I beg to move,
That this House
has considered international development and gender-based violence.
Thank you for being here, Mr McCabe; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I do, however, take very little pleasure in debating today’s motion. Gender-based violence is a scourge upon the world that has devastating and lifelong implications for survivors. At its core, gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed towards an individual, based on their gender. It occurs because of gender inequality, abuse of power, and harmful and outdated norms. While it is predominantly directed towards women and girls, it also impacts men and boys. Across the world, millions suffer from these appalling crimes, all too often in silence. It is estimated that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime—a statistic that is considerably worsened during conflicts, displacements, and at times of crisis.
Gender-based violence comes in many forms, and can include sexual, physical and mental abuse, as well as harassment, coercion and manipulation. It is domestic abuse, it is sexual violence in conflict, it is child marriage, it is female genital mutilation and it is honour crimes—the list goes on. Such acts take place both in private and in public. Its prevalence has only increased over the course of this year as a result of the pandemic.
At the start of this year, the United Nations estimated that 242 million women and girls were subjected to sexual or physical violence in the preceding 12 months—another statistic that will only have increased over the course of this year.
Such acts are used as an effective tool to ostracise individuals, to exert power over others, and to spread fear and subjugation into communities and individuals. As is outlined in Human Rights Watch’s latest report, “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways”, which documents crimes of sexual violence against men in Syria by both state and non-state actors, such actions are now commonplace in conflict zones and crises. Rape and sexual violence are effectively being used as weapons of war—a weapon that costs nothing to the perpetrator and everything to the survivor.
As was detailed by ActionAid in 2007, over 87,000 women and girls were intentionally killed. That equates to 137 a day. These are the numbers that we know of; millions more are likely to be suffering in silence, locked behind closed doors and subjected to horrors that are unimaginable to any of us.
As nation after nation entered lockdown and schools were closed, offices shut and places of public interaction and engagement sealed off, so too were places of safety. Millions of people were denied access to those areas where they might briefly find some degree of normality and peace from their perpetrators. The United Nations estimated that in the six months of lockdown, there would be 31 million cases of gender-based violence—just over 5 million a month.
With the closure of schools, millions more girls, no longer able to access an education, will be forced into child marriage. The full impact of covid-19 will not be known for quite some time, but what we know now is a small glimpse of how widespread and prevalent this issue has become. Gender-based violence is a pandemic within a pandemic.
Yesterday was notable for two reasons. First, it was the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Secondly, the United Kingdom announced its decision to cut our international development budget. In honour of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I launched an international statement that was supported by parliamentarians from this Parliament and nine others. The statement called for the protection of funding for programmes to tackle all forms of gender-based violence at home and abroad, working together to find new ways to support women and girls at risk of gender-based violence and ensuring that women leaders are at the heart of our response to gender-based violence. I would be grateful to the Minister if he would let the House know whether he supports that statement, as I think nearly every other Member here has signed it.
On this, the second day of 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women, we are holding this debate and hoping to ensure that the UK does not shirk its international responsibilities to help some of those in the most difficult situations across the globe. I find it difficult to understand how the UK can take such a short-term approach to our international obligations, reputation and moral duty by cutting the development budget from 0.7% to 0.5%. It may well have been billed as a temporary measure to deal with an unprecedented financial situation, but so too was income tax. I will, therefore, not be holding my breath.
I hope I am not considered to be overly idealistic in believing that the UK is internationally recognised for the work that we do through our development budget. It is aid that is given for no other intention than to support the most vulnerable and those who are suffering. So much of what has been said in the past 24 hours focuses on the financial cost, rather than the enormous benefit of the support and humanitarian assistance that we send across the globe, from the 6 million girls provided with decent education to the almost 52 million people who have been given access to clean water or the 76 million children who have been vaccinated. That is all in the past five years. Our aid budget has made a difference to vulnerable women and girls across developing economies.
I will do all I can to see the return to 0.7%. For the purpose of this debate, however, I wish to point out that in previous spending rounds of our development budget, spending on GBV has ranked at the lowest level. Of the £14 billion spent on international aid, just 0.3% is spent on ending violence against women and girls. That must be rectified. I ask that the Government consider ringfencing 1% of the 0.7%—apologies, I mean 0.5%—to ensure long-term funding and commitment to tackling gender-based violence and supporting those who are so often overlooked, left behind and ignored.
None of us will look back on 2020 fondly, but it has been an important year for several reasons. It is the 20th anniversary of the UK’s signing UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and the first year of the decade of action on the sustainable development goals, focusing on action on gender and women’s empowerment. It is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration and the platform for action. While we might reflect on how far we have come since signing those commitments to tackle these issues, we might also reflect on how far we have yet to go to end gender-based violence and to reach gender equality.
Fortunately, I am an optimist—I have to be an optimist—and I believe that the UK can still achieve its commitments and maintain some semblance of its international reputation. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, I have consistently asked the Government to introduce an international body, to be based here in the United Kingdom, to collect and document information on sexual violence in conflict, support survivors and lead international prosecutions against those who commit atrocious crimes such as sexual violence in conflict.
We can shatter the culture of impunity, and with President-elect Biden soon to take office, we have a unique opportunity to implement an organisation that would support so much of the work that he accomplished on women’s rights as a Senator. Some might question why I have decided to take up this issue, but for me it is obvious. If men are 99% of the problem, we have to be 50% of the solution, and as the Voluntary Service Overseas points out, change will only work when men change their attitudes to violence towards women and girls.
A new era of activism and education is needed, and it can be led by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and supported by the development budget. I hope the Minister will work with me and others in this Chamber to develop that programme and to ensure that this issue is firmly on the agenda at each and every international event.
With that in mind, next year the UK is set to host the G7, and the Prime Minister will undoubtedly include his women’s education initiative on that agenda. I urge the Minister—and the Prime Minister, if he is watching—to also include on the agenda gender-based violence and preventing sexual violence in conflict. If we are to succeed in supporting more women into education, we need to address gender-based violence. They are interlocked pieces of the same jigsaw, and success cannot be had in one without the other.
The Government have launched some truly brilliant programmes, such as What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale, and put more than £67.5 billion of funding into it, but they can and must go further. They must build on the funding, build on access to services, and build on access to police action, justice and, above all, prevention. We have routinely committed to holding a second PSVI conference in this country, only to see it kicked further down the road, so I hope that next year—in 2021, a year of conferences—we might again commit to holding an international conference where we can address the issue of gender-based violence.
I am proud that the Union Jack is recognised across the world as a symbol of aid and assistance and that they arrive without caveats. The UK has real power, soft and otherwise. In supporting people in the most difficult parts of the world, it can continue to commit to those people. We should never forget that, and I hope today’s debate, which sadly is all too short, will demonstrate the strength of feeling about this issue, about international development and about what we can do in the world to make it a better place for those who suffer so badly.