June 13, 2014 4:08 pm

Human rights advocate Baroness Goudie and the fight to end slavery

The peer discusses her work to stop the use of sexual violence in conflict and improve the lives of women and children
Baroness Goudie in the study of her home in central London©Victoria Birkinshaw

Baroness Goudie in the study of her home in central London (Victoria Birkinshaw)

Anybody pushing for change on big global issues knows that progress can be painstaking, often taking years of negotiation. Mary Goudie, a passionate advocate for the rights of women and children and chair of the UN Women Leaders’ Council to Fight Human Trafficking, is a savante in such matters.

Mirror above fireplace in Mary Goudie's basement kitchen©Victoria Birkinshaw

Mirror above fireplace in the basement kitchen (Victoria Birkinshaw)

Goudie, who lives in a central London mews house, championed the ratification of the UN convention against human trafficking in 2000 and, seven years later, the Council of Europe convention against the illicit trade. Getting the British government to ratify these conventions – albeit belatedly for the UN convention – felt immensely satisfying, she says.

Now the Labour life peer is pushing for tougher legislation to tackle modern-day slavery. She has not been disappointed. Last week the Queen’s Speech promised to introduce a bill to strengthen powers to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking and to improve support for victims of these crimes.

Goudie, 67, has also been campaigning for companies to be responsible for their supply chains. “If this law gets through, companies will have to certify where their goods are made and under what conditions. They can’t be made under bonded labour. The largest part of human trafficking is bonded labour,” she says.

Many challenges remain in the fight to stamp out slavery. Goudie wants to see banks play a bigger part in helping to clamp down on the profits made from this multibillion-dollar industry. “Human trafficking is a cash business, a £32bn industry, and banks are not doing enough globally with people who bank cash.”

She also wants more to be done at rail borders and terminals to prevent the trafficking of children. Airline border controls have toughened up on illegal immigrants and human trafficking but, in Goudie’s view, train companies are lagging behind.

Bergère-style chair in front of window seat©Victoria Birkinshaw

Bergère-style chair in front of window seat (Victoria Birkinshaw)

We are in her study at the top of the house where she lives with her barrister husband James Goudie; her sons, Martin and Alexander, have long flown the nest. She prefers to work at home because it is more peaceful than the House of Lords and she gets more done. The WiFi signal is also better here than at Westminster, she says.

On this sunny morning, the small room is filled with light streaming in through the window above Goudie’s desk. A large Paisley scarf, converted into a throw, is draped over the back of her desk chair. Goudie says it was one of the last such scarves produced in Paisley itself, the town near Glasgow in Scotland from where the pattern got its name.

Mary Goudie's formal sitting room©Victoria Birkinshaw

Formal sitting room (Victoria Birkinshaw)

The study, which has a couple of armchairs, doubles up as a television snug during the evening although there is no sign of this as the TV is tucked away in a wall cupboard. I find negotiating the narrow staircase over four floors requires skill and energy but Goudie is unfussed by the climb despite having had a hip operation a few years ago.

Much of the furniture in the house has been in the family for years. The Goudies moved from their north London house to the mews property in 2002 and it has the peaceful air of established family life. On the ground floor, a walnut desk, complete with built-in safe, came from her husband’s family in Scotland.

Painting and ornaments in Mary Goudie's sitting room©Victoria Birkinshaw

Painting and ornaments in the sitting room (Victoria Birkinshaw)

Other favourite pieces of Goudie’s include an art deco drinks trolley, several Charles Rennie Mackintosh tables and works by Alexander Mann, the 19th-century British artist.

In the narrow hallway stands a small, old-fashioned, brown leather suitcase which had been her mother-in-law’s honeymoon case. Goudie, who likes its family history and good craftsmanship, says she uses it as an overnight case.

She has recently returned from Washington, where she works with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Goudie believes that women – and mothers in particular – must be included in peace processes around the world. “Women have to be at the peace table and at every table,” she says.

Murano-style glass features in light well©Victoria Birkinshaw

Murano-style glass features in light well (Victoria Birkinshaw)

Another priority is to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict. Goudie has been working on both sides of the Atlantic and helped to convince William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, to take the issue to the UN and governments around the world last year. At the time of going to press, Hague and Angelina Jolie, special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, were co-chairing a global summit in London – the largest ever held on the subject – with the aim of stopping the use of women as a tool of war.

So far, two-thirds of UN member states have endorsed a declaration to end sexual violence in conflict.

The range of the peer’s activities may seem remarkable, but she makes it clear that all her work is linked, with women and children’s rights at the heart of it. In Washington and London, she is also taking up the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minorities and the sectarian violence between them and Buddhists (who make up the majority of the country’s population), worrying that little pressure is being applied by Britain. “The UK is the biggest funder to Burma but [Burma’s] human rights are not getting better,” she says.

Human trafficking is a cash business, a £32bn industry, and banks are not doing enough globally with people who bank cash

- Baroness Goudie

The pull towards human rights started at an early age for Goudie, triggered by her parents’ concern over such issues when she was growing up. At 21, she became the youngest councillor at Brent Council in London, where she gained hands-on experience of local housing and social problems. “I learnt about human rights there, about problems of black and white people living together. I was fighting discrimination at every level in the council and beyond and had to keep raising issues.”

Goudie is still raising issues: another campaign area is gender equality in the boardroom. A founder member of the 30 Percent Club, which aims to boost the number of women on FTSE 100 boards, she points to the progress already made since the organisation was set up four years ago. This year, for the first time, the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards topped 20 per cent – but “the real push is to reach the goal of 30 per cent by 2015,” she says.

In April, a 30 Percent Club was launched in the US with similar goals.

Being involved in so many activities on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as having house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and a young grandchild in London, requires a balancing act that Goudie says she couldn’t do without the support of her husband and family.

Wall feature in Mary Goudie's home©Victoria Birkinshaw

Wall feature (Victoria Birkinshaw)

Yet teamwork is sometimes lacking between separate groups working in the field and Goudie worries that too many women’s organisations that focus on human rights are starting up but not working together, which only weakens their efforts to drive change.

“They are too fragmented and don’t share information. They elbow each other out.” Goudie is also concerned that not enough of them include men in their discussions and meetings.

“We have to be inclusive of men in all these issues, otherwise we can’t win and make change,” she says.

-------------------------------------------

Favourite thing

1950s Polish icon©Victoria Birkinshaw

A small, round, protective icon made of lead that belonged to her parents has great meaning for Goudie. The 1950s Polish icon, which depicts the blessed Virgin and Child, was given to her parents as a parting gift by two Polish boys who lived with the family in London for four or five years. “Like all Irish people [my parents] had lodgers in the 1950s,” says Goudie. “It was a way of life and it was my mother’s income.”

As a Catholic, Goudie was brought up with many religious pictures and icons at home. “It was the way we were,” she adds. Her parents moved to the UK in the 1930s, married and settled in London, only returning to Ireland in 1986. When her father died, the Polish boys’ gift was one of the objects that Goudie chose to keep.

Over the years she has built up an icon collection of her own, many of them chosen by her husband and two sons.

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE