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Gender Equality: Developing Nations

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 5 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the education of girls and young women and gender equality in developing nations.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has prioritised girls’ education as one of the four pillars of our strategic vision for women and girls. Since 2010 the UK has supported more than 10 million girls and boys in primary and lower secondary schools. We are working to ensure that gender equality is central to the post-2015 development framework, with a dedicated gender goal, targets throughout the framework and data broken down by sex and age.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The education of girls and young women and their equality is linked in one way or another to the welfare of widows and how societies around the world treat them. I declare an interest as founder and chairman of the Loomba Foundation.

An estimated 245 million widows and 500 million children around the world suffer injustice in silence. More than 100 million widows live in poverty, struggling to survive, and 1.5 million widows’ children die before their fifth birthday.

Due to conflict, war, poverty, lack of adequate living standards, nutritious food, clean drinking water and healthcare, the number of widows is increasing in the developing world. How will the Minister ensure that the importance of the plight of widows is included in the framework of the UN millennium development goals for 2015-30?

My Lords, I commend my noble friend for his work in this extremely important area. DfID supports a range of projects to assist widows—for example in Bangladesh and Pakistan. We recognise how especially vulnerable widows can be. As my noble friend knows, we place great importance on gender equality and on the principle of leaving no one behind in the new framework which it is hoped will be agreed at the UN in September. This is clearly vital in seeking to eradicate extreme poverty.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, millions of marginalised girls are literally risking their lives to get a safe, high-quality education. In Pakistan, the schooling of girls has been outlawed by the Taliban. In Afghanistan, girls have been attacked in their classroom and a schoolgirls’ bus was bombed. In Congo, girls have been raped by soldiers on their way to school and, as we know, 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria were abducted by Boko Haram.

Will the Minister tell the House how DfID is supporting the efforts of UNESCO and UNICEF to focus more effectively on marginalised girls, in line with the aim that she just mentioned of leaving no one behind?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right about the risks girls often take in seeking an education. I hope that I can reassure her by saying that one of our focuses now is to try to ensure that the most vulnerable girls and boys are able to get into school safely, and not only to primary school but to progress on to secondary school. The very fact that they can get there is an indication that they have actually succeeded in primary school.

My Lords, I have recently returned from Sierra Leone where all the schools have been closed for almost nine months. This has had a devastating effect on the education of girls in particular, many of whom will never return to school now and among whom there are very disturbing reports of increased rates of sexual exploitation, early marriage and teenage pregnancy. Can the Minister assure me that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to support the outstanding efforts on the part of both UK government bodies and NGOs, which I was privileged to witness in that country, not only right until the end of the Ebola outbreak, which is far from finished, but also in the longer term for rebuilding education and health in that very needy country?

I thank the noble Baroness for her tribute to the work that we are doing in Sierra Leone, and I also pay tribute to that work, which has been outstanding. We are trying to get Ebola down to zero cases because that is crucial. We want to see the schools reopen, and at the moment we are focused on how to rebuild within Sierra Leone. However, she is quite right to talk about the special vulnerability of women and girls. We are seeking to protect them and ensure that the risks that she has talked about do not come to fruition.

My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on getting these 5 million girls educated. Andrew Mitchell was the first Secretary of State to focus on it, along with Justine Greening and the rest of the DfID team, and it has been so effective. What are the Government doing on early and forced marriage, one of the related topics here and which came up at the very successful Girl Summit that took place in London last year?

Again, I thank my noble friend for her tribute to the work that has been done within DfID. As she has said, last year we had the Girl Summit which focused on both FGM and early and forced marriage. These are clear abuses of girls’ rights. We have already invested significantly in both areas and I trust that that will continue in the future.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in the forthcoming negotiations on the SDGs in New York, the UK will resist attempts to weaken the draft standalone goal on gender equality? Does she share the view that it is vital that it should include strong language on women’s rights and be underpinned by progressive targets that tackle discriminatory social norms?

My Lords, the law is unequally applied in Bahrain between Sunni women and Shia women in areas such as inheritance, divorce, child custody and domestic disputes. What are the Government doing to address these issues with the Bahraini Government, and if they have had any discussions, what are the timescales for addressing these terrible injustices and inequalities?

There is inequality for women everywhere. The Foreign Office, as part of its work particularly on International Women’s Day, is engaging with those countries where these problems are particularly acute. In the case of Bahrain, the ambassador is holding a round table with a number of Bahraini women from all walks of life to discuss these issues.