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Gender-based Violence

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their plans (1) to participate in, and (2) to promote, the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign between 25 November and 10 December.

My Lords, 16 Days of Activism is more important than ever this year, as during the Covid-19 crisis we have seen a disturbing increase in gender-based violence. The Government have a broad range of activities and plans to participate in and promote 16 Days. Among other events, I shall be meeting girl-led and women’s rights organisations to discuss their priorities for tackling gender-based violence, and colleagues across the FCDO’s network are also planning activities to raise ambition and galvanise action.

My Lords, according to the UN, Covid-19 has unmasked a shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls. What are the Government doing to prioritise the rights of women and girls, in particular across the FCDO, by mainstreaming DfID’s valuable work, the Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, including through diplomatic missions and humanitarian work?

My Lords, there is indeed a shadow pandemic of violence caused by the health pandemic of Covid-19, and ensuring that we are tackling this is a key priority as part of our Covid-19 response. My noble friend highlights the Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, which was DfID’s former guiding document on gender equality. In the FCDO we continue to be committed to this vision, but we will refresh it and reflect the merger as we develop new approaches. The challenges of tackling gender-based violence and, indeed, promoting gender equality are more important now than when we published the strategy in 2018.

I note my interest, as declared in the register. Does the Minister agree with me that, in the same way that casual racism and microaggressions can lead to the denial of rights to black communities and, ultimately, become institutional, casual sexism, if left unaddressed, can lead to violence against women? Does she further agree with me that the work done by organisations such as UK Feminista and the National Education Union to ensure that sexism is challenged in our classrooms and staff rooms, should be recognised and promulgated across our education system?

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important that we challenge sexism wherever we see it. We have invested heavily in understanding what works to prevent gender-based violence. One of those things is to ensure that we work with men and boys at all ages to ensure that we address the root causes of gender-based violence. I would absolutely encourage this discussion to be had in schools and with school-age children.

My Lords, there have been recent protests in Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa against gender-based violence. As DfID cuts its spending, are we maintaining the same level of support for researchers and civil society organisations in Africa that seek to combat gender-based violence?

My Lords, this year, as the noble Baroness said, we have had to reduce our spending due to the contraction in the economy and the impact that that has had on the 0.7%. However, we are absolutely determined to continue to support the important work of civil society and women’s rights organisations to help to tackle the scourge of gender-based violence.

My Lords, one of the best ways for young women to avoid the “most vulnerable forms of informal work”—this year’s 16 Days focus—is through education. What are the Government doing through their education programmes to help safeguard young girls in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa, where very small numbers of girls remain in school due to coronavirus, and harms such as FGM are increasing?

My Lords, I fully agree with my noble friend on the vital importance of education; it is one of the most transformational investments we can make, and educated girls are less at risk of violence. We have, as my noble friend says, seen schools close down around the world. We are pivoting our bilateral programmes and working to ensure that girls can return to school as soon as possible. My noble friend also mentioned FGM. The Government are proud to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM; sadly, we have seen a greater prevalence of that since the pandemic, but we will continue to support the communities that are working to end FGM.

My Lords, Resolution 1325 has just marked its 20th anniversary. If more women were involved in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction, there might be an end to the disgraceful levels of impunity for those responsible for gender- based violence. What practical steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to promote more effective compliance with Resolution 1325 and bring an end to the culture of impunity?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness highlights, when women participate meaningfully in peace processes, we see agreements that are less likely to fail and more likely to last, and it is of course important that we continue to support women’s involvement here. We held many events to mark the anniversary of 1325. The noble Baroness asked about practical steps. In response to the global rise in reprisals against women peace builders, we have funded the International Civil Society Action Network to help develop a protection framework for women peace builders.

My Lords, earlier this year I asked a Written Question on how the Government were best utilising their role as co-lead of the Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence to highlight older women’s experience of gender-based violence. Age International had previously called on the Government to better collect data about violence against older women in low and middle-income countries. What steps have the Government taken to improve such reporting?

I agree with the noble Lord that we must use the fact that we are chairing the Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence to make progress on this issue. I also agree that, in order to ensure that we are properly reflecting the needs of older women, we must invest more in data, and that is what we are doing: we have invested £6 million to support the UN women-led flagship programme initiative on gendered data, Making Every Woman and Girl Count, and we must ensure that we understand what is happening so that we can properly address it.

My Lords, one of the tragic consequences of Covid-19 is the massively increased incidence of gender-based violence in developing countries—and indeed, everywhere in the world. Surveys by Plan International show that adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to increased sexual exploitation and violence, for want of basic items such as food and sanitary products. Will the Minister put these particularly vulnerable girls at the heart of the FCDO’s action to tackle gender-based violence?

I agree that we must have a focus on adolescent girls who, sadly, are at risk of exploitation and other forms of violence. We will do so as part of our co-chairing of the Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence and we are also working hard to ensure that we are putting them at the centre of our response to Covid-19. We are funding UNFPA in order to make sure that it is addressing the supply shortages we have seen and we are pivoting our existing programmes to make sure that women and girls can continue to access support during the lockdowns we are seeing.

As has already been noted, if we are serious about eliminating gender violence worldwide, we have to address the root causes. What plans do the Government have to follow Australia’s lead and develop a national primary prevention framework to change the attitudes, behaviours and structures that underpin violence against women and girls?

I am afraid that I will have to get back to the right reverend Prelate in writing on that issue, as I will need to follow it up with the relevant department, but I will ensure that I provide her with a full answer.

My Lords, I have been able to send the Minister details of a case involving a young girl called Arzoo Raja, 13 years of age, whose parents I spoke to at some length last week. She was abducted, forcibly converted and forcibly married in Pakistan, in a case similar to that of Leah Sharibu in Nigeria. What are the Government able to do to build up legal capacity in such countries, so that these cases can be challenged in the courts, and what are we doing to promote the Declaration of Humanity, in which the department has been involved?

My Lords, I am afraid that I have not seen the case the noble Lord refers to, but I will ensure that I look into the detail of it. Of course, it is important that we support freedom of religion and belief in all countries around the world, and we will ensure that we continue to do so.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as declared in the register. Recently, the mass graves of women who were too old to be taken to be sex slaves for Daesh—so-called Islamic State—in Iraq were dug up as part of the evidence gathering to ensure more prosecutions of former fighters and their allies in Iraq. The Yazidi women and girls deserve justice. Will the UK Government continue to press the Iraqi Government to ensure not just that those former fighters and their allies are prosecuted for their terrorism offences but that the victims of their sexual and gender-based violence have their day in court and they are also prosecuted for the violence they inflicted on these women and girls?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we must do all we can to ensure that these desperate victims see justice. We are firmly committed to protecting members of the religious minorities in Iraq and providing assistance to them, and also to galvanising international efforts to ensure that Daesh members are brought to justice. That included leadership in ensuring that the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2379 on Daesh accountability. We have established an investigative team to help collect, preserve and store evidence of Daesh’s crimes, beginning in Iraq, so that we can do everything we can to ensure that these women see justice.