Trailblazing in the fight for equality, empowerment and opportunity

In June 2018, Norfolk Community Foundation rallied more than 120 women to launch a new movement called Together for Women and Girls to raise funds and campaign for change. The aim is to support women and girls to take positive steps towards empowerment and opportunity, and to challenge inequality, abuse, exploitation and disadvantage in the home, the workplace and our wider local communities.

Not unexpectedly, the early support, enthusiasm and commitment to this programme has come mainly from women. But if real change and lasting improvements are to be made, we also need men to get behind the fight to tackle the social, cultural and economic barriers faced by women and girls.

It might seem self-evident – but there are compelling reasons to be doing this now, without further delay.

This year has marked the passing of a century since the first women in this country gained the right to vote. Given the passage of time, it would be reassuring to believe that all women and girls in Norfolk now have the opportunity for economic stability and success in their lives. Sadly, that is not true for a great many.

At the same time, there have been stark reminders about the extent of abuse and exploitation faced by some, and telling indications that in the battle for equal pay and representation, much more needs to be done to promote genuine gender equality.

National statistics show that men earn around 18% more than women. And the new legal requirement for all large companies to publish figures on their ‘gender pay gap’ has been most revealing – almost all Norfolk companies required to report revealed a pay gap favouring men, with some of the largest firms revealing the biggest gaps.

In terms of representation, men still hold most positions of leadership in Norfolk. While the county is served by nine constituency MPs, only two of these are women. Of the total number of elected councillors, only 28% are women – below the national average.

The leaders of all eight councils in Norfolk are men (in fact, there is only one female council leader in the whole eastern region). In the private sector, a disproportionately small number of women play a role in the day-to-day running of the biggest companies – of the Top 100 companies in Norfolk and Suffolk, fewer than one in seven boardroom seats are held by women. The vast majority have no female board members whatsoever.

Beyond the need for economic justice, all women and girls should have the right to live free from violence and the threat of violence. Yet the situation in Norfolk is a cause for concern. The number of incidents of domestic abuse have been rising in recent years. Norfolk Constabulary has estimated that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, with young women aged 16-19 years perceived to be at particular risk.

And all of this is happening when many statutory and specialist services, which support people who have experienced violence, are turning women away due to lack of funding.

No one chooses to put themselves in a position of vulnerability, disadvantage or inequality, and it is often through a lack of choice that women and girls suffer at the hands of others. For those that do receive help, the support is often focused on breaking cycles of behaviour which lead to vulnerability or dealing with other causes of disadvantage – prejudice, crime, job insecurity, rural isolation, debt, homelessness, drug addiction or poor mental health. There are rarely any quick fixes.

The funds raised through Together for Women and Girls will enable Norfolk Community Foundation to do two things. Firstly, to deliver innovative projects that genuinely support women and girls to take positive steps towards empowerment and opportunity. And secondly, to enable initiatives which can challenge inequality, abuse, exploitation and disadvantage.

To echo the rallying cry of the suffragettes a hundred years ago, what we need at this moment is ‘Deeds not Words’.