International Women’s Day is being celebrated for the 99th time this year having started in 1911 when women in the UK did not have the vote and equality was a distant glimmer on the horizon. Since then we have thankfully seen many milestones fall but women still face many challenges both at home and abroad. From the gender pay gap of over 16% to the shocking numbers of women being raped, we as a society still have a long way to go before women feel safe and have choice over their own lives.
Of the many challenges that will face an incoming government after the next election, the persistence of various forms of violence against women will be among the most serious. Three million women experience violence each year in the UK, through domestic violence, rape, trafficking, ‘honour’-based violence and other forms.
One of the most extreme forms of violence against women – that of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or “cutting”- shows the stark reality too many women face. This practice is illegal in the UK yet latest research gives a conservative estimate that 77,000 women and young girls in the UK have been mutilated, and around 24,000 young girls are at risk.
Furthermore, the number of women being forced into marriage is on the increase. The Government's Forced Marriage Unit received over 5,000 calls in 2008 for help from women who feared for their freedom and nearly half of the cases they handled involved repatriation to the UK.
In response to these figures, David Cameron and I launched our policy paper Ending Violence Against Women in 2008 which outlines the measures that a Conservative government would introduce and affirms our commitment to ensuring a cross-government approach to tackling violence which placed prevention at the heart of our strategy.
In November the Government produced its own long-awaited paper on tackling all forms of violence against women. There has been an urgent need for Ministers to take a more coordinated approach to this issue and I regret that this strategy has been so slow in coming.
I was disappointed that they failed to take up some of the specific measures we proposed. A Conservative government will increase the number of health visitors, who give valued support to women who have just given birth, the time at which domestic violence can often begin. We will explore New York City’s example of proactive policing against domestic violence which has seen domestic murder rates fall significantly. And we will end the early release of prisoners which has seen domestic violence offenders released without any risk assessment and allowed to return to their partner’s homes. I am pleased that the Government had already accepted our call to safeguard benefit payments for women with children when they are first forced to seek safety in a refuge centre, payments that could have been cut under their original plans.
As modern Conservatives we want to support women in every role they play, down whichever path their circle of life takes them. Help for vulnerable women, support for working women, and choice for families are key to our domestic policies and above all we want to raise the aspirations of every woman – from here at home in Britain to women abroad in the developing world.
It is still the case that women bear the overwhelming burden of extreme poverty and deprivation in the developing world. Over 70 % of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people are women and this appalling situation is getting worse as we speak. Currently girls constitute over two thirds of the 130 million children who have no access to basic education.
David Cameron has therefore reaffirmed our commitment to meet the internationally agreed goal of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income spent on aid by 2013. He has set out some bold and radical ideas which will help women in their fight against poverty. Using women as recipients of aid would be an important step in improving development and ensuring equality and a commitment to primary education for all would help lower birth rates and promote female choice over marriage. More than anything else ensuring equal participation of women across all spheres of society is crucial to economic growth and development.
These are just some of the policies which we have announced as part of our five point plan for “Women in the World Today”. With these proposals we want to follow a joined-up, common sense approach to women’s issues and make our modern world a fairer place for everybody.