A new focus on girls and women's rights

Speech by the Development Secretary Justine Greening setting out how UK aid will support girls and women's rights

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Justine Greening

Since I’ve come into this role, I’ve had the privilege to meet many committed and inspirational people since I started this job. But I can honestly say that the people I’ve met who have inspired me most have been girls and women campaigning for their rights.

So I am delighted to be here today, hosted by GadNet, Christian Aid and Amnesty International. Your organisations and partners have been at the forefront of the movement for girls’ and women’s rights for many years.

These are issues the UK has rightly prioritised at home and overseas. I am very proud of the UK’s commitment to international development assistance, and particularly in relation to girls and women.

And before I get onto the challenges that we face, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that we have come a very long way.

Here in Britain, we have always been at the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights.

This is brought home to me every time I take a group of schoolchildren on a tour around parliament.

I always show them a statue of Viscount Falkland in St.Stephen’s lobby, a slightly obscure peer from the 17th century. But what I point out to them is the cracks and chips on the statue.

None of them are ever able to guess where these came from. So I tell them that in 1909 a woman named Marjory Hume chained herself to the statue as a protest, shouting ‘deeds not words’ and demanding a right to vote.

The statue was damaged as they desperately tried to remove her, and so it stands to this day as a small reminder of the struggle faced by women for an equal voice.

And you’ll be able to guess the reaction when I ask the girls on the tour whether it should be just the boys to decide what happens in Britain.

I also had a reminder of how far we’ve come since then when I met Donald Steinberg, the Deputy Administrator at USAID. He told me the story of Madeleine Albright’s very young granddaughter who, on recently learning of John Kerry’s new role taking over from Hilary Clinton asked her mother if men could be the US Secretary of State. It reminded me very much of my own childhood growing up in a Britain that had a Queen as our head of state and a female Prime Minister.

I think, for those women who have gone before us, we can be proud of their achievements. We can be grateful. For so many of us, the world is a place with so much more opportunity.

So today, everything I want to talk about really revolves around two things – hope and intent.

Hope – because I do believe we can move the agenda on. Progress can continue.

Intent – because I intend to target DFID’s efforts relentlessly on improving the lives of the poorest girls and women around the world. The future is never fixed – it can be different

Why it makes sense

I have recently said that where half the population is locked out, prevented from being productive and from pursuing opportunities, there isn’t a sustainable path to development.

Investing in girls and women is the smart thing to do.

By unleashing their potential, we see incredible returns for girls and women themselves, for their families and communities, and for their economies and countries.

Some people have called it the Girl Effect:

In education, we know that getting girls through primary and secondary school works.

An extra year of primary schooling for girls increases their wages by up to 20% and for secondary school it’s even higher.

More time in education means that girls face a lower risk of sexual violence, they marry later, have fewer children, and have better health outcomes for the children they do have.

It’s better for them and their families and communities.

We know that when a woman generates her own income she re-invests 90% of it in her family and community.

And it’s better for their economies and countries.

In India, the states with more women in work have seen faster economic growth and the largest reductions in poverty.

In Pakistan, women entering the national parliament on a gender quota were able to work successfully across party lines on legislation relating to honour killing and acid crime control.

Countries with higher civic engagement and stronger attitudes towards equality and fairness towards women have significantly higher levels of per capita income in the long run.

But of course investing in girls and women isn’t only the smart thing to do, but also the right thing to do.

This is a matter of universal, basic human rights. It is about girls’ and women’s right to have control over their own bodies, to have a voice in their community and country; to live a life free of the fear of violence; to choose who to marry and when; it’s about their right to be in education, which gives them a chance of productive work, and a chance to choose how they spend that money they earn.

Locking out women isn’t just bad for an economy, it’s bad for a society. It seems common sense, but it’s still happening.

From the very start girls lose out.

They lose out at school, with less than one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa making it to secondary school.

They lose out when they are married, with one third of girls in the developing world marrying before the age of 18, some as young as seven years old.

And when they have their first child, in spite of dramatic progress, medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth are still the leading cause of death amongst 15 to 19 year old girls worldwide.

Women perform two thirds of the world’s work, produce half of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property.

More broadly, all too often a women’s place in their community and society is downgraded:

In 11 countries, the testimony of a woman carries less evidentiary weight in a court than that of a man.

And although women make up more than half the population, they represent only 20% of political leaders in the world. It may be over a 100 years since Marjory Hume chained herself to Viscount Falkland’s statue but of all the political leaders of political parties that have come and gone in the UK – and there have been 45 of them, to date, Margaret Thatcher still remains the only woman to have led a major political party in Britain.

Perhaps most unacceptably, how women are physically treated is often underpinned by violence.

Around the world one in three girls and women will be beaten or raped in their lifetime. Perhaps this statistic is so shocking that it simply overwhelms us.

But we urgently need irreversible gains in the rights for girls and women and an end to violence against girls and women.

Immediate and sustained response

I believe that these issues represent the greatest unmet challenges of our time, not some sideline issue. And we cannot turn a blind eye. Nearly one hundred years after women in Britain got the vote, 180 years after the abolition of slavery, gaining the most basic human rights for women around our world right now, remains perhaps the most profound human challenge the world has.

So today I’m going to set out both what DFID’s role needs to be to achieve this. And why I think there has never been a more important time for us all to up our game.

Shifting up a gear within DFID

DFID has already made changing the lives of girls and women a core priority. We launched the Strategic Vision for Girls and Women back in 2011. Since then our country has helped to change the lives of millions for the better.

Thanks to the UK, last year over 2.5 million girls took their first steps into primary school, with a quarter of a million making the crucial transition into secondary school. I saw for myself the transformational education programme DFID is helping to fund in Pakistan. Girls with big ideas about what jobs they would like to do when they became older – teachers, doctors, scientists. I remember when I was growing up in Rotherham in the 1980’s, I had ideas – I wasn’t sure what they’d amount to, but I knew education was my first step. They knew it too and who knows what they can achieve with the opportunity.

It’s not just education – last year we helped nearly three quarters of a million women access financial services; we secured property and land rights for nearly a quarter of a million women and supported 1 million additional women to use more modern methods of family planning.

But now I want us to be more ambitious still. I want us to do more.

This is about more than increasing access to schools, or providing healthcare services. It’s about looking deeper, getting under the skin of the problem. And as I see it, it comes down to three issues of choice, voice and control.

On choice

So what about choice?

Well we’re going to continue DFID’s work on education, which is absolutely fundamental to giving girls more choice. But it isn’t just about getting girls into school, it’s about what they do while they’re there, and why they often leave. We need to address the underlying causes of why girls drop out. And our Girls’ Education Challenge is already delivering a step change, getting an extra one million of the world’s poorest girls in to school by 2016 and giving them a better quality education when they are there.

The London Summit on Family Planning last year was the starting point for determined UK action on family planning and of the goal we have set, with others, to enable an extra 120 million girls and women in the world’s poorest countries to use voluntary family planning by 2020.

But I think it’s not enough. That’s why today I am announcing that DFID has released further funding to deliver over 3m contraceptive implants and 17m female condoms.

This investment will help avert around 2.6m unintended pregnancies, prevent the deaths of more than 4,500 women during pregnancy, and avoid almost 65,000 infant deaths and we will look to do more still.

On control

What about control?

I’ve recently come back from Pakistan where last year Malala Yousafzai’s case highlighted the difficulties for girls and women but also the hope that so many girls have for a better future. She was a young girl, shot for simply trying to go to school and for being brave enough to speak up about the right to education for all. Another recent high profile and horrific case we all know of – Delhi, in December, a young student simply trying to get home is gang raped and dies.

These individual high profile cases are the tip of an enormous iceberg of violations against girls’ and women’s rights. It happens on a day to day basis and it’s simply routine.

I think violence against Girls and Women is a pandemic.

I can tell you about a woman you’ll never have heard of. She’s called Nusrat, from Punjab in Pakistan. Nusrat suffered extensive burns from an acid attack after refusing an attempted forced marriage. Just to report her case, Nusrat had to overcome the social stigma of reporting such a crime, the fear that it would bring dishonour on her family.

Nusrat has been supported to get her life back on track by The Acid Survivors Foundation, one of a number of UK Aid backed initiatives in Pakistan.

Treating the terrible symptoms of attacks like this is crucial, but not enough. We also need to tackle the attitudes and the social norms that are the root causes. We need to tackle the culture of impunity. Nusrat and other acid attack victims are campaigning for the introduction of a new acid and burn crime bill in Pakistan so it can improve the process of reporting, investigation, collecting medical evidence, compensation for rehabilitation, and protection for the victim and the witnesses

All these stories show how injustice is woven into and across the fabric of our societies and economies, in legal frameworks, in how institutions run and in governments. And this injustice reinforces the lack of power that girls and women then have within in their households, communities, societies.

But there is hope.

As challenging as these stories and statistics are, ordinary people’s reactions show the hope we can all have.

The girls in Pakistan supporting Malala.

The street protests following the Delhi rape.

Here in the UK, in less than 3 weeks since we launched it, more than 25,000 people have signed the online pledge on our DFID website calling for action to stop violence against women and girls at the UN. If you haven’t already, please go online and join us: http://bit.ly/StopVAW

We’ve also been working with our partners like Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, who enlist men and boys in support of gender equality, for the fantastic V-Day Campaign.

Thank you to everybody who has been involved in all these initiatives. One voice can be ignored, but millions can’t.

They all demonstrate that people – men and women - are not prepared to sit on the sidelines and accept failure. The message is loud and clear. We will not accept that there is no end to endemic violence against girls and women and we will work persistently, relentlessly for the change we need at a government level, at an institutional level, at an economic level, at a personal – attitudinal level – to bring that change about.

So where does DFID fit in?

DFID is shifting up a gear on its work on violence against women and girls.

We’ve set up a £25 million Research and Innovation Fund to find out what works, tying into new programmes helping the specific needs of women and girls in current emergencies in DRC, and Syrian refugees.

And to make sure we keep the momentum after this year’s UN’s Commission on the Status of Women I will be launching an international call to action on violence against women and girls in humanitarian emergencies, with a Summit in the autumn, bringing agencies, donors and advocates together to make sure that we up our game.

I have today written to the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, and the UN Secretary General to call on them to put the needs of women and girls clearly at the heart of humanitarian programmes including in Syria.

I also pay tribute to the work that my ministerial colleague Lynne Featherstone is putting into developing an ambitious agenda which we want to see which aims to end Female Genital Mutilation within a generation.

And we cannot be afraid of tackling contentious and sensitive issues.

The UK is one of only a handful of donors with a clear policy that lays out how we can improve access to safe abortion – unsafe abortion leads to the death of 47,000 women and girls every year and leaves another 8.5 million harmed.

In Afghanistan, I want to make it clear today that our Afghanistan country plan will have tackling violence against women and girls as a country strategic priority to do whatever the UK can to ensure the gains for girls and women in Afghanistan are not lost and instead can be built upon. Kate, I know you have raised this as an issue with me, and you’re right. This is why we are making this a country strategic priority.

Control over resources

What about control and economic empowerment?

Girls and women are also telling us loudly and clearly that their priority is jobs; taking control of their lives through education and getting skills, having access to credit, supply chains, support for their farms and business so they can earn a decent wage and have control over how they spend their income.

The economic empowerment of girls and women is essential to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and wider development outcomes.

But women face a range of barriers. They are often unable to own property in their own name, open a bank account, access credit, or register a business.

In Kenya more than 85% of loans require collateral – that’s usually land with a registered title – yet women hold only 1% of registered land titles.

Restrictions on women’s mobility also prevent them from accessing economic opportunities. In a number of countries women require their husband’s permission to travel outside the home, to apply for a passport, or to travel outside the country

DFID already has a number of programmes to help remove those barriers, but I can announce that I have just committed up to £11.5 million to a new partnership with the World Bank, for a ‘Gender Innovation Lab’ on girls and women’s economic empowerment, testing what works in terms of giving girls and women control over their economic lives in sub-Saharan Africa. This evidence base isn’t just going to help DFID but also other governments, donors and NGOs.

On voice

So we will focus on choice, on control.

Finally girls and women must have a voice.

Research clearly demonstrates that women’s political participation achieves real changes – in policy choices and in social and political institutions. For example, in villages in West Bengal and Rajhastan where women hold leadership roles, there is more likely to be increased investment in public services and infrastructure.

Like much of this agenda, the investment we make to change laws, and change attitudes, can take a generation to truly feed through. But it is worth it.

And I am delighted to announce that over the next three years, the UK will be funding the Leadership for Change Programme. It will support the leadership skills and opportunities of more than 50,000 girls and women to be able to make a difference in their local communities and nationally. In just three days of launching the programme, we had thousands of applications from women around the world.

All of this is also about harnessing the power of role models, like Joyce Banda, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Aung San Suu Kyi. And I will make sure I do what I can in my own role, working alongside others to give those women a voice, to have them listened to.

The right time

History shows us that pushing on the right issues, but critically also at the right time, catching the mood, catching the momentum of the times, is the key to success. And I believe this is the right time to press for change.

This year offers us a series of opportunities to put girls and women centre stage. I want the UK will use every international opportunity to stand up for the rights of girls and women – we all got to put all our energy, creativity and commitment to make the most of the big events we have got coming up.

This week, International Women’s Day on the 8th of March is a key event to focus minds on change.

And during our G8 Presidency, we are working across government supporting the Foreign Secretary’s vital Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, to ensure G8 members sign up to pledges on this unacceptably neglected issue.

The UK is working tirelessly to ensure that Commission on the Status of Women this year reaches agreed strong conclusions. Both myself and Lynne Featherstone are playing our role in beating the drum, lobbying making the calls we need to and co-ordinating supporters to get a successful outcome.

And DFID’s next Multilateral Aid Review, which will take place in 2015, will assess agencies’ performance on the rights of women and girls.

And at the UN we will aim to play a championing role at the General Assembly Special Session on the Millennium Development Goals Review in September this year.

We are in discussions with the U.S. on a gender theme for the MDG Countdown event as well.

I hope I can use my role as co-chair of the Global partnership to ensure progress is made on the Busan gender action plan.

And the UK will continue to be a voice for the sexual and reproductive health rights at the International Conference on Population and Development next year, 20 years on from the Cairo meeting that recognised the importance of these rights.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, we have the Post 2015 agenda. I believe only if we address issues of voice, choice and control for girls and women in the Post 2015 framework will it have the potential to end poverty in our lifetime.

Like Loretta, I personally believe we need both a standalone goal and the mainstreaming of gender through the new development framework and it must explicitly deliver on an aim of eliminating violence against women.

The right people

I said recently we won’t get anywhere by ‘shouting louder’. I also believe we won’t get anywhere by simply preaching to the converted.

DFID can only achieve progress working with others.

First and foremost, we must work with boys and men as partners in challenging discrimination and violence against girls and women. The Leadership for Change programme I just talked about will build the evidence base on how working with men and boys can really make a difference.

We also need to look to the Private Sector, and I will say more about this in a speech next week. Investing in women has become more than good corporate social responsibility for companies. As I said at the beginning, investing in girls and women works - it’s becoming increasingly a core business strategy yielding real investor returns.

We need everyone on board. This is why I will be establishing an Expert Advisory Group on Girls and Women, people from different worlds, to include leaders from the human rights community, and the private sector and CSOs feeding in to DFID’s work.

The British taxpayer is also a stakeholder in this work, and hugely generous, especially during campaigns such as Red Nose Day. We’ve asked Comic Relief to design projects that will change the lives of over half a million girls and women in the world’s poorest countries and we will double the money raised for that work.

Finally, I’ve talked a lot about what we need to achieve internationally.

But what about Britain?

I don’t think we can engage credibly with others if we’re not tackling our own issues at home.

100 years ago this year, in 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested for demanding women’s right to vote. Some of the suffragettes went on hunger strike, as did she. Others found incredibly creative ways to get their message across. Just round the corner in Parliament from Viscount Falkland’s statue is the Westminster Hall crypt where Emily Davidson Wilding hid in a cupboard so when it was the census she could put her address down at the House of Commons.

I’ve always felt that in many respects it was a political and social movement that was really the first modern campaign we might have recognised. And it worked.

But what would they think of Britain and women’s rights today? A hundred years later and we’ve seen just one female leader of a main political party, just one female prime minister.

In 2010, women made up just 12.5% of the boards of FTSE 100 companies.

Two-thirds of public appointments go to men, 90% of chief constables and the police and crime commissioners are male, and two-thirds of local councillors are male.

We have said for the G8 we need to get our own house in order and that applies to this too.

Britain needs to play a leading role globally, not just by effort – and as I have set out, we will – but by example too. We must all ask the searching questions, never turn a blind eye to women treated unacceptably in our own country.

We will fight for the rights of girls and women when we got to New York at this year’s vital Commission on the Status of Women, but it is what we all must fight for here in Britain too, and I applaud my colleagues Theresa May and Maria Miller who are taking the lead across Government on this agenda domestically.

The greatest challenge of our time

Ultimately, I believe in a world where the ladder of opportunity in economy and society is there for us all to climb, not just the few. It shouldn’t matter where you start. We have the chance, and I believe the responsibility, to play our part in empowering girls and women to climb up to the next rung, and then the next and the next. We need to help one another – there is room for everyone. Despite all odds, women like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have reached the top. These role models are critical to pushing the boundaries of what society expects of girls and women. But they need to become the best of a mass of women who make it, not the minority.

I want to make sure that the UK leaves no stone unturned in rising to this greatest unmet challenge of our time. I urge you to continue your efforts, to work with new partners – whatever it takes, whoever it takes, and I can assure you that the UK government stands side by side with you. When people look back, let’s be the generation that not only “could do” but “did do”. The history we will create is still ahead of us – let’s make sure it’s the right one.

Updates to this page

Published 4 March 2013