Baroness Jenkin is the founder and former chair of Conservative Friends of International Development.

This time last year, world leaders came together at the United Nations to agree the most ambitious agenda for global development that the world has ever seen. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a roadmap for eradicating poverty in all its forms, within a generation. At the centre of the agenda lies a critical promise that no one will be left behind. We are not talking about halving poverty; we are speaking of ending it for all people everywhere. This will mean prioritising the most marginalised and vulnerable.

This pledge holds particular promise for girls. Across the world, girls are disproportionately represented amongst the poorest and most excluded from society. Centuries of discrimination have placed girls firmly at the back of the queue, denying them opportunities to grow into healthy, productive and fulfilled women.

To tackle the challenges of development we must place the position of women and girls in the most impoverished parts of the world at the centre of everything we do. Girls’ life experiences are different from boys’. They are not inferior or superior, but different, and that difference has to be better reflected, whether through the targeted investment of British aid, through sending technical gender experts to developing countries or by boosting accountability to girls for policies that affect them.

It is about fairness, about levelling the playing field so that every boy and girl has the opportunity to get on in life, to reach their economic and social potential. We need to turn the technical 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into an action plan that helps lift the world’s most vulnerable girls out of poverty and protects them from harm. Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth – fostering both dignity and prosperity.

Progress shows we should be ambitious

If we fail to reach millions of the world’s girls, we effectively shut off vast reserves of ambition, creativity and intellect that could contribute to the economies and societies they live in. Educating girls and harnessing their potential can result in rapid benefits for countries’ economies – ranging from expanding the market and making labour markets more competitive to reducing the burden on the health sector as more educated women are more likely to take part in family planning. As head of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recently said, ‘If you don’t know where to start with the SDGs, start with women and girls, and everything else will fall into place.’

The UK government has wholly recognised this need and I am deeply proud that we have led the global push to increase the empowerment of women and girls. We were one of the strongest supporters of the establishment of UN Women; we pushed for greater support for tackling child marriage and female genital mutilation at the 2014 Girls Summit in London; we continue to invest in girls’ education through the innovative Girls Education Challenge Fund and we convened other donors and stakeholders at the recent Girls Education Forum.

The significant progress that girls and women across the world have made in recent years demonstrates that change is possible.

Take education as an example. In 2000, 54 per cent of all children and youth out of school were girls. By 2014, the gender gap had virtually closed, with 19 per cent of girls out of education, compared to 18 per cent of boys.1 Improvements have also been made for one of the starkest indicators of inequality – life expectancy. Women are now living longer than men in all regions of the world, and women in low income countries are now living on average 20 years longer than they were in 1960.

Poverty compounds marginalisation

While solid progress is being made, it is not being made for all children equally; it is when poverty overlaps with marginalisation of girls that we see some of the most shocking and persistent violations of girls’ rights.
Poverty forces families to make difficult decisions about how to allocate the scarce resources they have. These decisions are often informed by norms about the value that girls and boys bring, and the roles that they should play. For example, when there is sufficient money to send one child to school, it is often boys that benefit as they are perceived to be more likely to be able to use that education to get paid work later in life.

Girls can be forced into marriage in order to relieve the financial burden they are considered to impose on the household, or to build financial links between families. In communities that practice female genital mutilation or cutting, the practice is often perpetuated across generations by women who are fearful that their daughters will not find a good match unless they are cut.

Once the cycle between marginalisation of girls and poverty is unleashed, it is hard to stop. Girls that become child brides are usually forced out of education, depriving them of access to knowledge, networks and confidence that could help them into decent employment or influence household decision making. In Sierra Leone, the Ebola crisis has decimated livelihoods, forcing some girls to eke out a living from transactional sex. But these girls face severe social stigma as a result, often depriving them of support from their communities and plunging them further into poverty.
Some of the most tragic stories I hear come from girls who have become pregnant as a result of rape, and who are blamed and excluded from their families and communities. A spiral into poverty often ensues, with dim prospects not only for mothers, but also for their babies. Statistics demonstrating the scale of this problem are alarming. In Kenya, for example, a girl is raped every 30 minutes, and 25% of girls and women aged 12-24 lose their virginity through rape.

Girls who are most at risk of getting trapped in a cycle of poverty are those that suffer from multiple, overlapping forms of disadvantage including poverty, ethnic or religious identity, living in a remote area, or disability. Girls in conflict-affected and fragile regions, and those on the move as migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking, are amongst the most vulnerable in the world.

Power is at the root of the problem

Power, or rather lack of it, lies at the root of the challenges facing girls worldwide. Deeply rooted economic and political inequalities are exacerbated by harmful social norms which devalue girls and deprive them of opportunity. Such social norms can be incredibly hard to shift, especially when they reduce girls’ confidence, making them less likely to challenge discrimination and harmful practices.

When girls do mobilise to demand change, they often face an uphill battle against powerful individuals and institutions that benefit from the status quo. Violence, endemic in societies across the world, is an extreme expression of power imbalances and is particularly harmful, robbing girls and women not only of their bodily integrity, but also of their self-esteem.

Four ways to empower girls

The solutions lie in identifying ways to tip the balance of power back towards girls, enabling them to take back control over their own lives. In light of this, the UK should build on its leadership in this area and continue to put girls at the heart of its development agenda. The government should focus on four key policy areas.

Investment in essential services

Greater investment in essential services would significantly boost girls’ well-being and economic potential. Education is particularly important for equipping girls with the knowledge, skills and networks that they need to realise their aspirations and take control of their lives. The statistics speak for themselves: child marriage rates in Africa and Asia would fall by an estimated 64 per cent if all girls received secondary education, and 59 per cent fewer girls would become pregnant. One area in which the UK could make a real difference is drawing on British expertise in tax and fiscal policy to support developing countries to raise domestic revenues for investment in services for girls, particularly health and education.

Social protection

Building the capacity of developing countries to stand on their own two feet and provide social protection for their citizens in times of hardship would help to break the relationship between poverty and marginalisation. It would help to keep girls in school, ensure access to nutritious food and give families more freedom to allow their children to enjoy their childhoods, without being forced into work or marriage prematurely.
DFID has a very strong track record in this area, and we should continue to provide British expertise to strengthen social protection systems and build accountability.

Changing norms and enforcing laws

While important, access to services and financial security alone are not enough. The stereotypical norms and values that lie at the heart of girls’ disempowerment must be tackled head-on if we are to see meaningful and sustainable progress in the long run. As a first step, the UK should work with the governments it supports to ensure that policies and laws that discriminate against girls are reformed, and that laws are introduced to ban harmful practices.
But real change will require ensuring that these laws are implemented and enforced, as well as working to shift discriminatory attitudes, beliefs and behaviour. Gendered norms are produced and reproduced by public institutions and society, as well as within households. Working with men and boys must be a central component of these efforts, as demonstrated by the impact that community discussions on female genital mutilation have had in helping to discredit the practice in Ethiopia, Somalia and beyond.

UK development policy and programmes must work across these levels, through diplomacy, tailored community-level programmes, support for public information campaigns, legal and policy reform, and partnerships with influential spokespeople and leaders. With the new UK Aid strategy setting out a vision for cross-government development, this has never been more achievable.

Our government’s willingness to engage with difficult issues is demonstrated by our leadership in putting violence against women and girls on the international agenda and in developing innovative, evidence-based programmes in this area. The challenge now is to scale up this work.

Empowering women and girls

The final, but perhaps most important, policy area that requires sustained support is increasing the visibility and influence of girls and women in public and political life, an area I care passionately about.
Providing support to improve women’s representation in parliament, government and business is critical. In countries across the world, having more women in parliament is linked to policy making that better addresses the needs of girls and women. Women leaders act as role models for girls, and can help to shift societal norms about their role in society.

Of course we in the UK have some way to go on this front, but through initiatives such as Women2Win which I co-founded with Mrs May in 2005, the Conservative Party has taken concrete steps which have boosted the number of female MPs. The number of female MPs elected in the Conservative Party and in the UK Parliament is at a record high and we must keep going. Given our proud democratic history and position in parliamentary networks with the Commonwealth and beyond, we are in a unique position to share our expertise and encourage others to take action.

But UK efforts must go further than this through providing platforms for girls’ voices to be heard directly by all the partners we work with – including governments, donors, agencies and private sector organisations. Only then will the nature and the challenges that excluded girls face really be understood by governments, and effective solutions identified.

Ensuring that excluded girls have spaces to develop knowledge, networks and confidence to speak out is also important, including through support for girls’ clubs and women’s movements. These can be important incubators of collective action, allowing women and girls to come together to share their experiences and push for change. The UK should continue to invest in locally driven women’s and girls’ movements and organisations. These have considerable potential to catalyse change from the bottom-up, but too often struggle to access long-term funding that would make all the difference to their work.

A joined up, cross-government approach is needed

Focus on these four key areas would demonstrate continued UK leadership on girls’ social and economic development, helping to level the playing field and open up more opportunities for the poorest girls.
A joined up, cross-government approach is key to reaching those girls who are currently furthest behind, including those caught up in, or fleeing, violence and insecurity. Some of this work is already underway through the UK’s National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security and Violence Against Women which are helping to build a coherent and coordinated approach across DFID, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office.

This work must continue, with a sharper focus on the world’s most excluded girls. This is particularly urgent for humanitarian response, where child protection and education should be central, and tailored to meet the different challenges faced by girls and boys in different age groups during an emergency.

The road ahead will not be easy, but it is one that we must tread. Only then will we ensure fairness and equal opportunity for all and deliver change for the world’s most vulnerable girls.

This is the last of three essays from Our Today, Their Tomorrow, published by Save the Children, which have run on ConservativeHome this week.