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Women's Health and Education (Afghanistan and Pakistan)

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013

2. What assistance he is providing to ensure access to education and health for women in Afghanistan. (138332)

3. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138333)

5. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138335)

7. What guidance his Department is giving to heads of mission on the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138337)

13. What guidance is being given to heads of mission by his Department regarding the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138343)

16. What guidance is being given to heads of mission by his Department regarding the steps that should be taken to ensure continuing support for education and health care for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (138346)

Supporting access to welfare, including education and health for women and girls in Pakistan, remains a key priority for the UK Government. Despite some fragility, we believe real progress has been made in these areas in these states over recent years. I expect to be able to give more details in answer to questions in the next few minutes.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Does he accept that one of the real benefits of intervention by international countries in Afghanistan has been the progress made for women? What steps will he take to ensure that, for neighbouring countries as well as areas in Afghanistan, such progress is not reversed?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point to specific progress. In 2002, fewer than 9% of women in Afghanistan had access to any health care, whereas some 57% now have access to it within an hour, whether they walk or use other means of travel. It is important for that progress to continue. To that extent, the Tokyo mutual accountability framework agreed by a number of nations sets some indicators for Afghanistan in return for future financial support post-2015. Support for women, including measures such as the Act on the elimination of violence against women, is a key part of that and we would like to see it implemented as part of that agreement.

Al-Jazeera has just reported a 22% increase in crimes of violence against women in Afghanistan. Despite the progress made, the truth is that many Afghan women cannot access education or health care for fears about their own safety. Will the Minister ensure that Afghan women are involved in planning for the 2014 London summit on Afghanistan’s future? Crucially, will he seek to guarantee women at least a 30% representation at that summit?

Yes, it has been vital that women have played an increasing part in political participation. Some 25% of members of Parliament in Afghanistan are women, and there are nine women members on the High Peace Council. Access to education remains key for the future. Some 2.3 million girls are now in education in Afghanistan compared with hardly any when the Taliban were in control. To ensure that that remains the case and in order to improve the chances of resisting violence against women—clearly, a serious issue in Afghanistan—it is crucial to keep that progress going.

As the Minister knows, security is fundamental to the delivery of education and health for women. What discussions has he had with the international security assistance force, his partners in Afghanistan, about the achievement of that security?

In many parts of Afghanistan, the security situation is very different from the situation that we sometimes see portrayed in areas such as Helmand and Kandahar. Bamyam province is governed by a woman, for example. Security issues are very different in different places. We have regular contact with ISAF and our own forces about the need to support the civil authorities that are promoting the rule of law in order to ensure that laws prohibiting violence against women are enforced, and our development work will, of course, continue after 2014.

We all want to see improvements in access to health and education for women and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. How is the Foreign Office working with the Department for International Development to achieve that?

Very closely. Progress in both countries is being handled almost on a mutual basis: many meetings take place at which FCO and DFID officials are present in post together. I have already provided some details relating to Afghanistan, but progress is being made in Pakistan as well. Because 50% of women in Pakistan currently give birth at home and some 12,000 die in childbirth or for related reasons, we have so far contributed to the support of some 17,000 community midwives there. Work of that kind can be done only with the support of the FCO, working with the Pakistan Government, and the good work of DFID and the non-governmental organisations that work with it to provide care on the ground.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the contribution of women’s education to the long-term stability and development of Afghanistan?

It is utterly crucial. There is no recorded instance of a society in which women have been involved and engaged being in a worse position than before. That involvement and engagement is vital to progress.

We are supporting projects including Afghan Women In Business and the promotion of entrepreneurship for women in Afghanistan. The number of women who are engaged in business remains incredibly small, and the female literacy rate is only about 12%. Our work must involve a combination of involving women in education, helping them to become involved in business, and, of course, continuing to support their political participation.

As the Minister said earlier, more than 2 million Afghan girls have returned to school since the fall of the Taliban, but, according to press reports, hundreds of schools are closing all the time. As military operations are scaled down in Afghanistan, what action are the Government taking to ensure that the education of girls is maintained there?

When we talk of the scaling down of military activity, we should bear in mind that that refers to the withdrawal of international and United Kingdom forces from combat roles. In their place will be 330,000 Afghan security forces who know that part of their role will be providing domestic security to ensure that the progress that has been made—such as girls going to school—can continue, and that they will be protected in so doing. The example of Malala, the young woman in Pakistan who was threatened by people very similar to those who are threatening girls in Afghanistan, demonstrates the importance of that.

If women are to gain access to health and education, they must enjoy the same freedoms in the public space as men. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, and on putting that initiative on the G8 agenda. How will it be implemented in Afghanistan, where it is clearly much needed?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, which has been warmly welcomed by Members in all parts of the House and internationally. The G8 summit in April will consider the best way of implementing it, which will involve not just national Governments but non-governmental organisations and human rights monitors. They will be vital to ensuring that women are protected locally, and that those who perpetuate violence towards them are accountable for their actions.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of supporting education and health care for women in Afghanistan will be a successful transition in 2014? Will he update the House on how the talks in Doha are going? Is there any sign that the United States Administration are prepared to get involved in them?

Specifically and exclusively with reference to education and health for women in Afghanistan—nothing else. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knew that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a successful transition is the most likely foundation for the continuation of the progress we have seen on women’s issues in recent years. Consultations are continuing with all parties, including in Doha, but perhaps the most successful line of conversation recently has been in the increased relationship between the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United Kingdom has been closely involved in those arrangements to ensure that those Governments are working more closely together in isolating the extremists and finding the moderate politicians who will guarantee the future of Afghanistan.

The Minister mentioned brave Malala Yousafzai. Does he agree that when such girls have the courage to defy the Taliban in search of an education, the rest of the world has a responsibility to support them and to support education for women in the region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The whole world was shocked by the attack on Malala, but what was remarkable was the response in Pakistan from women who felt horrified on her behalf. The fact that she has made such a stand is incredibly important. She is a source of joy to all of us with her recovery. She is a source of pride for us because she came to the United Kingdom to get the best health care in the world for her recovery. And she is a source of inspiration to everyone all over the world, youngsters and parents alike, because of her commitment to education.

One of the major health care issues facing Pakistan is population growth and a lack of family planning. For example, 80% of maternal deaths there could be prevented. What assistance is being given to Pakistan to address those issues?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely to the point. We support programmes that will encourage women to take more control of situations in relation to pregnancy and child birth, and programmes are designed to assist that. The more control that women have over those situations in societies such as Pakistan, the better it will be for their general well-being and all-round health care issues.

Afghan and Pakistani women are not just victims; they are often the most effective and vocal in calling for their right to access services. However, like Malala, they face intimidation and abuse, and often grave sexual violence. What do the Government plan to do to support and protect these women and human rights defenders, especially in the context of the preventing sexual violence initiative?

My hon. Friend asks a highly pertinent question. These non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders, with their local knowledge, are often those closest to circumstances where people can be identified and protected. It is the intention of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to raise this issue at the G8 summit in April, where we hope the international community will also recognise their importance and ensure that the protocol provides protection for human rights defenders and others who will do so much to ensure the implementation of the Foreign Secretary’s initiative.