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British women push for equality 100 years after first female MP's election

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 14 December 2018 09:00 GMT

A Labour Party members of Parliament wears a rosette at an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the enfranchisment of some, but not all women, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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Male lawmakers outnumber women two to one

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Dec 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A century after Britain's first election in which women voted and stood for parliament, female activists called on Friday for further reform to achieve equality amid abuse and prejudice.

Despite celebrations to mark 100 years since most women aged over 30 won the right to vote - including unveiling a statue of women's suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst - male lawmakers outnumber women two to one.

"I don't think we have got far enough, the pace of change has been ludicrously slow," Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, also a prominent campaigner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I think they would be saying fabulous that you're celebrating ... but they'd also be really interested to ask how far we have got and what we still need to do and maybe chivvying us on."

The past year has seen women question why they remain under-represented in public life and senior business positions in a global debate over gender roles after the #MeToo movement spurred a wider debate over their position in society.

Britain sits at number 38 out of 193 countries in a league table by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), with women holding 32 percent of seats in the lower house, far behind Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia, which have female majorities.

Britain's Dec. 14, 1918, poll saw the election of the first female lawmaker, Constance Markievicz, though as a member of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein she did not take up her seat.

Women today face gendered barriers in politics ranging from a lack of encouragement to stand through to public abuse and discrimination from male colleagues, experts say.

"Despite all the great celebrations and activity this year, to date it adds up to a missed opportunity to effect lasting change," said Sam Smethers, head of the Fawcett Society, Britain's leading women's rights charity.

"Women's representation remains stalled, and government has missed the opportunity to act to remove the barriers."

Smethers backed calls for the government to force political parties to reveal how many of their candidates being put forward as potential lawmakers are women in a move that supporters of the scheme say would help to improve diversity.

There is also a campaign to encourage women to put themselves forward for elections and support a pipeline of female talent spearheaded by the group 50:50 Parliament.

Its founder, Frances Scott, said the main British parties were taking the issue seriously and she hoped the lower house could be equally split between women and men within a decade.

"Change is possible," Scott said.

"It took a world war for women to get the vote and to be able to participate and stand, so maybe it will take Brexit for us all to look at our democracy and realise it should become more inclusive and accessible." (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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