Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am not surprised by how difficult it is for the Department for International Development to decide what priorities it should consider when developing and implementing initiatives and projects which relate to women, girls and widows, especially when we hear about the abuse by aid workers that took place in Haiti. I am sure that Oxfam sent their aid workers to Haiti in good faith. However, instead they abused the vulnerable people and let Oxfam down badly. I do not have to explain the consequences of the Haiti incident. However, noble Lords will all be aware that it is not bad news only for Oxfam; it has also destroyed the confidence of the public and many donors who support NGOs such as Oxfam. Everybody knows that around 7,000 donors have already withdrawn support for Oxfam.
This has been a very difficult week for gender equality and women’s rights, especially as the media has brought out evidence of historical abuses that have been swept under the carpet for many years. It has saddened me to have to hear the chief executive of Oxfam, Mark Goldring, apologise for Oxfam’s negligence in the Haiti scandal. The Department for International Development supports and closely works with Oxfam and other charities. I am pleased to hear that Penny Mordaunt has stated that no charity is too big, or its work too complex, for DfID to withdraw its support. Showing that we mean business may be the only way to ensure that people in power do not abuse the powerless. This needs to be sorted out and proper checks and balances put in place to stop such occurrences in the future.
The vulnerability of women and girls comes in many shapes and forms but none are more vulnerable than widows, who suffer in silence as abuse after abuse is meted out to them. Here I declare an interest as the founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation, which helps widows and their children around the world. In 2015 the Loomba Foundation commissioned and published a piece of intensive, country-by-country research, the World Widows Report, which highlights the depths of despair to which many widows are driven, especially in developing countries.
The report revealed the shocking figures that there are 259 million widows and 585 million of their children across the world who suffer in silence. More than 100 million live in poverty, of whom 38 million live in extreme poverty and struggle to survive every single day. Many of these widows experience targeted murder, rape, prosecution, forced marriage, property theft, eviction, social isolation and physical, psychological and sexual abuse. The children of widows experience forced child marriage, illiteracy and loss of schooling, forced labour, human trafficking, homelessness and rape.
The ground-breaking report, the first of its kind, illustrated that discrimination against widows is a deep-rooted feature of gender discrimination all over the world, although its form and impacts differ from place to place and from culture to culture. Importantly, the report also demonstrates that four of the first five United Nations sustainable development goals are very unlikely to be achieved unless more is done to help widows and their children, making focusing on their issues even more of a priority. Let us not forget that the plight of widows is a humanitarian issue.
In 2016, the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in his message on International Widows Day—which, incidentally, was established by the Loomba Foundation in 2005 and adopted by the United Nations in 2010 as a UN-designated day of action to promote the fundamental freedoms and human rights of widows and their children around the world—highlighted the significance of the SDGs for widows, saying:
“The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda with its pledge to leave no one behind has a particular resonance for widows, who are among the most marginalized and isolated”.
DfID’s recent report to Parliament highlights,
“the cross-Government action that the UK has taken to improve gender equality, tackle sexual violence in conflict, and protect vulnerable people in conflict zones from sexual exploitation and abuse”,
in six countries especially, and yet, as the World Widows Report and the recent revelations about alleged cover-ups in Haiti show, much needs to be done to strengthen the work DfID is doing and to ensure that, first and foremost, its work and money are getting to those who need them the most, and that we are on target to achieve the SDGs by 2030. DfID’s report also recognises the huge challenges faced in countries such as Somalia, where, it says:
“The President stated at the start of his term that he was committed to tackling sexual violence and reiterated his zero tolerance approach to sexual violence … These commitments have not yet translated into actions”.
Nevertheless, I commend DfID for the difficult work that it does, sometimes in the hardest of circumstances.
Finally, I ask the Minister that DfID should consider supporting grass-roots women’s rights organisations and NGOs working on the ground, such as the Rotary India Literacy Mission, which, alongside the Loomba Foundation, is helping a pan-Indian initiative to provide vocational skills training to 30,000 widows in India—1,000 in each state in the country. As a UN-accredited NGO, the Loomba Foundation has also provided education to more than 10,000 children of poor widows and supported 60,000 of their family members. More recently, just last week, the Loomba Foundation also completed an empowerment project for more than 5,000 widows in the holy city of Varanasi that was launched by PM Modi two years ago.
This type of work is key to ensuring that women, girls and widows are not left behind and, alongside strong legislative reforms which are enacted—and indeed, acted upon—will ensure a better future for them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this important debate. Undeniably, women around the world suffer disproportionately in comparison to men from discrimination and what can be described only as tortures and traumas. Therefore, we must do all we can stop the suffering of women and girls and I see no more integral principle in helping to achieve this than ensuring that priority is given to them at both development and implementation level. This should apply to the delivery of any initiatives by any country and we should actively encourage other countries to do this, but certainly we should be doing this when it comes to our international development plans, over which we have full control.
That is why I am proud that the UK is leading by example in this area. We are doing this via our national action plan, which places women at the epicentre of DfID’s humanitarian, security and peace programmes. We are doing this via our support of the gender declaration, which aims to make sure that woman have equal access to the benefits of global trade, and supports women in business. We are doing this via our participation in the women, peace and security agenda, which formally recognises that men and women experience conflict differently, and that women have a vital role in conflict resolution, prevention and recovery. It also works to ensure that gender justice replaces gender inequality at all levels—including, importantly, at government and strategic levels.
Research has established that when women have a seat at the negotiating table, security and peace last longer. Greater peace and security leads to better business, which leads to more prosperity, which in turn leads to better education, healthcare and lifestyles. It also leads to better delivery of other development initiatives. Frankly, it leads to better and safer lives and a better and safer world. Making sure that these types of opportunities are available to women and girls is, however, only part of the problem. Making sure that women and girls can access these opportunities and thrive within them is quite another. We need to change the violent and oppressive social norms which control female populations. We need to educate more women and girls academically and on their rights over their own body and their right to access birth control, and we need to protect them from violence and abuse. I know that the Government are acutely aware of all these things and are working tirelessly on them.
We know that girls in the developing world who receive an education will marry later, will have fewer and healthier children and will be more likely to be economically productive. Can the Minister tell the House how plans are progressing to get more girls into schools and to educate them on their rights, promoting empowerment and confidence building among female students and teachers? Does he agree that teachers have an incredibly important role in changing the trajectory of female representation in all levels of society, by encouraging more girls to think about their possible life options and making sure they understand that they may have careers and that their lives are more than biological—more than simply marrying and having children? I believe that teachers have tremendous power and influence in this area.
Can the Minister tell the House how the Government are encouraging more females into teaching in developing countries? Can he also update the House on efforts to educate men and women, young and old, about the devastating effects of FGM, breast ironing and other so-called religious practices that are nothing short of abuse? Throughout the world, schools can be the most effective tools for eliminating a multitude of abuses being done to children and girls. What work is being done with schools to give staff the training to recognise the signs of abuse and partner them with organisations that can provide access to healthcare, family planning, counselling, legal assistance and safe spaces?
What improvements are being made in developing countries to make it clear that crimes such as FGM, child marriage, violence and slavery are illegal and that perpetrators will be brought to justice, so that a clear message is sent out that cycles of abuse and torture have a better chance of being disrupted and, in time, broken entirely? Finally, specifically on the Rohingya refugees and those currently seeking refuge in Bangladesh, how are the Government supporting women and girls whom we know are suffering from gender-specific violence, and how are we supporting women in this particular case to participate in the conflict’s resolution?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for facilitating this opportunity for us to address the issue of the priority given to women and girls by the Department for International Development. His record, particularly on the issue of support and recognition for widows, is exemplary, and his dogged determination to raise the issue of widows internationally has seen great results. It is a pleasure to follow him here today.
Like many other noble Lords, I find that my head is filled with images that I am unable to forget after meeting young women and others in difficult circumstances over the years. There was a young mother who I met in Liberia; she had been sold by her family to the “soldiers” who were active in the civil war there. She was subsequently raped and had a baby at the age of 15. She was being supported I think by Save the Children. On my visit the person with me asked her what was good about having a baby, in an attempt to lighten the conversation. The mother told us with blank eyes that there was nothing good about having the baby in her life, because of the circumstances.
I met a young woman in Iraq three years ago in a refugee camp just outside Erbil. She had come from Syria aged 11. She spoke confidently about how her family was surviving the trauma of leaving Syria and living in the refugee camp, and all the other things that had happened to them. Yet when she was asked by me about her school results in the refugee camp, she started crying because the one thing that gave her dignity and hope for the future—her education—was the thing that was suffering the most. I also met young women in the Philippines who lived in Muslim Mindanao, where the civil war is hopefully now coming towards an end, having raged since the 1960s. They were three times more likely to leave school before the end of primary schooling than children even in other poor parts of the Philippines because they lived in a conflict-affected area.
All over the world, women and girls suffer the most from conflict and underdevelopment. They suffer from FGM and child marriage, which is effectively the sexual abuse of minors by another name. They suffer from a lack of maternity care; from lacking access to those drugs that can help protect mothers and their children from HIV/AIDS; from not having access to primary schools; or from having to leave school before they get into higher education. Girls all over the world feel the rough end of underdevelopment, and specifically of conflict.
I have chosen to speak today in part because I was inspired by a visit last week to the Gambia, where I spent the February Recess. While I was there, I spent a day visiting three projects which reminded me that in the midst of all that misery, despair and violence, there is hope as well when the right circumstances are generated. I visited one project, Women’s Initiative Gambia, led by an inspirational director, Isatou Ceesay. She is not only encouraging young girls across the Gambia to have more confidence, skills and opportunities but, on the day I was there, had a workshop for women who spend their lives trying to get round the rough streets of the town in their second-hand wheelchairs. In this country, those wheelchairs would be discarded—but they discarded them for another purpose. They were having a workshop on profit and loss accounting, because the project was setting them up in business on their own, to give them an independent life and an income in the future. In order to make sure that those businesses were successful and that the women did not just come back to the project a few years later, they were getting taught accounting to make sure that their businesses made a profit and were able to take them forward. None of the women in the room had any formal education, but they were learning profit and loss accounting through symbols and pictures. It was inspirational to see the independence of the individual put at the heart of a development project. I thought that absolutely correct.
Further down the road in Siffoe I visited another project, Young People Without Borders, and was shown around by another Isatou, who is the vice-president of the local youth Parliament in that area. That initiative was started to encourage young people from the Gambia to stay there, rather than take the back way to the Mediterranean and go across it in a boat in which they might well sink and die before they get to Europe. They stay in the Gambia, feel some empowerment locally and make a contribution to their local community. The community garden was providing healthier food for local children and business opportunities for women in the area. Again, it had the right approach, with a two-year limit on the participation of local mothers in the project, on the basis that they would leave at the end of the two years and take the savings they had made from selling the food and vegetables with them. They would then use the money to establish a business and create a more independent life.
In relation to the sustainable development goals, those projects really brought home to me the fact that when we talk about women and girls, we tend to think of SDG 5 in relation to gender equality. But the importance of support for women and girls, particularly support that leads to independent living, real choices and opportunities, should run through every one of the sustainable development goals—in particular SDG 8 on sustainable development and economic empowerment, with real opportunities to make a living, look after your family and have some choices. It should also run through SDG 16 because, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has just said, it is women who bear the brunt of conflict but who make the best peacebuilders. That is why under SDG 16 we should have a constant focus on getting women to the negotiating table and involved in post-conflict reconstruction, and in ensuring that the violence women experience in conflicts around the world is minimised and, if possible, brought to an end.
I make a plea to the Government to have, as I have said before in your Lordships’ Chamber, a clearer strategy to ensure that the sustainable development goals run through all our development priorities in the Department for International Development and other departments. They should also ensure that the priority given to women and girls runs through every one of the SDGs.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate. I also pay tribute to his work, especially among women and widows.
The poet William Ross Wallace wrote in 1865 that those who rock the cradle rule the world. The contribution that women make to the well-being of their communities and beyond has been overlooked far too frequently, whether by history or by institutions. As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage, we recall the injustices that women in our own society have faced as we work to combat current injustices at home and, of course, overseas.
Much has been said in recent days—indeed we have already heard reference to it—about the ways in which the behaviour of aid workers and some charitable organisations has fallen short in respecting and valuing women, although let us not think that has been true of everybody. Many fine people over many decades have worked with charities and it is a great pity if they got caught up in some of the tragic stories that we have heard. Nevertheless, those things should not have happened, we need to address them and I am glad they are being addressed. As all major organisations, including my own, know very well, it is crucial that measures are in place to ensure that vulnerable people are protected and kept safe, and I hope that the lessons learned from this experience will spur us on as we work for the future and will not distract some of our best charities from the work they are doing.
Mindful of this, even as we are increasingly aware of our own wrongdoing and weaknesses, we must not stop using our influence and resources around the world to improve the lives of others, an essential ingredient of which is our work to empower women and girls. I know from my visits to various parts of the world that in many areas one of the most important grass-roots organisations delivering health and education is the Church. The Church, including the Mothers’ Union, has worked very closely with DfID programmes. For example, Girls’ Education in South Sudan is a programme funded by the department which focuses on improving the equality and quality of education in partnership with the education department of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. This includes practical work such as building separate toilets for girls, giving them dignity kits and setting up a girls’ dormitory to prevent them dropping out because of the burden of housework and cooking. The dormitory provides accommodation, all meals and a mentor from the Mothers’ Union to live with the students. I am most grateful that the department has funded this project, where community and church involvement has helped development work have a much greater impact.
Women and girls around the world, especially in conflict and post-conflict regions, have specific needs which the Department for International Development’s initiatives and projects should address. In these contexts, women, especially widows, carry the daily material, emotional and physical burdens of conflict while also often contributing to de-escalating violence and sowing the seeds of peace. Women on the Frontline, a priority programme of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reconciliation team, has found that convening safe spaces for women to share experiences and expertise has had huge benefits for communities. Leading this programme in South Sudan in December moved some women from utter despair about the future of their country to a renewed sense of the possibilities for society there. This hope and capacity to imagine a better future is crucial for post-conflict development, and I would be interested to know what priority the department plans to give to projects which create spaces for women to empower one another.
I would also be interested to know what the department is doing to support work which empowers women and girls across communities and ethnic boundaries. Women’s microfinance, credit and savings initiatives are important not only for essential economic development but where they cross ethnic tribal, and community boundaries, they make it harder for conflict to recur or flourish. What is the department doing to ensure that aid transcends, rather than deepens, divisions?
The aid that the UK provides to countries around the world makes an enormous difference. The peace and prosperity of our neighbours must remain a key priority for this and all subsequent Governments, and providing support for the specific needs of women and girls will be essential to achieve this goal.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this timely debate. It is timely for two reasons, first because International Women’s Day will soon be with us, and secondly because the events of recent days disclosing shocking revelations about the sexual exploitation of women and possibly girls by two of our most respected UK charities, Oxfam and Save the Children, have rocked the aid community. I thank noble Lords who have drawn attention to that. Women and girls have for some time been an important focus of humanitarian and development assistance, and yet the very men entrusted with the delivery of help and succour abused that trust and brought their organisations into disrepute. So, at the outset of my contribution to this debate I seek every assurance from the Minister that in cleaning the Augean stables, investigations into who knew what and when will be comprehensive—that means encompassing the Charity Commission and DfID—as well as being open and independent. That must be the minimum requirement if we are to retain the public’s trust, successfully defend the attacks on the 0.7% of GNI that is dedicated to international aid and ensure that the vast majority of aid workers can hold their heads high.
Nowhere on earth do women have as many opportunities as men, but for girls and women in the poorest countries that inequality is amplified many times over because in the battle for scarce resources women are at the back of the queue whether it be for education, economic empowerment, health outcomes or nutrition. If we are serious about improving conditions in developing countries, women’s economic empowerment is crucial because study after study shows that when women have money at their disposal the whole family benefits: the elderly, the young, the disabled and, I am sure, widows too. However, economic empowerment can come only with education. A UN Women report tells us that a 40-year study using data from 219 countries found that for every additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%. However, girls are more likely than boys to be completely excluded from education. Girls’ education is a key driver if we are to deliver many of the sustainable development goals, as emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale. Will the Minister give us an update on the progress of the second stage of DfID’s Girls’ Education Challenge fund, which aims to get more marginalised girls into education? Will he also give us an update about the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education? Will he explain why the UK reduced its contribution to that fund?
I now turn to older women and women with disabilities. The UK Government have committed to improving the disaggregation of data, initially by sex, age, disability and location, to establish which groups are the furthest behind. How is that work progressing? Have we removed the upper age cap on reporting violence against women as stated in the sustainable development goals, because research from the Fundamental Rights Agency shows that physical and sexual violence against women continues long after the age of 49? How will the Government ensure that the rights and needs of older women living with disabilities and ageing issues are taken into account in their upcoming disability summit in July? What steps are the Government taking to ensure the implementation of the sustainable devolvement goal commitment to leave no one behind fully takes into account older women and widows?
Like the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Hindhead, I commend DfID’s excellent work and leadership in its UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, I could not help but notice that the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund features large in peacekeeping programmes, prevention of and protection from violence against women and girls programmes, sexual exploitation and abuse programmes and much else besides. However, I am concerned that the CSSF and its programmes are nowhere to be found in the public domain. There is no website, yet I believe one was promised some time ago. If I am wrong about that then I stand to be corrected, but if I am not then when can we expect to be allowed access to this deployment of public money?
The crisis in the aid sector these last two weeks has shown how much reputational damage can be done unless there is complete disclosure of activities, so I urge the Minister to take this issue up with the Secretary of State as a matter of urgency. I would very much appreciate a letter from the Minister on the subject.
We will not end extreme poverty until we break down the deep-seated barriers, often cultural, that hold girls and women back. In particular, stigma against marginalised groups such as widows, the disabled, the elderly and those who have been victims of sexual violence or HIV/AIDS must be tackled. Does the Minister agree with me that to break the cycle of deeply ingrained intergenerational norms we need innovative and creative thinking to bring about fundamental change in the way that girls and boys, families and communities think, feel and act toward girls?
Is DfID making full use of appropriate popular culture, using engaging storylines that confront real-life issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education? Experience has shown that such an approach provides much-needed role models and inspiration to girls. It gives voice to their desire to stay in school, stay safe and healthy, have economic opportunity and participate fully in society.
My Lords, I also start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing today’s debate and pay tribute to his tireless commitment to these issues.
In the United Kingdom we have seen successive Governments of different political persuasions championing international women’s rights on issues including girls’ education, preventing sexual violence in conflict and family planning. However, as recent events have highlighted, the struggle for gender equality is far from over. In everyday life, countless women and girls experience violence and inequality and are denied the right to make decisions about their life and body—even more so during times of conflict or natural disaster. In recent months, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, mentioned, harrowing accounts have emerged of systematic and widespread sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine State in Myanmar. Countless women and girls have been raped and the perpetrators, acting with impunity, have walked free. As my noble friend Lord McConnell said, gender equality and the advance of women’s and girls’ rights manifestly make a substantial contribution to efforts to meet all the SDGs in tackling poverty reduction, improving health and education and securing peace and security.
Violence against women and girls is a horrific crime in itself, but also has wider ramifications for other aspects of women’s lives. Intimate partner violence, or the threat of it, can be used by men to control their partner’s access to work or money, and a lack of money can make it harder for a woman to leave a violent partner. Violence against women and girls can also prevent women accessing their sexual and reproductive health and rights; men can use violence and coercion to limit a woman’s access to contraception.
Women’s rights are under threat, from the Trump Administration’s “global gag rule” on reproductive rights to efforts to relax the laws on child marriage in Bangladesh. The UK Government have rightly prioritised women and girls in their international development and foreign policy. It was the UK leading the way that helped to secure SDG 5 to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls by 2030. The UK has also shown global leadership on issues such as preventing modern-day slavery and trafficking, of which women and girls make up 70% of reported victims.
As we have heard in this debate, last month the Government announced through the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security that it would be putting girls and women at the heart of its work to end conflict in nine countries including Iraq, Nigeria and South Sudan. As the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, put it:
“We know that when women and girls participate in political processes, conflict resolution and mediation their contribution helps to build a more sustainable peace”.
That is why our international development activities are so vital to all communities, particularly our communities in this country. Pushing for peacekeeping missions to include more women and supporting efforts to end sexual abuse by peacekeepers are also part of the plan. I hope the Minister will ensure that at the 5 March summit, to which we are inviting all NGOs, this issue is also addressed by them so that they can focus on changing culture as well as examining their policies and procedures, because that is the sort of change that will ensure that women are able to live their lives to the full.
In the plan the Minister championed girls’ education, which I know is a crucial part of DfID’s activities in transforming the lives of those caught up in conflict and promoting global stability. I know DfID is targeting the poorest countries to provide 12 years of education for girls. What work is being done to replicate any successful policies from those schemes to improve access specifically to technical and vocational education as a means of moving into employment for girls and women?
I pay tribute again to the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, in raising the plight of widows. I hope the Minister can explain what work his department is doing to look at rural women and older women and at what can be done to remove the specific barriers to training and employment that affect these groups and deny them the opportunity for economic activity.
As has been mentioned in this debate—I know the Minister himself is committed to this—women’s groups and activists, who are often the best at bringing about change, are fighting back against gender inequality. They have been successful in changing laws on child marriage and female genital mutilation, and challenging social norms in their communities. That is why Labour is committed to establishing a new social justice fund to get funding directly to civil society activists in developing countries, including women’s groups, who are fighting these problems on the front line. We must work with like-minded Governments but we also need to ensure that all aspects of civil society, including trade unions, church groups and women’s groups, are able to stand up and argue the case for full women’s emancipation.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing what has become an annual debate. He managed to put international widows on the agenda with the UN community by securing their own day. We recognise his contribution to achieving that and he is mirroring it in your Lordships’ House by putting this debate firmly on the agenda. We look forward to it and the issues that it raises.
It has been a wide-ranging debate and the noble Lord was right to begin, particularly at this time, by reminding us of the sexual exploitation and abuse allegations that have been made against some of our most important and respected charities. He summed it up perfectly when he talked about people in power abusing the powerless. That is exactly what has been going on, and that is what we need to ensure that we tackle.
My noble friend Lord Smith talked about the role that women can play in peace and security-building, the challenges of tackling practices such as FGM and the situation facing the Rohingya. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, humanised the debate by bringing in some difficult encounters that he had had with young women in countries such as Liberia, Iraq and the Philippines. I was also grateful for his account from the Gambia, because it offered some hope for the future.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reminded us of the important work which the church does in many such societies and gave the example of the Mothers’ Union. As we mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, he helpfully reminded us to remember with humility our journey towards gender equality in this country. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, drew our attention to women with disabilities and older women and the challenges which they face. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly stated that we cannot limit our conversation about gender equality to sustainable development goal 5: it is integral to all the goals, and a challenge to us as to what more could be done in technical and vocational education and social and cultural change.
Gender equality is a top development priority and as such a priority for the UK. Achieving gender equality and empowerment of all girls and women is the right thing to do and is in our national interest. It is fundamental to building prosperous economies and peaceful and stable societies, and to achieving the sustainable development goals.
In recent decades, the world has made significant progress towards gender equality. However, as my noble friend Lord Smith reminded us, girls and women are disproportionately affected by poverty. Globally, 63 million girls are out of school; one in three women is subject to physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime; women make up only 23% of representatives in national parliaments; and nearly half of the 245 million widows worldwide are living in poverty. Again, I pay tribute to the work of the Loomba Foundation in advancing the cause and caring for widows in our society and around the world.
UK gender equality is providing leadership which drives global commitments and results. I recognise that this did not originate in 2017, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said: the UK has been consistently advocating such measures back to the days of Clare Short and the formation of the Department for International Development. In 2016, we initiated the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which delivered unprecedented commitments from Governments, businesses and development institutions to give more women safer, more productive job opportunities. In 2017 we hosted a Family Planning Summit which secured global commitments to giving an additional 120 million women and girls access to modern contraception.
Since 2011, DfID’s work has been driven by our strategic vision for girls and women. Our work has been underpinned since 2014 by the UK’s International Development (Gender Equality) Act, which means that we mainstream the consideration of gender equality across all our programming. The results we have achieved through UK aid-funded programmes are making a difference.
DfID focuses on the areas which are the most critical for empowering the poorest women and girls: quality education and decent job prospects. Since 2011, UK aid has helped more than 5 million girls attend school and improved access to financial services for more than 36 million women in the poorest countries.
At the same time, we help tackle the barriers preventing women and girls achieving their potential. We know that women, particularly more vulnerable women such as widows, face more barriers than men to secure stable livelihoods because they are less likely to have education, training, property rights and access to the labour market. That is why, from 2015 to 2017, UK aid reached 9.8 million women with water, hygiene and sanitation programmes, enabling them to attend school or engage in economic activity where they once would have been prevented doing so by undertaking household chores such as collecting water.
The help we give women and girls to live free from all forms of violence and abuse so that they are safe in the home, at school and in the workplace is one reason why the recent allegations against those charities have had such a devastating impact on confidence—because preventing violence against women and girls has been so much at the core of what DfID and the UN agencies have been about. The fact that we should uncover these things happening in crisis situations is unforgivable.
I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, what we would do at the 5 March meeting which we will be hosting for NGOs and charities, and whether we would co-operate with the two inquiries now under way by the Charity Commission and by the International Development Select Committee. Of course the answer to that is absolutely. We will make our own internal inquiries as well, as I mentioned earlier this week.
We strive to help the most vulnerable and marginalised women and girls at risk of being left behind, including widows, but also women with disabilities and those living in conflict and crisis. We are investing in improving even further our ability to reach the most marginalised. In order to know who is at risk of being left behind and why, DfID is investing in data which can be disaggregated on the basis of sex, age, disability status and geography, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, urged us to do. This will be very helpful in shaping programmes for the future. We are working with partners, including the UN and the World Bank, to improve gender statistics more generally, and are producing world-leading research and evidence on how best to support the most marginalised women and girls as a global public good. Through DfID’s research and innovation programme, What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls, we have found that in South Sudan intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence experienced. Even during conflict, the most dangerous place for a woman can often be in her own home. That cannot be right; it must be the focus of our interventions.
UK world leadership on gender equality is a powerful feature of global Britain, with values at its core. UK public interest is at a high this year with celebrations of the centenary of many women’s suffrage here, to which the right reverend Prelate referred. In March, the Secretary of State will launch a new strategic vision for gender equality, and I will ensure that this debate is brought to the attention of the Secretary of State as we finalise the draft. This will set the agenda for stakeholders across the world, making sure that we all build on the gains that we have made and accelerate progress to make discrimination and inequality a thing of the past for all women and girls, leaving no one behind and paying particular attention to the most marginalised and vulnerable.
Let me turn to some of the specific questions I was asked. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about sexual and reproductive health. In 2015, the UK made a commitment under Every Woman, Every Child that, in humanitarian crisis situations, DfID calls for proposals that require the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls to be considered. That statement has already been made, and we stand very much by it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about data disaggregation and whether it included older people. I think that I have already mentioned that it does—and more needs to be done. She asked a very specific question about the CSSF. I do not have the answer to that with me at the moment, but I shall certainly write to her on that matter. She also asked about the upper age limit of 49. Again, that is one that has just escaped the officials, so we will include that in writing, too. The Girls’ Education Challenge is a programme that we are immensely proud of, in the effect that it has had in getting some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable girls into school—and keeping them there, because we know what a profound difference that makes to development. It is now in its transition phase, whereby we learn from what has happened and seek to improve on it in a future programme.
My noble friend Lord Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the Rohingya. The UK recognises the plight of Rohingya women and girls, and has provided counselling and psychological support that will reach over 10,000 women suffering from the trauma of their experiences, and over 2,000 gender-based violence survivors. My noble friend also asked about FGM, and of course we had an international day on FGM just a week or two ago. We are the largest donor regarding FGM, with a flagship regional programme of £35 million over five years and an additional £12 million commitment on Sudan.
I repeat our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate and thank noble Lords for their commitments. We shall ensure that this important work continues into the future.