Nearly 20 years have passed since Hillary Clinton, then America’s first lady, told a historic women’s conference in Beijing that “human rights are women's rights ... and women's rights are human rights.” We should acknowledge that things have moved on a bit since then.
More girls are going to school than ever before, and women are living longer and having fewer children. Women across the globe are also playing a fuller role in labor markets. But it is abundantly clear that we are still well short of the world we should be offering to every newborn girl who enters it.
In too many places, women are still barred from owning property, from setting up a business or opening a bank account. Millions of girls are still subject to terrible violence like female genital mutilation. Girls are still being forced into marriage and childbirth when they are still children themselves. In too many communities and countries, simply being born a girl is enough to define and limit what you can achieve in your life. If we are to give girls and women a chance to have their own future, we need to overcome the deep-rooted prejudices and social norms that hold them back.
Since becoming the U.K.’s international development secretary, I have put girls and women firmly at the heart of everything my department does. We are helping women around the world get access to education, financial services and contraception. We are improving women’s land rights and helping them access security and justice. This March, our commitment to women’s rights was enshrined by law in a landmark piece of legislation which requires all U.K. development assistance to be assessed for its contribution to reducing gender inequality.
We are also taking action on issues that in the past have been considered too difficult, too entrenched and too taboo to touch. Female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage affect millions of girls every year, causing a lifetime of physical and mental damage. These issues are totemic of the lack of voice, choice and control that girls and women have over their lives and are a litmus test for the advancement of equal rights. It is for this reason that Prime Minister David Cameron will host an international summit in London this July to galvanise global efforts to help eliminate these two neglected issues.
I will be making sure that girls themselves will play a key role in this event. We know that when girls do have a voice, they are a powerful force for change. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban simply for going to school, now spearheads a global campaign for girls’ education. In Britain, young campaigners Fahma Mohamed and Muna Hassan have helped push FGM to the top of the political and media agenda.
These girls took the issues that mattered to them and forced them into the spotlight, demanding change from governments and leaders. I am determined that the U.K. will leave no stone unturned in its efforts to support them and build a global partnership for change. This includes pushing for a powerful standalone gender goal in the next set of development goals to tackle poverty, with clear references to the protection of women and girls from violence and an end to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.
I believe that gender inequality remains the greatest unmet human challenge of our time and tackling it is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Helping girls and women have the chance to write their own futures is of critical importance not just to them but to their communities and their countries. No country can develop properly when it leaves half its population behind.
This is the right time to press for change on gender equality so that in another 20 years or so, we can look back and be proud of the steps we took to improve the human rights of millions of girls and women by eliminating child marriage and female genital mutilation.
She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.