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The UK needs a SheDecides Champion to safeguard women and girls around the world

SheDecides march in Malawi. | PA Images

4 min read

Appointing global champions with a voice in Government is crucial to the success of the movement, writes Baroness Sheehan.

Just one week ago, on 11th March Harvey Weinstein, erstwhile movie mogul, was sentenced to 23 years behind bars for sexual abuse of women. It was fitting that Weinstein was sentenced during the month of March, Women's History Month, encompassing International Women’s Day on 8th March, and SheDecides Day on 2nd March.

So throughout this month, as the Lords’ Spokesperson for International Development for the Lib Dems, my focus has been on the most downtrodden women and girls in the world. Those in developing countries where centuries-old cultural and familial practices still dictate that women’s voices are the last to be heard, women’s needs are the last to be addressed, and who and when they marry is not their decision. And of course, the younger the woman the more vulnerable she is.

Liberal Democrats are determined to do all we can to ensure equality for women and girls worldwide. This year’s International Women’s Day, my female Liberal Democrat colleagues in the House of Commons introduced a series of bills to tackle challenges that women and girls face in the UK and abroad – issues such as period poverty, the pink tax, use of toilets during lesson time and support services for victims of domestic abuse.  

Let me tell you how President Trump spawned the SheDecides movement. In 2017 one of Trump’s first acts as President was to reinstate and extend the Global Gag Rule, which saw women’s services, such as access to family planning and abortion, crippled across the developing world. This was the spark that ignited the SheDecides mass movement, as friends and champions came together in outrage to try to safeguard the many essential lifelines for women and girls.

The SheDecides’ vision is a simple one, “A world where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, her life and her future” and at its heart is a global political movement built on young people driving change by action in communities across Europe, Africa and Asia.

One of my favourite examples from the many activities this year is from SheDecides Tanzania, which in partnership with UNFPA, organised a youth-led caravan that travelled to 12 regions in Tanzania and Zanzibar, engaging with 300,000 young people. Discussions were held on the SheDecides Manifesto, with emphasis on teenage pregnancy, maternal mortality, HIV/Aids, female genital mutilation, child marriage, gender-based violence and menstrual health management. SheDecides Tanzania then disseminated key recommendations, both at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 and domestically to local and national policy makers. A uesful and successful exercise indeed.

However, crucial to the success of the SheDecides movement is the network of global champions, who have a voice in Government. Sadly, the position of UK SheDecides Champion has remained vacant since May 2019, when Penny Mordaunt, the former International Development Secretary and Women’s Minister moved to Defence.

So why do I think we need a new UK SheDecides Champion?

It is true that the UK has been a long-standing leader amongst nations in providing sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls. In 2012 the Coalition Government took this a step further and galvanised international support for a campaign to reduce and prevent the heartbreaking sexual damage done to women and girls caught up in areas of conflict.

The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) championed by the then Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, was a game changer, leading to the first ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. 

However, the recent ICAI report into the PSVI gave this damning verdict: “the government programme to tackle sexual violence in conflict zones risked letting survivors down due to a lack of senior leadership, poor strategy, and cuts in funding.”

This report is a wake-up call to government. There is work within government for a SheDecides Champion – that much is clear. In order to continue to lead the fight for a woman’s right to define herself effectively, the Government must appoint a new SheDecides Champion. This Thursday in my Oral Question in the House of Lords Chamber, I will be calling on the Government to do exactly that.

2020 is a significant year for women’s rights and gender equality - it marks 5 years since the inception of the Sustainable Development Goals, 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. There is more energy than ever before to come together and create a #NewNormal. What better a time for the Government to appoint a new SheDecides Champion than now.


Baroness Sheehan is a Liberal Democract peer and Lords spokesperson for International Development. 

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