Cleverly says he is ‘absolutely’ a feminist as he visits Sierra Leone

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The Foreign Secretary said he “absolutely” regards himself as a feminist and denied the Government has a “women problem” with female ministers less likely to be put on the airwaves.

James Cleverly made the comments ahead of a trip to his mother’s home town in Sierra Leone on International Women’s Day to announce a strategy to help women and girls around the world.

He was travelling to Bo in the West African country, where he was visiting a school and a hospital to see how UK-funded projects are offering targeted assistance to women and girls.

“The irony of having a bloke talking about our women and girls strategy on Woman’s Hour is not lost on me. But, absolutely, I regard myself as a feminist.”

Mr Cleverly pushed back against suggestions that Rishi Sunak’s Government has a “women problem” over a lack of airtime for female ministers compared with their male colleagues.

“That doesn’t chime with the interactions that I’ve seen with my female colleagues,” he said.

“As a party, I know we absolutely value the contribution of everybody and we promote on talent. We have incredibly talented women at every level within Government and at every level within the party, and I’m very proud of that.”

The Cabinet minister, who has previously described himself as the first British MP from a Sierra Leonian background, spoke of his mother’s work as a midwife at a Lewisham Hospital after she moved from Sierra Leone to south-east London in the 1960s.

She was a “heroine” and “inspiration” to him, he said.

The visit on Wednesday was to see Mr Cleverly unveil a strategy aimed at tackling increasing threats to gender equality, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said.

Officials said those threats come from climate change, humanitarian crises, conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, and recent attempts to roll back women’s rights, including in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

He also announced sanctions against gender-based violators in Iran, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The four penalised violators include military figures who have overseen rape in conflict, with sanctions also slapped on government institutions in Iran responsible for enforcing mandatory dress codes for women in Iran with unreasonable force.

Mr Cleverly said: “Advancing gender equality and challenging discrimination is obviously the right thing to do, but it also brings freedom, boosts prosperity and trade, and strengthens security – it is the fundamental building block of all healthy democracies.

“Our investment to date has improved lives around the world, with more girls in school, fewer forced into early marriage and more women in top political and leadership roles.

“But these hard-won gains are now under increasing threat.

“We’re ramping up our work to tackle the inequalities which remain, at every opportunity.”

While at a hospital in Bo, Mr Cleverly will see how UK support is improving blood banks and equipment, increasing electricity access and saving the lives of pregnant women.

At the school, he will hear about girls’ aspirations for the future, with the UK supporting students there to talk about preventing violence.

The freshly announced strategy, according to the FCDO, will put a continued focus on educating girls, empowering women and girls, championing their health and rights, and ending gender-based violence.

The department said the strategy will commit to at least 80% of its bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) programmes targeting gender equality as a policy objective by 2030.

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