It is a privilege to join your panel of distinguished speakers today. On behalf of the coalition government I congratulate GAPs for this campaign and warmly endorse its calls for the protection of women in conflict and their greater representation in peace building. I am confident that both aims will find strong support across all political parties here in the Houses of Parliament.
Security Council Resolution 1325 is ten years old, but injustices against women and inspirational courage by them in the face of war are emblazoned on history and continue to this day.
As Foreign Secretary I would like to pay tribute to the many heroic women who fearlessly confront violence and oppression to champion peace, the rights of women, or the fight against poverty.
The British aid workers Linda Norgrove and Karen Woo were two such women. They join the ranks of countless others who have dedicated their lives - and in some cases given their lives - to rebuilding societies ravaged in the face of impossible difficulties and to standing up for human rights and democracy. Some, like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, are well known to us. Others who brave death to teach Afghan girls, help young mothers get access to healthcare in Pakistan or support victims of rape in Africa, do not make the headlines but command our respect, our admiration, and our support.
For it remains an appalling fact that the burden of war falls disproportionately on women and children. I have seen this in the refugee camps of Darfur and among the displaced survivors of the Srebrenica massacre.
Yet women are still under-represented in peace negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution worldwide.
Even in Britain, in conditions of peace and political stability, women have been held back from playing their full role in the past. One of the reasons that I am particularly keen to see more women thriving at the top of the Foreign Office in senior positions is that for most of the first fifty years of the twentieth century women were not permitted to serve in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. It was not until 1946 that women were able to even apply to serve as Diplomats, and then, until 1972, they were required to resign if they got married.
This was despite instances of women stepping forward in times of emergency to take up roles occupied by men, and not just during the First and Second World Wars. Two hundred years earlier, FCO archives record the case of Mrs White who took over as British Consul in Tripoli when her husband died in 1763, and who ran official business with aplomb for two years before a successor arrived in post. There was also the case of Mrs Wolters, who is said to have run a British spy network in Rotterdam for at least 14 years after the death of her husband in 1771. And I am convinced from my own historical research that one reason why William Pitt the Younger felt able to shoulder the daunting responsibility of being Prime Minister aged twenty four was not only that his father had held that office, but that he had seen his mother run the country for eighteen months in 1763 when her husband was incapacitated by depression.
In all these instances talented women demonstrated qualities we know they have possessed throughout history; resourcefulness, dedication, intellect and sheer grit and endurance. Today we all know how absurd the arguments were that were put forward to justify holding women back - for example, to cite one argument once used in the Foreign Office, that it took four women to do the job of two men. We are now fortunate to have talented women heading 31 of the UK’s mission overseas, including in Russia, South Africa and at NATO. But just fifty years ago it made international news headlines when the first female British diplomat hosted a press conference.
This should make us all the more determined and persistent in pursuing women’s rights in other countries.
For no society can address its problems by drawing only on the talents of one of the sexes.
No society can be free while the rights of one half of its citizens are curtailed.
No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met - not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices are heard.
And internationally, we cannot hope to find just and equitable solutions to global problems unless women are involved at every stage. We will not redress this balance until all women have access to the education and opportunity which is their birthright, and surmount the barriers erected by prejudice, political oppression, intolerance, or hatred. There are no shortcuts and regrettably human rights are slipping back in some parts of the world.
This brings me to how the coalition government will approach women’s issues in matters of peace and security.
First, we have pledged that human rights will be at the heart of our foreign policy. We will not pursue a foreign policy without a conscience and we will speak out against abuses whenever and wherever they occur, as we have done in the case of Sakineh Ashtiani in Iran and many others like her who are denied their rights. We are also setting up a new Human Rights Expert Advisory Group to advise me on human rights in our foreign policy, in addition to the daily work done by our Embassies and High Commissions.
My colleague Andrew Mitchell has said that women and girls are front and centre in our development policy. The Deputy Prime Minister represented the UK at the Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York last month, where he announced new commitments by Britain that will save the lives of 50,000 mothers and a quarter of a million babies by 2015.
We will ensure that wherever Britain is engaged militarily overseas, we take full account of the needs of women and children. In Afghanistan the FCO, MoD and DFID are working with the Afghanistan government on strict codes of conduct for the armed forces involved to protect innocent civilians. Through the UN and bilaterally, we support programmes to advance the rule of law and women’s rights. We are helping the Ministry of Interior to develop opportunities for women in the Afghan Police and to design a female recruitment campaign. UK Female Engagement Officers are being deployed in support of battle groups this month to improve military engagement with female Afghan civilians. We fund the only independent women’s organisation that is providing paralegal services to families, and we are supporting the opening of a women’s refuge in Lashkar Gar by April 2011 to provide safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence and forced marriage. And we continue to help young female Afghan scholars through the UK’s Chevening Scholarship programme.
Internationally, we will push for the full implementation of UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions which have built on it, starting at the meeting of the UN Security Council this month to mark the 10th anniversary of the resolution.
We will call for the remaining seven countries which have not signed the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination of Women to do so.
We will urge effective reform of UN bodies that oversee and drive forward implementation of commitments on human rights and women. We welcome the agreement to form the group ‘UN Women’ and the strong ledearship that will be provided by Under Secretary General Michelle Bachelet.
We will support increased women’s participation in peace building. For example in Nepal we are funding projects to increase the participation of women from some of the most marginalised communities, including indigenous, rural and Dalit women, in peace building. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo we are funding a national women’s network to encourage political parties to increase enrolment of women on electoral lists ahead of the coming elections.
We will support education for girls and young women. In Pakistan, where the population is set to grow to 300m over the next 30 or 40 years, and where education rates are historically low at some 40%, we are working with President Zardari to improve education prospects including for girls.
And we will take forward the UK’s revised National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and encourage those countries which have not developed similar plans to do so, particular those affected by conflict where action can make the most difference.
It was Virginia Woolf who wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that women have been “all but absent from history”, and the “great movements which…constitute the historian’s view of the past”. She would no doubt write equally eloquently of the confinement of women to the footnotes of conflict and peace building for much of the past. But through the work of this campaign and others like it, and the active support and diplomatic engagement of governments around the world, we can ensure that women are written into the future as they deserve, and that our ability to avert and address conflict worldwide is enriched and improved as a result.
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