Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support adolescent girls in fragile and conflict-affected countries.
My Lords, as this debate now constitutes the last business, the time allocated to Back-Benchers can be extended to six minutes, if any Back-Bencher so desires.
My Lords, adolescence is a critical stage of life, but for girls in fragile and conflict-affected countries the combination of adolescence and conflict exposes them to maximum danger, and what happens to them in adolescence will have a profound effect on them for the rest of their lives. The lack of recognition of the critical significance of this period of their lives means that the needs of adolescent girls are falling through the gaps of the global humanitarian response. Before I progress, I declare an interest as co-chair of the APPG on Women, Peace and Security, as a member of the steering board of the Initiative to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict and I have an association with a number of organisations specialising in women’s issues, as set out in the register of interests.
Across the world more than 200 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection and there are currently more people displaced because of conflict and persecution than at any other time in history. It is recognised that conflict disproportionately affects women and girls, and as Major General Patrick Cammaert, Deputy Force Commander of the UN Mission to the DRC in 2008, said:
“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern wars”.
While we talk about putting the needs of women and girls at the heart of development, they are not a homogenous group. Certain times of life, certain groups of women, may be in particular need. INGOs acknowledge that it is rare for the humanitarian sector, or indeed the girls’ own communities, to pay much attention to adolescent girls. Over the last year, Plan International commissioned research to further understand the unique impact that conflict has had on them, focusing on two age brackets—those aged 10 to 14 and 15 to 19. I thank Plan for this research, because it has made clear that adolescent girls are affected in very different ways from their male counterparts or adult women. Plan gives the example of a 10 year-old IDP girl in South Sudan called Ruba who, although she has to make the porridge for the one meal per day that her family eats, is given the smallest amount. Ruba says that she eats least and last. Yet adolescent girls are often not specifically identified, but rather counted among children, youth or women, which results in their complex and interrelated challenges being neglected.
It is hard to take part in today’s world without education, yet an estimated 131 million girls worldwide remain out of school, and 90% of these in conflict countries are adolescent. Education in fragile and conflict situations is often the first service suspended and the last service to resume. UNESCO statistics tell us that girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school if they live in conflict-affected countries: access to education is often curtailed during conflict; girls are often targeted in and around schools. Sometimes, families have so little that they are unable to provide uniforms or books, which will also prevent them attending. Refugee children are five times less likely to be in school than those in stable environments. Many teachers in refugee contexts lack the minimum 10 days training required by UNHCR. In Ethiopia, for example, only 21% of teachers of refugees had any professional teaching qualification. Yet evidence shows that education mitigates the risks girls face in conflict-affected areas. It helps deliver health services, provides psychosocial support, challenges gender norms, provides protection from violence and exploitation and builds an awareness of human rights.
Quality education in conflict can also help break the cycle of violence, redefine gender norms and promote tolerance and reconciliation, as well as helping bridge the gap during conflict and conflict recovery. In short, keeping adolescent girls in school not only benefits the girls themselves, it benefits their families, their communities and their nation. UNICEF research shows that equal access to education for male and female students decreases the likelihood of violent conflict by as much as 37%.
Heightened risk of sexual violence and destruction of livelihoods often forces parents to view marriage as the most secure and viable future for their daughters, and therefore girls are often taken out of school when they reach puberty. Each year of secondary education reduces the likelihood of a girl marrying before the age of 18. Ensuring that girls stay in school gives them a better chance of safety and security and of making their own life choices and decisions. According to the OECD, nine out of the 10 countries with the highest child marriage rates are considered either fragile or extremely fragile states. For example, in Yemen and Syria child marriage has increased at an alarming rate. UNICEF states that 65% of Yemeni girls are now married before 18, compared to 50% before the conflict.
This House has discussed the horrors of modern slavery and trafficking before, and adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable, yet current efforts to prevent modern slavery globally are largely gender blind and do not address root causes such as gender-based violence, discrimination, denial of education and poverty. What consideration do our aid programmes specifically give to addressing the high danger for adolescents?
Violence against women remains an epidemic across the world, with one in three women experiencing it in their lifetime. During conflict, this spirals out of control. For example, in Afghanistan, it is estimated that 87% of women suffer domestic violence, and here again adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. Many in this House attended the PSVI film festival a few weeks ago. I commend the Prime Minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, on his work and on ensuring an additional £500,000 of UK aid support for victims of PSVI. I am also delighted that the previous holder of this office, my noble friend Lady Anelay, is taking part in this debate, but I want to ask the Minister what more we can do to ensure that the UK does not lose momentum on this important issue.
Because adolescent girls in conflict and crisis-affected settings are at increased risk of rape, there is an increased need for sexual and reproductive health services, due to unwanted pregnancy, STIs and unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization states that the risk of pregnancy-related death in adolescent girls is twice as high for those aged 15 to 19 and five times as high for those age 10 to 14 compared to a woman in her 20s. It is chilling to consider that 507 girls and women die every day in humanitarian contexts due to childbirth or pregnancy-related complications. Access to services and information is too often inadequate and access is dependent on adults accompanying them to any safe space or health clinic where services may be provided. Girls with physical, psychological or developmental disabilities have even greater difficulty in accessing services. All this has enormous ramifications for their future lives, and 26% of adolescent girls interviewed for Plan’s research reported having considered suicide at least once in the last 12 months.
Women have a large role to play in a country’s future, but will not be able to do so if they are not well supported in adolescence. Having women involved in the policy conversation and in decision-making positions makes a difference as to whether issues which have a disproportionate impact on 50% of the population—the women—are even discussed. I know from my experience of international women’s issues how vital it is to have women around the peace table and to have gender-focused humanitarian relief to ensure peace and stability for all, going forward. The UK holds the pen on women, peace and security at the UN Security Council and I congratulate the Government on their latest national action plan, but of course there is still more work to do. Female entrepreneurs and businesswomen can also support growth and stability through diversity. Female-led microfinance and SMEs can form a path out of poverty for individuals, families and communities across the globe.
Despite all the difficulties for adolescent girls that Plan’s research bears witness to, generally young women demonstrate an impressive resilience, and key factors to their happiness in a crisis were identified as family, friends, faith, education and security. I will illustrate why adolescence is such an important time to get it right for girls. A few years ago I visited Liberia with ActionAid. In one village we talked to women about sexual violence. “Oh yes, women and girls get raped”, we were told. I asked whether there was justice when that happened. They said, “Well, there is some justice if it is a child”, so I asked what age a girl was considered to be a child. “Under 10”, was the response. So an adolescent was considered fair game. One can clearly see that if things go wrong at this point in a girl’s life, it results in early marriage, teenage pregnancy, lack of education, an inability to be economically self-sufficient and a lifetime of underachievement and, probably, near-slavery.
I know that the Conservative Government have made a number of commitments that touch on this area, as set out in the Strategic Vision for Gender Equality earlier this year. But I ask my noble friend the Minister whether we can go one step further and work with appropriate stakeholders to develop a comprehensive implementation plan to ensure that adolescent girls do not continue to fall through the gap, thus ensuring better lives for them as women.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson—my friend, I hope I can say, even if it is not appropriate to call her my noble friend—for securing this debate and congratulate her on leading us off so brilliantly. She shines a light on this subject relentlessly. She did so for many years before she was a Member of your Lordships’ House, and she has used this platform in a formidable way over recent years to raise these vital issues. I am delighted to contribute to the debate that she has managed to secure.
Like the noble Baroness, I should declare my registered interests, which include references to advising in peacebuilding situations, as well as my positions at UNICEF and in other charitable organisations that work in this area. It is partly because of that experience that I am motivated to speak tonight. I remember 10 years ago meeting a young woman in Liberia who had been sold off to one side in the civil war. She was 17 and had a child who was maybe three years old by that point. She was asked by my colleague, in an attempt to turn the conversation to something more positive, what was good about having a child, and she looked us in the eye and said there was nothing good about having this child and there never would be. At 17, that young woman was technically still a child in most countries, yet she was facing a life with a memory and all the other implications that were going to affect her deeply for years to come. I have told your Lordships before about meeting young Saffa in a refugee camp in Iraq. She was strong about her situation and determined to build herself a future, but her life was affected most by the fact that her grades in school had gone down. That was the moment that she burst into tears, showing that education is absolutely vital to these girls.
This is partly about protection and partly about hope and education. In that context, we need to see our work in this area as part of our overall work for the global goals. The global goals include in goal 16 a firm commitment to peace and justice and creating the environment in which development can happen. They also include at their very core a commitment not just to gender equality but to women’s empowerment and defending the interests of women and girls everywhere. If the global goals are driven by the objective of leaving no one behind, surely, as we look around the world, one of the groups most likely to be left behind are adolescent girls in fragile and conflict-affected states. They are more likely to be raped. They are more likely to be forced into child marriage. They are more likely to suffer from FGM—still. They are more likely to miss out on education; for example, in Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines, girls are three times more likely to leave school before the end of primary school than in the rest of the Philippines. They are more likely to have significant health issues. Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, has already said, they are more likely to be trafficked. They face multiple issues of violence and abuse but we also know that the evidence and statistics back up the fact that these girls face these issues more often and more severely than adolescent girls elsewhere.
In our overseas development assistance and our policy towards our international work, we should be driven not only by Agenda 2030 but by the aim of leaving no one behind. I am keen to hear from the Minister: what will we see in the UK’s voluntary national review to the UN this summer of our work on the global goals? What will we say about this vital area of supporting adolescent girls in fragile and conflict-affected states? How will we use our influence at the United Nations to ensure that UN work and policy on refugees and internally displaced persons protect and empower girls inside refugee camps? Will we also be willing to continue to take a stand internationally? When people refer to these practices as cultural, religious or driven by armed conflict, will we be willing to take a stand—no matter whether the country in which these incidents take place is a friend or foe—on behalf of these adolescent girls and speak up against those who are turning a blind eye or, in many cases, are the perpetrators?
There is real evidence of the impact that can be made when we get the policies right and the right action is taken, but we need to ensure that there is not just prevention in terms of protection—with the right systems and conditions in place, not just health protection for girls affected by violence in these situations—but that there is justice. Whether it is for the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iraq or women and adolescent girls elsewhere, we need to ensure that there is justice because justice provides hope that in the future others might not find themselves in the same situation. We need to ensure that we are listening to adolescent girls in all these situations, that we are taking on board what they are saying, but also that we are prioritising the action that is required to ensure that at the end of the day this particular group is not left behind.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and her extensive work on women, peace and security. I shall focus my remarks on the support needed in South Sudan, where 60% of all sexual assaults are on girls aged 18 and under. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could update the House on the work of DfID, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to deliver that support.
It is five years since the outbreak of a conflict that has had a devastating impact on the peoples of South Sudan. It is a country where 72% of children are out of school and a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete her education. My honourable friend Minister Baldwin recently announced an additional £70 million for the next round of the Girls’ Education South Sudan programme. It aims to keep girls in school and to tackle the negative attitudes to women and girls that lead to early and forced marriage. How will the Government measure the success of that project?
During the conflict there was widespread perpetration of rape. Instances of that continue today in some parts of the country. The stigma and rejection faced by survivors of rape create obstacles for them to report crimes and seek medical and psychosocial help. My noble friend has already referred to the Plan International research, which showed just how affected—how mentally scarred—people were by their experience and how difficult it is for them to get any support. Indeed, Plan International points out that there is little or no evidence that there is any professional support for mental health issues across South Sudan for girls who have suffered such horrific assaults.
When I visited South Sudan, I co-hosted with UNFPA a workshop on stigma faced by survivors of widespread rapes committed during the conflict and continuing today. It was encouraging to listen to the discussions of girls and boys who were not accustomed to being asked for their views about what should be done to improve their own lives and prevent future violence. Last month, our ambassador to South Sudan and her staff travelled to Wau because they wanted to hear directly from women and girls—not just the chiefs—about what more the UK can do to support them. That was admirable and, in perilous circumstances, risky. It is vital to include adolescent girls in the design, implementation and evaluation of the humanitarian programmes that will affect them.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence recently visited South Sudan himself. Just a couple of weeks ago he went to Bentiu and Malakal in the north of the country, as well as to Juba. He learned about the impact of the extensive use of sexual violence in conflict, and he wants the Ministry of Defence, instead of the Foreign Office, to lead on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, saying:
“I see defence as the department leading on this across government and internationally”.
What is the Government’s view on where the departmental lead should be?
When I visited the Protection of Civilians camp in Malakal, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence also visited recently, I learned how international support can have unintended consequences if it focuses only on the delivery of one level of support and does not look at the whole problem. I met an orphaned teenage survivor of rape, who was bringing up her child. She told me that she now felt able to risk leaving the camp to go in search of enough food to feed both her child and her younger siblings, because, she said, “Now that we have a clinic here, I know that when I’m raped, I can get medical treatment when I get back to the camp”. What an indictment of the way people have to make choices.
The Government of South Sudan, the international community, civil society and leaders of faith all need to do more to work together to ensure that such girls can face a better future.
I thank my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for enabling us to have this debate this evening. I declare my interests as in the register: I am a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the LSE, and I am on the board of the Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown.
I welcome this debate this evening. The Government have been a leader on this issue and I hope very much that they will continue to do so but will also put pressure on other countries, foundations and global institutes to increase their budgets and follow Britain’s lead.
Why should we be concerned about supporting adolescent girls in fragile and conflict-affected countries? Today, 62 million girls around the world are not in school, and at least 20 million of them live in conflict-affected and fragile settings as refugees or displaced people, or are otherwise vulnerable to human trafficking, rape and other things that we have never even thought about. So many lives are being wasted. These girls sometimes become pregnant at eight or nine and have babies. Their babies cannot become full adults because they are not fully formed. This is the battle we have to continually fight to have all girls in education.
Educating girls is the smart and the right thing to do and is the world’s best development investment. We have to persuade the British Government, and other Governments who have cut their budgets, in particular Australia and America, and persuade Japan and other countries to do more. But it is not just about the funding and commitments; we should be ensuring access to quality. We should not have teachers who we know have had just a few days’ training—we want the best and must pay the best to work in these difficult areas, to have consistent education for girls in these settings.
Why does this matter? If girls are educated, in the long term we prevent forced marriage, lower maternal and neonatal mortality; spur on women’s financial independence; reduce fertility rates; create smaller, more sustainable families; improve health and nutrition outcomes for families; shrink the rates of HIV/AIDS and malaria; and open opportunities for women’s political leadership. If more women are not educated, we will never get more women in political leadership at every level, and as we know, Britain has agreed not to go to peace talks without local women and other women at the peace table. How can we get local women if they are not being educated? Educating girls also increases children’s educational attainment levels, builds familial resilience to natural disasters and climate change, and boosts national economic growth.
To access education, displaced adolescent girls must overcome several challenges, such as transition and disruption, and problems with host countries and camps. We must have better support for them, not just using regular military people but trained military people, working with NGOs on the ground and trying to persuade people from those countries.
Four of the five countries that currently have the largest gender gaps in education also experience high levels of conflict. This is where we must start to put pressure at the highest level. We cannot just come in low down—we have to ensure that commitments materialise on the ground. However, the challenges to providing quality educational opportunities remain significant. Within this context, educating displaced adolescent girls is particularly challenging, but it is imperative for the long-term stability and prosperity of not only their countries—their GDP—but the world.
Since the adoption of the millennium development goals in 2000, significant progress has been made in increasing girls’ primary school enrolment, but secondary school enrolment remains limited. We know why that is: girls are either sold off or their parents get them married off because they think, “I’ve got rid of another problem in my life”. Fewer than one in three girls in sub-Saharan Africa and less than half of girls in south Asia are currently enrolled in secondary education. Of at least 14 million refugee and internally displaced children between three and 15, only one in two attends any form of school at all, and for how many hours? When crises strike, adolescent girls are acutely vulnerable. In these settings, girls are two and a half times more likely to be out of school as compared to their male peers. What a world we are living in. That is why I hope that we can have more joined-up approach from the FCO, DfID and the Ministry of Defence. I know that they work together, but we need to look towards a future in which we all work together, pool the money, and get more support from organisations that have funding.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this important debate, and I acknowledge the work that she has been doing on this over many years. I first met her when I was DfID Minister for two years; I was also the ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas for all five years of the coalition Government.
I was also the Minister responsible for Africa. During that time, I do not think there was a country I went to in Africa where girls, particularly adolescent girls, were not oppressed, suppressed and violated. I will give just a few examples. In Kinshasa, in the DRC, I visited a refuge for young girls which DfID was supporting. Most of them had been thrown out of their homes and villages, often because they had been believed to be witches. With nowhere to go and no one to go to, they end up on the streets of Kinshasa, where they are often beaten or raped and end up pregnant.
I acknowledge what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about South Sudan; it was the first country I ever visited as a Minister. For the most part, girls there are considered property to be sold. Virtually no ante or post-natal healthcare is available. As the noble Baroness said, the result is that a 15 year-old South Sudanese girl is far more likely to die in childbirth than complete any stage of secondary education.
A couple of noble Lords mentioned justice. A lot of the young girls I met in these countries said that if they went to the police to report a rape or violence, they were just as likely to be raped by the police as they were to be listened to by them.
Perhaps the most striking memory for me was going to the refugee camps on the borders of the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where there was no protection at all. At the time I left DfID, one of our mission was to ensure that the protection of women and girls in refugee camps was made a first-order priority, alongside food, shelter and water; an adolescent girl may never recover from the damage done to her by the violence she may encounter in such a situation. The need is desperate. Many girls are traumatised by what has happened to them. They have no stability. They are taken from their communities, families and homes. They are alone and vulnerable to violence, rape, HIV and pregnancy when they are children themselves. Is violence against women and girls now a first-order priority in refugee camps? What is DfID doing about that? Are aid agencies being encouraged to move forward on that front?
I am often angry with the Daily Mail but I was particularly angry about its attack under its previous editor on Yegna, an Ethiopian acting and five-piece girl group. The group was belittled, trashed and ridiculed but in Ethiopia, Rwanda and other places, it was a brilliant way of reaching young girls via videos and radio performances in a weekly drama and talk show because radio is one of the great forms of communication in Africa— people listen to it. The show addressed all sorts of issues and gave girls information on forced marriage, isolation and teen pregnancies. However, scared by the headlines, the then Secretary of State for International Development announced in January 2017 that DfID would no longer fund this work.
How do you reach girls? How do you show them a different world in places where being a girl means that you have no rights, no back-up and no power. Justine Greening—my Secretary of State when I was at DfID—had the right idea. She coined the phrase “giving girls voice, choice and control over their lives” and fully supported my work on FGM. When I arrived in DfID, the first thing I said was that we were going to address FGM; it takes a long time for a Lib Dem to get into power so I was not going to lose the opportunity. There is no clearer example than FGM of violence against girls and child abuse. I was able to announce the biggest-ever funding commitment to tackling FGM in the world: £35 million. I am delighted to say that Penny Mordaunt has now topped that with a new announcement of £50 million, which is fantastically welcome.
As many noble Lords have said, at the heart of all this is education for girls because no education means not only lesser salaries and other such problems, but a generation or more in conflict-affected and fragile states lacking the skills for rebuilding their country for the future. The education of girls is fundamental to change and progress. How many girls are we now educating in fragile and conflict-affected states? We should be proud of what we have done so far but there is a hell of a lot more to do.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for tabling the debate and for her persistent pursuit of improvement and reform in this extremely important area.
I want to tell a story this evening. It is a very short story with some uplifting elements. Early in 2002, when I was a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I went as part of a small delegation to Afghanistan to see what we might be able to do. During my time there, I met an extraordinary young man called Aziz Royesh. One comes across extraordinary people in one’s life and he was one of them. He had an absolute passion for education, and in particular for girls’ education.
To that end he had set up a school—although it could hardly be called that: it was made up of a couple of tiny rooms in a bombed-out building in the extreme west of Kabul, which was the front line during the civil war and which had been utterly terrorised in previous years under the Taliban regime. He managed to set up a school with 30 pupils in three shifts, because there was not room for more than 10 pupils at a time. The pupils ranged in age from a little girl of seven, who did carpet weaving on the side to make money for her family—it was their only source of income—to a woman of 30-plus who wanted to learn geometry to know how to divide up her land for her sons.
I was so impressed by this venture that I began to raise very small amounts of money and send them across in brown paper bags—that was how it was done then. The money was used intelligently. For example, through the money we raised, one of the larger buildings in the village was repaired: a roof was put on it and windows and heating were put in, all through local builders. That was a masterstroke because it meant that the entire community crowded into the building in winter because no other heating was available. Aziz, who has become a very dear and close friend, used this opportunity to persuade families to be brave enough to send their children, especially their daughters, to school and also started adult literacy classes in the village.
The school has grown as time has gone on. In the last 13 years, almost 500 girls have graduated from the Marefat school, almost 98% of whom have gone on to higher education, including universities in south and central Asia, the Far East and Europe. A total of 271 full scholarships have been won by the school. One amazing statistic is that in 2012, the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh offered 16 scholarships to girls from the region, including Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh as well as Afghanistan, and the Marefat school won 11 of them. That simply illustrates the level of education provided by the school.
A total of 60 students went to the USA for high school and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, of whom 42 were girls. On their return, these Marefat graduates worked in the President’s palace, the First Lady’s office, various ministries, the Parliament, the Independent Election Commission, the media and the academic world. Some 28% of the teaching staff at Marefat are themselves graduates of the school.
The UK contribution to education is already very great. Almost every person who has spoken in the debate has mentioned the importance of education, which we acknowledge. Indeed, DfID has done itself proud in supporting education—but this must continue and it must expand. I have told this story simply to illustrate that it is possible, even in the most difficult conflict situations, which Afghanistan represents, to build education that is of the highest quality and to expand it beyond the community where it begins.
I think we have all acknowledged that education is the magic bullet of development. If you educate a girl, you also educate a family; you educate a neighbourhood, you educate a region and eventually you educate a country. This is the only pathway to peace.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for securing this debate. It is a great honour to be taking part and to listen to the contributions of so many amazing supporters of women and girls. I should also like to draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.
Following previous speakers, I too should like to reinforce what has been said about violence and access to education. As has been said, before, during and after conflict girls face both physical and sexual violence. It is important to note that trauma follows adolescent girls when they flee from conflict, whether they become refugees or are internally displaced. There is a high risk of sexual abuse in overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe refugee areas. Girls face not only prostitution and the risk of early marriage; they also face isolation and a lack of access to healthcare and psychological support. I would like to ask the Minister: what specific action are the Government currently taking to support girls in these vulnerable places, and how will rebuilding peace after conflict specifically involve support for these girls?
This year, when the Government will host an international meeting on preventing sexual violence, will there be a focus on support for girls in particular? Where a country experiences violence, women and girls also face increased domestic violence in the home. Can the Minister let us know when the Government plan to introduce domestic legislation that will allow the UK to ratify the Istanbul convention? In particular, UK nationals must be able to be tried in UK courts for domestic violence committed against women abroad.
I turn secondly to education. As has been said, access to education is a particular challenge both during and after conflict. Two years ago I met Muzoon Almellehan, then an 18 year-old Syrian refugee and now at university in the UK. She has used her voice to call on the Government to increase support for girls’ education. She said that while she was in a refugee camp in Jordan, she went from tent to tent to tell parents that their daughters needed teachers, not husbands. During conflict, girls are two and a half times more likely to be out of school than boys. While the Government have committed to supporting programmes which help girls to stay in education, in 2017 funding for education represented only 8.9% of bilateral aid.
When girls receive education and are included in political and economic systems, communities are empowered and they are better off. Programmes that listen to and serve the specific needs of adolescent girls are crucial, as has already been underlined. Last week, Muzoon emailed me to say, “Frankly, what I have been through was not easy, but this journey has taught me that I should never give up and I must do the best to help myself and to help other people, and to be strong for giving hope”. That illustrates the resilience which has already been mentioned.
In responding to the challenges of both violence and education, we may need to adapt traditional methods of providing aid and assistance. Non-state actors can be effective local partners. I think in particular of the work being done in partnership with churches throughout the Anglican Communion and in particular with the Mothers’ Union. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how these sorts of relationships might be better developed.
Finally, we need to be careful about how we measure impact. Traditional value-for-money calculations may not be good at accounting for long-term work in fragile or post-conflict states. Making sex and age data disaggregation standard would help us to identify what works for adolescent girls specifically. The current UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security will measure only a small number of indicators in this way, yet better interventions can be made when we know what works for girls.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute today, and I look forward to listening to the rest of this debate.
My Lords, this is a very important debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for introducing it so ably and with such energy. I only wish we had time to explore this issue further and in greater depth, but I know that she will continue to bring it back to us.
I should declare an interest as the chair of the Sub-Committee on Children in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I will shortly be preparing a report on how violence against children is addressed by the sustainable development goals. I shall be looking around for help and ideas, so noble Lords will hear from me.
A Lancet commission in 2016 described adolescence as,
“a critical phase in life for achieving human potential”.
For some adolescents this will be so, but for the adolescent girls we are discussing today, that potential will be blighted by abuse, sexual violence, poverty, poor health and lack of education, as pointed out by Plan International in its excellent briefing.
The lives of young, valuable future citizens are being destroyed, and this will have both national and international repercussions. One in six children are now living in a conflict zone and is more at risk from armed conflict than at any other time in the past 20 years, according to a recent report from Save the Children. Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan are ranked among the most dangerous.
International conventions and instruments have been flouted—in particular, Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on states to protect children up to the age of 18 against,
“all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect … maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”.
Very few countries are not signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We are four years on from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict attended by 120 Governments, over 100 NGOs and experts in health, legal matters and military fields. An action plan on abuse was drawn up. I ask myself: is it time for another global summit to follow up the recommended actions and to see what has happened since?
We know from reports and anecdotes from UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International and other organisations that the situation is dire. We know the terrible, possibly irreversible impacts on children and young people, especially girls, who are also at risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection. We know that civil society organisations work with Governments and communities to translate concerns into national policies, laws and actions. It is a terribly difficult task, with rogue kidnappings and random abuse at local levels.
What else is to be done? In 2018, a report on children and armed conflict from the UN Secretary-General called for the strengthening of partnerships to prevent violations. Partnerships exist at both government and community levels. International agreements and policies are not enough, however, unless there is a change of attitude in individual countries and communities. NGOs working on the ground engage in partnerships with communities, women’s groups, faith groups and empowerment groups for young people—all very important organisations to work with.
Specifically, more efforts and funding are needed to focus on the needs of adolescent girls in conflict situations. Gender equality, education, health and empowerment of women and girls are all vital and must be included in any protocols for intervention and measured. Targets must be set and monitored. National policies, laws and actions must be reinforced, and we can play a part in this.
This is a complex and very difficult situation, and I ask the Minister specifically how the UK plans to contribute to providing creative ideas and practical support on positive action. Generations of children, including girls, are having their lives ruined by abuse in fragile and conflict-affected countries, thus disadvantaging those countries even more. We cannot stand by and watch this happen.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on obtaining the debate this evening. I also thank her for all the work she does for women and girls in this field and the support she gives my group, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. I chair that group, and in the Commons I was my party’s spokesperson for international development. I can endorse almost everything said in the debate tonight—certainly about South Sudan, which I have visited on several occasions.
There is no question that women and adolescent girls worldwide suffer terribly. I will talk about only one aspect of their suffering: abortion. I know it is a contentious issue but, as some of you probably know, I go in for contentious issues sometimes. I feel very passionately about this one. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, in conflict situations women suffer disproportionately far more than men, and adolescent girls are frequently targeted for rape—this being part of modern warfare. Is it to dilute the genetic line? I do not know, but it has certainly become part of warfare.
Rape is a very short, small word, but in this situation it is not just a quick act of sexual intercourse. It can involve the most horrific physical and mental injuries to these girls, which lasts all their lives. It is not just a quick thing, over in two minutes. The trauma and disgrace of rape is worsened for many girls if they become pregnant as a result and a child is born. The girls are frequently ostracised by their families and live alone and in disgrace, with nowhere to go. Personally, I cannot think of a more terrible fate.
In the last few years, though, helped tremendously by Lord Lester when he was a Member of this House, we have managed to clarify the Government’s position on much-needed abortion after rape in conflict situations. The Government have acted nobly and very effectively on this, and I will talk a little more about it. The Government have declared that the UK development budget can now be used without exception to provide safe abortion where necessary and, if national laws of the country in conflict oppose abortion, international humanitarian law kicks in and allows abortion in that situation, rather than extending what amounts to inhumane treatment for the individual concerned. It is a noble position that our Government have taken and I congratulate them on it. We are one of very few countries to have taken a stand on this issue. What concerns me, however, is how often abortion is carried out under these guidelines when girls request it, and I would like clarification from the Minister. Are any statistics available?
I appreciate the difficulty and confidentiality that may be involved, but will the Minister tell us what effect President Trump’s reintroduction of the global gag rule has had on this procedure? I understand that contributions from different countries are often pooled by NGOs working in humanitarian situations. As many Members will know, the United States Administration have banned any funds going to NGOs that may collaborate with NGOs from other countries that provide abortion services.
I have some more questions for the Minister and, if he cannot answer them now, perhaps he will write to me and put the answers in the Library. Can he tell us whether and how our development budget can be separated from that of other countries in this situation so that abortion can be carried out when necessary? Will the UK commit to sustainable funding specifically for abortion in DfID’s budget and ensure that it goes to non-gagged organisations? Lastly, will our Government make clear internationally our support for access to abortion in conflict situations and ensure that those obligations are met, so that many adolescent girls will be relieved at least of one part of the suffering they have to endure?
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for the very knowledgeable way in which she introduced this important debate. I want to acknowledge the impressive contributions from noble Lords from across the Chamber, which have reminded us of the great challenges that adolescent girls face.
Man-made conflict is the source of so much of the gratuitous violence that we see in the world today, much of it directed towards women and children. It is therefore welcome that the cross-Whitehall working group on women, peace and security is supported by the Stabilisation Unit, a cross-government unit providing expertise to build stability, prevent conflict and meet security challenges internationally. The Government’s national action plan of December 2018 tells us that women are essential participants in conflict prevention and peacebuilding and that their participation leads to peace agreements that are measurably more durable. Given all that, why is it that the Stabilisation Unit’s page on the Government’s website shows no evidence of work that supports women as peacebuilders or of any projects shaped by that evidence? I hope it is an oversight, but I wonder whether the Minister could look into it.
In the same national action plan, Conflict, Stability and Security Fund projects are mentioned liberally, yet the CSSF has repeatedly come in for criticism, not least from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which awarded it an overall amber/red score in its report last year. Can the Minister assure me that aid spending through the CSSF now takes a more relevant and evidence-based approach to addressing conflict, instability and insecurity, as recommended by ICAI? I am interested too in hearing his response to the suggestion of the Secretary of State for Defence that the MoD is a suitable vehicle for becoming involved in preventing sexual violence in conflict zones.
Muriel Spark’s great quote from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life”,
tells us of the importance of girls attending school, particularly secondary school. But, as we have heard today, much conspires to keep them away: the burden of family responsibility, household chores, issues of period hygiene, FGM complications and problems relating to early marriage, forced marriage, pregnancies and resultant issues such as fistula and faecal incontinence, to mention but some. Following the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, I should add abortion to that list.
We have already heard the UN statistic from South Sudan, where an adolescent girl is more likely to die in childbirth than complete her education. That is chilling, and it is likely to apply to other conflict-affected countries. Yet we know that for every year a girl spends in school, the family’s income will go up by 10%. That is a huge return. Investment in education must be led by an evidence base recognisable to communities in developing countries. But the ODI said in its report of 13 June last year, How to Deliver the G7’s Ambitious Commitments to Gender Equality and Girls’ Education, that that does not always happen. Will the Minister assure me that programmes are being designed from the outset to accommodate evidence that speaks to what works to support adolescent girls to reach their potential? I add my voice to that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester when she asked for that information earlier.
I end with what I call the curse of short-termism. We have heard much about the challenges faced by adolescent girls and entrenched social practices. However, I have found—I am sure that many noble Lords will agree—that all too often we hear of successful projects that end with no plan for a follow-up. That short-termism is short-sighted. I share the concerns of my noble friend Lady Featherstone when she talked about funding for the Ethiopian Spice Girls group that was pulled in the face of vociferous attacks from the Daily Mail. Programmes such as the Yegna project could bring prolonged benefits.
I also want to bring to noble Lords’ attention another example of a DfID-funded project in Kenya, which used football as a hook to recruit 4,500 young people—crucially, men and boys—into a programme to reduce violence against women and girls. Itad’s evaluation found that the programme would have benefited from further DfID investment, which, however, was not forthcoming. I hope that the Minister will challenge assertions that such programmes are a waste of money because they highlight the sustained, long-term engagement necessary to shift social norms and reduce violence against women and girls.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for initiating this debate. It is vital that we keep this issue high on the political agenda. As she said, violence against women is a global epidemic. The WHO estimates that approximately one-third of women globally experience some kind of violence, physical or sexual, from a partner or non-partner in their lifetimes. As my noble friend Lord McConnell highlighted, adolescent women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, which further increases the risks of unwanted pregnancies, as we heard, unsafe abortions and STIs, including HIV/AIDS. During conflict, weakened institutions, poverty and financial hardship leave adolescent girls vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and violence.
Over the Recess, I listened to the UNHCR special envoy, Angelina Jolie, when she was guest editor of the “Today” programme. Her programme focused on discussing solutions to violence against women in conflict zones. Her themes were justice, accountability and international leadership. We have heard much about those themes in this debate. Like Angelina Jolie, I acknowledge the UK’s leadership role globally in maintaining this subject’s public profile. The critical issue that she identified, which of course your Lordships’ Sexual Violence in Conflict Committee also highlighted two and a half years ago, is that we need to maintain the momentum. We need to ensure that we have the tools, sufficient resource and the political will.
There is no doubt that since the PSVI launch in 2012, the UK has led the world in efforts to end the horror of sexual violence in conflict. I welcome the announcement of an international conference to be hosted by the UK in November, five years on from the global summit referred to by my noble friend Lady Massey. We are told it will focus on conflicts past and present and evaluate the progress which has been made by putting survivors at the heart of the event. Will the Minster explain a little more about how this will be achieved? Will there be greater civil society engagement and what support will be given to participants who are survivors of such violence?
Last year the Government allocated nearly £3.4 million to tackle sexual violence in conflict in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Colombia and Iraq, and they have responded to the horrific circumstances of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Will the Minister say how the specific needs of adolescent girls were recognised and addressed in our humanitarian support and humanitarian programmes? What specific action is DfID taking to promote gender equality in these areas?
As we have heard in this debate, justice and accountability are vital parts of any strategy for tackling sexual violence. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, in November film-makers came to Lancaster House from conflict-affected countries and Commonwealth countries to discuss how they could use their work making films to stamp out stigma, which is an important element of fighting sexual violence and of holding people to account so that they cannot act with impunity. At that time the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, whom I congratulate on his work, called on countries to sign up to the new Murad code on sexual violence, which sets out the expected standards of behaviour from government bodies, NGOs and aid workers when gathering evidence of sexual violence in conflict situations for courts. Can the Minster tell us how many countries are expected to sign up to the code and how many have already done so?
As we have also heard, a comprehensive approach is essential, including tackling and targeting the underlying gendered norms and behaviour that cause and perpetuate sexual violence. Women endure discrimination, violence and the denial of their rights simply because they are women. We must tackle the underlying problem of a lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. Like other noble Lords, I would like to hear from the Minister about what action the Government are taking to ensure that they and others meet the commitments made at last year’s G7 conference and in the declaration on quality education for girls, adolescent girls and women in developing countries, particularly those in emergencies and in conflict-affected and fragile states. As the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, education is the key to change.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for contributing to this fascinating and important debate. In particular, I am hugely grateful to my noble friend Lady Hodgson for bringing it to the House. As all noble Lords have said, she is a well-known and impactful campaigner for gender equality, particularly for the rights of girls and women in conflict-affected states.
As all noble Lords said, adolescence is a critical time for girls when their experiences will profoundly affect the rest of their lives. Many face an increased risk of violence, pregnancy and early marriage, and the burden of family and community aspirations as well as new opportunities and decisions preparing for the type of life and work they wish to pursue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, asked a number of questions relating to abortion in these conflict areas. Where abortion is permitted, we can support programmes promoting safe abortion. In conflict situations, international humanitarian law principles might justify offering abortion rather than perpetuating what amounts to inhuman or degrading treatment. She asked a number of other questions which I have not answered. If possible, I will write to her with more details and place a copy in the Library.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of harm during conflict and war. In countries affected by conflict, girls are two and a half times more likely than boys to be out of school. In conflict situations, violence begins early in the lives of adolescent girls, with 60% of sexual assaults happening to girls aged 18 or under. On top of direct threats to their lives and safety, conflict harms adolescent girls in ways that are often overlooked. Violence and destruction interrupt access to education—a point mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hodgson, the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie. Girls in conflict zones are 90% more likely to be out of school than girls living in peace.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, wanted to know how we are ensuring that adolescents do not continue to fall through gaps in the system. The Government work with a wide range of international partners to ensure the best results for girls. We support partner nations to develop and implement national action plans on women, peace and security, and on child, early and forced marriage. DfID has made landmark funding commitments to address the needs of adolescent girls, and we have made the largest commitment ever to ending female genital mutilation. Through the Girls’ Education Challenge, we have committed a further £400 million to promote quality girls’ education, which all noble Lords agree is one of the most important things that should continue.
Conflict also leads to a breakdown in the customary and formal laws that protect girls. This allows harmful traditional practices, such as FGM and child, early and forced marriages, to rise in times of war. The scale of the problem is enormous, today affecting 1.2 billion of the adolescent population—the largest number the world has ever known. States have a moral and legal obligation to ensure girls’ protection and safety.
In supporting and protecting adolescent girls, we are empowering the decision-makers, peacebuilders and business leaders of the future. When girls have an education and are not forced to marry early, they and their children are healthier and better educated, improving the economic and physical well-being of generations to come. The Government are committed to promoting gender equality and supporting adolescent girls in fragile and conflict-affected states. Without faster progress on gender equality, the sustainable development goals will not be achieved.
Our national action plan on women, peace and security sets out our approach to promoting gender equality through our work to build security and stability overseas, as well as our commitment to protect the human rights of girls and women. DfID’s Strategic Vision for Gender Equality is a call to all stakeholders to step up on gender equality. It highlights adolescence as a critical time and promotes support for women and girls in conflict and crisis. DfID is committed to leading the way in this area. Today, as acknowledged by most noble Lords this evening, the United Kingdom is an international leader on gender equality. The Government are committed, across departments, to putting women and girls at the heart of our work to prevent and resolve conflict in some of the world’s most challenging contexts.
At the London family planning summit in July 2017, the UK ensured that the needs of women and adolescent girls in humanitarian crises were centre stage. We committed to spending an average of £225 million every year for the next five years to expand access to sexual and reproductive health services around the world, including in areas at risk of, or affected by, crises, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
The noble Lord also mentioned Burma. The UK has led the way on the Rohingya crisis with a package of support focused on the needs of women and girls. We will reach about 250,000 people affected by sexual and gender-based violence with targeted training, psychosocial support and sexual and reproductive health services.
The UK’s support empowers girls to become leaders and decision-makers of the future. In Burma, where only 10% of national MPs are women, the UK has started new programmes with Girl Determined to support the Girls’ National Conference, creating safe networks for girls and growing their voices in politics. In north-east Nigeria, more than 2,300 girls and women, survivors of Boko Haram’s violence, have been supported to help restart their lives through intercommunal dialogue, the training of community leaders in peacebuilding, and psychosocial and medical assistance.
My noble friend Lady Anelay and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, also raised issues relating to the work of DfID, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, particularly in relation to South Sudan, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. In South Sudan, we will help about 250,000 girls to stay in school. Also in South Sudan, the UK is funding the International Medical Corps to support survivors of gender-based violence and provide long-term prevention strategies. This work includes psychosocial and medical support to survivors, training for police on handling gender-based violence cases and working with men and community groups on addressing negative social attitudes towards women.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson talked about how specific programmes address the high danger for adolescents. The UK is leading the fight against modern slavery internationally. We also know that gender inequality is a key driver of modern slavery and have committed in excess of £200 million in UK aid to help address such exploitation and abuse, placing particular emphasis on ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are taken into account.
DfID’s flagship Girls’ Education Challenge programme, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, is helping up to 1.5 million marginalised girls to receive a quality education, including girls in refugee camps in Kenya and Afghanistan, and girls displaced within Somalia among other countries. In Syria, the United Kingdom helped to launch the No Lost Generation initiative, which provides education and safe spaces where children can receive counselling to help cope with the effects of violence that they have experienced or witnessed. In 2017-18, the UK reached 11.3 million children with education.
The UK will continue to be a champion for girls and women in conflict on a global stage. At this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women, we will host an event to share evidence and secure commitments on social protection programmes to target adolescent girls. Through our work in the G7, G20 and other multinational platforms, promoting gender equality in conflict will be a strong theme.
The Government are also investing in research to understand what works to help adolescents overcome challenges and reach their potential. The Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence programme is a nine-year longitudinal research programme including 18,000 adolescents, a substantial sample of them refugees or displaced. It is important that we invest in programmes that tackle not only the basic needs of adolescent girls, including education and health, but their psychosocial well-being, voice, agency and their vulnerability to violence, child marriage and exploitation.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester asked whether there will be support for girls at the PSVI international conference later this year. The conference will take a survivor-centred approach, ensuring that the needs, concerns and priorities of all survivors—women, men, boys and girls—are discussed and addressed.
My noble friends Lady Hodgson and Lady Anelay and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, also wanted to ensure that the United Kingdom does not lose momentum on this important issue. I am pleased that a number of noble Lords were able to attend the PSVI film festival, which shone a spotlight on the stigma often faced by survivors of sexual violence. The Government remain committed to ending the horror of sexual violence in conflict, and we will host a PSVI international conference in November 2019. I praise my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lord Ahmad for the work they have done in this area.
There are a number of points I have not covered, but I will write to all noble Lords on their issues and place copies in the Library. Throughout our work, the Government will continue to lead by example in demonstrating how gender equality and a focus on the rights of adolescent girls is an investment in peace, security and prosperity.
House adjourned at 8.51 pm.