Stories have power. I very much hope that you have all been able to speak to Fawzia, Ferozan and Alia, to hear them describe what life has been like for female judges in Afghanistan; and to Inna about the heart-breaking conditions in Ukraine, where democracy and freedom are under brutal attack. Their stories, of the humanity behind the headlines, are unbearably moving – but they must, and they do, have the power to stir us to action.

Ladies, more ladies and one or two brave gentlemen, it is a huge pleasure to welcome you all to Clarence House on International Women’s Day. It is reassuring to know that, if I should fall off my perch at any moment, my fictional alter ego is here to take over – so, Emerald, be prepared!

It was in 1913 that International Women’s Day was first observed on 8th March. Exactly one year later, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to Trafalgar Square, where she was to speak on “Votes for Women”.

Today gives us the opportunity to consider just how much we have progressed since then. In 1918, the right to vote; in 1944, the right to equal education; and in 1970, the right to equal pay. There remain vast strides to be made – on the current trajectory, we will need more than 135 years to close the gender gap worldwide – but let us take a moment to thank the women and men who have, for decades, fought hard for justice and equality. I should, in particular, like to thank all of you for your outstanding leadership that inspires women and girls across the globe.

WOW has done much over the years to break down barriers, to challenge the status quo and to improve life for women and men everywhere. It has done this in a variety of ways: through festivals, discussions, performances, workshops and the new WOW Changemakers global network that launches today. But one of the most significant weapons in WOW’s arsenal has always been the sharing of stories. Through the festivals that have now taken place in six continents, women are empowered to talk about their personal experiences - sometimes harrowing, sometimes celebratory - spurring one another on towards our goal of a truly equal world, and reminding us that we all suffer, irrespective of our gender, when women are not fairly represented.     

Stories have power. I very much hope that you have all been able to speak to Fawzia, Ferozan and Alia, to hear them describe what life has been like for female judges in Afghanistan; and to Inna about the heart-breaking conditions in Ukraine, where democracy and freedom are under brutal attack. Their stories, of the humanity behind the headlines, are unbearably moving – but they must, and they do, have the power to stir us to action.

Over the past months, I have had the privilege of meeting many extraordinary women and hearing their stories. The majority work completely under the radar: mothers fighting for the rights of their children with life-limiting conditions; women who served as volunteers throughout the pandemic; a young woman who came to breakfast here to tell me about leaving abuse in her country of origin and who is now proud to work for Transport for London; and the first female plumber in the Middle East.

Others have a public profile, such as Holocaust survivor and fearless anti-prejudice campaigner, Eva Schloss; taboo-breaking Irish author, Edna O’Brien; and the brilliant Erica Osakwe, whom I met in January at a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of Refuge. Erica stood where I am standing now and, with humility and profound courage, told us how she had used her own experience of an abusive relationship to campaign, successfully, to change the law, extending the time limit for reporting abuse from six months to up to two years. Recalling those days, Erica said she felt that people initially “didn’t value [her] story”.  

Yet what Erica clearly demonstrated was, in fact, the immeasurable value of her story, which she had used to bring about change for the benefit of others. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the telling of stories forges connections, encourages others and raises awareness of the need, as this year’s International Women’s Day theme says, to “break the bias”. Ultimately, it strengthens the global community of women. To quote a wise Latin proverb: Change the name and the story is about you.    
Over the coming days, as you gather for the 12th London WOW Festival, please speak up and share your stories. As I said just now, they have power. But you cannot know their power until they are released into the world.

  And now it is my pleasure to hand over to someone who knows the value of a good story, without whom we wouldn’t be gathered here today, WOW’s founder, the indomitable Jude Kelly.