Transcript of speech by the British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata, Scott Furssedonn-Wood, at the roundtable consultation in Guwahati.
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends.
I am delighted to be here at this roundtable consultation on ‘tribal women’s rights in North East India: access to representation and justice.’ I have had the privilege of visiting all but one of the North East states and I am sure I have visited Assam a dozen times. I well understand the economic potential of the region as well as the challenge of ensuring sustainable peace, gender equality and good governance to make the potential into reality.
The British Deputy High Commission has engaged in a variety of government-to-government and people-to-people programmes in the North East and I have had the opportunity to attend these events and learn about the region and the challenges the region confronts. I have also had the privilege of meeting many committed and dynamic people who are trying to make a difference. I can honestly say it is the girls and women campaigning for their rights who have inspired me most.
So I am truly delighted to be here today and to be supporting the Centre for Development and Peace Studies in this very important programme to ensure tribal women’s access to representation and justice. It is clear that increasing women’s political and social participation brings about clear and positive changes in society. By the end of this consultation we will be clear on the steps needed to ensure greater involvement of women in this region in areas of governance, policy and decision-making.
A society can only achieve its full potential when all members of that society have equality of opportunity. When all its people, men or women, are looked upon and treated equally. That is why gender equality is such a vital issue. Gender inequalities and biases pervade cultures worldwide, preventing women and girls from fully realising their rights and fully contributing to global development. According to UN findings, half the world’s population is locked out today, prevented from being productive and from pursuing opportunities. The world average Gender Inequality Index score in 2011 was 0.492, which indicates a 49.2% loss in potential human development due to gender inequality. This is not a sustainable path to development.
And it is essential for women to be play a full and active role in the political process to ensure progressive growth. Although women make up more than half the world’s population, they represent only 20% of political leaders in the world. In Britain, we have always been at the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights but we are still not yet where we should be. Even as we campaign and work for gender equality around the world, we know we must continue to strive for true gender equality at home.
So why does it matter?
What some refer to as the ‘Girl Effect’ is essential for a sustainable world. In education, we know that getting girls through primary and secondary school works; more time in education means that girls face a lower risk of sexual violence, they marry later, have fewer children, and have better health outcomes for the children they do have. It’s better for them and their families and communities.
We know that when a woman generates her own income she re-invests 90% of it in her family and community. This is better for economies and countries. In India, states with more women in work have seen faster economic growth and the largest reductions in poverty.
Countries with higher civic engagement and stronger attitudes towards equality and fairness towards women have significantly higher levels of per capita income in the long run.
Conversely, locking out women is bad for the economy and for society. That seems obvious, and yet it’s still happening, in too many places and for too many women. Women perform two thirds of the world’s work, produce half of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property.
We urgently need to address this.
The economic empowerment of girls and women is essential to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and wider development outcomes.
Research clearly demonstrates that women’s political participation achieves real changes – in policy choices and in social and political institutions. For example, in villages in West Bengal and Rajasthan where women hold leadership roles, there is more likely to be increased investment in public services and infrastructure.
The UK is committed to support women’s rights both at home and internationally. Our development ministry, the Department for International Development’s (DFID) has already made changing the lives of girls and women a core priority. We launched the Strategic Vision for Girls and Women back in 2011. Since then the UK has campaigned internationally to change the lives of millions for the better.
In India, the UK government has worked in a number of ways to support women’s rights. This has included a number of projects focusing on empowering women, on the legal status of women, and on combating sex trafficking. This CDPS initiative to study tribal women’s rights in the North East and ways to improve their access to representation and justice is an important addition to that work.
CDPS must to congratulated for this excellent piece of work. I have read the preliminary findings of the CDPS study which point to:
- low awareness in North East India about gender equality and women’s rights
- low political representation of women in the North East; therefore women are not an effective part of the decision-making process.
- however, majority of the tribal women want to be a part of the political process
- tribal women in North East are aware of justice as their lawful right, but they few approach courts; and
- there is a general agreement for the need to significantly improve awareness in North East on women’s rights
While these conclusions seem challenging they can also be seen as opportunities to act and by doing so to strengthen the society and economy of this region. Government and civil society can work together on initiatives to empower women, build capacity and knowledge and encourage more women to participate in politics and governance.
The potential of India’s northeast is considerable. That potential is built on the strength of its human resources. But it will only ever be achieved if every member of society – of whatever gender, religion or ethnic background – has the opportunity to realise their own potential and to make a full contribution to the political and economic life of their society.
There is much work to do but today is an important step. I wish the consultation well and am confident that a big difference can be made in the northeast that will transform individual lives and in turn build a brighter, more prosperous and more secure future for everyone who calls this region home.