Just in time for International Women’s Day, the UK has enshrined its commitment to women’s rights in development aid with a significant milestone.
We believe we are now the first nation in the world to include consideration of gender equality in development aid programming, thanks to a new Act which is about to receive royal assent.
That this has happened this week is no accident. The government has pulled together to push through this private member’s bill, introduced by MP Bill Cash, in record time because they are passionate about opening opportunities for women and girls around the world.
The Conservative Women’s Organisation comes from a long history of doing just this at home. We are the oldest women’s political organisation in the world. We campaign on issues of concern to women and encourage women to become politically active because we know that we have a different perspective, and our needs and concerns are often different.
This is true everywhere, but nowhere more than in the developing world. It is often cited that women make up half the world’s population yet represent 70 per cent of its poor. There, as at home, women’s needs must be a priority, in reducing poverty and opening economic opportunity.
Fundamental to those needs, underpinning everything from good health and nutrition to the ability of girls to attend school, is water and sanitation.
We have seen difficult debates of late on how to direct the UK’s international aid spending. We need to ensure our money is spent properly, and in ways that will do the most good. We also want to see that our work abroad has benefit for Britons too, and that it opens doors to new economic and trading relationships.
But we can also be proud of the UK’s leading role in world efforts to reduce poverty.
Working with organisations like WaterAid, we are bringing water and sanitation to those who need it most. As our Prime Minister David Cameron said in November 2012, “We now have within our grasp a unique opportunity to become the generation that eradicates absolute poverty.”
The evidence supports this. Child mortality has been cut nearly in half in the last decade in no small part because of global political action on immunisation, treatment of pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria, and nutrition. At the same time, in the last two decades, 2 billion people have gained safe drinking water and 1.8 billion improved sanitation.
Yet, as women and mothers, it is difficult to bear the thought of 6.6 million children still dying needlessly. It is hard to imagine that one in three women and girls are without safe sanitation, exposing them to the risk of assault and harassment.
We know that empowering women leads to real change. Giving women and girls access to safe water and toilets means they will spend less time fetching water, and less time caring for children made needlessly ill by fetid water and non-existent sanitation. More time and healthier families means women can spend time on other income-generating activities, and girls have more time to devote to their studies.
A WaterAid study in Ethiopia found that 50 per cent of girls missed between one and four days of school per month because of menstruation. We also know from a UNICEF study that in least-developed countries, only 45 per cent of schools have decent toilets.
Providing schools with separate toilets for boys and girls and proper washing facilities means fewer classes missed, from illness and from menstruation. Teenage girls are also less likely to drop out if they can care for themselves properly at school.
What we also need to understand is that going without safe water and sanitation costs sub-Saharan Africa lost productivity and economic growth – a cost higher than the entire continent receives in development aid.
These services help developing countries grow financially. For every $1 invested, we see a $4 return. Stronger economies in sub-Saharan Africa help create new trading partners and markets, where British businesses are keen to engage.
Ultimately, countries can be lifted from the terrible cycle of poverty, and eventually will no longer require our aid. That is a goal I want to see Britain leading from the front on.
We still have a long road to walk down, with our international partners and developing countries. But, as women helping women, we believe we can get there.
For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:
Tel: (020) 7984 8139