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Development Programmes

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 4 December 2013

2. What steps she is taking to ensure that the interests of girls and women are central to the UK’s development programmes. (901419)

I have made girls and women a key priority for the Department. Investing in girls and women, giving them a voice, choice and control, has a transformative impact on poverty reduction and is critical to freer and fairer societies and economies. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who is currently taking through the House his private Member’s Bill on gender equality in international development.

The Secretary of State has touched on this point already, particularly in her response to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), but will she elaborate further on humanitarian cases and how women and girls in particular can be protected in future?

That was the subject of the “keep her safe” call to action event that I hosted just a few weeks ago. Pledges of more than £40 million were made to that event. The focus is on going beyond the obvious things we can do to create safe spaces for girls and women, such as making sure that when we deliver food aid we do not increase risk to women. Simple things include lockable toilets so that women are able to go out safely, lit areas and solar panels that also act as mobile phone chargers so that girls can stay in touch with their families. It is a very practical agenda, but unfortunately it is not sufficiently delivered when we respond to crises, and that is why I am highlighting it.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the International Development Committee recently visited Burma. I was very concerned about the lack of involvement of women in the peace process there. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that women are part of making and keeping the peace in Burma?

I discussed that subject with Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited the UK a few weeks ago. Clearly, she is an incredibly important woman who can be involved in that peace process. Beyond that, much of the work the Department has done has been to reduce some of the ethnic tensions in various parts of Burma. The role that women play in that is obviously critical.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on all the work they have done in this area? May I also pay tribute to Opposition Members of all parties who have given such enormous support to my private Member’s Bill, which will be debated in Committee on 11 December?

I am very happy to take that praise. It is an important Bill. It reflects the fact that no country can develop effectively when half of its population is excluded from that development. It is a matter not just of basic rights, but of ensuring that our Department and country have sustainable development approaches.

We have many cultural differences with some of the nations that are recipients of assistance. What pressure is the Secretary of State applying to them to ensure that females are not systematically disadvantaged, despite getting aid from this nation?

We can do a variety of things. First, we can pursue grass-roots programmes, as we do in many countries, that are aimed at improving women’s chance to get a job, to be educated through the girls education challenge, and to be able to have control over their sexual and reproductive health. We need to complement that with advocacy at domestic and national Government level, but also at international level, and that is one of the things on which I have worked alongside the Foreign Secretary in raising the issue of women’s rights.

In times of disaster, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. According to the non-governmental organisation World Vision, in Bangladesh, for example, 62% of marriages of under-18 girls between 2007 and 2011 took place in the 12 months after the disaster there. What is the Secretary of State doing to build that sort of protection into our UK development programmes and disaster planning?

That is an excellent question, and it is why we have decided to raise this issue more internationally. We need to start from the right basis to respond to crises more effectively. Protecting women and girls should not be an afterthought when a crisis hits, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; it absolutely should be one of the core priorities considered from day one. If we can do that, I believe we dramatically improve the chances of making sure that we protect girls and women over the course of a crisis as it evolves.