International Women’s Day 2006: Women having the confidence to step out

Giving the key note speech at Waltham Forest Women in Public Life 2006

As part of this year’s local International Women’s Day celebrations, I gave a speech to women’s organisation Waltham Forest Women in Public Life. I am particularly keen to work with organisations like Women in Public Life as they do a marvellous job helping local women find their voice.


My speech to Waltham Forest Women in Public Life International Women’s Day 2006.

Good evening everyone,

My name is Miranda Grell and I am a local Leyton resident and Vice Chair of the Leyton and Whipps Cross Community Council, but tonight I am here to represent Jennette Arnold, our Waltham Forest Greater London Assembly Member.

Jennette has asked me to convey to you her sincerest apologies for not being able to be here tonight. As you may know, Jennette is the Chief Cultural Advisor to Mayor Ken Livingstone,Mayor of London, and Ken has asked Jennette to represent him at a European Union cultural event in Madrid.

Jennette wishes to thank you Marvia, Yemi, Rachel, Bev and Sharon – and all of your volunteers at Waltham Forest Women in Public Life for the hard work that you do.

Waltham Forest Women in Public Life is one of Jennette’s favourite voluntary organisations in the borough because you empower so many local women and give us a stronger voice.

If you didn’t exist I think we would have to invent you. So I thank you for allowing me to stand in for Jennette this evening, at this very special event. I hope you will not be disappointed.

Having the Confidence to Step Out

The title of my speech tonight is called ‘Having the Confidence to step out’. What does this mean for us women living in Waltham Forest today and how can it be achieved? What support is there to help us ‘step out’ and what are the barriers impeding our success?

I will aim to tackle these questions in three parts:

1. Firstly, I will talk about the challenges facing women living in Waltham Forest – and London and Britain more widely – that often stop us from reaching our full potential.

2. I will then go on to tell you a little bit about what Jennette, Mayor Ken Livingstone and our MPs in parliament are doing to assist female Londoners of all ages find their voice and step out into the world with confidence.

3. I will then speak a little about my own experience as a local young Black woman who has become increasingly active in local and national public life. Why have I decided to become active at a time when young people’s participation – particularly young Black people’s participation – is at an all time low? What can we do to turn the situation around?

Once I finish I will be delighted to answer any questions you may have.

The Challenges facing Waltham Forest’s Women

Women living in Waltham Forest today face many challenges that prevent us from having the confidence to step out. Leyton, the ward within which you sit tonight, has been classified the poorest in the borough. Leyton ward has the highest rate of unemployment, the highest percentage of children receiving free school meals and the highest percentage of families living in over crowded conditions.

Is it any wonder that many of the women living here feel that their biggest priority – before participating in civic activity – is to try and heal the hurt that their children feel, as well as to put food on their kitchen table?

For these women to have the confidence to step out then poverty – particularly child poverty – really does need to be eliminated once and for all. And that is why I believe that the Government’s target to halve child poverty by 2010 and then abolish it completely by 2020 deserves our full backing.

Married with London’s depressing statistics on child poverty, another recent report published by the Mayor found that women’s position in the London economy is by far the worst in the country. I have always been of the firm personal opinion that work is the most important policy tool we have for bringing dignity, reducing crime and – above all – creating equality.

I also believe that work brings vital opportunities for women to view themselves as powerful, intelligent and worthwhile citizens who have an essential economic contribution to make – and that by itself can only help them gain the confidence they need to step out and influence the bigger picture that all of us here know is so important.

To quote Mayor Livingstone’s words as he launched his report: He said, “London’s future as a world city and the powerhouse of the UK’s economy is critically dependent on the contribution of women. No more so than in the next 10 years. By 2016, women are expected to take seven in ten of all new jobs in London. It is essential that they are equipped to compete for them at all levels, from the backroom to the boardroom”.

I think that all of us here would agree with the Mayor’s words – and with the ‘Women and Work Commission’ – which was a special taskforce set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair to look at the inequality in men and women’s pay – reporting last week that the pay gap between men and women has actually INCREASED since the 1976 Equal Pay Act rather than decreased – let us hope that the Government’s policy makers finally sit up and begin to take radical action.

Crime and the fear of crime, is another area, where if women are to have the confidence to step out – both literally and figuratively – we need “the powers that be” to take a greater stand. Women living in our borough with no car are not going to go out to evening meetings if they think they could be likely to be attacked. They are not going to join or participate in new groups if they are made to feel intimidated or threatened.

But indeed it is not just a fear of crime or intimidation outside the home that is stopping many women stepping out into local public life. The latest figures reveal that over a quarter of British based women are still the regular victims of violence in their very own homes. We all know someone who – because of domestic violence – is having their confidence eroded and shattered on a daily basis – who under different circumstances would be able to play a full and fulfilling role in their community as a school governor, as a magistrate, as a non-executive director of a company or as a budding politician.

Of course, many women who are the victims of domestic violence are employing their immense skills of survival, to put on a brave face and carry on. They should not have to.

Domestic physical and mental abuse against one woman is domestic physical and mental abuse against ALL WOMEN.

As women in public life where we know domestic violence is going on we must have the confidence to speak out and demand that the authorities step in. We cannot be women in public life if we ignore abuses facing our sisters in their private lives. And that is why I congratulate Waltham Forest Women in Public Life on the work you have done to tackle this issue.

So these are just a few of the immense challenges I feel are facing us as women living in London today – poverty, inequality in the economy and the fear of crime and domestic violence. What are our representatives at the Greater London Assembly and in Parliament, doing for women to ensure that we really can feel equipped to fully and confidently step out?

What are the Mayor and our local MPs doing for Women?

Well, Last Saturday Mayor Ken Livingstone hosted his annual ‘Capital Women’ conference at the QEII Conference Centre in central London – which I know many of you here attended.

The conference provided a unique opportunity for London’s women to have a direct dialogue with the Mayor on questions and issues of critical concern. It focussed on uniting London’s women post the events of 7 July 2005 and celebrated the contribution made by women from London’s diverse communities.

With the number of delegates to the conference growing from 200 at its inception in 2001 to over 2000 in 2005, London’s policy makers now have all the evidence they need that women are demanding to be made a central plank of Mayor Ken’s overall agenda.

But it’s not only been about conferences. The Mayor’s dialogue with London’s women has led to the delivery of a number of Services, Strategies, and Initiatives which all aim to give greater consideration to the specific needs of women.

Ken has implemented the London Childcare Strategy – which will create 10,000 subsided child care places.

He has also aimed to give a stronger voice to Black women within his official consultative body for the Black community – the Black Londoners’ Forum.

Mayor Ken has also ordered the creation of a pan-London carers forum – to give a voice to women who look after elderly, disabled or mentally ill relatives – as well as young children.

And he has pioneered the “Safer Travel at Night Initiative” to give women the confidence to physically step out into their locality at night.

This year, the Mayor particularly wants to hear women’s views on Employment, Safety, the Promotion of Diversity, Climate Change and the Environment, the 2012 Olympics, Education, the Government’s new Equality Bill and his own Older People’s strategy.

Waltham Forest’s Greater London Assembly Member Jennette is our borough’s link to Mayor Livingstone. Jennette is completely accessible and can be contacted at any time. I hope you will seek to use your influence with Jennette. And urge her to tell the Mayor your views on all of these important issues.

The work of our local MPs

Our local MPs too are also working to raise the profile of issues affecting Waltham Forest’s women and to make concrete and tangible change.

Harry Cohen MP is working closely with the national group called ‘Women Against Rape’ because unfortunately too many women are still being violated.

Harry is also leading a parliamentary campaign to improve conditions for women in custody because it is still an unfortunate reality that women continue to be locked up under the harshest conditions for merely stealing a loaf of bread to feed their families.

Health too is another area where Harry Cohen and his Walthamstow parliamentary counterpart Neil Gerrard, are working hard for women in our borough. Harry and Neil have won millions of pounds worth of improvements and new facilities for Whipps Cross hospital since Labour came to power in 1997.

Thanks to their lobbying, Whipps Cross now has better breast cancer screening facilities, better gynecological services, more maternity facilities and more female doctors and nurses.

What does all this have to do with having the confidence to step out you may ask? Well, ask any politician – male or female – and they’ll tell you that without their health they are nothing.

Indeed, Jennette considers health policy to be of such importance to improving the lives of London’s women that she last year agreed to become the Chair of the London Health Commission – this, on top of her full time job as a Greater London Assembly Member and alongside her position as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

It is women like Jennette that have given me, a 27 year old young woman from Leyton, the confidence to step out.

And I would now like to briefly touch on my own experience before we continue with the rest of the evening.
In full flow
My own experience

I was born in this very ward – a child of immigrant parents from the Caribbean – only two minutes down the road from here.

I went to St Joseph’s school in Vicarage Rd and Walthamstow School for Girls in Church Hill and despite being brought up in this very deprived ward, I never felt that I was any less important than people who came from richer areas.

I have always felt privileged to grow up in a borough where 180 languages are spoken, where I learnt Urdu at school and ate samosas in the Francis Rd Guardwara; where I could learn to play classical instruments for free; and where I had good local parks to play in.

As I have got older I have realised that all the good things about our borough really do not happen by themselves. They happen because there are people like you living here who have pushed and fought hard for them.

For example, why are the Government and policy makers now talking about child care? Because, we as women have made them!

And why are steps finally being taken by the powerful to eradicate domestic violence? Because, we as women have made them!

And why is the government beginning to give in to growing demands that the breast cancer drug Herception should be made free on the NHS? Yep, you’ve guessed it: Because, we as women have made them!

However, there are still too few of us in public life to raise these issues and keep the pressure on. Did you know that out of the 60 councillors who represent us in Waltham Forest only 15 are women? And out of those women only one is Asian and NONE are Black.

This is a scandalous waste of the talent in our borough. Our male colleagues in politics must better support us practically and women must begin to put ourselves forward otherwise nothing will change and issues such as child poverty, women in London’s economy and tackling the scourge of domestic violence will continue not to be given the highest priority.

That is why, at 27 years old, I have decided to bite the bullet and throw my hat into the ring. As women I think we are often too quick to downplay our abilities and underestimate our worth. I am already a school governor, sit on the board of Leyton ward’s regeneration forum and I am, as I mentioned earlier, the Vice Chair of the local Community Council, so this is the next natural step.

My confidence comes from a number of sources; A supportive mother who always listened to my ideas and helped me to make them happen; A brilliant local school in Walthamstow Girls that taught me from aged 11 that I should never “neglect the gift that is within me”; And lastly – and most importantly – having the support and practical guidance of women such as Jennette Arnold and my good friend and greatest source of inspiration, the first ever Black woman elected to parliament, Diane Abbott MP.

So if I may I would like to end my speech now with four pieces of advice that I hope will give you the confidence to step out as I have had the confidence to.

The first piece of advice is to let no one ever tell you that you cannot do it.

The second is to make use of the wonderful local organisations at your disposal like Waltham Forest Women in Public Life – Because they exist to help and empower you and me. In fact, I know that Yemi has some information tonight about applying for public appointments.

The third piece of advice is not to be afraid to contact your local, regional and national representatives to offer them your experience and skills. You put them there with your vote so they HAVE to listen to what you have to say. They have a duty to nurture you to grow.

My last piece of advice is to make sure that you use your vote in May’s local elections. As the old saying goes: No Vote, No Voice. So make some time to look at which of the parties and candidates is talking about poverty, women in the economy and domestic violence.

And make sure to cast an eye over whose manifesto is offering you the practical tools you need to set up your own businesses – as well as offering you the good and affordable child care you need, to enable you to participate more actively in civic life.

These are the choices facing both you and me this May. And that is why your vote is so very very important.

On May the 4th all the women of Waltham Forest will need you to have the confidence to step out to the ballot box.

We will all be depending on you.

Thank you.
With organiser Yemi and fellow guest speaker, Ros Levenson, NHS non-exec Director

For more information about Waltham Forest Women in Public Life please contact:

WF Women in Public Life, c/o Beverly Toney, 67 Hazelwood Road, London E17 7AJ.
Tel and Fax: 020 89259086

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