Caroline Nokes – 2022 Speech on International Women’s Day

The speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, in the House of Commons on 10 March 2022.

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate and, this year, I have doggedly looked for things to celebrate, perhaps with a grim sense of determination. I will start by focusing on a few positive things, such as a young boy who, in his school assembly on Monday, said to me, “Tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. What are you doing to celebrate?”. That is how far we have come—even 12-year-old boys wish to celebrate alongside us. I thank Hugo for asking me what I was going to do. I told him that I would speak in today’s debate and celebrate international women.

I want to celebrate female entrepreneurship in this country. This morning I have been at No. 11 Downing Street to hear the brilliant women of the British Beauty Council talking about their new project to launch jobs in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—and beauty, focusing on the fact that science and beauty go hand in hand. We have to make sure that brilliant women in this country study science subjects and go on to fabulous careers in scientific areas. We heard from an amazing woman, Tumi Siwoku, who spoke about her journey into the beauty industry via science-based A-levels. She was meant to study medicine and become a doctor, but her act of rebellion was to make sure that she went into beauty—and, my goodness, I love rebellious women. They are the ones who push boundaries, break down barriers and do the unexpected.

I also want to talk about the female entrepreneurs I met this week at somewhere far more traditional—Goldman Sachs. They are absolute leaders in their fields, and I want to talk specifically about a very young woman, Thuria Wenbar. She is the chief executive officer of e-Pharmacy, and she talked about her excitement at launching menopause products over the counter. She is still in her 20s, but she was talking about the menopause, and that shows how far we have come. It also pays tribute to the work of my hon. Friend—and she is my hon. Friend—the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who has done so much to break down the taboo and stigma around the menopause. Thuria spoke absolutely unashamedly of her determination to create prosperity and jobs for other women. She spoke about bias—her personal bias—in employing more women in her organisation, and that is one bias we do not wish to break.

I would like to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who has done so much work on the menopause and women’s health. We can look forward in a few short weeks to the female health strategy coming forward, and I would like to say that, in her role as the Minister for patient safety and primary care, she has been a breath of fresh air. Staying on that theme, I also look forward to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport making a real difference with her forthcoming online safety legislation. That could be a real game changer for young women, and indeed men, for whom the online harms they currently face every single day can spill over into real life. I have no doubt about her mission and determination to bring forward a fiercely effective piece of law.

There are other colleagues I want to celebrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), who is here, has done so much brilliant work on botox. It seemed really trivial this morning to be talking about the beauty industry, lipstick and botox, but her private Member’s legislation—the Botulinum Toxin and Cosmetic Fillers (Children) Act 2021—makes it illegal to give botox to under-18s. We need to be protecting young women from the dangers of injectables and cosmetic procedures that can go horribly wrong and alter their looks forever, and we need to be protecting young women from that “Love Island” identical face, which actually looks pretty awful. I would also like to celebrate the brilliant female scientists who made vaccines for covid possible.

But, actually, today I do not want to celebrate at all; I want to talk about International Women’s Day and the women we have seen in war who have been impacted by the Putin invasion of Ukraine. There are those killed by the war, those reporting on the war whether as a journalist or a citizen journalist via social media, and the doctors in the hospitals tending to the sick and the wounded, including the maternity hospitals that we have seen bombed.

I want to talk about one specific woman, Yaroslava Antipina. I do not know her—I had never heard of her before the war started—but she is keeping a daily diary of her life in war, and I know from what she has written that she wants to have her life back. She wants to be able to drink coffee in peace with the people she has met on Twitter. She has fled her home, and I wonder what it would feel like for all of us if we had been forced out of our homes and made to live again with our mothers in a different part of the country. She has taught me that, in Ukraine, International Women’s Day is a holiday—there is a great idea, and perhaps we could introduce that here—but it is not a holiday from war. She wears a sweatshirt that says “Superwoman”, and she genuinely is one.

Yaroslava wants to be able to buy jeans, but she does not know whether the shops will be open, or whether the small shop she has gone to today will be open between 12 noon and 3 pm, so she has launched “operation jeans”, because she just wants to have a spare pair of trousers to wear. She has established her regular no make-up war look, and she posts photographs of it. I want to imagine what that would be like for each and every one of us coming into this Chamber with no make-up. That is why I referenced cosmetic procedures and the British Beauty Council, because we take all that for granted, and if we were her, we might have to accept that, for the conceivable future, everything will look different and our faces will look different.

Yaroslava talks of “this” life and “that” life. This life is the present, her reality; and that life was what she had before—freedom, and her coffee with friends, her jeans, her lipstick and her life in Kyiv. While we celebrate International Women’s Day here, we have to recognise that, just as Yaroslava has a “this” and a “that” life, there is a life here and a life there: here there are no bombs, there are jeans in the shops and we can drink coffee whenever we want; and there they have none of those things. There are little girls in bomb shelters singing the song from “Frozen”, female doctors dodging bombs to treat the sick, female MPs staying defiantly in Kyiv—their capital—and a former Miss Ukraine brandishing her assault weapon in army uniform. There are women on the borders of Ukraine with their children, having left their husbands, their fathers and theirs son behind to fight. So on International Women’s Day this year, I cannot celebrate, but I have to have hope that, as the women of influence in this country, we can make sure that we do better.