BBC 2024-03-08 16:01:52


Maritime corridor to Gaza to begin at weekend – Von der Leyen

A maritime aid corridor to Gaza could begin operating this weekend with a test shipment leaving Cyprus as early as Friday, Ursula von der Leyen says.

The European Commission chief’s announcement comes after the US said it would set up a temporary port in Gaza.

The UN says a quarter of Gaza’s population is on the brink of famine and children are starving to death.

Israel’s foreign ministry said it welcomed the maritime corridor and urged other countries to join it.

A spokesman said aid would be delivered after security checks were carried out “in accordance with Israeli standards”.

Israel denies impeding the entry of aid to Gaza and accuses aid organisations of failing to distribute it.

Speaking in Cyprus, Ms von der Leyen said Gaza was “facing a humanitarian catastrophe” and the sea corridor would enable the delivery of large quantities of additional aid.

The pilot shipment of aid would come in co-ordination with the United Arab Emirates and the World Central Kitchen aid organisation, she said.

On Thursday Mr Biden said the US military would construct a pier to transport supplies from ships at sea to the shore, but US officials said it would take “a number of weeks” to set up.

The operation – which he said would not include US troops on the ground in Gaza – would enable large ships to deliver food, water, medicine and temporary shelters. Initial shipments would arrive via Cyprus, where Israeli security inspections will take place.

Mr Biden said the pier would enable a “massive difference” in the amount of aid reaching Gaza but added that Israel must “do its part” by allowing more aid to enter into the territory and to “ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire”.

“Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” he said.

A joint statement from the European Commission, Cyprus, the US, UK and UAE said operating a sea corridor would be “complex” and they would continue to press Israel to expand delivery of aid by road, facilitating more routes and opening additional crossings.

“Protecting civilian lives is a key element of international humanitarian law that must be respected,” the statement said.

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: “We continue to urge Israel to allow more trucks into Gaza as the fastest way to get aid to those who need it.”

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Aid lorries have been entering the south of Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom. But the north, which was the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive, has been largely cut off from assistance in recent months.

An estimated 300,000 Palestinians are living there with little food or clean water.

Last week more than 100 people were killed trying to reach an aid convoy amid the growing desperation. Palestinians said most were shot by Israeli troops. The Israeli military, which was overseeing the private aid deliveries, said most were killed in a stampede.

The US and other nations have resorted to dropping aid in by air – but humanitarian organisations say that method is a last resort and cannot meet the soaring need.

Israel’s military launched an air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage.

More than 30,800 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

State of the Union: Biden draws election battle lines in fiery speech

President Joe Biden delivered a fiery State of the Union address on Thursday, taking repeated swipes at Donald Trump and covering the broad themes of his re-election campaign.

Mr Biden used the term “my predecessor” to refer to Mr Trump 13 times in a speech that lasted more than an hour.

He accused his likely election opponent of “bowing down” to Russia and criticised him over the Capitol riot.

Mr Biden also covered immigration, abortion, the economy and Gaza.

The atmosphere in the House chamber was raucous at times, with loud cheering from Democrats and heckling from some Republicans.

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It was a spectacle more typical of a political convention than a State of the Union address – a constitutionally mandated report that is usually heavy on pageantry and policy.

But this is an election year and the stakes for Mr Biden were high. He was feisty and confrontational as he sought to draw the battle lines for his nascent campaign.

Taking aim at Trump

Unsurprisingly, many of his barbs were aimed at Mr Trump given he is almost certain to be his opponent in November’s general election.

“My predecessor failed the most basic duty any president owes the American people – the duty to care,” he said in reference to Mr Trump’s handling of the Covid pandemic. “That is unforgivable.”

He criticised Mr Trump for his recent comments about Russia and Nato, and said that he sought to “bury the truth” about the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

He blamed him for the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Roe v Wade ruling which guaranteed abortion rights and for blocking bipartisan immigration reforms.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, had promised to react in real time to the speech on his Truth Social platform. “Biden is on the run from his record and lying like crazy to try to escape accountability for the horrific devastation he and his party have created,” he wrote.

“They continue the very policies that are causing this horror show to go,” he said.

Mr Biden’s aggressive approach on Thursday may have been born, at least in part, out of necessity. At 81, he is the oldest president in US history and has been beset by questions about his age and mental acuity.

His approval ratings are the lowest of any modern president seeking re-election. He is in a statistical dead heat with Mr Trump, however, who also is viewed negatively by voters.

Even when Mr Biden addressed his age, he did so with a jab at Mr Trump, who at 77 is only a few years younger than him.

“I know it may not look like it, but I’ve been around for a while,” he said. After rattling off a list of positive attributes he said defined America, he added a kicker.

“Some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge and retribution.”

A punchy exchange on immigration

Mr Biden regularly ad-libbed responses to what was at times a hostile audience on the Republican side of the chamber. He quipped, parried and expressed mock surprise at their outbursts.

When the topic turned to immigration, a subject of political vulnerability for the president, he was once again ready to engage. But here, he stumbled.

After Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene accused him of ignoring the murder of Georgia nursing student Laken Riley, allegedly by an undocumented Venezuelan immigrant, Mr Biden held up a button with her name on it – one Ms Greene had given him as he walked in.

After seemingly mispronouncing her name as “Lincoln” Riley, he said she was murdered by an “illegal” – a term criticised by immigrant-rights groups.

Mr Biden went on to call for Republicans to support the bipartisan immigration legislation passed by the Senate and accused Mr Trump of “playing politics” by opposing the bill for electoral gain.

The damage, however, may have been done, as the president’s use of the word “illegal” prompted push back from the progressive wing of his party.

Delia Ramirez, Democratic congresswoman from Illinois wrote on X that she was “disappointed” in Mr Biden for using “dehumanizing right-wing rhetoric to speak about immigrants”.

And Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas told the Texas Tribune that Biden was using “dangerous rhetoric”.

“And I think that the president is getting bad advice from his advisers and speech writers,” Mr Castro said.

  • Three reasons why US border crossings at record high

A sales pitch for November

When Mr Biden wasn’t throwing haymakers at his opponent, he sought to highlight what he characterised as a record of accomplishment during his first term and outline a sales pitch for his re-election.

“I inherited an economy that was on the brink,” he said, “and now our economy is the envy of the world.”

Figures on the American economy have been trending up for months now. The public perception of the economy, however, has been much darker.

Mr Biden nodded at this split, calling the US economic revival “the greatest story never told”.

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Whether the president’s words will be enough to change minds, however, remains to be seen.

It was a speech geared toward the American middle class – the voters of moderate means who make up the bulk of the electorate.

It included a variety of new proposals, most of which would require congressional legislation to enact – an unlikely scenario unless Democrats retake the House of Representatives in November.

He pitched a tax credit for new home buyers, who have seen their purchasing power eroded by higher mortgage rates. He also called for expanding a cap on prescription drug spending to every American who has health insurance and raising taxes on corporations.

Walking the line on Gaza

Mr Biden opened his speech with a call for military aid to Ukraine, but the bulk of his discussion of foreign policy came towards the end when he turned his attention to the Middle East.

The Gaza war has divided Democrats, with a vocal portion of the president’s liberal flank calling for the US to use every means at its disposal to push for a ceasefire. Some took to the Washington streets on Thursday evening in an unsuccessful attempt to block the president’s motorcade from reaching the Capitol.

Mr Biden said his administration was working towards a ceasefire that would last “at least 6 weeks,” and he detailed a new plan – announced earlier in the day – for the US to construct a temporary seaport in Gaza to allow humanitarian aid to enter by ship.

  • US to set up temporary port on Gaza coast for aid delivery

He had some harsh words for Israel, calling the civilian casualties in Gaza “heartbreaking” and saying it had a “fundamental responsibility” to protect innocent lives.

Mr Biden’s speech, because it was delivered without any significant stumbles or gaffes, is a hurdle cleared for the president – and its content could serve as a guide to how his campaign plans to sell the American public on another four years of Democratic governance.

At the very least, it will probably convince nervous Democrats that their presumptive nominee is ready to go toe-to-toe with his Republican opponent in November.

More on the US election

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MH370: The families haunted by one of aviation’s greatest mysteries

For the last decade, two words have haunted Li Eryou – lost contact.

It’s what Malaysia Airlines told him when flight MH370 disappeared, with his son Yanlin on board.

“For years I have been asking what do you mean by ‘lost contact’? It seems to me that if you lose contact with someone, you should be able to reconnect with them,” Mr Li says.

He and his wife, Liu Shuangfeng – farmers from a village south of Beijing – have struggled to make sense of what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.

On 8 March 2014, less than an hour into a routine night-time flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the pilot said goodnight to Malaysian air traffic control. The Boeing 777, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, was about to cross into Vietnamese air space.

It then abruptly changed direction, and all electronic communications were cut. It turned back, first over Malaysia, and then out into the remote southern Indian Ocean until it is presumed to have run out of fuel.

The biggest and most expensive search operation ever mounted lasted four years but failed to find any trace of the missing airliner. Thousands of oceanographers, aeronautical engineers and amateur sleuths have pored over the fragmentary data from the flight, trying to calculate where it ended its journey.

For the families of those on board these have been 10 years of inescapable grief, battling to keep the search going, to find out exactly what happened to MH370, and why.

Mr Li has crisscrossed the world in support of that campaign. He says he has used up his savings travelling to Europe and Asia, and to beaches in Madagascar, where some debris from the missing plane has been found.

He says he wanted to feel the sand in a place where his son might have washed up. He remembers shouting out at the Indian Ocean, telling Yanlin he was there to take him home.

“I will keep travelling to the end of the world to find my son,” he says.

The couple, now in their late 60s, live in a rural part of China’s Hebei province. Most of their income went to pay for their children’s schooling, and they never had the money to travel.

Yanlin was the first person in their village to go to university, and the first to get a job overseas, working in Malaysia for a telecom company.

He was returning to China for a visa appointment when the flight disappeared. “Before this incident happened, we had never even been to the nearby city of Handan,” Mr Li says.

  • WATCH – Why Planes Vanish: The Hunt for MH370 on BBC iPlayer
  • MH370: What we know

Now seasoned travellers, they came back to Malaysia to mark the 10th anniversary with other families.

Yanlin was one of 153 Chinese passengers on the flight. His parents are among around 40 Chinese families who have refused settlement payments from the Malaysian government, and have filed legal cases in China against the airline, the aircraft manufacturer and other parties.

Over 10 years, the lives of those affected have moved on, yet they also feel chained to the missing plane.

Grace Nathan was doing her final law exams in the UK when MH370 disappeared. Her mother Anne was on board. Today she is a barrister with her own practice in Malaysia, and a mother of two young children.

At the anniversary commemoration in Kuala Lumpur, she recalled holding her mother’s photograph as she walked down the aisle at her wedding, and missing her advice while she was going through two difficult pregnancies.

On display there were a few battered pieces from the plane, the only physical evidence ever to be recovered from it. There were parts of the wing, corroded from their long immersion in the sea, with the surprisingly flimsy-looking internal honeycomb structure exposed.

In the crowd was Blaine Gibson, who has found more pieces of MH370 than anyone else.

One of a colourful cast of characters drawn into the MH370 saga, Mr Gibson can best be described as an amateur adventurer. He dresses in the style of Indiana Jones and has used the proceeds of the sale of his family home in California to fund his love of travelling, with a personal goal of visiting every country in the world.

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“When I attended the one-year anniversary event I learned that there was no organised search of shorelines for floating debris. It simply hadn’t been done. They were spending millions of dollars back then searching underwater. And I just thought, well, probably the first piece of this plane is just going to be found by someone walking on the beach. And since nobody was doing that, I thought I could do it myself.”

He says he searched for a year, on beaches from Myanmar to the Maldives, before finding his first piece, from the rear stabilizer of the plane, on a sandbar in Mozambique.

By that time another large piece, known as a flaperon, from the wing, had already been found on Reunion Island, confirming to the families that MH370 had indeed crashed into the Indian Ocean.

The parts that were found were all discovered 16 months or more after MH370 vanished, washed up on various East African beaches.

Analysis of the prevailing currents in the southern Indian Ocean showed they were likely to have come from where MH370 was believed to have crashed into the sea.

The former lead Malaysian investigator Aslam Khan explained how they identified them. Serial numbers on some parts were matched with records held by the manufacturer to confirm beyond doubt that they came from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing.

Distinctive fonts used in the stencil markings on others showed they were near certain to have come from it. No other Boeing 777 has ever crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Until the flaperon was found, the only evidence for the plane turning back on itself was data from military radar in Malaysia and Thailand, which spotted the plane flying west over the Malay peninsula.

Then a British company, Inmarsat, detected a series of six pings or “handshakes” made every hour between one of its satellites and MH370 as it headed south. All other communication on the aircraft had been switched off.

This sparse data was used to triangulate the distance between the plane and the satellite at each hour along a series of circular arcs, giving an approximate crash location. But this was still a huge area of very rough and very deep sea.

The search, involving 60 ships and 50 aircraft from 26 countries, lasted from March 2014 until January 2017. It was resumed in early 2018 for five months by a private US-based company called Ocean Infinity, using underwater drones to scan the seabed.

The lack of hard information has fuelled many theories, some quite wild, about what happened on board MH370, from it being hijacked and flown to Russia, or perhaps to the US airbase on the island of Diego Garcia, to it being shot down.

“This is obscene,” French journalist Florence de Changy muttered looking at the pieces of MH370 on display.

Ms Changy has written a meticulously researched book, one of more than 100 published on MH370.

She argues that the entire hypothesis that the plane turned and went south has been faked. She believes that the debris which has been found is not from MH370. She raises questions over the cargo on board, and in her book suggests that it may have been shot down by US aircraft over the South China Sea because of this cargo.

If, however, the radar and satellite data presented by Malaysia and Inmarsat is accepted at face value – and most experts do – and that the airliner kept flying south, there is only one plausible explanation. That someone flew it there deliberately.

In a new BBC documentary, “Why Planes Vanish”, two French aerospace experts, one an experienced pilot, have used a flight simulator to recreate the sharp turn the Boeing 777 made over the South China Sea, right after the last contact with Malaysian air traffic control. They have concluded that this could only have been done manually by a skilled and experienced pilot.

The fact that this was done just as MH370 was moving from Malaysian to Vietnamese air space suggests to them that the pilot was trying to conceal the manoeuvre. And that he knew it would be some time before Vietnamese air traffic control reported that they had not yet been contacted by the plane.

There are other theories – that everyone on board was knocked out by hypoxia, lack of oxygen, after an undetected depressurisation, or that a sudden catastrophic fire or explosion cut communications and forced the pilots to turn back. But the difficult manoeuvres, followed by continued, steady flight south for seven hours, make these very unlikely.

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Yet the idea that one of the pilots deliberately flew the plane and all its passengers to a watery death is also hard to accept. Neither pilot had any history that could explain such an action.

All this feverish speculation has exacted a toll on the families.

“I would not wish this on my worst enemy,” says Jaquita Gonzalez, wife of Patrick Gomes, the Inflight Supervisor on MH370.

“We have been going through such a rollercoaster. When they first started the search we would hear that they saw something, and then our hopes would be up high. And then after that we would hear no, it’s not MH370. And we landed back on ground. Each time it was as if somebody had stood on top of us and taken our breath away.”

From the start the Malaysian government was criticised by the families. First for its confused handling of the initial response, with blunders like the failure to act quickly on the military radar tracking of MH370. And later, for its apparent reluctance to authorise further searches, after the last operation by Ocean Infinity ended in mid-2018.

The company has offered to resume the search on a no-find, no-fee basis, but needs the government’s approval.

Privately some Malaysian officials acknowledge that the government could have done more. Some of this can perhaps be explained by the country going through a period of extraordinary political turmoil in recent years. Then there was the pandemic, a huge distraction which also prevented the families from holding their annual commemoration.

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The current transport minister, Anthony Loke, sought to address this by attending the 10th anniversary event in Kuala Lumpur, and promising the families he would do everything possible to find the missing plane. He announced that he was now discussing with Ocean Infinity the possibility of resuming the search later this year.

Ocean Infinity scanned an area of 112,000km, back in 2018. This though, encompassed some extremely challenging terrain, like deep underwater canyons, and it is possible it might have missed the aircraft.

Retired British aerospace IT specialist Richard Godfrey, another person who has been pulled into the MH370 vortex, believes he has now pinpointed a much smaller search area, using innovative analysis of short-wave radio test transmissions made routinely by ham radio enthusiasts. This should allow a more concentrated search by the drones, making several passes over the same area.

“They record 1.7 billion records a year in their database. Imagine a huge fisherman’s net, across the globe, full of radio signals. Every time an aircraft passes through this net, it breaks a hole in the net. That tells me where an aircraft was at a particular time. Over the six hours of MH370’s flight into the southern Indian Ocean I have been able to find 313 anomalies in the radio signals at 95 different points in time. That gives you a much more refined flight route, and a more accurate determination of a crash location.”

Richard’s method is currently being tested by the University of Liverpool, which expects to establish how valid it is later this year.

The families say they are encouraged by the latest promises made by the transport minister – a much-needed change of tone from the Malaysian government, they say. But they remain wary. Their hopes have been raised many times before.

“I just want the plane to be found,” Ms Gonzalez says. “At least then I can let my husband rest in peace. Right now, I have not done anything for him, you know, to give him a memorial. I can’t, because we don’t have anything tangible from him.”

At the commemoration a large board had been put up, on which people could write messages, of hope, of sympathy, or of grief.

Li knelt down to write a message to Yanlin in large Chinese characters, and then sat in tears, looking at it.

“Son, it’s been 10 years”, he had written. “Your mum and dad are here to bring you back home. March 3rd, 2024.”

Why Planes Vanish: The Hunt for MH370

Ten years after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew vanished, can new evidence help locate the plane and finally solve aviation’s greatest mystery?

Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)

Related Topics

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Suffragettes speak about their brutal experiences

“The object was to create an absolutely impossible condition of affairs in the country.” In exclusive archive BBC interviews, two activists look back at their turbulent time fighting for women’s rights – from window-smashing and arson to hunger strikes and force feeding.
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Lilian Lenton knew early on in her life how she felt about inequality. As a child, she was “extremely annoyed at the difference between the advantages men had and boys had, and the ones girls had”, she told the BBC in 1955. “Everybody wanted a boy… and it irritated me simply, enormously. And then when one grew up and saw the differences in opportunities that men had, well, of course that just increased that feeling,” she told the interviewer.

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Lenton, who was born in Leicester in 1891, was the eldest of five; her father was a carpenter-joiner and her mother a homemaker. Having trained as a dancer, as a young woman she attended an open-air meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), where the speaker explained that “lunatics, criminals, paupers and women may not vote”. She immediately joined up, she says, and was soon attending “poster parades” through London.

‘I was very annoyed about the difference between a boy and a girl’

In March 1912 she and fellow members, armed with hammers, participated in a window-smashing campaign in London – and she was jailed for two months. In July 1912, following the arrest of the group’s leader, the suffragettes turned to arson. Lenton and Olive Wharry conducted a series of arson attacks, and were arrested. The arson attacks were initially extremely high-risk for the activists, though they were careful never to put the public at risk. “We only just got out in time on one occasion,” said Lenton.

The forceful-feeding process was really extremely unpleasant. I don’t like talking about these things… I’ve never told people – Lilian Lenton

In prison she, along with many of her fellow protesters, embarked on a hunger strike. She told the BBC that she had been striking “for release, on the grounds that they had no right to imprison women for breaking man-made laws”.

The force-feeding of hunger striking suffragettes in prison was commonplace (Credit: Alamy)

Before long, the women were being violently restrained and force-fed by order of the prison authorities – a brutal and inhumane procedure. In the interview, Lenton looks and sounds haunted by the memory of it. “The forceful-feeding process was really extremely unpleasant,” she says, with clear understatement. “I don’t like talking about these things… I’ve never told people.”

Lenton nevertheless goes on to describe in graphic detail the invasive and barbaric process which – in her case – led to her becoming dangerously ill with pleurisy and double pneumonia, caused by particles of food entering her lungs.

When she became seriously ill, she was released from prison, but the case caused outrage among the general public. The home secretary denied that Lenton had been force fed, claiming that her illness was in fact caused by her hunger striking – a claim that was disproved by official papers that recorded her force feeding. The public outcry intensified when a prominent surgeon wrote to the Times expressing his ethical concerns.

‘The forcible feeding process was really extremely unpleasant’

A few months later, Lenton was arrested again over an arson attack in Doncaster carried out with 18-year-old local journalist Harry Johnson. In the same year, an act was passed in Parliament which became known as the Cat-and-Mouse Act. According to this, any woman prisoner who was hunger striking should be released when she became seriously ill, and then re-arrested when she had recovered. Lenton was rearrested several times, and then was let go several times due to the ill effects of hunger striking.

When she was out of prison Lenton “went about as a normal person” and would “try to escape the detectives”, she told the BBC. “Whenever I was out of prison my object was to burn two buildings a week. The object was to create an absolutely impossible condition of affairs in the country, to prove it was impossible to govern without the consent of the governed.”

Lenton later received a hunger strike medal for valour from the WSPU.

In 1914, with the outbreak of World War One, the WSPU suspended their militant campaign, and focussed instead on the war effort. During the war, women took on jobs traditionally done by men, proving resoundingly that they could do them just as well, and so helping to silence any remaining arguments against women’s voting rights.

A newspaper placard declaring the reappearance of Lilian Lenton, who was wanted by the police (Credit: Bonhams/ Votes for Women: The Lesley Mees Collection 2023)

After the end of the war in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, allowing the vote to women aged 30 or over who met certain property criteria, or who were married to a property holder. Lenton was not impressed. She said: “Personally I didn’t vote for a very long time because I hadn’t either husband or furniture, although I was over 30.” It wasn’t until 1928 that equal voting rights were achieved.

Deeds not words

The tactic of the suffragettes was to demand – not ask – for their rights. “Deeds not words” was the motto of the WSPU, created in 1903. Its founder Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been a member of a Manchester “suffragist” group, had decided it was time for direct action by working-class women in order to secure the vote.

Elizabeth Dean, a suffragette from Manchester, makes it clear that not all of her fellow activists were highly educated nor wealthy

Heckling politicians was the extent of the protests at this time, and that “was considered really untoward”, author Elizabeth Crawford told the BBC in 2018. That all changed in 1905, however, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were charged with obstruction, having interrupted a Liberal Party meeting. The two women chose to go to prison rather than pay a fine, and the attention brought to their cause by this action became an inspiration for the group.

“The idea of militancy then was ratcheted up over the years,” Crawford said. “This was never overtly condoned by the leadership, but on the other hand they didn’t condemn them. They just more or less said ‘do what’s necessary’.”

‘You can’t wage a war against people without somebody getting hurt’

Although dominated by educated and middle-class women, the women’s suffrage movement also included many from less affluent backgrounds. In the Great Procession of 1910, a large demonstration in London staged by the WSPU, Votes for Women newspaper recorded “there were also sweated workers in poor clothes, and shirt makers, who fight daily with starvation”.  Efforts were made to gather support for the procession beforehand at meetings for laundry workers in north London, as well as via the canvassing of women in “factory and laundry districts” in south London.

Also interviewed by the BBC in 1978 was Elizabeth Dean, a suffragette from Manchester, who makes it clear that not all of her fellow activists were highly educated nor wealthy. For Dean and others, gaining the right to vote was part of a broader aim to avoid being just “child-bearing machines” like her mother, who died in her late-30s after having eight children. “Not all the women in the suffrage movement were fighting for degrees,” she said. “We hadn’t a chance of getting a degree, we were working women, and each of us had our own private thoughts of what we wanted, what we thought was just, and what we thought was worth fighting for.”

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

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Can women hold onto chief sustainability jobs?

Women hold many major leadership positions in sustainability. Their presence is important for representation – but familiar problems may make these gains temporary.
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In 2022, Mattel Inc released a series of four Eco-Leadership Team Barbies, one of which was a chief of sustainability officer. Dressed in a sleek pink suit, mobile phone and computer in hand, she’s described as “ready to help companies go green and find creative ways to solve problems affecting her community”. A cultural bellwether, the toy reflected a trend already well underway: the rise of women in the role of chief corporate sustainability officer (CSO). 

According to the global sustainability recruiting firm Weinreb Group, in 2011, the majority of CSO roles were held by men (72%), with just 10 of the then 29 CSO roles held by women. In 2020, when more companies than ever hired their first CSO, female CSOs broke the 50% mark; by 2021, held more than half (54%) of CSO positions. CSO presence at Davos, home to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, tripled from 20 to 60 in the past five years, with more than 60% of these held by women.

Outside the C-suite, sustainability leadership in general also currently skews female, with the percentage of women holding any sustainability position rising steadily since 2010. Between 2011 and 2020, women with a vice president role grew from 31% to 51%. The pool of female directors grew from 37% to 55%. Markedly, the percentage of female managers in sustainability roles has gone up the most, from 39% to 63%.

As women traditionally struggle to climb the corporate ladder in general – for reasons including gender stereotypes, lack of support and shaky confidence – a new class of sustainability leadership positions represents a novel path to high-ranking roles, including within the C-suite. And for some women, it’s a fast-track to top-ranking positions as well as a way to make a real difference in the corporate world. But a larger problem still looms in the workplace – and it’s a familiar one for women hoping to excel.

In 2022, Mattel Inc released a series of four Eco-Leadership Team Barbies (Credit: Mattel Inc)

A marked impact

One reason for this swath of women at top leadership ranks in sustainability is because these jobs are wholly new, with little history or roadmap for execution – it was not a job that automatically went to men because they’d historically filled these roles. 

“When CSOs began being introduced in businesses, there was no real precedent for the job description or type of role holder, so it came without the trappings of a traditionally male or female domain,” says María Mendiluce, CEO of We Mean Business Coalition, which works with businesses to accelerate transitions to net-zero emissions. 

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And they are an excellent fit for many women, whose passions and talents align with the goals of the role – and who are primed to create positive business outcomes. Researchers have found women are drawn to working on solutions to climate change and are more likely to be concerned about the environment and have stronger pro-climate opinions and beliefs than men.

From corporate leadership to product development, evidence also suggests women are the most likely changemakers for climate action in economic areas; for example, companies with more women on the board are more likely to invest in renewable power generation, low-carbon products and energy efficiency. 

They’re also known to possess the skills and attributes needed to tackle the leadership challenges inherent in sustainability and social change. And according to the European Investment Fund, women-led firms have higher ESG scores than other companies, and businesses with greater representation of women in leadership positions have better track records of adopting environmentally friendly policies.

For senior green roles [like CSO], women aren’t developing the skills quickly enough and there’s a widening green talent gender gap, which suggests that this is not a fast track to the C-suite – Sue Duke

The advancement of women into these top roles is not only good for representation and diversity, but there’s also staying power: these jobs are not going anywhere. “Sustainability is now a critical consideration in decision-making from the boardroom on down, and customers demand that we understand these issues as a core part of how we run our businesses and operate in our communities,” says Kara Hurst, chief sustainability officer at Amazon. 

Mendiluce believes that the more impact women’s leadership has on sustainability and performance, the more CSO will become “a mainstream position for recruitment, talent investment and promotion within organisations”.

Same old story?

Yet while women are advancing in sustainability quicker than other business areas – and the CSO role may be perceived as women’s ticket into the boardroom – it doesn’t guarantee more women in the C-suite overall. 

Despite the work of trailblazing female CSOs and other leaders in the space, women in sustainability positions are still afflicted with many of the same issues that hold back women leaders in general. Chief among these is the ‘broken rung’ phenomenon, in which women are often passed over for the management positions that lead to higher leadership jobs.

So, women may hold these positions now, but future CSOs will be found in the talent pipeline. And many candidates in waiting are men.

Even if women are able to hold onto future CSO jobs, they will still mostly be among men in the C-suite (Credit: Getty Images)

Despite women joining the “green” talent pool at a higher rate than men throughout the past two years, the growth is still more than 2.5-times too slow to close the widening green-talent gender gap. Two-thirds of the green talent pool is male, and the gender gap has grown by 25% during the past seven years. 

“For senior green roles [like CSO], women aren’t developing the skills quickly enough and there’s a widening green talent gender gap, which suggests that this is not a fast track to the C-suite,” says Sue Duke, vice president of global public policy at LinkedIn. These are 88 million jobs in green sectors, and that number is expected to go up to 155 million in 2030.

But experts believe even as jobs grow, women’s involvement could plummet. “This gulf will keep growing if we don’t change the current trajectory,” warns Duke.

A more holistic solution

Experts say it’s important that green roles are offering a path to advancement for some women. But at the same time, they argue it’s also crucial not to pigeonhole them to one type of leadership.

“We don’t want certain senior roles to feel like they’re one of just a few routes for women to reach the top in an organisation,” says Duke. “While the CSO role represents a new route to the C-suite that women can take advantage of, we must make sure it’s actually a viable path by equipping women with skills they need to successfully coordinate sustainability efforts – whether that’s within green industries, or helping companies across industries reach their climate goals.”

Sustainability roles can be part of the change, but experts say it’s still important to solve for the big picture. “We need more women in leadership positions across all sectors and jobs, period,” says Amazon’s Hurst. “Do I want more women in sustainability? Also yes. I hope that women exploring different career paths today can see the growing number of women leading sustainability efforts across global companies as a point of inspiration and pride.”