International Development and Gender-based Violence

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:49 pm on 26th November 2020.

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Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (International Development) 3:49 pm, 26th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson and Anthony Mangnall for securing this important debate on the UK’s development contribution to tackling gender-based violence across the world. As colleagues have pointed out, yesterday marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 days of activism, amplifying the call for global action on eliminating gender-based violence by 2030, which is a campaign that we firmly support.

There have been many passionate and important contributions to the debate, but I want first to praise my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi, who has been working hard on this issue throughout the coronavirus crisis but could not be present today. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney made a powerful contribution by sharing her experiences of visiting victims of violence in Somalia, and it is important that those women’s voices are heard in these types of debates. My hon. Friend Naz Shah made a really passionate speech on the impact of gender-based violence on women and girls in occupied Kashmir—that violence is used as an act of war.

Gender-based violence is a moral emergency with devastating impacts. One in three women and girls are affected, and will continue to be affected, throughout their lifetime. Violence and abuse shape and define lives, livelihoods and relationships. It strips a person of their freedoms, and not only in that moment, but in the decisions that they go on to make throughout the rest of their life.

Only this morning I was in a meeting with women from the Syrian British Council. They told me of their horrific experiences and explained how rape and sexual violence is used as a form of torture in Syria. From domestic abuse to sexual assault, female genital mutilation, early motherhood and forced marriages, violence against women and girls includes psychological, emotional and physical abuse. Women experience violence at home, in the street, at school and in the workplace, and during times of both peace and conflict or crisis. It happens online and offline.

The subordination of women by men is a means of control and power, and it is often executed through acts of violence. It is an attack on human rights and dignity, and a threat to our rights in one household, wherever in the world it may be, is a threat to our rights everywhere. Violence against women and girls is also a silent killer. Domestic violence is one of the most common causes of gender-related deaths of women around the world, which should both alarm us and press us into sustaining and furthering action and our commitment to rooting it out.

The UN reports that 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year alone, although less than 40% of those who have experienced violence actually report it. That should shame us all. It is a major obstacle to building the fair, just, equitable and sustainable future that we all want to achieve and pass on to the next generation—our daughters and granddaughters. Despite the UK being renowned in recent years for our leadership on tackling gender-based violence in the developing world and promoting girls’ education and women’s equality, we are far from reaching the finishing line.

When scrutinising the use of UK aid, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact reported that DFID had made a significant contribution to the elimination of violence against women and girls prior to its merger with the Foreign Office. We should rightly be proud of that, but we learned yesterday that the Government have cut the aid budget. It is a short-sighted and reckless cut that not only undermines the UK’s efforts, but risks leaving exposed women and girls in the developing world who depend on our assistance.

Diluting funding will cut away vital safe spaces, education and support for survivors of sexual violence, as well as our ability to tackle its many drivers, such as extreme poverty, food scarcity and the climate emergency, which aggravate the violence to which many women and girls are subjected. We know that the climate emergency disproportionately impacts women and their health. In fact, 68% of women face much higher health risks from the impact of climate change than men.

Not only does the cut break the Minister’s own manifesto pledge, to which he publicly committed in a recent written answer, but the 0.7 % commitment is enshrined in law. Baroness Sugg, the former Minister for the Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development, and the first special envoy for girls’ education, who was responsible for driving most this work, as the Minister will no doubt recall, resigned yesterday following the cut to the aid budget, which she said will

“diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right”.

I agree.

We must not forget that the cut represents a third of the budget. No other Department has seen such stringent reductions in spending power. Does that mean that we will write off a third of the girls in the developing world who rely on our educational programming? The International Rescue Committee reported 14 million refugee women and girl survivors of rape and sexual violence in 2019. Will the Minister tell us whether a third of them no longer need our help? At this time of maximum vulnerability, when the scale of need has never been so great, we must not turn our backs on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and retreat from the global stage.

Even before covid, gender-based violence had reached pandemic proportions. The introduction of national lockdowns at home and across the developing world, combined with additional economic and emotional stresses, saw violence and abuse rise fourfold. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that for every month of lockdown, there are 15 million extra cases of domestic violence across the world. School closures and economic constraints leave women and girls poorer, out of school and jobs, and more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, forced marriage and harassment. Worse still, that abuse is locked firmly behind closed doors. UN reports show that domestic violence has increased as survivors have found it more difficult to access support. This is a shadow pandemic. The covid crisis must not be used as a reason to abandon our promise to be a strong and dependable partner through the tough times as well as through the good.

In many cases, our aid is the first and last hope of improving women and girls’ lives. It matters to people such as Alia and her daughter Amira that we keep our promise. They both fled Alia’s abusive husband, who wanted to perform genital mutilation on Amira, his 11-year-old daughter. He terrorised and threatened them with their lives, but they showed bravery and courage to escape Sudan, enduring hardships and insecurity on the road, and found sanctuary—or so they thought—in Libya. There, however, they became even more vulnerable to violence. Alia describes the harrowing tale of a Libyan man trying to kidnap her daughter from a camp that they had temporarily called home, so that he could force her into marriage. The harassment and exploitation did not stop following them, all because they were female and dared to stand up for their rights to flee an abuser who they had thought they could trust, love and depend on.

It is thanks to a UK-funded project that they have both received what they needed: refuge, support and counselling. That programme will last until 2023, apparently. I asked the Government in September whether they would protect the funding from cuts. The Minister promised that it would be maintained. Can he keep that promise, following yesterday’s announcement?

Have the Government undertaken an assessment of exactly what the cut to the 0.7% commitment will mean? If not, why not? Why are we still waiting for the Government’s analysis of the £3 billion cuts from August? Can the Government provide clarity and be honest about what they are going to cut, allowing civil society and the wider sector to plan what interventions they can make, rather than making a chaotic withdrawal of funding? Will the Minister also confirm that when he brings back the legislation it will include a sunset clause, to determine when the 0.7% commitment will return?

I endorse the requests from the hon. Member for Totnes and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney about the global summit on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, which was meant to happen last year, and will not happen next year. Will the Government commit to bringing it forward and hosting it? Those are critical issues, but also this is a moment for self-reflection at home. Gender-based violence happens across the world and it can impact those closest to us. Let us show leadership and demonstrate that we can prioritise that essential issue.