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Girls’ Education: Covid-19

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2021

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the covid-19 pandemic on the Government’s policy to ensure that girls receive 12 years of quality education. (912756)

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that every girl receives 12 years of quality education. (912759)

Over the past five years, UK aid has helped 8 million girls get a decent education, and, as the House knows, our global ambition is to ensure that 40 million girls have 12 years of quality education by 2026.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”, which serves as a reminder to us all to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality where we see them. According to UNICEF, only 66% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, falling to only 25% by upper secondary education. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that he will not only continue working with his international counterparts to ensure that girls do not fall further behind as a result of the pandemic, but that he will continue his vital work to break down the very real barriers to girls’ education?

I thank my hon. Friend, and reassure her that not only do we have a target of 40 million girls getting 12 years of education, but we want 20 million girls to become literate by the age of 10. With Kenya, we will be co-hosting a major summit in July this year to progress those goals. In January I was in Addis Ababa and had the chance to visit the Yeka Misrak Chora School, which showed me at first hand the incredible difference our aid budget makes.

I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said regarding the UK’s commitment to ensuring an education for girls. There is no doubt that the UK has world leadership on this issue, as we do on modern slavery and preventing gender-based violence, and of course it was the UK that worked to help stop Ebola becoming a global pandemic. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm his commitment not just to this area, but to maintaining overseas development spending on these very important issues?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of this issue. As we go through the difficult financial situation that we face, we have been very clear that girls’ education is a top priority to safeguard. On top of the money that we are putting in and the convening power that we are exercising with the joint summit we are hosting with Kenya, the Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) as the special envoy on girls’ education.

I applaud the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for making educating girls a foreign policy priority. As host of the G7, we have a critical opportunity to encourage others to do the same. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how much ODA spending he will commit to girls’ education this year to make sure that our manifesto commitment to ensuring that every girl gets 12 years of quality education has the funding that it needs?

I reassure my right hon. Friend, first of all, that the money is being safeguarded; of course, it is published in the normal way, through the formal channels, in the autumn. Through the appointment of the Prime Minister’s special envoy, the convening power that I have described and, as she quite rightly says, our presidency of the G7, we are making sure that this is at the very top of the international agenda.

The British people have a proud history of stepping up and supporting those in need, but the actions of this Government yesterday betrayed hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children, as the Foreign Secretary chose to leave them to starve. In November, he told the House that humanitarian crises were one of his priorities, yet he has cut funding to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world by 60%. Clearly, the Foreign Secretary’s commitments are worthless. Does he agree that his Government’s actions have shown our allies and our detractors that his word cannot be trusted?

I thank the hon. Lady, although the obvious point to make is that the last Labour Government never hit 0.7% and only hit 0.5% twice. In relation to Yemen, over the last five years, including for 2021, we have been between the third and the fifth highest donors. We will keep up that effort. We have provided more than £1 billion of funding to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen since the conflict began, and of course we fully support the efforts of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, to find peace there.

The Foreign Secretary is leading a hasty retreat from the world stage while others are stepping forward. We are the only G7 nation to cut aid. The United States has added billions to its development budget, and France has committed to increasing its support for the world’s poorest by reaching 0.7% by 2025. The Government cannot keep pretending that they can make cuts without risking millions of lives, so will the Foreign Secretary immediately publish all the details of the cuts made in 2020 and those projected for 2021? Will he also explain to the House what his priorities are? Clearly, preventing hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from going hungry and starving to death is not one of them.

Of course, the allocations are published formally in the normal way, as I have just described, in the autumn. In fact, the new UK aid pledge of £87 million, which the hon. Lady so blithely dismisses, will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We are doing our bit. Of course these are very difficult financial circumstances. We remain, as we have over the last five years, between the third and the fifth highest donor into Yemen.

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to women’s and girls’ education. Does he agree, however, that female genital mutilation, which sadly affects so many girls across the world, is one of the great hindrances to the education of girls in many parts of the world, including, sadly, Nigeria? I am sure he joins me in welcoming the release of the girls from Zamfara state only the other day, but will he raise with the Nigerian Government, when he next has the opportunity to do so, the likelihood that some 14 million will go through female genital mutilation between now and 2030? This is a crime, it is a sin, and it is against all justice.

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee. I join him in welcoming the release of the young girls who were kidnapped, which I am sure came as a huge relief to the whole House. He raises, in a passionate way, the issue of FGM. We have been leaders in calling that out, and also in trying to work with Governments around the world, in particular in Africa, to try to bring an end to this appalling practice. We will continue to do so, in Nigeria and elsewhere.