On Friday morning, MPs in the House of Commons will have the chance to debate a Bill that could ensure that the UK becomes a trailblazer for gender equality for the rest of the world. A private member's bill, proposed by William Cash MP and developed by the Great Initiative http://thegreatinitiative.org.uk aims to make the UK the first country to put into law that the Secretary of State for International Development has to consider the impact on gender equality when considering how all our overseas aid (about £7billion annually) is spent.
Our current secretary of state for international development Justine Greening has already thrown her support behind the Bill and she has made tackling inequality between women and men one of her top priorities. This Bill provides an important and positive legacy which would enshrine gender equality into law so that no matter who leads DFID (Department for International Development) in the future, the door is open and remains so forever.
The GREAT Initiative was formed because we recognised there was a role for an organisation campaigning specifically for gender equality, both here in the UK and further afield. There are lots of women's groups doing wonderful work for women's rights and empowerment, and increasingly many men's groups are springing up too, but it was time for a charity like the GREAT Initiative to start looking at the bigger picture and consider how women and men could be engaged in the movement for gender equality.
The GREAT Initiative is a becoming a well recognised advocacy platform, besides its international activity. We have strong networks and we aim to use our voice to campaign for change. This Bill is the perfect example of that. By enshrining gender equality into law we will ensure that no matter who is in Government, the DFID has a legal duty to consider gender in everything it does. Today our politicians, thanks to William Cash MP will have the chance to debate the subject via his Private Members' Bill. The Bill will then have a third reading in the House of Commons before being passed for debate in the House of Lords before, we hope, finally becoming law in the summer of 2014.
Mr Cash has worked hard with the team at GREAT as well as other NGOs including Plan and Water Aid to create a forward thinking yet attainable piece of legislation. We all knew that very few Private Members' Bills become law, so we are delighted that ours has come so far. It is because of the strength of support from the Government, including David Cameron that the Bill has got to the stage where it will be debated by the House of Commons this morning. We are excited about the debate today as it means Parliament will finally have the chance to discuss this very important issue. That in itself is an achievement.
Why is gender equality an issue? We know that gender inequality holds back development. For instance early marriage and teenage pregnancy put a stop to the education of girls which means they cannot enter the workplace, which in turns slows down economic development. We also know that overseas aid can address or exacerbate gender inequality. For instance, a democratisation programme which fails to address the representation of women may lead to free and fair elections but may also lead to a male-dominated parliament. Women make up only 21% of parliamentarians globally and it is critically important to address this. By considering the different needs of women and men in emergency situations, like the crises in Syria or the Philippines, or anywhere around the world that needs our provision and security, we can ensure that our aid is more effective and targets the most vulnerable in these situations, which is so often the women and girls.
Many aid programmes are designed specifically to tackle pervasive gender inequalities, for instance DFID's Girls Education Challenge which seeks to address the gender imbalance in access to and completion of education. Another example is White Ribbon Alliance, a global campaign seeking to reduce maternal mortality. This Bill would not only encourage DFID to continue to support such initiatives but it would also ensure that gender is addressed across the board, including areas where the relevance of gender is not always that obvious.
There are some brilliant programmes ensuring children are vaccinated and receive regular health checks, but they are often targeted primarily at mothers, which reinforces the stereotype that women are solely responsible for childcare and the health of their children. A simple change in how we communicate healthcare messages e.g. referring to 'parents and carers' rather than 'mothers' and showing posters depicting new-borns in the arms of their fathers as well as mothers can have a huge impact.
Last week we heard about a programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo which seeks to change male attitudes towards rape. This is an excellent example of a gender-transformative programme. In order to tackle violence against women it is essential to provide services, support and protection to women, but also to invest in prevention by addressing male attitudes and behaviours.
Friday is the beginning of a transformation on how we spend our international aid. In the UK we are in the lucky position to be able to help others around the world with our aid. It is our opportunity to show that it's not enough to just give money, we have a responsibility to our sisters and daughters all over the world that we spend that money wisely and to open the eyes and the minds of their Governments so that their lives can be made better through the implementation of such a law. Once this law is created the GREAT initiative will create a movement which will spread to different countries which will in turn create the same law.
Karen Ruimy is co-founder of the GREAT initiative (Gender Rights & Equality Action Trust) www.thegreatinitiative.org.uk @thegreatinitiative