Last week was my first visit to the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW), an annual event that has been held at the UN since 1946. Over 100 ministers and 8000 civil society advocates attended, with events ranging from set piece plenary sessions where ministers deliver their national statements, to side events on every issue you could imagine.
This year, we were celebrating 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing agreed powerful commitments for advancing women’s rights, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
That ground-breaking declaration was and still is a blueprint for what needs to happen to advance women’s rights – but has yet to be fully realised anywhere in the world.
I had long heard reports of CSW. Often I heard that progress seemed difficult to achieve. Indeed, it was challenging enough to stop the world moving backwards on women’s rights, especially in the sexual and reproductive rights which must underpin women’s autonomy.
Having heard about CSW for so many years without ever being a participant, it was extraordinary to represent the UK in that famous UN General Assembly Hall.
So many of the ways in which women and girls around the world must live their lives are simply taken for granted, never given a second thought.
We all know that domestic tasks fall disproportionately on women. That is as true in the UK as it is in a rural African village or a Darfuri refugee camp.
We also know that round the world there is energy poverty – people do not have the basic energy needs for their daily lives. But do we realise how this disproportionately affects women and girls?
In this crucial year, when the international community will agree a new set of Sustainable Development Goals and a climate deal will be reached in Paris, maybe we should think harder.
An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 2.8 billion rely on solid fuels for cooking and heating. And it is girls and women who bear the brunt of this energy poverty.
I am committed to campaigning for terminally ill, mentally competent people to have the right to an assisted death. I have an incurable disease, a form of blood cancer called myelofibrosis, where the inside of the bone marrow turns to fibre and it no longer produces blood, so you suffocate. I have been told that it can be very terrible in the last stages.
I have been in Parliament for over fifty years and have worked on many important issues. To have the opportunity to legalise assisted dying is one of the most crucial parts of my political career. Due to my health I am sometimes unable to participate in certain debates that go on late but the Assisted Dying Bill is an obvious exception!
I am pleased that it has so far been a great success; it was passed unanimously through Second Reading, and was constructively amended during the first day of Committee Stage. The House of Lords received much praise for the way it has so far conducted the debate, and my colleague Lord Falconer quite rightly won the Spectator’s 2014 Peer of the Year award.
I took part in a five-party panel at York University the other weekend, organised by the University’s Politics Society, in front of a packed lecture hall with over 200 students. No other panellist or questioner mentioned the subject of tuition fees, believed by some Liberal Democrat activists (and right-wing journalists) to be an issue that hangs like an albatross round Nick Clegg’s neck. The overwhelming impression I came away with, reinforced by informal conversations with several students after the meeting, was not that we face an outraged student body which can never forgive us for the tuition fees ‘betrayal’, as the NUS would like to portray it; it was of a student body which is switched off from party politics, unsure of whether to vote or not, but with some intelligent questions to ask. ‘I wasn’t planning to vote until I came to this’, one student told me afterwards, ‘but maybe now I will.’
Since nobody else did, I addressed the tuition fee issue. I said that we had found it impossible to persuade our Conservative partners in the coalition to pay for this, against the background of a yawning gap between revenue and expenditure in 2010, and had therefore focused on striking a deal that was as progressive in its impact as possible; that the package had ensured that graduates only start to pay back when they are earning good money; that the rise since then in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university has shown that we got that right; and that there was no no way any future government would want to take us back to free fees in the face of other competing demands for government funding. I went on to say that we had worked in government to put money into ‘the other 50%’ – the young people who never go to university; that doubling the number of apprenticeships, paying a Pupil Premium to encourage schools to put more resources into helping those who most need it, and expanding nursery education to give children a better start in life had proved to be more progressive and cost-effective than free fees for the better-off.
Many girls’ and women’s faces in Mozambique will stay with me. But 3 of those faces had a particularly strong impact – those of Isalinha, Ana, and especially a young mother in Manica province, whose name I may never know.
Let us take that young woman first. She sat on the ground, surrounded by other young women and their children in a village, as women community leaders acted out short plays on good nutrition and family planning for us. She did not engage. She barely watched, gazing somewhere into the distance, no smile on her face. She looked perhaps 20, perhaps younger. Attached to her were twins, feeding constantly, each baby detaching himself and crying, as her milk clearly ran out, then reattaching in hope. One twin was dominant, and he would swipe from time to time at his sibling, trying to knock him off the other breast. The mother, stick thin, barely seemed to notice that either. All her waking and sleeping hours she would no doubt be feeding these twins. She may well have had other young children, as many were playing near her. She may well already be pregnant again, as most seemed to be. Weariness emanated from every pore of her body. She knew there was no easy end to this.
The men behind her giggled as we heard about how young girls were married off young, but when their babies arrived, their husbands then moved off to take other wives as the first wife was then too “busy” looking after small children, the household, as well as the fields.
Family planning is taken up by only 12.5% in Mozambique, and 43% of children under 5 are malnourished.
That was the reality for that young woman’s life, and it is not surprising that it was too much effort to raise her eyes to us, or anyone. It was especially to her, as well as those around her, that I said that life will change, as I am certain it will. And which is why we engage as we do. But she seemed not to hear, or register.
But as a human indicator of change, let me now turn to Isalinha. In the Radio Mozambique studio in Tete City, I was grilled by fifteen-year-old Isalinha Alfredo. She is a youth journalist, helping to present a UNICEF-supported award-winning radio programme with other young people. They tackle the issue of child, early and forced marriage head on, as well as other challenges facing adolescent girls in Mozambique, including through a popular soap opera. Isalinha wanted to know if child marriage was a problem in the UK and if so, what we did about it.
Yesterday, we moved forward in protecting vulnerable tenants by protecting them from the questionable practice of retaliatory evictions. This is the culmination of a process started by Sarah Teather MP on 28th November when she secured a private Members Bill on Tenancies (Reform) to deal with the problems caused by Retaliatory Evictions. Sadly there were members in the Commons that day who were themselves landlords, did not share the ethos of the Bill and talked it out of time. So it was a great privilege for Lib Dems in the Lords to be able to support the essence of Sarah’s Bill in the amendment we debated yesterday. Sarah Teather deserves a lot of credit for her efforts to end this pointless suffering. And for the work she did in the commons to stand up to right wing Tories all too willing to see this continue.
The amendment is not about penalising conscientious landlords, nor is it about protecting bad tenants who do not respect the property they are renting. It is about protecting the rights of both groups and giving security to tenants, who when reporting a fault which affects their ability to live happily in their home, will not dread an eviction notice landing on the doormat as a result. It gives a clear signal to those landlords who currently ignore the state of their properties, that this is no longer acceptable. If such landlords engage in a regular programme of maintenance, they are likely to have a much better relationship with their tenants, reduce the incidence of costly tenancy turnover and be less likely to face expensive repair bills for major incidents, such as collapsed ceilings due to persistent leaks.
A period of anniversaries – from the First World War to Magna Carta to the Beatles in the US (only the last of which was in my lifetime!) – makes me reflect on changing social attitudes.
When I was young, people smoked not only in homes, pubs and restaurants but in offices and trains, even hospitals. I celebrated an anniversary of my own last November, marking 25 years since I gave up smoking. Like most of us, I regard smoking now as anti-social.
The popular TV series Mr Selfridge reminds us that in 1918 women employees – earning in any case only half their male counterparts – were sacked to make way for returning war heroes. Sex discrimination, like racial and homophobic prejudice, has not vanished, but its grosser manifestations have become unacceptable.
Attitudes have hardened to drunk driving and are arguably becoming less tolerant of (sober) dangerous or careless driving, including that which kills cyclists.
The law and social evolution seem to work in tandem, reinforcing each other in squeezing out harmful behaviour. Attitudes start to alter, then the law comes in to crystalise and back the change and itself helps generate more progressive views.
On air pollution, we are at a surprisingly low point on this evolutionary scale, apart from on coal-generated smog which the almost 60-year-old Clean Air Act was designed to eliminate. There has been UK law on (invisible) air pollution for 40 years, in the form of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 – on the drafting of which, incidentally, I worked as a junior civil servant.
They call it the heavy lifting, or – less physical, more forensic – using a fine-tooth comb. The second chamber is where detailed and precise scrutiny of legislation occurs. For Bills which raise vital questions about civil liberties, such as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill this is all the more important. It was therefore to the surprise of Lib Dems in the Lords that it was, aside from a misplaced attempt to reintroduce the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”, almost exclusively Lib Dem peers doing the heavy lifting . At one point I passed a note to Brian Paddick and Sarah Ludford, the team with me on the entirety of it: A lot of people want to talk about the issues we’ve raised but they couldn’t be ****d (complete to taste) to write their own amendments.
Our concern, really to make sure that this sort of legislation is fit for purpose and balances the need to protect the public with precious civil liberties, is often derided. It is important to get every dot and comma right. It is therefore a badge of honour to be accused by Norman Tebbit of “dancing around on pins” or, in Michael Howard’s words, “the pesky Lib Dems”.
The Bill that came to the Lords was very different from when it was first trailed by the Prime Minister, speaking to the Australian Parliament about “excluding” people from the UK. Lib Dems in Government ensured that such claims, made for electoral reasons, were not reflected in the legislation that was finally published. This is not to say it came to the Lords in a perfect state and our work has ensured that checks and balances on the State have been increased.
This week, Addis Ababa has played host to the African Union (AU) Summit. While 2015 is the AU’s year of women’s empowerment – one of the issues I’ve focused on here this week – Ebola has, of course, taken centre stage as well. Both issues provide a clear demonstration of the kind of African leadership the UK is working to support.
But we must go further. I am here at the AU summit to lobby for faster progress. I attended an extraordinary breakfast hosted by the First Ladies of Africa to press for progress on ending child marriage, where we heard from a brave young Nigerian woman who had been married at the age of 13 – to a man whose name she didn’t even know – and had her childhood stolen from her. In a halting voice, with a scarf across her face to conceal her identity, she urged us to ensure that other young girls could stay in school, as she had wished, not lose their childhoods, and choose a partner only when ready.
Small faces may look up at me equally quizzically as I visit a maternity hospital in Sudan. But from these first moments, the path for a girl is mapped out differently from that for a boy.
And that has included the very control that the girl child may have over her own body. She does not decide. She must remain pure. Not to do so is regarded as a great dishonour to her and her family. But the way that purity is to be secured and established is to cut her body.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is practised by many communities and ethnic groups across Sudan, often on girls aged around 5. In popular Arabic language, it is called ‘tahur’, meaning purity and cleanliness. Uncut women are generally viewed as impure and unmarriageable.
According to official figures from 2007, 89% of women and girls in Sudan aged 15-49 had undergone some form of FGM/C, one of the highest rates in the world. Estimates made during 2013 suggest that this figure may have fallen by 3% to 86%, but the data is scarce.
If they have indeed fallen, this is in large part due to a pioneering approach in Sudan, supported by DFID, called ‘Saleema’. This is a unique initiative combining innovative communication techniques with a large scale dialogue about changing social norms around uncut girls.