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Education, education, education & democracy

Jan2011.jpgJan Royall on breaking down the barriers to women’s empowerment across the world

International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the condition and contribution of women throughout the globe and allows us to recognise how far we have come in securing greater diversity. But it also acts as a powerful reminder of how much further we have yet to go to securing true equality.

There is a desperate need for action in a world where women account for two-thirds of the world’s poorest, perform two-thirds of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food but earn only 10% of the income and own a mere 1% of its property. These women are making a huge contribution to economic life, and without them their families, their communities and their societies would crumble.  That is one of the many reasons why it is absolutely crucial that the post-2015 development framework must include the issue of women’s participation and influence in public and political life. 

I was privileged recently to be in Pakistan with a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) delegation, part of a partnership programme that has been established for women parliamentarians of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UK. We spent time with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus which, as well as continuing their work promoting pro- women legislation in the national parliament, intends to work closely with women legislators in the provincial assemblies to promote education as well as child and maternal health. Women’s lives are improving but there is an enormous gap between intention and implementation. There needs to be a change in culture and also a change in mindset, especially amongst men. This is a long process but without such change it will continue to remain a barrier to women’s empowerment. 

As in every country, education is key. In Pakistan the literacy rate is 46%, and only 26% for girls, but action is being taken and there are plans to double the amount of money spent from 2% of GDP to 4%. Enshrining the importance of learning in the fabric of society can liberate a generation of women. 

There is also absolutely no doubt that democracy leads to freedom for women. Some women in our country died for the vote and all over the world they are still giving their lives for democracy. Pakistan is a country with many challenges, not least in relation to security, but its democratic institutions are developing and last year saw the first smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another.  

During my visit to Pakistan I was also fortunate enought to meet with two extraordinary, passionate female MPs from Afghanistan who are strong and courageous advocates of women’s empowerment. They live in a country where 40% of girls have access to education but where schools are still destroyed; where women have new found freedoms, but where they are constantly being threatened. These women literally risk their lives for democracy, yet to our shame only 64% of women voted in the UK’s 2010 General Election and only 42% in the 2009 elections to the European Parliament. 

It is our duty to do everything we can to work for a more gender balanced society in every way, using the talents of all. We know that where women are in positions of influence and power they make a difference so we have to do more, much more, to address the barriers standing in their way.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of the Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall

Published 6th March 2014

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