Adolescent girls can play an enormous role in bringing about sustainable development. But for too long their rights and potential have been overlooked by world leaders, and this has held back development and equality. At last international momentum is building to address this gap.
The story of Zeinabou, from the Zinder Region of Niger, exemplifies the importance of empowering girls. When she was 15, her parents forced her to drop out of school and marry an older man. In the marriage, she suffered repeated and escalating violence. If she had not been able to escape and divorce her husband, her life trajectory would likely have been limited to repeating the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality experienced by far too many girls before her.
Last week was my first visit to the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW), an annual event that has been held at the UN since 1946. Over 100 ministers and 8000 civil society advocates attended, with events ranging from set piece plenary sessions where ministers deliver their national statements, to side events on every issue you could imagine.
This year, we were celebrating 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing agreed powerful commitments for advancing women’s rights, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
That ground-breaking declaration was and still is a blueprint for what needs to happen to advance women’s rights – but has yet to be fully realised anywhere in the world.
I had long heard reports of CSW. Often I heard that progress seemed difficult to achieve. Indeed, it was challenging enough to stop the world moving backwards on women’s rights, especially in the sexual and reproductive rights which must underpin women’s autonomy.
Having heard about CSW for so many years without ever being a participant, it was extraordinary to represent the UK in that famous UN General Assembly Hall.
So many of the ways in which women and girls around the world must live their lives are simply taken for granted, never given a second thought.
We all know that domestic tasks fall disproportionately on women. That is as true in the UK as it is in a rural African village or a Darfuri refugee camp.
We also know that round the world there is energy poverty – people do not have the basic energy needs for their daily lives. But do we realise how this disproportionately affects women and girls?
In this crucial year, when the international community will agree a new set of Sustainable Development Goals and a climate deal will be reached in Paris, maybe we should think harder.
An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 2.8 billion rely on solid fuels for cooking and heating. And it is girls and women who bear the brunt of this energy poverty.
Twenty years ago some 30,000 activists descended on Beijing for a historic Women’s Conference where representatives from 189 governments agreed powerful commitments for advancing girls’ and women’s rights. These commitments formed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
The UK welcomes the opportunity to engage with UN Women and international partners to discuss progress for girls and women since Beijing, and more importantly to address persisting barriers to gender equality.
The UK Government believes that all girls and women have the right to live free from discrimination and violence and to fulfil their potential.
Women’s greater economic independence and participation is crucial to gender equality and global development. The UK has prioritised this at home and overseas.
In the UK there are more women in work than ever before – including in senior decision-making roles and as heads of businesses. We are closing the gender pay gap and working to ensure more girls pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
We’re introducing new legislation to help women into work – including flexible working, shared parental leave and tax-free childcare.
Overseas we have provided access to financial services to at least 26.4 million women and supported over five million girls to attend primary and lower secondary school.
Research is helping to improve agriculture, education, medicine and technology across the developing world.
Lib Dem International Development Minister Baroness Northover has visited the University of Cambridge to hear more about their world leading research to help end extreme poverty in developing countries.
Research and evidence play an important role the UK’s international development work.
Supported by the Department for International Development, the University of Cambridge’s research is helping to understand how to improve agriculture, education, medicine and technology across the developing world in a bid to end dependency on aid. Around a third of all research projects run by DFID are won by British universities.
During her visit Lindsay Northover heard from professors and students carrying out research into:
the control of bovine tuberculosis in Ethiopia to help protect the livelihood of poor farmers
the control of zoonotic gastrointestinal disease in pigs in Burma which can pass to humans and account for around 1 million human deaths per year globally
the control of aphid-transmitted viruses which can kill beans and other major crops that provide essential sources of food in Central and Eastern Africa
the impact of Activity Based Learning as a teaching method.
Lindsay Northover said:
High quality research is the foundation of the most effective development programmes and can make an huge difference for millions of the world’s poorest people.
The University of Cambridge’s research has already had an enormous benefit on the lives of people in developing countries and will continue to do so as their DFID funded programmes come to fruition.
Many girls’ and women’s faces in Mozambique will stay with me. But 3 of those faces had a particularly strong impact – those of Isalinha, Ana, and especially a young mother in Manica province, whose name I may never know.
Let us take that young woman first. She sat on the ground, surrounded by other young women and their children in a village, as women community leaders acted out short plays on good nutrition and family planning for us. She did not engage. She barely watched, gazing somewhere into the distance, no smile on her face. She looked perhaps 20, perhaps younger. Attached to her were twins, feeding constantly, each baby detaching himself and crying, as her milk clearly ran out, then reattaching in hope. One twin was dominant, and he would swipe from time to time at his sibling, trying to knock him off the other breast. The mother, stick thin, barely seemed to notice that either. All her waking and sleeping hours she would no doubt be feeding these twins. She may well have had other young children, as many were playing near her. She may well already be pregnant again, as most seemed to be. Weariness emanated from every pore of her body. She knew there was no easy end to this.
The men behind her giggled as we heard about how young girls were married off young, but when their babies arrived, their husbands then moved off to take other wives as the first wife was then too “busy” looking after small children, the household, as well as the fields.
Family planning is taken up by only 12.5% in Mozambique, and 43% of children under 5 are malnourished.
That was the reality for that young woman’s life, and it is not surprising that it was too much effort to raise her eyes to us, or anyone. It was especially to her, as well as those around her, that I said that life will change, as I am certain it will. And which is why we engage as we do. But she seemed not to hear, or register.
But as a human indicator of change, let me now turn to Isalinha. In the Radio Mozambique studio in Tete City, I was grilled by fifteen-year-old Isalinha Alfredo. She is a youth journalist, helping to present a UNICEF-supported award-winning radio programme with other young people. They tackle the issue of child, early and forced marriage head on, as well as other challenges facing adolescent girls in Mozambique, including through a popular soap opera. Isalinha wanted to know if child marriage was a problem in the UK and if so, what we did about it.
African communities in the UK will receive support to strengthen campaigns to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) through a new scheme backed by the Department for International Development (DFID) in collaboration with The Girl Generation, Lib Dem Development Minister Baroness Northover has announced.
Voluntary and community African groups in the UK are being invited to bid for new grants to support their campaigns to end FGM in their countries of origin.
This week, Addis Ababa has played host to the African Union (AU) Summit. While 2015 is the AU’s year of women’s empowerment – one of the issues I’ve focused on here this week – Ebola has, of course, taken centre stage as well. Both issues provide a clear demonstration of the kind of African leadership the UK is working to support.
But we must go further. I am here at the AU summit to lobby for faster progress. I attended an extraordinary breakfast hosted by the First Ladies of Africa to press for progress on ending child marriage, where we heard from a brave young Nigerian woman who had been married at the age of 13 – to a man whose name she didn’t even know – and had her childhood stolen from her. In a halting voice, with a scarf across her face to conceal her identity, she urged us to ensure that other young girls could stay in school, as she had wished, not lose their childhoods, and choose a partner only when ready.