My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Loomba on securing this debate. I have never witnessed the work of the Loomba Foundation up close, but I have been a fan and I have watched his work from afar over these last 10 years or so, and it is deeply impressive. His ongoing commitment to the cause of widows in particular is something of which I am tremendously proud, as I hope his family are.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate to tell noble Lords about last month when I visited a shop. I had the great good fortune to be asked by VSO to be a volunteer, and as part of my volunteering placement I visited a project in Lesotho, which is run jointly by an ex-mineworkers association and VSO and is called Phoning Out Poverty and AIDS. All across southern Africa there are women whose men went off to work in the mines of southern Africa and who have succumbed to pneumoconiosis, TB or HIV, and those women live in abject poverty. With the aid of a phone company they were given a container, in which they have established a community phone shop. It is the sort of shop that, if it were in Manchester, would be the subject of an ongoing soap documentary, because it is at the centre of the village and has all the bits and bobs.
There are three great things about it. Number one: a woman who was so ill with HIV and AIDS, having been impregnated by a teacher when she was a schoolgirl, and who had nothing and was bed-bound, has now earned enough money not only to get some furniture but to be able to afford the fares to the local clinic to get some treatment. She is back on her feet. Number two: the project has not only allowed people to make phone calls but is giving them HIV and AIDS information, and increasing the health of that village. Number three: a veritable battalion of grannies work in that shop. Grannies are unmistakable the world over. These particular grannies go to that shop and between them secure income for over 50 of their grandchildren, who were previously starving. That is the economic empowerment of young women and girls, and as the granddaughter of a former migrant mineworker it has impressed me greatly.
Part of my overall placement with VSO was to talk to and train parliamentarians across southern Africa to campaign for sex and relationship education, but in particular to end the scourge of child marriage. Child marriage and early pregnancy are two of the biggest determinants of poverty and ill health of girls across the world. Billions of young women are forced into relationships way before they are physically ready for them, and as a result are enduring lives of poverty.
Will the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, say what the current Government are doing to continue the work that was started by my noble friend Lady Northover and Lynne Featherstone in the previous Government to ensure that DfID continues to work with parliamentarians across the world to ensure a decrease in the rate of child marriage? There are areas of the world where rates of child marriage are going down. There are successful programmes, which we should be supporting and extending.
My noble friend Lord Loomba talked about the critical importance of the next few months. We all know that we are in the final run-up to the meetings at which the new strategic development goals will be determined and, crucially, the budgets—the resources—that go with them. There will be a meeting in Addis Ababa in a few weeks at which our Government will be present to talk about financing for those development goals.
It is significant that many of the international development charities, building on the work of Amartya Sen, have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to achieve overall empowerment and enrichment of societies if you do not work through the empowerment of women and girls. So will the Government, through their coming work over the next few months, ensure that there is a strong stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights, that there are specific targets for increasing women’s full and effective participation, and that programmes to go behind that development goal are funded to make sure that, from small corner shops in Lesotho to national Governments and internationally, there is a coherent programme of economic development?
Finally, I commend to noble Lords a report that was published in January this year by Age International, which talks about the truth of ageing and development. It is a series of essays, one of which was written by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. In it, she sets out a number of points that are often overlooked about the role of gender and older women’s inequality in development. In so far as we have data, we know that women are likely to live longer but are much more likely to have longer periods of ill health due to the fact that they have had little in the way of economic or educational choices throughout their lives. That, together with poor nutrition and inattention to their sexual and reproductive health, all takes a toll in later life. Even within countries there will be some communities where the effect is disproportionate. In Serbia, for example, the overall position of older women is relatively good, but within the Roma community in Serbia there is a very difficult problem in relation to older women and poverty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, draws attention to a fact about international development that I had not previously thought about, and that is the impact of dementia. Not only are women increasingly engaged in what is called family care, although it is really female care, for growing numbers of people with dementia, but occasionally, because of a lack of knowledge and awareness in communities, they become vulnerable. People accuse them of witchcraft and so on, and there have been a growing number of incidents where older women have been killed as a result. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, opened up in her essay a new area for research, and I ask the Minister whether she will consider looking not just at gender-specific data but at age and gender-specific data to back up some of this work.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, was absolutely right to return our attention to this subject, and I hope that if noble Lords ever get the chance to go to Lesotho, they will drop by a very special corner shop.