Ruth Davidson: The pandemic has been devastating for the world’s poorest girls. We cannot turn our backs on them.

18 Mar

Ruth Davidson is the MSP for Edinburgh Central and Leader of the Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament. This is a sponsored post by Crack the Crises.

The pandemic has hit harder than I think any of us would have imagined when we first heard of another respiratory virus jumping species and spreading around the world. For over a year, our lives have been turned upside down.

While we have all been touched in some way, nobody would suggest that it has affected us all equally. There are dozens of factors that have impacted the way we’ve experienced the last year – in different parts of the UK we’ve faced different restrictions, our jobs have carried varying degrees of risk, and our age, ethnicity, whether or not we have children and our medical histories have shaped the challenges we face.

Following International Women’s Day, and when the safety of women and girls is hitting the headlines back home, it is worth noting that there are few groups for whom this experience has been more damaging than for the poorest girls in the poorest countries.

The UK Government has done much to highlight the inequality they face – the Prime Minister has been a champion for the power of girls’ education as a transformative force in development, and a series of ministers, including the brilliant Baroness Sugg who recently resigned, have driven that agenda forward.

Even before Covid-19 hit us, 130 million girls were out of school, but after the school closures introduced to restrict the spread of the virus, research suggests that ten million more girls are at risk of never returning to school. The immense efforts taken to get girls the opportunity of a better future that education provides are – in millions of cases – being reversed.

For too many girls, being out of school is not just about not learning. It can mean facing abuse, being put to work, being married off or otherwise having their futures snatched away from them. It is estimated that 2.5 million more girls are at risk of child marriage as a result of the pandemic, and one million more girls are at risk of adolescent pregnancy. For the lucky amongst us, this pandemic may have been a tedious intermission in our lives, but that, at base is all it has been. For these girls, it has taken away their ability to shape their own futures.

Over the last ten years, under Conservative Prime Ministers, there have been fewer more powerful forces for the rights of women and girls on the world stage than the UK Government. Projects like the Girls’ Education Challenge have supported millions of girls through school, our progressive leadership in family planning has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in childbirth and helped women to control their own futures.

When others stepped back, such as in President Trump’s introduction of the Mexico City Policy restricting family planning, the UK stepped up. But Rishi Sunak’s announcement that the Government will break its promise to keep aid spending at 0.7 per cent of our national income puts this role in jeopardy just when it is most necessary. As every other member of the G7 increases its aid in response to the pandemic, the UK is alone in shirking from the task.

The recent reports of cuts in our support to countries like Yemen and Syria are a stark reminder of the practical impact of our broken promise. But It won’t just be in warzones where it’s felt. Girls growing up in extreme poverty, faced by the injustice of gender inequality and the oppression it brings, will have a lifeline withdrawn just when they need it most. I salute MP colleagues who are making it known to the Conservative whips that they will not be party to this abdication of our moral duty on the world stage.

For so many within the party, support of the 0.7 per cent is a cultural shibboleth helping to define the type of Conservatism we practice – and a quick headcount shows our number can tip the scales. So I welcome weekend briefing rolling back a permanent cut to a temporary one. But, frankly, I’d rather the Chancellor reconsidered his decision entirely. The UK shouldn’t balance its books on the backs of the world’s poorest and what a waste it would be to reverse the phenomenal progress towards gender equality of which we have been a part.

There has been much political discussion in recent years about how women succeed, what the barriers are and how we individually and collectively can overcome them. It’d be patronising to suggest that the intervention of others is the decisive factor in this, but it is absolutely undeniable that the context in which women grow up helps to shape their chances.

Millions of the next generation of women will have a tougher start in life, and a slimmer shot at success, because the withdrawal of UK aid will make it harder for them to learn, harder to avoid abuse and child marriage, and harder to take their futures into their own hands.