The world's poorest women and girls risk being biggest losers in DfID merger

The department is a world leader in programmes based on gender equality. The government must show this will continue

News that the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are to merge raised many questions about the UK’s commitment to supporting the world’s poorest people. A key question for us is how the new department will support women and girls.

For more than 20 years, UK aid has saved and transformed the lives of women and girls in some of the world’s poorest countries. In the past five years, 10 million women and girls have received humanitarian assistance and more than 6 million girls have been able to access quality education. Upwards of £25m has been invested to prevent violence against women and girls through the government’s What Works programme, and a further £67m committed.

But the prime minister’s move to close DfID puts these hard-won gains at risk – particularly after it was confirmed on Monday that the department had to cut £2bn from its budget this year.

DfID is a global bastion of technical and programmatic expertise on what works for women and girls. Consistently ranked the most transparent aid-spending department, it represents the gold standard for aid, delivering value for the British taxpayer and enabling the UK to tackle the injustice of gender inequality.

Can the government reassure us that DfID’s vision for gender equality will be adopted by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and championed so the UK can continue to reach the women and girls in the world’s poorest countries?

Will the government commit to upholding the International Development (Gender Equality) of Act 2014?

And how will UK aid remain as transparent and accountable as it is now? Boris Johnson held Canada up as an example of good practice. Canada has committed to ensuring 80% of its aid has a gender equality component. DfID currently stands at 65%, and the FCO at 24%. How will the government continue this transparency, and continue to raise the bar?

As the world responds to the Covid-19 crisis, we need the UK’s global leadership more than ever. On top of its devastating health and economic impacts, Covid-19 has fuelled a hidden pandemic of domestic and sexual violence, a steep rise in food poverty and major educational disruption.

Like most humanitarian crises, it is women and girls who are bearing the brunt. They face a greater risk of sexual violence and exploitation and are less likely than boys to continue getting some kind of education as they take on extra duties at home. We also know that when girls are out of school, they face a greater risk of early pregnancy and child marriage.

Since the start of the crisis, DfID has been responding globally with programmes specifically aimed at women and girls, including support for sexual and reproductive health services, education and economic empowerment. This vital work must continue.

Last month, the secretary of state for international development stated that support for women and girls is part of the government’s mission. Announcing the merger, the prime minister committed to ensuring that every girl in the world is able to access 12 years of quality education.

But the PM needs to do more than that. He needs to show that the government’s resolve has not weakened by committing to a vision of “global Britain” with gender equality at its heart. Unless the UK government shows continued leadership on gender equality, closing the department may only compound the risks women and girls face, during the pandemic and in the future.

  • Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK; Laurie Lee is chief executive of Care International UK and Rose Caldwell is chief executive of Plan International UK

Girish Menon, Laurie Lee and Rose Caldwell

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