Thank you all for coming today.
It is good to see so many people here, and to see so many women’s groups represented – I’m sure that today will be really useful and interesting for all of us, and I’m looking forward to hearing your views on the challenges and issues that most affect women today…….
Today’s event, of course, is taking place in the same week as International Women’s Day.
On Monday we celebrated the Centenary of the First International Women’s Day in 1911 – and I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at how far we’ve come in that time, and at some of the remaining injustices that women still face.
In the UK, of course, women have made tremendous progress since that first International Women’s Day – we have the vote, equal access to health care and to education: we have even had female astronauts and, for better or worse, a female Prime Minister.
Thanks to this Government we also have improved childcare, we have increased paid maternity leave from 18 weeks to 9 months, and we have enshrined the right to request family-friendly working.
But in the developing world many women still struggle for even the most basic of these rights.
41 million girls worldwide still do not go to school, too many women are without even basic health care, and too often women are still deemed unable or unsuitable to work.
Even worse, violence against women, forced marriages and a life of servitude to men remain commonplace in too many parts of the world.
The UK has made some real progress on this: by tripling the overseas aid budget since 1997 we have been able to prioritise education and health programmes in many developing nations:
For example, DFID projects in Bangladesh have enabled 190,000 girls to go to school for the first time, and DFID’s £37 million Girls Education Project in Nigeria has helped increase the number of girls in school by 15%.
DFID have also been helping some of the most vulnerable children in developing nations such as the gender-based violence initiative they run in Malawi: where one-fifth of girls have been sexually assaulted and one-in-ten have been raped or suffered attempted rape.
And just this week, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would lead a new initiative – the Global Poverty Promise – to prevent domestic violence across the world.
It is in these developing countries that women continue to live in greatest poverty and suffer the greatest injustices – but there are still many problems women face today in the UK.
A few facts will suffice here:
Girls consistently out-perform boys at GCSEs and A-Level, and over half of our university graduates are women: but yet there are still precious few women in our top boardrooms, in senior positions in trade unions or, to take my profession, only 19% of MPs are women.
As well as unequal access to senior positions, women also continue to face unequal pay and working conditions: the European Commission reported just this week, for example, that women are paid only 82% of male rates to do the same work.
If we also take into account the costs of childcare and caring for elderly relatives, and the residual sexism women still too often face in the workplace, we see that there are still many battles women face even in the 21st century.
And I am pleased that the Government have done much to tackle these problems: from establishing Sure Start centres and greatly improving childcare support, to introducing anti-discrimination legislation such as the Equality Bill, and making it easier for women to claim a full state pension by reducing the number of NIC contributions to 30 years.
We have also introduced a Domestic Violence Strategy and new regulations to prevent sex trafficking and prostitution.
A lot more can be done on this, of course, but I am proud that under this Govermment domestic violence rates are now half their 1997 level, and rape convictions have doubled over the same period.
So that is, I think, where we are today on the Centenary of the Inaugural International Women’s Day.
The 1911 Conference, of course, was dominated by the fight for women’s suffrage – and while we have won that battle – in the UK at least – there are many further battles left to win