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Overseas Development Assistance: Gender-based Violence

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to use Overseas Development Assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to support the protection and safeguarding of girls and women from gender-based violence.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the surge in gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. DfID is reprioritising our programming and working with global partners to prevent violence. We must ensure that women and girls have access to the vital services they need, and we are urging all Governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women and girls a key part of their national response plans.

What measures are being put in place to ensure that DfID will maintain, and indeed increase, the quality and quantity of its excellent work to protect women and girls, against the background of this month’s forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility that the UK economy will contract by 12.8% this year, thus shrinking the money available in our 0.7% pot?

My Lords, we must of course recognise the challenges that are going to be faced by economies all around the world. We are considering carefully what that means for our 0.7% aid commitment, but we are proud that the UK is keeping that commitment; it is more important than ever. Given that we are in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, we do not yet know the exact implications, but we will ensure that we use all possible financial levers to support our response. As my noble friend says, we must maintain and indeed increase the quality and quantity of our work to protect women and girls.

My Lords, fighting sexual and gender-based violence remains the most chronically underfunded sector in the humanitarian appeals of the United Nations. What consideration has been given to allocating a specific minimum percentage of the DfID budget to fighting sexual and gender-based violence not only during emergencies but as part of the regular allocation of funds?

My Lords, DfID does not currently favour earmarking specific overseas development aid as that limits its flexibility to respond to unseen priorities, a case in point being our Covid-19 response. However, I agree with my noble friend that there is more the UK can do to prevent all forms of violence against women and girls. That is why we have made the largest single investment in preventing violence against women and girls of any bilateral donor, through our new What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Programme.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as well as providing services, sexual and reproductive health programmes are also important in empowering women to be more comfortable about their bodies and to resist violence? Will she therefore tell us how much DfID is allocating to sexual and reproductive health programmes for women?

I agree with the noble Baroness. Particularly in the face of Covid-19, with overwhelmed health systems trying to cope with the disease outbreak, sexual and reproductive health services will be even harder to access, putting even more lives in danger. We are working with our partners to support them to continue to reach populations, and to make sure that every woman and girl can continue to realise her right to choose.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment as the UK champion for She Decides. ODA is increasingly being spent in unusual ways. For instance, the FCO’s prosperity fund has investments to develop ideas from industry and the bond market. How can this displacement of ODA from front-line UK NGOs battling the funding challenges that Covid-19 has brought be justified?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her congratulations; I am delighted to become a She Decides champion. I agree that it is important that we fund NGOs on the front line delivering the response to Covid-19, and that is what we are determined to do.

My Lords, small organisations and those working at grass roots are able to deliver most help to victims of domestic violence. Given the rise of gender-based violence during this crisis, can UK aid be directed more to supporting small organisations giving such vital help to victims? Can our posts overseas help with identifying the best organisations in-country to support?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. In the UK we have many excellent small charities that deliver these vital services, including in respect of gender-based violence. DfID has a small charities challenge fund which was developed to ensure it can support these charities, and its posts on the ground are working to help identify them. A review process is ongoing. Applications that will address the impact of Covid-19 are being prioritised and a further round will be opened in the next few weeks.

My Lords, widows often face extreme forms of violence due to being older and widowed. They also face particular discrimination and lack access to various rights, including property rights. Overseas development assistance spending on addressing gender-based violence does not make specific reference to older women or widows. During this period of isolation to stop the spread of Covid-19, older women face increased risks of domestic and gender-based violence. There are 962 million older people living in low and middle-income countries. Those aged 60 and over account for more than 95% of the deaths in Europe from Covid-19. Will the Government make specific amounts of aid and help available to older women, and indeed to widows of all ages?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness says, older people will be disproportionately impacted, and sadly that includes widows. We are working with our humanitarian partners to ensure that the most vulnerable, including older women and widows, are reached and supported.

I want to pick up the theme of the secondary impact of Covid-19, particularly the lessons we may have learned from things such as Ebola. It is not just the increase in domestic violence but the isolation of women and girls and their access to education—all those things are big secondary impacts. One thing we are clear about is that a health-only response will not be sufficient. We need to engage and promote behavioural change and social change measures. That means supporting civic society and civil society. I congratulate the rapid response facility on its efforts, but access to that is a bit limited at the moment. Can the Minister tell us more about how we will reach and build civil society to ensure that women, and particularly women’s groups, can protect and advocate for themselves?

I agree with the noble Lord that we must address both the primary and secondary impacts. I am particularly concerned about education. Ensuring that vulnerable girls can continue to learn and return to school after this crisis is vital. I also agree with the noble Lord that we must do what we can to support civil society and NGOs. He referred to the rapid response facility. We are also reprioritising our programmes within countries and working with civil society and women’s rights organisations to deliver those programmes.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests declared in the register. Are organisations currently doing other programmes for ODA able to pivot their activities towards gender-based violence? In so pivoting, will they prejudice themselves when applying to continue the work they are currently doing?

The noble Lord is right to point out that we are working really closely with our partners on doing exactly that: pivoting to programmes relevant to Covid-19. Of course, other programmes will also continue, and we will work closely with partners to make sure that they can continue their vital work.

Baroness Blackstone. Baroness Blackstone? Baroness Uddin. No? In any event, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, so we will move on.