. They do not test out the headhunters—firms that are paid significant sums and yet time after time identify potential candidates from the same pool of people: safe, known and just like the ones we already have. A few weeks ago in this House, I proposed that the Government should address the problem by bringing together an exemplar group of companies so that issues could be considered, ways forward identified and best-practice guidelines produced. I hope that the Minister will push this proposal with her colleagues.

So what of this House and the other place? The Labour Party decision on all-women shortlists, taken some years ago, has obviously made a difference, not only to Labour representation but to the thinking of the other parties. However, with only 19 per cent representation, there is clearly some way to go. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly both started with a blank sheet of paper, enabling better and more representative systems to be put in place. The UK Parliament does not fare well in global comparisons. It has already been mentioned that Rwanda leads the way with more than 50 per cent female representation. Sweden has 47 per cent and Argentina 40 per cent. Even Bahrain, placed in the conservative Middle East, betters the United Kingdom with 28 per cent female representation in its parliament.

Change will not come about by osmosis. Saying that we want more representative systems will not make that happen: we must identify the hurdles and stumbling blocks and determine to remove them—and by “we”, I mean all of us.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for this debate.

I received the briefing pack prepared by the House of Commons Library, with the social and general statistics setting out the trends in female representation in public life. The note covers politics, public appointments, civil servants, the judiciary, the NHS, education and leading private sector vocations. Many of the statistics have already been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I will resist the temptation to repeat them. The statistics are predictable. The rate of advancement of women has been slow, and there remain many areas and positions where women are significantly underrepresented.

I will come back to my perennial grumble. I say this every time I speak in such debates. One significant area where there is zero representation of women is on our Bishops’ Benches. I do not for one minute underestimate their contribution on equality matters, but it would be helpful to know when we can expect this anomaly to be rectified.

It is right that we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women; but there is much more to be done. This debate comes in a week when the London Evening Standard has highlighted the dispossessed in our society. It has called for action to tackle deprivation. It talks about a London which has two faces. In the richest capital in Europe, almost half our children live below the poverty line. A society cannot live in peace and celebrate success if a great many of our population live in poverty and squalor. The London Evening Standard deserves our praise. It should galvanise politicians to realise that promises alone are not enough. There must be a determined effort to eradicate the factors that condemn individuals to the so-called cycle of deprivation.

Elimination of poverty and deprivation, both nationally and internationally, should not remain simply a political issue. Although many decisions that politicians make impact substantially on poor and deprived communities, there is also a significant role for voluntary organisations. I declare an interest: I am associated with Plan International. It is an independent organisation with no religious, political or governmental affiliation. It has a vision of a world in which all children reach their full potential in societies that respect people's rights and dignity.

Our research into the state of the world's girls and young women over the past three years has revealed that they are often among the most vulnerable people in any given community: more likely to miss out on education and less able than their brothers to make a living. Those of us who are associated with projects both here and abroad can confirm that there are few, if any, cultures where women are not the primary carers for their own and other people's children. No one can dispute that girls are as capable as boys. Wherever in the world resources are provided for their advancement and development the results are striking. Give a girl skills and opportunities and we will be rewarded with a healthier, more educated, society.

The single best investment is to prioritise adolescent girls’ access to education. Plan International has concluded—and we all agree—that investment in a healthier, better educated, more economically capable generation will, when multiplied, have a massive impact on the productivity and economic viability of the country that invested initially in just one girl. Since this is a time-limited debate, I will avoid the use of statistics, except to say that I commend the report, I am a Girl, which has been produced by Plan International.

The key recommendations we should be pursuing are: prioritising girls’ education; challenging gender stereotypes; educating girls in post-conflict and post-disaster settings; increasing vocational training opportunities; listening to and involving girls; and collecting better data on female outcomes in education. These are not just my recommendations but the recommendations of a number of similar organisations. Let us hope that we can move in that direction.

My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for securing it. Given the title of the debate, the issue that I wish to raise is global but not necessarily a celebration. I want to draw attention to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 about women and peacekeeping. This resolution was passed unanimously as far back as October 2000, but it has never fulfilled its promise in implementation. I believe that the extent and nature of peacekeeping around the world would be significantly and qualitatively improved if the various practical measures agreed in this resolution to involve women in strategic and practical ways were more rigorously implemented by member states. In particular, I believe that our Government could do more to assist this process.

Resolution 1325 was the first resolution ever passed by the Security Council that specifically addressed the impact of war on women and the contribution that women can make to the process of conflict resolution and sustainable peace. It was the first time that the United Nations formally required parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. The resolution calls for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes against women in a conflict situation and for extra protection of girls and women in war zones, where they are more often deliberately victimised and subjected to rape and other forms of sexual abuse.

The resolution specifically calls for more women to be appointed to peacekeeping operations. The implementation of Resolution 1325 could be described as weak at best and abysmal at worst. This goes for the United Nations itself, as well as for the action or inaction on the part of member states. Neither Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General when the resolution was passed, nor his successor has a commendable record in appointing more female special representatives of the Secretary-General—SRSGs as they are known—as required by the resolution. In fact, I suspect that the number of female special representatives is still in single figures, despite our own Dame Margaret Anstee being the first woman to be appointed to such a position in 1992, 18 years ago.

What steps are the UK Government taking to press for better implementation of Resolution 1325 and, in particular, what action have they taken to propose and/or support the nomination of suitably qualified women for these posts of special representatives? I should also like to know what priority the UK Government give to working with the interagency Task Force on Women, Peace and Security, which was set up to ensure collaboration and co-ordination throughout the UN system on implementation of Resolution 1325. At what level of seniority are the UK Government represented and are they satisfied with the snail’s pace of implementation?

In addition, does the UK participate in either of the two less formal groups that were set up to press for better implementation? One is called the Friends of 1325. I understand that it is an ad hoc group of 26 UN member states, which was set up on the initiative of Canada. The other is called Operation 1325, which is an initiative of six women’s organisations and networks in Sweden, although it operates internationally.

Does our representative at the UN report regularly and specifically on activity around Resolution 1325? If so, will the Government draw it to the attention of this House? If not, will the Government instigate a new reporting mechanism that gives priority and prominence to the vital role of women in the arena of peace and security? If Resolution 1325 is not to remain in the category of academic interest only but to fulfil its potential of mobilising the talents and contributions of women in the pursuit of peace and peacekeeping, some positive action needs to be taken. This is a term and a concept with which the Government are completely familiar in the domestic context of equality. I would like to see it energetically applied to this desperately important global issue by a Government who understand it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for calling for this debate today and apologise to her for arriving a few minutes late—it started a bit sharp. I have known of her reputation for working for women’s improvement since I met her just over 30 years ago, when we were trying to get better and equal opportunities for women to stand for Parliament.

There is growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the military Joint Chiefs of Staff and to aid organisations such as Care that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way of fighting global poverty and extremism. Women’s issues are of paramount importance to our global economy and to our humanity. As an engaged and effective advocate among us, the noble Baroness fully understands the critical importance of raising awareness of gender inequalities and the tragic consequences of abuses happening around the world each day.

I have a few insights. Although women comprise roughly half the population, their socio-economic contribution is woefully undervalued. They are primary family care givers, educators, homemakers and even breadwinners. None the less, they universally earn less than men. They are often denied property rights and even the fundamental freedoms of movement and personal agency. It is women who take out the micro-finance loans around the world; it is women who repay them; and it is women who continue to do that and be the breadwinners. In this country alone, because of the credit crunch, we will have to undertake micro-finance in Northern Ireland and parts of England. I hope that the Government will give support to the banks when they decide to take that on publicly.

Maternal healthcare is alarmingly inadequate. Every minute, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Every year, more than 536,000 women die due to complications developed during pregnancy, while 75 per cent of maternal deaths occur during childbirth and the postnatal period. The vast majority of maternal deaths are avoidable when women have access to vital healthcare before, during and after childbirth.

Human trafficking is thriving today. I have mentioned that many times in this House. Many Governments and many people are in denial of that trade. The income from human trafficking comes second after arms—before drugs—because a human being can be used more than once. I ask the Government to take up the issue not just at the various meetings in Europe; it, like maternal health, should be on the agenda at meetings of the G20 and the G8. Through the World Bank, we know the statistics on money-laundering that is brought through human trafficking.

It is not just men who perpetrate that evil form of life; it is women. It is women who are the middle managers; it is women who take the cash. It is up to us to ensure that our Government and other Governments around the world put pressure on the banks and on the World Bank. A very eminent banker once said to me, “We know the clients of ours who do this, but we cannot tell you”. It is important that that should cease. I feel very strongly about this, because people are put into awful servitude. Women make other women do this. They take their passports away. They take loans. It is a terrible disease.

Through my work with Vital Voices, UN.GIFT, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and many other organisations dedicated to women and children, I have been privileged to promote equality. However, not enough women or men are promoting the equality of women today. This must be a joint issue. We cannot do it alone. I recently heard someone say, “Women should work together; we don’t want to ask men for anything”. I believe that, for us to succeed for future generations, we must involve ourselves, males, the private sector, NGOs and Governments.

My Lords, this annual debate has become a must for many noble Lords from all Benches, so it was with the greatest pleasure that I heard that my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon had managed to secure this debate. She has always championed the cause of women, long before it was fashionable to do so—never to balance the numbers but always because of the contribution that women make to our national life.

Over the years, we have witnessed a significant change and an attitudinal shift in both women’s and society’s thoughts about women’s equality and emancipation. Vast advances have been made. Internationally, there are, for example, women Prime Ministers and astronauts. Nearly everywhere, young women are gaining entry to university on equal terms, often beating their male colleagues in the degree league tables. Today, women can work and have a family. These are real choices which were not available in my day.

However, internationally, many women still have a long way to go until they enjoy the freedom and achievements that we are lucky enough to experience. Sadly, women still bear the overwhelming burden of extreme poverty and deprivation in the developing world. More than two-thirds of the world’s poorest people are women. With Mother’s Day fast approaching, it is tragically appropriate to note that each year millions of women worldwide face serious injury, permanent disability and, sadly, in some cases, death, due to complications during pregnancy and birth. Those who choose not to go through birth face an even more uncertain outcome if they resort to an unsafe abortion. It is grimly estimated that every minute a woman dies needlessly in childbirth. Her baby will almost always die, too. Last year alone, almost 9 million children under five died, 40 per cent of them in the first month of their lives.

Women and girls would be able to earn more money, and in a safer way, to support their families if they were better educated. They would be equipped to understand and challenge the stereotypes that hold them back and better prepared to protect themselves from abuse, exploitation and harmful traditional practices. However, currently girls constitute more than two-thirds of 130 million children who have no access to basic education. More than 72 million children are missing out on school; most of those are girls and many are disabled. There are several reasons for this. Some families simply cannot afford education and prioritise the boys in the family. In many countries, the infrastructure simply does not exist or is seriously lacking. Cultural attitudes create a huge barrier to girls attending school. Vulnerable groups of girls, such as orphaned, disabled or street girls, are even more exposed to discrimination and social disadvantage.

Another issue is the violence that occurs in schools. In Malawi, it is reported that one in five schoolgirls has been sexually assaulted and almost one in 10 has been raped or subjected to attempted rape. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell the House whether the Government have had talks with agencies in countries such as Malawi, where this type of abuse is taking place in schools? What plans are in place not only to educate more girls and women, but to influence people in those countries to push the importance of women’s education?

We must praise and be proud of all the work that has been done to get to where we are today. On this day each year we celebrate the advances that have occurred, but we must never relent in trying to improve the lives of others who are not as fortunate as we are in this country.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for introducing this debate and for the manner in which she did so. Although much remains to be done, on such an occasion we can recall with pride what has been achieved in this country. It has not been easy. Generations of women have struggled and suffered to achieve what many of us now take for granted.

At the beginning of the last century women did not have the right to vote. Participation in public life was not easy. Higher education was not thought appropriate for women, since they were expected to marry. Job availability was restricted. Equal pay was a joke. Maternity rights were unheard of. Women’s rights to control their own fertility and to have access to methods of birth control were simply not discussed in polite society. Anyhow, information on these matters was difficult to come by for young unmarried women.

Without the determined and, yes, the political activity of previous generations of women, the changes from which we have all benefited would not have been achieved. There is still much to be done. There is still an unacceptable gap between male and female earnings. Too few women are involved in political activity and in Parliament, although the main political parties are aware of that and seem determined to do something about it. The new Equality Bill is seeking to deal with the pay gap and other discriminations that still exist. More could be done about affordable childcare. There is an imbalance in pension provision for women. Not enough is done to ensure that older women receive proper and affordable care and more should be done to assist carers, most of whom are women.

However, a number of those issues are now recognised and steps are being taken by the present Government to try to deal with some of them. Women who care about gender equality should join those who still struggle to build on the gains achieved by previous generations. Trade unions, which when I first became an official were very male dominated, are so no longer. Unions are active on behalf of women and many women are in leading union positions.

The legislation which has been developed and which is part of the current Equality Bill rightly outlaws discrimination on grounds of religion and belief. That is to be welcomed. We are a multicultural society, but we should be aware that in some ethnic minorities repression of women is regarded as part of the culture. For such women, the situation can be dire. It is not only a matter of the clothing they may be forced to wear; they can be prevented from seeking work and their access to education can be restricted. Forced marriages are common. We must be able to give assistance to such women when they require it. Cultural considerations must not prevail; our law must prevail. The rights for women that were fought for and achieved by generations of women must apply to all British citizens, irrespective of religion or culture. In the mean time, let us remember with gratitude those who have brought us this far.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, on gaining this important debate on International Women’s Day. It gives me particular pleasure also to speak after not just the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, but also the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, since together we worked hard in earlier years to gain more seats for women in the UK Parliament. It is pleasing to see that the rights of women have made a tremendous advance since my grandmother was a suffragist. The progress in the UK has been rapid and is continuing but elsewhere the picture is considerably gloomier.

I am sure that we do not wish to achieve political opportunity for ourselves here in the UK and consider that to be the end of the matter. We need to look more widely in the European Union and even further afield where the pursuit of fundamental freedoms and the establishment of some democratic principles in the minds of differing societies and their enshrinement in law is not an absolute. If women’s right to vote is to reach an international standard, we must pursue democracy as the way forward for those societies.

It is interesting that the absolute prerequisites for women’s political involvement do not necessarily require a fully secular constitution or even a fully democratic one. A secular constitution, for example, was not essential in Pakistan when I monitored the elections on 18 February 2008. Flawed though that election was and run under a resolutely Islamic and highly prescriptive constitution, women still had the right to vote and I watched them exercise it in their thousands.

What about partial dictatorship? Even a partial dictatorship can achieve political involvement for women. The election on 6 November 2005 in Azerbaijan was most certainly not free and fair, as the OSCE declared, yet again women voted and I watched them work even in the political polling stations.

What about new constitutions? Is it impossible for women to vote then? Not at all. Twice in Iraq in 2005, in January and December, I saw and assessed women in their millions voting.

What, therefore, is the key blockage if the right to vote is there and if a woman has a right to a legal personality? I monitored the elections in Afghanistan in September 2005 and in Yemen in September 2006. Both those elections were deemed to be free and fair internationally—and, I believe, correctly—but in each of them the women had significant and essential difficulties not in getting to the polling stations but in what happened thereafter: in exercising their right to vote.

I suggest that there are three issues on which our Government and our people must concentrate if we wish women worldwide to be politically involved. The first, as I have declared already, is the legal personality, but that has to be followed by social attitudes and mores that accept that a woman has a legal identity. The second is the capacity to read and write and to understand the voting process: how to place your vote independent of pressure locally in the polling station, and what holding a pencil, looking at a piece of paper and placing a mark on a piece of paper actually mean. Finally, there must be a reasonable expectation that that vote will be fairly counted. In Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Yemen, I witnessed women entering the polling station, getting behind the screen to vote by themselves, and being absolutely incapable of understanding the process because they had never learnt to read and write. They were heartbroken and in tears.

How can we help? There are a number of very simple ways: adult literacy and numeracy, which alas is not a DfID priority; training domestic election monitors—another vastly important thing, particularly if they are women; and funding and managing courses and lectures in the run-up to an election on the basic electoral process, particularly for women. Our national policy should be the promotion of these elements of democracy as the certain, assured and evidence-based way to bring women of any country into the political process.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and congratulate her on securing this important debate today.

There are not that many women in the world of politics, but where special measures are taken women can make their voice heard. One country with a new democracy is Rwanda, which I had the privilege of visiting last summer as part of a CPA delegation. I saw what women were doing there and how they were making a difference. I met women MPs—great, feisty women who had seen so much suffering in their country and were determined that the genocide of 1994 would never happen again.

Equality is written into Rwanda’s constitution, and women now play a big role in government. Rwanda is top of the league in the number of women in their Parliament—around 57 per cent. There are so many women in the Rwandan Parliament because of special mechanisms that are used to increase women’s political participation: among them a constitutional guarantee, a quota system and new electoral structures.

The women’s movement mobilised actively around the framing of a constitution to ensure that equality become a cornerstone. It took account of international human rights instruments and conventions, including CEDAW, to which Rwanda is a signatory. The new constitution states a commitment to,

“ensuring equal rights between Rwandans and between women and men without prejudice to the principles of gender equality”.

Rwanda’s lower House, the Chamber of Deputies, has 80 Members. Twenty-four seats are reserved for women, and these elections are co-ordinated by a national system of women’s councils. Women compete for the other seats on open lists and are elected by PR. They now hold 21 of these seats.

Although the constitutional measures that have been taken in Rwanda have allowed women to play a major role, there are still great problems in the country. During my visit I learnt of the valuable work that the Department for International Development is doing to help and to work with Rwanda in a positive way. The UK Government want to help Rwanda build a more prosperous, fair and peaceful future. The UK is Rwanda’s largest bilateral donor. It has helped to reduce the percentage of people living in poverty from 70 per cent to 57 per cent. It does much other work as well. This must be a help to women.

Last summer, we met Rwanda parliamentarians who told us how much they wanted to become a member of the Commonwealth. The UK Government supported the move and last November Rwanda was accepted as a member. This move will be beneficial to Rwanda and to the Commonwealth.

Rwandan women are playing a great role in rebuilding their country. There is much hope and expectation. I believe that we can learn a lot from these wonderful women. If a country such as Rwanda can see how advantageous it is to promote equality and to ensure that women play a great role in the organisation of the country, I have to ask myself why Rwanda is No. 1 in the league of women parliamentarians and the Westminster Parliament is No. 60? Rwanda has 57 per cent women parliamentarians and the House of Commons has 19.5 per cent, although I have to say that if it had not been for the Labour Party introducing all-women shortlists the percentage would be even lower.

Quotas, all-women shortlists and zipping work, but there is still a great reluctance by local members of political parties in this country to select women candidates unless specific measures are put in place. Today, let us praise the women of Rwanda for their courage, their determination and their endless energy, and for how they can turn a very bad situation in their country to one for the better. Perhaps, as we celebrate International Women's Day, we can all recognise that we can learn much from these great Rwandan women.

My Lords, I agree with many others today that the most effective way to raise the status of women is to invest in the education of girls. One hundred years ago, a Ghanaian educationist said that,

“if you educate a woman, you educate a whole family”.

Since visiting a woman’s project in India in the 1980s, I have also been a firm convert to “smart economics”, which is the idea that women in business can be a catalyst to the whole community. That was in coastal Orissa, one of the poorest states, where CARE had adapted a nutrition programme so that mothers could benefit from a loan scheme and start small businesses. Since then, I have been a strong supporter of microcredit and have been generally convinced, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that women look after money better than men.

Studies of the Grameen Bank projects in Bangladesh show that the poorest women, as has been said, have the highest repayment rates. It is a well known fact that women do most of the work and are paid the least for it. Some find alternatives and the share of women in paid employment outside agriculture has continued to increase, but nearly two-thirds of employed women have vulnerable jobs. Low pay and poor conditions such as overcrowding characterise women’s work in industry and gender inequality frequently leads to discrimination.

Young women from poor, rural households start at a disadvantage, which is why the aim of millennium development goal 2 is to increase the enrolment of girls in education and why eliminating gender disparity in schools is so important. Removing school fees, recruiting more local teachers and building schools in remoter areas have helped to reduce this. DfID has set targets in the secondary education of girls, but progress needs to be measured by completion rather than only enrolment rates.

Women’s political representation—MDG 3—is slowly growing. We have heard from my noble friend Lady Coussins. More women have entered leadership positions worldwide, while the number of women speakers in Parliaments has remained high. We have also heard a lot about Rwanda’s lower Chamber. However, I do not want to sound too enthusiastic about Rwanda. In spite of their new Commonwealth membership, the Government are still repressive and intolerant of criticism. Community courts are struggling with sexual violence and ongoing genocide cases involving rape, many of which end without respect for privacy for women or a proper judicial process.

Finally, I would like briefly to highlight women’s achievements in the Arab world, which are not always fully recognised, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicholson and Lady Williams, both mentioned. Women in Kuwait, for example, only gained the right to stand for election in 2005. Four women were elected to Kuwait’s Parliament for the first time in May last year. Saudi Arabia has never had a woman in its Consultative Council, but it now has a woman Cabinet Minister. Here I declare an interest. My wife Caroline has been working on the Middle East for many years, and I know from her that many Saudi women are becoming much more active in civil society, business, and promoting social reform.

The wife of the Prophet Mohammed, Khadija, was a businesswoman, and there are many in the Arab world who see her successful career as the true pattern of behaviour for Muslim women. As a recent ILO report states:

“Empowering women is one of the most pressing challenges these regions have to face, and the main route to reaching this successfully is by giving women the chance of a decent job”.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and I hope that the Government will pursue millennium development goals 2, 3 and 5 on maternal mortality, which was also mentioned, with renewed vigour.

My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, on instituting this debate to honour International Women’s Day, an occasion that is becoming a tradition and which is so much appreciated by all women Peers, and many men, in your Lordships’ House.

I make no apology for speaking once more on a subject I have often reverted to in the past. Usually, I have had to discuss female genital mutilation in a negative way. How often, in this Chamber, has the question been asked: how many prosecutions have there been? When the answer is “None”, the reaction is one of great disappointment and sometimes indignation. Unfortunately, I am still unable to say that any prosecutions have taken place. The police are anxious to bring them, but are deterred by a lack of evidence. The practice of FGM is kept secret and few in the communities where it is customary are willing to reveal to the authorities instances of its happening. In spite of that, and in spite of the frustrations met with in all our efforts to combat this horrible practice, I have something new and more positive to say.

The FGM National Clinical Group and I, as their patron, have together produced a film, now on DVD, which shows a reversal of FGM being performed by a woman surgeon. Although I declare an interest, I point out that none of us, including of course myself, has any financial interest in this DVD. It is not a venture designed to make money, but to improve the lot of women victims. It shows how infibulation, the cutting and subsequent stitching of a woman’s genitalia, with all its consequent pain, suffering, inhibition of natural functions and difficulties in childbirth, can be reversed or, I may say, repaired—if not totally, at least to the extent of giving her a normal life. This surgical procedure, performed on a very brave young woman who volunteered to be filmed, was carried out under a local anaesthetic and shows that it is relatively simple to perform and takes only a short time.

This DVD has the approval of the Chief Nursing Officer to the Government and of the Metropolitan Police under Project Azure. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has asked to use the DVD as a teaching and training resource. The object of making it available on websites to be seen by health professionals all over the United Kingdom is to show obstetricians, gynaecologists, midwives and nurses, first, the appearance of a woman’s genitalia when she has been infibulated; and secondly, how comparatively easily the operation that liberates her from the constrictions of FGM can be carried out. Reversals cost the patient nothing. They are available on the National Health Service and can be done on demand. Once the operation has been performed, the woman who has had her FGM reversed can enjoy a more satisfactory sex life and a trouble-free labour and childbirth.

The proliferation of the National Clinical Group’s DVD is becoming extensive and we are gratified that many women are starting to avail themselves of this service—it is a triumph and an advance—but it makes, of course, no difference to our permanent aim to eradicate FGM, at least in the United Kingdom. However, this debate is for International Women’s Day and women’s achievements, and FGM is an international problem. Millions of women across Africa, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone to Kenya and Uganda, are at risk of FGM and for most of them it is an inescapable fate. If the practice of reversal spreads to other countries through the National Clinical Group’s DVD, we who belong to the group and have worked together to make this film will feel that progress is at last being made.

It is not of course the answer to what is an ongoing problem and one which is, in my opinion, generally underrated in worldwide estimates of women’s suffering. However, if health professionals who are as yet ignorant of the appearance and results of FGM can be taught by this film to recognise and repair it, a considerable advance will have been made towards its eradication. For if its effects can be satisfactorily undone, performing it in the first place should gradually decline.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, not only on securing today’s debate but on introducing it so well in a wide-ranging and excellent speech. It is always a pleasure to participate in this debate because the speeches are always informative, thought provoking, entertaining and, at times, deeply moving. Many speeches have focused on how much we have yet to do and others have focused on how far we have come. I was struck by that at the weekend when I heard on the radio a clip of an interview with Barbara Castle when, as the Minister for Transport, she was seeking to introduce drink-driving laws. The interviewer said, “You are only a woman. You do not drive. What do you know about it?” Her response was characteristically robust, but that demonstrates how far we have come in the time since she sought to do that.

We are in the general election run-up and many contributions have focused on the less than glorious record of the United Kingdom Parliament in women’s representation—only 19 per cent at the moment despite many years of sterling work by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and many others.

I was particularly taken by the contribution of my noble friend Lady Williams and the link between the quality of governance in a nation and the number of women. If that does not give us pause for thought about how much more we need to do, I despair. It is sad that, whatever the political outcome of the general election in May, women will still be significantly underrepresented in our Parliament. That is very strange because there is no evidence that the public are unwilling to vote for female candidates; in fact the evidence is the reverse. In my party I do not come across the overt bias in selection processes that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, came across some years ago, but not enough women are coming forward. This is something that I am very exercised about. I am trying to understand why more women are not coming forward.

It is a great pity that for most of the public the only thing they ever see of the work of an MP is the weekly testosterone-fuelled spectacle of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is very off-putting. It is a great shame that people do not get to see more of the other work of a Member of Parliament—representing their constituency, dealing with casework, being on Select Committees. These activities would feel much more worthwhile for women because, if noble Lords will forgive a sweeping generalisation, women on the whole would rather do things than be things. If what they see of an MP’s work looks like a doing job, they would like to do it.

The House of Commons has reformed and its practices have changed, but at glacial speed. It is still a very family-unfriendly place and we have to work on that. A colleague recently came to me with a proposal for job-sharing for MPs. My first reaction was, “How on earth would you ever make that work?”, but she sat down and explained it to me. I have to say that it is very persuasive as a way of encouraging both more women and people with young families. Noble Lords will be able to judge for themselves because she is appearing on “Woman’s Hour” next week to put this case. It is something that bears scrutiny.

The role of women in business and industry was highlighted in contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Parekh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser. A number of organisations are now working to develop the roles of women and, like many other noble Baronesses, I am involved with some of them. I am a supporter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar, which works with the surprisingly large number of women who work in transport and logistics, and I am a co-chair of Women in Public Policy along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris of Bolton and Lady Symons of Vernham Dean.

The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology is doing some great work in its sector. We have to be clear that this is not just a matter of fairness or equality, as important as those things are. The fact is that with an ageing population and the imminent retirement of a predominantly male workforce inside the engineering sector, the UK’s ability to train and retain specialists in emerging fields such as low-carbon technologies is an essential part of our future prosperity.

At the moment, despite having quite a low number of female graduates in the engineering sector, one-sixth of those who are qualified are currently not working at all and 70 per cent are working in other sectors of the economy. That is a shocking waste of an already scarce resource.

As one would expect in this debate, many noble Lords have touched on the international dimension. I was particularly taken with the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, which in a way mirrored that of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about how having women involved in these key strategic areas makes a difference to the quality of decisions made. I look forward to hearing the reply from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.

During the half-term recess, I thought it would be good for my soul to take a short break from domestic politics and went along with a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Bangladesh. It is fascinating that Bangladesh has come up so often today. The role of women in society there is a key issue. It is a highly contradictory place; both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are female—although I accept my noble friend’s point that there is a sort of dynastic element to the politics there—and we met some impressive female Ministers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, pointed out, the Bangladeshi Parliament has dealt with underrepresentation of women in the directly elected part of the House by having a top-up reserve of 40 seats for women. Despite women playing a important role in Bangladeshi politics, though, life for most Bangladeshi women is very hard, particularly in terms of maternal mortality, which is one of the millennium development goals that they have not been able to meet.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, talked about microfinance. One of the highlights for me of our trip to Bangladesh was meeting Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank—the delegation was not a little star-struck. With the bank’s amazing system aimed predominantly at women, it took enormous courage for him and his colleagues to overcome Bangladesh’s cultural barriers to empowering poor women, but they have done so: 97 per cent of the current 8 million borrowers in Bangladesh are women, and the bank’s community-based credit system has resulted in a loan recovery rate of 98 per cent despite the total absence of legal contract or sanction for default. Interestingly, the bank has started to try to run projects in Glasgow and the Bronx. I wish it good luck, but I fear that if it is trying to work in this country, our very inflexible benefits system will make it rather hard.

The Grameen system works largely in rural areas, and has developed into a holistic approach to health, nutrition and education. At one time, Grameen was the country’s largest distributor of seeds—a by-product of its drive to improve night blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency by encouraging women to grow vegetables.

We were taken out of Dhaka to look at various development projects. We also visited the research unit at the cholera hospital, where they have developed oral rehydration therapy. By teaching these techniques to around 12 million mothers, the reduction of child and infant mortality in Bangladesh has gone from 285 per 1,000 to 75 per 1,000. This shows how much can be achieved by very small measures if you involve women.

I am running out of time, but I am delighted to have listened to the debate and made my contribution.

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to take part in today’s debate, which celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women. As always, this debate, which marks International Women’s Day and links women around the world together, has drawn on the enormous experience and insight across your Lordships’ House. I join the congratulations to my noble friend Baroness Miller of Hendon on securing this debate and on her thoughtful speech, which was delivered in her customary no-nonsense and humorous way. You never quite know where this debate is going to go; I really did not think that today we would hear about crocodile dung and asparagus as means of contraception.

As we heard from a number of noble Lords, there is much to celebrate. The noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Coussins, for instance, reminded us of the very positive part women play in conflict resolution. I love the idea in my noble friend Lady Byford’s speech of a cow being given to a needy family and then its first offspring being given to another needy family: that is true female solidarity. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, spoke of a new kind of women’s leadership developing, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, spoke of the part that women entrepreneurs play. We also heard about women in business from the noble Baronesses, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen and Lady Prosser, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, painted a colourful picture of the advances of women in Bolivia.

However, there are still women in our country and throughout the world for whom life is a struggle, as illustrated by all noble Lords who mentioned the pay gap; I hope we are addressing this through the Equality Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, gave a moving speech on female genital mutilation. She never misses a chance to raise this in everybody’s mind, and we thank her for doing so because it is truly gruesome. This theme was picked up by many others. My noble friend Lady Seccombe movingly told us that every minute a woman dies needlessly in childbirth; thoughts echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, the noble Baronesses, Lady Goudie and Lady Tonge, and many others. I apologise if I have not mentioned any other noble Lords. All contributions were worthy of mention, but if I do not start the main part of my speech now I am going to run out of time.

One statistic which horrified me when I was doing my research was from a report by Kristof and WuDunn on turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide: women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. We should all keep that thought in the forefront of our minds.

One of the challenges of this annual occasion is how to approach the subject in a new and interesting way. A particular problem when I was writing this speech at some unearthly hour this morning was what to include, because there is so much to talk about, especially as I have been privileged this past year to meet some truly amazing women from many countries, each with remarkable stories to tell. I decided to concentrate on three areas where I have a particular interest. In doing so, I declare an interest as the co-chairman of Women in Public Policy, as has already been mentioned, a member of the advisory council of women2win and a trustee of UNICEF UK.

As my noble friend Lady Verma reminded us, education is at the heart of all that we aspire to in raising the well-being and status of women. The charity Plan—it was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia—is working to highlight the situation of girls and women in developing countries who, because of their gender and age, are prevented from reaching their full potential. It reminds us that girls have enormous untapped potential and that educating them is the key to achieving millennium development goals.

I am proud that my party, in its programme of direct social action, has played a small part in helping in Bosnia and Rwanda. In Bosnia, my noble friend Lady Warsi led a team of MPs, candidates and volunteers that helped a community devastated in the genocide. As part of that project, in conjunction with Microsoft, they put a computer suite into a school—Microsoft provided the computers, and our team did the decorating. A haulage company gave its services free to transport toys donated by Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre to a school for children with special needs. All that helps the lives of women and children in their communities.

Sometimes the problems that we face seem insurmountable, but small acts repeated by lots of different people in lots of different places can start to build unstoppable momentum. We should pay tribute to charities, businesses and individuals who give their time and money to help make the world a better place.

One such individual is Lynne Franks. I met Lynne when we were both speaking at the Women in Business conference in May last year, which brought together a spectacular array of talented and influential women from the Arab world; I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on the achievements of women in the Arab world. Lynne invited me to a breakfast hosted by the charity V-Day UK, to meet women from the Democratic Republic of Congo. From a debate in your Lordships' House on the Congo in which I had spoken, I knew that life was tough for women and children in the DRC, but reading about it in a briefing paper was as nothing to hearing first-hand the horrors that women and young girls are subjected to on a daily basis.

Lynne Franks had discovered that, on 19 November 1909, the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the churches had held a mass rally for the Congo at the Royal Albert Hall, and she determined that she would repeat that 100 years to the day later. On 19 November last year we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the great Congo demonstration, this time with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, who is deeply committed to the plight of the people of the DRC, officiating. Yet again the stories of the degradation of women and children were harrowing—the grandmother raped who did not make it to hospital; the four year-old girl raped who did and, thank God, survived.

From all that, there is a ray of hope. Eve Ensler, the celebrated author of “The Vagina Monologues”, told us of the City of Joy, a special facility being built by V-Day and UNICEF in partnership with the Panzi Hospital Foundation for the survivors of sexual violence. It will provide medical services, education, leadership skills, information on income generation and lessons in self-defence, and will train those women to become community activists. Most of all, the City of Joy will provide women and girls with a place to heal emotionally and to rebuild their lives, and then they will return to their homes to lead and mend those communities. The City of Joy opens on Monday—on International Women's Day—and I am sure that everyone in your Lordships’ House will wish it well.

That is a supreme example of women supporting women. Closer to home, many of us speaking in the debate have encouraged and mentored other women to play their part in political or business life. One of the things of which I am most proud is my time as vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for candidates. In a few weeks we will face a general election. Whatever the outcome of that election, my party will look and sound very different indeed. If the British people put their trust in us, and we win by just one seat, we will have around 60 women MPs, compared with the 18 we currently have.

I hope that I will be able to take a particular pleasure in some of the election results as I will remember the part I played in helping to persuade some remarkable and able women that my party really had changed and was serious about putting in place support and mentoring of women—alongside new ways of selecting candidates—which played to women’s strengths. But enlightened men have been vital in this journey; men such as my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith, who first tasked the party with looking more like the country it aspired to lead, and then my right honourable friend David Cameron, who took action immediately he became leader to promote candidate diversity.

With determined women and enlightened men there is hope that one day we will live in a world where women are valued and play their full and rightful part in politics and business. What a better world that would be.

My Lords, it is, indeed, a real privilege to respond to such a stimulating and wide-ranging debate.

I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, not just for tabling today’s Motion, but for her work over the years in raising the profile of these issues, particularly the importance of encouraging more women into public life: 1993 was indeed a vintage year for the House of Lords and I know that my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton would agree. She is not in her place today because she is at a meeting of the UN, discussing issues such as the new UN agency for women. The Commons’ loss is certainly the Lords’ gain.

The noble Baroness was today customarily generous in her comments. It is testament to the way in which we work in this place that we can be political but consensual on many issues. I also pay tribute to the large number of speeches we have heard today from men and women in which an extraordinarily wide diversity of issues were raised, and to the way in which they were raised.

However, I argue that although we have seen real progress on equality we know too that there is still a long way to go. In many societies, in many ways, including in our own, women still have very tough, demanding lives. As we recover from recession, those tough demands on women are continuing.

Next Monday we will celebrate International Women's Day—a time to think of women's achievements and reflect on our progress towards equality. I am certainly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and to my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden for giving a historical perspective and for demonstrating how far we have come. The noble Baroness mentioned Amy Williams and her great achievement in the Olympics. It is a fantastic achievement, but I draw noble Lords’ attention to the fact that in last Sunday’s Observer—the day after she had won her gold medal—I think that she was on page nine of the sports section, after many pages devoted to football.

I wish to touch on the international perspective of the issues before us. Progress on gender equality is a global aspiration. It is essential to the achievement of the eight millennium development goals agreed 10 years ago. While international development work has made significant differences to the lives of women and men, there is increased recognition that there is more to be done in progressing gender equality and women’s empowerment. Women’s economic participation and empowerment are key to supporting economic development and growth and are increasingly seen as a core aspect of work in developing countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, made a radical case, linking the economic and social success and well-being of developing countries with that of developed countries. She linked that to the participation of women at every level in those societies. I am certainly persuaded by that radical case. We should look much more closely at the arguments that she has made. These relate to the issues that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on the important issue of Resolution 1325. Like the noble Baroness, I am anxious to ensure that the resolution is properly implemented. She asked a raft of questions. I will reply in writing with pleasure and will place a copy in the Library of the House.

The UK Government, through the Department for International Development, have committed themselves to strengthened efforts to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment—goal three of the MDGs—across all our work alongside donor partners. Gender discrimination and inequality impede progress against all the MDGs, including improved maternal health and universal primary education. The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, reminded us of the importance of MDG 5 on the improvement of maternal health and the work of the White Ribbon Alliance to promote maternal health. Population development and reproductive health are inextricably linked.

Like many others, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Rendell of Babergh on her tireless work to raise awareness about the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. I have watched the DVD she mentioned. It is deeply distressing but also in a funny way uplifting because it shows that the quality of life of some of these women whose lives have been blighted can be improved. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, also spoke of the tragedy of the number of women who die every minute as a result of poor maternal health.

I am glad to reassure my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen that we are firmly committed to support for reproductive and sexual health in this country as well as in developing countries. My noble friend Lady Gibson of Market Rasen drew our attention to the progress being made by women in Bolivia. We celebrate their achievements and those of Irma Torres in Mexico. Pro Mujer is clearly an excellent organisation and a fine example of social entrepreneurship. As many noble Lords have mentioned today, Bangladesh is an outstanding example of what can be done. My noble friend Lady Goudie brought this issue home when she spoke of the need for more microfinance in, for example, Northern Ireland and the role that women can play.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, drew attention to health issues in developing countries that specifically affect women. I was ignorant until today about the link to blindness. I will certainly make sure that I know much more about that.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and others spoke of the role of women in educating and influencing their families. My noble friend Lord Parekh linked education to the UN human development index. That is precisely why MDG 2—to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education—is so important. I am informed that this goal of achieving parity in primary school enrolment between boys and girls will be achieved in 2015 everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa. That is why this Government have prioritised girls’ education especially in Africa; for instance, with our support of the United Nations Children’s Fund girls education project where we have increased enrolment between 10 and 15 per cent across six states in northern Nigeria. That is certainly something to celebrate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, also spoke on education, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote. I agree with the noble Baroness that by educating girls we change cultures and societies and I can confirm that this will remain a priority for DfID. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, Because I am a girl is an excellent report. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, provided us with evidence of the profound impact that education has on many issues, including women’s participation in democracy. We should be mindful of that and also the role that women play in countries such as Rwanda, as my noble friend Lady Gale mentioned.

Just last month, on 3 February, my right honourable friend Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, co-hosted in Cadiz with the Spanish EU presidency the biggest ever European gathering of European women Ministers. The joint declaration from this meeting called for a more balanced representation in public life and the removal of obstacles which prevent the full participation of women in all areas of society and their access and progression in decision-making positions, thus contributing to a fairer, more equal, inclusive and successful society. These are fine words and fine aims, and they are at the heart of what we are discussing today, but we need more fine action.

On parliamentary participation, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, was right that we need more women to come forward as candidates and more women on selection bodies. She was right also that women would be more attracted by parliamentary life if there was a better understanding of MPs’ roles in the round and they did not see just PMQs every week—not that PMQs are a bad thing, but there is much more to parliamentary life.

This debate comes at a particularly opportune moment. We have seen in recent days and weeks considerable focus in the media and elsewhere on “feminism—40 years on”. Consideration has been given to how far and in what ways equality has progressed over the decades. Although we still have some way to go in achieving the goals of the Equal Pay Act of just 40 years ago, the Act was a real step forward in women’s fundamental rights and in recognising the value of women’s role in the economy.

Forty years ago, things were very different, as many have said. Jobs were advertised as for men only and with differential salaries for men and women—there are still differential salaries, but they are not advertised these days. If you got married and had children, you could be fired. Women were not allowed on the floor of the Stock Exchange. Working married women still had to have their tax returns signed by their husbands.

Today, we are in a very different place. Women now make up almost 46 per cent of the economically active population. However, they still face barriers to progress in the workplace, particularly when they combine work and family responsibilities. As the Women and Work Commission, chaired by my noble friend Lady Prosser, emphasised again last year in its second report, we are still far from seeing a level playing field for women and men in our labour market.

We are committed to tackling this. The women’s employment strategy, Working towards Equality, which we published last month, sets out how the range of actions we are taking to respond to the current economic challenges will address the specific needs of women and help to ensure that our labour market offers women genuine choices, equal opportunities and career structures which enable them to progress and fulfil their potential. This is not just fair to women; it is an economic necessity. As we recover from the global recession, we need to draw on all the available talents to increase our productivity and give our economy a competitive advantage. 

Key aims of the new strategy, therefore, are to build a labour market where being a woman, a parent or a carer is not a barrier to opportunity or success in the labour market. Following recommendations from the Women and Work Commission, the strategy contained new commitments, including a new equality strategy for education to address gender stereotyping in education and career guidance—mentioned by several noble Lords—and increasing the amount of employment and enterprise support provided to parents in and around their child’s school through the school gates employment support initiative, operating in 25 local authority areas. We will also consider and act on the report of the Family Friendly Working Hours Taskforce, set up last year. The taskforce brings together high-profile employers, organisations that act on behalf of businesses and employees, and key government departments to look at improving the availability and quality of family-friendly working practices.

However, this is not just about family-friendly working practices; it is also about things such as public transport. Just this morning, I heard on the radio a young woman called Kathy from the Forest of Dean, where I happen to live. She spoke about the barriers presented by the paucity of bus services to her being able to further her education or find employment. We have to think about these things holistically.

If we want to see how far women still have to go on the road to equality, we have only to look at women’s representation on the boards of our major companies, as so many noble Lords have said. However, I do not think that I shall enter the discussion about women bishops at this stage. Evidence shows that, whether in the private or public sector, boards that have a diverse mix of people and talent make better decisions. We are therefore keen to work with business leaders to find a business-led solution to improving diversity on private sector boards. I can assure my noble friend Lady Prosser that I will strongly pursue her suggestion of a couple of weeks ago on exemplar companies. My noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch is leading discussions with company chairs and nomination committee members about the need for boards to have the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience. The Government Equalities Office is also hosting an event with the CBI on 25 March to focus on this issue, and will shortly launch a new guide for businesses to signpost them to programmes and services aimed at supporting women into senior and board-level positions. As suggested by my noble friend Lord Haskel, I will certainly send a copy of this debate to the Financial Reporting Council for consideration as part of its consultation.

The Government need to lead by example on this. Looking at the latest available figures, just under a third of public appointments are currently held by women. This is simply not good enough, so we are putting in place a programme of support to help us achieve our target for government departments to achieve a 50 per cent men-women balance in all new public appointments by 2011. I was shocked to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that only 18.5 per cent of members of Select Committees are women. I very much hope that the changes mentioned in the other place about the selection and membership of committees will have a positive effect. We should also look at what we do in this House.

If we want to achieve the goals of enabling women to participate fully in the labour market and achieve equal representation in the most senior positions, we need to look at the real barriers which women face in balancing work and home life. Women are still the primary carers of children in our society and also provide much of the adult care—looking after elderly and disabled relatives. Women are supreme jugglers. For many women, working part-time or flexibly is a good option for them to achieve a balance between caring and social work.

However, much of the part-time work available to women is low-skill, low-paid and concentrated in clerical, catering, cashiering, cleaning and caring jobs. Often the kind of work that women do is invisible and goes unnoticed, but if it was not done society would fall apart. One problem is that we do not place enough value on much of the work traditionally done by women, especially in the caring professions. I pay tribute to the many women working in this House who are largely unseen—the housekeepers—who do a very splendid job.

Women should not be held back and their career potentially limited unnecessarily by their caring responsibilities. That is why the Government have taken a raft of initiatives.

Before I conclude, domestic violence was referred to by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton. Many people are rightly concerned that when people are under pressure because of economic hardship, domestic violence may increase. We cannot say that we have achieved our goals for equality for women when this serious crime still claims the lives of up to two women a week. However, I am pleased to note that the most recent statistics published last July show that there was a 65 per cent decline in the incidence of domestic violence between 1995 and 2008-09. That has happened thanks to many of the initiatives mentioned by the noble Baroness. But there is no room for complacency. Last November we published a cross-government strategy, Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls, which sets out how we will progress our work to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls, including domestic violence. The noble Baroness also drew our attention to the dreadful phenomenon of violence used by young men against girls. Our strategy builds on the initiatives over the past decade, including the cross-government national domestic violence delivery plan, which has made a real difference in supporting victims and holding offenders to account. As the noble Baroness said, we should all be active on International Women’s Day, and on that day I, with the Mayor of London, will be raising these issues about domestic violence. I hope that other people will be taking part in other awareness-raising meetings and so on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke about domestic violence in some developing countries, including Malawi. The Government are collaborating with the Government of Malawi, with their civil society organisations and with the United Nations Children's Fund to develop a comprehensive national plan in response to gender-based violence in schools.

The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, rightly drew our attention to the issue of women in detention. The news coming out of Yarl’s Wood is disturbing, and it is important that the voices of these women are heard. But the picture is not as bleak as it is painted by some women. For example, it is wrong to say that women are starving. I will write to the noble Baroness and put a copy of my letter in the Library.

This country is now emerging from recession. The recovery is fragile and we must do all we can to ensure a sustainable return to growth. Part of that will be an increase in employment and a fall in unemployment. An increase in jobs for women will be an essential part of that. For women as well as men, returning to growth and regaining employment levels will be a tough path. The battle to secure the recovery will be hard fought, but it is essential for the economy and for equality.

In conclusion, this has been an excellent debate, and one that really counts. Promoting gender equality and women's empowerment matters because it affects all levels of society. It affects individuals because we want women to fulfil their potential and achieve their aspirations. It affects the economy because we want a strong economy that can draw on all available talent. It affects society as a whole because we want an equal society in which oppression is turned into opportunity; a society that is cohesive and in which everyone has a fair chance; a society where equality is not an objective to be striven for, but the norm. That is the way all of us, women and men, want to live our lives.

My Lords, something has happened to my voice. First, I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate today, particularly because all but the Front-Benchers were limited to five minutes. In those five minutes, we got so much varied information that made the debate worthwhile. I ask noble Lords to forgive me if I do not mention them by name: I am cutting down my remarks because my voice has gone funny. This upsets me terribly, because I have written down all the nice remarks I meant to make. However, I assure the House that I will contact all noble Lords about whom I have something to say—that is, all noble Lords who have spoken—in the next few days, so that they will know how much I appreciated what they said. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, and the Leader of the House for thanking all noble Lords and commenting on all the wonderful things that were said from all sides of the House. Not everybody was mentioned, although they all deserved it.

Today's debate has been excellent. It was not down to me: I tried to do as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I am not sure whether I managed it, but I did my best. What came from the Floor was terrific. There were things that I did not expect to hear: it was all first class. Even hearing about cows was very interesting. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.