International Development (Gender Equality) Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:42 am on 7th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative 11:42 am, 7th February 2014

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord McColl for having introduced the Bill. I pay tribute to him for all his work. Of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Cash, the honourable Member for Stone, who piloted this important Bill so ably through the House of Commons.

I welcome the Bill enormously because, as the right honourable Alan Duncan, the Minister of State for International Development, said, the Bill can have a lasting impact on generations of girls and women around the world. Still today, in the 21st century, there is not one country where women have the same socio- economic and political opportunities as men. Still today, too many countries have a patriarchal culture and this, together with discriminatory practices, leads to the disempowerment of women and gender inequality.

The Bill addresses gender equality in the context of providing both development assistance and humanitarian assistance, resulting from both natural disasters and the terrible effects of conflict. Development assistance addresses reducing poverty. According to GADN’s recent report, it is estimated that women account for two-thirds of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty. They also make up 60% of the 572 million working poor in the world. In reality, the situation for women is probably even worse, as there is likely to be a significant number living in poverty within households that are officially categorised as non-poor.

Women’s poverty is, in part, caused by gender inequality. According to the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, this discrimination impairs progress in all other areas of development. Unequal distribution of income, lack of control over resources, lack of decision-making power, unequal distribution of household tasks, the care-giving role assigned to women and gender-based violence all contribute to compounding women’s poverty.

As we have already heard from my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece, violence affects women in every part of the world. Seven in 10 women report that they have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. Although 125 countries have laws that penalise domestic violence, for 603 million women today domestic violence is still not a crime in their country.

A number of reviews of the MDGs over the past five years have noted that women are less likely to benefit from progress than men in some regions. For example, they may lack the resources, time and freedom of movement to travel to access health, legal or social services due to their enforced roles within the household, or they are restricted by partners, family or society. In times of humanitarian crisis, when natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti occur, state institutions collapse, law and order breaks down, food and medical care are scarce and violence prevails, thus making women particularly vulnerable.

Wars today have shifted from battlefields to communities, impacting on civilians, especially women and children, who make up 75% of all those killed in modern warfare. It is not just by the enemy that women will be attacked. We all know that where a conflict starts, levels of domestic violence escalate hugely, spiralling out of control. In war, women frequently become targets of sexual violence. Raping a woman in front of her family is one of the most effective ways of disarming the men, and sometimes this is used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Although women in conflict bear a disproportionate burden of suffering, and despite UN Resolution 1325 having been passed more than 10 years ago, they are usually absent from negotiations at the peace table and from decision-making in the aftermath of war. Over the past 25 years, only one in 40 peace treaty signatories has been a woman, and only 12 out of the 585 peace accords referred to women’s needs. Thus, women may continue to suffer violence and abuse because no one is listening to them or taking account of how really to protect them. I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, who spoke up to insist that women in Syria were at Geneva II.

In terror, women often flee to take their families to a safer place. Of the 42 million refugees and internally displaced people today, 80% are women and children. No accurate data exist on the millions of widows and “wives of the disappeared”, who often have no means of support and may be targeted within their families and the wider community. According to Widows for Peace through Democracy, there are more than 2 million widows in Iraq; more than 50% of all women in eastern Congo are widows; and there are 2.5 million widows in Afghanistan, with 80,000 in Kabul alone, who often have to resort to begging on the streets. I echo everything that my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece said about the situation for women in Afghanistan and how we need to support them.

The Commonwealth is the world’s greatest pressure group for gender equality, and I welcome enormously the fact that Her Majesty’s Government recognise the injustices to women today, and are trying to address them and improve lives for women around the world in a number of ways, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Jenkin.