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Speech by the Development Secretary on International Women's Day 2016 as part of ODI's #GenderDay debates.


Thank you, Kevin. It’s just fantastic to be here at the end of what I know has been a really amazing, very powerful day.

Stitched Brown College 27 Jersey Antonio Maroon And it’s also fantastic because of course it’s International Women’s Day, and as we look ahead, I think what I see ahead for 2016 – is that this is a really vital year in terms of pushing forward on women and girls’ rights.

And, I know that some of you will be thinking, hang on, you actually said the same last year. And I did say, last year, that 2015 was also a key, critical year for gender equality – and that was true too.

And 2015 was an important year for girls and women – because we successfully fought for the very first time for that standalone gender goal, Goal 5, in the new Sustainable Development Goals, and – I should say – against at times some real opposition to having that goal in place. And, in spite of that, now for the first time ever in 2016 we’ve got key targets on sexual and reproductive health rights, ending FGM and also child marriage, amongst many other things.

What’s more, we’ve actually ensured that gender equality runs through those Global Goals, because no goal can be considered achieved – whether it’s on education, on sanitation, on health – unless it’s achieved for everyone: women and men, girls and boys. No one can be left behind.

So 2015 really mattered.

But that’s also why this year, 2016, is so important. Because last year was about getting the rights of women and girls on the world’s to do list – but this year is about doing that to do list. And I don’t think we should lose a single moment in making those goals a reality.

And as we’ve heard 2016 will also be the year of the UN High Level Panel on girls and women’s economic empowerment – announced by the UN Secretary General in January. It’s really the first time that the UN have ever put together a High Level Panel on this sort of issue.

And Ban Ki-moon rightly sees this as absolutely critical if we’re going to see the Sustainable Development Goals actually work successfully. In fact, in his words, he said: “To achieve the Goals, we need a quantum leap in women’s economic empowerment”.

So this panel is not just about making the next little baby steps, this is about a structural, fundamental change and step forward in women and girls’ economic empowerment.

And I absolutely share his view and I’m very proud to be one of the founding members of that panel. I believe that women’s economic empowerment is something that simply can’t wait. Girls and women around the world can’t wait. The world can’t wait. And a lack of empowerment for women is pulling all of us down.

The challenge

And I want to be very clear today that, for me, when it comes to winning the battle on gender equality - we are getting there, but it’s taking far too long.

And, yes, there have been big victories in the battle for women’s rights – but frankly, for me, the pace of change has not been good enough – and that’s also what I think we need to keep at the forefront of our minds this International Women’s Day.

The problems faced by girls and women will have been set out many, many times over the course of today – the statistics that, in some parts of the world, paint such a terrible picture for so many women:

  • Child marriage. 1 in 4 girls in developing countries will likely be married before the age of 18, and 1 in 12 before the age of 15
  • 1 in 3 women worldwide, as we know, beaten or go through sexual violence in their lifetime. How is that something any of us can accept?
  • 200 million women around the world have undergone FGM. This represents brutal violence against girls and women on a daily basis
  • In Uganda, a woman is 123 times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman here in the UK.

Globally, just 50% of women participate in formal labour markets and have that sort of financial independence that can bring - compared with 77% of men. In 17 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. In 29 countries, women are prohibited from working at night. In 34 countries, women do not have the same inheritance rights as men.

And even here, in Britain, we have to ask ourselves some searching questions.

This year marks 150 years ago since John Stuart Mill presented a petition to parliament, the very first one that was asking to give women the same political rights as men had. But it took over 6 decades till 1928 when all women over 21 in Britain finally won the right to vote. Change really took time on voting rights here – and we still have further to go. There are still many glass ceilings here in Britain to smash.

Let’s look close to home for me as a politician: party leaders have come and gone, over the years but there’s still just been one – out of all of them – one female leader of a major political party in Britain. And that was a long, long time ago – so long ago it was when I was growing up in the 1980s in Rotherham.

There are more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, which is great news, and in fact representation of women has more than doubled since 2011.

But as CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn set out earlier this year, there are actually just 9 more female executive directors on FTSE350 boards than in 2010 and actually the number of female chief executives has hardly moved.

Even in our schools, where you might think there must be more equality because women have been very well represented in the teaching profession for decades, actually only 37% of school heads are women despite three-quarters of teachers being female. So let’s just look at the reverse of that – so 25% of teachers are blokes but actually they represent getting on for three-quarters of the teachers who go on to become head teachers.

Look at our own capital, we’re sat here in London, one of the most advanced capitals, cities in the world. More progress, again, needed:

Less than a third of London Assembly members are women – that’s 8 of 25 On average men working in the City earn over £20,000 more than women More than half of all newly identified cases of FGM, around 1,300, in the UK from July to September last year occurred right here in London.

And when we look further afield, let’s look globally, according to the World Economic Forum, the global gender gap across health, education, economic opportunity and politics has closed by only 4% in the last 10 years, with the economic gap closing in that time by just 3%. They suggest that at this rate it will take another 118 years to close this gap completely.

Well, is there anyone here who wants to wait to wait to the year 2134? Because I don’t.

So let’s look at the alternative though:

Because if girls and women were operating at their full potential and playing an identical role in labour markets to men’s then, you look at the work that McKinsey Global Institute did – their recent research estimated that achieving gender parity would be worth around $28 trillion to the world’s global economy, or 26% which is a huge, huge amount that could be added to global GDP in 2025.

They estimate that here in the UK gender parity could bring about £0.6 trillion of additional annual GDP by 2025 – that’s a massive value from improving gender equality and gender parity.

So my point today is the world shouldn’t just wait for girls and women’s economic empowerment to steadily happen – we should be looking to turbo charge it so that it speeds up at an unprecedented rate.

And what all of this shows, is that our global economy needs women’s economic empowerment as much as any other lever that our central bankers can pull.

So as well as being about basic, human rights for girls and women, gender equality is also in all of our interests. And when women are losing out – we’re all losing out. And at a time when there’s so much economic uncertainty in global markets, the world just can’t afford to lock women out of the workplace – we need to be in the board rooms, in the offices, in industry.

And economic empowerment goes right to the heart of women’s rights – because it’s about jobs but it’s also about access to bank accounts, it’s about tackling violence against girls and women, it’s about overcoming discriminatory laws and reducing the burden of unpaid domestic work. All of these things need to be on the to do list for the High Level Panel to look at and tackle.

And I believe that women’s economic empowerment is a game changer – both for tackling poverty but also for building global prosperity. No country can afford to leave half its population behind. This has been going on for too long – and I don’t accept it at all.

The UN High Level Panel is fundamentally going to be about turbo charging all of our efforts to deliver real and lasting change and I’m very proud to be part of that.

Voice, choice, control

And the question for all of us today, therefore, is not just where we need to go but how fast we can get there? How can we accelerate the pace of change?

What’s that going to take?

And I think it comes down to voice, choice and control. We have to look at politics, we have to look at the business world – we have to look at the attitudes that people have within their communities and countries and even within the home.

So what about women having a real voice over the decisions that affect them? Internationally we really need the next UN Secretary General to really pick up the baton that’s going to be handed over by the current one Ban Ki-moon on gender equality – so perhaps for the next UN Secretary General it’s time that they were a woman for the first time. Why not?

And again, on women having a voice, we need women to be equally represented in Parliaments around the world.

In Somalia – where only 14% of MPs are women, in Sierra Leone – where just over 12% are women, but also in Japan – where only 9% are women. And in Britain where it’s still only 30% despite the big progress that we have seen made. So we need around 130 more women MPs here in Britain to be equal in parliament. Let’s find those 130 more women.

And my message to women in Britain is: if you’re a great, capable woman then run, run for parliament, run for local government, run for being a police and crime commissioner. If you know a great, capable woman – then ask her to run. Dare I say – hashtag #AskHerToRun?

So let’s make this happen – we can do it, it’s in our gift.

What about women being able to choose their own futures? Whether they’re sitting in Britain’s boardrooms or whether they are smallholder farmers in Ethiopia – they need to be empowered economically.

And finally the control that women have over their own lives and their own bodies, our own bodies, when and how many children we have, when we get married, the right not to have FGM.

We have to finally overcome these discriminatory social norms that are holding girls and women back – the cultures and the traditions that can define what a girl is for. And I believe culture and tradition should never be used as an excuse for inaction on girls and women’s rights and too often it is.

So Britain is going to fight for a world where there is voice, choice and control for girls and women.

Nationally, we are continuing to get our own house in order: new league tables putting the spotlight on companies that aren’t addressing the gender pay gap. Supporting more and more women to start and grow their own business, including through Start-up Loans and mentoring. We’re taking new steps that I think are really important on tackling FGM, on tackling forced marriage – setting up forced marriage unit, as well as on refuges and rape support centres.

But internationally, for myself as Secretary of State for DFID, we’re going to continue to work with countries that are moving in the same direction on this – supporting countries like Ethiopia that are really now focused on stamping out harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM. And that political leadership is vital, but of course it’s not the case that you see this political leadership everywhere.

So in the countries where that leadership just isn’t there, we’re going to keep on focusing supporting those amazing grassroots movements, those local organisations, the women’s rights groups, the boys and men who are often the people advocating for change on the ground.

Go back to John Stuart Mill – he was an amazing man fighting for women’s rights and it shows that men and boys can be the game-changers on this just as much as girls and women.

And indeed, when he presented that petition to allow women to vote to parliament, the establishment was all against him in 1866. But by 1928 that resistance had really broken down when women finally got the vote. And it was because of a grassroots movement here that that changed – it was the suffragettes who kept fighting for change and in doing so transformed this amazing country that we all live in for the better.

And I think it all adds up to this: the mission for gender equality will continue to underpin everything that we’re doing at DFID. It underpins what this Government is doing in the UK. And it needs to underpin, I believe, the work of the UN, of all governments and businesses around our world.

I want to see this fight for women’s rights having the same momentum, the same progress, the same international deal-making, and the same pace and urgency as we’ve seen around climate change in recent years. We got that ground-breaking deal in Paris on climate change – so if we can do a deal to save the planet – why can’t we start doing the deals that are going to sort out gender equality once and for all, in the 21st Century.

Call to action

So, I want to conclude with a call to action – not just to everyone in this room but to everyone and anyone who cares about this issue, whatever your gender, wherever you are, whether you’re in Britain or around the world.

Because inequality between men and women is the greatest unmet human challenge that the world continues to face this century. And it requires the same kind of global commitment that we’re now seeing around climate change. And the whole world needs to rally round improving women’s rights.

The Sustainable Development Goals gave us a blueprint for women’s rights around the world – so let’s use it.

And in the end by building a better world for women, we are building a better world for everyone. And we can see the world that we all want – we just have to get there faster and we need to go further.

I’ve often said that when it comes to women’s rights: if we’re not winning this battle then, de facto, we’re losing it. And there’s plenty of people out there who do think things have already gone too far – and they’re going to try and claw back the progress that we’ve already made. They’ll all be at the Commission on the Status of Women next week in New York.

But I’m determined that, over time, we’re steadily going to drown out their voices and those voices that are against women’s rights and progress.

And those people will steadily understand what it feels like to be in a minority, because that’s what we need to make their voices.

And that’s because the other aspect of I think what we’re now just starting to see is a network effect. Because as we’re seeing more progress and more girls and women getting rights, there are actually more girls and women who’ve got rights who are now speaking up like the rest of us for those who haven’t – so there are more and more and more voices that are there to call for change.

So the more that we can be and give a voice to those that still don’t have one, the more that we can all shout for change, the more that we can give that platform to those voices demanding change, I believe the more irresistible that movement will become, until in the end actually every country will have to move forward.

I talked about John Stuart Mill at the beginning of this speech. I don’t want someone to be here in my place in 150 years’ time talking about this day, this speech I made, that other people made, because they’re here also having to make a similar speech about the need for more pace and urgency on women’s rights because there’s still more to do.

It’s too long to wait.

In our lifetimes, for our girls, for our children, for everyone – let’s all of us, men and women, girls and boys, finish off that job. Let’s make women equal.

Stitched Brown College 27 Jersey Antonio Maroon Thank you.

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Published 8 March 2016
Last updated 11 March 2016
  1. Updated from speaking notes to transcript of delivered speech.
  2. First published.