Women of the Year 2013: Unsung heroines honoured

Lorraine Kelly with members of the former machinists plant at Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. Picture: PA
Lorraine Kelly with members of the former machinists plant at Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. Picture: PA
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THEY brought a car production line grinding to a halt, ensured vital medicine and supplies reached people in need and campaigned against a barbarous act on young girls.

The annual Women of the Year Lunch and Awards yesterday recognised a disparate group of women for their courage and dedication, including staff at the Dagenham car plant whose strike in 1968 led to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act.

The four winners at the lunch were the Dagenham Women Machinists, Andrea Coleman, co-founder of Riders for Health, Waris Dirie, who campaigns against female genital mutilation, and Marilyn Baldwin, founder of the anti-scamming campaign Think Jessica.

Set up in 1955 by Antonella “Tony” Lothian, wife of the Marquess of Lothian, with journalist Lady Georgina Coleridge and Odette Hallowes, a British spy who was captured and tortured by the Nazis, the Women of the Year Lunch and Awards celebrate the courage and selflessness of unsung heroines.

Dirie, who won the Women of the Year Campaigning Award, is a former model who as a five-year-old was subjected to genital mutilation in her native Somalia.

Her memoir, Desert Flower, became an international best-seller. She now campaigns against the practice as a special ambassador for the United Nations. She said of her award: “I feel honoured, and it means a lot to me.

“Women in the world should be loved and respected at any time, and we have still a long way to go. We need to be proud of ourselves and our achievements. It gives us self-esteem and confidence.”

Andrea Coleman realised through her passion for motorbikes that they were the perfect vehicle for travelling through Africa’s hostile terrain to deliver health care to even the most remote communities, and so co-founded the charity, Riders for Health. Today she campaigns on the importance of transport in tackling poverty in Africa.

She said: “When I think of the many marvellous, brave, clever, stoical, women I meet in my work I realise just how lucky I am to be in a position to win this award.”

The award for Outstanding Achievement went to the Dagenham Women Machinists, who took part in two strikes in 1968 and again in 1984 at the Ford car plant in Dagenham in Essex, in order to secure equal pay and recognition that they were as skilled as the men.

Eight women who took part in the strikes attended the event, including Eileen Pullen, 84, who worked as a sewing machinist at the Ford car plant in Dagenham for 31 years between 1947 and 1984.

She said: “We feel shell-shocked at winning this award. It is recognition like this that makes us realise what we achieved – when we were going out on strike, we had no idea of the impact it would have in years to come.”

The final award was sponsored by Lorraine Kelly’s ITV television programme Lorraine, whose viewers voted for the winner. They chose Marilyn Baldwin, who set up the Think Jessica campaign, which helps vulnerable people in the UK who are the potential victims of postal and telephone scams. The campaign is named after Ms Baldwin’s mother Jessica, who was a victim of scammers.

The awards event, held in London, was attended by politicians such as Baroness Bakewell and Dame Tessa Jowell, comedian Sandi Toksvig, campaigner Baroness Lawrence and sportswoman Katherine Grainger.

The awards presentation also featured a video interview with Malala Yousafzi, the Afghanistan girl shot by the Taleban for going to school.

She said: “My dream is to see equality in the world, to see every girl educated; especially in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and India, where they are suffering from terrorism.

“Women are very powerful, but they need education to go forward. In my opinion, every woman deserves a Women of the Year Award.”

The president of Women of the Year, Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, said: “The Women of the Year Lunch is a truly special event, an uplifting and joyous celebration of the women who are making a difference every day to the world around them.

“From the astonishing bravery of Waris Dirie, to the incredible self-belief of the Dagenham women and the extraordinary vision of Andrea Coleman – our winners demonstrate the myriad qualities and talents that women possess, and embody the vast scope of women’s achievements.

“Their triumphs, dedication and passion are an inspiration to women everywhere, encouraging us all to fulfil our ambitions, support others and stand up for what we believe in.”

Dagenham women machinists

In June 1968, female sewing machinists working at the Ford car plant in Dagenham went on strike for three weeks, in protest against a lack of recognition as skilled workers and lower pay compared to male colleagues working at the same level. The strike brought production to a halt and resulted in the intervention of then employment secretary of Barbara Castle.

This ultimately led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, although the Dagenham women’s original demand to be recognised as skilled workers was not won until another strike in 1984.

The film Made in Dagenham, released in 2010 and starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson, tells the story of the 1968 strikes and brought the achievements of the Dagenham women machinists to international renown.

Waris Dirie

Born into a nomad family living in the Somali desert near the border with Ethiopia in 1965. At the age of five, she was subjected to genital mutilation. At the age of 13, after being forced to marry a old man, Dirie fled her homeland. In London, aged 18, she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, became a top model and later landed a role in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. In 1996 United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan appointed her a UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of female genital mutilation. In 1997, her autobiography, Desert Flower, became an international bestseller.

Marilyn Baldwin

founded Think Jessica, an anti-scamming charity that helps vulnerable people in the UK who are the potential victims of postal and telephone scams. Named after her mother, who was a victim of scammers, Baldwin’s initiative has won support from the local community and the police.

Andrea Coleman

A Motorcycling enthusiast, she has led the development of an award-winning social enterprise, Riders for Health. Working with her husband and co-founder, Barry Coleman, she has shaped the growth of their organisation to a position where it operates in seven countries across Africa and improves access to health care for 14 million people. After seeing that people in rural communities in Africa were not receiving the health care they needed simply because of a lack of transport, Barry developed a system for running motorbikes in very harsh conditions.