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International Women's Day 2022: First Minister's statement - 8 March 2022

Statement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon opening the debate, International Women's Day 2022 in the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 8 March 2022.

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Thank you, Presiding Officer

It is a privilege to open this debate today.

I will talk shortly about what International Women’s Day means for us here in Scotland – but this is also an opportunity to show solidarity to women and girls across the globe, not least those on the frontline of conflict and war.

Today, in particular, I know all of our thoughts are with the women and girls of Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the countries across the world that marked International Women’s Day with a public holiday.

This time last year, thousands marched through the streets of its capital city Kyiv, to demand gender equality.

Today, the reality could not be more different.

Kyiv, and cities across Ukraine, are under brutal Russian bombardment.

Far from participating in peaceful, democratic protest, Ukrainians are now fighting and fleeing for their lives.

So today, from our national Parliament here in Edinburgh, Kyiv’s twin city, let us send the women and girls, men and boys of Ukraine our love, solidarity and support.

But let us also, Presiding Officer, send this message:

In the face of the horror engulfing Ukraine, words are not enough.

In the past 10 days alone, more than two million people have already fled the horrors of war – that number is rising rapidly.

The majority of those seeking refuge are women and children.

So far, the UK’s response has fallen short.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I appeal to the UK government to follow the example of Ireland, and other EU countries.

Refuge and sanctuary first – bureaucracy second.

Let people in and do the paperwork afterwards.

Let’s open not just our hearts, but also our doors.

Our common humanity demands it.

 

Presiding Officer,

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Break the Bias’.

Three short words that mask the scale of the task we face if we are to ensure equality for women and girls here at home, and across the globe.

The bias we seek to break is engrained.

Its roots are deeply historic, and I will reflect on that later, but its impacts are very current and all women experience it in some way, shape or form.

Of course, for  minority ethnic women, disabled women, trans women, lesbians, the impact is compounded.

The bias we must break encapsulates prejudice and discrimination, outdated gender stereotypes, sexism and misogyny.

Attitudes that have no place in modern society but which still shape and limit the lives of women on a daily basis.

These attitudes result in the systematic under-representation of women.

They result in the under-valuing of the contribution women make to our society.

And they result in too many women living in perennial fear of harassment, abuse, domestic and sexual violence and in too many cases, murder.

Breaking the bias must mean changing all of that – or it will mean nothing at all.

And let’s be clear it is not women who need to change. What must change is a culture, in which prejudice, sexism and misogyny still thrive.

International Women’s Day is, of course, a time to take stock of progress made.

And there has been progress.

I stand here as the first woman to hold the office of First Minister.

I lead a gender balanced cabinet.

Forty five percent of this Parliament’s members are women and, albeit very belatedly, we now count amongst our number women of colour.

All of that is progress and it is helping drive deeper change.

The world’s first comprehensive women’s health plan, free period products, removing for women and girls both the financial costs and the stigma of periods, reform of the law on domestic abuse, the doubling of early years education and childcare, and the new Child Payment.

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

So we should celebrate progress made.

But we mustn’t let it mask the deep inequalities that still exist across society, or distract us from the work still to do.

Better representation is not yet equal representation. Not here in Parliament or across our council chambers, not on company boards or decision-making bodies the length and breadth of the country.

Women still bear the biggest responsibility for child care and unpaid care more generally.

Women are still much more likely to work in occupations that are underpaid and undervalued.

And of course the lives of women are still blighted each and every day by an epidemic of harassment, abuse, threats and violence – an epidemic that seems to be getting worse, not better.

That problem is real and very current.

But the misogyny that motivates it is age old.

That’s why I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on two issues. One deeply historic and one contemporary, but linked by that common thread of misogyny.

Before this Parliament just now is a petition demanding a pardon for the more than 4,000 people in Scotland – the vast majority of them women – accused, and in many cases convicted and executed for being ‘witches’ under the Witchcraft Act of 1563.

Those who met this fate were not ‘witches’.

They were people. And they were overwhelmingly women. At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a court room, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable, or in many cases just because they were women.

It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part, by misogyny in its most literal sense – hatred of women.

The pardon the petition calls for would require this Parliament to legislate, and in future this Parliament may choose to do so.

But in the meantime, the petition also calls for an apology.

After all, these accusations and executions were instigated and perpetrated by the state.

And so today, on International Women’s Day, as First Minister on behalf of the Scottish Government, I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal, posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.

Now, some will ask why this generation should say sorry for something that happened centuries ago – though it might actually be more pertinent to ask why it has taken so long.

But, for me, there are three reasons.

Firstly, acknowledging injustice, no matter how historic, is important.

This parliament has issued, rightly so, formal apologies and pardons for the more recent historic injustices suffered by gay men and by miners.

And we are currently considering a request for a formal apology to women whose children were forcibly adopted.

Reckoning with historic injustice is a vital part of building a better country.

So too is recognising, and writing into history what has been, for too long, erased – the experiences and the achievements of women.

Second, for some, this is not yet historic. There are parts of our world where, even today, women and girls face persecution and sometimes death because they have been accused of witchcraft.

And, thirdly, fundamentally, while here in Scotland the Witchcraft Act may have been consigned to history a long time ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not. We live with that still.

Today it expresses itself, not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence.

All of it intensified by an increasingly polarised and toxic public discourse, and amplified each and every day by social media.

It is no wonder that more women than ever before, certainly in my lifetime, are now questioning whether politics and public life are safe environments for women.

And it is no wonder so many still feel scared to walk the streets.

In recent days, we have marked the anniversary of the horrific murder of Sarah Everard.

Her death sparked outrage and a demand for change.

And yet in the year since Sarah was killed, dozens more women have been murdered across Britain.

Just last week, I chaired the Cabinet’s annual meeting with the Scottish Children’s Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

One of the Trustees of the Youth Parliament, Sophie Reid, gave a powerful presentation about the experiences of young women today.

She spoke of the ways in which women are forced to adapt their own behaviours and restrict their own lives to protect themselves as far as possible from the harassment, abuse and violence of men.

These experiences are heart-breaking.

But they are not new. These are also experiences of my generation, and my mother’s, and my grandmother’s.

If they are not to become the experiences of the next generation too, a line in the sand must be drawn.

It is no longer acceptable to expect women and girls to adapt and accommodate.

It is time to challenge unacceptable male behaviour, and better protect women from it.

We must change for good the culture of misogyny that has normalised such behaviour for far too long.

It is of course in this context, that Baroness Helena Kennedy’s Working Group on Misogyny has this morning published its ground-breaking report.

I thank Baroness Kennedy and the working group, including of course, the late and sadly missed, Emma Ritch, for producing such a powerful and compelling report.

Its recommendations are bold and they are far reaching.

It proposes a new Misogyny and Criminal Justice Act, and it recommends that this new Act include a statutory misogyny aggravation.

Now it is important to stress Presiding Officer, in anticipation of concerns about freedom of thought and speech, that this would not criminalise misogyny, per se.

But it would allow crimes, assault for example, which are motivated by misogyny to be treated more seriously in sentencing.

Importantly it would not apply to crimes, such as rape, which are inherently misogynistic.

The report also recommends three new criminal offences to reflect and better address the daily lived experience of too many women.

These would be:

  • stirring up hatred against women and girls
  • public misogynistic harassment, and
  • issuing threats of, or invoking, rape or sexual assault or disfigurement of women and girls, whether online or offline

 

Presiding Officer,

The Scottish Government welcomes these recommendations in principle.

We will now of course, give full consideration to the detail and we will respond formally as soon as possible.

However, this report, in my view, matters beyond the detail of the specific recommendations it makes.

It matters because it acknowledges and it gives powerful voice to the stark realities of everyday life for women.

It recognises that misogyny is endemic, and that it blights the lives of women every single day.

And it rightly points out, that not all men are misogynist - but all women do experience misogyny.

It also recognises the power of the law to drive social and cultural change, and concedes that for women and girls, our law is currently failing.

And perhaps most importantly of all, it articulates a fundamental truth that on this International Women’s Day, we must all reflect on.

A society in which women do not feel safe is not one in which we can ever be truly equal.

Presiding Officer,

On International Women’s Day, let us in this Parliament re-dedicate ourselves to building a society, in which women and girls are safe, and in which they feel safe.

Let us acknowledge and reckon with historic injustice, and in doing so, let us redouble our work now to consign age-old misogyny to the history books, once and for all.

And let that then be the foundation on which we build a truly gender equal Scotland, and offer it as an example and an inspiration to women and girls across the globe.

Presiding Officer,

On this International Women’s Day, at a time of real darkness for our world, let us today send a message of hope and light to women and girls everywhere.

I move the motion in my name.

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