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British parliamentarians must lead the way in fighting for equality both at home and abroad

3 min read

In Ukraine, International Women’s Day is usually a public holiday, an opportunity to mark the unique role women play in the culture of the whole nation. This year will be very different. Thousands of Ukrainian women, their children and family members are forced to flee their homeland, fearing for their lives, as the country faces brutal attack from a mindless dictator.

In Afghanistan just 12 months ago on International Women’s Day, that nation celebrated the remarkable contribution made by Afghan women to tackling the challenges of the Covid pandemic. Now, the hard-won progress made on women’s rights over the past two decades has been reversed, with a new Taliban government having no place for the 67 women elected to the Afghan parliament.

These events remind us that democracy is fragile, it has to be nurtured and can never be taken for granted. On this International Women’s Day, as parliamentarians we should focus every fibre of our body on how we strengthen democracy at home and abroad. Parliaments are there to be representative of the people. Women playing their proper role in Parliament is not a bonus or an optional extra, it’s essential for our legitimacy.      

The evidence is that as democracies around the world come under pressure, women’s rights and their democratic participation can be easily eroded. Twenty-seven years on from the 1995 United Nations Beijing Platform for Action, which demanded worldwide equal participation for women in political decision making, progress has been slow; just one in four elected representatives around the world is a woman. 

As parliamentarians, for International Women’s Day 2022, let’s call for a renewed commitment to women’s equal role in political decision-making; we need to ensure progress on securing women’s role in democratic institutions around the globe is strengthened, not reversed. 

Internationally, UK parliamentarians and the government make it a priority to support women and girls. The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association play a pivotal role in working with legislative bodies around the world, including support for more women to be elected and effective parliamentarians. The government’s programme of support for young women overseas through education has been consistent and powerful. In December, the Foreign Secretary announced the government will focus on providing women and girls around the world with the freedom they need to succeed.

On this International Women’s Day it has never been more important for our own Parliament to be an exemplar

An equal role in political decision making has to be a crucial part of that. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, set up by the UK government to provide a delivery arm for democratic capacity building programmes, has expertise in how to deliver this strategic objective effectively, turning those ideals into on the ground delivery.

But as democracy faces threats across the globe, on this International Women’s Day it has never been more important for our own Parliament to be an exemplar. In Westminster there are still twice as many men as there are women elected to represent UK constituencies, demonstrating the challenges even embedded democracies have in ensuring legislatures provide the sort of equal participation UN member states looked to secure for women more than two decades ago. 

As the Women and Equalities Select Committee report published last week illustrates, more than five years on from Professor Sarah Childs’ ‘Good Parliament Report’ many of that publication’s recommendations remain unanswered. Parties are adopting a variety of measures to get more women elected, but the weight of evidence is that we also need to address the culture and working practices in Parliament and those associated with being an MP to completely remove the real barriers to equal representation that still exist. 

I want the debate to mark International Women’s Day 2022 to be a call for action for our own Parliament: Westminster has to be a truly gender sensitive parliament to thrive in a changing world. 

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