Why gender equality must be at the centre of international development

My bill would recognise the primary role of women in water and sanitation projects.

A woman collects water from a handpump in the Geneva Refugee Camp in Dhaka. Photograph: Getty Images.
The whole question of the improvement of the lot of those in the developing world is, and should be, a major concern to all right-minded politicians. This is why I strongly support the aid programme and the 0.7% commitment, provided, of course, it is accompanied by a reduction in corruption and is focused on the right objectives, which is to help those who really need help and to help them help themselves.
 
In this, the role of women is paramount. I have been involved in promoting the interests of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, for decades as chairman of various all-party groups, including sanitation and water, which I set up about five years ago and in which I work very closely with Wateraid and Tearfund.
 
On a visit to India a few years ago, and on which I wrote an article for the Guardian website, I showed how in the slums and among the ragpickers, it is women who are the driving force behind efforts to improve sanitation and water in Delhi and Mumbai. Dividing up the slum areas into sectors, they raise one or two rupees from these desperately poor people, including themselves; but because of the scale of those in deepest poverty, weekly and monthly they raise millions of rupees, which are then invested in localised water and sanitation projects. When I was with the ragpickers, particularly the women, and I asked them what it was they most wanted, they all cried out "Please, we beg of you, give us clean water. This is what we need!"
 
I have been working closely with GREAT Initiative on recent proposals, headed up by Mariella Frostrup and Jason McCue and their team, and with a fair wind and support from the government and the House of Commons which was evident yesterday when I introduced my Gender Equality (International Development) Bill, this Bill, if unopposed, could make it to the statute book. In a nutshell, it would embed the role of women in those areas where we give development assistance and humanitarian help as a prime element in proposed projects to which the Secretary of State would be required to have regard to the role of women. They are, after all, not only prime movers but also about half the population of the world. With goodwill and a mixture of government focus, international cooperation, this could make a real difference.