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Girls’ Access to Education

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023

2. What progress his Department has made in helping to ensure that girls around the world have access to 12 years of quality education. (904050)

Ensuring 12 years of quality education for all girls is a British Government priority. We run bilateral education programmes in 19 countries, and our girls’ education challenge programme is supporting 1.6 million girls to secure a quality education.

During its G7 presidency, the UK introduced two global targets for improving access to education for girls in low and middle-income countries by 2026. Can the Minister say what progress the Government are making in this area; when they expect the targets to be met; what co-ordinating role the UK is playing; and whether he will centre the voices of girls and young women, including those most impacted by inequality and discrimination, in the delivery of the targets?

The hon. Lady is entirely right; those two specific targets were a major priority for the UK G7 presidency in 2021. Prioritising foundational learning—reading, writing and counting well—is at the heart of that. We are on track to achieve both targets by the date agreed at the G7.

Since the fall of Kabul, some 850,000 girls have been prevented from attending school by the Taliban. Recently, pupils at St Matthew’s C of E Primary School in Stretford undertook a whole-school march in solidarity with the plight of Afghan girls denied an education. They have done all they can to raise awareness of this important issue. What more does the Minister believe his Government can do to raise awareness of this ongoing travesty? Crucially, will he agree to bring forward a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy that takes into account the ongoing crackdown on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan?

I congratulate the school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency on that public-spirited statement about the rights of women and the appalling violations that are taking place in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not a monolith in Afghanistan; there are parts of the country in which education is taking place at both a primary and a secondary level for girls. It is the job of the international community to try to persuade and argue with the Taliban Administration that what is happening in those areas should be extended across the whole country.

With 129 million girls out of school across the world, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the FCDO on putting girls’ education at the heart of the women and girls strategy that was announced last week? The International Parliamentary Network for Education brings together parliamentarians from over 60 countries to promote the importance of education. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Members of this House to sign up to the network so that we can continue to work with others to ensure that no children are left behind? Mr Speaker, will you join?

I am certain that if you sign up, Mr Speaker, most colleagues will follow your lead. My right hon. Friend has done a great job in this area herself. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK supported more than 8 million girls with getting into school, of whom 65% were living in fragile countries.

One of the biggest barriers to education worldwide is poor health. In 2021, more than 600,000 people worldwide died of malaria. Will the Minister please commit to renewing the UK Government’s commitment towards meeting the 2030 Commonwealth goal of ending malaria? Will he also provide maximum support to the Global Fund?

As my hon. Friend knows, we committed to the latest Global Fund replenishment a sum of £1,000 million, so we are right behind the aspirations that he has expressed. A child dies every minute from malaria, entirely needlessly. Dealing with that is a top priority for the Government.

By the middle of this century, Africa will be home to 1 billion children, yet in places such as northern Nigeria half of girls are out of school. Achieving universal girls’ education would end child marriage, halve infant mortality and drastically reduce early childbearing. Can the Minister update the House on what progress has been made towards our G7 presidency pledge to get 40 million more girls into school? Can he explain how that squares with the Government’s decision to cut the FCDO’s education, gender and equality budget in half last year?

We are looking at the budgets for the next financial year, and indeed the year after, and we will come to the House and set out what they are. However, the hon. Lady should be in no doubt that this is a top priority, as I explained to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). If we want to change the world, we can do so by educating girls. That is the first and foremost way of achieving it, and the Government are absolutely behind that agenda.

We all strongly support the education of girls worldwide. That is something that we should all be working on, but the UK must avoid the danger of reinventing the wheel. The EU already has 100 co-operation agreements on education, of which the UK was a leading part until recently. With the thaw in EU-UK relations, for which I commend the Government for fixing the Northern Ireland protocol difficulties, surely there is an opportunity for the UK to fold itself back into these frameworks, not reinvent the wheel, and get more girls into education.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we take a wholly unideological approach to educating girls and women. We go with what is most effective—with what works—and if the EU produces programmes that are good value for taxpayers’ money, we will of course look at them.