“The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and covid-19 is no exception.” (United Nations Women)
72.The covid-19 pandemic has brought particular disadvantages for women and girls across the developing world, compounding existing inequalities. The exact scale is difficult to establish due to a lack of sufficient disaggregated data. However, evidence to our inquiry discussed a broad of range of secondary impacts which risk derailing progress towards achieving UN SDGs aimed at gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
“Women, men, girls and boys experience both the primary and secondary impacts of an epidemic in different ways.” (Oxfam GB)
73.Gender equality is the fifth goal of the UN SDGs. The UN says that this goal is “probably even more distant than before” as women and girls are affected considerably and disproportionately by the impact of covid-19 and of pandemic counter-measures.
74.One way in which gender inequality manifests itself during the pandemic is the rise in unpaid care work by women and girls. The Nawi-Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective and the Gender and Development Network told us that the pandemic was shifting care work from the public domain to the domestic one as highly-indebted developing countries cut public expenditure on public services in an effort to consolidate their budgets. According to UN Women, the volume of unpaid care work has increased further following the outbreak of covid-19 and subsequently the increased number of children out of school and movement restrictions which affect people in need of care such as the elderly. In a survey of 190 female smallholder farmers in 14 countries in September 2020 by ActionAid, over 60% of respondents said that domestic work for women and girls had increased in the past six months.
75.The Overseas Development Institute told us that programmes on gender equality are often the first to be cut during resource-contracting crises. The All-Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development called upon Government to continue prioritising gender equality and progress on the UN SDGs following the merger of DFID and the FCO and to place delivery on the SDGs at the heart of their work.
76.In September 2020, the FCDO published its “Smart Rules”, the operating framework for better programme delivery following the merger. Originally launched in 2014 as a framework for programme management, it has been updated several times per year since. A key component of the framework is the embedding of gender equality into every programme. The framework also explicitly states that Heads of Departments must ensure that their portfolio is consistent with relevant UK legislation, including the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014.
77.In March 2018, DFID launched the 2018–2030 ‘Strategic Vision for Gender Equality’ (Strategic Vision), an initiative consisting of seven “calls to action”. Those interventions seek to foster gender equality and help empower women and girls by—among other things—leaving no girl or woman behind, challenging and changing unequal power relations, disaggregating data by age, disability and sex, protecting and empowering women and girls in conflict, protracted crises and humanitarian emergencies, and incorporating gender equality in all of DFID’s work and tracking performance and delivery on pledges. In April 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that DFID’s approach—based on tackling social norms to achieve improvements in gender equality— lacked “an overall long-term plan for implementation” to assess progress at key stages effectively. The NAO also found DFID “slow to start bringing performance information together to provide an accurate picture of progress” across the different activities, and missing “a strong understanding of its spending in this area”.
78.On 3 September 2020, Baroness Sugg, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development and Special Envoy for Girls’ Education, reiterated the Government’s commitment to gender equality and stated that the merger would make the Government’s work on women’s rights, health-related issues, tackling violence against women and girls and promoting and supporting girls’ education “even more effective”. Baroness Sugg explicitly stated that
“We do not see the core ambitions of the Strategic Vision for Gender Equality changing. The challenges of advancing girls’ education, SRHR, women’s political empowerment, women’s economic empowerment and ending violence against women and girls, are as acute now, if not more so, as when we published the strategy in 2018”.
When asked about the timescale for appointing a successor Special Envoy on Gender Equality in December 2020—following an earlier, similar question in September 2020—the FCDO stated that they would provide an update “in due course”.
79.We are concerned by the likely increase in gender inequality following the outbreak of covid-19 and its potential impact upon programmes promoting gender equality. In its response to this report, the FCDO should set out how they have implemented their “Smart Rules”, their operating framework for better and gendered programme delivery. We further recommend that the FCDO refresh DFID’s Strategic Vision for Gender Equality to form a consistent and coherent policy context for all relevant initiatives. In particular, the FCDO should convene an external panel of experts to challenge its performance on the Strategic Vision as announced by its predecessor DFID when it launched the initiative. We further ask the Government to review the role of the Gender Equality Delivery Board in holding the Department to account for the implementation of the Strategic Vision, and to appoint a successor Special Envoy on Gender Equality and align that role with the Strategic Vision and the work of Delivery Board. The Government should further tell us if their covid-19 response incorporates measures to counter the rise in unpaid care by promoting gender-responsive trade and investment policies which protect public investment in childcare, health, education and water and sanitation facilities.
80.The rate of gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic. UN Women refer to the increase in violence against women as a “shadow pandemic”. According to modelling undertaken by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) together with Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University and Victoria University, an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence were projected in 2020 due to covid-19. Calls to helplines, the police and health centres have increased during the pandemic in at least 50% of 49 surveyed countries by UN Women with the actual figure of violence against women and girls likely to be considerably higher as such violence often goes unreported.
81.We heard repeatedly that emergencies such as covid-19 increase the risk of sexual violence. Covid-19 is likely to increase sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment particularly of groups such as adolescent, migrant, refugee and internally displaced women and girls as they are especially vulnerable to being forced into providing sex in return for food. Plan International UK told us about a girl in Liberia, who told them that,
“My fear with this virus in Liberia is that women will really suffer. We will suffer over food. Men will abuse us. Because if I don’t have food and a boy has food, if I ask him for help, he will ask me for sex before he gives me some.”
82.ADD International told us that overall, the covid-19 response had not sufficiently focussed on the increase in gender-based violence. The pandemic could result in an additional two million cases of female genital mutilation and an additional 13 million child marriages by 2030, according to UNFPA. Lee Webster, Co-Chair at Gender and Development Network, and Deputy Director of International Development Policy and Practice at ActionAid UK, told us that the “real tragedy” was that, as demand for protection from gender-based violence was increasing, services had to close down due to movement restrictions. We also were told that funding for services preventing gender-based violence and supporting its survivors was insufficient. In the words of UNFPA, funding for prevention of and response to gender-based violence remains “unacceptably low” despite providing life-saving services.
83.In her written answer to a parliamentary question in May 2020, Ms Morton stated that £45 million—i.e. 0.31% of UK ODA—was spent on ending violence against women and girls in 2018. The UK is a co-chair on gender-based violence in the Generation Equality Action Coalition, a coalition of UN member states, international organisations, women’s rights organisations, the private sector and charities to achieve gender equality for women and girls, and to protect their rights. The UK is also the leading donor to UNFPA, the sexual and reproductive health agency of the United Nations, and an additional £10 million was committed by the UK to UNFPA’s Global Response Plan in September 2020 to scale up support for survivors of gender-based violence and to respond to the disruption to reproductive health services since the outbreak.
84.The FCDO told us about the launch of a £67.5 million programme “What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale” in 2021. Its predecessor, the £25.4 million flagship programme “Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls: Research and Innovation Fund” by DFID from April 2013 to June 2020, provided evidence to understand the underlying causes of violence and improve the Government’s work in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in developing countries. During a parliamentary debate on international development and gender-based violence on 26 November 2020, the Rt Hon James Cleverly MP, Minister for Middle East and North Africa, stated that the previous programme had helped to reduce violence in “around 50%” of their evaluated pilots “in less than three years” and that the new What Works programme would scale up programming and research. The Minister also announced that the UK would use its presidency of the G7 and COP 26, as well as its co-presidency of the Generation Equality Action Coalition, to “tackle gender-based violence in the context of covid-19”. Despite these announcements, gender-based violence was not included in the seven priority areas for UK ODA announced by the Government in late November 2020.
85.Gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic, with the risk especially acute for groups such as adolescents, migrants, refugees and displaced people. At the same time, access to support services has become more difficult. Therefore, it is disappointing that a specific commitment to the protection of women and girls from gender-based violence is absent from the FCDO’s revised framework for UK ODA. We recommend that the FCDO use the UK’s presidency of the G7 and COP 26, as well as its co-presidency of the Generation Equality Action Coalition, to publish a list of objectives which it will seek to achieve in combatting gender-based violence during its tenure and to set out how it will monitor progress on achieving them. It should also ringfence existing funding commitments to projects which seek to tackle gender-based violence. The FCDO should ensure that delivery partners administering programmes against gender-based violence can account for how their work is reaching survivors of gender-based violence and their support systems.
86.The pandemic has created disruption to the provision of sexual and reproductive health services in developing countries. Marie Stopes International told us that 1.9 million fewer women were served by their programmes between January and June 2020 than originally forecast. They estimated this would translate into 1.5 million additional unsafe abortions, 900,000 additional unintended pregnancies and 3,100 additional maternal deaths. These services are essential to the health and wellbeing of women and girls, with complications due to pregnancy and childbirth the leading cause of death of 15–19 year old girls globally.
87.Jennifer Miquel, Head of the United Nations Population Fund’s Regional Syria Response Hub in Jordan, told us that a belated prioritisation of sexual and reproductive health by Syrian authorities, shortages in PPE, and the initial, temporary closing down of NGOs providing such sexual and reproductive health services during lockdown resulted in disruptions to the health services provided to women and girls. Contributors told us that when services have been available, women and girls have at times been unable or reticent to access them. Gwen Hines told us that people were “scared of catching the virus” at health facilities, resulting in a “massive drop-off” in demand for ante- and post-natal care in the countries in which Save the Children operates. In a survey commissioned by Marie Stopes International, almost one third of women in India who sought a contraceptive service or product during the pandemic were unable to access the service due to fear of covid-19 infection.
88.The UK is a signatory, alongside 58 other governments, to a declaration on the importance of protecting sexual and reproductive health during the pandemic. The FCDO told us that their £200 million “flagship” programme Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) on sexual and reproductive health rights was continuing to provide services and supplies by “finding innovative ways”. Ms Morton told us that the UK had provided two tranches of funding for the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF) amounting to £80 million for 2017–2023 to improve the health of women, adolescents and children in 36 countries through maintenance of essential services, identification of effective measures and advocacy to enhance prioritisation based on evidence.
89.Some witnesses welcomed the FCDO’s timely and flexible response to covid-19’s impact on their programmes, which had helped aid partners adapt and respond effectively to some immediate challenges. However, a remaining concern for NGOs is the Government’s position on ending preventable deaths of mothers, new-borns and children. Ms Morton stated that this was an “important and essential part” of the FCDO’s work. And yet, this commitment was not included in the FCDO’s Strategic Framework for ODA.
90.Access to sexual and reproductive health services is an essential element of healthcare, providing lifesaving services to women and girls and empowering them to make choices about their futures. The FCDO should publish an assessment of the effectiveness of current UK-funded programmes on the provision of sexual and reproductive health services in developing countries and should ringfence funding for the provision of reversable contraception to women and girls. It should also explicitly integrate the pledge to end preventable deaths of mothers, new-borns and children by 2030 into the list of global challenges in its new Strategic Framework for UK ODA.
91.We are concerned about the impact of covid-19 on education. UNICEF UK estimates that up to 9.7 million children are at risk of dropping out of school permanently due to the secondary impact of covid-19 on poverty. Save the Children estimate that the pandemic could result in a reduction of financing for education of US$77 billion in low-and middle-income countries in the coming two years. The Norwegian Refugee Council told us that 73% of surveyed people in 14 developing countries including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Yemen stated that they were less likely to send their children to school following a reduction in their income.
92.We heard that girls were particularly vulnerable as they were more likely to be pulled out of education permanently during crises. This is concerning as young women account for 59% of the total illiterate youth population, according to Care International. Lee Webster told us that there was a “real link” between school closure and girls leaving education permanently with subsequent increases in child marriage, female genital mutilation and unpaid care work. RESULTS UK reiterated this point, stating that many of those girls were also at risk of early pregnancy, child labour, and sexual abuse and exploitation.
93.We heard that online and remote learning are helpful but insufficient in reaching vulnerable groups during lockdown. 60% of distance learning is provided online but 465 million children do not have access to the internet in their homes, according to Plan International UK. In addition, distance learning for children-at-risk is not always appropriate as contact and observation is required for on-going protection purposes.
94.We were told that reliance on mobile phones to support women and girls was inefficient, as women’s and girls’ access to phones and the internet could be subject to restrictions enforced by male relatives. According to Care International, women in developing countries are 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. Jennifer Miquel told us that in Syria, support through social platforms is not effective “for everyone” as “not necessarily everyone has a phone” and women and girls may not control the usage of phones or be in safe places to access the services online.
95.The FCDO told us that 20 million more girls at secondary-school age could be pulled out of school permanently due to the pandemic. In her article in The Times on 9 January 2020, Baroness Sugg stated that the Government had achieved a lot but had “a lot more to do and we won’t achieve the global goal of zero poverty without prioritising gender equality and women’s rights” and that investing in girls’ education would offer a “huge return” by increasing the economies of developing countries by £75 billion per year.
96.Girls’ education forms one of the FCDO’s new seven priority areas for UK ODA spending in the new Strategic Framework for ODA. This includes a “global commitment to get 40 million girls into education and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10”. The FCDO stated that girls’ education was “central” to the Government’s response to covid-19 and that bilateral programmes had been pivoted to support the wellbeing, protection and nutrition of children. The response includes an investment of £20 million in UNICEF to support their Covid-19 appeal, £5.3 million to UNHCR to support 5,000 refugee teachers, and £5 million for the Education Cannot Wait programme. Furthermore, the FCDO has continued its commitment to the Girls’ Education Challenge, a programme of nearly £500 million from December 2016 to June 2025 to help one million marginalised girls to transition to secondary education. The UK is also co-hosting the Global Partnership for Education Replenishment in 2021 with Kenya.
97.We welcome the FCDO’s continued commitment to prioritising girls’ education in UK ODA funding. However, we are concerned that the pandemic will push back progress in this area, with rising poverty levels forcing girls out of school and remote teaching techniques unable to reach key cohorts of girls of school age. To ensure that this commitment leads to high-quality education for girls, the FCDO should base future funding decisions upon data disaggregated by gender and age to assess impact. They should further ensure that their measures are adapted sufficiently to support girls who are hard to reach and at risk of leaving education permanently, including through close work with local NGOs to identify effective, local approaches for educating marginalised girls.
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