It was welcome earlier this week to hear the Prime Minister say that foreign aid “works.” But whilst her speech covered topics as diverse as climate change and curbing terrorism, basic points about women and girls’ rights got little attention. So just as we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to meeting the 0.7% aid spending target, we must also urge her government to renew its focus on empowering women and girls living in the world’s poorest countries.
At ActionAid, we know just how vitally important this work is. In countries across the world, our dedicated local staff help end violence against women and girls and get them out of danger – and out of poverty. It’s only through working with women and girls living in poverty that lasting change can be achieved.
This work has never been more urgent. In Africa, where the Prime Minister delivered her speech, and all over the world, women and girls face discrimination and violence simply because they’re women. Gender equality will only really be achieved when all women have access to the same social, economic and political power and opportunities as men. But there is a creeping danger that our government’s actions could make those women’s situations worse, not better. We mustn’t let that happen.
As with any government announcement, the politics play a crucial role here. The Prime Minister is, after all, on a trade mission, where she is aiming to advance the UK’s interests in a post-Brexit future. But here is the crucial point: we have to make sure that no trade deal we broker results in a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights, pay, or the funding and administration of public services in poorer countries.
This isn’t just about rights (though that is, of course, paramount). Sticking to this principle would make good economic sense too: we have calculated that, if women had access to the same work opportunities as men, the world would be $9trillion richer. So whether it’s in trade or aid, women’s rights should be at the front and centre of our government’s considerations.
We’ve seen first-hand that women are the ones who suffer most keenly when trade deals prioritise multinational corporations and the UK national interest – but we’ve equally seen how women can unlock the potential of whole communities, provided they’re given the resources and support they need. That is why the UK should be working with governments to improve the lives of the poorest women and girls.
Women’s rights are the lifeblood of all of our work. And we aren’t alone in pursuing this goal. In her speech, the Prime Minister spoke effectively about Nelson Mandela’s journey which helped transform South Africa from a “country in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity”. That was, indeed, a “bold vision”, and one which we would like to work with the Government to achieve so that it can become a reality for everyone in South Africa, and the world, no matter where their born, or their gender.
Mandela was also a strident advocate for women’s rights. In 1995, he argued that “as a tribute” to the women who had fought, successfully, for justice before them, his country “ought to imprint … firm principles upholding the rights of women.” A year previously, he used his state of the nation address to proclaim that “Freedom cannot be achieved unless … women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”
Today, in every corner of this planet, that same oppression stalks women’s lives from the moment they’re born (where, in so many countries, a girl’s birth is not celebrated as much as a boy’s), and through every moment of their time on this earth.
The Prime Minister has said that “now is the time for the nations of the world to come together”.
We at ActionAid agree: now is the time to come together, to show a renewed determination to empower the poorest women and girls, and to make this a cornerstone of economic policy.
With the prospect of new trade deals on the horizon, the need to get this right has never been more vital. The Prime Minister described on her trip how how the life stories of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan “encapsulate the ebbs and flows of history.” We stand on those same shores. History won’t forgive us if we let the tide wash away.