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International Women’s Day

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 3 March 2022


Asked by

This year’s International Women’s Day global theme is “Break the Bias”, which encourages everyone to call out bias, smash stereotypes, break inequality and reject discrimination. The UK Government will showcase our leadership in supporting women and girls in the UK and around the world. Our key moment will be the launch of a new programme to support adolescent girls overseas with 21st-century skills to give them the knowledge and qualifications they need for employment and enterprise. The Government will also make an announcement on focusing on improving the workplace for women.

My Lords, in welcoming the way forward that my noble friend the Minister has laid out, I ask her to consider the importance of breaking the bias in places such as Afghanistan, where up to 12 million women and girls currently face the risk of severe malnutrition, particularly lactating mothers. For example, 100% of the households headed by women simply choose not to eat to make sure their children can. Can my noble friend update the House on what we are doing through our overseas aid to ensure that humanitarian relief reaches them and not the male members of the Taliban?

The UK’s aid of £286 million for 2021-22 provides live-saving support to the most vulnerable. The UK is pressing the World Bank and its shareholders to allocate the remainder of the £1.2 billion that is in the Afghan reconstruction trust fund. This includes the release of £280 million in December, which helped to ensure that health services are accessible and available for women and girls and supported households to access food.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a good start for International Women’s Day would be for the United Kingdom to be as open as the EU to women and girls fleeing extreme violence in Ukraine?

I am sure that all of us support the point that the noble Baroness makes. I am sure that our Government are in dialogue with the EU to ensure that we fulfil all our obligations to help young girls in this terrible situation.

Is the Minister aware—I am sure that she is—that there will be nothing on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day in your Lordships’ House, which goes against all our traditions over many years? Can she explain why the debate marking it will be held in Grand Committee nine days later on 17 March, by which time I think it will have become a little irrelevant? Can she ensure that this never happens again and that we have the debate in this Chamber? Could we also have Oral Questions relating to women on International Women’s Day, which again has been done for many years but which, because of the luck of the draw now that we have ballots, has become even more difficult? Would she be willing to work with me to work out a system whereby we can ensure that we have Questions relating to women in the Chamber on International Women’s Day?

I will try to answer the noble Baroness’s questions. On the debate being on 17 March, I am sure—and I refer to my noble friend the Leader—that it is to do with parliamentary timetabling. I know that the noble Baroness and others are disappointed and I am even more sorry that the ballot has not gone the way that the noble Baroness wanted it to. In relation to 17 March, I am going to the United Nations on 14 March to attend the Commission on the Status of Women and the noble Baroness will be pleased to know that when I get off the aeroplane at 6.30 am on Thursday I will be heading straight back to the Chamber to share what has happened with everybody. I will make sure that I have further dialogue with the noble Baroness; I cannot promise for this never to happen again but let us talk.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware from the debate in your Lordships’ House last night that there are still thousands of Yazidi women and girls who have been abducted, many of them having been raped in the process. She will know that a letter was delivered to Downing Street last September. That still awaits a reply. To mark International Women’s Day, will she ensure that the Government respond and say what they are doing to ensure that those still many missing girls will be brought to freedom and those responsible for the crimes will be brought to justice?

The situation that the noble Lord describes is truly shocking. I can confirm that the UK advocated strongly for the passage through Parliament of the Yazidi survivors’ law, which formally recognises the terrible crimes that the Daesh community has committed against humanity. We have established a general directorate for Yazidi survivors’ affairs, which is responsible for searching for survivors who are still missing and for co-ordinating with judicial and investigative bodies. I will try to find out when the noble Lord is going to get a reply to that letter and will get straight back to him.

My Lords, 50 years ago, when we founded Spare Rib and the first women’s refuge was set up in Chiswick High Street by Erin Pizzey, 1.6 women a week were killed by their partner or previous partner in England and Wales; the figure today is two a week. Can anyone imagine 104 women all on Parliament Square all being killed at the same time? This is a huge crime that goes largely unremarked on. What are the Government doing this year to support these women, to change some of the culture in the police and to take domestic violence more seriously? Let us not be looking at higher figure in 50 years’ time.

Domestic violence is a subject that is near to everybody’s heart and we are doing all we can to support people to ensure that we do not have the situation described by the noble Baroness. I cannot answer for what the police are doing but I will go back to my noble friend Lady Williams and ask her to reply directly to the noble Baroness’s question.

My Lords, I voice my concerns, as my noble friend has done, that this House is not celebrating International Women’s Day on International Women’s Day. It seems quite extraordinary. Can the Minister address the continuing ghastly practice of female genital mutilation, which is still very widely practised around the world? Can she say what active steps are being taken by Her Majesty’s Government to deal with that? There are two points: one, it seems extraordinary that a parliamentary session should not celebrate such an important day and, two, what are we doing about FGM?

The message has been received from both noble Baronesses about celebrating on the day. As I say, I believe it is about parliamentary timetabling. I am sorry, I can tell the noble Baroness only what I understand but I will come back to her and confirm that. FGM is a detestable activity and the Government significantly strengthened the law on it in 2015. We introduced a new offence of failing to protect girls, extended the reach of extraterritorial offences and introduced life-long immunity for victims of FGM. Ministry of Justice data shows that almost 700 FGM protection orders have been issued since their introduction.

My Lords, are the Government sufficiently aware of the problems faced by women already living in this country who do not speak English—and the many who will come in as refugees in a similar position—which handicaps all of them in terms of their rights and their career opportunities? Are the Government doing anything practical to help this situation?

I am very pleased to say that we recognise that the ability to speak English is key to helping refugees integrate into life in England. It is absolutely fundamental to them being able to work and to have a productive life. That is why the Home Office is working closely with other departments to ensure that mainstream English language provision meets the needs of refugees. The Home Office provides £850 for each individual resettled in the country to help them develop their English.

My Lords, the Association of British Insurers has reported that on this International Women’s Day there remain key areas where action can and should be taken to ensure gender parity in the world of work by reducing gender pay and seniority gaps, and in society by addressing gender pensions gaps and inequality. Can the Minister tell us how the Government, through their policies and legislation, intend to plug these serious gaps for women in work and in our wider society?

The noble Baroness raises a really important point. I point out that the gender pay gap has fallen significantly under this Government, there are 1.9 million more women in work since 2010, and a higher percentage of women are on FTSE 350 company boards than ever before. In my role as Minister for Women I have been working with the Women’s Business Council—this issue is very important to it—and the Alison Rose review. I would be very happy to have a meeting with the noble Baroness and share more details.