International Development and Gender-based Violence

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:41 pm on 26th November 2020.

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Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip 3:41 pm, 26th November 2020

It is a pleasure, in some senses, to take part in this debate. I thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for opening this debate, and Theo Clarke for securing it. It is important that this issue is raised now, although it is a great pity that it is not taking centre stage in the main Chamber, as some of us in this Chamber perhaps feel it should.

Gender-based violence has been described by the United Nations as “a global pandemic”, with at least 15 million more cases predicted around the world as a result of covid-19 restrictions. Surely, a problem of that scale should not be sidelined. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a volunteer trustee on the board of the White Ribbon Scotland campaign. I am also the father of a young girl, and I do not want her to grow up in a world that tolerates sexism, abusive behaviour or violence against women or girls.

Today, we are discussing international development, and I will come to that in a moment. In some cases, although we must look globally, we also need to reflect locally. To demonstrate leadership internationally, the Government need to get their own house in order. Eight years ago, the Government signed the Istanbul convention: the gold standard, comprehensive approach to addressing violence against women and girls. It was an opportunity to bring unprecedented positive change, including improvements for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK who have been victims of gender-based violence.

In 2016, I was part of the IC Change campaign to hurry the Government along from their good intentions to solid action. I backed a Bill that was brought forward by my former party colleague, Eilidh Whiteford, to ensure the treaty was fully integrated into UK law. That received widespread cross-party support, yet here we are, four years on, and the Istanbul convention has still not been ratified. That suggests that the UK Government are not taking it seriously enough. Could the Minister reassure me that these crucial protections for women and girls will be put higher up the agenda, and that the Government will finally offer a timetable for ratifying the treaty?

Every year, we hear the appalling statistics about gender-based violence, which affects one in three women in their lifetime. Some of the national studies show figures as high as 70%. The United Nations reports that 137 women are killed by a family member every day. Although progress has been generally slow, this year it is moving at an exponential pace, but in the wrong direction. Pandemic restrictions have meant that women are being forced to lock down with abusers, at the same time as services to support survivors are disrupted. Calls to domestic abuse lines have increased fivefold in many countries. There is a silent pandemic of abuse, and it is not getting the attention it requires.

The merging of the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office sent the wrong signal about how much the Government prioritise humanitarian programmes that tackle gender-based violence in the poorest nations, but I would be delighted to be proven wrong on that. Certainly, at a time of global crisis, the budget should be ring-fenced, not cut. It was therefore particularly disappointing that yesterday the Chancellor announced a cut in the foreign aid budget. Although I understand that girls’ education will be protected in the remaining funds, that is only one element in the battle against violence against women and girls. I have grave concerns about the impact on women’s empowerment programmes, aid worker system changes, the women, peace and security agenda, and anti-female genital mutilation programmes, to mention just a few things.

Before the pandemic, violence against women and girls programmes were already persistently underfunded, as we have heard from other Members. They were given far too low a priority in aid budgets. The International Rescue Committee estimates that 14 million displaced or refugee women were subject to sexual violence in 2019, while less than 0.2% of all global humanitarian funding was allocated to addressing gender-based violence. That is shamefully inadequate, and I urge the FCDO to show leadership and dedicate a fixed or minimum percentage of its budget to fighting that crucial issue for global health, wellbeing, justice and economic development.

The UK has an opportunity to set a global long-term standard that other international donors could follow. As highlighted in this month’s African Child Policy Forum report, we are witnessing a global roll-back of women’s rights. The UK’s leadership on programmes to do with women, peace and security and sexual violence in conflict is more important than ever. That leadership extends to creating better strategies to ensure that those who are sent from the UK to provide support in crises do not include the perpetrators of abuse against some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Like most, I was absolutely appalled to read reports of aid providers’ sexual abuse and exploitation of sufferers of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That came after the previous scandals involving senior male staff from a range of organisations, including Oxfam and Save the Children. The momentum for change has clearly not been maintained, and the International Development Committee has had to launch its third piece of work on sexual exploitation and abuse in only two years. I urge the Government to step up efforts for meaningful reform.

Safeguarding measures are crucial, but with such imbalanced power dynamics, we also need better mechanisms within communities to ensure that the victims can come forward. The Government could use the full capability of their overseas network to help embed that cultural change, provide support services to survivors and victims, and help to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The roll-back of progress is not just a global issue; it is happening here, too, under the cover of covid-19. In my constituency, Women’s Aid reports a 60% rise in referrals, including a rise in demand for its services for high-risk victims, where there is a risk to life. Its refuges have been full throughout the crisis and it is urgently seeking more housing. The Scottish Government, in partnership with Scottish local government, are playing their part to assist. They have removed bureaucracy and set up dedicated funding for services to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Their world-leading Equally Safe strategy is part of their vision to eradicate and prevent violence against women and girls, and they published their three-year update just yesterday. They are also progressing key policy changes, such as the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. A taskforce on human rights leadership has been set up, and it will consider incorporating into Scots law the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

We are fighting against a rising tide of abuse, and a lot more needs to be done nationally and internationally to raise awareness, provide resources and ensure that we protect all women and girls against gender-based violence. We know that it is rooted in a culture of gender inequality, which needs to be tackled at its roots. At the moment, not a single country is on track to meet the sustainable development goal of achieving gender equality by 2030. Just 0.1% of the total aid from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is committed to women’s organisations.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the UN penholder on women and peace and security, the UK is in a rare position to be able to do more. The international community should treat gender-based violence with the same urgency and gravity as natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes. The UK has a unique opportunity to lead the way on that. I support the calls of the hon. Members for Totnes and for Putney for a summit to be held at the earliest opportunity so that these issues can be looked at in far more detail. I urge the Minister and the Government to grasp with both hands the opportunity that is in front of them to make a genuinely transformational change that improves the lives of so many women and girls around the globe.