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Maria MillerMaria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and also Minister for Women and Equalities. Follow Maria on Twitter.

On 8 March 1913 – the first year that 8
March became International Women’s Day after its inauguration two years earlier
– the vote for women and permission to stand as an MP were still five years
away. It was six years before the first female MP, the Conservative Nancy
Astor, took her seat in Parliament. It would then be another 60 years until the
country voted in our first female, Conservative Prime Minister.

The last hundred years have been
revolutionary for women. In Britain today, parents know their sons and
daughters will grow up in a society where we all agree that there should be equal
opportunities, regardless of gender.

Of course there is always more we must
do. Women in the UK, and around the world, still find themselves vulnerable to
exploitation.


That is why our announcements this week
have been so important. My colleague Justine Greening, Secretary of State for
DfID, has announced initiatives including tackling violence against women and
girls in Afghanistan and delivering contraceptive devices to 20 million women.

Our Foreign Secretary has also used International
Women’s Day as a platform to speak out powerfully against sexual violence in
conflict, with events conducted by our embassies around the world spreading
this campaign.

Here in the UK, our Home Secretary,
Theresa May, is publishing the ‘2013
Action Plan
’ to tackle domestic violence against women and girls.

We want to punish the people that abuse others in the
home, which is why we have widened the definition of domestic violence to
include both verbal and physical abuse. We have launched a campaign to increase
recognition of domestic violence, and invested £40 million in services for
victims. We are introducing two new criminal offences of stalking, we are
piloting ‘Clare’s Law’, and we have made forced marriage a criminal offence.

We should not tolerate women feeling
victimised, abandoned or alone and we are bringing in measures that confront
this where we can. I welcome International Women’s Day as a chance to stand up
and make this argument – and we will carry on making the argument until women
no longer face these problems either at home or around the world.

But International Women’s Day is also a
time to reflect on our approach to women more generally.

Unlike the Labour party who would rather
play political games with gender, we know that for women, just as much as for
men, mending Labour’s broken economy is the number one priority. Recent polling
puts the economy as the most important issue for 60 per cent of women and 61
per cent of men. No one wants to leave debt for their children.

Our most important achievement for women
to date – just as it is for men – is that we have cut Labour’s deficit by a
quarter in just two years. Equally, our most important commitment to women is
that we stay the course and persevere. This must be our priority. To be able to
compete and to secure the future for our children, we must deal with the
deficit and build a strong economy so we can pay our way in the world.

This strong economy must be built on the
foundation of aspiration – the belief that anyone can succeed and get on in
life. To this end, on International Women’s Day, we must focus on what is being
done to encourage and inspire women to fulfil their potential.

This starts early. Girls in the UK need to have the confidence and the
skills to pursue whatever career they choose. This means making sure there are
inspiring teachers who will support pupils to aim high. Today, I’ll be speaking
at the Science Museum with Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut,
encouraging girls to aim high. It is important to show our future generations
that a career in science and engineering isn’t just for men, and the best way
to educate young women is to give them somebody to look up to.

Encouraging aspiration is vital but we
also need to tackle any barriers to work women might still face. We have more
women in work than ever before and the gender pay gap is closing but it’s still not
enough. We’re introducing equal pay audits, and taking action to end sexual
discrimination and harassment in the workplace. On top of that, when women
reach the top we want to make sure that they are active on the boards of our
most prestigious organisations and companies. Over the last 2 years we have
seen a vast improvement and it’s through our voluntary, business-led approach
set out by Lord Davies, that this progress is being made. We are also
supporting women to set up their own businesses with the Women’s Business
Council and network of 5,000 business mentors.

So that parents can choose how to balance
work and family life, we are introducing flexible parental leave. We are also
striving to help with the cost of childcare, which is why we have invested an
extra £300 million in affordable childcare support under Universal Credit and
have set up a Childcare Commission to look at its affordability and
availability.

These are just some of the steps we are
taking to
make sure women can contribute fully to helping us build a rebalanced, strong
economy.

This is a Conservative-led
Government that is leading the way in global efforts to protect vulnerable
women. It is a Conservative-led Government that is delivering a strong economy.
It is a Conservative-led Government tackling barriers to work so that women can
aspire and fulfil their potential. These are the priorities that we should
celebrate today on International Women’s Day.

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