I would like to thank Neena and Lady Aruna Paul for giving me the opportunity to be here today. Invest in women, Improve the world.
‘There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism.’ -NYT Magazine, 23 August 2009
Women’s issues are of paramount importance to our global economy and, indeed, our humanity. As an engaged, effective advocate, I fully understand the critical importance of raising awareness of gender inequalities and the tragic consequences of abuses happening around the world each day. A few insights:
While comprising roughly half the population, women’s socioeconomic contribution is woefully undervalued. They are the primary family caregivers, educators, homemakers, and even, breadwinners. Nevertheless, they universally earn less than men, are often denied property rights and even the fundamental freedoms of movement and personal agency.
Maternal care is alarmingly inadequate. Every minute a woman dies in pregnancy and childbirth. Each year more than 536,000 women die due to complications developed during pregnancy and childbirth; and 10 million more suffer debilitating illnesses and lifelong disabilities. Seventy-five percent of maternal deaths occur during childbirth and the post-partum period. The vast majority of maternal deaths are avoidable when women have access to health care before, during and after childbirth.
Human trafficking is thriving today - the income from human trafficking comes second after arms (before drugs) because a human being can be used more than once.
Through my work in the House of Lords, with Vital Voices, UN Gift, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and many other organisations dedicated to women and children, I have been privileged to promote equality, meet remarkable individuals and see these issues playing out on a global scale.
We are, I hope, together here today because we believe we share a responsibility to support women around the world to achieve equality as a human right.
‘Women’s rights are human rights’ Senator Hilary Clinton, Beijing September 1995.
We believe we have it in ourselves to help others to fight oppression in all its forms – be it the oppression of extremist regimes, the oppression of dogma, the oppression of time-worn social custom, or the half-hidden oppressions of domestic violence and trafficking of women.
I became a Labour politician because I believe in fairness as one of my guiding values. That equality should be enshrined in law, upheld in court, respected and promoted in society.
I am deeply proud of the equalities legislation which the Labour government achieved between 1997 and 2010. Much of it, I hope, will survive intact in the coming years now that we have a government with differing priorities. I hope that the new progressive government will continue to improve the legislation.
The strength of that equalities legislation, and of key services designed and delivered to help, for example, single mums succeed in childcare and in work, will be tested in the years ahead.
I value the role of European legislation and hope that it will continue to be progressive.
The willingness of the current government to intervene where there are known abuses of people of other nations, or even genocide, will be tested. In years to come, I think we will all be tested globally.
With that in mind, I see it as my responsibility as a politician to seek to influence, as much as I can, to be an advocate for women who have no voice, wherever they live in the world.
And it is my responsibility as a woman to encourage other women to become engaged in politics, here and around the world: to push for democracy where they live, to stand for election and campaign for votes from women and men and to make the arguments for fairness in domestic and foreign policy.
And these are your responsibilities too.
We are half of the world. In this century we must become half of the voice of the world, half of its discussions, half of its decisions, half of its future.
I know I am not alone in thinking the world would be a fairer, more peaceful and more sustainable place if women were enabled – and enabled themselves – to challenge the grip on power of the men of the world. This is not some fabled aspiration, it is absolutely democratically necessary if we are to change the lives of women – living now and yet to be born - across our world.
In a recent edition of the Harvard International Review, there was a fascinating survey by Swedish politician Margot Wallstrom, now UN Special Representative on sexual violence and conflict, of the representation of women in various nations.
There is good news and bad. In Spain, for example, over half of cabinet ministers are now women. But if we look at heads of government in Europe, there is only one – Angela Merkel.
And in this country, there is only one party leader in the House of Commons who is a woman – Caroline Lucas of the Greens. Sad to say, the list of candidates for leadership of the Labour Party includes only one woman, Diane Abbott, regarded as very much the outside chance.
It concerns me very much that there are not more women coming through in the top ranks of politics here, and that lack of progress makes it harder for us as women in the West to make the case for the advancement of women towards full equality in other regions of the world.
But it is necessary to make that case. Think of global action against poverty. Of 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70 per cent are women. Where is their access to education and information?
I read recently in the book Super Freakonomics by the World Bank, that in a particularly remote area of India, when television was introduced to some villages, birth rates fell and at the same time sexual violence fell. These declines were partly ascribed by the author to the access women suddenly had to information and opinion that enabled them to make decisions about their own welfare, to see their lives differently and to critique the actions of men.
I am not suggesting that television is the answer, particularly in our era of global media which does not value cultural difference but actually insists upon depressing cultural homogeneity of its consumers.
My point is rather that when women are given access to information that speaks to them without condescension and chimes with their own lives, that provokes a realisation within them that another life is possible. Wherever they are in the world, it can create the foundations of change, by breaking down feelings of female subservience, and of the male right to control. It can also show women that we are not living in isolation from each other in cultures and societies run by and for men, but we should in fact be equal partners in the running of our world.
There are of course cosmic forces that the individual alone is incapable of stopping, but which may prevent that individual having access to life-changing opportunity. Think of climate change and think of sub-Saharan Africa.
Women are responsible for around 80 per cent of household food production in that region. If climate change affects access to wood and water for fuel and cooking, as it now does, women bear the burden of extra miles travelled to wells or forests. Women work harder, giving them less time and opportunity to acquire the knowledge and self- awareness I have been speaking about. At the peace table great women in Northern Ireland helped to secure peace in the Good Friday Agreement, Baroness May Blood, Avila Kilmurray, Inez McCormack, these women have led the world on peace and reconciliation. They have continued to be an example and have worked around the world with Palestinian and Israeli women and groups from Sri Lanka.
I do not believe in quotas but in areas of post-conflict quotas are acceptable. It is women who can stop their sons and daughters being suicide bombers which no mother wish their child to do.
Think of international security – again in strife-torn places, it is generally women who hold family and community together amid conflict. It is women who nurse and provide, it is largely women who become refugees – 80 per cent in fact. At the same time it is women who are the victims of rape and violence – our bodies treated as the spoils of war as they have been for centuries. Look at the Congo, women are used there as a tool of war, this must end.
In Africa there is much evidence to suggest that when women enter politics, they are far more successful in resolving conflicts – particularly inter-tribal conflicts - than men.
It would be a very powerful thing if women across the world were able to stand up in unity, speaking up through governments, against sex trafficking and against violence against women. Speak up through governments for equality. If there was ever a greater human rights challenge, it is remaking the role of women in our world.
At the micro and the macro level, on every policy issue, women have a role to play in shaping the world of today and tomorrow. We do not need to earn the right to be heard, we must fight for it, as women have done so often to achieve the rights we enjoy now, from the vote to rights in marriage to the right to make choices about our own bodies.
Together we must influence and lobby, connect and educate, face to face, through the media and the internet, ask questions, demand answers, challenge answers and use every opportunity to act for the safety and wellbeing of our families, our communities, our nations and our world, and of course, the safety and wellbeing of ourselves.
That is why I stand here, why I took on a role in Vital Voices and why I will speak and write and travel and fight in the years ahead to take our vital message out there. Now is the time for change, please become a change maker.
Half the world can achieve change for the whole world.