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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee, Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee 5:16 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Ranger on his maiden speech and to my noble friend Lady Sugg on becoming the UK’s first ever special envoy for girls’ education—it is vital work that she will be doing.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme “Each for equal” recognises that it is vital to respect the dignity and autonomy of the individual and to give everyone an equal opportunity to live the life that they choose. When the House of Commons held its debate last Thursday, my right honourable friend Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade and the GEO’s Minister for Women and Equalities opened the proceedings. She talked about her experience at the UK-Africa Investment Summit held here in January. She described how she met

“a group of fantastic entrepreneurs called the Lionesses. They were from sub-Saharan Africa, where they are leading the way with the highest rate of women entrepreneurs on the planet.”

She said that the Government are keen to

“champion women in the workplace” and

“ensure that everyone can enter, get back into, and get on in the workplace.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/3/20; col. 1012.]

Of course, I welcome that ambition whenever it comes, but I do so with particular interest at the moment because the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, which I chair, is conducting an inquiry into the UK’s Africa strategy. The strategy was announced by Theresa May back in 2018, although little has been heard about it until quite recently. We are examining how the Government could and should work in partnership with the African Union on the delivery of the AU’s Agenda 2063 objectives. The agenda’s aspirations for women are both ambitious and laudable. For example, by 2063:

The African woman will be fully empowered in all spheres, with equal social, political and economic rights, including the rights to own and inherit property, sign contracts, register and manage businesses. … All forms of gender-based violence and discrimination … against women and girls will be eliminated … and barriers to quality health and education for women and girls eliminated.”

A year ago, the UK Government signed a joint communiqué on the AU-UK partnership, which was a welcome move. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could update the House on what progress the Government have made on their support for gender-related work within the countries of sub-Saharan Africa—the countries of those entrepreneurial Lionesses.

Can the Minister explain not only how the Government support gender equality work in sub-Saharan countries which are on the Development Assistance Committee’s list and thereby qualify for overseas aid, but how they support projects in those countries in sub-Saharan Africa which do not qualify for ODA—countries such as Botswana? During the February Recess, I was able to go to Botswana as a member of a delegation sent by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. I am very grateful to the CPA in the UK and in Botswana, and to the UK’s acting high commissioner in Botswana, for ensuring that the programme for our visit was both extensive and informative.

When Botswana achieved independence from Britain in 1966, it was one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is now one of Africa’s most stable countries and relatively free from corruption, but it is facing the challenges of climate change, which impact on tourism and food production. There is a huge gap in resources between the very poor in rural areas and the urban middle-income group. Botswana’s current classification as a middle-income country means that it does not qualify for ODA. When we met the Speaker of the National Assembly, he acknowledged the low number—11%—of women in parliament. In the elections last October, women won only three of the 57 seats in parliament. So, President Masisi used his special powers to appoint another four women as MPs, and one or two of those were immediately made Ministers. The Speaker said that significant gender inequality extends beyond the parliament in Botswana and is reflective of wider society there. In our conversations with women representatives of civil society, it was also reported that there is a relatively high level of violence against women in the home in Botswana.

I am grateful to members of the Parliamentary Caucus on Women there for meeting our delegation. Although they applaud the Government of Botswana for signing the South African Development Community’s gender protocol, they made the point that they still have a long way to go to reach the recommended level of 30% of MPs being women. Does that not sound familiar to most of us in this Chamber? The National Assembly has adopted the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s self-assessment toolkit and sees this as a first step towards increasing the proportion of women in the Assembly. What action can, and will, the Government take to support their work and, of course, learn from their experience?

Finally, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House how the Government Equalities Office is contributing to the Government’s integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development? Clearly, the GEO has an important role to play in influencing the conclusions of that review. We have an opportunity to give real substance to the mantra of “global Britain”. I believe that gender issues should be central to our global work as an inclusive, progressive country.