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A Woman's Right

Chatham House Lecture - London October 2007

"I want to talk about how the struggle for women's rights remains vitally important in the 21st century and to argue that this battle is universal and can't be restricted by claims of cultural or religious differences."

Thank you for inviting me to give this second BBC Today/Chatham House Lecture and to have asked me to follow in the footsteps of such a distinguished speaker as Condeleeza Rice.

And it's perhaps fitting, given the topic I have chosen today, that the first two people to have given this lecture share at least one attribute - and that is our gender. For it is the issue of women's equality I want to address today - the progress towards this goal at home and abroad - and the gap that remains.

I want to counter those who suggest that with all the progress there has been that perhaps now is the time to subsume the fight for women's rights into the general battle of human rights for all. I want to touch on the role of the law in removing the remaining barriers to gender equality but also to stress the importance of collecting accurate information to help us assess and then tackle the true scale of the problems that women and girls face across the world.

Above all, I want to talk about how the struggle for women's rights remains vitally important in the 21st century and to argue that this battle is universal and can't be restricted by claims of cultural or religious differences.

All of this is a subject of passionate interest to me both professionally and personally - as a lawyer specializing in the field of human rights, as a campaigner on the issue of women's equality and, last but not least, as a woman and mother.

I suppose the fact that the first two Today/Chatham House lecturers have been women underlines the progress we have seen towards equality over the last century.

It has been a century of steady progress, something which can be seen in my own legal profession - not one, I think it is fair to say, usually seen as in the advance guard of social change.

Women have come a long way in the law in a relatively short time.

It was, after all, as late as 1913 that the Court of Appeal ruled that women were not eligible to practice as solicitors because that right was given under statute to persons which, the judges claimed, referred only to men.

It was not until 1949 that the first woman was made a QC.

The year I was called to the Bar in 1976 was the first time that the number of women among new barristers topped 10%.

And it wasn't just the numbers that were against women thirty years ago. It was also the culture of the time.

In the 1973 edition of his classic text "Learning the Law", no less an authority than Glanville Williams QC warned how difficult it was for women to succeed at the Bar.

"Practice at the Bar, " he declared, "is a demanding task for a man; it is even more difficult for a women.....It is not easy for a young man to get up and face the court; many women find it harder still... A women's voice also does not carry as well as a man's."

I am delighted to say that such views, if they do still exist, have been driven deep underground.

The legal profession takes very seriously the whole issue of equality.

The result is that this year for the first time, the number of women called to the Bar exceeded the number of men. It seems that their voices are carrying rather well after all.

Under a new system designed to ensure the Bar better reflects society as a whole, a record 33 women were appointed QCs this year.

Glanville Williams must be turning in his grave. These changes are, of course, important not just for women but for justice. The law, if it is to retain public confidence, cannot be the preserve of one segment or one gender in society; it must be for all.

It is, of course, the same story of progress across the professions and our society. Again I believe this has been a real force for good. It is not a coincidence that when women are allowed to participate fully in society we see their priorities and hopes reflected in the law and in public policy to improve life for all of society.

Take domestic violence. When I started as a barrister, domestic violence was still swept under the carpet. Now the police and the courts rightly treat it with more seriousness.

In this country and many others, there are laws in place to ensure equal treatment in pay and employment.

Thirty-five years ago there were more MPs called John than women. There are now over 120 women MPs.

Across the world as well, there has been progress.

A century ago fewer than six countries in the world allowed women to vote; now fewer than three prohibit it. We have seen elected women leaders in Asia, and Africa and the Americas as well, of course, as in UK and Europe.

Even over the past decade, the gender gap in primary education has shrunk significantly.

Women are the drivers of global economic growth, filling two out of three new jobs.

In fact, in most countries - and certainly in the democratic world - the law actively protects equal rights for all people, regardless of gender.

So there has been a huge amount of progress. But to the question "has it gone far enough", the answer must be a blunt no.

The reality is that there is no country in the world that has achieved true gender equality and there are too many where it remains a very