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The Importance of Educating Girls

City School, London May 2007

Millions of our young people continue in the 21st century to be denied access to the very basics of human life.

I am delighted to be here to speak to you today. I know that this is a very special school with a very strong ethos which has great aspirations for each and every one of you.
And though I can imagine there are times when this might seem a bit of a nuisance - especially around exam time - you are, I promise, very fortunate.

Because there isn’t a better platform for you to reach your full potential later in life than a school which wants the very best for you. Make the most of the opportunities you have.
I also know that this school, right here in the centre of London, includes children from all sorts of backgrounds, with many varied talents….

And, I hear as well that the school - and this audience - has more than a few very lively personalities!

As far as I am concerned, that’s good not bad. I’m here to encourage you to follow your dreams and to change the world. We can only benefit as a society if we have more talented, bright outspoken women in positions of leadership.

And that, of course, is what this series of talks is about - to help prepare you and encourage you for the leadership roles for which your education is preparing you. I’m always consider it a privilege to talk to young women who are ready and eager to make their impact on the world. And to pass on the message that a good education opens so many doors for you. I know that from my own experience.

People are often surprised to hear, I suppose because I am a QC or probably now because I now live at 10, Downing Street that I was the first person in my family ever to go to university.

I was in fact, brought up in Liverpool. If you listen hard, you can still hear traces of the accent in my voice. My mother brought up my sister and myself because our father left us. I was lucky to attend a good school in Liverpool, run by nuns who were certainly a good deal stricter than your teachers here.

I am afraid to say I was hardly a model pupil. I held the school record for late marks in my sixth form years largely because I was incapable of getting up in time to get to school before rather than after assembly began.

It’s a pattern of optimism over timing which has, I’m afraid, rather stayed with me. Although as the penalties for being late for court are rather more severe than being late for assembly, I have to watch those precious extra minutes in bed much more carefully now.
But looking back my school days, I can see how absolutely vital they were to me. The opportunities I was given then have had a profound effect on the rest of my life.

Without that education I would never have come to London to study at the LSE, never have done my bar exams, never have become a QC and a part-time judge - and because we met as barristers in the same chambers, never have married who I did and had the enormous privilege of living in No 10.

It wasn’t just the precious gift of education I received but also a sense of achievements and confidence; a belief in myself and the feeling then, as a girl, and now, as a woman, there was nothing that I could not do if I put mind to it.

That sense of self-worth that I gained from school stayed with me through university and my Bar finals.

It was only when I actually started practicing at the Bar that I came upon an obstacle that the nuns at my convent school never warned me about - no doubt because it wasn’t one that they came across in their profession.

That obstacle was of course my gender. I suddenly came upon the awful reality that the world or at least some of the world thought that as a women I was automatically disqualified from going to the top.
This notion was not unique to the legal profession. In the 1970's it was widespread throughout our society.

I sometimes wonder whether I would ever have chosen the Bar as a career if I had known how badly the odds were stacked against women at the time.

When I was called to the Bar in July 1976, women made up only 16% of entrants - and this was the first year that the figure had crept into double figures.

But it wasn’t just the numbers against women. It was also the culture of the time.

One of the texts we used was “Learning the Law” by Glanville Williams QC.

In the 1973 - not 1903 - edition of this classic text, he warned of the difficulties of women succeeding in the profession I had chosen.

“Practice at the Bar” he said, “ 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.”

That was the attitude just 30 years ago. Nor could you escape the male dominated world when you finally qualified.
It is etched into my memory how an entire circuit robing room fell silent in shock and horror when it dawned on them that I intended to change there as well as the male barristers.

I am pleased to say that, after some struggle, in this country women have started to compete on equal terms with men in many walks of life. There is a long way to go until we get full equality but there has been huge progress - and when I look around at this audience, I think the future is in good hands.

But there are many places in the world where that’s not the case. And I appeal to you to use your talents and skills when you become leaders to help fight for them as well.
Just listen to these grim facts.
Women are twice as likely to live in poverty as men.
Of the 130 million children not in school, two out of every three are girls.
Just one percent of the titled land in the world is owned by women
Half a million women a year die unnecessarily as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.
Women are now overtaking men in rates of HIV infection.
For every one woman in parliaments across the world there are 9 men.

A poor woman in a Nairobi slum summed it up when asked by a worker for the UK government development agency, what event she would change in her life if she could, she replied “I would be born a man”.

And education is the key here as well. If there is one single thing we can do to counter this inequality and poverty, it is to ensure that every child across the world, but particularly the girls gets a good education.

There is, in fact, compelling evidence that extending and improving education for girls has a huge impact on economic growth, on raising health and stable families and in preventing the spread of infections such as HIV/Aids - a bigger social return in breaking the poverty cycle in fact than educating boys.

It’s a vital part of what I believe is the world-wide fight for a fairer society. And I passionately believe that women must be in the forefront of that battle. Research has shown that

Each additional year of schooling for girls is estimated to decrease the mortality of the under-five age group by 5 to 10 percent and the fertility rate by 10 percent.

An infant born to an educated woman is much more likely to survive until adulthood. In Africa, children of mothers who receive five years of primary education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond age five.

An educated woman is 50 per cent more likely to have her children immunised against childhood diseases.

In Swaziland two-thirds of teenage girls in school are free from HIV, while two-thirds of out-of-school girls are HIV positive.

Yet in many parts of the world, it is girls - either accidentally or as a matter of mistaken policy - which are denied the chance to educate themselves.

I was able to see for myself the effect of the deliberate policy of denying girls an education had on a recent visit to Afghanistan where British Forces are doing such great work.

I visited a school for girls in Kabul which only a few years ago would have been impossible. The head teacher was a remarkable woman. When the Taliban had been in power, girls were banned from schools. But she risked her life conducting clandestine lessons for girls. Now she presides over the biggest girls’ school in Kabul with 8000 pupils aged between 5 and 21.

Many of the older girls had passed school leaving age but had missed out on so much schooling that the school was continuing to help them. The school was in a poor physical condition, with bomb damage in the playground, broken windows, and many empty classrooms full of rubble. They lacked books. Nevertheless the children were all polite and well behaved and desperate to learn. I met one group of girls in a classroom without a teacher who were reading by themselves. Their reading material? Cheaply produced extracts from the Koran and a black and white “Bollywood” style magazine. They desperately need teaching materials and equipment if the promise of education is to make a real difference to these young people. British troops are doing great work protecting the people of Afghanistan but if we are to promote a long term sustainable future we need to help them with tangible improvements in their everyday life and particularly in education.

Afghanistan is by no means unique across the world. There are millions of children being denied even the most basic schooling. There are the countless millions of children as well whose youth is cruelly curtailed by having to take on the responsibilities of adults - whether it is being forced to work to support their families or being forced to fight as child soldiers in wars not of their making.

All these children are trapped in an ever-downward spiral of ignorance, poverty and disease which in turn only helps to pull their societies deeper into trouble.

I have recently become a member of the UNICEF Global Task Force for Water and Sanitation Hygiene focusing on how the empowerment of women and children promotes the right to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. It is something which has touched me and also, I think, helps highlight how human rights and their promotion are not just an abstract ideal but can, with our help, make a real, practical different to the everyday lives of millions of people.

For human rights have to begin with the universal provision of the very basics for human survival . And you can’t think of anything more basic than water. So I hope you forgive me if I talk a little about how important this is. After all, if being an ambassador for such a good cause means anything, it must mean taking the message out to those who can do something about it, young women like you who will play such a vital role in our world when you leave this school.
More than 400 million children under 5, it is estimated, live without access to a safe drinking source.
Over twice as many - almost one billion - lack improved sanitation facilities.
The price they pay is huge.
We all know, of course, that we can’t survive without water.
It is not, however, just its supply which is essential but also its cleanliness.
For when water is contaminated and polluted it becomes not a life-saver but a dangerous cause of disease and infection. Indeed, contaminated water is the largest single cause of childhood illness and death.
Today and every day, more than four thousand children will die because they drink dirty water and live in unsanitary conditions.
Of the 10 million children under five who die annually, one in six succumb to diseases caused by unsafe water and inadequate or non-existent sanitation.
At any one time, half the population of developing countries are suffering illness caused by lack of safe water or poor sanitation.
Clean water is also important for education and prosperity.
The daily grind, for example, of finding and fetching water can take hours out of every day.
This task largely falls on the shoulders of young people - and young girls in particular, cutting the hours they can spend in schooling. As girls reach puberty lack of adequate toilet facilities is one of the main reasons why their parents withdraw them from school. Providing schools with safe water and separate toilet facilities unlocks educational opportunities for girls. Improved water and basic sanitation means freedom and the chance to learn and when they become mothers, they can be the educators for future generations - their children. ‘Educate a man and you educate an individual -educate a woman and you educate a family and a nation’.

We must hear the voices of children who say they cannot imagine having clean water, children without hope of staying free from disease and death. Such hopelessness is dangerous in the young and receptive to extremist groups who are able to prey on their vulnerabilities.
Investment in proper sanitation will help provide clean rivers and clean drinking water. It’s investment that will pay for itself many times over.
In fact the World Health Organisation estimates that each $1 invested in water and sanitation in low-income countries will yield an average return of $8 in saved time, increased productivity, and reduced health costs.
That’s why the world came together through the UN development goals to pledge to halve the number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities by 2015.
It’s an ambitious goal which will need political will, determination and investment and a willingness to work in partnership with the countries and communities we seek to help - to listen, engage and involve local people.
We can all help even the youngest. Recently the school attended by my youngest son raised funds to provide a water tank for a village in Uganda and they had enough money over to buy a small Christmas gift for each child.

And we can do our bit at home at well in making sure we use water more efficiently. Water shortages are becoming a problem in large areas of the world.

I believe providing clean and safe water for all is a challenge this generation and that means you must overcome.

It was President John F Kennedy who emphasised the importance of this goal when he said ‘Anyone who solves the problem of water deserves not one Nobel prize, but two - one for science and the other for peace’

There is no more important task facing us that building a better, fairer world for our children - and we can’t achieve this world if millions of our young people continue in the 21st century to be denied access to the very basics of human life.

Providing clean and safe water for all is a challenge this generation must overcome.

Looking around this room, seeing the potential here, listening to some of you speak.

I know that there is the talent and the will to commit to this cause and to make it happen.

Thank you.