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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 5:50 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, I add my thanks to those already given to the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for securing this very important debate. Noble Lords have spoken with such knowledge and passion on wide-ranging subjects and I pay tribute to them. I want to single out the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, for reminding us, if we needed reminding, of the struggles that black women have faced. I also thank my noble friend Lady Barker for drawing our attention to the difficulties that transgender women face in the UK today.

Maybe I can encapsulate the debate thus far as one in which speakers have greeted progress to date with caution, because much remains to be done. The World Economic Forum’s methodical approach in putting together the Global Gender Gap Report gives us an invaluable tool for keeping track of progress made across the globe. It shows us that across the four areas it tracks—economy, education, health and politics—in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, the UK has slipped from ninth place to 20th place out of 144 for gender parity, only just ahead of Mozambique. I hope that these figures have set alarm bells ringing, illustrating as they do that much remains to be done at home.

However, this debate is about the UK’s role in promoting gender equality globally. There, too, the progress we have made to date must be vigorously protected. I will concentrate the rest of my remarks on four issues: the global gag rule, FGM, the role of older women and DfID itself. On a recent visit to Sierra Leone with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, I saw for myself the essential work carried out by DfID working in partnership with organisations such as Marie Stopes to mitigate the effects of child marriage, gender-based violence and FGM. Gender-based violence was an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, who is not in his place, brought to our attention. Gender-based violence is practised as a weapon of war by those depraved enough to continue it.

We have heard a fair amount about the global gag rule already from the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. I emphasise how different this global gag rule, which has been brought in by the Trump Administration, is to the one practised under the Bush era. The implications are devastating. Rather than impacting $600 million of foreign aid, the expanded Trump version will affect $9.5 billion of aid that currently goes to projects where organisations champion women’s right to abortion. The Government in the Netherlands have already announced the creation of a fund to counter the global gag rule. When the noble Baroness responds to the debate, can she say whether DfID will join them in making a similar commitment? It has done so in the past.

I want to focus for a moment on FGM. According to recently published NHS figures, there were 5,484 newly recorded cases of female genital mutilation in the UK last year. Although we are making slow but sure progress in developing nations, I am certain that action here at home will send a strong message to developing countries that this practice has no place in the modern world. Will the noble Baroness also address in her response why we are failing to get the message across in health settings and schools and, secondly, why we have still seen no successful prosecutions to tackle this crime in the UK?

I will also say a few words about recognising the critical contribution made by older women to the economic well-being of their family and communities, as carers, shopkeepers, traders and entrepreneurs. Some time ago, I was an ambassador for a microfinance charity called Opportunity International and saw for myself the enormous trust that was placed in the hands of women, often older women, to multiply the money that was entrusted to them. Not only did they do that, but they were meticulous in keeping up with repayments, as it was a source of pride for them to be able to do so, thus ensuring that children and the vulnerable were beneficiaries. This point was made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, as well as by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. It is clear that in addition to moral and rights-based arguments for gender equality, there is a notable and substantial economic argument—study after study has shown that. In her concluding remarks, could the noble Baroness address what measures the Government are taking to ensure that the sustainable development goal to leave no one behind encompasses older women?

DfID has come under sustained attacks from elements in the media. It must do more to resist these and speak up for the millions of people across the globe who rely on it for the leadership it shows—often on pioneering projects that others shy away from, such as the girl group, Yegna, labelled “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls” by the Daily Mail. This transformational, award-winning project, using popular culture, was thrown to the dogs in the face of attacks by the tabloids. Yet it is a prime example of where a bold stance by the Secretary of State would have enhanced her reputation. I am sorry she did not take that opportunity. The soft power wielded by DfID throughout the world cannot be underestimated, and as a leading political and development player, the UK has a vested economic and moral interest in promoting gender equality.