I hope that, if I do not use my full 10 minutes, other people will be afforded the opportunity to contribute to what I think is an important debate.
It is a great privilege to open this debate on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party. We chose the subject because we wanted to afford everyone in the chamber the opportunity to mark international women’s day and to reflect on women’s progress and achievements and the challenges that women still face in Scotland, throughout the United Kingdom and across the world.
I congratulate all those in the Scottish Women’s Convention who were in the chamber on Saturday, who organised events across the country to mark international women’s day and who took the opportunity to come together to acknowledge the difference between our lives as women now and the lives of our mothers and how much more needs to be done if our daughters in the generations beyond are to have equality, freedom from violence and the right to achieve their potential. I know that there were very interesting events right across Scotland.
We are, of course, happy to accept the Scottish Government’s amendment, and we join others in sending our sympathies and condolences to the family of Ailsa McKay, who has been taken from us all too soon. She was a woman of great wisdom who challenged us and who could think outside the box in a way that we all so desperately need. We know that, with other women, Ailsa was a driving force in insisting that we needed to understand budgets and the economy properly, to confront the way in which the impact on women of specific choices was being ignored and to insist that we address the decisions that had compounded the problems faced by women.
In a recent speech, Ailsa McKay said:
“Women stand up and say this discipline”
“is failing us. We are dismissed as only women and we don’t understand the numbers. I’m an economist who doesn’t do numbers which, again, makes me quite a lone ranger in my own discipline. Not because I can’t do numbers, but because I refuse to do numbers, because I think we’ve got the underlying philosophy wrong to start with. So before we start counting things we need to work out what it is that we’re trying to count, what we value and what we should value, so the numbers come after that.”
Those are such wise words about how we should take forward our politics and debates in this chamber.
Of course, those comments reflect on an issue that we all wrestle with. As we know, budgets reflect our priorities more than our words of concern ever will, and the abiding conundrum is whether we value what women do less because it is women who do it or whether society does not value women properly because of the things they do. That issue goes to the very heart of the kind of world that we want to live in.
In reflecting on that, we need to challenge ourselves so that we have a full understanding of women’s lives and the pressures on them in tackling the inequality that they face. I am proud of the Labour Party’s record in tackling those issues and on the things that we addressed when we were in government at the United Kingdom, Scottish and local government levels, but we do not pretend that the matter is entirely for the province of one party; it must concern us all.
International women’s day is a day of greatly ambivalent feelings for me—I am sure that others share these feelings. It affords the opportunity to celebrate the progress that we have made, but it is also a time to reflect on the burdens that are still placed on women here and abroad. Women still disproportionately represent low-paid workers and carers who take the burden of the real pressures in our communities. They still face violence and intimidation in their own homes, and we know that, no matter how clever our girls are and how overachieving they are in the classroom, they are not represented in equal numbers in the boardroom, where the big decisions are made.
We also know that, across the world, women are denied economic opportunities. Girls are denied the simple right to an education. The testimony of Malala Yousafzai stands as a great inspiration to us all. Girls are denied the education and opportunity to achieve their potential. In some parts of the world, rape is still a weapon of war, and the riskiest thing that someone can be is a woman. In those circumstances, there is an ambivalence that should drive our ambitions forward.
However, there is, of course, progress to be celebrated and there are women to be praised, such as Ailsa McKay, who is an inspiration to all, and those who established Glasgow Women’s Aid 40 years ago. They identified need and found solutions, and over the intervening period they have insisted that society listen to the scourge that is domestic violence and listen to them on the solutions that would address that.
There are women who have redefined politics and reshaped the world as a consequence, and there are women who inspire because of their courage and humility and who give voice to suffering and solutions to those who are in pain. There are women who have held families or communities together, and women who, as we speak, are driving community activity, running housing associations, taking on the activity where work needs to be done and staffing food banks and places where people are in pain.
We celebrate, too, the women who demanded equal representation, which created places such as the Parliament where women can stand as equals and speak out for their communities. We understand that, at every step, those women faced resistance and the need to persuade, organise and change minds, or change the structures where they could not change minds. That is the message: we must persuade, but we must also put in place measures that ensure that women come through.
It is interesting that, in the independence debate, I, like others, am often asked why women are less likely to support independence. I confess that I do not know the answer to that question, but I shall resist any notion that it is to do with some deficit in women—that somehow women are less bold or radical—or, on the other side, that that reaffirms a stereotypical view that women are more concerned about their family than others, more concerned about budgets than men are, and more risk averse. We should hold to none of those explanations of how women vote in a world in which we believe that women can achieve their full potential.
There will be another time to debate the independence question, but I think that we can agree in this debate that the huge issues that women face here and abroad are deeper than any constitutional arrangement issues and that they must be addressed with political will, regardless of what the constitutional settlement might be. I know that not one step on the road to greater equality for women was ever handed over without a battle, so whatever the constitutional settlement is in September it will not mean that women’s lives will be better, as the argument for that must always be made in its own context.
We celebrate and reflect, but we also resolve to continue to highlight inequality and demand change. One of the key features of progress for women has been the connection between ambition and practical delivery. For some of us, there can be a dialogue of despair when the challenge that women face is identified, but we have to be determined to change. In the past, our systems were not overwhelmed when they faced the challenges that women’s lives were. We must build on that and have the confidence that it is possible to make a difference if we connect aspiration with practical delivery.
The fact that women are disproportionately low paid led to a debate and argument that created the national minimum wage. Understanding the direct experience of violence against women and the underlying cause of the abuse of power led to the creation of Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis centres and the zero tolerance campaign and to demands for change in the justice system, which brought about hope for women. All that was created not by the state but by women coming together.
I believe that our job as politicians is to give a voice and support to organisations that will address women’s needs, whether it is underrepresentation in the Parliament and winning the argument for positive action or the right for women to work and the consequent need for childcare to support women into work. However, we must also be acutely aware that it is not enough to provide childcare if women cannot access it. I think that that is the debate that we are having now around pre-school, after-school and holiday-time childcare. The situation in which the state provides childcare that women in work cannot access must be addressed. We do not even have to go as far as the question of job segregation, the issue of parenting and the role of men in the lives of their children, which I would argue has been transformed in my lifetime.
We now also have to test policy and its consequences. It is not enough to say that we care; we must address the policy options that we have. I was disappointed this morning to learn that in committee we had voted down the possibility of using the living wage through our procurement process to ensure that people—