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6 Mar 2003 : Column 984—continued

Ms Dari Taylor: The hon. Lady speaks with passion about attitude change, and I think that what has been said so far is absolutely right. The current view in the criminal justice system is that street crime is the most grievous crime that it must handle. There are 160,000 street crimes a year, but there are 290,000 crimes of domestic violence a year. We must tell those in the criminal justice system that they are wrong. It is high time there were more women, or at least more balanced people, acknowledging that problematic attitudes often arise within the system that constantly churns out such decisions.

Mrs. May: I agree that attitudes within a system often produce barriers preventing the progress that we want to make. Domestic violence is an important issue, and if the hon. Lady will bear with me I will deal with it specifically later.

Education is the key to the necessary change in attitudes. It teaches women about good health care, which in turn reduces the rate of infant mortality. Literate mothers are 50 per cent. more likely to immunise their children, and the risk of premature child death is reduced by 8 per cent. for each year that a mother has spent in primary school. Britain is

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committed to the United Nations millennium goal of equal access to education for the sexes by 2005, but we are a long way short of that. In early April the Global Campaign for Education's week of action will highlight the problem, and try to energise Governments into making fresh efforts to reach that important target.

It is not just at primary level, however, that education can make a difference. Training and education at all levels can transform the futures of women in developing countries. The Minister gave a number of examples of the way in which working with women could improve their conditions and employability in various countries. Last year I visited a charity called Feed the Children, based in my constituency, which has had a significant success with its micro-finance strategy, teaching women's groups and helping them to found small businesses and reinvest the profits in the community. It gives small loans to the co-operatives, enabling them to expand their businesses. The loans are repaid at very low interest rates, and an extra amount is put into a savings account to which access is allowed at the end of the loan period. If a loan has been repaid, the group can apply for a larger loan, and the virtuous cycle continues.

That model has been running for more than 10 years, and operates on three continents. The key to its success lies in the training given to women to enable them to succeed. Rather than giving them money and expecting them to go away and make it work, Feed the Children offers support at every step along the road, training, teaching and encouraging. It believes in the women. As a result, repayment rates are outstanding. For example, in Sierra Leone, where Feed the Children has worked with a fishing business, the rate stands at 98 per cent. after three loan cycles. That is a country that was believed to be beyond such assistance. It is women who make the system work, because they understand the importance of reinvesting the savings in their children and the community.

The model has worked from Uganda to Guatemala, and has transcended cultural and economic differences of every hue. I am sad to report, however, that attempts to encourage a similar scheme in Afghanistan have come to nothing, because the eyes of the world no longer look on that country. The promises of aid given so fulsomely by world Governments have not yet borne fruit. We must not let the opportunity given to us by the bold action of the coalition against terror slip away in bureaucratic wrangling. We have a responsibility to the women of Afghanistan not to let that happen. The nations that promised aid should deliver it quickly, or a final chance to rescue Afghanistan will have been lost. Charities such as Feed the Children show that with the right training and with adequate, well-targeted funds, women can lead the way in rebuilding shattered communities and societies.

It is through education that the barriers to female inequality can be challenged throughout the world. The lack of education to prevent the spread of sexual disease, for example, is possibly the most pressing problem in sub-Saharan Africa—the Minister mentioned this—where teenage girls are five times more likely than boys to be infected. Last year 1.3 million women died of HIV/AIDS, and some older women are looking after as many as 40 orphaned grandchildren. Education is also vital to

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the prevention of violence against women—not just abroad, as I shall explain shortly. Genital mutilation, human trafficking and prostitution are just some of the horrors facing girls and women in developing countries. They cannot be dealt with only through aid, although aid is needed; they cannot be dealt with by legislation, although legislation can help. It is through a programme of education—education of both sexes—that women's freedom will be attained.

For too long we have concentrated on pure statistics as a barometer of progress, perhaps at the expense of the wider role that women fulfil as workers, carers, mothers and volunteers. Is that incredible diversity to be denigrated because it does not improve official statistics on equality? Might that narrow focus be preventing us from tackling more important issues, such as the crisis in pension provision or the shocking statistics on domestic violence, to which the hon. Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) referred? One in four women suffers from domestic violence. On average, a woman suffers 35 attacks before she goes to the police; 50,000 women and children seek sanctuary from domestic abuse every week. Most worrying of all, two women and two children die every week at the hands of a partner or former partner.

We welcome the forthcoming Green Paper on domestic violence and look forward to working constructively with the Government on the issue. However, although we welcome legislation, it must be recognised that domestic violence will be truly defeated only when attitudes are changed. Sadly, 20 per cent. of young men, and even 10 per cent. of young women, still think that abuse or violence against a partner is acceptable. The campaign to end drink driving shows that legislation alone does not produce results. Only when a younger generation of drivers came through, who believed that drink driving was unacceptable, did the problem begin to be rolled back.

Indeed, the drink driving campaign inspired my party's domestic violence posters last Christmas, which were supported by the Police Federation and Women's Aid and endorsed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We wholeheartedly welcomed the recent BBC "Hitting Home" project, which really brought home to people the nature of the problem of domestic violence and its prevalence, sadly, for all too many women. Many women in this country live in dangerous and vulnerable situations and we must help them.

It is also true that what might be described as the "machinery of government"—the system—is still not always as responsive as it should be to the needs of women. The benefits system remains too complicated; women are often unsure about what they are entitled to and for what they can claim. Pensions, too, are complicated and make no allowance for the many women who are carers. Women live longer than men; the majority of pensioners are female, yet too many women do not have enough on which to live comfortably.

The efforts of the past 100 years to improve female equality have achieved notable success—indeed, I should not be standing here if they had not. To continue our progress, however, we need to find a new language and a new mindset or understanding of what constitutes

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"equality" in the 21st century. We need a modernisation of our intellectual response to old arguments about equality and progress.

I pose this question for everybody. Let us say that we all woke up tomorrow and found that women had equal representation in all walks of life and that all pay differentials had genuinely disappeared: would that remove the need for an international women's day? I suggest that it would not.

Equality under the law, equality in business and politics, and equality of opportunity are all important and vital; but it is in equality of the mind that the changes really matter. We need equalities of attitude and the acceptance that everyone's choice is equal and that statistics alone do not produce an equal society. That is the challenge facing the future of international women's day; it is a challenge that faces us all.

2.13 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I welcome this debate and the opening contribution to it by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women. On this day and in this year, I want to pay tribute to the courage, professionalism and sheer hard work of women Members of Parliament in Tanzania, whom I had the privilege of meeting last month. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Muleba, North, Ruth Msafiri, who took me to her constituency and showed me the work that she had been doing. Last week, even The Guardian referred to me as a hard-working constituency MP, so that must be right. I would have agreed until I experienced the work of the honourable Ruthie, as she is known in her constituency, and realised that I actually have time to sleep. I cannot believe that the honourable Ruthie can get through as much as she does and find enough time to sleep.

Since 1999, the British Council in east and central Africa has run a programme to support and encourage women in politics. I pay tribute to the council for its incredibly good work in increasing the number of women in effective leadership. The project, which is entitled "Just Big Cars and Leaky Roofs?", involves a work-shadowing exchange in which 14 women from seven east and central African countries and 14 women from throughout the United Kingdom took part. The aim is to ensure that more women are involved in politics, and that they begin to appreciate the nature of the role of a Member of Parliament and how they can encourage more women to enter politics in order to improve the lifestyle of women in those countries.

The programme's title arose from research in east and central Africa which concluded that most electors thought of their MPs only in terms of big cars and that MPs visiting their constituencies felt that the only demand made of them was to improve leaky roofs. The title thus encapsulates the results of the British Council survey.

It was a salutary experience for me to sit in the Gallery of the Parliament in Dodoma. Looking down, I was enthralled to see a wonderful red semicircle. People addressed the Speaker, who sat high above them—even higher than you, Madam Deputy Speaker—well above contradiction. Three clerks sat below the Speaker. The mace may not have been as lavish as ours, but it was carried in with as much dignity. I was delighted to find

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that there was no second Chamber. Of the 282 Members of Parliament, 61—or 21 per cent.—are women. However, unlike our system, only 12 of those women Members, including the honourable Ruthie, are elected. The others hold special seats and two are presidential appointees. The British Council is anxious, as I am, that more women should be elected, but before we criticise that system we should understand the situation in which it developed.

The Tanzanian Government are committed to getting more women into Parliament and, because they realise that there is hostility to women who put themselves forward, they have ensured that there are appointed places for women. Those women are now looking for elected seats so that they will be fully accountable, as they see it, to their electorates.

The work undertaken by those women is impressive. Although I was not able to follow in Swahili the debates and question time that I was privileged to watch, their body language—their great dignity and confidence—was evident. A woman Minister answered questions and a woman deputy Minister and other women contributed to the debate.

An all-party women's group invited me to a question and answer session. They wanted to know how we planned to meet the 30 per cent. Beijing target for women on elected bodies, especially Parliament, by 2005. They know how they will do so. They will have as many elected women as possible, topped up with appointed Members, so that at the 2005 election they will have reached the 30 per cent. target.

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