Why gender equality is vital in international development

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 16:10 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mother-of-three Evelyn was heavily pregnant with her fourth child when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall, hit the Philippines last November. As wind and rain began to wipe out her village in Hernani, Evelyn took her children to safety at her mother's house – by the time she got there, she started premature labour.

For three days she endured a prolonged, complicated and agonising labour. The baby was upside down, and delivered breech by a local doctor at her mother’s badly-damaged home, with help from relatives.

Tragically, despite all their efforts, Evelyn's baby was stillborn.

Now Evelyn is coming to terms with her loss, whilst rebuilding her life for her and her surviving children post-Haiyan. She will need ongoing emotional support to achieve this.

As Gender Advisor at children’s rights charity, Plan UK, I have seen the importance of supporting women and girls to realise their human rights first hand. I know that women like Evelyn, who live in the world’s poorest countries, have specific needs and are at risk of missing out on universally-targeted help.

Adolescent girls face particular risks of violence, exploitation, and discrimination, and girls from the poorest and most marginalised groups worldwide face greater risks to their health and well-being.

Plan’s Because I Am A Girl campaign is dedicated to empowering women and girls around the world by promoting girls’ rights in line with internationally agreed human rights frameworks, and more equal relations with boys and men. But the UK government could also be doing more to support gender equality in international development.

Last week MPs in the House of Commons debated a new private members bill, on gender equality and international development.

Thankfully, it was supported by Prime Minister David Cameron, International Development Secretary Justine Greening, and the opposition. 

Now it will be debated in the House of Lords, and if passed, the UK government will be legally committed to reducing gender inequality through its development and humanitarian aid work.

It’s a critical moment for girls and women across the world, who continue to be affected by poverty, injustice, violence and discrimination, in all areas of their lives.

The UK government already works hard to ensure that the needs of girls and women are reflected across their development and humanitarian work – with the Keep Her Safe Initiative, launched last November, and the Girls Education Challenge programme.

But, this Bill will further ensure that women and girls’ specific concerns continue to be central to the Department for International Development’s (DFIDs) work, and means the International Development Secretary will have to report to parliament on gender equality work.

The specific concerns of adolescent girls are particularly important in the aftermath of disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. Even before Haiyan, adolescent girls in the Philippines lived with the risks of sexual violence and inadequate or age-appropriate sexual and maternal health facilities. After the typhoon, threats like these are more pronounced. Camps for displaced people often provide little provision for girls and young women, without, for example, separate toilet facilities or private spaces for breastfeeding their children. This leaves them fighting not only for food and shelter, but also against the fears of discrimination and exploitation – simply because they are girls.

Plan is working hard in the Philippines to ensure girls’ rights are protected, and that they have safe spaces to just be girls.

With an eye to immediate and longer-term needs for typhoon-affected communities, Plan is repairing damaged health facilities and providing mobile clinics which provide basic services such as antenatal care, post-natal checks, immunisation and treatment for sick children and those suffering from malnutrition. These are linked with other services provided by Plan such as girl and boy friendly play spaces and food distribution.

Our staff are also supporting mothers like Evelyn to get to hospital quickly when there are danger signs or complications.

For Evelyn, life goes on – slowly. My hope now is that the UK government can be more focused on protecting her, and all women like her, in developing countries.