A Day To Reflect On How Far We've Come On Gender Equality - And How Far We Have Still To Go

11/10/2016 16:45
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

This morning I sat in my first Shadow Cabinet meeting. As I looked around the table at the other Labour MPs set on making our country a better and more fair place to live, I had to stop from pinching myself.

How had I, a working-class girl who was the first in my family to go to university, ended up as Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities? It still seems a little surreal - but now my job is to ensure that women everywhere have the opportunity to follow their dreams and aspirations, just like I did, without fear of discrimination or abuse.

Today is the UN's International Day Of The Girl Child, a day where we stand up for the rights of girls. In 2016, girls in the UK have more opportunities to succeed than they have ever had before. 51.6% of GPs are now women, outnumbering men. Women make up 61% of new solicitors. And Jeremy Corbyn's new shadow cabinet has more female MPs than ever before, with two of the three shadow 'great offices of state' being held by women. Plus, of course, we have our second woman Prime Minister.

I've enjoyed a successful career. From my degree in Sheffield to running a children's hospice, to taking my seat in Westminster, I have remained ever grateful to the women who paved the path for women like me to work hard and succeed. It was a woman - Natasha Engel MP - who encouraged me to stand for my Rotherham seat in the first place, something I would have never considered before.

Yet for too many girls, these opportunities still seem out of reach, and they find themselves victims of disadvantages, discrimination and abuse. Earlier this year, Plan UK released a shocking report which showed that girls in some of the country's more deprived areas experience far more inequality than our wealthier districts. Almost all of the bottom 50 worst places to be a girl are in the North of England.

Coupled with these disturbing statistics, it was revealed in Plan UK's survey that a fifth of girls in the UK have been sexually assaulted in or around their school. According to 2011 Home Office statistics, 25% of girls say they have experienced physical abuse by their partner, and 75% of girls have suffered emotional abuse.

In the UK, we have much to be proud of in the way girls' rights have developed over the century but those statistics should disturb every one of us. Let me repeat, three quarters of girls in our country say they have suffered abuse in their relationships before they reach adulthood.
The best way to ensure that girls - and boys - grow up with an understanding of healthy relationships is to educate them from as early an age as possible. Under the Tory government, only children in maintained secondary schools - just 40% of schools - have compulsory Sex and Relationships Education, and parents can choose to withdraw their children from the programme.

Compulsory resilience and relationship education delivered from Key Stage One is one of the best ways to ensure children in the UK can have healthy, respectful and consensual relationships when they are older. By teaching children from an early age, we can equip them with the tools they need to enjoy relationships without fear.

My work as Shadow Minister For Women And Equalities is just beginning. But as I sat around that cabinet table today, I took a moment to reflect on how far we've come - and how far we still have to go.

Sarah Champion MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, has launched her new campaign, Dare2Care, an initiative that aims to prevent child abuse and challenge the normalisation of violence in young people's relationships. The Dare2Care National Action Plan will be launched on 1st November 2016.