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Baroness Sugg: Our next Conservative Prime Minister must be a leader for women and girls

5 min read

When crises hit, vulnerable groups are disproportionately impacted. Over the past few years of Covid and economic stress, we’ve seen the effects on women and girls and how gender equality has been rolled back by a generation around the world.

Crises – whether conflict, climate, economic or health – hit women and girls hardest. As the Conservative Party asks itself who is best placed to lead the country at a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, the price of childcare, the ongoing Covid and mental health impacts and when the world is challenged with conflict and economic crises, it is critical that the next Prime Minister prioritises policies that work for women and girls. 

Lockdowns during Covid-19 affected women’s access to family planning and safe childbirth, exposed them to more violence and increased their share of care and housework. Around the world, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change as they are more dependent on, yet have the least access to, our world’s depleting natural resources. And as we see multiple conflicts occur in our volatile world, women and girls are at acute risk of trafficking, abuse, homelessness, displacement, and many forms of violence. 

In the United Kingdom, we are seeing how the cost of living is hurting women. Women are often less likely to have savings to fall back on, more likely to be single parents, and less likely than men to be able to take on more paid work because of existing caring responsibilities. 

Childcare costs are rising – the UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world. This is leaving an estimated 1.7 million women unable to work and just this month, the Young Women’s Trust released a report showing that six in ten women that have had abortions in the UK did so because of childcare costs. 

In the world of work, British women are more likely to be in precarious work than men, more likely to be at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, and women still make up less than a third of “top” jobs in the UK contributing the gender pay gap where currently women are paid just 90p for every £1 earned by a man.

The overturning of Roe vs Wade demonstrated the ease and speed that women’s rights can be taken away

Gender-based violence is prevalent. Two women are killed by their partner every week in England and Wales. One in three 16- to 18-year-old girls report having experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. Every year 400,000 women are sexually assaulted, and 80,000 women are raped. These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, compounded with low conviction rates for domestic and sexual violence.

As the new Prime Minister establishes herself or himself on the world stage, specific areas of hard-won women’s rights are being stripped back around the globe. Women and girls are facing massive restrictions in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. Legal protections are being dismantled in countries such as Turkey, who have withdrawn from the landmark Istanbul Convention – a ground-breaking and comprehensive framework for combatting gender-based violence. Sexual and reproductive health is under attack - the overturning of Roe vs Wade demonstrated the ease and speed that women’s rights can be taken away.  

Right now, the world feels a precarious place to be a woman. That’s why the next leader of the Conservative Party and our next Prime Minister needs to be fully committed to championing gender equality and challenging those abuses taking place here in the UK and around the world. 

The UK has previously been a respected leader in championing gender equality as part of our British values of equality and fairness. We used to see investing in opportunities for women and girls to be part of the economy as a critical engine for growth and progress. Recent cuts to UK aid undermined that, and research by humanitarian charity CARE International showed UK funding cuts resulted in a gap in £1.9 billion for aid to women and girls.

Investing in women and girls both here and overseas is the right action to take – not just to create a fairer society for all but also for the knock-on wider tangible benefits. Imagine how much more productive our economy would be if women had control over their bodies and family planning, if they weren’t leaving the workplace due to spiralling childcare costs. We know that women have “the multiplier effect” – when one woman escapes poverty, she brings four others in her circle with her. Women are not only more likely to be affected by poverty, but they can also be the solution to overcoming it. 

When I entered government, the UK commanded significant power and influence internationally because of our commitment to the British values of fairness and equality, and because of our investment in people as the engines of their own communities and futures. Investing intentionally in women and girls is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do. As the coming weeks are dominated by this important leadership contest, I’m calling on all candidates to make specific and measurable commitments to women and girls.

The UK can – and should – be a leader in gender equality, both domestically and through our international relations and development work. Let’s ensure our new Prime Minister takes the opportunity to improve the lives of women and girls here in the UK and around the world.

 

Baroness Sugg CBE is a Conservative life peer and a former international development minister.

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