Positive promises for women's rights - now deeds must follow words

This morning the Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening spoke at our East London office to outline her department’s approach addressing, as she put it, ‘the greatest unmet challenges of our time’ – the inequality and discrimination faced in some form by women and girls in pretty much every society around the globe.

We broadcast the event live, and you can watch the whole thing on youtube:

We were pleased to hear Justine Greening commit to a wide range of initiatives defending rights for women and girls, from continuing existing education programmes that get girls into primary schools, to pledging to deliver 20 million contraceptives internationally to tackle maternal mortality. We’re really looking forward to seeing these pledges become reality.

You can watch the event or read the speech in full for the figures and details, but here are some of the key announcements…

Afghanistan: violence against women a priority for the UK Government

There was much to champion in Justine Greening’s speech – not least her commitment to supporting the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

For the past few years we’ve been campaigning for the UK Government to ensure that women's rights are safeguarded in the transition process, as international forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan next year. But we also want to see women's rights protected for a future Afghanistan, beyond 2014. We lobbied for women to be a key part of negotiations at international conferences around transition, and also to make sure their rights were championed by UK governmental representatives there. But we had yet to hear the Government commit to addressing the endemic problem of violence suffered by women and girls in Afghanistan, particularly through its aid work there.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan are not a sideline issue, and we were really pleased to hear the Secretary of State agree with us, by definitively committing to tackling violence in the ‘worst country to be a woman’, today:

'I want to make it clear today that our Afghanistan country plan will have tackling violence against women and girls as a country strategic priority to do whatever the UK can to ensure the gains for girls and women in Afghanistan are not lost and instead can be built upon.  Kate [Allan, Amnesty UK Director], I know you have raised this as an issue with me, and you’re right. This is why we are making this a country strategic priority.'

We welcome this commitment and look forward to seeing the Government address violence against women in the country, and most importantly the impact this will have on the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Address violence against women – from everyday fears to war zones

We’re pleased to hear that the Secretary of State understands the extent to which violence against women, an issue we have campaigned on for over a decade, is embedded in discrimination and oppression of girls and women: ‘violence against girls and women is a pandemic… We need to tackle the culture of impunity.’ Malala Yousufzai and the Delhi rape case were held up as examples of the horrific hostility and physical oppression facing girls and women in everyday situations.

Importantly, Justine Greening also pledged to develop approaches to and address gendered violence in conflict zones as an issue in its own right – there will be ‘an international call to action on Violence Against Women and Girls in humanitarian emergencies, with a Summit in the autumn’.

Increase choice and contraception, reduce mortality

We welcome the announcement that DFID is looking to improve access to safe abortions, deliver 3 million contraceptive implants and 17 million female condoms, with the aim of increasing choice and control, and decreasing both maternal and infant mortality rates.

Tangible commitments on female genital mutilation

Not a key focus of this morning’s event, this one, but the news that Greening’s DFID colleague Lynne Featherstone will lead a project to reduce incidents of FGM by 30% in five years was name checked in this morning’s speech. The practicalities around this are due to be announced on International Women’s Day this Friday; we look forward to hearing them.

‘Deeds not words’

We’re looking forward to seeing these pledges in reality. Promises are not given true meaning until any girl in Afghanistan can live without fear of being jailed for ‘moral crimes’ (usually the 'crime' being simply to flee domestic violence or a forced marriage), until any woman in Pakistan or Delhi or anywhere else can sit on a bus knowing that she will not face abuse of any kind, simply because of her sex.

Justine Greening this morning talked of the inspirational role for her of women and girls campaigning for their rights (she also committed to tackling gendered discrimination within the UK – and her own profession). And her speech referenced Marjory Hume, an activist in the suffrage movement at the turn of the last century, chaining herself to a Westminster statue, chanting ‘deeds not words’. And today’s announcements, as positive as they are, are for now only words – the real test will be whether the UK Government can translate these promises into deeds.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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