“The great strategic prize of the 21st century is the full economic, political and social empowerment of women,” said William Hague, when he was foreign secretary. “There are still large parts of the world who are undervaluing, under-utilising, under-developing half their population.” That was five years ago, and there is still a long way to go. I am speaking out now, because we are about to go into reverse.
Parliament’s women and equalities committee, which I chair, isn’t afraid to take the prime minister to task when his policies fall short in providing for the marginalised and under-represented. We’ve held the government’s feet to the fire on the domestic abuse bill, the role of women in the response to Covid-19 and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities. But the need to level up society doesn’t stop at our borders, and many of the world’s poorest countries are also the most unequal.
The plan to abandon our Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income is a massive blow to the impact the UK government can make for those dealt the worst hands in life. With news of a new variant of Covid-19 sweeping through South Africa, this looks increasingly like the wrong policy at the worst possible time. We can’t beat Covid anywhere unless we beat it everywhere.
Elsewhere in Africa, there is serious concern about disruption caused by the pandemic to regular healthcare, especially in the battle against malaria. World Health Organization experts suggest that as many as 100,000 extra deaths from malaria are expected this year, bringing the global death toll from malaria to over half a million. While Covid is predominantly killing older people, malaria continues to be a killer of children. But malaria is entirely preventable, and the UK has led the world in preventing it.
Women and girls have rightly been a priority for the international development programmes of successive Conservative administrations, and they have had some real champions in ministers such as Baroness Sugg, Penny Mordaunt, Harriet Baldwin and Justine Greening. Among other things, UK aid helps almost 23 million women a year to access modern methods of family planning – a phenomenal feat that means countless women’s prospects are not ruled by their bodies. But at a time when fragile health systems are struggling to cope, and research suggests that the pandemic has caused adolescent pregnancies to rise, the UK proposes a retreat from its support in this arena. There is never a good time to step back from this empowering, lifesaving work for some of the most vulnerable women on the planet, but right now is perhaps the worst.
We have a good track record on girls’ education too. The prime minister has been a fantastic advocate, calling it “the Swiss army knife that solves a multitude of the world’s problems”. Our manifesto at last year’s election promised to help provide 12 years of quality education for every girl. This was a great ambition, to extend equality of opportunity as far as we can, and to provide a generation of women with the skills they need to build and lead strong, equal societies.
Reducing our aid budget by a third will mean supporting about half a million fewer girls through education a year. It will blunt the Swiss army knife. Coming a year after the budget has already significantly shrunk due to the impact of the pandemic on our economy, this means that the UK can no longer put its money where its mouth is in ensuring that girls get the same opportunities as boys, and it’s fair to assume that the manifesto promise on girls’ education will go the same way as the one on 0.7%.
One of the things that sets the UK’s international development role apart from the investments made in developing countries by China and Russia is that our aid is rooted in our values. We offer support not based on self-interested motives but on a determination to promote equality, human rights and rule of law.
So my concern is that this cut is not just about the programmes that won’t be funded but about the vacuums they will create. Where the UK withdraws, we risk seeing the influence of less scrupulous partners spread, and progress slow towards a world where your gender, ethnicity, faith or disability don’t determine your lot in life.
Caroline Nokes MP is chair of the House of Commons women and equalities select committee.