Behind the scenes of DfID’s gender equality vision

Written by Mark Rowe on 15 January 2018 in Feature

What can we expect from the Department for International Development’s new gender equality strategy, and how can other departments can learn from the plan to improve gender equality in the UK? Mark Rowe reports

Photo: Jessica Lea/DfID 

When the American dictionary Merriam-Webster named “feminism” as 2017’s word of the year it was reflecting events across the world which showed that gender issues – ranging from violence against women to equal pay and representation – are still a long way from being consigned to history.

It seems timely, therefore, that the Department for International Development (DfID) spent much of 2017 revising its strategic vision for gender equality, first published in 2011. Although the revision is primarily aimed at beneficiaries of UK aid overseas, DfID is increasingly offering cross-departmental advice and expertise on gender issues.

The strategy – to be published later in 2018 – may help DfID staff draw a line under a few bumpy months in which permanent secretary Mark Lowcock left to take up a UN humanitarian post; Priti Patel, the secretary of state, was sacked for meeting Israeli government officials while on holiday; and an aid stream was suspended after a BBC Panorama documentary alleged that money was reaching Syrian extremists.


According to Gerard Howe, the head of the inclusive societies department at DfID, the new vision – prompted by the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which included the elimination of inequality of women by 2030 – will spell out ‘how’ DfID will deliver, as much as 'what' it will focus on. The new strategy is intended to reinforce the UK government's commitment to ending the subjugation and mutilation of women, combating modern slavery and continuing to lead global efforts to tackle sexual violence in conflict.

DfID has compiled the new vision after a process of wide consultation with NGOs and civil society, both in the UK and abroad. The process involved two closed roundtables comprising 15 people – senior DfID staff, academics and other experts on gender from NGOs – as well as consultation with smaller organisations, and was well-received, says Lee Webster, head of policy at Womenkind Worldwide. “We felt we were speaking to the right staff at DfID,” she says. “They listened to us and it was a really positive example of consultation.”

Webster also praised the fact that Howe has chosen to blog about the topics discussed at the roundtables. “Putting the information in the public realm sent a really a good signal about how they were prepared to be open,” she says.

Other NGO experts confirm that DfID staff adopted a positive and meaningful approach to consultation. “The re-visioning exercise was incredibly inclusive of civil society and took into consideration the first-hand experience of technical specialists from across the sector,” says Danielle Spencer, a senior technical adviser on violence against women and girls for Action Aid. “We value the fact that addressing violence against women and girls will cut across the strategy and we're also pleased to see there will be more focus on women’s political empowerment.”

One noticeable change is a new title: the vision for gender equality replaces the moniker of “vision for women and girls”. Howe acknowledges the concerns of several NGOs in a blog last autumn, arguing that this “does not imply any dilution of our efforts on violence against women and girls, but reflects the fact that we can’t support change for girls and women without addressing power relations and the opinions and expectations of men and boys.”

Webster says DfID’s comments on this issue have been “reassuring” but it will be crucial to see how the vision is implemented on the ground. “What needs to happen is for DfID in-country officers to really own the strategy and ensure that the principles are woven into the policies of governments.”

Speaking at a roundtable on the strategy last summer, Howe said that the revised strategy would endorse “strong support for a proposed additional focus on women’s political empowerment –  at all levels from the grass roots to national government.”

DfID is also looking to disseminate its best practice on gender equality – and in particular violence against women and girls – across Whitehall. It works closely with other departments to share evidence and lessons learnt that can be applied to work in the UK. DfID sits on both the Cross Government Officials’ Working Group and Inter Ministerial Group on ending Violence Against Women and Girls.

In October, Charlotte Watts, DfID’s chief scientific advisor, provided these groups with emerging global evidence from the department's What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls programme. Themes included the need for DfID staff to develop skills in communication, conflict resolution and empathy; addressing gender inequality and disparities in law, policy and institutions; and working with both women and men to address harmful gender norms and attitudes.

Meanwhile, a member of DfID’s Gender Equality Team has been seconded to the Foreign Office's (FCO) new Gender Equality Unit to support the development of a new work on female education and empowerment. The pairing of DfID and FCO expertise is intended to ensure a joined-up approach that strengthens the work in this field of both departments.

Webster says that DfID’s knowledge on the subject will be crucial for other departments, “particularly those that deal with female migrants and refugees entering the UK.” She adds that: “The more cross-Whitehall support they can get the better things will be.”

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