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Gender Equality

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2008

2. What steps his Department has taken to promote gender equality in access to education in developing countries. (202411)

The UK Government have committed £8.5 billion for education in developing countries over the 10 years to 2015. We support education plans, policies and programmes that ensure that girls as well as boys benefit in developing countries.

When we educate a girl, we also improve the life chances of a future family. In particular, there is a direct link between educating girls and reductions in maternal and infant mortality, but change is not happening fast enough. Will the Government therefore take vigorous steps to increase their efforts at every level, including with other Governments, to ensure that every girl has access to a classroom?

What my hon. Friend says is right. Educating girls is one of the best investments that a country can make to further its social and economic development and to improve health. We know that women who have been to school have fewer children, which reduces the risks to them of childbirth and makes it more likely that they will be able to access the care that they need. In addition, their children are healthier; for example, they are 50 per cent. more likely to be immunised. I can therefore confirm to my hon. Friend that although we are making very good progress in getting girls into school, we will be accelerating that work through the call to action and the United Nations-hosted meeting in September. Indeed, our own work through 10-year education plans is bearing fruit.

I welcome the Minister’s response on this important subject, but is it not also the case that girls who are educated for seven years or more are much more likely to be empowered to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS in their own lives and in their family? Therefore, if we are to tackle that terrible global disease, is not empowering young women by educating them one of our highest priorities? I commend what the Minister has already said and done, but will she go even further and do even more?

I welcome that commendation from the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for his recognition of the work that the Government and others have done in promoting education. Education has been described to me as a social vaccine against HIV and AIDS, and I concur. Girls who stay in school are much more likely to know key prevention techniques and to persuade their partners to use them, and are less likely to become HIV-positive. The figures speak for themselves. In Swaziland, two thirds of teenage girls in school are free from HIV, whereas two thirds of girls out of school have HIV. Such figures concentrate our minds.

Over the Easter recess, I met two teenage girls in Goma who are desperate to resume their education but cannot leave their camp for fear of being attacked or raped by rebel soldiers or the army. Will the Minister urge the Secretary of State in his forthcoming visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda to press both Governments to do all they can to uphold the recent peace accords, in order to bring peace to eastern Congo and to allow those girls to resume their education?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take steps in that regard. It is, indeed, the case that one of the reasons why girls do not go to school in the numbers that they should is that schools are not necessarily the safest places. Therefore, in addition to my hon. Friend’s points, I would emphasise the work that we are doing in respect of safer and accessible transport, the provision of separate toilets, teacher training, and work to reduce violence against women in their own homes.

I was lucky enough to visit a couple of DFID-funded projects in Nepal when I was there over the Easter recess to monitor the elections. People are working very hard to get more women into the education system, and into jobs and work. I was concerned by the incoming Maoist Government, who were saying that they did not want what they see as “new imperialism” from the west, in regard to both that area and the Gurkhas. Will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with the Maoists in Nepal about continuing and expanding these particular projects?

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to learn that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), will be visiting Nepal in the near future. I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s comments with the Foreign Secretary.