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On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP gave a keynote speech outlining Labour’s priorities on international development and how women and girls can work together around the world to promote women’s rights and tackle inequality:
I’d like to thank ActionAid for providing me with my first opportunity since being appointed as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development to set out why I see this role as so important, and how I and my team will be working with you over the time ahead.
The last 25 years has seen real progress in tackling world poverty - 500 million fewer people living in poverty despite the rapid growth in the world’s population.
But we must not take that progress for granted. Not when 1.4 billion people still live on less than .25 a day and 900 million people around the world will go to sleep hungry tonight.
We only have five years l eft to meet the Millennium Development Goals. The global financial crisis, rising food and fuel prices, together with recent natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan, make meeting them even more difficult.
We must not let the momentum slide.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and it is particularly appropriate for me to be able to be here at ActionAid, because of the work that you have done on this issue and because of the outstanding role that you, Joanna, have played on this.
Next Wednesday is World Aids Day and we are only days away from the start of the Cancun Climate Change Summit.
All these dates are reminders of the development challenges we still face in tackling women’s and girls’ inequality, in fighting disease and in tackling climate change.
International development is of the greatest importance, in practical terms, for the lives it saves, here and now, an d for the future for the peace, prosperity and opportunity throughout the world to which it contributes.
And for Britain and our place in the world. Saving the lives of 50,000 pregnant women and a quarter of a million new born babies. Any set of priorities and values must see that as important.
Some said “but you’re in opposition – just leave the government to get on with it. You should focus on something that matters here in this country.” I thought they were wrong on both counts.
The government cannot just be left to get on with it. They have, indeed, promised to keep to Labour’s pledge to commit 0.7% of Gross National Income to Aid, from 2013. But there are all too many on their backbenches, and no doubt in the Treasury too, as well as people who write in the Daily Mail and the Sun, who regard that promise as wrong, when it was entered into, and even more wrong at a time of drastic cuts in public spending.
So those in the government, inclu ding Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, who want to keep that promise – they need our help. Many of our backbenchers are far more committed than theirs to that promise that was in the manifestos of all three parties. So we will strongly support it.
And I would argue, too, that though this is an international department, it is of great importance to a great many people in this country. Not least my constituents.
In this country we have a great tradition of international aid. Oxfam, set up in Oxford, Save the Children, which for a long time was based in my constituency, Cafod, Christian Aid and Action Aid – which are respected world wide. In this country, in churches and community groups up and down the country, people work together to raise money to tackle emergencies and foster development.
And there are many people in this country who came, or whose family come, from Africa, or South Asia, from countries which are still struggling with poverty and who care passionately about the prospects of people in their homeland. It is wrong to think that because the government has embarked on a rash programme of spending cuts, people no longer care about those for whom our aid means life or death.
And I was also motivated to take on this role because I think as a woman, its important to play my part in an agenda which is of such importance to women and girls in the developing world.
So I am proud to be doing this job. I hope that I can play my part, in opposition, to supporting the development agenda and hope before too long I can perform that role from government.
I’m grateful to have the chance today to say how much I look forward to working closely with you, and what I see myself and my team – working closely with you – doing in the months and years ahead.
I see one of our biggest commitments, and I would say major achievements, over 13 years of government was on international development:
We set up the Department of International Development with a Secretary of State at the cabinet table.
We trebled the Aid budget and committed to reach 0.7% from 2013.
We ended the tying of aid to commercial interests.
Through Jubilee 2000, at summits in Gleneagles and in London we put dropping debt and increasing aid at the centre of the international agenda.
We want to see all that progress taken forward… not slip back. My first preference would be to be in government delivering this agenda… But my close second preference is to see this government delivering on that agenda. And we will work with them to help them do that.
We should not be lulled into a false sense of security just because the government are committed to the 0.7%.
We have to campaign in support of it. One cast iron way to reassure ourselves that we have succeeded in securing the commitment to the 0.7% is for the target to be written into law.
When we were in government we prepared a Bill and it had “pre-legislative scrutiny” and attracted cross-party support. It is a small bill - only four clauses, and it is all ready t o be taken forward. The government have said they will bring it forward but so far there is no sign of it in their timetable for government bills. So we will continue to press them on this.
And if they do not bring it forward as a government bill it must surely be one of the top candidates for a Private Members Bill.
With an existing commitment from the government and strong support from the opposition it has every chance of making it to the statute book.
And we need to continue to campaign to show that aid matters and remains a priority. This campaign will need to be in Parliament, and amongst the aid agencies and all those in every community who support our development aid.
The commitment is there in the manifestos of both the Tories and the Lib Dems, and it is in the coalition agreement. But that guarantees nothing.
Hardly a day goes by without their performing a dramatic u-turn. We don’t want to risk this being the next promise abandone d. And we want to make sure that the money spent is genuinely on poverty reduction, and it is not diverted for other purposes. So we will be holding them to account for how development money is spent.
But overseas aid is not just what is done, importantly, by government. It is also what is done by individuals.
We have great heroes of international development - like Bill and Melinda Gates, like Bono and Bob Geldof. The leadership and inspiration they provide cannot be overstated.
But there are also the hundreds of thousands of people up and down this country who send money back to their family or their village, in their country of origin. I call them the “hidden heroes of international development”. People living in my constituency who come from Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Ghana who are living here and working hard. Sometimes doing more than one job, like office cleaning. As well as paying their taxes and providing for their family, they also send money back to their home country.
When we were in government we worked to make that easier – including helping transfers using mobile phone technology.
But I think we can and should do much more to support remittances. It is right that we help those who are giving. Especially as often it is those on low incomes. It is right that we recognise and support what they are doing. And we want to work with you, with the diaspora communities, and with the financial services sector to develop a new policy on remittances.
I think that as Labour’s team on international development, we also have an important role in supporting the development of the new UN Women’s Agency. Gordon Brown played a key part in getting it set up and it is now headed by the brilliant Michelle Bachelet – who was Chile’s first woman president.
The UK was one of the countries that were instrumental in establishing the new agency and it is right that we continue to support it. A key focus o f the Millennium Development Goals is women’s health and girls' education; and the agenda for women and girls is central to the government’s development agenda.
The new government is committed to the Agency, but with a men-only DFID ministerial team and a men-only Foreign Office ministerial team there is a limit to how they can contribute to women and girls' empowerment. This is something they really must sort out.
We are challenging them to ensure that they make some changes and ensure that at least one of the DFID ministers is a woman. It really is not good enough for Britain to be sending a men-only team around the world talking about the empowerment of women and girls in developing countries. The government must walk the talk. Patriarchal politics has no place in 21st century Britain.
Hitherto, countries working together has been the responsibility of men. Men leaders, men Finance Ministers, men Foreign Secretaries. There was no alternative – as th ere were only men in government. But now across the world there are strong women everywhere, in parliaments and in governments– and now is a real chance to make progress on supporting women; by women working together internationally.
With the new UN Women’s Agency we have the forum to do that. One of its most important roles is to back up women representatives. Who will fight hardest for the maternal health care of the woman in the village of Northern Nigeria? The woman in the Nigerian state legislature. Who will fight hardest for the woman in the village in Bangladesh to be able to keep her daughter in school? The woman in the Bangladesh Parliament.
When I meet my sisters in the Parliaments of Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania – as I have over the years – I admire their determination, I see their progress and I believe they are they best hope for the women and girls in their countries. The UN Women’s Agency will back them up in their work.
It will be import ant for all women in every country in every continent. But it is essential for the UN too. It will show that the progress and change for women and girls in all our countries is mirrored by progress in change in the UN itself. The creation of UN Women must serve to be testament to the UN’s commitment to women and recognition that empowering women is essential for development. It will send a powerful signal to women struggling against the odds that the UN is indeed on their side.
And in the way it works, it must serve to help the women who are coming forward on international work. It can draw on the involvement of the women who are now there – as they weren’t some years ago – in every country’s UN mission.
And it must show women themselves making the decisions by having an executive board dominated by women. We cannot have succeeded in the struggle to have a new UN Women’s Agency only to discover that its governing board is men. That would be to contradict everything that it stands for. And the executive board should reach out beyond women in the UN missions and women in governments, and include women in civil society organisations.
UN Women also needs the resources to deliver for women and girls on the ground through its own programmes. It cannot work just through influencing other UN agencies. The UK government says it cannot set out its contribution until their aid review is over. That simply isn’t good enough. Decisions are being made now and we must play our part up front.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and we are calling on the government to make a ministerial appointment of a woman to carry on the work that Glenys Kinnock was doing when we were in government – a role you campaigned for. She led the UK’s work on tackling violence against women overseas and she did a great job. The first time such an appointment had been made in the UK. That was important leadership and the government must continue it.
This is against a background where the UN Population Fund reported that one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused; and when in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier.
Violence against women and girls is not only a violation of their human rights but it undermines development when girls fear the journey to school, men won’t let their wives work and women are afraid for their safety if they stand for election.
If we are going to achieve the Millennium Development Goals we need to invest in women and girls.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity today to have spoken of my concern on the fragility of the 0.7% promise, mapped out some of my thoughts on the Women’s Agency and touched on the issue of remittances.
Along with my shadow ministerial team, Mark Lazarowicz MP and Rushanara Ali MP, we will also be focussing on o ur other 3 priorities:
Trade, tax and global growth strategies which help developing countries.
The role of development in conflict prevention and in conflict affected states.
And making sure that the needs of developing countries are at the heart of the battle on climate change.
There is huge commitment, passion and expertise amongst my Labour colleagues in Parliament on these issues. We will be working as a team and with you as we determine to make sure that the UK continues to be an international leader in helping the world’s poorest lift themselves out of poverty.