Sharon was invited to address an audience of Parliamentarians and foreign diplomats at a lunch in Westminster organised by Christian Embassy to mark the centenary of International Women's Day.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you for inviting me along to this great event; it's a real honour to be invited to speak in front of all the esteemed guests who are here today, and to join in this celebration of a such an important day for women across the world.
I want to start today by not just going back 100 years to 1911, and the formation of International women's day - I will do that in a moment - but by taking you back a little earlier to fourteenth Century England; a time when Dame Julian of Norwich was, I believe as the first woman in the Christian world, perhaps even the known world, trailblazing the way for women; she was the first woman to provide spiritual insights and the first woman, it is believed, to have written a book in the English Language; entitled Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (circa 1393).
Although Dame Julian lived in a time of great turmoil, with the Black Death and peasant uprisings, her theology was optimistic, speaking of God's love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty. For Dame Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding of the day. She believed that God loved and wanted to save everyone. Her most famous quote is: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well", which she claimed was said to her by God and most reflects her theology.
Now skip forward 500 hundred or so years to 1911; only two countries allow women to vote, women are excluded from most senior careers, and courts view violence in the home as a private matter. Not a lot of progress really or much that would have impressed Dame Julian in half a millennia?
By 2011, though women can vote and be elected in all but a handful of countries, hold top positions in politics and business, and the majority of countries have specific laws against domestic violence.
But the job is by no means done, we still need International Women's Day now just as much as we did 100 years ago and in my speech today I want to set out the reasons why I believe this so strongly.
It's great to know that, in the spirit of today's centenary, women are mobilising as we speak in Egypt - desperate to ensure that the future of their country is more equal and more egalitarian than its past.
Organisers are hoping that a million women will use the occasion to come out onto the streets and protest against the lack of representation of women on the committee drawing up the new constitution.
They rightly point out that everyone played their part in the revolution, and that everyone deserves an equal stake in the new society which will be forged.
This shouldn't be a battle they have to fight - but fight they must, and fight they will, and I think that they have a real chance of winning.
That fight and that cause and that potential victory could well be the most inspirational part of the revolution, and I hope and pray that it is successful.
Here in the UK, International Women's Day is a real celebration, because we have so much to celebrate.
The cause of equality and women's rights has come a long way since 1911.
Legally, we have the exact same rights as men do. We can now vote, and we can stand in elections.
More importantly, we are voting, and we are standing and indeed winning in elections!
There are 143 female MPs in the House of Commons right now. Although that equates to less than a quarter - only 22% to be precise - things are moving in the right direction.
Of all the MPs who are under 30, half of them are women, so I'm hoping that's a sign of things to come.
But, it is not just what we have won that should be celebrated; it is the contribution we have made.
Women are achieving great things in every field - in science and research, in government and politics, in sport and culture, in business and enterprise. They are showing that everyone has talents, and given the chance everyone can use those talents and fulfil their potential.
However, we are not completely there - there are still unseen barriers that women struggle to overcome.
There is still a pay gap of some 10% between men and women - something that we can address in the public sector, but the private sector still lags behind.
We also have less than equal representation of women at the top of big organisations - only 7% of the directors of the top 250 companies in the UK are women.
And women are often unable to pursue their ambitions due to the need to look after children, or, increasingly, elderly relatives.
Sometimes even the prospect that a woman will have children in the near future is enough to put an employer off giving her the job or the promotion that she deserves.
So there is much still to do - perhaps not in acts of parliament, but by challenging perceptions and practices, and persuading more women to make the most of their opportunities.
As a Christian, I see fighting for this cause as a direct extension of what the Bible teaches us about equality.
Of course, I think the church itself could do more to champion equality within its own ranks.
The fact that we are still having a debate in the Anglican Church in 2011 about whether women should be allowed to be Bishops is incredibly frustrating, as is the fact that the Catholic Church views the ordination of women as a 'grave crime'.
This is especially nonsensical given the first two people to be given the good news of Christ's resurrection - and be told to spread the word - were women.
Indeed, Jesus was a champion for equality for women, against an extremely patriarchal society.
He taught us that everyone is a child of God and equal in his eyes, he was the first Equalities Minister.
Everyone deserves the chance to fulfil their potential, and so it should be incumbent on Christians everywhere to ensure that this is possible.
The reading we have just heard on not hiding your light under a basket (or bushel) was Jesus speaking to his followers during his Sermon on the Mount - telling them not to be ashamed of who they are and of showing their faith.
It is more often used these days to mean ‘do not hide or downplay your talents and abilities'.
I think that this is more important now than ever.
As a Christian, I want everyone's God-given talents and abilities to be allowed to shine brightly.
But for millions of women across the world, removing that bushel is far more difficult than it is for women here in the UK.
Millions of girls are denied the chance of an education - according to the Because I Am a Girl campaign, 75 million are not attending school, and close to 100 million are not able to read and write.
For some it is poverty which keeps their light firmly hidden and their potential unrealised; for others it is patriarchy. For many, it is both.
Tackling either of these issues is difficult for different reasons, but that does not mean that we should not seek to do so. And above all else, education is the key.
It is fitting then that the theme chosen by the UN for this year's celebration is, and I quote: "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women". (end quote)
But for me, they've missed the point slightly.
Education is an opportunity for everyone to realise their God-given potential.
The Church has a good history in this respect; it was the Church that first began providing free education for poor children in the UK in the early 19th century - and the principle of universal entitlement spread from those roots.
This even spread overseas through missions, teaching children in some of the world's poorest countries to read and write.
Even today, many schools in this country and abroad are supported or entirely funded by Christian organisations.
But education needs to go hand in hand with aspiration.
Without those children - those girls in particular - seeing that if they work hard and learn, they can get on and build themselves a better future - without that, education is only slightly better than useless.
We see that here in the UK, where some children are brought up in workless households on council estates, being told that they can never really amount to much.
Very few of them will perform strongly in school, or go on to do much with their lives, because their light has been extinguished at an early age and they don't have faith in themselves.
So one can only imagine what it is like in places where there has never been any jobs, or even schools, and where every day brings a struggle against hunger, dehydration or disease.
And one can only imagine the challenges faced by women and girls in societies where they are routinely subjected to domestic violence and sexual or psychological abuse to keep them in a state of submission to male dominance.
The prevalence of female circumcision in some cultures, and the almost routine rape in others, provides a sickening glimpse of how far some countries have to come before women can truly be free of oppression.
I'm hoping that the new UN Women agency will do a lot of work in this area.
It's great that it has been established in time for the centenary of International Women's Day, and I see it as a sign that the world's leaders are taking the issue of equality and women's rights seriously.
There are concerns about its funding and the programmes it will be able to deliver, but hopefully when it is up and running it can provide the kind of guidance and support we need to see being given to governments, to ensure that women in those countries are placed on a more equal footing to men.
As I said before, education and aspiration is inextricably linked to this.
Educating people changes a society, and an educated society can demand change from their government.
People coming together with a shared idea of the problems they face and how to overcome it formed the basis for International Women's Day in 1911.
Dictators and oppressors do all they can to stop people coming together, because they know that the strength achieved by great numbers gives people the confidence to stand up and fight for change.
The Soviets banned religion, as did China for a while. Saddam Hussein banned women's groups and trade unions.
But, as we have seen over the last few weeks, people will eventually find a way to overcome their oppressors.
And it is not just women who benefit from greater gender equality.
Societies with the worst records for gender equality tend to be the worst societies in other ways, in terms of intolerance against minority groups and other fundamental rights and freedoms
Educating women gives them the ability to push for more rights, pushing for more rights can bring about genuine democracy, genuine democracy creates better governments, and better governments create a better world.
One of my favourite quotes is from Mahatma Gandhi. He told us that you must be the change you want to see in the world.
If we want to see that better world, we need women everywhere to aspire to great things. So if we are to make a difference, we too must aspire to be all that we can be, in order to inspire those that see us into taking action.
National Prayer Breakfast
That leads me nicely on to the theme of this years' National Prayer Breakfast, which I have the great honour of chairing.
Invitations have gone out to every embassy and to every Parliamentarian, so some of you here today may have received one or will do so very soon and I hope you will join me, for what I pray will be a wonderful morning.
One of the honours of being the Prayer Breakfast Chair is to choose the theme and I have chosen aspiration, and specifically raising young people's aspirations, because I feel that as adults we want the best for our children, just as we are God's children and he wants the best for us.
He wants us to live good and fulfilling lives, to learn and develop and to be the best we can be, so he watches over us and in the words of the amazing poem ‘footprints' he carries us when we are most in need - he wants society to ensure we are supported and cared for.
I believe that it is our role in society to act as good Christians and watch over our children and encourage and support them to do and be the very best that they can.
And of course, that does not just apply to our own children. We should want the best for every child in our community, in our city, in our world.
My faith tells me that God knows and loves us and has a plan for each of us. And I don't believe that plan is of a lower standard according to where in the world you happen to be born or live.
I refuse to believe that God has a good plan for the women of Chelsea but not of Chad - of Tunbridge Wells but not of Tanzania.
The difference is not the people - we are all human beings, all born with our own hopes and talents, and all born with a will to survive and an aspiration to succeed.
The difference is whether that hope and aspiration is nurtured and encouraged, and whether those talents are allowed to blossom.
For too many women, this is not the case.
So I see it as my role as a Christian, as a woman, but mostly as a human being, lucky enough to have had the support and the opportunity to realise my potential, to help get that message of aspiration over to women around the world who aren't as fortunate.
I want governments to work with each other to provide the opportunities for all women to get on in life, but most of all I want women themselves to stand up and demand those opportunities, and then take full advantage of them when they are granted.
I want women of every nationality to have the same freedoms that allow us here in this room to hold office, and to be congregating today.
I'm not saying every country needs to be like Britain - as I said earlier, we aren't quite over the finishing line yet.
But what we have been able to achieve here, through enfranchisement, through education, and through emancipation, can be replicated.
All we need is the aspiration, the faith and the determination to make it happen, and God - our very own nurturing and encouraging father - has already given us all that and more.
May the lord bless you and keep you safe and well, and may he bless all the women and girls across the entire world on this very special international women's day - in Jesus' name.