My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for both securing and introducing this timely debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on her appointment to DfID.
The case for empowering women is glaringly obvious but in that process we must not forget girls because, if girls are empowered from an early age, it becomes the norm. Adolescent girls in particular should be seen as valuable members of society in their own right and not just as “future women”.
Ample evidence shows that there is a link between gender inequality and violent conflict: countries with high levels of violent conflict also have high levels of gender inequality; countries with higher levels of civil and political empowerment of women have lower levels of violent conflict; and countries with higher levels of economic empowerment of women have lower levels of international violence. So the case for empowering women in developing countries is very compelling.
Our Government are to be congratulated on the priority they have given to the empowerment of women and girls and their commitment to this work. DfID’s commitment to gender equality and empowering women and girls through the strategic vision for women and girls and the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, focusing on the impact of official development assistance on gender relations and gender equality, are truly welcome. Equally welcome is the FCO’s United Kingdom National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser.
Despite the priority given by our Government and despite a number of international agreements to include women in peacebuilding processes, women are often absent from those processes. Opportunities during post-conflict periods—that is, during constitutional reform processes, political settlements and the establishment of democratic systems and laws—are often missed. In my view, these opportunities are sometimes missed because of culturally determined gender roles and social norms, as well as the legal environment.
Therefore, any strategy to empower women and girls must focus both on building the confidence, skills and capacity of women and girls and on working towards an enabling environment which supports the empowerment of women and girls. I say that because I have taken a close interest in the work of the British Council, of which I am the deputy chair. In countries such as Nigeria and those in the Middle East and north Africa, it has a number of projects relating to stability, reconciliation and peacebuilding. In north Africa and the Middle East, it is supporting advocacy and the empowerment of women. It does this in conjunction with DfID. In Africa, particularly Kenya, it is working with the Premier League—that is, through sport—to make sure that some of the prejudices that exist between boys and girls are dealt with. In the Middle East, there is another project called Springboard, which helps people with empowerment and has been used by 10,000 women. Some of them were here last week, when I had the opportunity to talk to them. It was really heart-warming to hear how they have benefited from these projects.
I want to dwell a little on the lessons that have been learnt and why these projects are successful. That has something to do with the approach taken by the British Council. It understands the context in which it works and it has a deep knowledge of the countries so as to be able to support these initiatives. It also works with local partners. However, the most important part is that it takes a very holistic and systemic approach, and this experience reinforces what I have already said: that it is important to work at all the different levels of society if that work is to be effective and sustainable. It also tells us that the inclusion of men and boys in the change process is essential, and it is important to focus on the cultural, social and legal environment as well as on the social norms. We have to see this from end to end, starting with girls and going right through to old age. We cannot focus on particular sections of women; the focus has to be on girls, women and the elderly. The points that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made about the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, contributed were very pertinent.
In my view, gender equality and women’s rights are key to addressing the unfinished business of the millennium development goals and accelerating global development beyond 2015. The post-2015 framework should retain a strong, stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, as has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and as recommended by the United Nations High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It should also include gender-specific targets and indicators in the other goals. I believe that this framework should take a holistic view of gender inequalities, including education, economic empowerment, health, an end to violence, leadership and influence, participation in peace and security, and the contribution to environmental sustainability. The framework should also build on the lessons that have been learnt from the work that has already been done, because I do not think that enough emphasis is put on cross-learning. It is important that we learn from the projects which are already under way and look at how the lessons from them can be incorporated.
This is a golden opportunity to finish the unfinished agenda, to accelerate inclusiveness and equality, and to make development truly sustainable. It is a unique opportunity to build on the achievements of the millennium development goals and to address the dimensions which are lagging behind, by learning from the experiences of those working on the ground. I consider that to be very important. I cannot emphasise enough—and not because I have a close knowledge of it—the work and projects carried out by the British Council with the support of DfID. There is some real learning to be had there.
I finish by saying that it would be very helpful to hear from the Minister what the Government’s approach is likely to be in the coming months. Will they be urging a more holistic and systemic approach to empowerment and encouraging people to build on the learning that we have had to date?