My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Stowell for securing this timely debate. We are here to pay homage to the achievements of women all over the world, as marked by this annual celebration, as well as to emphasise the progress that needs to be made and the challenges that lie ahead.
Women play a central part in keeping families and communities together. There is a strong link between achieving peace and the sustained development and advancement of gender equality. Earlier this week I spoke in a debate on the plans to mark the centenary of the First World War. This was a key influence in thedevelopment of women’s rights in the United Kingdom as women often replaced the millions of men who had been called up to fight on the front line. During this time, approximately 1.6 million women joined the workforce across government departments and in business administration, and played an invaluable role in our munitions factories.
The past 100 years are full of numerous examples of the contributions to world history made by remarkable women, such as the suffragettes, led by the Pankhurst sisters. In that time we have covered a great deal of ground, particularly in respect of voting rights, the opening up of various professions, opportunities in higher education and positions in businesses. I am heartened by the progress that we have made in increasing the number of female Members of Parliament in recent years, although the House is united in acknowledging that more needs to be done.
Since Nancy Astor took her seat in 1919, we have seen female representation in the House of Commons increase to 22%, which is a significant step forward, but we must move faster. We have a similar situation here in the House of Lords. It is, however, encouraging that the numbers are much healthier among our younger politicians, with women consisting of half of the 28 MPs under the age of 30. It is accepted nonetheless that women are still underrepresented in many aspects of political, corporate and cultural life, and in the media.
I believe that this Government appreciate and understand the challenges that we face. On a visit to Mumbai two weeks ago, the Prime Minister stated that there are not enough women in boardrooms, or indeed around the Cabinet table, and that companies and political parties need to be more proactive in attracting women. We have already seen a number of measures over the past two years that have helped women in various respects. One of the most notable has been the establishment of the Women’s Business Council. This looks to challenge the barriers that women face in playing a fuller part in business and the workplace. As a businessman, I am particularly excited by the potential benefits for economic growth in addition to the further female empowerment that could come from this. As an employer, I have always promoted my staff on merit, irrespective of gender.
Better appreciating and harnessing the skills women have to offer will only accelerate our economic recovery and it is estimated that such action could deliver benefits of between £15 billion and £21 billion per year. The Government should be congratulated on their introduction of flexible parental leave, allowing new mothers to share their maternity leave with their partners and giving them ultimate flexibility over how and when it is taken.
The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2013 is ending violence against women. Domestic violence against women often takes place in households where children are present, and in some cases these children are also victims of abuse. There should be an increase in support services for children who have witnessed abuse and for those who are victims of domestic violence. Research suggests that a number of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children are perpetrators of violence against their partners. It isalso thought that the current economic climate could have the effect of increasing acts of domestic violence in households that are struggling to make ends meet. Does the Minister agree that more attention should be given to identifying those who are most vulnerable and dealing with this disturbing trend?
Human trafficking is also an issue that is of great concern to me. I have raised it on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House. I believe that this immoral practice is the equivalent of modern-day slavery. I am proud that the United Kingdom has ratified the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Women tend to be the main targets of the predatory gangs who engage in this immoral trade. What plans do the Government have to ensure that victims of human trafficking are given adequate support to rebuild their lives?
As a former visiting lecturer, I value the importance of education in giving people greater opportunities. Women have historically been deprived of chances to gain access to further education, and this has contributed to further inequality in the workplace. I am pleased to note that there has been a marked rise in the number of young women who are entering higher education in Britain. Last week, I was asked by the high commissioner of Bangladesh to present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers who had attained very good results, and I was pleased to note that more girls than boys had been given the awards. However, these improvements are not reflected in the poorer parts of the world. It is imperative that we focus on regions and countries that have lacked progress and do all we can to educate and empower women in these places.
I care about the well-being of women, and I have spoken in your Lordships’ House on issues relating to female genital mutilation and forced marriages. Eighty per cent of cases of forced marriage involve girls. The Government have taken some positive steps on these issues, but it is important that we continue to address them through education and by encouraging the involvement of leaders and members of the communities in which these practices are taking place.
We are also very concerned about the use of rape as a weapon of war, which was debated in your Lordships’ House yesterday. I spoke then, and I shall reiterate a point that I made then. I am pleased that this Government have formed a UK team of 73 experts dedicated to combating and preventing sexual violence in armed conflict.
We should continue to lead by example, encouraging other countries to embrace the empowerment of women in the way that we have and inspiring our women, and indeed men, to continue extending and celebrating the reach and impact women can make in every facet of our lives.