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Rights, Freedom and Potential: The UK’s Women and Girls Strategy

Rights, Freedom and Potential: The UK’s Women and Girls Strategy

 Catriona Laing

It can sometimes feel like the struggle for gender equality is getting more and more difficult. Women’s rights are under attack and hard-won gains are now under increasing threat.

Climate change and humanitarian crisis disproportionately affect women, for example according to the United Nations 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Sexual violence is happening in conflicts across and the world, and gender-based violence is amplified online.

This is why, to mark International Women’s Day, the UK Government announced a new strategy focussed on tackling gender inequality globally and countering any rollback on women’s rights and freedoms.

Launching the strategy in Sierra Leone during a visit to see some of our Women and Girls programmes, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said gender equality was the “fundamental building block of all healthy democracies”.

As part of this new plan, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has committed to ensuring that at least 80% of its bilateral aid programmes will include a focus on gender equality by 2030. 

Many women in Nigeria still face discrimination and marginalisation: Nigeria ranks 123 out of 146 countries in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, with particularly wide gaps in women’s political empowerment. That is why we have been supporting civil society to increase the political participation of women in Nigeria’s 2023 elections. 

This included support for the introduction of constitutional quotas for women in legislative houses and campaigns for gender-sensitive priorities for candidates and political parties contesting in the 2023 elections.  These campaigns ensured women were more engaged throughout the electoral cycle.  – although results of the National Assembly elections shows that much more needs to be done.

Overall, 36% of women in Nigeria report having experienced violence from an intimate partner. And we know that gender-based violence (GBV) increases in scale and severity in conflict, including conflict-related sexual violence. In North East Nigeria in particular, women live under the threat of sexual or gender-based violence, abduction, and forced marriages.

At the UK-hosted Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) International Conference last year we agreed to urgently accelerate action to end conflict-related sexual violence, hold those responsible to account, provide more comprehensive support to survivors, and tackle stigma. I am delighted that Nigeria made a strong national commitment to this agenda and the UK will continue to support Nigeria’s efforts to end all forms of sexual violence, including as one of nine focus countries in the UK’s Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan.

We are also going to work more closely with women’s rights groups. These organisations are closest to the work on the ground and know what is most needed to secure sustainable change. They can often be poorly funded; in 2021–22, only 1.25% of the UK’s Official Development Assistance for gender equality went to women’s rights organisations and movements. We’re changing that, with a new global programme.

And we have also just announced a new sexual health programme that will reach up to 10.4 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates of fertility, child marriage, and maternal mortality in the world. In Nigeria, through our Lafiya health programme we are improving coverage and access to basic health care services, such as antenatal care, safe delivery, and neonatal care – mostly targeted at women and children. Our strategy focuses on the 3 Es:

·        Educating girls, and standing up for every girl’s right to 12 years of quality education

·        Empowering women and girls and championing their health and rights, whether that is through access to adequate sexual and reproductive health, civil and political participation, women’s peace and security, or economic empowerment.

·        Ending gender-based violence, such asconflict-related sexual violence, early and forced marriage, modern slavery, trafficking, online violence and female genital mutilation.

Our strategy will target investment towards the key life stages for women and girls, to secure the greatest life-long and intergenerational impact. We know that girls’ education is a game-changer in this regard. Through our Partnership for Learning for All in Nigeria programme we are improving foundational learning. Our girls’ education programmes have directly contributed to significant enrolment gains, including supporting 1.5 million additional girls to access schooling in six states in Northern Nigeria since 2012.

The new strategy will mobilise support for women impacted by crises such as wars and natural disasters, and strengthen the political, economic, and social systems that play a critical role in protecting and empowering women and girls. Here in Nigeria through the Expanding Social Protection for Inclusive Development programme, we have supported gender-sensitive social protection, including creating a GBV Referral Directory and capacity building of National Social Safety Net staff on gender based violence, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and prevention.

We are well placed to drive efforts to help in the battle for gender equality. However, we know this will not be easy, and we cannot do it alone.

Please join us in protecting the rights and freedoms of women and girls around the world, so they can reach their full potential.

* Laing is the British High Commissioner to Nigeria.

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