Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: women and girls in developing countries

Updated 8 May 2015

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/improving-the-lives-of-girls-and-women-in-the-worlds-poorest-countries. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


We want to improve the lives of girls and women in every area of our international development work, from education to maternal and child health, from personal safety and security to economic and political empowerment.

By putting girls and women at the heart of everything we do, we can stop poverty before it starts. For example, we know that getting girls into school begins a chain reaction of further benefits. Educated women have better maternal health, fewer and healthier children and increased economic opportunities. They are also more likely to send their own children to school.

Our support to girls and women is also based on basic human rights. We believe girls and women have the right to:

  • have control over their own bodies
  • have a voice in their community and country
  • live a life free of the fear of violence
  • choose who to marry and when
  • get an education
  • get a job
  • choose how they spend the money they earn


To help girls and women to improve their opportunities and give them more control over their lives, we’re:

  • helping to end early and forced marriage
  • delaying their first pregnancy by helping 10 million more women to use modern methods of family planning
  • helping at least 2 million women to deliver their babies safely with skilled midwives, nurses and doctors saving the lives of at least 50,000 women during pregnancy and childbirth
  • helping 2.3 million women to get jobs and 18 million women to use financial services like bank accounts and insurance
  • helping 4.5 million women to own and use land by supporting legal reforms to land and inheritance rights
  • helping over 4.5 million girls to go to primary school and 700,000 girls to go to secondary school by 2014
  • reducing female genital mutilation by 30% in at least 10 priority countries by 2018
  • helping to prevent violence against women by supporting 10 million women to access justice through the courts, police and legal assistance, and through a new £25 million research programme into what works to reduce violence
  • helping to prevent sexual violence against girls and women in conflict by working with the UN and other organisations to increase the ability of other countries’ governments to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence and to protect survivors and witnesses

For more detail, read our Strategic Vision for Girls and Women 2011 and see the full reports on what has been achieved in the last 2 years - Strategic vision for girls and women: Two years on and Strategic vision for girls and women: One year on.

Read the latest update to the strategic vision (March 2014)

Appendix 1: helping to end female genital mutilation for girls and women in Africa

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes known as cutting (FGC), is an extremely harmful practice that affects more than 125 million girls and women in the world today. An estimated 30 million more girls are at risk over the next decade in Africa alone.

The World Health Organisation defines it as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The most extreme form of FGM (which is carried out on 90% of girls in Somalia) involves cutting out all the external genitalia and sewing up the girl’s vagina. Girls are cut open, often with a razor blade by the mother-in-law, on the marriage night to enable sexual penetration.

In some countries FGM is carried out on newborns, and in others during adolescence. FGM results in severe pain, serious problems in childbirth, physical disability and psychological damage. In the worst cases, it can result in death.

We have a chance to end FGM within a generation. There is now strong African leadership and real momentum for change on FGM across the continent. Increasing numbers of women and men in communities, traditional and religious leaders, and national policy makers are driving a movement to end the practice.

In December 2012 a UN General Assembly resolution, led by the Africa Group, called for a global ban on the practice and a 2014 reaffirmation calls on us all to do more. The UK government made the biggest ever international investment in eradicating FGM, with a flagship programme of £35 million over 5 years, and an additional £12 million commitment in Sudan.

What we’re doing

We believe girls and women have the right to control their own bodies and live a life free from the fear of violence. Britain is working to support efforts to end FGM through a new programme to reduce the practice by 30% in at least 10 countries in the next 5 years. The initiative will:

  • support work to end FGM in at least 15 countries by working directly within local communities
  • work with governments and traditional leaders to back laws and policies to end FGM
  • fund research into the most cost-effective approaches to ending FGM, to make sure our work has the maximum impact
  • support diaspora communities in the UK to help change practices in their countries of origin
  • galvanise a global movement to increase attention and funding toward ending FGM.

Find out more about our programme

Girl Summit 2014 and #YouthForChange

On 22 July 2014, the UK hosted a Girl Summit with UNICEF to galvanise global commitment and support Southern-led efforts to end both FGM and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in a generation. The Girl Summit Charter so far has over 490 signatories, including 42 governments, and 180 commitments on ending either FGM and/or CEFM have been made so far.

Commitments can be tracked here.

In advance of Girl Summit, the UK hosted #YouthForChange on 19 July 2014, an event by young people for young people to ignite action around girls’ rights, particularly FGM and CEFM. It brought together nearly 200 young campaigners from the UK and around the world including Pakistan, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and many other countries to share their experiences as survivors and campaigners.

You can follow these campaigns on Twitter at @GirlSummit and @YouthForChange.

Who we work with

We will work with a range of partners including the United Nations Joint Programme on FGM/C managed by UNICEF and UNFPA, The Girl Generation and the Population Council.

You can find out more about our funding for ending FGM by visiting our development tracker, funding finder or registering on our supplier portal.

FGM in the UK

In England and Wales, an estimated 137,000 girls and women are living with FGM and 60,000 girls under the age of 15 could be at risk of FGM. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes it illegal to practise FGM in the UK or take girls who are British nationals or permanent residents abroad for FGM.

Find out more about what the UK government is doing to tackle FGM in the UK.

More information

Stats and facts

  • FGM is a form of violence against women and girls and is a violation of their human rights.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • Over 95% of all FGM is in Africa.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.

Appendix 2: helping to end early and forced marriage

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

In the last decade 58 million girls in developing countries, 1 in 3, have been married before they were 18 - and 1 in 9 girls have been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 15. For these girls marriage is not a choice, but something that happens to them with greater or lesser degrees of physical and psychological coercion. These girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they are more likely to live in poverty.

What are the causes of early and forced marriage?

There are varying reasons for early and forced marriage in different contexts, but girls’ lack of power and the low value place on girls is a common underlying cause. Others include:

  • social expectations about girls’ behaviour and their role in society
  • household poverty and crises that put additional pressure on families
  • the lack of access to alternative educational and economic opportunities for girls

In humanitarian situations early and forced marriage often increases because families believe it acts as a form of protection, helping to mitigate the threat of sexual violence and family shame.

What are the best ways to address early and forced marriage?

Early and forced marriage cannot be addressed with one standalone intervention. DFID’s Strategic Vision for girls and women outlines the key areas in which it is necessary to improve the lives of girls and women in order to tackle early and forced marriage. This includes girls’ education, economic empowerment, violence against women and girls, reproductive health and creating the right environment for change, in particular tackling the discriminatory social norms that underlie early and forced marriage.

What we’re doing

We are developing new programmes on addressing early and forced marriage in a range of countries including Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya.

Our most developed programme on early and forced marriage is in Ethiopia. It aims to delay marriage for 200,000 girls in the Amhara region where 50% of the girls marry before the age of 15. It works with parents, decision makers, husbands, elders and religious leaders through community conversation, as well as girls and boys through school programmes, including girls’ clubs, mentorship, school material support and incentives for vulnerable girls.

Our wider work to end early and forced marriage

Girls’ education: Evidence indicates that education may be the single most important factor in reducing early and forced marriage. The length of schooling needed to make a difference to a girl’s ability to have a say in whom and when she marries is between 7 and 10 years and the transition to secondary school is critical. The UK will support the education of up to 4.5 million girls at primary level and at least 700,000 girls at secondary level by 2015. The Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) will ensure that the barriers that prevent the world’s poorest girls from benefiting from education are tackled at the root.

Delaying first pregnancy: Tackling early and forced marriage is critical to delaying first pregnancy. Married adolescent girls face the pressure to give birth soon after marriage, putting her at risk of complications in childbirth and significantly reducing her wider opportunities in life. In Rwanda and Zambia, we support two large ‘safe spaces’ programmes to change the course of a girl’s life and her family’s lives. As part of this they are given personal and reproductive health training and health vouchers.

Economic empowerment: Household poverty and low expected returns to girls’ education, such as future income, drives early and forced marriage. Investment in adolescent girls is often seen as an economic burden with little payoff as girls are expected to leave their home and contribute to their spouse’s household following marriage. There is also an added economic incentive for early and forced marriage through the practice of ‘bride price’. The UK is helping 2.3 million women to get jobs and 18 million women to use financial services like bank accounts and insurance.

Preventing violence against women and girls: Emerging evidence suggests that girls who marry early are more vulnerable to violence from their partner than those who marry later, and the violence continues into adulthood. Studies show that the younger a girl is when she first has sex the more likely it is that she faced violence. The UK is supporting a number of programmes to address this, including work through UNICEF in Nepal to establish paralegal committees. The committees increase access to information for women and children and work to solve disputes at a household and community level including early and forced marriage.

Creating a better environment for girls: The UK has recently launched a new Leadership for Change Programme to improve the ability of girls and women in developing countries to influence decisions that impact their lives, and enable them to advocate for changes to improve the lives of other girls and women. This includes a fellowship programme for a network of 300 women leaders - 10% of these women leaders have identified early and forced marriage as a priority area for action. The programme also develops the leadership skills of 24,000 adolescent girls through sport, providing safe spaces for girls to make healthy choices critical for ending early and forced marriage.

Who we work with

A number of our Programme Partnership Arrangements to non-government organisations include support to early and forced marriage programmes, particularly Plan International, Womankind Worldwide, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and World Vision. Early and forced marriage is also one of Girl Hub’s major priorities in Nigeria.