Dhaka Discourse

Girl Summit Diplomacy and Bangladesh-UK Relations

18 Aug, 2014    ·   4610

Delwar Hossain writes about how Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deftly used her attendance at the Girl Summit in the UK for diplomatic gains

The first ever Girl Summit took place on 22 July 2014 in London, UK. The event was co-hosted by the government of UK and the UNICEF, and the summit was dedicated to confronting child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) and female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK and across the world. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, attended the summit on a special invitation from her British counterpart, David Cameron, and Anthony Lake, Executive Director, UNICEF. The UNICEF’s figures indicate that around one in three married women globally – aged between 20 and 24 – were child brides, with the highest rates of child marriage found in South Asia – a region where nearly half the girls are married before they turn 18. The summit also focused on FGM, a procedure that can trigger horrific long term implications for girls’ health, child-bearing prospects, and psychological states. It is estimated that 125 million women and girls worldwide have suffered FGM, with 66,000 in England and Wales alone. 

The Girl Summit was a truly significant event to mobilise global public opinion and resources in combating the two major social evils against girl children around the world. The event drew together some 700 participants – ranging from heads of state, NGOs, and victims – who represented 60 countries. Speakers at the Summit included the Prime Minister of UK, David Cameron; the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina; the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Demeke Mekonnen; the first lady of Burkina Faso, Chantal Compaoré; activist Malala Yousafzai; and numerous ministers of health, social affairs and international development, as well as civil society advocates and campaigners. Cameron made a strong case for ending these evil practices in the society. He described FGM and CEFM as a violation of girls’ rights and “preventable evil” that calls for a “global movement.” The charter adopted at the Summit affirms that “these practices violate the fundamental rights of all girls and women to live free from violence and discrimination” and sets out ten actions to end them, ranging from legislation and policies to data, research and investment in education and health.

Bangladesh’s participation in the Summit has been particularly significant, considering the fact that Hasina was the only head of the government other than that of the host nation who was present at the event. She led a 57-member high powered delegation to the UK on this occasion. Hasina reported on a full set of measures, from strong legislation, free textbooks, stipends for girls through secondary school and beyond and community based innovations to fight early marriage. Bangladesh has widely been praised by the international community for its achievements in improving the conditions of women and children despite being a least developed country. Over the past two decades, Bangladesh has significantly increased the primary school enrolment of girls to 95%. More girls than boys complete primary education in the country now. The country has introduced employment opportunities for high-school girl graduates whereby 60% of our primary school teachers are now young girls – giving them a choice of livelihood.

However, one may raise the question as to whether such a high profile visit by Bangladesh Prime Minister was executed merely to attend the Girl Summit or to use the occasion for diplomatic gains for the government suffering strong criticism from the West following the 5th January 2014 elections in Bangladesh. The UK is one of the front line EU members expressing disappointment over the process and the conduct of the last general elections and hence propagating dialogue for holding new elections – which is always a matter of embarrassment for the incumbent government. The British minister of State for International Development, Alan Duncan, during a visit, once termed the January 5 general elections in Bangladesh as ‘unusual’ but ‘legitimate’. The Girl Summit has created another occasion for the Bangladeshi prime minster to meet her British counterpart and to reach out the British political elite to embolden the image of her government. The bilateral meeting with David Cameron was a big success for the Sheikh Hasina, given the distance created with the Western countries earlier this year.

The number of delegates and the range of meetings the Bangladeshi prime minister took part in clearly reflect that Sheikh Hasina made full use of her visit for diplomatic gains. More significantly, it was the Hasina’ first visit to any Western country after the 2014 elections. It also came against the backdrop of her recent back-to-back successful visits to China and Japan. While discussing bilateral relations, David Cameron said, “We want to look at the future and continue working as a development partner.” Upon her return from the UK, Hasina emphasised the Bangladesh-UK bilateral relations to explain the positive outcomes of her participation in the Girl Summit. Interestingly enough, the Bangladeshi prime minister highlighted her government’s legitimacy to the UK government in her post-London visit press conference in Dhaka, making it a major gain from Girl Summit diplomacy.