Now is the time to prevent a man-made famine in South Sudan

Here is a blog from my latest visit to South Sudan. Also available on the Department for International Development site.

I can clearly remember my first overseas visit as a DFID minister. It was just under 2 years ago, in October 2012. I was struck by the optimism and hope that filled the air of this new and ambitious country.

On Monday I returned to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to find an entirely different situation.

A humanitarian crisis has gripped the country since fighting broke out last December. Over 1.7 million people have fled their communities in fear of their lives. Over 4 million people – one-third of the population – are ‘food insecure’. While famine for this crop season has been averted, UNICEF estimates that up to 50,000 children could still die before the end of the year, and there is a very high chance that the situation could deteriorate further and that famine will be declared in early 2015.

It is heart-breaking to see what has happened to this country so soon after it was born as a nation.

Lynne Featherstone at the IRC run nutrition centre in Ganyiel where they assess, monitor and record the needs for children. Picture: David Shaw/DFID

To see first-hand how DFID is helping some of the people who are at risk, I ventured 90 minutes by plane to Ganyliel Town, located at the southern end of Unity State.

I saw how a nutrition centre, run by the International Rescue Committee, is helping the local community deal with the lack of food. The centre can diagnose, monitor and treat malnutrition. The workers weigh and measure the circumference of children’s arms, to assess what assistance they need.

Those who are severely malnourished are given plumpy nut, a peanut based high-energy paste that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and can be eaten straight from the packet.

Another facility treats children with severe medical needs. I met a young mother whose infant child was severely under-nourished and poorly. I was deeply moved to hear about her struggle to feed her child with the limited supply of food available to her.

Lynne Featherstone meets a young mother and child in Ganyiel, South Sudan. Picture David Shaw/DFID

Action must be taken now. Yesterday I announced £30 million of additional funding to help support the South Sudanese people who have fled in fear for their lives to neighbouring countries. But more still needs to be done.

Over 100 women arrive with Jerry cans to collect water for families and people with disabilities in the local community. Picture: Ian Hughes/FCO

Other donors need to step up. But ultimately the responsibility lies with those with power in South Sudan. The government and the opposition must reach a peace settlement soon and provide much-needed assistance to the people of this young nation.

Perhaps then, next time I visit, there’s a chance the country will have returned to the optimism and hope of its early years.

If reports of FGM in Iraq are true…

If the news reports are true, this is truly horrific news. FGM is one of the oldest and most extreme ways to control the lives and bodies of young women and girls and sadly it’s prevalent across the Middle East and North Africa.

This only emphasises why it is critically important we act together to end FGM once and for all. This is why the Coalition Government held the Girl Summit just two days ago, where faith and community leaders came to together to sign a declaration condemning the practice and reiterating it is in no way a requirement by Islam or any religion.

We all need to act together to stop this horrendous violence and ensure women and girls are treated with the respect, dignity and equality they deserve.

Ministerial visit to Ethiopia

I visited Ethiopia last week in my capacity as International Development Minister. This is my blog from the field.   

An early morning flight takes me away from the relative hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa, and out to a remote village in Amhara in the north of the Ethiopia where I meet a young girl, around 16 years of age in a village called Tagel Wodefit. I’m here because I want to learn about her life. In particular, I want to find out how being married at a young age has affected her opportunities and choices. Her story is a depressing one. At around age 13 she was forced to drop out of school to marry a man she had never met. Desperately unhappy, she ran away repeatedly, but either her family or her in-laws always found her and made her return to her husband. Just when she thought she could take no more, her family accepted her back in to their household, but they have not let her return to school. Instead, she spends her days looking after her siblings, fetching water and doing housework with her mother.

I feel sad as I leave her. Her life is not so awful by some standards – but it could have been so much more, and I feel disheartened by the loss of potential. How different might her life be had she not been married off and had instead been allowed to finished school? She had never been out of her immediate area and with no radio in the village, no mobile and no school – literally there is no information or pathway that can change her life. Tragically, her story is by no means unique. In Ethiopia, one out of three girls do not attend school, and in the Amhara region, 50% of girls are married by the time they turn 18.

I travel a little further down the road to talk to a village who are participating in a DFID funded project called ‘Finote Hiwot’ that works to increase the age at which girls in Ethiopia are married and have their first child. They do this by bringing together whole communities – girls, boys, parents, religious leaders, elders and teachers – and involving them in conversations to collectively identify issues, and come up with solutions. Through these conversations, there comes a shift in traditionally held values, attitudes and practises, and it’s this shift that will contribute to the African-led critical mass that will end child marriage. And it’s working! I meet some of the girls from the community – they are confident, articulate and opinionated, and even though many of them have some quite disturbing experiences of early marriage, thanks to Finote Hiwot, they most certainly know their own minds. The investments made in these girls now will provide Ethiopia with longer term benefits. It’s widely documented that girls who stay in school and are empowered to make their own decisions tend to have fewer children, have them later, and invest more in their health and education. That’s exactly what these girls want for their own children – to be happy, healthy, educated and employed. I’m really pleased that DFID is providing support to help girls such as I’ve met today stay in school and realise their ambitions.

Lynne Featherstone MP speaking to young women in Ethiopia

My last stop of the day is to Sertse-Dingle School (the region’s first mainstream school to accept young people and children with disabilities) to listen to a focus group as they talk about ‘Yegna’. For the uninitiated, Yegna is an Ethiopian, all-girl group who have their own radio show. With their radio drama, talk show and music, they are incredibly popular, and they champion the potential of Ethiopian girls. They don’t shy away from dealing with hard hitting issues such as female empowerment, gender based violence and child marriage. They reach an audience of more than 5 million listeners across Addis Ababa and the Amhara region, and is yet another great another example of an initiative that aims to challenge beliefs and bring about positive social change. It’s clear from the conversations that the listening group is having that they are all hooked! They tune in to the radio shows avidly, and they discuss the issues with their friends and families afterwards. There are listening clubs all across the region too where communities get together to talk about Yegna, and if the enthusiastic conversations I’ve heard today at the school are anything to go by, they are a massive force to be reckoned with!

With the Girl Summit in a few weeks, today has been a most timely reminder of the very reasons why I do this job, and why I love it so much. Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential. Our role is to get behind them and support them. I’ve seen that change is possible, and I urge you all to get involved.

Links:

http://www.girlsummitpledge.com/

http://finotehiwot.org/

http://girlhub.girleffect.org/

Tackling violence against women and girls

I am the ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas. I recently updated the house on my work in this area. Here is a copy of the statement: 

I would like to update the House on my work championing the issue of tackling violence against women and girls internationally, building policy coherence across Whitehall and pushing for as much progress as possible towards our goal of ending all forms of violence.

The concerning abduction of over 200 school girls in Nigeria in April and the recent gang rape and murder of girls in India are a sharp reminder of the low status of women and girls globally and the terrible injustice and violence faced by so many.

The UNMISS human rights report on the conflict in South Sudan, published on 8 May 2014, presents grim evidence of how the conflict has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and children. All parties to the conflict have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women with impunity. The ability of survivors of sexual violence to receive services in this environment has diminished, leaving most incidents unreported.

I am proud to say that the UK is supporting the International Rescue Committee in South Sudan to conduct outreach and support services to survivors of gender-based violence.

Since my last statement the UK has refreshed our cross-government action plan, “A call to end violence against women and girls”, which sets out an ambitious agenda for the year ahead, including how we will continue to bring international and domestic work on violence against women and girls closer together.

The International Development (Gender Equality) Act came into force on 13 May. This Act, strongly supported by the Secretary of State for International Development, makes it law for the UK to consider gender equality before it provides development assistance, and the differences in gender-related needs for its humanitarian support. This puts our existing commitment to delivering important outcomes for girls and women—including a reduction in violence—on a statutory footing.

In May I had the great privilege of speaking at DFID Mozambique’s summit on ending child, early and forced marriage (CEFM). This is a huge issue in Mozambique, where one in two girls is married before her 18th birthday. CEFM is a global issue that has a significant negative impact on girls, their families, communities and countries.

On 10 to 13 June over 120 country delegations, over 80 Ministers, and around 1,700 delegates including eight UN agency heads, presidents and prosecutors from the ICC and international tribunals, civil society, and over 300 sponsored delegates, including from conflict-affected countries, among them a number of survivors, came together at the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict hosted by the Foreign Secretary and UN special envoy, Angelina Jolie.

I was proud to be part of the summit and to formally launch “What works to prevent violence” DFID’s new research and innovation fund. I spoke on the panel with leading experts to highlight the need to invest in work to understand and address the root causes and social norms which underpin many forms of violence—both in times of peace and in conflict.

I also participated in the ministerial round table on hidden victims to highlight the issues of domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM/C) and CEFM which are often exacerbated in conflict. The Secretary of State for International Development chaired a ministerial round table on the call to action to protect women and girls in humanitarian emergencies and jointly launched the UK’s new national action plan on women, peace and security with the Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary.

The momentum will continue over the summer. In July, the UK Prime Minister and UNICEF will co-host a Girl summit on female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage. The summit aims to support southern leadership on these issues and to further rally a global movement to end the practices for all girls, within a generation. I know that many in the House will have an interest in these issues, given the impact they have in the UK as well as internationally.

A youth event will be held at DFID on 19 July with 170 attendees, made up of young people, including several nominated by Members of Parliament, several from developing countries, a youth panel and other attendees nominated by partners.

A social media campaign has also been launched this week. The campaign aims to receive pledges of support from people across the UK, reaching beyond the usual network of development organisations and civil society supporters. The action focuses around “play your part”—we are asking people to play their part in ending these harmful practices through pledging support and spreading the word.

In the coming months, I will visit more of our programmes overseas so that I can see in practice how our commitments to this agenda are being implemented.

Opening a pre-school in Rwanda

Yesterday I got back from Rwanda. I visited in my capacity as Minister for International Development, and on the final day, I opened a new school:

There’s an amazing sense of positive energy and happiness as you come in to the school I’m here to open. It’s a brilliant space filled with bright colours and content children and it’s set against the most dramatic backdrop of peaks and valleys of the Rwandan hills. It all combines in a way that makes me want to set aside my packed programme of meetings ahead and play on the swings with the children all day instead.

Lynne Featherstone MP opening a pre school in Rwanda

I’m here with Noala Skinner, Rwanda’s UNICEF representative and the Honourable Minister of State for Education, Dr Harebamungu Mathias, and we’re surrounded by a sea of little faces – I must confess that they look a little bemused about all the fuss of having so many visitors to their school, but they sit very quietly and patiently whilst the grown-ups make their speeches and officially declare their pre-school to be open.

Initiatives like this one are so important. The early years of life are crucial in a child’s development, and investing in young children can have so any benefits. As I walk round the compound and watch the children busily building houses and skyscrapers with their wooden blocks, I think about how many doors a good start in life will open for them in the future. I’m really pleased when the Minister of State for Education tells me that the Government of Rwanda has made a commitment to expanding access to pre-primary programmes across the country. The UK is helping too – the school I’m visiting today is only one of ten community based childhood facilities that we’re supporting.

Lynne Featherstone MP opening a DFID funded pre-school in RwandaDuring the speeches, there’s lots of formal talk about education sector plans and government commitments, but what it all really comes down to is families and teachers. The desire for children to have the best start in life is one I think will resonate with all parents, and I’m really pleased to see that many of them are joining us for the opening of the building. It’s great that they are seen as partners in the school and they’ve worked just as hard as anyone to get it all up and running. The teachers keep a close watch on the children – and without their expertise, enthusiasm and dedication, we wouldn’t be here today. Providing the foundation for learning for young children is a very specialised and important job, and one that deserves the utmost respect.

I leave the school feeling uplifted and happy. I feel very lucky to have been a part of this pre-primary. I’m sure this is where the journey starts for the leaders, professionals and politicians of Rwanda’s future.

Genocide – Never Again.

I’m currently in Rwanda in my capacity as Minister for International Development. Here’s my first blog from the three-day visit:

On arrival in Kigali this morning, I went straight to the genocide memorial at Ntarama Church to lay a commemorative wreath for the Rwandans who lost their lives in 1994. Only twenty years have passed since the Genocide, and – understandably – it remains an episode that defines and shapes the political, social, economic and development context of the country today.

At Ntarama church, the story of the genocide unfolds before me as my guide from the Aegis Trust explains the harrowing events that took place in April 1994.  The militia told Tutsis in and around Ntarama to stay together on the church compound so that the government could guarantee their safety. As large numbers of Tutsis sought protection, they thought they would escape unharmed.

They did not.

Soldiers and militia attacked the church where the Tutsis sheltered. Five thousand people lost their lives as violent atrocities almost too difficult to speak of took place.

I knew that visiting the memorial would be distressing, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of coffins filled with multiple bodies, or the rows upon rows of skulls of those who had perished, some small enough to fit in to the palm of my hand. Most upsetting of all – a corner of the church’s Sunday School room remains forever stained by blood where children were swung by their legs and smashed repeatedly against the stone until dead.  I cannot bring myself to imagine the terrified screams of the little ones who were faced with such brutality.

As I laid the commemorative wreath amongst the remnants of clothes and shoes belonging to those who perished, I reflect that Ntarama is just one of many similar sites across the country. It is truly sobering  to visit a genocide memorial, but it is so very important that we remember – it’s vital in making sure these terrible events are not repeated. With UK support, the Aegis Trust is working to turn the site at Ntarama in to an exhibition that – alongside the main Genocide Memorial in Kigali – will provide a space for reflection, remembrance and healing.

In the bloodied Sunday School building, there is a large banner where the school children of today write messages to the children who died. One simply and bravely reads “I will stand in your place”, and – although communities are still coming to terms with the tragedy, the country has made remarkable progress and people are looking to the future. A stronger, more cohesive future where the motto of my hosts for today – the Aegis Trust – rings loudly: ‘Genocide. Never Again.’

Ending child and early forced marriage in Mozambique

A few days ago I had the great privilege of speaking at DFID Mozambique’s summit on ending Child and Early Forced Marriage (CEFM).

Lynne Featherstone speaking in Mozambique. Picture: Julia Smith/DFID

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of CEFM in the world, with around one in two girls married before their 18th birthday. It is a problem that until recently has been not been given enough attention and was considered a taboo subject, not just in Mozambique but in many other countries as well.

In the last decade 58 million women in developing countries, that is one in three women, were married before they turned 18. CEFM is a global issue that has a significant impact on girls, their families, communities and countries, for example:

  • Girls who give birth under-15 years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s;
  • The children of child brides are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday than the children of mothers who are over 19;
  • Girls who marry earlier are more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse, and to contract HIV from their husbands; and
  • Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and stay poor.

Taking action is challenging but the results are worth it. Girls and women who can truly exercise voice, choice and control in their lives make more significant contributions to social and economic development.

That is why it was gratifying to see such wide attendance at the summit, including the Mozambican government, the African Union, civil society, the private sector and international community. We all pledged to ‘break the silence’ on CEFM in Mozambique and to support the Government efforts to take action.

It was great to hear from Mozambique’s Minister for Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare who spoke passionately about the extent of the problem and the Government’s new commitment to develop a national strategy for the prevention of CEFM. African leadership such as this is fundamental if we are to work together to bring an end to CEFM, not just in Mozambique but globally.

As a result the UK is keen to get behind other national and international efforts to combat this practice. DFID is looking closely at its global aid programme to see how we can develop new and innovative partnerships to accelerate progress on ending CEFM. As part of this, the UK Government will be hosting an international summit in London with UNICEF on 22 July to share lessons and galvanise new commitments on ending both CEFM and FGM.

CEFM is a global issue that requires continued action, collaboration and coordination from us all to bring about a lasting solution. Many people at the summit had worked extremely hard to get the issue high up on Mozambique’s agenda and are taking forward some excellent plans. This is tremendously exciting news and I hope that this is the beginning of the end for CEFM in Mozambique.

Finance for the feisty female entrepreneurs of Mozambique

I am currently in Mozambique, on a visit in my role as minister for international development. Here’s my first blog from the visit, also available here

Nothing can quite prepare you for walking into Zimpeto market, the largest wholesale market in Mozambique. It is a hive of activity, colour and noise with stacks of fruit and vegetables piled high in great walls of produce. It is also the workplace of some industrious female market traders who have established small businesses importing goods from South Africa to sell.

Photo: Lynne Featherstone meeting the market traders in Zimpeto, Mozambique

These feisty and entrepreneurial women are members of the Mozambican Women Importers Association set up 8 years ago to represent their interests. They have built houses and put their children through school and university with the money they’ve earned through their businesses. The Association now has 2,000 female members and the one thing that is holding them back from greater success and top of their wish list for change is access to finance.

Around 75% of small businesses in Mozambique are unable to access formal financial services which mean they cannot get the credit they need to grow their businesses. The women I met told me that they end up relying on loan sharks to get the finance they need to purchase merchandise and expand.

Many of the women also wanted better seeds and fertiliser to increase what they could grow on their farms. 80% of Mozambicans derive their livelihoods from agriculture, the majority of them women. Productivity is very low but there is a lot of potential and with better agricultural inputs and technical training, these women could grow more and earn more.

Credit and other financial services provide a vital stepping stone for businesses to be able to grow which is why I used my visit to launch a new Access to Finance Programme led by DFID Mozambique. The new programme, called MAFiP will help to improve access to finance products benefitting 650 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and over 2 million poor Mozambicans. This will help them manage their household and business budgets better so that investing in their business no longer means taking a decision taking money away from the family finances.

Announcing MAFiP to an audience of bankers and financial experts was an excellent forum to galvanise their support. But perhaps the best bit of the day was introducing three women from the Association to representatives from the banking sector to explain firsthand the problems they face every day.

More action needed on reproductive rights for all

Here’s a recent blog about my work as a minister in the Department for International Development, also available on the Huffington Post.

Twenty years ago the world took an important step in agreeing that population is not just about measuring the numbers of people in the world, it is about the quality of lives of individuals and that every person counts. At the heart of this agreement was the recognition that gender equality should be a global priority, and that making decisions over your own body is a human right. Significantly this included the rights of women and girls to make decisions about their reproductive life free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

Since then we have made remarkable progress. Fewer women are dying in child birth, more girls are going to school, increased numbers of women are taking on roles in public office, there are more female entrepreneurs and less poverty. But significant challenges remain, and we are still a long way from achieving universal access to reproductive and sexual health and the realisation of reproductive rights for all.

2014-04-07-populationreproductivehea.jpg

Women queue to be registered for free family planning services in Malawi. 

Globally there are 222million women who wish to space or delay the timing of births, but do not have access to modern forms of contraception. This has real and devastating consequences on their lives. In 2010, 800 women a day died from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth and in 2008 an estimated 8.7million young women aged 15 to 24 in developing countries resorted to unsafe abortions. All of this was preventable.

These figures are staggering and what makes it all the more astonishing is that after 20 years there is still so much resistance to women and girls having a right to decide what happens to their own bodies. Yet again this year progress at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was stalled by negotiations on wording around reproductive rights. While ultimately the event was successful, why after 20 years since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and 58 years of the Commissions on the Status Women, are reproductive rights still being used as a bargaining tool in women and girls’ progress?

The successes of previous years have been hard fought and we cannot accept attempts to undermine them. Achieving gender equality means allowing individuals to make decisions over their bodies, and this doesn’t just mean through ensuring reproductive rights, but also by eliminating violence against girls and women and practices such as female genital mutilation and child early forced marriage.

This week I will be attending the Commission on Population and Development at the United Nations, as I did CSW, to not only to call on countries to uphold the commitments they made 20 years ago, but also to recognise that the world has changed since 1994, and emerging challenges also need to be addressed. It is not acceptable that each year 75million women and girls face an unintended pregnancy and that 22million are desperate enough to have an unsafe abortion despite the risks of the death, disability and, in many settings, imprisonment. For me the argument should not be about the rights and wrongs of abortion but about providing women and girls with the freedom and services so that they can make their own choices about their own lives without discrimination.

The Department for International Development (DfID) has taken a leadership role in committing to reproductive rights. Our International Family Planning Summit in 2012secured commitments to give 120million more women access to family planning helping to stop 200,000 women and girls from dying in pregnancy or childbirth and saving the lives of three million babies across the world’s poorest countries. By 2015 DfID alone will have given 10million women access to modern methods of family planning, enabling more women to delay their first pregnancy, as well as committing to providing increased skilled birth attendants, particularly for the poorest and most marginalised.

Reproductive rights should be guaranteed for all, without discrimination, otherwise we will not only fail to achieve the objectives of the ICPD, but also fail women, girls as well as men and boys, across the world.

Violence against women and girls – at home and abroad

Here’s my latest Ham and High column on my work at home and abroad to protect women and girls from violence. Also available here.

Last week, I represented the UK at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I have always been committed to tackling violence against women and girls – and since taking on a ministerial role in the Department for International Development, I have been able to make it a UK government priority.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have led to remarkable achievements in alleviating poverty over the last 15 years. But for all their good, the MDGs omitted a crucial element – a target for ending gender-based violence.

I’m proud that the coalition government is committed to the principle that every woman and girl has the right to live free from violence or the threat of violence. And that every woman and girl should be empowered to take control over her own life.

So in the post-2015 international development framework discussions at the UN Commission, we were focused on pushing for a stand-alone goal to empower girls and women and achieve gender equality. Within this, we are pushing for a target on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

Over the last year, I have spearheaded a new multi-million pound programme to tackle one of the most extreme manifestations of gender-based violence – female genital mutilation (FGM). And because of this solid foundation of work and momentum, this July the prime minister will host a major summit to tackle FGM as well as early and forced marriage – both domestically and internationally.

Our aim is to get political and popular support to end early and forced marriage and FGM within a generation. An ambitious goal, but women’s rights campaigners have always been ambitious! And I believe this goal is achievable – but only if we work together and ramp up our efforts to support this African-led movement.

There is work to do in the UK, too. Young girls who live in the UK are sent abroad to be “cut”. It has been estimated more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK each year, and that 66,000 women in the UK are living with the consequences of FGM.

As the local MP in Haringey, I have called a roundtable – with officials from the local council, health services and police – in order to discuss an integrated strategy to protect girls in our borough.

Ending gender-based violence has been and will continue to be a long-fought struggle. This includes addressing the entrenched social norms and gender inequalities that drive violence against women and girls.

It will take time, and we’ve got a long road ahead. But I believe if we all, men and women, work hard enough together we really can create a world where women and girls no longer live in fear of violence.