By Vicky Ford MP*
Every year on March 8, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. However, this year we need to do much more than celebrate women and girls. We need to break down prejudices.
The past two years have shown us how essential this action is.
We have seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 on women’s livelihoods and on access to education for both boys and girls. The disruption of health services has led to a sudden increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions as well as maternal and newborn mortality. During lockdowns, we have seen a shocking rise in violence against women and girls.
Yet, women represent half of the planet’s population, half of the world’s potential.
Educating girls, empowering women and ending violence against women and children is a universal moral imperative. It will positively and directly impact the global economy, health and security, accelerating inclusive growth across Africa. This is why Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary, is committed to putting women and girls at the heart of our country’s foreign policy.
But we cannot do it alone. A joint effort of businesses, communities, citizens and the international community is needed to address the discrimination, violence and inequalities that hinder women’s potential.
COVID-19 is also responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of girls leaving school. According to the World Bank, 2.6 million girls in Africa are at risk of not returning. In January, I was in Wakiso, Uganda, where I had the pleasure of meeting the girls who had just returned to Onwards & Upwards School for the first time in nearly two years. Seeing their own ambition for their future is truly inspiring. Not only does not receiving 12 years of quality education harm girls’ job prospects, it also makes them more vulnerable to early marriage, domestic violence and violence in conflict situations.
That is why the UK government invested £430 million in the Global Partnership for Education at the World Education Summit co-hosted with Kenya last year in London. Together, we raised an unprecedented $4 billion for the Global Partnership for Education.
On March 7, 2022, we launched a new program to help one million adolescent girls in countries like Nigeria gain the knowledge and credentials they need to work, undertake projects and be economically independent. Since 2010 and according to estimates, gender disparities in the labor market have caused the economies of sub-Saharan Africa to lose some $95 billion a year.
When women workers, leaders and entrepreneurs are invested in, everyone benefits from their economic independence. Last month in Nigeria, I announced that the UK had programmed new aid, together with our partners at First Bank of Nigeria and British International Investment (BII), to help Nigerian women entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
Sexual and reproductive health, rights and access to health services also contribute to the empowerment of women. Women and girls are in the best position to be in control of their bodies, choosing when they want to be pregnant so that they can complete their education, build livelihoods and fulfil their potential.
This is why we are expanding across Africa the Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) program to strengthen support for integrated sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services to enable women in general and women with disabilities in particular, to realize their sexual and reproductive health rights.
I witnessed this important work first hand in Senegal last year, visiting a health clinic in a fishing district outside Dakar where I met young women receiving family planning advice. We will leverage every lever at our disposal to give women and girls the freedoms they need to succeed, including fostering female leadership and women’s agency to ensure our voices are heard at all levels, from the Community level to that of national policies.
However, these are not the only places where we want to see more women. The UK will continue to promote the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all peace efforts, including as mediators and negotiators. We are also working with our partners to improve women’s economic empowerment through initiatives like the MUVA program in Mozambique, where the UK used innovative approaches to increase economic opportunities for 6,000 young women moving from education to the world of work.
Climate change is the subject of the same commitment. As agreed at the COP, we are working with our partners to integrate gender equality into national climate policies, projects and strategies, but also to increase women’s participation and leadership at all levels of climate action. Excellent work is being done.
But unfortunately and despite all these elements, we all know that acts of violence against women continue in different forms. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is one such act of violence. At least 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM and by 2030 more than 45 million more girls are at risk of suffering the same fate.
The UK is proud to partner with community activists, survivors and African movements to end FGM, as the remarkable activist Mama Iqbal, whom I met last year in Sudan, strives to do. Work like his proves that change is possible and, fortunately, it is happening. But even though thousands of communities have chosen to abandon the practice, population growth continues to increase the number of girls who are victims of FGM.
This year, the UK will play a leading role in ending violence against women and girls, including hosting an international conference and pushing for a new global treaty to end rape and sexual violence in times of war.
I am personally determined to witness the transformation of freedoms for women and girls, working with our partners across Africa to educate girls, empower women politically, socially, and economically and eradicate gender-based violence in order that women and girls can maximize their potential.
These are all the ways the UK government intends to #breakthebias, breaking down prejudice on this International Women’s Day. In addition, you, how will you do it?
*Vicky Ford MP is UK Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean