James Cleverly takes a tour of Bo Government Hospital and a secondary school in Bo, the city where his mother was born during a visit to Sierra Leone. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
James Cleverly takes a tour of Bo Government Hospital and a secondary school in Bo, the city where his mother was born during a visit to Sierra Leone. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Is the launch of the Government’s International Women and Girls Strategy a fitting way to celebrate International Women’s Day?

Everybody seems to be celebrating International Women’s Day nowadays, even the Foreign Secretary. But let’s not forget that its origins lie with women in the labour movements of the USA, Northern Europe and Russia protesting for the right to work and vote. This is a time to acknowledge the victories, but also the struggles and violent opposition faced by feminist movements across the world.

Celebrating feminist protest feels all the more important in the face of escalating rollbacks of women’s rights, where small successes have met with fierce opposition. Words like ‘traditional ‘or ‘family’ values are used to justify attacks on women’s rights. Despite restrictions on their freedom Afghan women are demonstrating for “Bread, Work, Freedom”. Black women’s movements opposed Bolsonaro’s patriarchal policies. Threats to Muslim civil rights in India saw thousands of women at the Shaheen Bagh sit-ins. Women’s organisations in Hungary, Poland and Croatia are resisting ‘Pro-Family’ attacks. Creeping austerity and cuts in public services undermining women’s economic rights are being met with demonstrations across Latin America.

Women’s control over their own bodies is frequently the battleground. Under threat of violence women in Iran are demanding dignity and rights, the latest acts in a proud history of dissent. In Poland, women continue to demand reproductive rights, while pro-choice movements in the USA have once again faced violence while opposing the recent rollbacks on abortion rights. There have also been successes to celebrate such as the Green Wave protests that secured legalised abortion in Argentina. Where there have been victories, these have frequently come from women’s rights organisations and feminist movements providing a collective voice for women in all their diversity.

Within this context, the FCDO launched its new International Women and Girls Strategy this week. Laying the ground for feminist change around the world? – Perhaps not. But just the launch itself feels like a triumph, a victim of last year’s Ministerial merry-go-round now hopefully heralding a new focus on gender equality as one of the four priorities in the International Development Strategy.

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The Gender and Development Network welcomes the new focus on ‘pushing back on rollback’, hopefully, it will address economic rollbacks too. Acknowledgement of the role of women’s rights organisations and movements in achieving change is also a step forward, alongside the announcement of a funding mechanism providing long-term core funds. Credit is due to the feminists inside and outside Whitehall who made this happen.

But at a time when words like ‘family’ are being weaponised, language is important. Not only does the term ‘women and girls’ lack intention – it risks reinforcing the myth that women and girls are a ‘vulnerable group’ rather than active agents of change. The previous ‘Gender Equality’ strategy was better titled. Frustratingly, despite the best efforts of CSOs, the allure of alliteration has triumphed over evidence-based analysis. The strategy describes the 3Es of Ending Violence against Women and Girls, Educating Girls and Empowering Women – the latter combining the three previous priorities of women’s economic empowerment (or women’s economic justice), women’s political leadership and sexual and reproductive health and rights. With escalating attacks on women’s economic, political and reproductive rights, this de-prioritisation seems dangerous. Moreover, the term ‘empowerment’ suggests the problem lies with women’s own inadequacies, rather than the increasing socio-legal and economic barriers that leave them neither properly remunerated nor adequately heard and restrict their reproductive choices.

As always, the real test lies in implementation. Success requires equal resourcing across the five priority areas. Recognition of the structural barriers hindering progress and the need for evidence-based solutions is all the more important as these barriers multiply as rights are rolled back, and there is far too little understanding of this within the Strategy. Work on women’s economic empowerment also still needs re-centring on gender equality, not economic growth, as its goal.

Resources are important, and cuts made to the ‘women and girls’ budget need to be reversed. But there are also much-needed policy changes that don’t come from the aid budget. This strategy is supposed to mainstream gender equality across Whitehall, and we look forward to changes in global finance, trade and investment policies that promote the needs of the most marginalised women.

When funds are restricted, using political influence also becomes more important. Having prided itself as a ‘gender champion’ the UK government has lagged behind other major donors over the last few years, with Canada, France, Germany, Spain and others even adopting ‘Feminist Foreign Policies. If they are serious about challenging rollback Ministers will need the courage to use their political capital on the international stage. Better still would be the humility to recognise the limits of their knowledge and the wisdom to listen to feminist activists on the frontlines this International Women’s Day and every other day of the year.