Women: Developing Countries — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 27th June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat 3:10 pm, 27th June 2013

My Lords, I have visited Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia in the last few months, or within the past year. I have come to share some of the findings about what women face in those countries. I will start with the example of Sudan.

Sudan is a developing nation that faces many challenges in regard to gender inequality. Freedom House gave Sudan the lowest possible ranking among repressive regimes during 2012. South Sudan received a slightly higher rating, but it was also rated as “not free”. In the

2013 report of the 2012 data, Sudan ranked 171st out of 186 countries on the Human Development Index. It is also one of the very few countries that are not signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Despite all this, there have been positive changes in regard to gender equality in Sudan. As of 2012, women comprise 24.1% of the National Assembly of Sudan. Sudan’s women comprise a larger percentage of the national parliament than in many westernised nations. However, gender inequalities in Sudan, particularly pertaining to female genital cutting and the disparity of women to men in the labour market, have received attention from the international community.

The difference in education between boys and girls is one of the most obvious and critical inequalities in Sudan. In general, girls just learn how to read and write and some simple arithmetic, then exit school when they reach puberty, which coincides with six years of primary school. The female population with at least a secondary education in 2010 was 12.8% for females compared with 18.2% for males. Although both these figures are very low, males have a statistically more significant opportunity to obtain a secondary education.

On health, women in Sudan do not have the same access to healthcare as men do. A critical measure of the access to basic healthcare services is the maternal mortality rate. This defines the rate of deaths of pregnant women and is directly related to the levels of available healthcare services. In 2008 the maternal mortality rate in Sudan was 750 per 100,000 live births. Comparatively, the rate for a developed nation such as the United States is 9.1 per 100,000 live births. The adolescent fertility rate—the measurement of adolescent births per 1,000 women—is part of the millennium development goals and a general indicator of the burden of fertility on young women in a country. The rate for Sudan in 2011 was 61.9 per 1,000.

I will now move from Sudan to South Sudan. The International Rescue Committee reports:

“Violence against women and girls is both a feature of today’s escalating humanitarian crisis, and a persistent feature of daily life across South Sudan. It is a deeply entrenched problem that has a severe impact on the health, well-being and opportunities of generations of women.

The IRC recently conducted an assessment in Yida, an informal camp of some 25,000 refugees who have fled the Nuba Mountains, across the border in Sudan. Women and girls reported that rape, domestic violence and forced early marriage were common, both during their flight and in the camp. Afraid to speak out, women and girls were often cut off from help, including health care, and other basic services …

While figures are unreliable, we know that violence against women and girls is an endemic problem in South Sudan. Services for survivors of violence are severely lacking, women and girls have few ways to report violence, and even fewer options for care. Women and girls tell the IRC that violence is one of the most significant problems they face and that it limits their ability to benefit from or participate meaningfully in the country’s development. The issue is surrounded by silence and denial”.

Can the Minister say whether DfID will prioritise services in border areas and areas of return? Insecurity and displacement exacerbates risks for women and girls. Additional investment must be made in prevention, without sacrificing programmes that provide essential services to survivors. DfID should develop longer-term initiatives that address deep-seated power inequalities in Sudan and South Sudan. Such programmes should include livelihoods programming that is designed to reduce women’s vulnerability to violence, as well as to cope with the social and economic consequences of such violence.

In most families in Ethiopia the female is of lower status from birth and commands little respect relative to her brother and male counterparts. As soon as she is able she starts caring for younger siblings, helps in food preparation and spends long hours hauling water and fetching firewood. As she grows older she is valued for the role she will play in establishing kinship bonds through marriage to another family, thereby strengthening the community status of her family. She is told to be subservient, as a disobedient daughter is an embarrassment to her family.

Low status characterises virtually every aspect of girls and women in life. Given the heavy workload imposed on them at an early age, early marriage without choice and a subservient role to both husband and mother-in-law, girls and women are left with few opportunities to make and act on their own decisions. In Ethiopia, women traditionally enjoy little independent decision-making on most individual and family issues, including the option to choose whether to give birth in a health facility, or seek the assistance of a trained provider.

Harmful traditional practices, including female genital cutting, early marriage and child bearing, gender-based violence, forced marriage, wife inheritance and a high value given to large families all impose huge negative impacts on women’s reproductive health. Today Ethiopia has the second largest population in sub-Saharan Africa and every woman bears, on average, 5.4 children, placing an insupportable burden on families, communities and a country that faces chronic food shortages and environmental degradation. High maternal and infant mortality rates are inevitable results.

The National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia identified 120 harmful traditional practices—HTPs—including female genital cutting, early and enforced marriages, rape and wife inheritance. More than 85% of Ethiopians live in rural areas and 48% of women are married before the age of 15, with the highest early marriage rates in the country. The average Ethiopian woman bears 5.4 children during her lifetime. Those who marry very young are likely to bear more children. A pregnancy out of wedlock, whether consensual or by rape, is deeply shameful to the entire family. For many families, marrying a daughter at a young age is understood to be the best way to protect her from sexual advances and unwanted pregnancy.

Women in Ethiopia are subject to a variety of HTPs, including female genital cutting, that qualify as serious abuse. More than 74% of Ethiopian women of all ages have been subject to female genital cutting, a practice that is centuries-old. The health risks associated with FGCs are considerable. The good news is that women held 28% of the seats in the national parliament in Ethiopia in 2011. I hope that this may help in empowering Ethiopian women more and that effective steps will be taken to eliminate practices such as FGC.

TB, HIV and malaria are common in Ethiopia. DfID support in eliminating or reducing some of these problems is essential and I have seen some of the facilities that DfID has funded. They were excellent and many people were using them and were highly appreciative of DfID’s support. I hope that the Minister will assure us that this support will continue.