On the 22nd February 2018 Lord Loomba led a debate in the House of Lords on the question “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what priority they give to women and girls, including widows, when developing and implementing Department for International Development initiatives and projects.” The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate. I also pay tribute to his work, especially among women and widows.
The poet William Ross Wallace wrote in 1865 that those who rock the cradle rule the world. The contribution that women make to the well-being of their communities and beyond has been overlooked far too frequently, whether by history or by institutions. As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage, we recall the injustices that women in our own society have faced as we work to combat current injustices at home and, of course, overseas.
Much has been said in recent days—indeed we have already heard reference to it—about the ways in which the behaviour of aid workers and some charitable organisations has fallen short in respecting and valuing women, although let us not think that has been true of everybody. Many fine people over many decades have worked with charities and it is a great pity if they got caught up in some of the tragic stories that we have heard. Nevertheless, those things should not have happened, we need to address them and I am glad they are being addressed. As all major organisations, including my own, know very well, it is crucial that measures are in place to ensure that vulnerable people are protected and kept safe, and I hope that the lessons learned from this experience will spur us on as we work for the future and will not detract some of our best charities from the work they are doing.
Mindful of this, even as we are increasingly aware of our own wrongdoing and weaknesses, we must not stop using our influence and resources around the world to improve the lives of others, an essential ingredient of which is our work to empower women and girls. I know from my visits to various parts of the world that in many areas one of the most important grass-roots organisations delivering health and education is the Church. The Church, including the Mothers’ Union, has worked very closely with DfID programmes. For example, Girls’ Education in South Sudan is a programme funded by the department which focuses on improving the equality and quality of education in partnership with the education department of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. This includes practical work such as building separate toilets for girls, giving them dignity kits and setting up a girls’ dormitory to prevent them dropping out because of the burden of housework and cooking. The dormitory provides accommodation, all meals and a mentor from the Mothers’ Union to live with the students. I am most grateful that the department has funded this project, where community and church involvement has helped development work have a much greater impact.
Women and girls around the world, especially in conflict and post-conflict regions, have specific needs which the Department for International Development’s initiatives and projects should address. In these contexts, women, especially widows, carry the daily material, emotional and physical burdens of conflict while also often contributing to de-escalating violence and sowing the seeds of peace. Women on the Frontline, a priority programme of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reconciliation team, has found that convening safe spaces for women to share experiences and expertise has had huge benefits for communities. Leading this programme in South Sudan in December moved some women from utter despair about the future of their country to a renewed sense of the possibilities for society there. This hope and capacity to imagine a better future is crucial for post-conflict development, and I would be interested to know what priority the department plans to give to projects which create spaces for women to empower one another.
I would also be interested to know what the department is doing to support work which empowers women and girls across communities and ethnic boundaries. Women’s microfinance, credit and savings initiatives are important not only for essential economic development but where they cross ethnic tribal, and community boundaries, they make it harder for conflict to recur or flourish. What is the department doing to ensure that aid transcends, rather than deepens, divisions?
The aid that the UK provides to countries around the world makes an enormous difference. The peace and prosperity of our neighbours must remain a key priority for this and all subsequent Governments, and providing support for the specific needs of women and girls will be essential to achieve this goal.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Lord Bates) (Con) [extract]: ….The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reminded us of the important work which the church does in many such societies and gave the example of the Mothers’ Union. As we mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, he helpfully reminded us to remember with humility our journey towards gender equality in this country.