International Women’s Day 2010: Women’s rights abroad are not a UK priority

Hannah Wright argues that the British Government’s actions do not live up to its words when it comes to promoting global gender equality.

Each year, International Women’s Day provides a welcome opportunity to assess the progress which has – or has not – been made toward gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights around the world. This past year has seen the 30th anniversary of CEDAW, the UN’s international bill of rights for women, which defines discrimination and lays out an agenda for the 186 countries who are party to the treaty to put into action. Though we are still a long way from global gender equality, some important steps have been made in the right direction.

The UN General Assembly’s resolution, passed in October, to create a new ‘super agency’ combining the work of the UN’s four disparate bodies working to end discrimination against women, was the result of years of campaigning to create an organisation whose resources and status reflect the importance of the cause at hand.

The UN Security Council has reaffirmed its commitment to promoting women’s participation in decision-making in matters of peace and security around the world, and created a new Special Representative post to take forward its important work to address sexual violence in armed conflict.

But for all these resolutions and statements of good intent, progress is slow when it comes to actually improving women’s lives. A new report by Action Aid reveals the extent of continued inequality across the world; 60 million girls are assaulted at or on their way to school each year; 41 million girls do not receive a primary school education and two thirds of illiterate young people are women. As many as 1 in 3 women are sexually abused in their lifetime, and women make up less than 20% of MPs in national Parliaments.

The conference rooms and negotiating tables where lofty ideals become international treaties are far removed from the realities in which the majority of women live; indeed, often these two worlds seem to have little impact on each other. But those of us who have the privilege of being citizens in a democracy (however imperfect), can at least make our voices heard, to try to hold our own government to account and force it to play its part in the global campaign for gender equality.

The British Government’s record on promoting women’s rights internationally is mixed – perhaps not surprisingly, given that our own Parliament is just 19.5% women. Selling the invasion of Afghanistan as a mission to liberate women was a terrible blunder which may well have done more harm than good to efforts to promote women’s rights abroad, confirming for many their suspicions that gender equality is a concept used for advancing an imperialist agenda. But for all its faults, when compared with other governments around the world, ours deserves some praise for its efforts. The British Government was one of the leading advocates for bringing the women’s movement to the table at the UN Security Council, and remains one of only 14 UN member states to have developed a National Action Plan for incorporating gender analysis into all our foreign policy.

However, in the 30 years of CEDAW’s existence, the UK has not once put forward a candidate for election to any of its 23 committee seats, nor is it fielding a candidate in this year’s elections. The UK will not nominate a candidate for the position of Under Secretary General to head up the new UN Agency for Women, or for the post of Special Representative Against Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.

While the Obama administration has appointed an Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, Gordon Brown has no such plans – and I’ll be more than a little surprised if the next government does.

This has caused considerable upset among activists and campaigners in the UK. “Surely,” asks gender expert Lesley Abdela, “the Government cannot be suggesting that there is no one in the UK who is qualified for any of these posts?”

I suspect the reasons have far more to do with political calculation and horse-trading, to which Baroness Kinnock almost alludes in her explanation of this omission. It is not that the Government doesn’t care, but that it has only so many funds, and so much political capital with other UN member states, and it is not prepared to use up those resources on rights for women.

For all the lip service it has paid to this issue, our Government has decided that women’s rights are not a high priority in this country’s relations with the wider world.