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This blog post is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s interview series on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy, featuring global and U.S. officials leading initiatives to promote gender equality in the defense, development, and diplomatic sectors. This interview is with Joanna Roper, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s first Special Envoy for Gender Equality.
How and why was the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Gender Envoy position created? What are your main responsibilities?
I was appointed the UK’s first Special Envoy for Gender Equality in April 2017, by Boris Johnson who was then Foreign Secretary. The creation of the position recognized the need for gender equality to be taken seriously and have a foreign policy that consciously and consistently delivered for women and girls. Although a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) appointment, I work across the UK government, for example with the Department for International Development (DFID), Ministry of Defence and the Government Equalities Office, which leads on domestic gender equality work. When I travel, I represent the breadth of UK government work we’re doing to promote gender equality. I also support the work of the FCO’s diplomatic network engagement international partners, civil society, academics and others to respond to challenges in-country, where I focus particularly on girls’ education as well as conflict and gender issues such as the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative – all of which are high priorities of the UK.
Only a few countries have created ambassador or envoy positions for global women’s issues. In what ways has your position changed the way gender equality is integrated into foreign policy?
In line with the need to have a foreign policy that consistently delivers on gender equality, the role has given me a great opportunity to really promote the ‘mainstreaming’ of gender equality into all of the FCO’s policy and programming. My team and I do this through working to build capacity on gender equality, through gender equality courses, induction talks to new members of staff, as well briefing outgoing Ambassadors on our gender equality priorities. We also developed an internal gender equality toolkit that works as a ‘one stop shop’ of resources. I think these tools have worked well in not only raising awareness among colleagues about gender equality but also providing them with the tools they need to integrate these priorities into policy.
The UK’s fourth National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) was launched in 2018. It brings together our diplomacy, defense and development work with gender equality at its core. The 5-year strategy has seven strategic outcomes, including working to reduce the impact of conflict on women and girls, applying a gender perspective in setting international standards and promote the inclusion of women in conflict resolution. We included a strategic outcome that focuses on the UK Government continuing to strengthen its capability, processes, and leadership to deliver against our WPS commitments.
What are some key initiatives you have undertaken and what would you consider your main achievements so far?
As an Envoy a large part of my job is traveling - you cannot be an envoy sitting at a desk in London. I work with our global network of Embassies and High Commissions in the work they are doing to promote gender equality and women’s rights. I have represented the UK as part of a delegation to events such as Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), the United Nations General Assembly, the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers meeting and well as the first G7 Gender Equality Ministerial meeting.
A key achievement I am proud of would be the work the FCO has done on supporting the DIFD-led cross-Government girls’ education campaign – Leave No Girl Behind. The campaign works to ensure 12 years of quality education for all girls. This is a priority for our Prime Minister and an issue close to his heart. We know that educating girls increases their voice in their communities, improves their ability to choose when to get married, how many children to have and gives them greater control over their assets, income and their own bodies. Education empowers women to realise their rights, access goods and services, increases their political participation and opens opportunities for them to secure better jobs and wages. It also brings great benefits to their families and societies. During my travels I have seen some fantastic efforts to support girls’ education, which have not only been incredibly inspiring but is making a real difference in transforming lives and communities and countries.
Have you encountered challenges, either domestically or abroad, in advancing gender equality within the foreign policy apparatus?
There have been a great many strides in the last few decades on gender equality. We see more women in public life, business, law, the media and more. More than ever before, women have greater opportunities; are living longer and have more freedom to make decisions on their lives. Unfortunately, in recent years there has undoubtedly been an increasing amount of pushback on gender equality e.g. on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). We’ve seen in the multilateral fora attempts to remove or weaken long held and agreed language on women’s sexual health and rights. Developments such as these represent a challenge to advancing gender equality, as we no longer have to advance gender equality but also work to protect areas we have already achieved.
But I see many great opportunities to work together internationally to protect and promote these rights and continue advancing gender equality. There are now more than 10 Special Envoys or Ambassadors working specifically on championing gender equality or women and girls’ rights. I am keen to work together with my counterparts on issues such as these and collaborate on the policy areas and priorities we share and really make a difference for women and girls around the world.
What are the UK government's top priority issues when it comes to advancing gender equality globally?
2020 is a very big year for gender equality, as we will be marking key milestones such as the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. I’m conscious that 2020 marks 10 years until the deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Advancing gender equality is undoubtedly a high priority for the UK government and 2020 gives us a great opportunity to focus on this.
The UK leads global efforts to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence, and a key element of this is the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, launched in 2012, and still a priority for the UK Government. The anniversary year of UNSCR 1325, gives us all a key opportunity to drive the WPS agenda forward by galvanizing interest and engagement on the anniversary and tackle the implementation gap on WPS.
Domestically, too, we’ve done a lot to support women in the workplace - initiatives to see more women on boards, or to help them to return to the workplace after taking time out. And we set the bar on tackling the gender pay gap when we introduced legislation for organizations to measure, publish and address the causes of their own gender pay gaps. Two years in, it’s throwing up some very interesting results!
As mentioned above, girls’ education remains a high priority for the UK government. The launch of the ‘Leave No Girl Behind’ campaign has generated significant financial and political commitments for girls’ education in the Commonwealth, G7, UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and we’re committed to advancing this further. Watch this space!