HL Deb 29 July 1985 vol 467 cc11-8

3.4 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should now like to make a Statement on the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women.

The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women took place in Nairobi from 15th to 27th July. It had a twofold purpose: First, to consider the progress made in advancing the status of women since 1975, together with the obstacles that have impeded such progress; secondly, to draw up strategies for further advance in the period up to the year 2000.

The conference was attended by 158 official national delegations, and by many representatives of the United Nations and other international organisations and of accredited international nongovernmental organisations. All benefited from the excellent arrangements made and the warm hospitality extended by the Kenyan Government and the City of Nairobi.

As announced on 15th March, I led the delegation at the outset of the conference. The deputy leader, Dame Anne Warburton, took over when I left, and I should like to pay tribute to her for her hard work. My noble friend Baroness Gardner of Parkes, United Kingdom representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, my noble friend Baroness Platt of Writtle, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Mrs Mary Clark-Glass, chairman of the Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission, and Mrs Nancy Catchpole, former co-chairman of the Women's National Commission were also members of the delegation. Each of them made a most effective contribution to its work, as did the small number of officials and the two representatives of dependent territories who made up the remainder of the team.

The day before the United Nations Conference started, I attended a Commonwealth Conference on the same theme. At the United Nations Conference itself I delivered a statement in the plenary session and circulated a report on the relevant achievements in this country. Copies of these have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. My noble friend Baroness Platt of Writtle presented a paper to a workshop on Women into New Fields of Work, and the British Council mounted an exhibition showing some British initiatives in this area.

The conference adopted by consensus a document which it named The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the advancement of Women to the year 2000. Copies will, when available, be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The achievement of consensus at the United Nations Women's Conference is not only heartening in terms of work for the improvement of the status and opportunities of women everywhere. It also reflects a widespread commitment to constructive co-operation in the United Nations itself as it celebrates its fortieth anniversary.

The United Kingdom participated actively in the preparation of the final document, both in the preparatory stages and at the conference itself, where we made a positive contribution to the outcome. The document is the culmination of three years' work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. It outlines the areas in which action is needed to advance the status of women and it points to actions for Governments, groups and individuals in all areas to this end. Our own ideas on areas important to us, such as eduction and employment, are well reflected. We see it as a valuable document containing practical and realistic ideas for progress over the next 15 years. Broad consensus was our aim and we are particularly pleased that it has been possible for so many countries with differing geographical, social, economic and politicial characteristics to agree upon common concerns and priorities for women.

Regrettably, some delegations insisted on the inclusion of statements on general political issues. We did not think these helpful to a specialised document and had strong reservations on some of the views expressed, notably on South Africa. The language was, however, modified during the conference: in particular, no inimical mention of Zionism remained. For this reason and because of the importance we attach to the document on forward-looking strategies as a whole, we joined the final consensus.

A number of resolutions were tabled at the conference but, due to shortage of time, they were not adopted and have been passed to the General Assembly. The United Kingdom introduced a resolution on the importance of collaboration between Governments and non-government organisations in the field of health, and co-sponsored six others.

Non-government organisations from many other countries organised their own meeting, Forum '85, in parallel with the conference from 10th July to 19th July. This involved over 10,000 women, including a large number of representatives from British NGOs. I and others in my delegation visited Forum '85 events. We kept in close touch with British representatives throughout to discuss the progress of the conference and exchange views on the issues under consideration. This followed from the process of consultation in this country which began in October 1982 with a meeting for NGO representatives and which saw the publication and presentation to the Government of 12 reports by NGO working parties on a range of issues of concern. We intend to maintain this dialogue, with particular reference to the forward-looking strategies and their implementation, and another meeting with NGOs is planned later this year. A further United Nations Conference is envisaged for the year 2000. But it is for the General Assembly to consider what follow-up will be appropriate meanwhile.

To conclude, I am glad to be able to report that the United Nations Conference marked a significant achievement for women the world over, in developed and in developing countries. The fact that, despite all the differing political views represented at the conference, consensus among the 158 countries present was reached, made it also an important event for the United Nations itself.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we welcome the noble Baroness back from her travels and thank her for the Statement on the conference. I hope that she and our other colleagues from this country enjoyed the impressive experience of being with 14,000 other women who had come from over 150 other countries. Can she say what points she made in the statement which she read to the conference? There is no clarification of that, although it may be in the document placed in the Library which we have not yet had the opportunity to read. As the House will recall, the United Nations Decade for Women was launched 10 years ago in Mexico City. The purpose of that was to foster equality, peace and development. Can she say what was the opinion of the conference concerning the success of the decade as a whole, and what is to happen now that the United Nations Decade for Women has come to a close? Would the noble Baroness not agree that there is always a danger, in attaching a finite period to a cause, that when the period has ended, so has the support for the cause? Is there not a slight danger of that happening?

What positive steps will be taken by the Government to ensure continued work to promote the cause of women's equality and welfare? The Copenhagen conference—and that conference took place, I think, five years ago—concluded that while women represent 50 per cent. of the world population, they perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than 1 per cent. of world property. According to the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for the Conference, this conclusion remains appropriate.

Was that the conclusion of the present conference? If so, what positive steps were formulated to reverse this absolutely appalling state of affairs so far as women are concerned? I must confess to the House that I do not share the view of the noble Baroness that it was inappropriate to comment on the terrible events in South Africa. Would the noble Baroness give the House some reason why she indicated that a discussion of this matter was inappropriate in this conference? Finally, one commentator said that Nairobi could well prove to be a catalyst for change for, by simply talking to each other more, women have become more aware of the gaps in their lives and more confident of their ability to close these gaps. Would the noble Baroness agree with this assessment of the conference as a catalyst for change, given the very slow progress that has been made thus far?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches would also like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and to thank her for going to Nairobi to lead the delegation. I should also like to take the opportunity of reminding the House of the very great amount that the noble Baroness herself has done, in a previous capacity as well as now, in order that the United Kingdom should show a rather better example in these matters than it had done previously. I am very glad to read that there is to be continuing close co-ordination between the Government and the NGOs in the area of women's affairs, because it is from the NGOs that a great many of the ideas for progress in this country and elsewhere come. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I was somewhat surprised that anybody should be surprised that the question of South Africa was raised having regard to what is going on at the present time—although I am aware that in conferences of this kind there is sometimes an undue tendency to bring in matters which are of great political importance but not always of the most direct relevance.

I look forward very much to seeing the papers which are to be put into the Library because, until we get them, it is difficult, as I am sure the noble Baroness would agree, to gather from this paper exactly what was discussed and to what effect in Nairobi. One recognises that it is difficult at a conference of this kind to get passed anything more than very general resolutions or to get any very clear ideas of the progress that has been made.

Can the noble Baroness tell us, particularly as there were representatives of a large number of developing countries at Nairobi, for it was held, after all. in an African country, whether there was any information about the progress made on some of the questions of the most fundamental importance? For example, I recall attending a conference of this kind, although not a UN conference, in which it was put forward as of the highest importance that women the world over should have access to running water through a tap, an advantage which a great number of women do not share. Has any progress been made on fundamental issues of this kind? Similarly, was there any information about the progress made on the provision, where it is required, for family planning and population control services—a matter which affects quite fundamentally the lives of a very large number of women? Again, what progress has been made in developing countries, and indeed in developed countries, on the training of women for non-traditional jobs so that they can have the opportunity of commanding greater economic resources?

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for their reception of this Statement and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for her very kind remarks about myself. I have placed in the Library a copy of my Statement, which, of course, covered the three themes of the conference: equality, peace and development. I was able to outline some of the improvements in education and employment for women which have occurred over the past 10 years in this country and to go on to point to some of the things which still need to be put right, and was able to make the point on peace that, although we all wish for peace, the actual discussion of arms negotiations was not a suitable topic for the Nairobi conference.

I was also able to comment on some of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made about women in developing countries, referring to some aspects of our aid policy which had been of particular help to women and, I think, particularly in regard to water pumps to enable women to get more easily to water supplies and also to some detailed work that we have done on cooking stoves to make it easier for women who usually have to carry the wood home. These kinds of practical matters I touched on, as well as family planning.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked how the decade ended. It is a matter of regret that I do not have the final document. It is not yet available but I undertake to put it in the House as soon as it is. I appreciate that it is very difficult to comment on it as we have not got it; but it covers very many of the points which both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, have raised. It applies both to the developed and the developing countries; and, as I am sure all noble Lords will appreciate, the needs of the two groups of countries are different but in their own ways are equally important.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness referred to the fact that I said that it was inappropriate to comment on the events in South Africa. I have before now made plain the Government's view on apartheid and on the events in South Africa. We deplore apartheid and we recognise how dreadful are the events in South Africa. Nevertheless, this was a conference that was quite particularly devoted to the needs of women, and I think it was important that their needs and the specific practical matters which come out in the forward-looking strategies, should be reached as a conclusion and that the conference should not be dominated by political issues which, although of great importance, are issues which can be debated in other fora.

I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, that we need something which is a catalyst for change. If I may make one personal comment, I led the British delegation to Copenhagen in 1980 and I led the delegation to Nairobi in 1985. One of the facts which struck me quite forcefully in 1985 was that almost every delegation was led by a woman Minister or a woman who had achieved a top position in her country. I thought there were some very impressive people indeed at the conference from all parts of the world, and I felt that was one result of the improvements that women have achieved in their own lives and in their own countries over the course of 10 years.

Of course, there were many other aspects which were very heartening. What I hope the conference and the document will do is to point to practical ways forward for both developed and developing countries and that governments will take note of what has been said.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness two specific questions? It puzzles me that she has stated that two themes of the conference were equality and peace. It is surprising that these issues were not related to South Africa. Were there any delegations of women from South Africa, and what were the objections the British delegation had to the resolution condemning apartheid since it is at least arguable that the subject falls even more heavily on women than on men?

Secondly, could the noble Baroness say, in view of the interest recently shown by this House, whether there was any discussion, particularly about the relationship between governments and NGOs on the question of education regarding female circumcision?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think I am right in saying that there were some black representatives from South Africa at the Nairobi conference. I do not doubt that apartheid bears very heavily on women and children, as indeed it bears heavily on men in South Africa. We have made our position on South Africa very plain, and one of the important factors about the Nairobi conference was that at the end the forward-looking strategy was agreed by consensus. There have been a number of United Nations conferences which have not ended so well and this, for the United Nations in its fortieth anniversary year, is an advantage.

On the specific points, I should have said earlier how very valuable we found the work of the NGOs to be. Many representatives came from Britain and we sponsored a resolution quite specifically to draw the conference's attention to the important contribution we think non-governmental organisations make in complementing the statutory health services. This received quite a considerable amount of support. It was a matter for regret that the conference ended before there was time to deal with all the resolutions; but it was something to which we attached very great importance, and as I said at the beginning, we will have a further meeting with NGOs, because we want to discuss what happened at the conference and to have their views about this matter.

On the final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, about female circumcision, I have not yet received the final document and so I am not clear exactly what has been said about this. Therefore I would prefer not to comment at the present time.

Lord Oram

My Lords, since Her Majesty's Government, and indeed previous Labour Governments, have such a good record in support of family planning programmes, including support for the UNFPA and the IPPF, I am glad to hear the noble Baroness say that she included a reference to this subject in her opening Statement: she made the point in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. Can she indicate whether that subject was taken up very fully in the conference and, if so, what the attitude to it was? Was the controversy which has arisen recently in the United States reflected in the proceedings of the conference?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can confirm that I did refer to the question of family planning in my Statement. It clearly was an issue which came up at the conference. It is, as I realise, an immensely complex and difficult subject. I think it is one which has to be approached with great care and understanding with countries whose backgrounds and traditions are different from our own.

I would like to Say that as we have agreed that we are going to ratify the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, we have made it quite plain that nothing we will do will undermine family life—nor indeed to offer something like abortion on demand, over which anxieties have been expressed. But over the conference as a whole clearly this was a matter of importance to women all over the world, and it was clearly one of the issues which were discussed.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Statement that has been made by the noble Baroness this afternoon, with particular reference to equality of opportunity for women, to which we are committed. But of course in order to enable women to take advantage of equality of opportunity, as we all know, it is necessary to provide certain support services such as créche and nursery facilities, and so on. Could the noble Baroness tell us whether the Government would reconsider their attitude towards the draft EEC directive on leave for family purposes, because I understand that we are in fact the only government in Western Europe which has not been prepared to support this directive? If we are taking seriously equality of opportunity for women, this is one of the aspects we should consider. Would the noble Baroness be good enough to answer that point?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for what she has said about the Statement. She will know the Government's response to that particular draft directive. We in Britain have a higher percentage of women in employment than any other country in Western Europe. In fact the proportion of women who are now getting jobs is slightly higher than the proportion of men. We feel that employment is one area where women have managed to gain; but of course I take the point made by the noble Baroness about the directive.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, could my noble friend say whether serious attention was paid to the increasing denial of educational opportunities to women in countries such as Iran and Pakistan, and whether delegations from those countries were present to explain why women are discriminated against, particularly in higher education?

Baroness Young

My Lords, there were delegations of women from both Pakistan and Iran. I did not myself hear the delegation representative from Iran speak. I regret that some of the points that were made concerned political matters, points against Zionism and the state of Israel; but I take the point my noble friend makes.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I really do not think that the noble Baroness has effectively answered the question I put about the directive. She simply said that she noted my point. Can I press the point and ask the noble Baroness whether the Government will reconsider their position on this rather important question?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that in fact I cannot give her the undertaking she is seeking. What I have said is that I have noted what she says, as indeed I have.

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