Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, known as CSW, first met in 1947, soon after the founding of the UN. Its work forms a close and long-standing relationship with a number of NGOs and civil society, and it advises the UN Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC. Throughout its history, CSW has been supported by various UN bodies. In 2011, all these bodies—DAW, INSTRAW, OSAGI and UNIFEM—merged to become UN Women. This now functions as the secretariat to CSW and, thankfully, is much less of a mouthful to pronounce.
From its inception, CSW forged new ground in its global assessment of the status of women and helped to draft the early conventions on women’s rights, including those on political rights, marriage and equal pay. The 1960s saw CSW draft the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: CEDAW. However, it was not until 1972, CSW’s 25th year, that it held its first World Conference on Women. For the past seven years, I have attended CSW as a delegate—as an NGO delegate and this year as a parliamentary representative—and it is this experience that prompted me to table this debate.
CSW is the second-largest meeting of the year held at the UN. This year, 6,000 delegates from around 850 organisations from all over the world registered. While sometimes referred to as the “Davos of Women”, unlike Davos it is hardly ever mentioned in the UK press and is little known to members of the general public. Each year, the conference is structured around a central theme, with a review theme also considered. Draft conclusions on the theme are published in advance and are then negotiated during the conference, hopefully culminating in agreed conclusions. I say “hopefully” because, two years ago, conclusions were not reached. This was somewhat of a wake-up call and an issue I will return to later.
UN Women is mainly funded by voluntary contributions from countries. I am pleased to say that the UK has so far funded UN Women to the tune of more than $10 million this year, the fourth-largest core contribution to date. Contributions are also raised by UN Women’s national committees and, last year, the UK committee sent an additional $66,020. Although unheard of by the wider public, CSW is well represented from the UK. This year, over 80 representatives from civil society and NGOs attended, as well as three Ministers and parliamentary representatives. I should like to put on the record the huge value and import of the work put in to support the UK at CSW by the UK Gender and Equalities Office—the GEO—so ably led by Helene Reardon-Bond. One of its roles is to liaise with civil society, and its work for CSW starts months before, when it convenes stakeholders to consult them on the theme.
Preparatory work is done in advance not only by the Government but also by the NGOs. For the past two years, there has been a UK NGO CSW Alliance convened by NAWO. The alliance, the INGOs and others send in briefings and also comment on the CSW draft conclusions, so the Government are very aware of the views of UK civil society. Once at CSW, the UK NGOs are the envy of the NGOs from other countries because of their relationship with the Government. A meeting is convened most evenings at the UK mission during the first week to brief delegates. We are very lucky in this country not only to have a Government who put so much work into CSW, but also to have such a committed civil society. I thank all those government officials for the effort they put in to try to ensure the best outcome from CSW, and also the NGOs which play such a sterling role, including backing up the negotiations by lobbying member states. Without doubt, it is of immense value to have an annual UN conference in the pursuit of gender equality. CSW has been a pioneer in influencing positive changes internationally.
This year’s conference was focused on the post-MDG agenda. Not only were significant issues not in the original MDGs, such as violence against women, highlighted, but the agreed conclusions also endorsed the imperative need for a stand-alone gender target and for gender to be mainstreamed. The issue of unpaid care work, first raised at CSW, now appears in the working document of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. So CSW continues to play an important and vital role in pushing for gender equality.
However, I cannot help but feel that in these times CSW misses opportunities and could achieve so much more. My experience as a delegate is of a conference of two halves. While in the UN building member states are making their statements on achievements in their countries, across the road, in Church House, the NGOs are holding meetings which, in some cases, challenge their Governments’ assertions. There is very little interaction between the two. Perhaps more global progress could be made if there were more opportunity for transparent and informed discussions between the Governments and their civil society delegates.
When CSW took place this March, the headlines were full of crises in Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt, yet the CSW failed to make any statement on these issues or to highlight the horrific plight experienced by women in those countries: women being raped in Syria; refugees fleeing with their children; and the terrible fear of women in Afghanistan as the West withdraws its troops. Some might even go as far as to say that this was a failure to speak up. We cannot truly seek long-lasting and positive changes in gender equality in isolation of global events. A statement from CSW, supported by 6,000 women from around the world, would have had some clout.
It is a sad indictment of our times that the call for a fifth women’s world conference has faded away, not due to lack of interest but, rather, out of concern that, in recent years, there has been such a struggle to maintain the language of the last one, the almost 20 year-old Beijing Platform for Action.
I mentioned that two years ago there was a failure to reach conclusions. This had a domino effect throughout UN language and other agreements that look to CSW. Every year, basic rights that we here take for granted and are the cornerstone on which to build gender equality—especially sexual and reproductive rights—come under fire and a huge effort has to be made by activists at CSW just to hold the line, rather than progressing debate and action. For example, issues such as intimate partner violence are not addressed, because fundamentalists feel that to include this language is to condone relationships outside marriage. But IPV is a sad reality of our times and we need to be able to ensure that the expert voices at CSW are able to be loudly raised in the negotiations.
So I feel that I must ask your Lordships whether you think that CSW could be more effective. Can the Minister please inform me whether assessment has been made of its impact, nationally and internationally? How can we make the work and outcomes of CSW more accessible to wider audiences, those outside our CSW geeks, who do not fully understand how the sometimes dry language in the outcome reports can relate to them and what it means in practice? Surely, raising awareness should be a major outcome of CSW. Statements on burning topical issues would make headline news around the world and perhaps contribute to getting countries to campaign to stop some of the abuse.
We should be enormously thankful to have a global UN conference for women. Indeed, it is vital. I have said before that I am hugely grateful to the Government for all their diligent work for CSW. However, the present CSW structure seems to offer little room for swift movability and flexibility. From time to time, most institutions benefit from a little restructuring and a fresh approach. As David Cameron said in January, Britain is “leading the charge” to promote equality for women around the world and our Government should be applauded for all that they are doing. Following the enormous success of last month’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the wonderful Girl Summit today, together with the wider work the UK is leading on to end violence and gender inequality, would this not be a good opportunity for the UK—one of the key financial supporters and core members—to work with other founders to make CSW more effective and its impact felt more forcefully at national, European and global levels?
I thank noble Lords for giving me this opportunity to raise the issue of CSW today and I am looking forward to hearing contributions from those taking part and the response from my noble friend the Minister.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for her stirring and powerful speech on the UN Commission on the Status of Women and work arising therefrom. I am pleased and reassured today to learn of Her Majesty’s Government’s new determination to tackle the double trauma of female genital mutilation and of forced, underage marriage for girls.
The Birmingham Trojan horse report, which your Lordships’ House received this afternoon, brings both crimes against young females inside the orbit of a narrow band of extremely restrictive Islam. Undoubtedly, from the evidence so painfully experienced, the cruel actions that result from forced marriage and FGM can—and do—claim that Islam’s teaching provides full justification for these brutal practices on helpless children. Indeed, the claim is regularly made that Islam not only authorises but demands them. Evidence of the strength of this view in some Muslim countries is easy to come by. Under the immediate past Egyptian President Morsi, ambulances with cutters roamed the streets, loud-hailing families to “bring out your girls”. Under Morsi’s brief reign the percentage of girls under five who were assaulted by bloodstained adults and had their genitalia sliced away without anaesthetic rose from 83% to over 90%.
Where is the verse in the Holy Koran that dictates such bloody and continuing sacrifice to Allah? It cannot be found, for it does not exist. What of the Hadith? Compiled some 400 years after the founding of Islam, the Hadith offers further Koranic interpretation, but there is no mention there, either, of child marriage or female genital mutilation. Therefore we must deepen the search and track back easily the FGM genesis from its common name; it is known as the “pharaonic practice”. There we have it—this was an ancient Egyptian custom, which perhaps predated even the union of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3000 BC or so. Therefore the evil that we tackle today is theologically unconnected with Islam or with any true Muslim practice. Instead, it is a vicious torture practised by certain societies to dominate their women by the use of carefully targeted and deliberately inflicted bitter and lifelong pain.
By no means all Islamic countries practice FGM. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a country I know well, allows none of it, and nor does her neighbour, Iraq. The pharaonic practice failed to spread far in the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf, but its proponents from Egypt and parts of the neighbouring countries have successfully brought it to western nations, including —to our great shame—the United Kingdom. Today, our Government declared their wish to eliminate those practices from the British Isles, and from the globe, but how best to tackle FGM and its unhappy sister, forced marriage at an early age? A further horror to add to make up the trilogy of hatred for women is the concept of honour killing—another misery for young girls to fear and suffer. So there is much to do.
My own findings on tackling successfully these unhappy issues come from my grass-roots experience around the world. Small achievements led to my setting up and working through the AMAR International Charitable Foundation and Asociatia Children’s High Level Group. AMAR is a large charity that works exclusively in the Muslim world; Asociatia Children’s High Level Group is a smaller NGO that tackles the same problem of exclusion in the very different Christian Orthodox settings of central and eastern Europe. There, inside the boundaries of the European Union, a section of society persistently practices marriage of underage children, most often to older men, which it claims is an ingrained custom that will not be denied.
These practices are neither Christian nor Muslim. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes that plain. All nations have signed and almost all ratified or incorporated that most powerful of all UN conventions. Those community leaders who insist on child marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation can now be persuaded, through an understanding of the convention’s articles, that their customs are outdated, irrelevant and destructive of the very same communities that they lead.
For example, the AMAR Foundation, which I chair, has worked in the Mesopotamian marshes, serving the marsh tribes, for 23 years now and continues to do so. Historically, the people of the marshes have carried out a small number of honour killings every year. As they track their ancestry to Sumerian times, the numbers of dead young people mount dramatically. By careful persuasion, explanation and teaching by AMAR staff over some years, these tribal leaders have discarded honour killings completely. In place of the blood revenge for the stain on family honour, AMAR and the tribal leaders have created a new deal of water buffalo, clothes and food—a huge achievement that the 300,000 tribal people highly appreciate.
AMAR has approximately 2,000 staff and works through capacity and institution-building in health and education across Iraq, from north to south and east to west. AMAR works in close partnership with central and local government in the KRG region. It now additionally serves the recently internally displaced people from Mosul and refugees from Syria, giving a catchment area of those whom AMAR cares for in the millions.
Some years ago, the AMAR teams planned and began work on gender-based violence. This great programme started in the Kurdistan Regional Government area in the north and is now countrywide. It successfully combats gender-based violence throughout Iraq by promoting a cultural discourse on gender. The programme provides protection against gender-based violence through support, training, outreach and publicity. AMAR professional staff give direct and social assistance to GBV victims through eight special centres in seven of Iraq’s 18 governorates. Through the creation of special GBV training workshops, AMAR’s team has now trained 1,000 police and 109 local NGO staff.
In-house lawyers have referred and handled nearly 2,000 cases of GBV, and thousands of students and schoolchildren, their teachers and professors are trained each month. By March this year, nearly 7,000 school classes, 3,000 classes in universities and 5,500 public workshops had been successfully delivered. There was continuing publicity of this groundbreaking two-year project through mainstream media and through the production and distribution of a monthly bulletin. These are the practical, core building blocks that I recommend for the creation of an enlightened society that does not inflict cruel and inhumane punishments on defenceless children and powerless women in imagined retribution for the ill luck that is assumed to have created the community’s poverty, alienation and distress.
The GBV programme’s focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality is matched by AMAR’s other projects for women across the nation. A network of 500 AMAR women health visitors visit more than 3,000 families each month as a part of the foundation’s comprehensive women and reproductive health programmes, which are carried out through 50 primary health centres in six governorates. The human rights and rule of law programme gives thousands of women key knowledge of basic rights and helps them use them. All this work meets the professional standards of the WHO and UNESCO, and is based on the UN conventions that today’s conference here in London, led by UNESCO and supported by Her Majesty’s Government, demonstrates so well. AMAR’s work takes place in the Islamic world with mainly Muslim professional staff, giving the lie to claims that the abuse of women is an Islamic requirement.
I strongly support our Government’s initiatives on gender-based violence, on female genital mutilation and on arranged marriages. I know that they will succeed. We in the AMAR Foundation stand ready to share our deep and powerful experience, which is succeeding.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, particularly when, as the only male Peer to be speaking, I am in the company of such distinguished noble Baronesses. Yesterday, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone, what I should speak about. In her usual forthright and direct way, she said, “Speak about men”. When I first met her when she was Secretary of State for Health, that was how she dealt with me then too. It is a pleasure to see her.
I was delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, speak about her experiences on the CSW. It was informative but I was disappointed to hear that she felt that the CSW could do more than it had been doing. Having read the annual reports, including the most recent one, my impression has always been that the CSW was the driving force behind making sure that the MDGs progressed and achieved the outcomes described. I always believed that it was the CSW that made that happen, and I hope that that is the case.
As we have already heard, today in London we have had the Girl Summit, supported by UNICEF. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister both made speeches on the elimination of FGM in our generation. The summit also addressed child marriages. We all know that female genital mutilation is violence against girls. It is child abuse.
I am going to speak about some of these issues but in the context of some of the millennium development goals. I shall reflect on the meetings that I recently had with some remarkable women in Africa and in this country. The story I am going to tell your Lordships about concerns a young lady whose name is Talanesh. I am involved with a charity in which I work to set up centres for the management of women with fistulas and to provide training for local doctors and nurses, teaching them how to repair fistulas to relieve women’s suffering.
Talanesh’s story—I saw her recently—is that at the age of 12 she was betrothed to a much older man. At the age of 13 she was married. At the age of 15 she became pregnant. She had a long labour lasting four days in a remote part of a mountainous region, and she delivered a dead baby. She was relieved because her pain and suffering had ended. Little did she know that two days later she would discover that she was wet all the time. She realised that something was wrong. She smelt, and her husband left. Her parents took her back but, because she smelt, she could not stay in their small hut, so she stayed in a separate one. Years later, the family discovered that it might be possible for her to be treated. They undertook a four-day walk—all this is absolutely true—to reach a hospital, where she was looked after and her fistula was repaired. She is now dry and has her dignity back.
Two million young girls are affected in this way. They are married early in their childhood when their pelvis is not developed. They become pregnant at a very young age and are lucky not to die in obstructed labour, but they end up with fistulas—sometimes double fistulas—and the tragedy is enormous. Some of them have had female genital mutilation carried out, which produces further problems in pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, 250 million are married under the age of 15. Michelle Bachalet has called child marriage a violation of a girl’s human rights. It halts education and produces the health risks that I have just described. If we end child marriage by 2030, it will make it easier to deliver six of the eight millennium development goals.
The second lady I met was called Leymah Gbowee. Most noble Lords will probably have heard of her. She is Liberian and in 2011 she was the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to stop the second violent war in Liberia. In the context of rape and violence, she was once asked to speak in Libya. She thought that she would be making the speech to women but found that 98% of the audience consisted of men, so she changed her speech. Her key topics were: acknowledge that there is inequality; help to promote working partnerships; and protect the victims of violence and rape. She told me that she suggested that women who were raped and then had a child ought to have legislation allowing them to choose the name of the father on the birth certificate, otherwise the child would not have a father’s name. I understand that Libya is the only country that has such legislation.
She told me something else that was very interesting. She saw rape and violence in a conflict situation as merely an extension of the violence, with a greater brutality because of the presence of weapons and the hype related to war that legitimised greater brutality. It was the same violence against women that existed in normal life outside of war. I thought that that was very telling. She made that speech in London.
However, there are other gender inequalities. I went to a school recently on the same visit when I met Talanesh in Africa. I was bitten badly by tsetse flies. I hope that none of them will infect me, but if noble Lords notice me dozing off it is a sleeping sickness. The school I visited was a secondary school. I thought that it was a boys’ school. It was a mixed school—I saw some girls afterwards—but because it was a secondary school there were very few girls there. I was told that they mostly leave after primary school. That is the problem. They have to pay a small fee, so the parents decide that they cannot afford it. Primary education is free but secondary education costs a small fee. We have to address that issue in the aid that we give, particularly as we will now have a law in this country that all our aid should be based on gender equality. We should promote gender equality in education, too
I believe that the UN report is right. The indicators monitoring the outcomes of MDGs are not desegregated by sex and other factors providing information about the situation of women and girls, so it is not possible to say whether gender inequality is being properly addressed. I hope that we will promote that. I also hope that the next goal, beyond 2005, will be a stand-alone one on gender equality underpinning all other goals. I hope that the Government will support that.
My Lords, I am honoured to follow the noble Lord, with whom I have worked over many years. He may be male but no one can say he is stale or pale, and on that basis he is welcome as part of the debate. He was, of course, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists during the time I was in government, and we all welcome his enlightened and practical approach. I also commend his work as chancellor of the University of Dundee; I shall say a little more in a moment about Hull, where I am the chancellor. I also warmly congratulate my noble friend on raising this critically important subject.
I feel as though my lifetime has coincided with the Commission on the Status of Women, as it was started a year before I was born—my birthday is in March. I remember only too well when we finally got the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the International Women’s Year in 1975, when I was a magistrate and working in a poor area in south-east London; and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The CSW is also about the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. It is about participation and leadership at all levels and the encouragement of women and girls in education, training, science and technology. It is not only about an element of prohibition but a sense of promotion.
It was well said that, in many ways, last week was a great week for women, with the reshuffle and a remarkable number of women joining the Cabinet. For the first time we have a woman Leader and a woman Chief Whip in the House of Lords, and any number of other appointments over the last year which quite took me aback. We have Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve in the US, the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Time and again, we have had female firsts. That is a cause for celebration but it certainly is not sufficient.
When we look at the evidence of what is happening around the world we are witnessing extraordinary polarities. In the UK, as in the US and Hong Kong, female life expectancy is now 82 and has virtually doubled in 150 years. It is quite extraordinary what has happened to women and their health and well-being in the UK. However, in Sierra Leone, the Congo and Swaziland, women’s life expectancy is under 50 or hovering around 50. There is an appalling and unsustainable gap.
There is a similar picture with maternal mortality. In the UK, something like eight women die out of 100,000 live births. The figure in Sierra Leone is what it was in the UK 300 years ago—1,100 out of every 100,000 births are fatal—and the figure is only slightly lower in Chad, the Central African Republic and Somalia. In Sudan, the Congo and Côte d’Ivoire, the figures for women dying in childbirth are the same as they were in the UK 200 years ago. The issue of female health and reproductive medicine is extraordinarily serious and particularly intolerable as the disparities in different parts of the world are so strong. It is a similar story with perinatal mortality rates. Fortunately, in the UK it is very rare now for a child to die at birth, about eight out of 1,000, but it is five times that figure in Pakistan and many other countries. We cannot be confident until we have tackled those issues.
Much of this, of course, goes back to literacy. I remember long ago when I was PPS to my noble friend Lord Patten, when he was the Minister for Overseas Development. I commend particularly the work of many women who have held that job. The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, was at ODA, as was Clare Short, and now we have Justine Greening. Women in that role can make a particularly powerful contribution. Whereas in the West 100% female literacy is expected, in Afghanistan it is 12%, in Niger 15% and South Sudan 16%.
This refers back to the noble Lord’s point about schooling. One of the millennium development goals is to achieve universal primary education. In Uganda, the number of girls getting to the last grade of primary education is one in four—25%—while in Angola it is 27%, in Mozambique 29% and in Ethiopia 42%. In many countries, fewer than 50% of the girls get through to the last grade of primary school. This is an extraordinarily serious issue. Taking up the comments of my noble friend when she opened the debate, I believe that these are specific, practical issues which must be addressed. They cannot be avoided or ducked.
I return to the issue of evidence. I feel very privileged to be involved in the University of Hull, and of course William Wilberforce was born in Hull. During his pioneering work on the abolition of slavery, he said, rather wonderfully, that:
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”.
We must address this, not only in this House but at the UN. We cannot say we did not know. We do know these facts and this evidence. Amusingly, William Wilberforce was highly criticised by some other humanitarians at the end of the 18th century. Elizabeth Heyrick and others regarded him as extremely unenlightened about the role of women and not very interested in the issue of poverty at the time. However, such is the way of social reform.
At the University of Hull, there is a particularly impressive centre for gender studies. It was the first UK university to have a mainstream department for the subject, building on the legacy of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, which has recently developed a slavery index, suggesting that there are still 29 million in slavery in the world, so many of whom are female. The work at the centre, particularly that led by the most impressive Dr Suzanne Clisby, suggests that the evidence on abuse against women is still far from reliable. There has been a survey of 42,000 women across the EU and the evidence of self-reported, compared to reported, violence is hugely different. Until we can have reliable and accurate information, we cannot seriously develop effective programmes.
Apart from the issues in Europe, there are still harrowing situations in different parts of the world. In Haiti, there is an appalling situation where many of the older women lure children and young girls into people trafficking. Because they are older, grandmotherly types, the girls often feel they can trust them. Families give up their girls and young women into slavery, believing this will lead to a better life. In Mauritania in west Africa, there is deeply entrenched hereditary slavery and child marriage and human trafficking are a particular burden on women. In Pakistan, there is a very serious situation of slavery and exploitation of women. Another research project conducted by the University of Hull in Bangladesh concerned women on construction sites carrying rubble, cement and bricks to earn money. They are then cast out by the community because they are changing the norms of purdah. They are vulnerable to exploitation, and sexual difficulties are only too evident.
Finally—this relates to the noble Lord’s point about children in school—some work in Ghana is trying to avoid gender-based violence prevalent in the secondary schools there, where girls are often raped and abused both by male staff and by male pupils. They have to drop out of school because of pregnancy or shame or have to walk long distances to school, again being picked up by predatory men. There are schools where there are very few toilet facilities where the girls can have any privacy.
The situation around the world is extraordinarily ambiguous. I always take India as an example, where there is a 65% female literacy rate but, unlike anywhere else in the world, in India there are 10 female chief executives of banks, which is quite extraordinary. It is that contradiction that makes it all the more difficult for the international institutions to provide coherent programmes.
My noble friend talked about raising the status of CSW. She talked about NGOs, civil society and Governments. I believe that to achieve change in the world there is a very potent force that can be used to hugely positive effect, and that is the role of business. The global brands take the issues of corporate social responsibility, avoiding female exploitation, developing female health facilities and encouraging literacy in enlightened workplaces extremely seriously. If you talk to the people at Standard Chartered, Tesco, BT, BAT or Coca-Cola—many, many businesses—they can be a far greater force for good in many of the countries facing the most difficult circumstances than can their Governments, with all the difficulties that they face.
I warmly congratulate my noble friend and, like others, I am pleased about progress so far, but we are left with a vast amount more to do before the women of this world can live to have the expectations that they rightly deserve.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap.
As we are all aware, this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women focused on the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs for women and girls. I wish to draw attention to its conclusions that relate to the progress towards MDG5, which is improving maternal health, and its two targets, which are reducing maternal mortality and achieving universal access to reproductive health. Work towards this goal and its targets has been particularly slow and uneven, especially for the poorest and rural sectors of the population within and across countries.
The number of preventable maternal deaths continues to be unacceptably high and adolescent girls face higher risks. Up to 343,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth or soon afterwards, the majority of them in Africa and south Asia. Every minute of every day, somewhere in the world a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; 99% of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, making maternal mortality the health statistic with the largest disparity between developed and developing countries. For every woman who dies, at least 20 more suffer complications that leave them with lifelong disability and pain. Most of these deaths, disability and long-term illnesses are preventable.
The APPG on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, of which I am a member, produced a report in May 2009 entitled Better Off Dead?, which highlighted the devastating suffering and injury following childbirth that leaves women isolated, frequently abandoned by their husbands and excluded from economic and social life as a direct result of pregnancy and childbirth—as was so well described by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. As many as 215 million women in the developing world want to delay or avoid pregnancy but do not have access to modern family planning methods.
Increasing access to modern family planning could prevent up to 30% of all maternal deaths and 20% of newborn deaths. The risk of a woman dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth is about one in 30,000 in Sweden and about one in six in Afghanistan. Worldwide, as many as 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and 25% are unwanted. The unwanted pregnancies occur disproportionately among young, unmarried girls who lack access to contraception. Unless women and girls’ family planning needs are addressed, gender equality, the empowerment of women and the realisation of the human rights of women and girls cannot be achieved.
I congratulate our Government on hosting today’s landmark Girl Summit. I am proud to be a board member of UNICEF UK, which co-hosted the event. The aim is to end female genital mutilation—cutting—and child or forced marriages, which have been neglected issues for too long. Home Secretary Theresa May and International Development Secretary Justine Greening have together led today’s summit, alongside heads of state, survivors and charities.
In England and Wales, an estimated 66,000 women are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation—an illegal cultural practice where girls’ genitalia are cut—with more than 20,000 in this country at risk every year. I am delighted that the Government have announced measures on how we can change this here.
I was very pleased to attend this afternoon’s session and was impressed by the tremendous commitment and energy from so many enthusiastic, passionate young people determined to eradicate this barbaric practice. If that energy, enthusiasm, passion and commitment could be bottled, many of today’s global problems really would be a thing of the past. If these young women stay involved, maintain their passion and go on to lead their countries, the world has a brighter future than it seems to today.
As someone who has not attended the CSW, it may not be for me to criticise the fact that its work is not better known, when so clearly it should be. Better awareness would lead to higher impact. At a time when so many women are suffering in dreadful circumstances across the world, as described by noble Lords today, the CSW should be leading the way, shouting from the rooftops about the many and terrible injustices that are taking place. I hope that this debate, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lady Hodgson will help in some small way to encourage those decision-makers at the top to look again at its activities and see whether and how they could become more actively responsive to the many challenges women experience on a daily basis.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the subject of this debate and indeed on her speech. I followed with interest the discussions and debates that took place earlier this year at the Commission on the Status of Women. I am impressed indeed by its strong outcome. I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness as a delegate to it.
I suspect and imagine that there were some serious and frank discussions that took place at the time. Indeed, I have heard some accounts from the NGOs that were present. The document that resulted, for example, makes specific references to uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights; there was an agreement to eliminate harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, which, significantly, would in future not be referred to as “cutting”. There were also explicit references made to a woman’s right to access abortion services and for the development of sex education programmes for young women. And there was strong language around violence against women and girls. The document called for the elimination and prevention of violence and for the prosecution of perpetrators.
The Vatican was present at this convention and would certainly have much preferred that our fight against HIV/AIDS was done on the basis of abstention and not the use of condoms, but I am happy to say that its view did not prevail. The document also called on Governments to address discriminatory social practices, laws and beliefs that undermine gender equality. Efforts to weaken calls for increased funding were successfully resisted.
Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said:
“By committing and investing in efforts to promote gender equality, governments can unleash the power of half the world’s population to build a more peaceful, just, and sustainable planet”.
She went on to say:
“Agreement to a standalone goal on gender equality was not a foregone conclusion here, given the small, but very vocal conservative opposition to women’s rights. It’s a major step forward to have the commission agree to it”.
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy, added:
“The commitments made by governments at the UN are an important victory for women and girls. We have achieved what we came to do, against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women’s rights”.
We should be proud as a country that this Government—and indeed my own Government—have been leading the world in the fight against FGM and violence against women. I would like to congratulate the Government on the two summits that have taken place in the last month or so—today’s and the one about violence in conflict. Both of those are very, very important.
I think that it is a great shame, but expected, that any mention of sexual orientation was removed from the final text of these considerations, as was an acknowledgement of the diversity of families. I hope that the UK Government will continue to push for these issues at the CSW in future.
The Commission affirmed that gender equality, the empowerment of women, their enjoyment of their human rights and the eradication of poverty are essential to economic and social development, and reiterated the importance of women in the progress to deliver the millennium development goals, as the noble Baroness and other noble Lords said in this debate.
I want to turn to our domestic performance, because the subject of this debate is not just international policy but our national equality policies and what impact they have. What of the UK? What progress are we making and in which areas?
I looked at the Fawcett Society’s global gender gap report from last year. Unsurprisingly, as a privileged, developed western democracy and a rich country, we scored overall rather well: 18th out of 136 countries, although we have dropped from ninth in 2006. Where we fall down is in some of the gender gap indexes to do with matters such as economic participation, childcare and political empowerment. Those seem to be the areas which have to be addressed by the UK Government.
Out of the 136 countries, we rank 70th for the gap between men and women on the professional index. This reflects the lack of women in top jobs across the piece. We are 49th in terms of wages equality between men and women. On childcare, we are 90th. We know the reason for that and that the matters are linked—the level of women’s economic participation and the availability and cost of childcare in the UK. My honourable friend Lucy Powell today issued a notice about the cost of childcare as we head into the summer holidays. It is worth looking at that as an example of the situation that we face in the UK. The cost of holiday childcare has increased by 16% since 2010—that is an extra £100 per child for an ordinary family. The cost of private, voluntary and independent holiday provision has gone up four times faster than wages, and is greater than that in places such as London. It is a great shame that more help is not available for women and families with their childcare. Childcare help with tax credits has been reduced, with some families losing £1,500 per year of help.
I turn to political empowerment. We rank 59th for women in ministerial positions—that was last year, so the position may have changed slightly—and 54th for women in Parliament, 23% of our MPs being women. Sixteen per cent of those are Conservative women and 14% are Liberal Democrat women. Despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, it is a fact that 13 out 85 policy tsars appointed since 2010 are women. Less than a third of those appointed to sit on departmental boards in Whitehall are women; fewer than one in five ambassadors appointed since 2010 are women; and only around a quarter of the Permanent Secretaries are women. When David Cameron reshuffled his Cabinet last week, he increased the number of women in it from three to five. In 2011, the number of women in the Cabinet was five, so there has been no improvement in real terms. If one includes the women who can attend Cabinet, the figure increases from five to eight.
It seems to me that the Prime Minister contributed to hitting two out of the three equality indicators all on his own last week with his reshuffle. I put it to noble Lords: what would you say to the boss who appointed a woman to do a job that a man had been doing but paid her significantly less and downgraded the seniority of the position? Let us think about it for a moment, and transfer that action to Marks & Spencer or to some of the companies that the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned, or indeed to a new head of the United Nations. It is less than impressive and a slight on someone who does not deserve it and has acted only with dignity and grace throughout, but it tells us something about the mindset of the Prime Minister and his Government.
I wonder what the Minister thinks the UK’s ratings will be in these matters next year. Will the burden of childcare costs be lifted? Will the Government bring more pressure to bear on companies in relation to the lack of women at senior levels? Will they bring forward more transparency? Will we find more women Permanent Secretaries or ambassadors? And, although it is a bit late to do this, will the Conservative Party select more women in the safe seats? Indeed, will the Liberal Democrats do the same? Then we will be able to increase the number of women in our Parliament.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. Looking at the list of speakers, it is not the least bit surprising that it has been so well informed and interesting. I am pleased to be here to answer this Question for Short Debate on the Commission on the Status of Women, which I shall refer to as CSW, if noble Lords will excuse me. The UK Government are committed to improving the lives of women and girls both nationally and internationally, and prioritise the advancement of women’s rights.
The Prime Minister has called for a special focus in 2014 on ending violence and discrimination against women and girls. We have heard today about two excellent conferences that have been held in short order on those issues. It has been an aim of the Foreign Office to address the greatest challenge of the 21st century—women’s full political, economic and social participation. We work tirelessly at both national and international level to improve the rights of women everywhere, and our involvement at CSW is one way to do this.
CSW is the primary forum of the United Nations for promoting gender equality and the human rights of women and girls. As such, participating in its annual meeting allows the UK to display leadership in gender equality, to campaign for women’s rights on a global stage, and to use its outcomes to inform our national and international equality policies. Our strong commitment to CSW demonstrates our belief that it is a crucial element in the campaign for global equality. We send a strong delegation each year. My noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger attends regularly, and this year three Ministers attended—the Minister for Women and Equalities, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development. I know that it is already in the diary of the Minister for Women and Equalities for next year.
Another strength of CSW is the role that civil society plays. My noble friend Lady Hodgson made that clear during her speech. Civil society organisations from around the world attend CSW to represent their constituencies and lobby member states. In the UK we have a very good relationship with our NGOs. We meet them regularly in the run-up to CSW, including at ministerial level. This helps to inform our position and our negotiating objectives. At CSW it is wonderful to see civil society come together from around the world, with people sharing their stories, their plans and their aspirations. Thousands of women from around the world come together at CSW: our own NGOs are well represented, and many hundreds of women from the UK attend.
CSW is co-ordinated by UN Women. We are fully supportive of the work of UN Women and were, until recently, its largest donor. CSW provides an opportunity to encourage support for better representation of women in decision-making. In both the political and the economic sphere we all need to do more to ensure that women are involved in making the decisions that affect us all. That point was raised by my noble friend Lady Bottomley. CSW enables us to ensure that gender equality becomes a reality not just for the UK but for women everywhere.
To best respond to the question about what CSW’s impact on gender equality and the advancement of women is, we should remind ourselves what it is that CSW aims to do. In 1995, at the UN’s Fourth World Conference for Women, 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists arrived in Beijing to lend their voices and support to the campaign for gender equality. The UK and 188 other member states created the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which laid out a series of promises by Governments to work towards the eradication of inequality.
The platform for action remains one of the most comprehensive and forward-looking texts on gender equality, and its manifesto underpins the UK’s work on empowering women.
Since 1996, the main focus of the work of the CSW has been the follow-up to the platform for action. Its annual gathering allows Governments to share their progress and ideas on gender equality, learn good practice from each other and, crucially, allows progressive member states, including the UK, to display leadership and influence global policy on equality, helping women everywhere to live better lives.
CSW-agreed conclusions are set global norms and recommendations for action by governments and intergovernmental bodies. They provide a benchmark that can be used to support other international negotiations and agreements. For example, the UK drew on the agreed conclusions from CSW 57—the one held last year—to inform the recent WHO violence resolution and UN Human Rights Council resolutions. The conclusions are also used as a lobbying tool by civil society at both national and international level.
This year’s CSW focused on the achievements and challenges of the millennium development goals, and was an important opportunity for the UK to help to shape the post-2015 development agenda. I am delighted to be able to say that in the agreed conclusions CSW called for a post-2015 development goal on gender equality and for women’s rights to be mainstreamed across the post-2015 agenda. That strong outcome was achieved despite determined efforts from some countries to roll back previously agreed positions on women’s rights. We were successful in securing strong language on UK priorities, including ending violence against women and girls, economic empowerment, leadership and participation in decision-making, strengthened data collection and disaggregation by sex and age, and ending harmful practices, including child early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. That picks up on a point made by my noble friend Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne.
Next year, on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing platform for action, CSW will review Governments’ progress in fulfilling the promises made in the Beijing platform for action 20 years earlier in 1995. Moving to Beijing+20, member states are being called on to complete comprehensive national reports on their progress in the 12 critical areas for women identified in the Beijing platform for action.
The UK has today submitted its national report to UN Women, and we have some very good stories to tell on the progress that we have made in critical areas—particularly violence against women and women’s economic participation—but, guarding against complacency, the report has also shown that this is a good opportunity to identify where we need to do more to fulfil the promises that we made more than 20 years ago.
As noble Lords will be aware, 2015 also brings to a close the millennium development goals plan and marks the creation of a new strategy on global development. This is therefore a unique time to place the rights of women and girls at the heart of discussions on human development, and CSW has been an important means to achieve that. In 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action called for the eradication of gender inequality. Twenty years on, that document remains forward looking, because we have yet to achieve a world in which men and women are treated equally. CSW plays a crucial role in advancing the rights of women and girls everywhere.
I will take whatever time I have left quickly to address points raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, talked about reform of the CSW. We believe that the CSW could be made more effective. We are discussing with UN Women whether there is scope to reform the format of CSW to try to reduce combativeness and move away from entrenched positions.
My noble friend Lady Nicholson spoke about honour killings. The UK takes action to tackle honour killings both at home and abroad. We believe that challenging social norms requires long-term work with communities, working with men and boys as well as women and girls. We are supporting this work with communities at grass-roots level.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on joining this debate. I am sure that he was not at all out of place as the only noble Lord among us. I congratulate him on the work he has done on fistula. I have seen this in Zambia. A couple of years ago I was at a bush hospital where they were taking women in in their fourth and fifth month of pregnancy to try to help them through the pregnancy and minimise fistula. That work is progressing. We are training people in the UK, not in surgery, but just to do certain work in this area.
My noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone said that the empowerment of women is a key thread in the CSW. I do not think that anybody here would disagree with that but we need more third-world role models in this area. Perhaps the CSW needs to think about setting a challenge to first-world corporates working in the third world; perhaps we need to think about our own responsibility challenge and how that might be replicated elsewhere.
All noble Lords questioned the area of development. The UK is engaged in the development of the post-2015 development framework. We are clear that there must be a stand-alone goal on gender equality which will address many of the issues raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, threw down the glove on the political side of things. I was looking at women in political spheres, not in connection with this but with something else, and we are not doing too badly at local government level. On representation in the House of Commons, it is very much in the hands of political parties to ensure, as she says, that more women are selected to fight key seats and all major political parties are working their socks off to try to achieve that for the next general election. Looking at the pattern of appointments to your Lordships’ House since 1997, increasingly more women are selected with each tranche of new Peers.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington on getting in during the gap and on her enthusiasm and work with UNICEF, cohosting today’s Girl Summit.
This has been a fascinating debate. I have run out of time but the Government are certain that their support for UN Women and the Commission on the Status of Women are to be continued.
House adjourned at 10.08 pm.