Department for International Development accused of missing opportunity to stamp out female genital mutilation, with work elsewhere also criticised
Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) should have worked harder to pressure the government of Sierra Leone to end female genital mutilation (FGM), according to a group of British MPs.
In its final report ahead of the UK elections, the International Development Committee (IDC) said Sierra Leone had “ceased to matter to the development community” before the Ebola outbreak drew the world’s attention to west Africa, where more than 10,300 people have been killed by the disease.
The IDC chided DfID for failing to do more to stamp out FGM in Sierra Leone and said that, since the practice had stopped during the Ebola outbreak, the department – one of the country’s biggest bilateral donors, with a stated aim of ending violence against women and girls – should now make the issue a priority.
About 88% of girls undergo FGM in Sierra Leone, often during mass initiation ceremonies led by powerful secret societies. The IDC said it was disappointed that Sierra Leone was not included in the DfID-funded UN Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation.
In the report released on Thursday, the IDC reviewed its work between 2010 and 2015, arguing that it had succeeded in influencing government policy, including on the need for reform of the international approach to health emergencies.
Sierra Leone aside, the IDC said DfID had failed to exert enough pressure on donors and the Afghan government to entrench hard-won progress in women’s rights in Afghanistan. The department’s refusal to reconsider a decision to end bilateral aid to Burundi was also censured.
The IDC defined DfID’s “failures” as recommendations the government had rejected. The committee expressed hope that policies would still change in the longer-term.
Sir Malcolm Bruce, the IDC chair, said he had asked Justine Greening, the international development secretary, about FGM during parliamentary questions on 18 March.
“She informed him that following the Ebola outbreak FGM had stopped because it was one of the main ways in which the disease could spread and that she was having discussions about how to prevent it becoming back. We urge DfID Sierra Leone to make this a priority,” the IDC said.
In response to the report, DfID said the issue of FGM had to be handled sensitively, and led by Sierra Leoneans, pointing out that it had worked with survivors, local NGOs and partners in the country to advocate against FGM.
The committee also noted that its work on Sierra Leone and Liberia had been hampered by the fact that, prior to the Ebola outbreak, it encountered difficulty in getting evidence from different development actors.
“Evidently, Sierra Leone and Liberia had ceased to be of interest in the first half of 2014, although the situation changed as the Ebola outbreak refocused international attention on the country. We initially received fewer than 10 written submissions; in other inquiries we received closer to 100,” the IDC said.
Last week, Baroness Lindsay Northover, parliamentary undersecretary of state at DfID, urged donors, aid agencies and campaigners to use the apparent cessation of FGM in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis to eradicate the practice altogether.
“We are aware that at the moment, with the Ebola crisis … cutting has temporarily stopped,” Northover told a conference on FGM in London, according to Reuters.“We have to seize this opportunity and see if we can move forward and end FGM.”
The IDC said DfID told the committee that, because FGM was legal in Sierra Leone, the UK could only take limited steps. The IDC rejected this argument.
“We believe that the UK and DfID holds considerable influence in Sierra Leone and it should be putting far more pressure on the leadership to end this practice,” said the committee.
Another failure identified by the IDC related to DfID’s policies on women and girls in Afghanistan. The department has committed to putting women and girls at the heart of the UK’s development assistance, and London hosted a high-profile summit last year on ending sexual violence in conflict, setting itself up as a world leader on the issue.
Before last year’s London conference on Afghanistan, however, DfID was criticised by some activists for sidelining women’s rights. It said the rights of Afghan women and girls were a priority for the UK.
The IDC’s final report suggested there was still a gap between rhetoric and reality. The committee said it had asked DfID to pressure other donors and the government in Kabul to back commitments to women, and to set up a joint donor-government plan to ensure money was funnelled to specific programmes for women and girls.
“It is to our great regret that DfID rejected these recommendations and we are now receiving reports from Afghanistan that women are being kept out of peace negotiations,” the report said, citing an Oxfam study from late last yearhighlighting the absence of women in peace talks with the Taliban.
“Without women and women’s rights activists being included in the process there is a risk that their hard-won rights may be lost in a peace settlement. We hope that our successor committee looks again at the position of women in Afghanistan,” the IDC said.
DfID said it was supporting girls’ education and women’s economic and social empowerment, and working with the Afghan government to ensure it upholds its commitments to protect women. The department had provided £3.2m to strengthen access to justice for women and build awareness of women’s rights in six provinces, it said.
The IDC also listed the closure of DfID’s bilateral aid to Burundi under its failures, noting its 2011 recommendation that DfID should reconsider this decision. The government did not accept the recommendation, saying Burundi, where tensions have been rising ahead of elections this summer, would continue to benefit from DfID-funded multilateral organisations.
“We do not consider the decision to close the bilateral aid programme was rational or consistent. We urge our successor committee to maintain a focus on DfID’s portfolio of priority countries in Africa, including Burundi, and to ensure the smallest and poorest countries continue to receive the bilateral support that they need,” the IDC said.
Mary Creagh, the shadow secretary of state for international development, said the IDC report showed the government had missed opportunities to ensure the equal treatment of women and girls.
“DfID failed to include Sierra Leone in its project to end female genital mutilation despite the country having one of the highest prevalences in the world. And in Afghanistan, there was inadequate funding to supports women’s rights,” she said.