26 November 2020
James Cleverly responds to debate on International Development and Gender-based Violence

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a debate entitled International Development and Gender-based Violence.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who is not here, and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall. I thank the other Members who have spoken for their contributions. I pay tribute to the work that Members present in the Chamber have contributed in various ways on this most important of issues, whether through the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, as a member of the International Development Committee, or as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic abuse.

As Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, I also lead on the women, peace and security portfolio. One thing that has come up during the debate is how the various strands of Government work—on supporting education for women and girls, on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and on ensuring that women peace builders have a meaningful voice in conflict resolution—are not separate; they are all interwoven. It is important that in Government we address the full spectrum of policies. Work to end all forms of gender-based violence, to tackle gender equality, and to ensure that women are empowered and are part of the decision-making process internationally is, and will remain, a priority for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I will try to address as many of the points that were raised in the debate as I can. I know that there will be frustrations about this, but hon. Members will understand that I will not be in a position to give as much clarity or assurance as they might wish, but I assure them that all the points raised and ideas put forward, and all the requests made of the Government, will be recorded and considered.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made clear, gender-based violence is not just about violence directed at women and girls, but the sad truth is that they do bear the brunt of it. If he will forgive me, I will 

focus most of my comments today on the impact on women and girls, because violence affects women and girls everywhere. As has been mentioned, one in three women worldwide will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, making violence against women and girls one of the most systemic and widespread human rights violations of our time.

This year, the 16 days of activism to end violence against women are more important than ever. As a number of hon. Members have said in the debate, covid-19 has intensified the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence, and lockdown measures around the world have reminded us that homes, rather than being a place of safety and refuge, for many women and girls are in fact a place of danger and abuse—sadly, including here in the UK.

In east and west Africa, increased rates of female genital mutilation have been reported. In some countries, there have been reports of sexual exploitation by those Government officials tasked with enforcing lockdown requirements. A bigger global response is more urgent now than ever, but we should remember that gender-based violence was endemic before covid-19 and that it will not go away when, hopefully, we are able to get control of this disease. Therefore we need additional action to address it; it will continue beyond covid-19 unless we take that action.

However, there is hope. The UK-funded What Works to Prevent Violence programme has proved that violence against women and girls is preventable, and more than half our rigorously evaluated pilots showed significant reductions in violence of around 50% in less than three years. For example, in the DRC—a place that was mentioned during the debate—the project with faith leaders and community action groups halved women’s experience of intimate partner violence. We need to use and adapt that evidence to build back better after covid and learn from those successes. The Member for Putney raised the distressing situation in Tigray and asked what engagement my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had. I am pleased to say that he met Ethiopian Foreign Minister Mekonnen yesterday and specifically raised the protection of civilians from violence during their bilateral discussion.

We need to do more, to reach more people and to distribute the learnings of what works to prevent sexual violence. That is why we continue to invest in the successor programme, What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale. That is a programme to scale up our programming and research to prevent sexual violence against women and girls globally. We are delighted to have been selected to co-lead the new Generation Equality action coalition on gender-based violence. The Generation Equality action coalition is a global multi-stakeholder partnership intended to spur collective action to deliver concrete, game-changing results on gender-based violence over the next five years.

We are using this opportunity to increase international action to tackle gender-based violence in the context of covid-19. We are calling on donors to channel funding to women’s rights organisations and movements that are on the frontline of delivering change. The UK recently announced an additional £1 million of funding to the United Nations trust fund to end violence against women, increasing our total contribution to £22 million. 

The additional funds will support women’s rights organisations tackling the surge of gender-based violence due to  covid-19.

Naz Shah

Is the money that the Minister is talking about affected by the recent announcement on development funding being cut?

James Cleverly

That money has already been allocated. As I said, I cannot give clarity as to what future funding streams will be like, but this agenda remains a priority for the Government.

We will continue to take a leading role to tackle gender-based violence in conflict and crisis, including through the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. Last week, my noble friend Lord Ahmad launched the declaration of humanity. Crucially, that declaration commits leaders of faith and belief groups to do all in their power to prevent sexual violence in conflict, to support victims and to dismantle harmful cultural norms and misinterpretations of faith. I hope that will go some way to addressing the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), because sadly, that is too often used to justify and condone acts of sexual violence.

Through the call to action on protection from gender-based violence in emergencies, the UK works with our partners to drive system change to better protect women and girls in a humanitarian context. We are pushing for increased funding and greater accountability on gender-based violence as part of humanitarian responses. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield made an important point, however, that although ODA is important, it is not the only means to drive change in this agenda.

Several hon. Members have criticised the merger of the FCO and DFID to form the new FCDO, and I recognise the points about yesterday’s announcement and the statement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary today. Using the UK’s economic power, however, we will still be one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, and we can also use our diplomatic power as a force multiplier.

We will put women and girls at the top of the UK’s agenda for our term as president of the G7. We will use our position as co-leaders on the GBV action coalition to tackle the root causes of violence. As COP26 president, we will promote clean and inclusive resilience from covid and natural disasters, because, of course, we know well that those economic and environmental pressures are drivers of conflict, and that conflict is often a driver for sexual violence against women and girls. We will continue to push the agenda through our diplomatic network.

I reiterate that violence against women and girls is not only completely and wholly unacceptable, but preventable. The key message for today is that we should not, and must not, accept it as a reality. I return to the praise that I gave to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have done so much work to drive this issue and to ensure that the appropriate attention is paid to it globally.

We must challenge the idea that there is inevitability or inertia, or indeed that change takes decades or generations. It does not. It should not. That is why we have prioritised this important work. We are working to stop any reversal of our hard-won progress on gender equality, perhaps driven by the covid-19 pandemic, and we are using the spotlight the pandemic has shone on the violence women and girls have to endure to tackle the root causes and accelerate progress to meet the sustainable development goals on this issue.