The UK government has launched a new strategy to advance gender equality around the world on the same day that MPs announced plans to investigate the impact of UK aid cuts on women and girls.
The global strategy, launched by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) on International Women’s Day today will, it says, put more focus on gender equality in its work, while also supporting sexual and reproductive health programmes and funding grassroots women’s rights groups.
“Advancing gender equality and challenging discrimination is obviously the right thing to do, but it also brings freedom, boosts prosperity and trade, and strengthens security – it is the fundamental building block of all healthy democracies,” said foreign secretary James Cleverly while visiting schools and hospitals in Bo, his mother’s home town in Sierra Leone.
“Hard-won gains” in advancing gender equality – by getting more girls into school, reducing child marriage and increasing representation of women at the highest levels of politics – have come under threat, he said, from the climate crisis, conflict and policies by some governments in the world.
But the strategy announcement, the first since the FCDO was created in 2020, came as the International Development Committee (IDC) launched a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of the government’s own funding cuts on women and girls in low-income countries.
In 2021, the FCDO confirmed that £4bn would be cut from the aid budget. Last year, the government was accused of “betraying” women and girls after the harmful impacts of the cuts were made known.
The IDC said it had received evidence that cuts significantly affected the FCDO’s work with women and girls.
“The impact of cutting access to sexual and reproductive health services for women and their families in lower-income countries is huge,” said Sarah Champion, the committee’s chair.
“We know that this work can make the ultimate difference. We want to examine how the FCDO is meeting its pledges and will evaluate the impact of cuts to the UK’s aid budget in this vital area.”
Last week, the IDC criticised the government for diverting £1bn in foreign aid to house refugees in the UK in 2021.
Stephanie Siddall, the director of global policy and advocacy at Women for Women International, said the UK aid cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women. “In conflict and crisis we see increased poverty affecting women and girls, we see girls being unable to access schooling, and we see the drivers and consequences of gender-based violence increasing,” she said.
She said that any new strategy needed funding that would repair the impact of the funding cuts. As part of the strategy, the government said that £200m will be provided for women’s sexual health programmes, while £38m has been assigned to support women’s rights organisations and grassroots movements, which will mostly be distributed through the Equality Fund, which helps fund feminist movements.
Siddall said the amount was a “drop in the ocean” without a return to the UK spending 0.7% of national income on aid. “It’s all very well having a strategy but the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. It’s almost meaningless unless you’re going to have an appropriate budget,” she said.
Manali Desai, the head of Cambridge University’s sociology department and an expert on gendered violence in India and South Asia, said: “The FCDO needs to join up its strategy on women and girls to almost every facet of the current challenges facing areas receiving aid. These include poverty, climate change, war, migration and education, among others. Women and girls are affected in very specific ways by these events.”
But Bethan Cobley, the director of advocacy and partnerships at MSI Reproductive Choices, said the new strategy was “an important first step”. “Now adequate and sustained resourcing and implementation is vital through FCDO’s programme work and global influence,” she said.