Britain appoints its first ambassador for gender equality

London, 27 February: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Special Envoy for Women and Girls Joanna Roper, and Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, at an International Women's Day event. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr)

Britain has appointed the country’s first ambassador for gender equality, joining a handful of other countries that created the position in an effort to empower women and girls around the world.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced the appointment of Joanna Roper, one of the country’s most senior diplomats, at a reception at the Foreign Office. He said one of her main objectives will be to lead a renewed drive to ensure girls around the globe get the chance to go to school.

“Allowing girls into the classroom is both profoundly right in itself and the single most powerful spur to development and progress,” Johnson wrote in an editorial in London’s Evening Standard. “When girls are deprived of an education they become vulnerable and powerless – easy prey for those who would force them into work or early marriage.”

At the event, Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening said the foreign office will begin requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gaps for the first time ever, according to a news release.

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“We have pledged to eliminate all violence against women and girls, backed by £80 million funding,” Greening said.

Roper has held several positions within Britain’s foreign office since 2001, including her post as head of the office’s Women’s Association and her involvement initiatives to promote female role models. The senior official will promote gender equality at national and international levels.

Reuters noted that six other countries have appointed gender equality ambassadors, including the United States, Australia, the Seychelles, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The appointment was well received by various U.K.-based women’s organizations, including women’s rights charity The Fawcett Society.

“We welcome this appointment,” Chief Executive Sam Smethers told Humanosphere. “As well as girls’ education key priorities for her should be to secure women’s rights in the U.K. post-Brexit and to defend women’s reproductive rights which are under attack internationally.”

The international organization Womankind Worldwide also welcomed the announcement, but stressed that the creation of the position will be less important than what policy changes come out of it.

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“While it is commendable for the Envoy to focus on critical issues such as girls’ education we also hope she can take steps to ensure U.K.’s foreign policy overall is conducive to the realization of women’s rights globally,” an organization spokeswoman said in an email to Humanosphere. “This would include looking at the impact of U.K.’s tax and trade policies as well as the operations of U.K. companies overseas.”

Activists have previously called on the U.K. government to appoint an ambassador for LGBT rights, as the United States has done, but such proposals have been rejected by Conservative legislators.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com