Mind the gaps – talking about gender equality at Conservative Party Conference

Hannah CorbettHannah_Corbett125

The UK Government’s international development and foreign policy has put the issue of gender centre stage and ongoing efforts to tackle violence against women and girls, at home and abroad, are cross-government. Ministers speaking at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week were keen to reinforce this commitment. The focus on gender is welcome and necessary but there are a couple of inconsistencies and gaps worth reflecting on.

In her speech to the main floor Justine Greening re-iterated her own personal commitment to promoting the women and girls agenda in her role as Secretary of State for International Development. The speech was mostly concerned with making the economic case for aid – there’s a large section of the Conservative Party who remain unconvinced. So in terms of gender, she argued that investing in women and girls was the smart choice because they reinvest 90 per cent of their income in their families and communities.

Not just a question of economics
But this only paints half the picture. While focusing on the economic case and aid effectiveness is important, it doesn’t address the question of why men invest much less of their income in their families and communities. Or why the burden of often unrecognised unpaid care work continues to fall on the shoulders of women and girls. (Something due to be discussed at a forthcoming IDS, Action Aid and Oxfam event.) And how in the aftermath of the food, fuel and financial crises of 2008, women and girls often were the first to be let go from their jobs or their pay and conditions got worse.

As research undertaken at IDS shows, investment in women and girls must go hand in hand with efforts to challenge the cultural norms and systemic barriers that hold back progress towards greater gender equality and empowerment. IDS has also just launched a new website on gender and social movements, developed by the BRIDGE team as part of their Cutting Edge Programme which has been working to inspire and help build more effective, gender-just social movements, better able to create positive transformation and equality for all.

We need to talk about rights
It is also an issue of rights. It was interesting to hear Justine Greening reflect at the BOND fringe meeting on gender and the post-2015 development framework, on the lack of attention paid to the Millennium Declaration in comparison to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  A common theme highlighted by authors in the recent IDS Bulletin,  Whose Goals Count, was that the MDGs ‘diluted the ambition and overarching vision of the Millennium Declaration, which was much more rights-focused, and ultimately this limited progress on issues such as gender equality’.

Whatever replaces the MDGs in 2015 must address this issue by articulating gender equality and empowerment as a human right, and including a stand-alone goal on gender with targets and indicators that cuts across all goals. This was a clear recommendation from an IDS policy briefing that was the main outcome of a roundtable co-hosted by BRIDGE/IDS, the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations and the South African Government during the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.  And reiterated by VSO, in their recent report Women in Power (pdf).

Women in Power
And talking about women in power – it’s good to see UK government cross-departmental activity on the issue of gender. However, it’s slightly ironic that the majority of the people in charge of these departments are men. Only four out of 22 members of the current cabinet are women. Something that David Cameron will need to address in the forthcoming reshuffle if he is to meet a promise he made in 2009 that at the end of this first term as Prime Minister a third of all ministers would be female.

Read some reflections on Labour Party Conference and whether it’s time to change the record on aid?

Hannah Corbett is a Public Affairs Officer at the IDS Communications Team. 

Read more recent blogs relating to gender issues:

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