The speech made by Maria Miller, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke, in the House of Commons on 11 March 2021.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
It is a privilege to lead this International Women’s Day debate on behalf of members of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, who put forward the application. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its continued strong support for this debate as an annual event.
I want to start by sending my thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Sarah Everard, who are going through such a painful time. Her abduction has sent shockwaves across the UK. Sarah did everything to avoid danger. Let us be very clear: women are not the problem here. For many women, this news story will bring back memories of threatening situations they found themselves in through no fault of their own, sexually harassed on the streets when walking home from meeting friends, receiving anonymous threats of physical violence on social media, or sexually assaulted in plain sight in rush hour on public transport on the way to work. Many choose not to talk about this and not to report it for fear of not being believed or taken seriously. But the research shows that these sorts of events are part of women’s everyday lives, and that is why what happened to Sarah Everard feels so very close to home.
The shocking findings of the report published yesterday by the APPG on United Nations women show that virtually all young women have experienced the threat of sexual violence in public spaces and, indeed, that three in four women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment. Although the raw facts may show that it is rare for a woman to be abducted, the experience of young women is that the fear of sexual harassment, or worse, is ever in their mind, whether on a night out at the pub or after threats to their physical safety on social media, while for the one in six women who will be stalked in their lifetime, the fear of attack is very real.
So rather than telling women not to worry, listen to our experience. Understand why so many women relentlessly campaigned in this Chamber for change to make women feel safer by stopping the harassment and threats of violence in the first place. We should not accept a culture of violence towards women, we should not be complicit in covering it up, and we need to give women effective mechanisms to report what happens in order to expose the scale of the problem, call it out publicly, and punish those who perpetrate this culture of fear.
Reflecting on the past 12 months women have gone through in terms of their response to the challenges presented by coronavirus, at home women have been prominent in delivering on the frontline of health and social care, with two women professors, Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, helping to pioneer a global solution to the pandemic. In the US, Kamala Harris has become the first woman to be elected Vice-President of the United States, shattering another glass ceiling in the political world. Even closer to home, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, became the first woman ever to hold the role of Chairman of Ways and Means, bringing your infinite wit and wisdom to that important role.
While we acknowledge these significant milestones, the pandemic has brought existing inequalities into sharp focus too. Women have faced pressures in balancing work with home schooling and childcare. Domestic abuse cases have spiralled—up by 83%. When it comes to job losses, women have faced a heavy toll, with those aged 25 to 34 facing the highest unemployment rise. The Government’s mission of levelling up is very relevant to women. To mark International Women’s Day 2021, my message and hope is that a focus on levelling up for women is in place now more than ever before, both here in the UK and across the world.
We have record numbers of female MPs, yet still men outnumber women two to one in positions of power. A 50:50 Cabinet would help to ensure that women’s voices are heard where they need to be—right at the heart of Government. This week, as part of a whole host of International Women’s Day celebrations, we heard from the parliamentary archivist, Mari Takayanagi, about the remarkable contributions of early women MPs and the huge impact they had on law-making—how they spoke out 100 years ago in this place about the most sensitive of crimes against women, like FGM. These stories of courage can be seen in the work of women elected to this House today—women like my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), whose courage means that we have world-leading domestic abuse legislation and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a blueprint for others across the world.
We need more women aspiring to become Members of Parliament, so I warmly welcome the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry looking at the actions taken on gender equality in the House of Commons. I hope that we can conduct a second gender-sensitive audit as soon as possible, with a body identified as being responsible for putting its recommendations into practice.
Above all, we need 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse, which so badly affects women, particularly those in public life. We need the forthcoming online harms Bill to be more than a set of regulatory guidelines. We need laws that make it clear that online abuse is a crime, particularly with regard to posting intimate images online without consent. A safer, more respectful environment online will also lead to a kinder politics; I really believe that. In the meantime, let us stand up to those who gratuitously abuse women online—particularly women MPs and journalists—to help make sure that more women choose to stand for election and be leaders in our media too.
Women face barriers here in Westminster, but the same is still true of other sectors—in healthcare, for instance, where women account for more than three quarters of the workforce yet fewer than half have leadership positions. An out-of-date workplace with a presenteeism culture does little to support women, particularly when they have had children, so it was helpful to see the Birmingham Business School conduct research through the pandemic to show that flexible working can improve productivity. We need as a nation to adopt flexible working as standard, as part of levelling up for women and delivering a truly modern British workplace shaped around the whole workforce. We need to look closely at what Parliament should retain from the last 12 months of changed ways of working, so that we can play our part in modernising our workplace too.
In levelling up, we need to provide pregnant women and new mothers with better protections to stop them being pushed out of work simply for being pregnant. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that one in four pregnant women felt discriminated against in the last year. Outlawing pregnant women from being made redundant, as Germany has done, would help to stop so many women falling out of the labour market into low-paid work when they have children.
In this mission of levelling up for women, our voice on the global stage will be just as important. The Prime Minister has been a long-time advocate for girls’ education as central to levelling up for women across the globe. As the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office considers its new role, including championing international development through open societies, we need to continue to take forward this principled commitment to girls’ education, alongside the UK’s internationally acknowledged role in outlawing the other inequalities and abuses that women face—for example, abuse in conflict zones, forced marriage and the lack of a host of other basic human rights.
With the UK leading the G7 this year, there is a truly unique opportunity for our country to show leadership on the global stage in promoting gender equality. The UK Government ratifying the International Labour Organisation convention on violence and harassment—the first international labour instrument that recognises the right of everybody to work free from violence and harassment—would be an act of leadership and an appropriate start. Let us celebrate an astonishing year for women and call for a commitment to level up for women across the UK and across the globe, for a fairer society for everybody.