Bishop of Durham speaks in a debate on women’s equality

On 17th March 2022, the House of Lords debated a motion to take note regarding Protecting the Equality of Women in the UK and Internationally. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it is my pleasure to speak in today’s debate and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. Like him, I will begin by focusing on international issues. I did put the word around to see if any of my female colleagues were available, because they are more qualified to speak than me, but none of them were today so you have to put up with me. I am glad to have this opportunity.

First, there is much I want to celebrate. As part of my brief, I take special interest in two of the poorest nations on earth, Burundi and Lesotho—one of the others is South Sudan. These nations are making great progress on women’s equality. It has been my privilege to visit Lesotho a couple of times and Burundi very many times. I would like to share some examples.

This month, the Women’s Investment and Development Bank has been introduced in Burundi. This has been praised by the UN as a step towards women’s economic empowerment in that nation. The bank will grant low-interest loans to women’s collectives and their development projects, and will provide training on profitable business.

No one will be surprised that another of my particular interests is how the Church operates in these countries. Today, I want to recognise the incredible work of the Mothers’ Union worldwide—one branch works tirelessly on this front in Burundi—in campaigning for equality for women and girls all over the world. I also mention the national leader of the Mothers’ Union in Burundi, Mrs Claudette Kigeme. She co-ordinates its work and also works with the Five Talents agency, which sets up savings-led rural community groups to train people in growing small businesses.

It has been my and my wife’s privilege to visit a number of those small financial units and hear testimonies from, interestingly, sometimes men as well as women of the impact that microfinance has had on their lives and developing their savings groups. It has utterly transformed their lives and empowered the women. Often, alongside the microfinance, they do literacy and business training because they recognise that the best businesspeople in Burundi are the women. They are much more entrepreneurial and much more reliable in running their businesses well. That is where the testimony of the men sometimes comes in. I have stood in those groups and men have stood up in front of me saying, “My life has been transformed by the way my wife has been empowered—that has developed and changed our whole lives.” Mrs Claudette Kigeme was recently honoured for her work by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, being given the Langton Award.

The second of my friends in Burundi is Mathilde Nkwirikiye. She has led the way in many aspects of fighting for gender justice and equality for women in Burundi. One issue on which she and others are currently working is the right of women to have access to land. Sadly, the law of that land does not currently allow women to inherit land. When you live in an agriculturally based economy, this is a massive injustice which needs to be corrected. Mathilde is one of the women leading the way to see that law changed. Mathilde has championed women’s rights, led work against gender-based violence and engaged in international peacemaking. These two women are utterly remarkable. Meeting them, and seeing them at work, has changed my life and I want to honour them.

I turn to Lesotho and the new Bishop of Lesotho, the right reverend Dr Vicentia Kgabe, who was appointed at the end of last year. She is the first woman Bishop of Lesotho, and the third in the Anglican province of Southern Africa. I contacted her about this debate and asked what she would want to say about the situation in Lesotho and southern Africa. She pointed out that she is a leader in a country which is still patriarchal, where top leadership positions remain a male domain. She notes that education remains male-oriented and that exposure, mentoring and support structures necessitated her to work harder than any of the men to counter this. She is a leader of steady and intentional progress on narrowing the gender gap in Lesotho, and stands as a great figure of reconciliation. Sadly, in recent years the story of the Anglican church in Lesotho has been riven with disputes. One reason why Dr Kgabe was appointed as the bishop from outside Lesotho—she was previously in South Africa—was the recognition that a woman leader, at this point, was the most likely person to bring reconciliation in conflict.

After presenting these examples, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will she affirm the leading role played by civil society and the Church—as well as other faith organisations—in addressing gender-based violence and working for equality in many poorer nations? Will she confirm the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government in using overseas aid and development spending to assist this work? Following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will she please tell us when we will return to 0.7%?

There are many more celebrations than challenges, but I turn to the latter. I noted the Minister detailing ways in which the Government are encouraging women here with work incentives and childcare programmes. These are welcome. However, the reality is that the gender gap is arguably at its worst for women with young children. This is especially so where they have a larger family. Noble Lords, noble Baronesses and the Minister know this, and they know my passion for this issue.

The two-child limit is a policy against which I have campaigned since its outset, for a range of reasons, but one reason pertinent to today’s debate is its disproportionate effect on women. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 29% of households affected by the policy are single-parent families headed by women, compared with only 1% of single-parent families headed by men. The Pregnancy Advisory Service reported that, during the pandemic, respondents to its survey described being

“‘forced’ by their financial circumstances into ending a pregnancy”

that they otherwise “would have wanted”. Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the specific impact of the two-child limit policy on women, and the poverty of women with more than two children? I hope that she will consider undertaking one if she has not. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses, both to the international questions and to this specific question about the two-child limit, in due course.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP): We sometimes think that, in the past, women were forced to endure but they always fought back and spoke out. It is really important that we listen—during this Women’s History Month, as well as by marking International Women’s Day—to our foremothers there. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham talked about how so much education in other countries is male-orientated. Of course, that is also true of so much of our education system today. I do not know, if we went into a school today, how many pupils would know of the two authors I have just quoted.

Lord Young of Norwood Green (Lab): I do not always agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, but I agreed with many things in her contribution. I certainly agree with her that, next year, we should not let us become second-class citizens and have the debate in here again. It should be in the Chamber. The symbolism of it—that this has somehow become a second-class debate, with someone saying, “It’ll do, just put it in the Moses Room”—has rightly been remarked on. He was one of my ancestors was perhaps not the most progressive male on the planet, but he was a man of his time. And I cannot help but say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that the Church fought long and hard to have women bishops. It has to mark its calendar; they should be represented.

Baroness Northover (LD): The Government warn of constrained budgets, despite hugely rising fuel costs and inflation hitting the price of food and clothes. Again, this hits the poorest the hardest, as we have heard, and women are on average poorer than men. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham pointed to the way in which women are terribly disadvantaged economically, including through the extraordinary restrictions on universal credit for families beyond two children.


The Government warn of constrained budgets, despite hugely rising fuel costs and inflation hitting the price of food and clothes. Again, this hits the poorest the hardest, as we have heard, and women are on average poorer than men. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham pointed to the way in which women are terribly disadvantaged economically, including through the extraordinary restrictions on universal credit for families beyond two children.


I now put forward the key area of sexual health and reproductive rights. This is absolutely essential to women and to their families, communities and countries. It is of fundamental importance as a pillar for achieving all other areas of gender equality. I recall, when I was a DfID Minister, being in a community where we supported family planning. The image will always stay in my mind of a young woman, probably in her teens, with twins attached to her, sitting on the ground with other small children under five playing around her. She was exhausted. We know exactly why family planning would help her—and she would know too, if she could give any energy or attention to it at all. Fewer children in a family means more of them in school, and the mother is better able to earn a living and more likely to be able to take advantage of the possibilities of microfinance, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned.

Baroness Thornton (Lab): I want briefly to turn to the international issues mentioned by several noble Lords. I just want to add my voice and say this: what a short-sighted, counter- productive decision it was to reduce funding for women and girls across the world at every single level. This was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, my noble friend Lady Armstrong—virtually everybody. We need to return the funding for women and girls to its pre-2020 level; this requires the return of the £1.9 billion in programming. We need it now. We cannot afford not to find it.

Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned Lesotho. One thing that came out of this week was that someone asked the question: why are women not in the room when decisions are made, because the decisions would be very different? We want women in the room, women in the chair and women in the lead.

I come to the question asked many times by the right reverend Prelate about the two-child limit. The last time I answered it, I got told off for being a little discourteous, so let me be as polite as I can. Nothing has changed since I answered the question last time and there is nothing else I can say that will help him.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and my noble friend Lord Sandhurst mentioned childcare. This will be critical to get women in work, back to work and into better jobs. I had the pleasure of talking to people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark, and we formed what you could call an unholy alliance. We will exchange information about what happens in our countries and see whether we can learn from each other to make improvements. Childcare is critical, because this issue is stopping women taking more hours and progressing, and we should redouble our efforts to find solutions to make that better.

The right reverend Prelate asked about the official development assistance budget for women and girls. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that we intend to restore funding to women and girls and to humanitarian programmes. Our spending review 2021 highlighted that we will increase aid funding for our highest priorities. We are bound by the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 to ensure that gender equality remains at the heart of the UK’s work on international development and humanitarian crises.

%d bloggers like this: