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The International Development Secretary calls on activists to continue the fight for women’s rights and to help build a world where every girl can reach her potential.
I’m absolutely delighted to be here with you today and speaking at this festival.
As the UK’s International Development Secretary for the last two and a half years I’ve put empowering girls and women very much at the heart of everything my department does in developing countries.
We are supporting more girls to go to school. We’re helping more women to vote, to own their own land, to start their own business and to plan their family for the first time.
And I’ve been determined to take on important issues that in the past I think the development community has backed away from as being too sensitive and too difficult to deal with. In particular child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation.
Last summer, the UK government and UNICEF hosted the first ever Girl Summit at a school, a fantastic school - Walworth Academy - to rally a global movement to end FGM and child marriage, bringing together governments, activists, NGOs, businesses, young people.
And bit by bit, alongside the efforts of so many others - many of you in this room - all of this work is giving girls and women a voice, choice and control over their lives and their futures.
Activists leading the way
A lot of this couldn’t ever have got going without the amazing activists and campaigners - many of you are here today - and people we’re going to hear from on this panel, who were talking about issues like FGM and child marriage long before anyone else wanted to go near them.
It’s thanks to the work that you started that gender equality is no longer a niche interest in international development.
And together we’re now pushing these issues right up the global agenda. Our Charter for Change at the Girl Summit was agreed by more than 490 signatories, including 43 national governments - with more still signing.
So we’ve come a long way. But if we’re really going to succeed in achieving gender equality, we need our work to lead to fundamental changes in attitudes towards women around the world; and I believe we need everyone to be advocating for this change; girls and women, boys and men.
Tackling social norms
Too many millions of girls around the world are still having their potential snuffed out at a very early age; their lives end up being limited and defined from the moment they’re born, just because they’re a girl.
I think we have to ask the question, why is it this way in the first place? And it’s because in these communities, women normally stay at home, they normally get married very early, they normally wouldn’t vote, they normally don’t run a business.
And we have to ask the question how these norms, which tip the balance away from women and girls’ rights, get set in the first place and who and what dictates what is normal?
And I believe that to advance the cause of women’s rights further, and faster, we really need to tackle these social norms, the deeply held beliefs, attitudes and often the traditions that mean girls and women are too often seen as lesser then men.
Supporting grassroots activism
So how do we challenge and rewire these social norms?
At the Girl Summit, Malala talked about people themselves changing and having their own traditions. Traditions don’t have to be set in stone and she was right.
Very often local activists and community groups are best placed to build the trust and credibility within local communities, and particularly with boys and men, that we need to challenge discrimination and social norms.
However, it is difficult for local, grassroots organisations to obtain funding. Often small amounts can go an incredibly long way and be transformative.
And that’s why I’m pleased to be announcing today that my department is investing £8 million in a new initiative, AmplifyChange - a fund, not just supported by the UK but others too, that will primarily support smaller community groups, activists and individuals that work on sexual and reproductive health and rights and related issues, including the causes and consequences of child marriage, FGM and gender-based violence.
Men and boys
Importantly, this fund will be for working with boys and men as well as girls and women. I know a lot of our time, our work on gender equality has rightly been spent working with girls and women directly. Some of the most inspiring people I’ve met are the women campaigning for women’s rights in Afghanistan very bravely, or women steadily and tirelessly working to end child marriage in Zambia.
But I also think that a key area that has been too easily neglected in the past, and the first point I want to make, is engaging with men and boys more.
So often, it is boys and men setting those social norms; so we need to work with them to change their attitude.
And I think we need to recognise men and boys can be change makers in gender equality too. Many of them are already championing change themselves.
We’re seeing growing momentum on this, the HeForShe campaign by UN Women that aims to “bring together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all” has 200,000 plus signatures and high profile support from President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
And at the Girl Summit last year some of the most eloquent contributions came from young men who were at that event talking about their hopes for their sisters, for their mothers, their friends who are female. They were an inspiration.
And you can meet male role models perhaps where you least expect them. Last year, the MP Bill Cash put a law through parliament that means my department is legally obliged to consider gender equality before we fund a programme or give assistance anywhere in the world. It’s something many other countries are looking at and taking a lead from. It is a unique Bill we should be proud of.
And in his time as Foreign Secretary, and since, William Hague has worked tirelessly to end sexual violence against women in conflict.
These are men who are really making a difference for women. But we need to see more men making more of a difference, more men demanding change for and with women if we’re going to be successful.
My second point is about human rights and values. As Hilary Clinton said at the historic women’s conference in Beijing 20 years ago: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”
This should matter to all of us. Because when anyone is at a stage where they relegate another human being to some sort of secondary position to them, to less than them, they’ve crossed an important rubicon. Because once you’ve done that it’s so easy to add others to the list; after ‘being female’ can come having a different religion, having a different sexuality, having a different ethnicity. But the crossing of that rubicon so often starts with girls and women.
So this cause isn’t just about winning for girls and women, it’s about winning for everyone who faces discrimination around our world.
The final point I want to make is that countries with poor human rights and women’s rights records should realise that in today and tomorrow’s world, the light of transparency and accountability is only going to get brighter and brighter.
Not just from governments but perhaps and I think more powerfully, from people, millions of people around our world.
You can go on the web right now and see terrible news stories of women who have been stoned. And we all know about the story of Meriam Ibrahim, forced to give birth in a South Sudanese prison just because she married a Christian.
Whereas once these stories may have gone under the radar, today we know all about them, we can see them for ourselves in an increasingly transparent, digital media age. It’s as easy as going outside our own front doors and seeing what is happening in our own communities.
That knowledge gives us the power to press for change. When I say ‘us’, I mean people, I mean voters. I believe that in democracies, as ever, people will vote for governments that reflect their priorities and those priorities will increasingly reflect people’s concerns on the unacceptable state of women’s rights in too many places around the world.
People will vote for governments that put a priority on progress.
Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are about values; about dignity, equality, freedom of expression, accountable power. Some people will call them Western values. But that’s wrong. I’ve met people with those same values all over the world, in countries that face the biggest challenges.
And for those people who’d like to turn back the clock on gender equality, perhaps claiming they are supporting ‘traditional family values’: your so-called values are not values, they are excuses for the status quo, a status quo that cannot be justified and cannot be sustained.
Those who stand against those values of dignity and equality will find themselves fighting against an increasingly unstoppable wave. Change never happens overnight. Here in the UK, the suffragette movement took 50, 60 years to get women the vote. But I believe the momentum is with the young people and campaigners around the world who are demanding progress.
They are saying that when it comes to violence against women and girls, on FGM, on child marriage, on forced marriage, on sexual violence in conflict: enough is enough. And they are right.
We need to lock in the achievements we’ve made. This year, 20 years after Beijing, the world agrees a new set of global development goals for tackling poverty, the UK is determined to put girls and women are at the heart of these goals with a standalone goal and comprehensive set of gender targets mainstreamed throughout the new development framework, including on violence against women and girls, child marriage and FGM.
It’s essential that everyone here makes their voice heard; men and boys being the force for change along with girls and women. I believe that together, by continuing to put women’s rights here and around the world under the spotlight we can break down the social norms that hold girls and women back, we can build a world where every girl can reach her potential and decide her own future.