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International Development: Gender Inequality

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 6 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In the light of International Women’s Day on 8 March, whether combating gender inequality is central to their strategy for assisting developing countries.

My Lords, the elimination of gender inequality is a key component of the Government’s international development policy. Reaching the millennium development goals requires sustained improvements in the poor economic, social and political situation of women. DfID has committed to increase the impact of development assistance on gender equality. We will work with our partners so that opportunities are fairer and outcomes are better for women and girls in developing countries.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that encouraging reply. Certainly DfID has had a strong track record in this area in the past. Can the noble Baroness assure me that current plans to reorganise DfID, cutting staff by potentially 25 per cent while managing a larger budget, will not jeopardise this? How will the Government ensure that there will continue to be that strong commitment within DfID? You need people to make sure that happens so that programmes, even when they are contracted out, will support women and girls in the way the noble Baroness has described.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know from the response given to her by my noble friend Lady Crawley on 25 February how important and essential gender equality is in every aspect of the work of DfID. To give it greater priority is in line with the Government White Paper of 2006. DfID has established a network of gender champions across the department and has invited all of our overseas staff to consider gender equality as a fundamental and essential part of the work they carry out. We anticipate that we will see no change as a result of staff changes and we expect to see an enhanced commitment to women and girls in all the work of DfID.

My Lords, DfID acknowledges the horrors of female genital mutilation in its recent booklet Gender Equality at the Heart of Development. What are the Government doing to counteract this horrific practice and to get women’s issues in developing countries into the mainstream media and not just hidden in the Guardian women’s section?

My Lords, the Guardian may take exception to the idea of its women’s section being hidden. However, I take what the noble Baroness is saying. We have done all that we can in our work on female health to raise the issues the noble Baroness has indicated. Not only is this an issue for young girls but it has a huge impact for those women who go on to have children. The mutilation they have suffered can create significant health risks for them. Raising awareness of this problem is part and parcel of all of the work that is being done through DfID’s programmes on health. With regard to the media, we have sought to raise an appropriate level of awareness of this issue. It is not always possible to get the media to pick it up but I hope noble Lords will see from today that we are certainly trying to do that.

My Lords, in view of the global credit crunch, can my noble friend reassure me that the well established micro credit schemes for women in the developing world will be protected? I am thinking particularly of organisations in the micro finance area such as SEWA in India, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the Small Enterprise Foundation in South Africa. They have all done a great deal not only to reduce gender inequality but also to improve family wealth and to drive economic development overall.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and reassure her that we support the substantial increases in micro finance. We are contributing to global funds that support micro financing projects within the Women’s World Banking network. I came across these in India many years ago and saw recently how effective they are able to be, particularly in supporting women’s ability to turn what are sometimes small cottage industries into businesses that will support families and whole villages in the future.

My Lords, the recent report of the Gender and Development Network says that by channelling 80 per cent of our aid through budgetary support and the remainder through multilateral institutions we are ensuring that, in some countries which are not signed up to the Beijing Declaration, no money gets down to the organisations which look after gender equality. For example, Womankind says that in Afghanistan no money is getting through to its three main partners. What specific programmes are we supporting to promote gender equality under the millennium development goals in those countries which have lagged behind?

My Lords, the programme directors at DfID are well aware of the issues that the noble Lord has raised and are seeking to find mechanisms by which we can address them. On the example to which the noble Lord referred, Womankind in Afghanistan, DfID is specifically supporting its five-year programme to support women’s rights and awareness organisations, leadership training for women, and support for non-governmental organisations that influence the Government’s gender institutions, policies and programmes. We are trying to find the correct mechanism in each country and the right organisations to build the opportunities for women. As I have indicated, this is about training and support for civil organisations where women can play their part.

My Lords, lack of information is one of the real difficulties for women living in far-flung villages. They have no information about what is going on in the world or what their rights are. The provision of cheap, wind-up radios could be terribly good for disseminating information to these women, who are in many cases dispossessed if, for instance, their husbands die. Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful if this could happen in future?

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that one issue is information being available to women. There are many different ways of making information available. The wind-up radio has been an innovation for certain parts of, for example, Africa. There is also work we can do by visiting far-flung parts of different countries. When I was in India last year looking at issues to do with forced marriages, we arranged for the British High Commission to go out into the Punjab to 300 different villages, to put up posters and to talk to young girls and women about these issues.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that gender inequality involves the problem of pay that is not equal between men and women. Not only in other countries but also here at home we have a backlog of legal cases, running into hundreds or more, which await a decision and the attainment of something more like equal pay for men and women. Are the Government encouraging all the organisations, trade unions and other agencies in this matter to move this problem of equal pay forward again after so many years?

My Lords, I trust my noble friend will wait for my closing speech at about half-past four, which will tackle some of these issues. The Question today was about international development, and I want to stick to that, though I take fully what my noble friend has said.