Friday, 10 April 2009

Douglas Alexander on gender issues in developing countries

First, the transcript of a question-and-answer session with Douglas Alexander, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, when he gamely came to see us in Bloggers' Corner at the G20.

RD: Mumsnetters have asked me to concentrate on the maternal mortality issue, and also the education of girls and the economic empowerment of women. And I have been thinking, and talking to Adrian [Lovett, Director of Campaigns at Save the Children] and some of the Save the Children policy people yesterday. Do we have an issue here in which a lot of these gender issues, which are fundamental to developing countries’ fortunes – are they particularly difficult to address because they are mired in the culture of male power, essentially, which is very difficult for developed nations to address?

DA: Poverty, globally, still has a woman’s face, and the empowerment of women has benefits – in health, undoubtedly, but also in education and economics. That’s why, from the British government’s point of view, as we make the case to developing country governments to invest in basic healthcare and primary school education, we don’t fail to make the case that it makes a disproportionate impact if you deal with the issue of the inequality of women. I was in a school in Kenya last year, and sat with a group of Muslim mothers. They explained that the reason they were willing to let their daughters go to this school was that there were separate toilets. They said that unless there were separate toilets, they simply wouldn’t countenance letting their daughters go to school. So there can be cultural issues which affect this. But I don’t think that that should be an excuse for governments – here in the North or in developing countries – not to recognise the huge, disproportionate benefits that are gained. If you get a young girl to go to school, she is more likely to be healthy because she will be more aware of the choices that she is making. She is more likely to marry later. She will have fewer children. She will be more likely to work in the formal sector of the economy. The benefits of the empowerment of women, whether at the level of education or health, are huge, and that’s a very compelling case to make.

RD: But do you think that those developing countries with issues around the cultural empowerment of women are ready to hear those messages?

DA: Well, it clearly involves a dialogue with individual countries. We have made good progress, for example, in Ghana in recent months, where the outgoing President made a specific commitment in terms of using funds provided by the UK government to abolish the user fees that would otherwise have been charged to pregnant women. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago. In contrast, if you look, for example, at Northern Nigeria, the huge number of young girls who are still out of school, cultural issues can affect that. Similarly, in Afghanistan we moved from a position where, 2001, there were 900,000 boys in school in Afghanistan; [now] there are now up to four-and-a-half million kids in school, of which two million are young girls. Clearly, there were issues there around the policies of the Taliban when they were in power, and we’ve made huge progress.

I have to say that when I travel in the developing world, I am constantly struck by the commonality of people’s aspirations, for their sons and for their daughters. And in that sense, I think we need to be willing to engage in a sensitive way with cultural issues, but equally recognise that what binds us together is that desire for all children to be given the kind of chances we would want for our own.


Alexander struck me as a decent cove (and a clever one), and I believe that DFID has a good reputation on these issues, particularly MNH. I had been struck earlier in the day by the frankness with which he admitted that MNH is not a political priority in developed countries, and that this lack of priority accounts for the sickeningly slow progress on Millennium Development Goal Number 5, which aims to reduce maternal mortality in developing countries by 75 per cent by 2015 (as yet, it's the MDG that has seen the least progress).

I've had a poke around for information about the Ghana project that he mentioned. The DFID website appears to be ailing tonight, but I did find this citation, which suggests that the exemption policy has been in place for several years. However, if DFID is providing extra ring-fenced funding for it, then good on 'em.

Of course, the situation in Afghanistan is not as rosy as Alexander suggested. President Hamid Karzai is believed to have signed a law that legalises rape within marriage, and severely limits the rights of women, in direct contravention to the Afghan constitution. Karzai is under pressure to scrap the law, but as yet it remains in place.

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