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Speeches

F. Hodgson: Address on the Centennial of International Women's Day

Address to a joint Women's Federation for World Peace and Universal Peace Federation commemoration
Centennial International Women's Day
London, United Kingdom, March 9, 2011

Lady Fiona Hodgson reviewed the situation of women around the world and the recent launch of United Nations Women. She asked, 'So, why do we need an International Women’s Day when we don’t have a special day for men? Well, the simple answer is that today in the 21st century there is still no country in the world where women have equality in political, social and economic terms.

Lady Fiona Hodgson speaking

Some people celebrated the centenary of the International Women's Day last year, and it would have made almost as much sense to do so in 1957 since, on March 8, 1857, the first rally staged by women labourers to dramatise their plight took place outside a clothes factory in New York City. Chief among their complaints were the comparatively low salary for women, long hours of work, and the heavier workload assigned to female workers. Notwithstanding the rally, their complaints fell on deaf ears!

There is also some debate between socialists and trades unionists in Europe and the USA about the origins of International Women’s Day.  However,  there is a consensus that in Copenhagen in 1910 an International Conference of Women agreed that Women‘s Days, which had been celebrated on the last Sunday in February in some places and on March 19 in others, should become one agreed International Women‘s Day. So International Women‘s Day was first celebrated as such in 1911. And everyone agrees that, during the United Nations International Women's Year (1975), the UN began celebrating International Women's Day on March 8, which is why we are here today.

So, why do we need an International Women’s Day when we don’t have a special day for men? Well, the simple answer is that today in the 21st century there is still no country in the world where women have equality in political, social, and economic terms. Today women make up 70% of the 1.2 billion people across the world who live in poverty. And in many countries women are the poorest of the poor. Women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food but only earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property. Women suffer from a disproportionate lack of access to education and health care, - there are still countries where women are denied the right to vote and stand for election; and in most countries there are few women in senior political and decision-making positions.

In the UK that is certainly still the case. When one looks at the  UK in terms of world rankings of women in politics: the UK ranks 53rd, having 22% women parliamentarians, on par with the Czech Republic, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan. And our sisters in the US, who we think of as being very strong and empowered, are even worse off politically: the US ranks 72 (on par with Turkmenistan), having only 16.8% of its parliamentarians being women.

130 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, a human rights abuse, and in many societies rape victims are considered an affront to a family’s honour, resulting in as many as 5,000 “honour killings per year.” For women in many parts of the world violence and discrimination are an every day reality; violence affects at least one in three women worldwide, and one in five women will suffer rape or attempted rape in the course of their lifetime. Even in Britain, in spite of all the publicity, still an average of 2 women a week are killed through domestic violence. In many countries of the world today, in the 21st century, girls may be traded as chattels and sold off to be married at a very young age to a man they have never met.

I know that others, far more expert than I, are talking about health today, but the figures are so terrible that I didn’t feel that I could leave them out: every day across the world nearly 1,000 women die needlessly during pregnancy or childbirth for want of basic medical care. Which means that in total, every year, somewhere around a half million women die. Maternal mortality is an enormous global problem, and the Millennium Development goal on maternal health, is the one where the least impact has been made. And many women have no choice over whether to have a child or not – globally 215 million women still have no access to effective methods of family planning. And in countries where there is conflict, this impacts particularly on women, where it is estimated that 75% of casualties today are women and children.

So what can be done? Well I am glad that our Government has made the commitment that the UK is putting the well-being of women and children at the centre of its international aid policy.

And one way to help women is, as the title of this event this evening indicates, to give them ‘Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.’ Because if women can become more economically independent they can help themselves.

This concept is recognised at the highest levels. I returned 10 days ago from the Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the UN in New York, where this was their Priority Theme. The Commission on the Status of Women meeting (or CSW, as it is known) operates at government and NGO levels and gives us the chance to meet other women from all over the world and to discuss the issues. This was a particularly special year at CSW with the launch of UN Women, where the UN has brought the four agencies that were dealing with women into one, under the leadership of Michelle Bachelet. Those of us who were there found it a particularly moving occasion, and I have every confidence that this new structure will be able to offer better support to women around the world.

Women do need to be able to access education and training. Girls still account for 54% of the out-of-school population, and girls in rural areas and from the poorest households are less likely to enrol and stay in school. Getting girls into school begins a chain reaction of further benefits. Educated women have better maternal health, fewer and healthier children, and increased economic opportunities. They are also more likely to send their own children to school.

Some of the barriers to girls’ education are very basic needs – an adolescent girl does not want to share the same lavatories as boys. And in some countries parents stop their girls going to school because they are worried that they will be attacked on the way.

In Sierra Leone, where I visited last summer, many girls were not sent to secondary schools by their parents because many villages did not have secondary schools; so it meant sending their children to the local town, where they had to go and board during the week. Because the girls were inadequately supervised, many got raped. Thus they became pregnant, and this brought disgrace and the fact that they could then not be married.  Thus, parents preferred to keep their girls at home and marry them off early. But without education the cycle of poverty continues.

Access to education is a human right, and the Beijing Platform for Action emphasized the importance of both equal access for women and girls to education and training as well as employment. Today science and technology play evermore important roles and can offer opportunities for a broad range of well-paid employment. But gender stereotyping and discriminatory practices have resulted in women being grossly under-represented in these fields. So to ensure that women are fully engaged needs political will, financial resources and action. And to ensure that women are ‘at the table,' lending their voices, encouraging each other and sharing experiences, women need the tools and the training to make equality a reality.

Helping women is about helping the whole of society: when you invest in women, they invest that money into their families and you are investing in future generations. Women do not wish to be seen as victims. If we can help support women, they have the ability to transform their societies and can be the most powerful agents for change.

Lady Fiona Hodgson among many positions is the President of the National Conservative Convention, and the Former Chair of the Conservative Women’s Organisation March 2005-March 2008, a member of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, and the Chair of the Advisory Board of GAPS (Gender Action in Peace and Security).