Sat, 17 Sep 2011
Speaking at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference today [Saturday], Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone said:
Conference – the Liberal Democrats have now been in Government for more than 500 days.
And I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking – this is tough.
And I know that it hasn’t always been easy; and that at times the reality of this Coalition business is very tough.
But that is the point. That is what we are here for.
Because who are we – if not the party who makes the hard calls.
We are the ones who opposed Iraq – when no one else did;
Who championed the Green agenda – when no one else did;
Who warned of the banking crisis – when no one else did;
And who stood up to Rupert Murdoch – when no one else did.
And now, we’re trailblazers all over again, forming the first coalition since the Second World War –
And I understand that it can be challenging for us all.
In fact, sometimes, I let myself dream about what we could get done if we were in power by ourselves.
What a Liberal Democrat Britain would look like.
Perhaps we’d start by investing extra money in the most vulnerable children, I think;
Or by cutting tax for the lowest earners, instead of the highest.
Perhaps we’d bring back the earnings link for pensions; and create more apprenticeships for young people.
We could invest billions in green technology.
And make life easier for parents who want to share their childcare duties.
Pinch! - this is no dream - this is a reality!
This is what we are doing: right here, right now.
And conference, this reality is down to you.
Because you campaigned for it, because you fought for it – We are delivering it in Government.
People say Lib Dems are optimistic.
Well I agree!
For me – today it’s a Liberal Britain, tomorrow, a Liberal world!
So I want to talk to you about why for me, a Liberal world is so important.
At the end of last year I was appointed Ministerial Champion for tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Overseas.
Now this is an important role with a vital mission:
Because right now, rape and domestic violence are a higher risk for women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, traffic accidents or malaria.
This is simply deplorable. It is a scandal and an outrage that we should not accept.
So I am honoured to take on this role, a particular privilege in this landmark year for political rights and human dignity.
2011 brought the Arab Spring, which saw millions of people fight for those most basic of principles.
For freedom, for opportunity, for human rights. For Government by consent, and not by force.
So many brave people, who in the face of such brutal oppression, went out there and declared, “No more.”
But since taking this new role, the part of the revolution that interested me the most was the vital role played by women.
We saw women from Tunisia to Bahrain organising, leading, and participating in protests shoulder to shoulder with their countrymen.
In Yemen, a young women, Tawakul Karman, led the first demonstrations on a university campus against the vicious rule of President Saleh.
In Egypt, the video blog of Asmaa Mafouz, calling on her compatriots to fill Tahrir Square went viral, playing a significant role in the success of that event.
Women have been vital in movements from Martyr’s Square to Pearl Roundabout –
Marching, making speeches, treating the injured – shedding their traditional roles and refusing to be spectators to a revolution.
In Yemen President Saleh went as far to call these women un-Islamic for marching side by side with men.
So what did they do? They turned out in greater numbers than ever before.
Proud Muslims, proud women, and proud democrats.
But the truth is that while there were many women on the front line, experiencing the most joyous moments of the revolution,
There were just as many, away from the cameras, experiencing some of the darkest.
Periods of conflict always leave women and girls vulnerable to attack, and the instability caused by the Arab Spring has been no exception.
There are reports of rapes in Libya, assault in Bahrain, forced virginity tests in Egypt;
And who can forget watching those harrowing images of Iman al-Obeidi bursting into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli – desperate, but determined to tell gathered journalists how she had been raped by Gadaffi’s forces?
And the even more disturbing footage of her being forcibly gagged and bustled away by Government officials?
I was horrified, as I’m sure you were.
But the sad reality is that Iman could represent millions of women all over the world – terrified, abused, silenced.
But she refused to be silenced, and they must not be silenced any longer.
The Arab Spring has been a great political revolution – a fight for equality.
Equal rights to vote, equal access to the labour market, equal share in the future of your country – for all classes and races and religions.
But this must apply to women too.
Because while half their populations are isolated and marginalised, these new societies can never reach their full potential – economically, socially, or morally.
So I urge these new nations to ensure that this isn’t only a political revolution, but a social revolution as well.
That this Arab Spring is followed by a Feminist Summer, where women can vote, work, speak their minds and live free from violence.
In Egypt, activist Mozn Hassan was in Tahrir square every day until Mubarak resigned.
Yet when she and other women marched for their rights on International Women’s Day, they were harassed and threatened by the very men who they had once walked beside.
These heroic women are being told that now is not the time for women’s rights – that there are more important things to deal with.
Well I say, now IS the time.
Now is the time for women to have a say in the way their country is run.
Now is the time for women to be allowed to work to feed their children.
Now is the time for women who have suffered sexual violence to know justice.
And now is the time, if there ever was one, for full legal, social, and political equality for all women in the Arab and Islamic world.
But I want to be clear that violence against women is not a problem just for Arabic or Islamic countries.
This is a problem across the globe; and political representation is just the first step in a long battle.
On my first visit as Ministerial Champion, for example, I visited India.
Now in India, women occupy four of the most senior political positions – Head of State, President of the Congressional Coalition, Head of the Opposition party and Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
But from my visit it became clear that despite this political representation, India, like many other countries across the globe can still be a very unsafe place for women.
On one of the days, I went to the village of Patna, in the northern state of Bihar – where reported incidents of domestic violence are highest in all of India.
In this region, two thirds of all women have suffered violence at the hands of their husbands.
And some of the stories I heard – of rape, of beatings, of kidnap and imprisonment – were truly harrowing.
Now I met with Ministers and civil groups trying to change this, and I commend both their efforts and their intentions.
But India proves that women in power doesn’t always mean empowered women.
And legislation alone will not solve these problems.
For women to feel truly safe when they walk home from work late at night, what has to change is attitudes.
There must be social change, cultural change.
And this must be achieved through the education of men and boys, as well as through new laws that move away from the dangerously outdated notions of a woman’s “modesty” and “virtue”and towards a judicial system that says sexual crime, domestic violence, and the abuse of women in all its forms is nothing less than an affront to their human rights.
But I do not preach to these countries blind to our own failures, conference.
Because we in Britain must admit that we have not solved the issue of violence against women.
And that we have our own outdated cultural norms to overcome.
Our country still has unacceptable levels of domestic violence, terrible conviction rates for rape, and a serious problem with human trafficking.
It is simply not acceptable that in a modern democracy like ours, an average of two women a week are murdered by their partners or ex-partners.
But neither is it acceptable for our law-makers, no matter how-well intentioned, to talk about rape in a way that seems both casual and callous.
As a nation, and as a Government, we must be clear that we understand that rape and sexual violence is about power, not about sex.
That what a woman wears, or does, or says, will never be justification for violence against her.
And that abuse in the home, by someone you know, is no less traumatising than abuse by a stranger.
Now I am incredibly proud of the work this government has done so far to tackle violence against women:
- The extra funding for rape support centres
- The introduction of domestic violence protection orders
- The opt-in to the European Human Trafficking Directive
But we know that there is much more we can and must do.
So I am delighted to see a motion from conference this Monday which encourages the Government to keep pushing, keep progressing, and not rest until we have eradicated violence against women in Britain once and for all.
Because while there are courageous women out there -
Like Iman, like Tawakul, like Asmaa – Like the women I met in India, who are willing to risk their freedom and their lives to fight for their rights, Britain must say – we stand with you.
While there are women who live in fear, in poverty, in isolation – Britain must say – we hear you.
And until all women across the world have complete equality - Britain must remain a leader and an inspiration to all nations in the way we treat our women.
But conference, while my official mission is to tackle violence against women, this won’t stop me from continuing to fight for the rights of all persecuted minorities around the world.
Because it often follows that in countries where women are oppressed, other minorities are too.
In Africa, where the majority of countries still have no law against domestic violence, homosexuality remains illegal in all but sixteen countries.
In Saudi Arabia, where women are prevented from voting, driving, or learning; homosexuality is punishable by death.
So this government is playing a lead role in the UN to ensure that the international community recognises the persecution and human rights violations that LGBT people continue to suffer.
Against fierce opposition from some countries who seek to dismiss or dilute this issue we have played an instrumental role in building international support for our position.
And I am pleased that this culminated in a landmark UN resolution rejecting such abuses, which was signed by more states than ever before.
But sadly, this is not an area where the West can claim complete moral victory.
Even in European countries we have seen abhorrent attitudes towards LGB&T communities.
In Italy, violent homophobic attacks continue, while politicians use demeaning rhetoric.
In Lithuania, legal provisions came into force which attempted to stifle public discussion and restrict freedom of expression for LGBT people.
And in Turkey, research by Amnesty International found systematic fear and discrimination, in a country with no provision to prevent it.
So we will also work within the EU, to ensure that there is full implementation, across Europe, of the Council of Europe’s measures to combat homophobic discrimination.
I will be in Brussels, again, on October 18th, raising this very issue.
And while on my travels as a Champion for Women’s Rights, I am and will be a Champion for Gay Rights too.
I will be raising the issue with Governments all over the world and will continue to push everyone, from allies to adversaries, to recognise what we know is true:
That Gay Rights are Human Rights.
No excuses, no exceptions, no compromises.
But, conference, as with the treatment of women, Britain must not get complacent.
We are a world leader for gay rights, but as this conference made clear last year with your call for equal marriage, there is still more that we must do.
That is why I am delighted to announce today that in March, this Government will begin a formal consultation on how to implement equal civil marriage for same sex couples.
And this would allow us to make any legislative changes necessary by the end of this Parliament.
Civil partnerships were a welcome first step – but as our constitution states, this party rejects prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.
And I believe that to deny one group of people the same opportunities offered to another is not only discrimination, but is not fair.
Conference, this is a Liberal Democrat policy – but now it is a policy being put into action.
Along with all the other Liberal Democrat policies which are now, because of your commitment, a reality.
This is why I became a Liberal Democrat.
This is why you became a Liberal Democrat.
To build and safeguard a fair, free and open society.
And with Liberal Democrats in Government this is exactly what we are doing.
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