Power of the “girl effect”

New Statesman
Women stage a demonstration on March 8, 2012 in the Lingwala district of Kinshasa. Photo: Getty Images

Two years ago, women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda joined together on the bridge uniting their two countries to show that women can build bridges of peace and hope for the future. A global movement was born. Now, each year, thousands of people show their support
for women in conflict-affected countries by meeting on bridges around the world.

London is no exception. On 8 March - International Women's Day - the Millennium Bridge is playing host to a show of solidarity for those in countries less secure than our own.

I will be showing my support by joining the rally and speaking alongside figures such as the descendants of Emmeline Pankhurst and the head girl of a school in Tower Hamlets.

Ever since I first became my party's spokesman on international development in 2005, it has been clear to me that you can't understand deep poverty without understanding the issues faced by girls and women in the world's poorest countries. Now that I have the honour of being the secretary of state responsible for the government's work on global poverty, I'm relieved that this has become widely understood.

Investing in girls and women produces a transformational impact, whether it's girls going to school rather than becoming child brides or women being able to access microfinance and then reinvesting in their families' health and education. This "girl effect" is a virtuous circle and we instinctively recognise and understand its value.

At this point, I should declare an interest. As the father of two daughters, I know only too well that women can be strong and feisty agitators, unafraid to challenge the status quo or to argue with those who may foolishly think they hold positions of authority. The situations faced by my daughters, however, are a million miles away from those of girls such as Immaculate, whom I met last year on a visit to drought-ridden northern Uganda.

A question of choice

Sitting up against the wall of the family hut with her elderly grandmother, Immaculate told me her story. Her father had died when she was younger and she had been forced to leave school to look after the family. Undeterred, she'd refused to give up and, with the help of a small scholarship funded through British aid, she managed to continue her education, walking for hours each day to reach her school.

Now 16, Immaculate is utterly determined to realise her dream of becoming a teacher so that she can give something back to her community. Her story, told in fluent English thanks to the education she'd received, really touched me. I only wish more people could see the good use to which British aid is being put.

Through the Girls' Education Challenge Fund, we are helping more girls like Immaculate, getting up to a million of them into school in some of the poorest and most remote places in the world. We're looking for fresh ideas, for innovation, for new partners to test exciting and creative solutions in areas where more conventional responses have failed.

One of our top priorities this year will be to rally a renewed global emphasis on that most crucial issue: women's choice over whether and when to have children. It's simply unacceptable that hundreds of millions of women in our world today want access to family planning but do not have it. So, the government, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, will host a global, high-level event on women's choice this summer to generate new political energy and resources to meet demand among poor women for family planning.

More immediately, in the days and weeks ahead, we will be celebrating women and the huge difference they can make in breaking the cycle of poverty. In doing so, let us spare a thought for Immaculate and the countless other inspirational women who have refused to accept the hand life dealt them.

I am immensely proud that British aid is doing so much to help these women and, through them, generations to come.

Andrew Mitchell is Secretary of State for International Development