The UK has experienced a difficult few years, politically speaking. High Government turnover and cuts to overseas development assistance (ODA) have had devastating consequences for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
While the UK has made progress in championing SRHR in global spaces, financial support is trailing behind. On International Women’s Day, the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) released its eagerly awaited International Women and Girls Strategy, which was an opportunity to reaffirm its SRHR commitments, and match this with funding that can drive forward implementation. But what does the strategy say, and what does it mean for the UK’s support for SRHR?
Apart from a difficult moment at a UK-hosted Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion and Belief, where inclusive SRHR language was deleted from the conference Gender statement, and despite budgetary cuts and continued funding uncertainties, the UK Government has been largely consistent in championing and driving forward progress on SRHR.
The publication of the Ending Preventable Deaths approach paper, International Development Strategy and the UK’s co-led a statement at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee for Human Rights which set out respecting the bodily autonomy of women and girls and the inclusion of adolescents and youth in decision-making processes as key to advancing gender equality are examples of this. The statement was signed onto by 70 Member States and showed that the UK is a leader in advocating for progressive language on SRHR.
However, there is a clear disconnect between the political and financial support for SRHR from the UK Government. While the Government’s strategies and speeches at global fora advocate for women and girls’ bodily autonomy and the importance of access to comprehensive SRHR services, appropriate funding is lacking.
In 2021, the UK cut overseas development assistance (ODA) from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5%, and the impact of this was exacerbated by the reduction of GNI due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. This decision resulted in the UK’s total financial support for SRHR decreasing by 23% in 2021, reaching a level of 503 million Euros. Cuts have continued into 2023, including a 50% cut to the UK’s SRHR flagship programme Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) which will have damaging impacts on women and girls’ access to lifesaving services.
Concerns around the reduction of ODA to 0.5% and the significant impact on SRHR were also compounded after analysis showed that the UK was spending approximately £3 billion of an already reduced budget on asylum and refugee costs for people inside the UK, thus reducing the available budget for overseas funding. The UK’s decision to return to ODA at 0.7% of GNI is dependent on the fiscal situation, which is unlikely to happen before 2027/2028 at the earliest.
The International Women and Girls strategy that was published in March 2023 was an opportunity for the UK to reaffirm their political support for SRHR, and match this with appropriate financing.
The newly published International Women and Girls’ strategy commits to placing girls’ education, protection, and empowerment at the heart of its international development and foreign policy. It recognises the impact of the vocal global movement to rollback women and girls’ rights, including how it threatens progress on SRHR, and commits the UK to use its power and standing within global institutions to push back on this with a network of partners.
SRHR is not a standalone objective in the strategy as it was in the former DFID Strategic Vision for Gender Equality. SRHR sits as a subsection within the strategy’s priority to “empower women and girls and champion their health and rights”. Despite this disappointing move, the strategy does acknowledge how comprehensive access to SRHR services can impact women and girls’ education and opportunities. We welcome the strategy’s commitment to prioritising often-neglected issues for women and girls including safe abortion; comprehensive sexuality education; and SRHR in humanitarian emergencies, and their inclusion and commitment to investing in women and girls at different key life stages, including adolescence. We are also glad to see the UK recognise the rollback attempts that threaten global and grassroots progress towards gender equality and commit to stop those seeking to put hard-won progress into reverse.
The strategy makes funding commitments towards women’s rights organisations, and a specific £200m allocation was announced for the next round of the UK’s flagship SRHR WISH Dividend programme. These funding decisions were well-received as a positive first step, alongside the commitment to targeting 80% of ODA to gender equality programming by 2030, however, we were disappointed that the strategy did not reassert the UK’s commitment to restoring the women and girls’ budget in full.
It is also disappointing that the UK has not set out how they will extend support to girls and young people who are organising around critical issues such as SRHR, climate change, child marriage, and education in emergencies, with the strategy making no funding commitments towards the humanitarian budget or to youth-and-girl-led organisations. It is time that they start exploring ways to shift power to feminist organisations led by girls and young people, who are often overlooked.
Recognising that SRHR is foundational to gender equality and supporting women and girls’ bodily autonomy is not enough; there is much more to do to put that talk into action. The UK’s hesitancy around aid spending is becoming more and more detrimental to gender equality around the world, and if they want the strategy to be successful, money matters. Without a well-resourced and funded strategy, its ambitious aims will never be met. They need to urgently reverse the cuts to funding, and make sure that the funding commitments that have been made are accessible to local actors.
It's positive to see the UK’s commitment to be open and transparent on its progress for delivering the strategy, including through public reporting and it’s critical that the work being done is transparent. We look forward to seeing what success measures and milestones are developed for the implementation of the strategy and working in partnership with the FCDO to make sure the strategy delivers effectively for women and girls.
Authored by Plan UK, partner in Countdown 2030 Europe
Illustration by Gabriela Basin