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Girls & Women

Why This Week Has Proven That Defending UK Aid Is a Feminist Issue

Jessica Lea / DFID

The UK government has announced it will no longer fund the Girl Effect, a programme dedicated to empowering girls around the world by challenging social norms. Tackling issues such as child marriage, gender-based violence and barriers to girls’ education, its model seeks to drive change by transforming social attitudes.

On 6 January 2017, in a statement published on its website, the Department for International Development announced:

“We have taken the decision to end our partnership with Girl Effect following a review of the programme. Empowering women and girls around the world remains a priority, but we judge there are more effective ways to invest UK aid and to deliver even better results for the world’s poorest and value for taxpayers’ money.”

The project has recently come under fire for one of its initiatives: “Yegna”, dubbed the “Ethiopian Spice Girls” by various media outlets. The Daily Mail described the project as a “blood-boiling waste of money.” The project initially received £4 million as part of a wider programme designed to improve the rights of girls and women in Ethiopia — the second biggest recipient of UK aid. In 2015, it was approved to receive a further £5.2 million to last until 2018.

Read More: 12 Things Achieved by UK Aid You'll Probably Never Read in the Daily Mail

74% of women in Ethiopia are believed to have experienced FGM. Nearly one in every five girls in the country ends up married before the age of 15. According to Girl Effect, Yegna was always intended to be more than just a pop band.

“Using storylines that confront real-life issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education, the Yegna brand works through a radio drama, music, talk shows, and clubs to reframe the way people think about girls - and the way girls think of themselves. It provides role models and inspiration authentically drawn from girls to surface the issues that are important to them. It gives voice to their desire to stay in school, stay safe and healthy, have economic opportunity and participate fully in society. 

“Designed by and with girls from the start, it challenges the way people think and therefore behave towards girls.”

Read More: This is How UK Aid Empowers Girls Around the World

Globally, twice as many girls as boys will never start school. It’s no surprise then that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women. This early imbalance of power extends throughout a woman’s life. One in three women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence. In most countries, women only earn between 60% and 75% of men’s wages, for the same work. In 2015, there were only 19 female heads of state across the whole world. Across every level of society, the physical, social, cultural, and economic barriers preventing girls and women from living free, independent and fulfilling lives still need to be broken.

Although DfID has not confirmed how the funds withdrawn from the Girl Effect will now be spent, the department has emphasised that empowering women and girls will remain a priority. They will continue to support existing programmes that help girls like Bayush and Selenat escape child marriage, and men like Josephat fight for the rights of female members of their community.

DFIDFGM1 - hero.jpegJosephat, 25, warrior fighting FGM in Kenya
Image: Jessica Lea/DFID

In December 2016, the government announced a £6 million package to fight violence against women and girls through grassroots organisations. Over the past five years, UK aid has helped more than 5 million girls get an education, helped secure 2.5 million women the right to own land and helped 36 million women access financial services so they can work their way out of poverty. And in July 2016, after  Global Citizens took more than 100,000 actions in support of girls’ education, the UK announced a commitment of £100 million to help the hardest to reach girls gain access to education.

Read More: UK Steps up Fight to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls

No culture can change overnight. To change behaviour, you have to change mindsets first. It may be more difficult to measure changing attitudes than it is to measure the number of vaccines that have been distributed, or even the number of children in school, but the need to tackle these issues is no less significant.

Championing girls’ empowerment around the world is a feminist issue. Emergency situations caused by famine, conflict, natural disasters and health epidemics do need our support, but so do the long-term issues that leave girls and their communities trapped in a cycle of inequality and poverty.

As the aid budget comes under increased pressure, it’s vital to remember the incredible progress achieved by UK aid in improving the lives of women and girls around the world — and to highlight why this work is absolutely necessary.