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Women’s Equality

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase women’s equality globally.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Nye, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, promoting gender equality remains a priority for the Government, including breaking down barriers to girls fulfilling their right to 12 years of quality education. Our leadership on gender equality is even more vital as we work globally to build back better and more inclusively after Covid-19. This year, we are putting gender equality at the heart of our G7 presidency, co-leading the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence, hosting the Global Partnership for Education and recognising the importance of gender to be effective in the fight against climate change.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, following the merger of DfID with the FCO, what responsibilities has the FCDO taken forward in standing up for women’s sexual and reproductive rights globally? He will know that in countries such as Nigeria and Brazil having an abortion can carry a heavy jail sentence. Closer to home, in Poland, recent rulings mean much suffering for thousands of women. How is the FCDO challenging such countries through diplomatic, economic and aid channels?

My Lords, when others on the world stage challenged the need for action on women’s sexual and reproductive health, the United Kingdom has been proud to defend comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights, including at the UN Security Council, covering issues such as family planning. These are fundamental to empowerment and the health of girls and women. For example, between 2019 and 2020 alone, UK aid helped over 25 million women and girls access and use modern methods of contraception.

My Lords, the Department for International Development had an impressive track record in promoting gender equality globally, thanks in part to its ground-breaking strategic vision for gender equality. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me if the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is committed to that strategic vision and, if not, how will it ensure that supporting women and girls is at the heart of what it does?

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the FCDO has fully committed to retain and build on the strategic vision, using all our diplomatic and development levers. The strategic vision continues to reflect and respond to the UK Government’s ambitions on issues of gender equality, and this will not change. The challenges of advancing girls’ education, sexual reproductive health and women’s political empowerment remain central to our planning.

My Lords, a TUC report on the disproportionate hardship of childcare, home-schooling and often unsociable working hours endured by women in this country during lockdown shows that we have far to go in ensuring fairness to women here. Looking further afield, does the Minister agree that for real progress on equality to be made there is now an urgent need to place negative attitudes to women embedded in religious texts into the very different context of today’s times?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. Those who seek to marginalise women using erroneous interpretations of religious texts or, indeed, other reasons are totally and utterly wrong. We should stand up against the exclusion of women anytime, anywhere.

Is the Minister aware that the Commission on the Status of Women’s conference will commence on 15 March with the themes of women’s full participation in decision-making in public life, the elimination of violence, achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls? What role are the Government playing in this important global conference and how are they working with the global community to achieve gender equality—goal 5 of the sustainable development goals?

My Lords, we are fully engaged in the multilateral sphere, including with the conference that the noble Baroness mentioned. Specifically through our G7 presidency, we have the three pillars of educating girls, empowering women and ending violence against women and girls, which will also ensure the focus of the G7 countries on this important agenda.

My Lords, there can scarcely be anything more important than ensuring that women and girls globally have access to family planning. The noble Lord has said that the UK is a “proud” champion of this. Does he recognise that this will ring hollow if later he has to go beyond saying that no decisions have been made on the budget and then implement swingeing cuts, as in aid to Yemen, as the Government balance the books on the backs of the poor, as Mark Lowcock put it?

My Lords, on the issue of the budget, we are genuinely at the moment going through a review, so I cannot make any commitment and it would not be appropriate to do so. However, as I have said, this issue remains an important priority and the legacy of our work in this area is clear.

My Lords, malnutrition disproportionately affects girls and, as a result of Covid-19, rates of malnutrition around the world are soaring. Not only does that prevent girls reaching their full potential in school and as adults but it can be fatal, and can often lead to childbirth complications. Can the Minister assure us that, despite the aid cuts, he will continue to prioritise nutrition and take urgent steps to address the global rise in malnutrition among women and girls?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that I very much share his view on the issue of nutrition, which he rightly articulated. While we invest in empowerment and education, it is important that all girls everywhere receive the care they need, as well as the food they need, to ensure that they can lead productive lives for themselves and their countries.

My Lords, the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening to turn back the clock on gender equality globally. Nowhere is this worse than in conflict countries. How can we ensure that more funds reach women at the grass roots who are trying to survive and raise their children in those shocking and dangerous situations?

My Lords, again, I agree with my noble friend. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to those who wish to suppress girls’ and women’s rights as a means to justify what they are doing. This is totally and utterly wrong, and UK development programming will continue to focus on important priorities such as supporting women’s meaningful participation, girls’ education and—as I said earlier, and as I am sure my noble friend will acknowledge and welcome—protecting girls and women from widespread gender-based violence.

The empowerment of women and gender equality requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policymaking. Those levels include reproductive health and economic, educational and political empowerment. Unfortunately, the UK economy has been hit badly by the Covid-19 pandemic and our foreign aid has been reduced accordingly. Can the Minister say if the G7 countries should create a gender equality fund that could be used in developing countries in south Asia, Africa and South America to educate and empower women? This would support SDG 5 and increase gender equality globally.

My Lords, I have noted the suggestion made by the noble Lord and we will put it to the Gender Equality Advisory Council, which will be headed within the G7 mechanism by my right honourable friend Liz Truss.

My Lords, is the Minister considering, as an important step towards equality between women and men, the United Kingdom following Uruguay, Namibia, Fiji and Argentina in ratifying International Labour Organization Convention No. 190, which was adopted by the ILO on 21 June 2019? The convention is directed against violence and harassment at work, particularly gender-based violence and harassment, and stresses the importance of a work culture based on mutual respect and the dignity of a human being.

How do the Government plan to use their time as president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to promote the global disarmament agenda, thereby helping nations to provide education for girls?

My Lords, we continue to champion the cause of education for girls both in conflict zones and around the world. That will continue to be a priority for the FCDO.

I understand that the Government are investing over £67 million in the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls programme. What plans do they have to follow the lead set by Australia in developing a national primary prevention framework to tackle the root causes of bias and discrimination against women and girls?

My Lords, we have a range of programmes and projects that cover issues of discrimination against women and girls from an early age, including discrimination against their entry into education and their progress into employment. Of course, in conflict-related zones specifically, our initiatives such as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative reflect the Government’s priorities in this agenda.