Most of today’s headlines predictably focussed on the budget, but yesterday was important for another reason – International Women’s Day. As the Chancellor himself said in his budget speech, there is “no room for complacency” on women’s rights.
So the question is, what are they going to do?.
When the Prime Minister was pressed on this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, all she could say was that she is a woman and so is the new MP for Copeland. Well we knew that already. But it’s the Prime Minister’s record, and her government’s record, that matters, and it isn’t an inspiring one.
When the Tories came to power in 2010, the ground-breaking Equality Act had just become law. But the newly appointed Equalities Minister wasted no time in systematically undermining both the Act itself and the Commission responsible for enforcing it. That former Equalities Minister is now the Prime Minister, but her gender doesn’t change the fact that women in the UK still earn an average 18 per cent less than men.
But the challenge of International Women’s Day is to look at these issues from a global perspective, not just a national one. We should be appalled, for example, that more than a third of the world’s women have been victims of sexual violence at some point in their life. And that in some countries, rates of child marriage are as high as 76 per cent. And that access to maternal health care is so poor that around 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every single day.
The list goes on. But progress in tackling these global challenges remains frustratingly slow. In some ways we have even gone into reverse. In the United States, we’ve had a presidential election in which one of the most qualified candidates in history, who just happened to be a woman, lost to a man who bragged not only about his lack of experience and qualifications for the post, but also about having sexually assaulted women.
At times like these, the UK needs a progressive, unambiguously pro-equality vision on foreign policy.
Sweden’s Margot Wallström proudly talks of her feminist perspective on foreign policy, which she describes as a set of “tools and ideas you can use to make sure we live up to human rights”.
For the UK, taking this kind of approach would mean making sure that women are fully represented in peace negotiations and peacekeeping forces, wherever in the world they are needed. It would place a premium on multilateralism, working with agencies such as UN Women, the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organisation, to name just a few.
Even the Tories used to be interested in foreign policy which gave proper focus to issues affecting women. But while we used to have William Hague and Angelina Jolie Pitt co-chairing international summits on violence against women, now we just have … Boris.
There’s a serious point here of course. At a time of appalling violence and crushing poverty in the Middle East and Africa, with the mass movement of refugees on a scale unlike any seen before in our lifetimes, we need some recognition that women and girls can be particularly vulnerable. We need a foreign policy which responds to challenges like forced marriage, and which speaks to the particular needs of women and girls at risk of being sold into slavery.
Of course, the real test of any government’s commitment to women’s rights must be actions. Warm words and good photo-ops aren’t enough. And while we’ve had plenty of rhetoric from the Tories, it will take a Labour government to deliver a truly progressive foreign policy, which puts women’s rights front and centre where they belong.