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Reviewing DFID’s new approach to gender equality

Written by Abigail Hunt

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has just launched its new Strategic Vision for Gender Equality. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This Strategic Vision spells out what DFID plans to do to make it happen.

DFID can rightly be proud of its recent global track record in this area. It was a strong champion of gender equality during the fraught intergovernmental negotiations to agree the SDGs, and has recently hosted major international summits aimed at galvanising action on critical issues such as family planning.

The scale of the challenge ahead is enormous and – as Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt recently explained – at the current rate of progress the SDGs won’t be achieved. New approaches are needed.

I lead ODI research on women’s empowerment and was keen to see if DFID’s new approach will cut the mustard. Here are some initial reflections.

Some huge steps forward

I was immediately delighted to see an upfront commitment to supporting the work of those best placed to tackle unequal gender power relations: women’s rights organisations and movements. Encouragingly, the launch of the Jo Cox Memorial Grants – in support of critical work by feminist changemakers – shows DFID’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is. Bravo!

I was also heartened to see the importance placed on advancing women’s political empowerment. ODI research shows that increasing women’s leadership capacities is critical to ensuring that their voices are heard in the decision-making processes affecting their lives; whether in parliaments, peacebuilding, or village panchayats.

The inclusion of the ‘participation pillar’ also shows that DFID has really listened – not only to ODI’s evidence and analysis, but also to civil society; including the UK Gender and Development Network’s Women’s Participation and Leadership Group which shared insights from the ground on increasing the voice and influence of the world’s most marginalised women. It’s well worth recognising that DFID’s door was open for constructive conversation – consequently, there is promise for real change in women’s lives.

Other highlights include a commitment to ramp up efforts to leave no one behind. The Vision recognises that this means deliberately focusing efforts on the women and girls who face the most discrimination and exclusion, perhaps because of their age, ethnicity, location or because they live with disabilities.

Off the mark

There are some areas that miss the mark. The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment – on which DFID was a lead member – recently highlighted the critical need to tackle the unpaid care and domestic work shouldered mostly by women. This includes investing in quality public care services and social protection. But little detail is given on how this will be taken forward.

There are promises to boost women’s economic empowerment by supporting increased access to jobs in high-growth sectors. Granted, this is important, but – as our recent report highlights – the reality is that many women in developing countries work in the informal economy. This includes highly precarious activities – like street vending, domestic work or home-based garment making – far from the growth-oriented businesses DFID appears to be focused on. Scaling up support to the parts of the labour market where women already are would be a logical way to reach the millions of women who risk being left furthest behind.

The Vision recognises that age matters. It rightly notes the importance of focusing on adolescent girls. But older women risk being ignored – a critical oversight when projections show that there will be over 1.4 billion people over 60 by 2030. To better understand their experiences and contributions ODI, in partnership with Age International, is currently researching the unpaid care carried out by older women. We’re learning that specific action is needed to support their economic empowerment. We look forward to engaging with DFID around what that looks like.

Also, while it’s great that DFID is embracing the promise of innovation and new technology, it hasn’t fully addressed the challenges that technology can create. The effect of automation on female-dominated sectors such as the garment industry remains uncertain, and global trends like the gig economy – in which Uber-style digital platforms link workers to providers of their services – are fast taking hold in developing countries. Our research shows that while these platforms can help link women to new economic opportunities, they can also reinforce existing discrimination and unequal power relations. Persistent digital divides also mean that those who are not connected can’t even access platforms in the first place.

Truly leaving no one behind requires a critical view on technology – and making sure it works for everyone. Making links across DFID, including with DFID’s own new Digital Strategy and last year’s Economic Development Strategy, will be essential for coherence – and impact. Therefore, the Strategic Vision’s pledge to integrate gender across all of DFID’s work is good news. Building internal capacity and making sure girls and women are taken into account across the board will be critical for success.

Onwards and upwards

DFID has made some great steps forward in its commitment to support gender equality and women’s empowerment. But the world is changing, and fast. Responding to the opportunities and challenges that emerging economic, demographic and technological trends pose will be essential if DFID wants to achieve real change in girls’ and women’s lives.