With the standoff between those two macho Superpowers, the USA and Russia still at elevated levels and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel trying hard to reduce the swaggering you might concur with Bishop Desmond Tutu who declared on March 5th “Until I can have a world run by women, I want male leaders to do more for equality for girls and women. …we cannot have a fair world, a peaceful world, when we exclude half the population.” This week in the House of Lords that ambition made significant progress when the Private Members Bill on Gender Equality in International Development was passed.
In the great pantheon of feminist icons, Bill Cash strikes an unusual figure: a fact even the Prime Minister commented on when Bill first presented his PMB to Parliament. It was an article I wrote three years ago in this paper that first inspired him. In it I questioned whether my tax money should be spent on aid projects that failed to address or worse, subsidised the continuing injustices against women that I’d witnessed first hand across much of the developing world. He got in touch and together with The Great Initiative – the tiny foundation that I’m a founding trustee of – we started working together on a Bill committed to advancing gender equality in law. We were joined along the way by friends like Plan UK and WaterAid, who put the weight of their supporters behind us. Justine Greening answered MPs’ questions on the Bill in the Commons and when the Prime Minister endorsed it, saying how it would result in Britain having ‘a leading role in examining gender equality before we deploy aid and other resources’, we started to hope. This week ‘Gender Equality’ has become a mandatory consideration when deciding how we spend our overseas aid budget has made for a real ‘pinch me’ moment.
Feminism may be back in vogue but as with the issue of poverty there is still a huge chasm between the haves and the have nots. While we worry about whether we’re betraying the sisterhood by shaving our armpits, or how to make the mini-skirt a symbol of emancipation, there are still millions of women across the globe denied basic human rights–whether it’s protection from the increased risk of rape and sexual assault that they face in conflict or the millions who –in peacetime – are denied the right of control over their destinies, to choose who they marry, to an education for themselves or to demand one for their daughters, to inherit land they’ve tilled and or homes they’ve created.
There are those who approve of UK development policy and those who don’t, but what can’t be argued over is the powerful influence you can exert for good when you are dispensing 11bn worth of aid a year across the globe. And you can’t have development without gender equality. Suggesting that the nations at the receiving end of our aid budget respect the basic human rights of the female half of the population would seem uncontroversial, yet with this bill we become the first nation in the world to make that criteria a legal condition. It puts Britain firmly in the lead in the struggle to end what ex US President Jimmy Carter has described as “ the most widespread human rights violation on earth”.
When it comes to raising the status of women helping hands from the male of the species are still too rare which is of continuing frustration since ending social injustice, from slavery to civil rights has only ever been achieved with the support of both sexes. It’s only with slight exaggeration that I say the impact of putting gender equality at the heart of Development Aid is today as pivotal a moment as Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act of 1807. Like that historic legislation it sets a precedent for all other nations to follow .
The Bill is deceptively simple but its impact will be immense as overseas aid can either address or exacerbate gender inequality. Delivering aid to refugee camps, its essential that sanitary products and newborn kits are included. When women are educated there is compelling evidence that they have less children and those children progress to higher education. But we can’t just build schools, we need to fund school buses so girls have a safe route to get there. If we provide farmers with tractors, we need to train women to drive them too.
This Bill also recognises that gender equality is not just a ‘women’s issue.’ Gender stereotypes and inequalities shape the life chances of men and boys too; try being a child soldier in Sierra Leone or a gay man in Uganda. Although – globally – women overwhelming come off worse, tackling these inequalities benefits everyone.
We knew that Private Members’ Bills only ever have a 10% chance of making it to the statute book, but we thought at the very least we would start a debate, instead we got an Act of Parliament. For the Great Initiative, our work on the Bill continues and we are now committed to ensuring it’s implemented at home and replicated abroad. But it is certainly cause for celebration and for hope; if a tiny foundation like ours, with one supportive MP and a scattering of fellow NGO’s can change the policy of a nation, just think what would happen if each and every one of us joined forces to end this last great social injustice of our age, the denial of basic human rights to half of the worlds population. Then International Womens Day can become a the celebration we’d like it to be rather than a reminder of how much is left to achieve.
Mariella Frostrup is a trustee of www.thegreatinitiative.org.uk
To donate to the Great Initiative, go to http://bit.ly/1e6TFap