Author: Libby Smith, Acting CEO of the Coalition for Global Prosperity and LCID Executive Member
On International Women’s Day 2020, it’s important that we not only celebrate the huge strides made but recognise that every day, women and girls still face discrimination, poverty and violence just because they are women. We know that when we empower women and girls great things happen, yet women and girls everywhere are still being silenced and denied their rights.
So much of today’s progress in Britain has been hard fought and hard won by women before us. A century on from the watershed moment in which 8.4 million women won the right to vote, we have a record 220 women as elected representatives in Parliament. Women in the UK, who were once barred from formal education, are today 35% more likely than boys to attend university. Fast forward to the present day, and inspirational movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have sent shockwaves around much of the developed world, giving a voice to millions of women previously silenced.
But the reality is that the fight is still far from over. Women and girls in the poorest countries are still not being heard in the workplace and at the polling station, with 130 million girls around the world still being deprived of an education and only two countries in the world having equal representation of women in parliament. Without concerted action, they face being swept aside in a sea of unprecedented change. We have the power to change this and this is why UK aid is keeping girls in schools, stamping out gender violence and giving women a voice in shaping the future of their countries. I believe that by harnessing one our greatest strengths – our aid budget – we are, and can, make a meaningful difference to the lives of young women for generations to come.
I have seen for myself in Uganda the important work UK aid is doing. I met Farah, a young girl orphaned at 14 years old, she had fled South Sudan and was caring for her siblings in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Despite all the hardship and challenges, the immense emotional scars and trauma, she faced all she wanted was to get into the classroom: “We need to be educated so we can return home and build a peaceful future for South Sudan”. What was striking was how important she felt getting an education was to create the next generation of future leaders in South Sudan.
I believe that the single most powerful way to make the world a safer, healthier and more prosperous place for us all is by investing in women and girls, in particular girl’s education. It has been proven time and time again that getting girls in the classroom is the key to unlocking so many other problems – it boosts economic growth, reduces population pressures, reduces conflict and improves health. A United Nations study found that if all girls went to secondary school, then infant mortality would be cut in half, saving three million young lives every year. When girls are educated, there are more jobs for everyone. If all girls went to school for 12 years, low and middle income countries could add $92 billion per year to their economies. While evidence shows that providing aid to the women of the house means they are far more likely to invest their incomes back into their families – helping to drive up better health standards and educational opportunities for their children, in turn benefitting the wider community. However it is not just that universal female education will expand GDP and make us all more prosperous, though it will, it is profoundly the right thing to do.
We also know that to effectively govern the population, parliaments need to be representative of their population, drawing upon the widest possible pools of talent and experience. Yet currently men are still dominating the corridors of power around the world. By educating girls today, we can create tomorrow’s campaigners and leading political voices who want to strengthen womens’ rights, building a new political class for whom creating a new status quo is their raison d’etre. UK aid can, and is, playing a key role here, as the example of Pakistan shows, where the UK-aid funded Aawaz programme has helped to politically empower over 20,000 women through women’s assemblies. But we can also do more to learn from and support each other. In Rwanda, over 61% of MPs are female, compared with just 34% in the UK. Despite its harrowing history, the country is leading the way in female political representation, and if they can do this, then so too should we.
The UK Government has a strong track record of championing women’s rights around the world and has rightly continued to prioritise women and girls in its international development and foreign policy. UK aid has helped 5.3 million girls into education in the last 5 years, including in some of the toughest places in the world and I’m glad the Prime Minister has made this a priority.
As the UK redefines its role in the world, we have the opportunity to really consider what sort of nation we want to be. I believe we are at our best when we stand tall as an outward-facing, tolerant, compassionate nation which respects the rule of law and human rights, championing our values in the face of the defining challenges of their time. We must continue to champion equal rights, opportunities and life chances for women and girls around the world as we know that when we empower women and girls great things happen.