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Leaving a Better World for Women and Girls

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Nicola Sturgeon

First Minister of Scotland

As she prepares to leave office, Nicola Sturgeon writes exclusively for Chamber on International Women’s Day, looking at the progress of women and girls in Scotland, and the work there is still to do.

International Women’s Day is, first and foremost, an important opportunity to reflect on and celebrate how far we have come when it comes to achieving the goal of gender equity in our society. Over the last few decades, things have changed slowly but surely for the better.

But it’s also an opportunity to recognise how much more progress we still need to make, and how we can do so.

When I took office as the First Minister of Scotland in late 2014, one of the things that really moved me at the time was the number of women and girls who contacted me to say how much it meant to them to see a woman in the most senior political role in the country.

And, in my first speech as First Minister, I said that my fervent hope was that by the time my niece was a young woman, she would have no need to know about issues such as the gender pay gap, under-representation in politics or the barriers like high childcare costs that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers.

First Minister of Scotland speaking at a roundtable on Women in entrepreneurship
Nicola Sturgeon at a roundtable on women in entrepreneurship

There is no doubting the progress we’ve made on all of that.

As First Minister, I lead a gender-balanced Cabinet, and wider ministerial team¾and there are now more women in the Scottish Parliament than ever before, including, belatedly, the first women of colour to sit in Holyrood.

“There are now more women in the Scottish Parliament than ever before.” Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland

Eligible children in Scotland now benefit from at least 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, saving families around £4,500 per child, per year. Last year, Scotland became the first country in the world to make sanitary products available to all those who need them, free of charge. The Scottish Government has reformed the law on domestic abuse criminalising psychological domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour and creating a specific statutory sentencing aggravation to reflect the harm that can be caused to children growing up in an environment where domestic abuse takes place.

These are tangible examples of policies that are making the lives of women and girls better.

I am immensely proud of the lead that my country has taken in trying to drive forward progress¾both within Scotland, and also, where possible, helping to promote gender equality beyond our own borders.

Much of Scotland’s international development work in Malawi, Zambia and Pakistan prioritises the empowerment of women. The Scottish Government supports several fellowships that promote equal participation by women in peace resolution and provide training to women in areas of conflict. And we are committed to schemes such as the UN WeLearn virtual school pilot¾a scheme designed to reduce rates of early child marriage in rural parts of Africa.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that true gender equality is still an unwon cause. We cannot be complacent about the challenges that women and girls face today, nor can we forget that there are many who want to roll back on the hard-won rights of women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened gender inequality, with women and girls more likely to provide the majority of caregiving while generally earning less and holding less secure jobs, which therefore impacts their economic independence.

Even before the pandemic, women were more likely to work in lower-paid jobs or be hampered by the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’¾the pay gap between parents and those who don’t have children. At its height, women were more likely to be furloughed, lose income and work in the hardest-hit sectors.

Male culture still dominates¾patriarchal attitudes can still hold women back¾and often, the criteria that we are judged by leads to a very different experience for women than it does for men.

Women often don’t have access to the same opportunities or financial resources as men. As an example, currently, one in five of Scotland’s entrepreneurs are women, while start-ups founded by women in Scotland receive just 2% of overall investment capital.

Women political leaders and human rights defenders face an increasingly hostile environment and unchecked abuse and harassment both on and offline. And social media has, unfortunately, provided a vehicle for the most awful, often anonymous, abuse of women; misogyny, sexism, threats of violence and sexual violence. 

Beyond Scotland and the UK, the Taliban is imposing radical restrictions on Afghan women, the UN has warned of conflict-related sexual violence taking place in Ukraine, Myanmar and beyond, and the rollback of reproductive rights in the United States and elsewhere is undermining the very foundation of gender equity.

At this time of great societal upheaval, it is no longer acceptable to expect women and girls to adapt and accommodate. Leaders and decision-makers across the world must re-dedicate ourselves to continuing to build a society in which women and girls are safe and able to reach their full potential.

We have an opportunity to seize to advance gender equity and transformative change. Only by renewing our own resolve to use the powers we have to make the world a better place for the girls and young women who are growing up today, will we be able to claim that win and achieve true equality.

This article will feature in the Q1 Chamber Journal, which will be released on March 27th. To receive your free copy, sign up here.

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