UK Politics

Feminist activists urge 'women's voices' to be heard as they rally in Parliament

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Media captionHelen Pankhurst says it is not good enough that only a quarter of MPs are women

Demonstrators, including the great-grand-daughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, have urged MPs to put "feminism at the heart of politics".

In a rally near Parliament, pressure groups called for action to limit the impact of austerity measures on women and more support for abortion rights.

Helen Pankhurst said spending cuts had "disproportionately" affected women.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron said there were more women in work than at any time before.

More than 200 representatives of different groups - including UK Feminista, the Fawcett Society, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Women for Refugee Women, the Daycare Trust and Object - gathered in Westminster to call for women's needs and concerns to be more central to government policymaking.

'Women's voices'

The event is designed to echo suffragette marches on Parliament, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, in the early 20th Century in pursuit of votes for women.

Helen Pankhurst said that despite the progress on many fronts since then, women still only made up about a quarter of MPs.

"That really is just not good enough and it needs to change," she told the BBC.

"Without women MPs in equal proportion and without the whole system of Parliament changing to enable women to be comfortable there, then the policies enacted are not 'gendered' so we are perpetuating an unequal society."

The high proportion of women working in the public sector and low-paid jobs meant women in general had borne the brunt of cuts, she added.

Addressing the rally, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said there was "massive momentum" behind the fight to protect women's rights, on issues relating from pay to domestic violence.

"We are not going away until we make sure gender inequality is history," she told the gathering.

She criticised recent comments by Jeremy Hunt, who said he favoured lowering the limit on abortions from the current 24 weeks to 12 weeks. Women would not allow a "male health secretary to take away our sexual rights", she said.

Kat Banyard, from the UK Feminista pressure group, said the gathering was aimed at "making sure that women's voices and feminism are put at the heart of British politics".

Among campaigners' main demands are protecting funding for Sure Start - the network of pre-school children's centres established across the UK under the last government - and change to the abortion laws in Northern Ireland - where termination is illegal except in exceptional medical circumstances.

'Unfinished revolution'

Critics have claimed spending cuts have caused some councils to withdraw support for the Sure Start centres.

Ministers say there is enough money to retain them and councils are required by law to meet local need as far as is "reasonably practicable". And they say centres are being refocused on families who need them most.

"Childcare support for low-income women is absolutely crucial to their economic independence," Ms Banyard said.

Describing feminism as an "unfinished revolution", UK Feminista says urgent action is also needed on improving the representation of women across public life and pressing for full equality in the workplace and tackling violence against women.

Addressing the rally, Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, said the government was having to take difficult decisions to reduce the deficit but was committed to helping women and findings ways "to reduce the cost and increase the quality of childcare".

On abortion, while MPs were entitled to talk in a personal capacity about the issue, she insisted that attempts to "characterise the government as anything other than supportive of the status quo is completely misleading".

"Be in no doubt, this government is not after women's bodies," she told the gathering.

Describing herself as a feminist, Ms Rudd said she and many of colleagues supported the campaign's objectives and urged activists to make their feelings known to MPs.

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