International Women’s Day

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing this important debate. International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to draw attention to the achievements made by women, often through adversity. The last 100 years is filled with numerous examples of the contributions to world history made by remarkable women such as the suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Rosa Parks’s actions played a symbolic role in the American civil rights movement. Following her brave act, a chain of events culminated in the United States electing a President of African origin in the 21st century.

I welcome the launch of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I am confident that this new body will improve results and efficiency when dealing with this important issue. The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day this year is equal access to education. As a former visiting lecturer, I value the importance of education in giving people greater opportunities. Although there has been an increase in the number of girls who are entering tertiary education as a whole, this improvement is not reflected in poorer regions such as, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. Women have historically been deprived of chances to gain access to and further their education, and this has contributed to inequality in the workplace.

Individuals should always be employed and promoted on merit, but in spite of the large number of talented and able women across industries, very few senior positions are filled by them as a comparative ratio to men. Despite this worrying trend in commerce, women have made impressive strides both on the global political stage and in their own countries. As an employer, I have always believed in promoting staff on merit. The gender of the person is not material. I read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, with interest and would appreciate it if my noble friend the Minister would respond to it.

On average, women account for close to 18 per cent of the seats across all chambers of parliament in democracies around the world. Women hold 22 per cent of the seats in Latin American and Caribbean legislatures alone. Notable progress has also been made in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Rwanda where women account for 56 per cent of the Members in the lower Chamber. This is particularly impressive for a nation that was ravaged by war in the not-so-distant past and reflects the fact that women continue to play a pivotal role in upholding peace in formerly unstable regions.

Although this debate is a cause for celebration, I feel it is pertinent to draw attention to two particularly harrowing cases. The story of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, has resulted in the death of a Pakistani politician who spoke in her defence. Most noble Lords have probably seen the picture of Aisha, an 18 year-old Afghan girl whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband. These cases serve as a reminder that women are still facing oppression in certain parts of the world. In regard to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan under which Asia Bibi was prosecuted, it is my view that the conviction was totally wrong as Islam regards Muslims, Jews and Christians as people of the book.

Under Islam, women were given certain rights over 1,400 years ago, including the right to own properties and control their earnings. Islam has also given women the right to inheritance; they have a right to choose their husband and no one can impose a decision on them against their will. They can also apply for a divorce in the event of a matrimonial breakdown.

I chair the Conservative Muslim Forum, which is an active organisation. We have established a women’s group, as we believe in the empowerment of women, and it looks at various issues concerning Muslim women in the country. It is important that a woman is educated and given every opportunity to succeed: an educated woman will play an active role in the advancement and the well-being of her children and her family as a whole.

I care about issues relating to women. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House, and elsewhere, on matters concerning women that include their maternal health, education, human trafficking, domestic violence and rape as a weapon of war.