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Gender Equality

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the White Paper International Development in a contested world published in November 2023 (CP 975), what steps they are taking to achieve gender equality and the autonomy of all women and girls by 2030.

My Lords, our White Paper sets the course for transformative change, including countering efforts to roll back women’s and girls’ rights. It builds on our new International Women and Girls Strategy, which commits to educating girls, empowering women and girls and ending gender-based violence. Evidence shows that these are the areas of greatest need. To deliver our ambition, we will ensure that at least 80% of FCDO’s bilateral ODA spend has a focus on gender equality by 2030.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to work with new partners to counteract the rollback that certainly has happened globally on women’s and children’s rights. Can my noble friend inform the House who the new partners are, and what the proven solutions referred to in the White Paper are? Will they help, for example, women and girls most at risk in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s inhumane policies mean that women and children there have no right to education, work and freedom of movement?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Throughout the White Paper, a theme of trying to focus our development support on women’s and girls’ projects is justified by the fact that if you are doing the right thing for women and girls, you tend to be doing the right thing across the development piece. She is right that what is happening in Afghanistan is appalling. We have repeatedly condemned the Taliban’s decision to restrict the rights of women and girls, including through UN Security Council and Human Rights Council resolutions and public statements. The UK is committed to ensuring the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, including the continued participation of female aid workers and full access of women and girls to humanitarian services.

My Lords, unsustainably high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa—for example up to eight births per woman in Niger—lead to poverty, desertification, conflict and emigration and are surely unsustainable. I welcome the Government’s reply so far and ask the Minister to continue to ensure that the status of women is high in our priorities and that therefore, over time, this will lead to an easing of the pressures on population, particularly if we insist that women are educated for longer.

The noble Lord is absolutely right and there are some stark statistics here. But the advantage from the global perspective is that every £1 spent on contraceptive services beyond the current level would save £3 on the cost of maternal, newborn and abortion care by reducing unintended pregnancies. Over 800 women or girls die every day due to pregnancy or childbirth complications and at least 200 million women and girls alive today, living in 31 countries, have undergone female genital mutilation. These are stark statistics and underpin the determination to address this area in our bilateral aid.

My Lords, the reality is that in many areas, the Taliban’s policies are deeply antithetical to women. However, there are also persistent efforts on the part of Afghans themselves, with support from external NGOs, to evade some of the most extreme policies. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the plight of Afghan women and girls, but can he confirm both political and financial support for the cluster education schemes that are now spreading rapidly in Afghanistan?

The noble Baroness raises an area of human courage that is almost impossible to imagine—people are defying the repulsive acts of this regime by providing education in sometimes very dangerous situations. We will look at anything that helps those groups of people. Of course, she understands the difficulties we face: we cannot take action other than multilaterally and through UN resolutions, but if we can find a way of supporting those groups, we certainly will.

My Lords, today is the International Day of Education and I agree with the Minister that education is critical to securing equality by the target date of 2030. Does he agree that it is concerning that access to education for girls, and for disabled children in particular, is getting worse? UNICEF has set an international benchmark for donor countries of 15% of their ODA being allocated to education. The UK had been at 5%; it has now fallen to 3%, putting us 22nd among donor countries. Will the Government look again at this to ensure that we are moving up to the benchmark rather than down from it?

Many of these areas will be taken into such programmes by our drive to achieve the 80% figure by 2030. A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live beyond the age of five —that is an extraordinary statistic—and girls living in conflict area states are almost 2.5 times more likely to be out of primary school and 90% more likely to miss secondary schooling, compared to those who live in more stable countries. We have to make sure that we are taking action now that means that future generations in these countries will have more of a chance. We know that that chance will be improved to a massive degree by education.

My Lords, one of the most important ways to ensure that we move to equality internationally is to enable more females to become involved in public life. Will the Minister outline how we in the UK can use soft power, particularly in places such as west Africa, to ensure that more females are coming into public life, particularly peacemaking, because that is really important.

I am throwing statistics around today, but it is interesting to see that peace agreements are 35% more likely to last if women are involved in the process. We are doing a great deal in this area. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s programme, sponsored by the FCDO, helped to embed gender analysis throughout all aspects of parliamentary business, support women’s political leadership and end violence against women in politics. We are giving substantial sums to a variety of organisations to ensure that we are supporting women in public life and that their contribution can feed through to a lasting peace in areas where there is instability, providing a more stable community around the world.

My Lords, I return to a subject that I have raised on numerous occasions, including with the Minister: malnutrition and nutrition. He mentioned childbirth complications, and it is clear that girls and women are disproportionately impacted by malnutrition, which affects future generations and impacts on a lot of the SDGs. This Government committed at the last Nutrition for Growth summit to follow the OECD nutrition policy marker so that we can assess the impact of our interventions, particularly on women and girls. When will we hear that that has been implemented, and see how much we are spending on nutrition-sensitive policies?

We are determined that there should be transparency throughout the drive towards hitting the target of 80% of our programmes being focused on such areas. That is why we are working with the OECD through its Development Assistance Committee gender equality markers, which rate the bilateral programmes as significant or principal, so that this House or anyone else can identify the value of these programmes and where they are going. The nutrition summit at the end of last year was an enormous success in bringing together a great many countries, organisations, faith-based bodies and civil society to make sure that nutrition issues are written into our development aid programmes.

My Lords, it is not only women but men, is it not, who need to be educated on and helped with contraception? When I dealt with these issues a few years ago, I talked to a woman who was under 30, who had nine children. I told her about the importance everyone attaches to contraception, but she said with tears in her eyes that her husband would not let her use it. In many parts of the world, the men need educating on the importance of contraception quite as much as the women.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, and when we talk about the focus of our aid being on trying to increase the amount for women and girls, it is vital that we address that fundamental, often cultural difficulty. I take the point she has made. It is incumbent on us to make sure, working with our partners, that the large amounts of funds that flow to medical bodies such as Gavi are focused on tackling that fundamental part of the human relationship that causes so much difficulty.