Empowering women and girls around the world

Justine Greening speech at the Transforming Economies: Empowering Girls and Women event in New York

The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP

Thank you very much and welcome to all of you for coming to this event that we are co hosting with UN Women, and I know that the Government of Ethiopia has also played a role in helping to put this event on this evening.

We are going to be talking about women’s economic empowerment. I think it’s incredibly important because for too long we’ve seen girls and women essentially airbrushed out of the picture and invisible outside the home.

And I think it’s been an exclusion for girls and women that has just not been about having a job or livelihoods, it’s gone beyond that. It’s been exclusion from owning land, from registering a business, from even accessing a bank account.

In fact, if we look at the scale of the challenge, in 35 countries, female surviving spouses don’t even have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts. In fact, in 17 countries, husbands can actually legally prevent their wives from working.

And we know these things really matter because if we’re going to win the battle improving the prospect for women and girls and women’s rights. If you can’t own your own land, if you can’t even set up a bank account or – if in the 21st Century – you can’t even own a mobile phone, then the reality is you end up totally reliant on someone else for everything that you need in your day to day life.

On the flip side – if we can break these chains of dependency - then I believe girls and women will do the rest themselves. They just need to be given a chance, the ability and the opportunity.

I think that independent women and girls are going to seize that opportunity to support themselves through the dignity of working, they are going to seize the opportunity to control their own future and to have a voice in their community in a way that perhaps they haven’t had the chance in the past.

For me this is very much a matter of universal, basic human rights - women’s economic empowerment, it’s the right thing to do. But I firmly believe that girls and women are one of the best and one smartest development investments that we can make.

We know that when girls stay in school for just one extra year of primary school that can boost their eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent. We know that when women get extra earnings, they will then reinvest that back in their families and back in their communities. So it’s a double win for development.

But when we have a world where girls and women are losing out – therefore it means that we are all losing out. And in fact, the World Bank did some research that shows half of women’s productive potential globally is completely underutilised, and if you compared that to men, for men it was just a fifth.

So that is the challenge, but we are moving forward. Today we’ve had an amazing day where for the first time so many of these things that we have worked on and talked about, internationally and in countries, are now for the first time formally part of the Global Goals and Global Goal 5. And as Ban Ki-moon called it, it’s the to-do list but this is now to do properly for the first time and I think that it’s been an amazing day.

And those Global Goals include some absolutely vital targets, that I know many of us here have worked long and hard on. On increasing women’s rights to land and financial services; achieving equal pay for equal work, reducing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work on women.

And today is all about how we can now turn these ambitions into reality.

If we’re going to do that, then we all have to up our game. OECD data at the moment shows that around 20% of development spend of aid that goes into economic and productive sectors has a focus on gender equality – that needs to rise.

We urgently need to leverage more finances to invest on the gender equality more broadly, not just in terms of international development investment, but financing from the private sector, from philanthropists, from domestic resource mobilisation, to make sure that the level of investment that we need to get the change that we want is there.

The UK is going to absolutely continue to play our part, we champion long and hard the parts of the Global Goals that we are so delighted to see that are in Global Goal 5. We’ve already done so much in this whole area. We have already provided more than 35 million women with access to financial services such as savings, credit and insurance - just over the last five years alone. And we are helping 2.5 million women finally get land and property rights, with some groundbreaking projects in places like Rwanda.

And we’re going to do much more over the next few years.

We know that for women starting their own businesses, they need more than microfinance. In Nepal around 3.2 million women are cut off because they are living somewhere that’s is remote, it is perhaps hours away from the nearest all-weather road –and in fact more than a million women in somewhere like Nepal have never been connected to any road. And that really matters because if we are going to see women being able to access opportunities, they physically, literally need to be able to get to them if they’re going to do it.

So I can announce today that the UK is going to be extending our work that we’ve been doing in west Nepal for building rural roads and bridges in some of the most remote areas. And as a result, by 2019, more than a million girls and women are going to be connected to markets where they can sell their goods, they are going to be connected to the hospitals where they can give birth safely for the first time and they are going to be connected to the schools where their children need to go and learn.

And the women themselves are going to be building and maintaining the roads – and this extension of the scheme that we’ve learned so much from doing so far is going to create now more than 3,400 jobs for women every year for the next four years.

We also recognise that there is also a real need for better data on the kinds of discrimination that women in business face and better evidence then of what’s the best way to tackle it. So I’m also today announcing a million Pound investment for the World Bank and for the IFC to start developing those new ways and new approaches to looking at how we can tackle the regulations and the systems that discriminate against women – whether it’s issues of unequal inheritance rights or indeed even tax breaks that only apply to men. We’re going to be investing in helping to understand to remove those barriers.

And finally, we are also going to contribute £800,000 to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law survey which tracks and measures those sorts of economic laws and regulations that make it harder for women to work. So we’re going to be building the evidence and we’re going to be investing in programs that we know like, the one in Nepal, that can connect women to the assets that they miss but also help them have a chance of livelihoods to be independent financially. Those projects, along with the work that so many other people in this room are doing, are going to make a huge difference over the next 15 years.

I think today was an incredible day for girls and women. I think that the ability to have got Global Goal 5, gives us a platform for momentum on improving the prospects for girls and women that we’ve never had, in such a clear cut powerful way.

The final thing that I really want to say it that although I stand here as Secretary of State for International Development talking about all the work that we want to do with other countries, I think that we should reflect that no country has really achieved true gender equality yet, and that includes the UK.

With all of this work, Britain is also one of many countries that needs to keep on pushing ourselves to go further and faster on gender equality, and that’s what we are going to do.

We know that there are lots of people who aren’t in this room, who will still want to roll back progress, will regret the presence of Global Goal 5 and will want to step back from the commitments that we’ve all signed up to today in New York. I think it’s up to those of us who are passionate about the prospects of women and girls to make sure that we never let that happen. And I’ve said so many times that if you are not winning this battle for improving the prospects of women and girls, you are losing it.

But today we’ve had a massive step forward with Global Goal 5 and I think that if we can commit to delivering on that then we really will see the change that we want over the next 15 years.

Thank you very much for coming to this event and thank you for listening to me.

Published 26 September 2015