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‘Callous’ UK aid cuts threaten global gender equality goals

Women and girls worldwide are ‘under threat of violence’ due to the UK government cutting research funding by two-thirds

Adam Bychawski
14 May 2021, 9.06am
Protest in South Africa against sexual crimes in 2019
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Guy Oliver. Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved.

The UK government has been accused of "backsliding" on its commitments to reducing gender inequality after it cut funding for research and development projects supporting women and girls by more than two-thirds.

Researchers on a "cutting-edge" £15m programme aimed at advancing gender justice and security in 22 countries were told that they would only receive a third of their promised funding this year.

Academics working on the initiative described the cuts as "callous" and "unethical", and said that pulling millions in funding to women in developing countries, especially with less than four months’ notice, will place them "under the threat of violence".

The UK's global research and development programmes are facing combined cuts of £120m after the government announced in November that it is cutting £4bn from its foreign aid budget this year, in response to the economic impact of the pandemic.

The leader of the Gender, Justice and Security Hub at the London School of Economics (LSE) said the cuts will "severely hamper" the UK’s pledge to meet United Nations' goals to achieve gender equality and inclusive societies by 2030.

"By implementing these cuts, the same government that has publicly committed to the sustainable development goals and gender equality is tearing apart the very work currently being done to achieve this," said Christine Chinkin, the Hub’s principal investigator.

Preet Gill, the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for International Development told openDemocracy: “The Prime Minister’s decision to slash funding for research and projects working to tackle gender inequality during this time shows a shameful retreat from the world stage.”

Lisa Doughten, acting chief of UN Women’s strategic partnerships division added that the UK government should recognise the “devastation caused by COVID-19 for women and girls around the world” and “promptly reinstate” its aid funding.

‘Horrific timing’

Development experts said cutting up to two-thirds of their funding at short notice has forced them to drastically scale back their work and funding to partners globally.

Manali Desai, who leads a project aimed at reducing gendered violence in India and South Africa, told openDemocracy that "field workers were just getting started" when she was informed about the cuts.

"The timing of this could not be more horrific. Domestic violence rates are skyrocketing under COVID," said Desai, who is head of the sociology department at Cambridge University.

"Women who are vulnerable […] any gains they've made have been completely wiped out by the pandemic. So when you make a decision like this, you're not only making zero contribution to readdressing any of this, you're actually making things a lot worse," she added.

Researchers told openDemocracy that they have been left with no choice but to halt projects that help women and girls facing sexual health risks and violence.

Nicky Armstrong, the Gender, Justice and Security Hub’s communications manager, explained that the funded projects directly support activists and grassroots groups in developing countries globally who will also be impacted by these cuts.

"We're not treating academic, NGO, civil society and activist work as separate, we're bringing all them together. We really wanted this to be a champion of how you can use academic research to actually achieve some sustainable impact", she said.

Pia Riggirozzi, who leads a project addressing health inequality among displaced women in Latin America, said that the cuts are "jeopardising durable solutions".

"Displaced women and girls face severe risk of rape, sexual assault, sexual disease, lack of contraceptives and lack of sanitary materials. They are not going to receive the information and awareness materials that we wanted to create for them, and policymakers are not going to receive the data they need for public policy," she said.

"If you cut a project halfway through, then you're going to miss out on the impact that would have been expected later," added Marta Tufet, executive director of UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR), a group of government departments and research funders working in international development.

Backsliding on commitments

The cuts to the UK’s gender, justice and security global research programme were announced weeks after the government pledged to "promote gender equality" and work with women’s rights organisations around the world "to tackle the discrimination, violence and inequality that hold women back".

This month, the government claimed that gender equality will be "at the heart" of its agenda at June’s G7 summit, which it is hosting. Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said "the UK is putting girls’ and women’s rights at the heart of our G7 presidency, uniting countries that share our values so we shape a better path ahead."

Tenzin Dolker at the global women’s rights group AWID said: "Gender justice and feminist movements are critical in resisting authoritarianism, bringing accountability to states, and advancing democratic societies around the world.”

“The UK government’s cuts will no doubt have a negative impact on the already precarious state of funding for these movements. The consequences of these cuts are incredibly dire, further weakening their long term sustainability,” she added.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “While the seismic impact of the pandemic on our economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, the UK aid budget this year will still be more than £10 billion. We are working with suppliers and partners on what this means for individual programmes.”

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