Developing World: Women — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 11th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 4:25 pm, 11th June 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating today’s debate and pay tribute to his commitment and work through his foundation for widows and their children—and to all noble Lords for their thoughtful and measured contributions. Many points have already been raised, which I shall probably repeat in my own reflections, but I thank all noble Lords for their very warm welcome in having me represent the Department for International Development again. I am incredibly passionate around the agenda on women and girls. Again, that is because of my own upbringing and the culture that I come from, which has impacted on my responses to what I see and am determined to try to eliminate.

In response to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I say that the Government will not detract in any way from trying to ensure that we continue not only to lead and influence others but to build much further on what we have achieved. The MDGs may not have delivered everything, but for all of us to be able to focus on some global goals was good. We will see which are the successful and not-so-successful goals when we have had an opportunity to really reflect and break them down. We want to make sure that we build on the experiences of things that have worked and not worked, and really influence those countries that can make a difference to moving this debate forward.

Investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do—it is actually the smart thing. No country will ever reach its full potential when half the population is locked out of education, employment and meaningful participation in public and private life. Girls and women living in poverty face differing forms of discrimination and violence throughout their lives. From the very start, girls lose out. More than 100 million girls are estimated as missing because son preference is so embedded that it leads to female infanticide and pre-natal sex selection in favour of boys. Less than one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa goes on to secondary school, and one in three girls is married before she is 18.

The odds are heavily stacked against a young girl in sub-Saharan Africa or south-east Asia making a healthy transition to adulthood. Child marriage, female genital mutilation and the societal norms that determine that girls should aspire only to marry and have children perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next. It is for these reasons that DfID has committed to having explicit focus on girls in its strategic vision on girls and women. Since the launch of the vision in 2011, we have supported over 5 million girls to go to primary and lower secondary school and committed to bring an end to FGM and child, early and forced marriage within a generation. Focusing on girlhood is vital to breaking the cycle of poverty and discrimination that can blight a girl’s journey through life. Societies that work for gender equality tend to be freer and fairer, while societies where there is greater female participation in politics, civic life and the labour force are associated with lower levels of corruption. For example, in Pakistan, women entering the national Parliament on a gender quota were able to work successfully across party lines on legislation relating to honour killing and acid crime control. In India, in states where there are more women in work there has been faster economic growth and the largest reductions in poverty. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that there is still so much that needs to be done, and we must not back away from challenging and making sure that those who have no voice are heard.

Many noble Lords talked about women’s role in conflict, and the need for them to be at the heart of resolving conflict and promoting stable societies as well as poverty reduction and human development. I cannot agree more. We cannot tackle poverty and development without addressing conflict. People in fragile states are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as in other developing countries, more than three times as likely to be unable to send their children to school and twice as likely to see their children die before the age of five.

Girls and women are often the targets of sexual violence in conflict, as many noble Lords said today. Recently, we have seen how abduction, enslavement, sexual abuse and forced marriage were central to the tactics of Boko Haram and ISIL. Initiatives such as the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative are making a vital contribution to ensuring that there will be no impunity for sexual violence in conflict. In conflict countries such as Iraq and Syria, the UK is providing essential support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

We also recognise the need to include girls and women in peace negotiations and broader processes to end and prevent conflict. Conflict-affected contexts offer unique windows of opportunity to tackle the structural barriers to women and girls’ inequality and unequal participation in political, social and economic life. As roles are redefined and new needs arise, girls and women have new opportunities to play a bigger determining role both politically and economically. This can be of benefit to not only them but their communities. For example, women’s participation in peace processes and decision-making ensures resolutions are reached more quickly and are more lasting and meaningful. That was eloquently illustrated by my noble friend Lady Hodgson, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and others.

This year, 2015, is a significant year for women’s rights and gender equality in relation both to peace and security and to sustainable development. The UN has commissioned a high-level review on the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325—which was raised by a number of noble Lords today, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Prosser and Lady Kinnock, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson—to mark its 15th anniversary. Along with subsequent UN resolutions, Resolution 1325 provides a global framework for reducing the impact of conflict on girls and women and for promoting their inclusion in conflict resolution and recovery. The UK will be engaging fully in this high-level review at the United Nations Security Council in October. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I will have some engaged discussions before it takes place to ensure that we have a full cross-party voice there.

For our part, the UK Government are implementing Resolution 1325 and related resolutions through our national action plan on women, peace and security. The national action plan puts girls and women at the centre of all the Government’s efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, promote peace and stability and prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. It provides a vision for the UK and brings together, in one overarching framework, a cross-government effort. As part of the national action plan, DfID will be exploring opportunities better to involve girls and women in developing responses to violence and terrorism and to unpick the deeply flawed narratives that legitimise extremism.

In Pakistan, the UK is supporting the provincial Government of KP to develop women-friendly policing and to encourage recruitment of female police officers so that women are better served by the police. The UK Government and international partners have also strongly supported women’s rights within the Afghan national security forces, with programmes in place to support the recruitment, integration, retention, training and treatment of women in the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police and the Afghan Air Force.

This year also marks, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which is still considered the blueprint for women’s empowerment. The UK played a lead role in agreeing the political declaration adopted at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women. Critically, the declaration reaffirms the Beijing Platform for Action and commits the international community to tackling remaining gaps in implementation. The UK will continue to play an active role in CSW negotiations.

A third crucial process under way this year is the agreement of a new post-2015 development framework. The UK was one of the first to advocate for a stand-alone gender goal in the new framework and a holistic set of targets that address the root causes of inequality and discrimination that affect girls and women, including widows. The UK Government will continue to push for greater investment in gender equality in negotiations around financing for development and for a strong outcome at the UN global summit in September.

Despite progress over the last 20 years since Beijing, girls and women continue to face harmful discrimination. They are held back from seizing opportunities to build their futures. Society sees them as having less value because they are female. My noble friend Lady Goudie alluded to the film Water. If noble Lords have not seen that, it is a real eye-opener, which in a couple of hours shows how much young child widows are discriminated against. As the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned, it is still an issue that they are an invisible issue, and we need to make sure that they do not drop out of the wider issue of the plight of widows. We need to ensure that civil society organisations see the plight of those vulnerable groups in the wider debate when we talk about girls and women.

I began this speech by talking about the injustices that women face in their early years, yet these injustices do not abate as life draws on. A number of noble Lords mentioned that, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Widowhood multiplies the injustices of gender inequality, adding another layer of discrimination and stigma. A widow and her children can suddenly find themselves homeless, seen as an economic burden to their community, and stigmatised due to their association with death. Widows are often more vulnerable to being forcibly married, raped, traded or exiled. They suffer double discrimination, both for being female and for being widowed. It seems impossibly unfair that women are ostracised at the moment they need more support than ever.

DfID supports a range of programmes that benefit widows. For example, in Bangladesh, through the Chars Livelihoods Programme and the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest Programme, we have helped 96,303 extremely poor households that are headed by widows. These projects provide productive assets, cash grants for business enterprise, skills training, nutritional supplies and nutritional awareness. Some 85% of all of the households supported have graduated out of extreme poverty. We also support the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Programme in Bangladesh, where over 34,000 widows in urban slums have received grants for starting small businesses.

Women who face poverty and social exclusion—often linked to the death of a spouse—disability or in old age, require particular support, including through social safety nets. DFID supports such women through programmes which target elderly women through social pensions; for example, the senior citizen grant in Uganda. Other vulnerable women are reached through safety nets targeted at the poorest households. For example, the Palestinian National Cash Transfer Programme in

Gaza provides unconditional cash transfers to extremely poor households. These include female-headed households, including widows, who report that cash transfers allow them to meet the basic needs of their families and give them greater economic freedom, security and enhanced psychological well-being.

I want to address some of the issues raised by noble Lords, but if I fail to answer all the questions, I undertake to write to noble Lords. I start with the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. She said that we should not forget that looking at women and girls should be an end-to-end journey, from birth right through to old age, when they are often at their most vulnerable and lonely. There are also problems relating to dementia, which we in this country are beginning to realise will become an even greater issue as populations age. It is very important that we have our discussions in the round, so that when we talk about developing frameworks, those frameworks take that end-to-end view.

However, our priority is female economic empowerment. I am extremely pleased that the Secretary of State and the Government have made economic empowerment for girls and women, as well as our humanitarian response, a core thread in the department. All those things coming together provide a response to many of the questions raised by noble Lords today. We want to advocate ambitious targets on women’s economic empowerment in the post-2015 sustainable development goals framework. We are having a real impact with our strategic vision for women and girls. Twenty-seven million women have access to financial services as a result of DfID’s support.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby all asked about the post-2015 development framework. There is a lot that I could say but time is against me. Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to write to them, because it is important that the speakers participating in this debate see the great thinking that is going on behind those goals. That would be much more informative than a simplistic answer provided by me now.

I end by flagging up another very important milestone. This year, 23 June marks 10 years since the Loomba Foundation launched International Widows Day. As we engage in all the other landmark opportunities for girls’ and women’s rights this year—the post-2015 goals and the anniversaries of UNSCR 1325 and the Beijing Platform for Action—let us all do everything possible to ensure that widows are not forgotten. It is only through a combined effort that we can achieve real gender equality and empowerment for all girls and women, including widows. That is why, together, the work of my noble friend Lord Loomba and the Loomba Foundation, the work of the civil society groups and the work that we are doing at DfID is so important. We are each a critical part of what will deliver gender equality for the world’s most marginalised girls and women.

I assure noble Lords that across government we are championing the girls and women agenda. The Prime Minister, in particular, is very keen that this focus is maintained. He has put his full support behind the work that is being done across government and the girls agenda will always be at the core of our programmes.

Time is drawing on and I know that there are many questions that I have left unanswered. It has been an absolute pleasure to respond to a debate on a subject that I am incredibly passionate about. I look forward to engaging with all noble Lords to see what we can do to encourage others, particularly the global partners that need greater encouragement not just in relation to girls and women but on a range of other issues that we will be talking about in connection with the post-2015 development goals.