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Transcript of Keynote Address by Sarah Brown
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London

Sunday 11 April 2010

Thank you. Jai Swaminarayan.

Thank you Dawn for your lovely introduction and for asking me to join you here today. Friends, I know I don’t need to tell any of you here what an amazing and persistent and energetic Member of Parliament you have in Dawn Butler. Since being elected in 2005, she has helped over 14,000 local residents and she has brought so many constituents to visit us in Downing Street.

But I already feel like I am amongst old friends. We were particularly delighted to see some of you in Number 10 last year when we hosted the first ever Downing Street Diwali Celebrations. Hearing the tabla and the sitar drifting through the corridors of Number 10 was a special moment that I will always treasure. I am proud that it was Gordon who first threw open the doors of Number 10 to celebrate the specials not only of our Hindu friends, but of our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends too. In Britain today, our diversity is not a source of division, but a source of strength. We are all very different, but in one thing, we are the same: our need to learn from each other.

Today, we will also celebrate some other ‘historic firsts’. Last year, Dawn Butler became the first black woman to speak at the House of Commons Dispatch Box, and she is joined in Gordon’s government by the first black attorney general, Baroness Patricia Scotland; the first Muslim Minister, Shahid Malik; and the first Muslim to attend Cabinet, Dawn’s great friend Sadiq Khan. Baroness Shriti Vadera was also a brilliant Minister, first at DfID, and then at the Business Department. We have all watched her with great pride as she has continued her work with Gordon on the global economy in her new role at the G20. Dawn, of course, has a special job as the Minister for Youth Engagement, because it is her job to inspire young people to register to vote and turn out to vote. I hope that together, we can persuade everyone here of whatever age to do that too.

When I look at the Ministers that Gordon works with, or the councillors and MPs we have across the country, I find it strange when people ask us what relationship the Labour Party has with the Asian Community or the Black Community. We don’t have a relationship with you, as if we are two distinct groups. You are part of our family and I hope we are a part of yours. It is why I was so pleased to accept the invitation to come today and I thank you very much for your friendship.

You will all know of course that we are in the middle of an election campaign, where Gordon and I are having 18-hour days and whizzing around the country so fast, it is sometimes hard to keep track whether we are in England or Scotland, the country or the town, the North or the South. It can be quite overwhelming, but I am loving every minute of it. For the next few weeks, I shall heed the advice of Indira Gandhi, who said, “Learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.”

It is indeed such an honour to be here at this truly stunning temple. I can entirely understand why it is often referred to as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, but I suspect what keeps thousands and thousands of people coming back here is not just how beautiful a building it is, but, I suspect, it is the warmth of the welcome and the compassion of the community. Gordon said yesterday, that a community is not the buildings, the institutions, and the structures, but the thousands of acts of friendship, kindness, and generosity that turn us from individuals living separately to a team living together.

That is what I wanted to talk to you today, about how we as women can do a better job of being on each other’s team. We all know that it is women who hold everything together: our families, our communities, and our countries. But, often we are so busy looking after everybody else, that we forget to look after ourselves. So, we are going to have to do more to look after each other, to support each other as we go.

A few months ago, I as at an event and somebody quoted a proverb, which has stayed with me, that ‘we will always need to lift as we climb’. It is exactly what the women I have admired most have done. Although they are all ambitious, successful, and high achieving, they have also focussed their energy to ensure other women have the chance to become those things too.

One of the events we have done at Downing Street this year, which I have enjoyed the most, was a reception for the BAME Media in early January. The wonderful singer Joan Armatrading and film director Gurinder Chadha spoke about the impact the government policies had had on their lives and about the steps we have taken along the road to equality these last thirteen years. Just a few weeks ago, we invited a lot of ‘wonder women’ to Downing Street for a ‘Celebrating Women’s achievements’ reception. When I looked around, I saw person after person, who was not only an inspiration in their own right, but lifting as they climbed. Women, like Katie Piper, who as you may remember was the beautiful model who was very disfigured after her boyfriend raped her and then colluded with an accomplice to throw sulphuric acid in her face. Katie was not only badly injured, but her dream career was taken away from her, and yet she refuses to be bitter. She has now become a campaigner to champion awareness and support for our brilliant National Health Service, which did so much to treat her after the attack. There was also Sheila Bright, who won GMTV’s ‘Mum of the Year’ last year, which was when I met her first. She had five children and had tragically lost one of her boys in a road accident. She channelled all of her energies into supporting the charity Compassionate Friends, a charity that helps bereaved parents. Then, she lost her husband very suddenly when he suffered an adverse reaction to a treatment. But, she stayed strong for her family, because that very week, one of her daughters was due to give birth to twins. Her family was then dealt a final blow. Her daughter Leanne was diagnosed with terminal brain tumours and Sheila has become her full-time carer. Both of them are two very brave women. Women like these came to our event. The wonderful thing was, in a room with famous and inspirational women like Dawn French and Annie Lennox, just as many people were excited to meet Sheila and Katie. All the women there knew that inspiration is not just to be found in watching the lives of the very well known, but in looking around in communities too.

On Friday this week, I met another woman who wants to make life better for other women, even though she, too, has suffered a tragedy herself. Linda Bowman came with us when Gordon and I visited Stevenage. You might not be immediately able to place her, but you will almost certainly remember her daughter, Sally Anne Bowman. Sally Anne was just 18 when she was murdered by Mark Dixie in a high-profile and horrendous attack. No parent should have to burry their child, and yet that is what Linda has had to do. After the event, she still describes it as the second her life stopped. But, Linda is determined to do what she can to protect other women and girls. I met her on Friday because she was backing a campaign with Gordon and the Home Secretary to defend the use of DNA evidence, which had been absolutely critical in securing justice for Sally Anne.

I have had the deep honour of meeting so many women like these in these last few years. Not all the stories are so sad, but they all have one thing in common. The women who have made the deepest impression on me are the people who show determination to help others. People who will look at every setback no matter how heartbreaking, see it as a chance to dig deep inside themselves for the strength to go on and to take others with them. These women are focussed on the future, on the promise it holds, and what it can be if we are prepared to work together to shape it to match our best ideals. I know your conference yesterday was focused on celebrating the women of the past and then today, of the present and the future. I hope through the women’s celebrations this month you have all learned about one ‘wonder woman’ from the past that you had not heard of before. I was certainly pleased to have that experience last month when I learnt about a woman called Ada Lovelace, a woman who was absolutely critical to the early maths and science that enables computers to be as functioning as they are today. Her portrait hangs in Downing Street in one of our reception rooms. I know how thrilling it is to learn new history and to discover somebody who has lived before you and to whom you feel connected.

I hope you will forgive me if I just focus today only on the future, as the needs there are so urgent. As you know, I have been very involved in the global campaign on maternal mortality through the White Ribbon Alliance and the Million Mums Campaign – a campaign that is mobilising the people, the resources and political will in 148 countries to stop the needless deaths of women and children in childbirth. Let me explain a little about the scale of the problem. Every minute of every day, somewhere in the world due to pregnancy and birth related complications. In the developing world, it is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 to die in pregnancy or childbirth. The rate of maternal mortality leaves around two million children a year motherless. That is every single year. Behind every statistic is an individual story – a real person really dying. Some of you may know that the actress from Holby City, Amanda Mealing, went to Bangladesh with Save the Children on a trip recently to look at the issue of maternal mortality. When she came back, she and I talked about what she had seen and what she had experienced. When she was staying in a village, one of the women there had survived giving birth. There was no knife to cut the umbilical cord, so they used a sharpened stick. This meant that both mum and her little one developed an infection from the dirt on it and so they both died. A mum and a baby gone, all for the sake of a blade which would have cost less than your bus fare here.

When I visited India, I was told something else that I won’t forget. Some women do a round of visits to all their family and friends in the late stages of their pregnancy. They do it to say good-bye. They think that they are perhaps seeing their family for one last time, because the act of giving birth itself can be so dangerous. India, of course, had 20% of all the world’s maternal deaths. Therefore, their fear is as justified as it is heartbreaking.

When a woman dies, it is not just that we lose a unique and precious individual, whose passing should sadden us all. Her husband or partner also loses the love of his life. The children who survive grow up without a mother to see to their needs. Shockingly, the babies and mothers who do not survive the delivery are up to ten times more likely to die than children who have not lost their mothers. Children without a mother are, of course, less likely to be immunised, more likely to suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth, and to lose out on educational opportunities. The impact of maternal mortality goes out across the generations and all across the community, affecting not just the women, but their daughters, and of course the boys and men too. It is why I think we should be reaching out to fathers, sons, brothers and husbands, encouraging them all to be part of a great movement to turn these statistics around.

Gordon is already committed to ending what has sometimes been called the ‘gender-cide’ – the mass loss of life that happens to girls and women, simply because they are girls and women. He has already done a lot – tripling aid, leading negotiations to create a UN Gender Agency, and ensuring every penny spent is assessed against its impact on justice for girls and women. However, he can’t do it on his own, and he needs other world leaders to put this at the top of their agenda. That is going to mean more concerted campaigning from all of us. The problem is both big and urgent. However, it doesn’t mean that we should be overwhelmed by it. There is plenty that can be done. Women who die in pregnancy and in childbirth mostly die from low-cost, affordable interventions. If a skilled health-worker is available with suitable supplies, a life can be saved thanks to 40 cents worth of drugs that might prevent haemorrhage, or 3 cents of the magnesium sulphate drug to prevent preeclampsia. It is a very small price for a priceless impact. Some of the most interesting evidence comes from Bangladesh. If you make micro-financing available to women and girls, they delay having their children and they make their money stretch further than boys and men do. They have their needs better cared for, because their community status is higher. We have seen big changes to the survival rates in those areas of India, where women have become more prominent in local government and village councils. This is not because there is any special secret about how they deliver better health for girls and women, but simply because they bring a determination to see that it is prioritised. It is a happy coincidence that we are having our discussion today at the very same time as our sisters in India are celebrating Safe Motherhood Day. The White Ribbon Alliance are doing a lot of work there in India to promote that cause today. You will see there is plenty of evidence to show that this is a problem that can be solved. The missing part is to make sure we have the consensus that it must and will be solved.

That is why I have chosen celebrating women of the future as my theme today. If we make the right choices now, we will be doing a service not only to the women who are alive today, but also to the women who are not yet born. There are some people who are natural optimists, and others who always see the darker side. I would like to think that I am in the former camp. A great friend of mine, Ray Chambers, who is the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy for malaria, told me a wonderful story that his grandson had said. The family were trying to work out which side of the fence their youngest member was. Was he an optimist or a pessimist? They asked him if the glass on the table was half full, or half empty. He replied with the very wisdom that only very little children have – it depended whether you were drinking from it or filling it. I think he was completely right. When you are taking, all you can see is what you don’t have. But, when you are giving, it is easy to focus on the joy that has been spread.

People have faith in lots of different gods and some people have no faith in a spiritual being at all. However, I think that deep down, we all have faith in the future. We all, somewhere, even in the darkest moments, believe that we are not simply governed by blind fate and that if we put our minds to it, we can make sure that tomorrow is better than today. For if we did not, how would people ever find the courage to fight? When people were fighting for women to have the vote, they would not have kept going without their faith in the future. When people were fighting to abolish slavery, they would not have kept going without their faith in the future. People fighting to end colonialism would not have kept going without that same faith in the future.

So many of the great things in human history have been achieved through people who have the courage to dream about a better future and then to set out to make that future come true. Ending needless maternal deaths may sound too big a challenge for one generation, but once upon a time, they said that about putting a man on the moon. When Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moonscape, he said it was one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. I believe if we all work together, we can make this year the year when we put the lives of women and babies right to the top of the global political agenda. And if we do it, I promise to come back next year to celebrate International Women’s Day and celebrate a giant leap for womankind! Thank you.

To read Sarah Brown’s profile, please click here.