My Lords, each year when International Women’s Day comes round, we can celebrate the extraordinary contributions that women have made both nationally and internationally. We can also celebrate the fact that in many aspects of women’s lives there are improvements over what went before. However, we cannot be complacent and assume that gender equality is just a few years away. It is not. On present progress, it could be a century or more before the gap is closed, according to the World Economic Forum.
Last year, the UNDP reported:
“The disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality and one of the greatest barriers to human development progress”.
In considering those barriers, I want to focus on the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in poor, developing countries. Unless this is addressed, millions of young women will not achieve their potential as fully engaged citizens and many will suffer horribly. The subject of this debate is the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, and it is my contention that there can be few areas more worthy of our attention and our commitment to securing a better life for women and girls than this one.
One source of vulnerability is the lack of education. In spite of huge advances in access to education in many countries, girls are still more likely than boys to leave secondary education before completing it. Girls with poor levels of literacy, and who lack the capacity to obtain secure employment, are likely to become victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, and to be trafficked. They are also more likely to be pushed into very early marriage. Extending the education of girls must be part of a preventive strategy to promote improvement in the lives of young women in poor countries, and countries where there is a prevailing culture that fails to recognise the rights of women.
One of the most horrific statistics I have seen for a long time is that in South Sudan, where 72% of children are out of school, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete secondary education. According to the UN, in 2017, an estimated 21% of women aged 20 to 24 were married or in an informal union before the age of 18, and one in three girls aged 15 to 19 have been subjected to FGM in the 30 countries where it is most concentrated.
Very early marriage and FGM run the risks of problems in childbirth. Both need to be prevented. New laws specifying a minimum age for marriage of, say, 18 would be of great value. Better information about the risks of giving birth at too young an age is needed, and better access to contraceptive services is vital. If a young girl becomes pregnant, she will need to obtain antenatal care to identify whether she is at risk and likely to need specialist help during childbirth. Advice should be available on access to safe abortion, where it is legal.
In remote, rural areas, and in countries where there is conflict, it is especially important to try to provide these services through development aid programmes. Can the Minister say what priority DfID is giving to these services? I ask this against the fact that the leading cause of death for 15 to 19 year-olds globally is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Around 11% of all births worldwide are to girls aged 15 to 19. According to the UN Population Division, one or two countries have an adolescent birth rate as high as 200 births per 1,000 girls of this age, compared with a global average of 44 births per 1,000 girls.
While, overall, maternal mortality has declined, there are still far too many preventable deaths, especially of adolescents. The involvement of DfID in the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda is very welcome, but I would like to raise two or three points for clarification about how it is taking its work forward. First, can it more clearly articulate its vision in this area and give greater priority to the neglected areas of safe abortion and the care of at-risk adolescents before and during childbirth? Secondly, when it articulates its vision for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, can it translate them into concrete measures in all DfID country plans, ensuring that fragile and conflict-affected areas are included? Thirdly, will DfID ensure that family planning is given high priority in its programmes, and support national Governments in sustaining the supply and distribution of contraceptives?
In conclusion, I hope that the needs of girls and women who are still suffering from a denial of access to good reproductive healthcare will remain central to the UK’s programmes under DfID, as well as to overseas development aid financed by other departments. Even if it will not be achieved in my lifetime, I want my daughter and granddaughters on some future International Women’s Day to be able to celebrate global equality in the provision of sexual and reproductive health rights. We still have a long way to go.