I beg to move,
That this House recognises, ahead of critical presidential elections in April 2014, the essential contribution of Afghan human rights defenders to building peace and security in their country; further recognises the extreme challenges, including violent attacks and killings, that they face as a result of their peaceful work; believes that sustainable peace and security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan without women’s full participation; and encourages the UK Government to improve its support and protection for women human rights defenders in Afghanistan.
I am sure that all hon. Members would like to take this opportunity to offer their sympathy to the family and friends of the soldier who died yesterday at Camp Bastion, bringing to 448 the number of British personnel who have died while serving in Afghanistan.
I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate on the security of women in Afghanistan.
Many people will remember 11 September 2001. I remember that I was trying to get a survival suit on while waiting for a helicopter to bring me back from a visit to an offshore platform when the offshore installation manager came to us and said, “There’s been an aircraft crash in New York; I’ll put it on the telly.” When we got off the helicopter at Aberdeen airport, we saw on the news that there had been another crash. It was obviously not an accident; it was a serious situation. That event has linked the mountains of Afghanistan and the living rooms of the UK and tied our two countries together since 2001. I pay tribute to the troops and to the staff of the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the non-governmental organisations for all the work that they have done in Afghanistan since then to try to establish a more stable and secure situation for that country and for the wider world.
On a visit to Afghanistan in 2007, while I was serving on the International Development Select Committee, I saw at first hand some of the challenges involved, and some of the achievements, especially those relating to the role of women in society. It was particularly memorable and moving to visit a classroom of girls, and I remember sitting next to a girl who enthusiastically showed me the homework that she had taken from her school bag. Those girls were able to engage in the learning process again. In the context of the transition in Afghanistan, it is telling that on the successor Committee’s more recent visit to the same school, it was felt inappropriate that Committee members should visit the classroom where the girls were. That might be a measure of the hardening of attitudes towards women that is beginning to cause concern.
We also saw a project for start-up businesses, and it was pointed out to us that loans to women were considered far more secure than loans to men, because the women entrepreneurs repaid their loans far more effectively than the men. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for the range of businesses that could support the Afghan economy. We also visited a maternity hospital in Lashkar Gah, where DFID had built accommodation for the training of midwives. The development of women’s health and the support for engaging with women was recognised as an important contribution.
This debate is timely because international women’s day is coming up at the weekend. The security situation in Afghanistan is changing with the withdrawal of international security assistance force troops, the handover to Afghan security forces and the election of a new President in April. Progress has been made since 2001, but it has been fragile.
I travelled to Afghanistan with the hon. Gentleman on that Select Committee visit in 2007. When our troops come back from Afghanistan and no longer have a security role in the country, we will not be able to enforce the rights of women in the way that we have to some extent been able to do while our troops have been in the country. The hon. Gentleman has been explaining how much DFID has achieved in changing the prospects of women through its aid programme. Does he agree that that aid programme should be maintained and should have a footprint across the whole of the country, rather than just being based in the capital, Kabul?
I commend my hon. Friend for the work he does with the all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan. He talks about the challenges for the whole of Afghanistan. Will he join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on the work that the Department has done to promote the interests of women? I have visited the country a number of times, and things have changed—albeit slowly—in the areas of education, health and access to justice. Does my hon. Friend also agree, however, that there are too many disparate agendas? DFID does excellent work, but it often takes place separately from that done by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the non-governmental organisations operating there. Given that we have been in Afghanistan for more than a decade, do we perhaps need greater co-ordination to achieve the success that we wish to see?
Effective co-ordination among all the agencies involved is an important part of maximising the benefit and working together. The conference in London in November could provide an opportunity to focus the minds of all those agencies on adopting a co-ordinated approach.
I want to put on record the names of some of the victims of the attacks on women that have taken place in Afghanistan. Islam Bibi, a senior policewoman from Helmand province, was murdered last July. A few months later, another senior policewoman from Helmand, Lieutenant Negar, was also murdered. Parliamentarian Rooh Gul survived an attack in which her driver and eight-year-old daughter were killed in August. Parliamentarian Fariba Kakar was kidnapped by insurgents and held for ransom before, fortunately, being released in September. Sushmita Banerjee, a well-known author who had written about life under the Taliban, was dragged out of her home and shot 15 times in September. December 2013 was a deadly month for Afghan women. A policewoman, Masooma, from Nimruz was shot on 5 December, and on 19 December a policewoman and a pregnant teacher were found hanged in Uruzgan. In January 2014, Yalda Waziri, a senior government official in Herat, was murdered by unknown attackers who shot her from a motorbike. High-profile attacks such as those get into the news, but many more victims in everyday life go under the radar. Nevertheless, we should be concerned about them, too.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the problems that women human rights defenders across Afghanistan are facing? Many of them are continuing to try to work and travel, but they are finding it increasingly difficult, and their lives and their families are under constant threat. That shows the risk that they will be under once we finally withdraw from the country.
Having been involved with human rights in the field in Bosnia, and having heard my hon. Friend’s litany of appalling crimes against women, I am really concerned about how once we have gone we will be able to reduce those numbers. It will have to be done by the security forces of Afghanistan, and that is a huge commitment. I am not quite sure how we can help.
We can help by maintaining our engagement in Afghanistan through DFID and the Foreign Office and through NGOs. We can also help by highlighting our values and the importance of women to society there, and by engaging in debate with Afghanistan. But yes, the security is going to be delivered by the Afghan forces.
This is an incredibly important debate. Saferworld recently found a direct correlation between increased insecurity and violence against women and decreasing public participation among women. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Afghan women are not just victims and that the incredibly brave women who remain involved in public life deserve our support and our wholehearted protection, wherever we can give it? That is one key way in which we can show our support and make a difference to women in Afghanistan.
We get the opportunity, as parliamentarians, to meet some of those brave women on delegations from the Afghan Parliament. They reinforce the case that, from the perspective of women in Afghanistan, the engagement of ISAF has been seen as supportive and important.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in also paying tribute to those women who are participating directly in the security of Afghanistan—the women who, often in the face of tremendous opposition, are training to be police officers, members of the army or members of special forces? The House may be surprised to learn about the latter group; we too frequently use the word “trailblazer”, but they really are trailblazers.
Yes, the bravery such women show is immensely inspiring. Again, it shows the need for us to continue to focus on Afghanistan, even though our troops are no longer there, bringing it to our news and engaging the public. We need to make sure we build as much as we can on what has been achieved to date.
One suggestion from Amnesty International is to have a country-specific plan on human rights defenders, which could ensure that training and awareness-raising occurs with mission staff on gender considerations, and on the particular challenges facing those who work to promote human rights and those who face risk because of their work; to prioritise gendered approaches to the support and protection of HRDs; to appoint a liaison officer to act as focal point for HRDs for information exchange and case support; to explore with civil society organisations and HRDs—this depends on security considerations—safe opportunities to support local events; and to outline how and what support protection would be delivered in conjunction with, or through, the European Union and United Nations.
During the Defence Committee’s last visit to Afghanistan we met women at the forefront of trying to change the society. I turned to the leader of the women we were meeting and said, “In the time leading up to our departure, what is the most important thing we could provide to you?” Surprisingly, her response was, “Artillery.” She was saying, “Unless we know we are going to be able to defend ourselves against the Taliban and reach a point where we can build a society outside the Taliban’s horrific views on women, nothing will change in Afghanistan.”
That lady’s message is a very important one about bringing support and resources to the Afghan security forces to make sure that they can maintain the security situation. The engagement with human rights defenders is an important part of ensuring that the messages get through about the important role of women. We need to engage with the men of Afghanistan about the fact that where a society does not use half its population, its economic potential is not being achieved, and that if a society does not engage with the next generation of women in education, it is failing to achieve its potential. That will be a major cultural challenge.
The Government will be hosting a summit in November 2014 where they could focus on the needs of women by ensuring that women’s representation at that summit is substantial; by supporting human rights defenders to travel to take part in the summit; by establishing formal processes of consultation with Afghan women and women human rights defenders in advance of the summit, to ensure their input into its format and content, and to ensure that women who take part receive protection from retaliation and intimidation; and by working to build on the Tokyo commitments.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely interesting and thoughtful speech, but will he give consideration to one other thing? Although it is important that we should provide safety for these human rights defenders and high-profile women in Afghanistan, the good old Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky is particularly true in Afghanistan, which is a matriarchal society. Does he agree that one of the most important things to do is put in place defence strategies to keep the Taliban under control once we have left, so that women who run the households in Afghanistan can be allowed to do so?
Yes, the security situation is crucial, because a resurgence of the Taliban will start to knock back all the achievements made; we will be back to square one and all the risks that evolve from that scenario will be back to haunt us. It is crucial that we maintain our engagement.
Will the Secretary of State say what assessment her Department has made of the different programmes to support women—which have and which have not been successful—so that in the future we can focus on those that have had achievements? As I said, 2001 brought our two countries together, and progress has been made, but it is fragile and we must not turn our backs now when handing over security to the Afghan Government. I urge the House to support this motion.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also wish to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate. I speak whenever I can in this House on the issues of education and women, and today I want to bring those issues together in this debate on the security situation of women in Afghanistan. I do so for a number of reasons, one of which is that when I became an MP in May 2010, the very first thing—and I mean the very first thing—I had to do officially was attend the funeral of Daryn Roy, a young man who was born and brought up in Dipton in my constituency and who died in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan right at the end of April 2010. When I attended his funeral, I found that his parents took great comfort from the fact that he had told them that he was fighting in Afghanistan on behalf of not only Britain, but the people of Afghanistan and that he and his colleagues were there not only to deal with terrorists and remove them from that sorry land, but to create a land in which education could be brought to children—all children, both girls and boys. He had taken great pride in the fact that he and his colleagues were protecting women from the worst excesses of the Taliban.
As we know, the lives of women in Afghanistan have never been easy, but under the spiritual leader Mullah Omar the Taliban brought a whole new level of misery and terror to the lives of many, particularly women. Women were not allowed to work outside the home; and they were not allowed to leave their home unless accompanied by a male relative. Women who could not afford a burqa or who did not have a living male relative were, in effect, housebound for four years. Education for women and girls was banned by the Taliban, and as most of the teachers in Afghanistan were women, the education of boys and girls suffered. Throughout that time, brave women teachers continued secretly to teach young girls, and some boys, in their homes. Information about secret schools was spread by word of mouth, from woman to woman. Through the generosity and bravery of these women teachers, some young girls did continue to receive an education.
The international invasion and the election of President Karzai’s Government did lead to a relaxation of some restrictions on women, but women’s lives continued to be difficult. His Government endorsed a code of conduct that continued to require women to be accompanied by a male relative when travelling and not to mingle with strange men—anyone outside the family—in places such as schools, markets and offices. Although that did not amount to a ban, it made work and life very difficult for most women.
We know that Afghanistan continues to be one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. More women and girls die in pregnancy there than almost anywhere else in the world. Nine out of 10 women cannot read or write. One in 10 children dies before their fifth birthday. The life expectancy of a woman in Afghanistan is 44 years of age, one of the lowest in the world. More than 50% of Afghan women are married or engaged by the age of 10; 60% are married by the age of 16; 80% of marriages are either forced or arranged; and violence against women is endemic.
There are 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan, one of the highest proportions in the world, 94% of whom are illiterate. The average age of a widow is 35. Widows without male relatives prepared to support them have few options, and most are forced to beg or are forced into prostitution.
Education for women has improved since 2001, but still, in 2011, of the 8 million students in Afghanistan, only 30% of them were women and girls. Things have improved, and education is no longer banned, but the Taliban has continued to conduct a reign of terror against schools. There is a campaign of burning down schools and of killing students and teachers, and the Taliban has been helped in this by its supporters in Pakistan who have banned the delivery of school books and texts to Afghanistan.
Teachers and those running schools endure violent threats from the Taliban on a daily basis. There are attacks on their families and they risk losing their homes and those closest to them, and yet they persevere. They continue to provide essential education to women and girls across the country at great cost to themselves.
I am reluctant to interrupt what is a very powerful speech, but does she agree that there is huge concern about the contracts for schools and clinics? The west builds them, but then we do not provide the contracts for the teachers to continue there—certainly after we have left. That applies not only in the southern area, the Pashtun area, where the Taliban operate, but in the north.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister is listening.
As I was saying, it is because of the teachers—my professional colleagues of whom I am so proud—and others working in women's health, human rights and security that the lot of women in Afghanistan has improved. However, that is now at risk as the time of withdrawal draws close. Most international forces are set to withdraw this year, and, as the deadline draws near, women activists, women teachers and doctors and those working on behalf of women in Afghanistan become increasingly concerned about the future.
I want to give just one small example of what is happening now. We worry about what will happen after we withdraw in 2014, but what is going on now? In 2009, the law on the elimination of violence against women finally criminalised acts of child marriage, rape and other forms of violence against women. Despite that, there was a 27% increase in attacks on women last year in a society where attacks on women usually take place within the family and are rarely reported or challenged. Now a small, seemingly inconsequential change in the criminal law could make domestic violence against women almost impossible to prosecute. The new law proposes that relatives can no longer testify when a woman has been assaulted or raped. Essentially, that means that no one can testify on a woman’s behalf, because in Afghanistan a woman rarely sees anyone outside of the family. Relatives are the only people who would ever be privy to a woman being abused, who would see her afterwards or who could testify on her behalf. The change in the law would mean that women could be beaten and raped without any fear of prosecution for the persecutor.
We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, but we have not gone yet. This Parliament, the British Government and international forces need to tell President Karzai now, firmly and loudly, that this kind of law must be repealed. It is an offence to Afghan women and to women everywhere and it needs to go. This is not what Daryn Roy and the other young men and women from constituencies up and down this country fought and died for. Although I understand the need to withdraw, surely we owe an assurance to our war dead and to those who have been injured and who have fought on our behalf in Afghanistan that they did not fight for nothing and that they leave a lasting legacy that includes a better, safer and educated future for the women and girls of Afghanistan.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) for securing this timely debate and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to happen. I feel privileged to be taking part.
As important as this debate is—and it is very important —we should not overestimate our ability to influence cultural change within Afghanistan just by speaking in this Chamber; the challenge is much bigger than that. Fundamentally, the change will have to come from people within Afghanistan whom we can support.
In January, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said:
“Afghan women are all too well aware that international donors are walking away from Afghanistan.”
As the Secretary of State is in her place, I am sure that she will want to make it clear that that is not the case with Britain. Indeed, the longer and deeper our commitment is, and the more that we talk about it, the better we will be able to support those in Afghanistan who are working for change.
Reference has been made to the visit the International Development Committee made to the country in 2007—we also visited it 18 months ago—in which we had a robust meeting with President Karzai. He was challenged on the rights of women. Specifically, we talked about the fact that more than 80% were beaten by their husbands and other male family members, and that those who fled violent relationships were jailed while the perpetrators of the violence had immunity from any sanction.
At the end of the exchange, Mr Karzai said that we had to understand that Afghanistan was a conservative country with its own values. He said that the last ruler who challenged those values was the king who was assassinated in 1929, and Mr Karzai did not want to repeat that example.
In an article in The Guardian last month, Nushin Arbadzadah warned of the challenges. She said that
“the idea that we could empower Afghan women by making them aware of their individual rights was preposterous and bound to fail from the inception. Anyone who has spent even two days in Afghanistan knows that individualism as a concept does not exist there. The idea that we could treat women as a separate entity, legal or political, and disconnected from their family was flawed from the start.”
She said that those who fought for those values were likely to do so perpetually and in isolation. In her conclusion, she said:
“Afghanistan’s patriarchal clans have survived leftist coups and rightwing wars, becoming the only source of stability in a society constantly in turmoil. To dismantle their power would amount to freedom not only for women but also for men. But to reach that end, we need more than the rhetoric of individual rights imported from the other side of the planet.”
That is a sobering article. We feel angry and we state our case, but we must realise what we are up against. Very often, it is women, and not just men, who are oppressing women, and not supporting them when they stand up, which is why I agree with my hon. Friend that the role of men is important too and that we need to be part of it.
Of course I accept that, but we should not underestimate the challenge. That is why we need to work with local women and women’s groups and accept the way in which they want to achieve change and support them.
Our second report on Afghanistan, which was published 18 months ago, said:
“The treatment of women in Afghanistan after troops pull out in 2014 will be the litmus test of whether we have succeeded in improving the lives of ordinary Afghans over the last ten years.”
We urged the Government to prioritise women in their programmes, especially on education, supporting shelters and providing legal advice. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to give us some insight about how that is being done under the DFID programme.
Like others, we have met articulate women MPs and civil rights campaigners who were fearful that there would be push back on the gains, but were determined to protect and advance the progress that had been made. We all recognise that educating girls and women is an essential part of that.
Everyone knows that Afghanistan has an uncertain future. We do not know what the next Government will look like or who will be President, although the candidates are now lining up. The idea that the whole country will quickly fall back into the arms of the Taliban seems unlikely. Many of the people who suffered under the Taliban have gained under the current situation and will not readily succumb to that again. Furthermore, the Taliban are not a single, coherent entity.
I note that Zalmai Rassoul, one of the frontrunners for the presidency, has chosen a woman as one of his running mates. Habiba Sarabi was the former governor of Bamiyan Province. Some members of the Committee visited the province briefly in 2012. Having suffered at the hands of the Taliban, not only through the destruction of the famous Buddhas but through much more serious infringements of lives and livelihoods, the people of the predominantly Shi’ite Hazara province of Bamiyan clearly told us that they were determined to pursue their own destiny and will at all odds resist any re-incursion by the Taliban. The principal of the university told us that fathers and husbands were actively encouraging their daughters and wives to go to university and that a third of the students there are now female.
I must also say, however, that I and a number of other members of the Committee met a young woman in Kabul. She was a highly educated and very articulate postgraduate, but when I asked her about her personal circumstances she said that she would of course have to marry whoever her brother, who was the head of her household, chose for her. I asked whether her brother would consult her, to which she replied, “How on earth would my brother have any idea what kind of man I want anyway?” I asked what she would do if she did not like that person or if she suffered violence and she said, “I am used to violence; I can accept it.” She is an intelligent, educated and articulate woman, more or less saying that she must succumb to her fate.
We have made progress. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine rightly referred to girls’ education. The front cover of our first report in 2007 was a photograph of girls in school because we thought that was symptomatic of how Afghanistan was changing. My hon. Friend rightly said that 2001 was a moment of destiny, but I think that Afghanistan is a country in which the UK would be engaged regardless of that because it is one of the poorest countries on the planet and because we make a commitment to try to lift people out of absolute poverty. It is a poor country seeking to develop and exactly the kind of country that we want to help.
The Taliban are against development of all kinds, but many Afghans have experienced the benefits that development can bring. They have glimpsed the opportunities and will not, in my view, simply allow themselves to be pushed back. I suggest that our job is to stand by those who seek to move forward on their own terms. We must do everything we can to support those women who are campaigning to secure progress, but we must follow their leadership and not impose our own. They will understand how to make that change better than anything we can do. Although there are absolute rights and values that we stand by, we must accept that change will be brought about by people inside the community who understand how to do it. We must stand by them and say that we are here to help them in any way we can to secure progress.
I am grateful that the Secretary of State is replying to the debate and hope that she will be able to say that we are there to stand by Afghan women for as long as it takes.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) and I congratulate him on ensuring that the Select Committee on International Development focused on women’s rights in its report. I can do that in all modesty because I was not a member of the Select Committee when it began its inquiry. I was involved in the latter stages, but the first issue I raised, in the first session I attended, was women’s rights and security in Afghanistan. I questioned the former Secretary of State about the effectiveness and scope of what was being done and I give credit to the current Secretary of State for her tenacity and commitment on this issue. We have seen progress and movement.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) on introducing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have it. This might sound slightly strange, but I want to apologise to members of Musselburgh twinning association for no longer being able to join them this evening. I hope they will realise that, as the right hon. Member for Gordon said, it is vital that our voices are heard by women in Afghanistan so that they know that we stand by them and are committed to their safety, security, human rights and right to participate in Afghan society at every level. I hope that the association will think it is worth while my being in the Chamber today.
As Amnesty International has said:
“sustainable security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan without the full participation of women; moreover, for security to be meaningful, it must include security for women”.
As established in UN Security Council resolution 1325, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure not only that women participate in all peace and security-related processes, but that that is seen as vital to the success of those processes.
Last year the UN reported that the lack of female participation in peace processes was a shortcoming. The establishment of an elite women’s advisory board charged with ensuring women’s participation in the peace process in Afghanistan is undermined by the limited number of women—just nine out of 70—on the High Peace Council. That is simply not good enough.
The UK Government have said that they are committed, as they are, to ensuring that the progress achieved on rights is safeguarded. As international partners withdraw from Afghanistan, however, this is a worrying year for many women. As other Members have said, it is now increasingly for the Afghans to safeguard progress and hold their Government to account for their record on human and women’s rights.
Progress has been made in Afghanistan by the Afghans for the Afghans, and I pay tribute to some of the advances we have seen. In 2003 the Afghan Government ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; in 2004 the new constitution outlawed discrimination and enshrined equal rights for women and men; in 2008 the national action plan for women of Afghanistan was launched; and in 2009 the elimination of violence against women law was adopted. About 20 women’s shelters have been established, which is a start, and they are accommodating about 350 women. Some 25% of Government jobs are filled by women, 2.7 million girls were enrolled in Afghan schools in 2011-12 compared with fewer than 10,000 in 2001, and 28% of MPs are women, a record that some in this House should seek to emulate.
It is essential that Afghan women human rights defenders, including those in civil society, public servants and parliamentarians, should be able to continue their work and make further progress. I want to be clear that that progress remains under threat and the situation in Afghanistan appears precarious, with women’s rights threatened. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) spoke about article 26 and the threat it poses to prosecutions for domestic violence. A recent report from Human Rights Watch raises concerns about the number of convictions for assaults on all sorts on women, and I hope that the Secretary of State will address the fact that they are particularly prevalent in underdeveloped and remote regions of the country.
We have heard about the cases of prominent women who have been attacked but, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine said, hidden behind those are attacks on ordinary Afghan women. I want to highlight a few of my concerns. Last year, the lower house of the Afghan Parliament passed a revision of the country’s electoral law, deleting a guarantee that at least 25% of seats in each of the 34 provincial councils should be for female candidates. Thanks to an intervention from the upper house, that has been set at 20%. Last May, conservative MPs called for the repeal of the 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, focusing on the minimum marriage age, the abolition of shelters and criminal penalties for rape.
There has been almost exclusive impunity for high-profile attacks, but I want to highlight the case of one woman, Sahar Gul, who has been let down by the Government in Afghanistan. Three family members were convicted of the starvation and torture of that teenager, and they have served only a year of their 10-year sentence. In 2011, Sahar’s stepbrother sold her to be married for $5,000. She was about 13 at the time and soon after the marriage her in-laws attempted to force her into prostitution. When she resisted, they locked her in the basement, pulled out her fingernails and burned her. It is simply not good enough that the perpetrators should be released after just a year.
A Ministry of Justice working group has actually assisted in drafting a law that would have reinstated public execution by stoning for the crime of adultery. Too many women and girls are in prison or juvenile detention centres for what are called “moral crimes”. Women are having to suffer the indignity and pain of vaginal examinations to establish whether they are virgins.
I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State’s speech. The initiative from the Foreign Secretary to try to prevent violence against women is welcome, but the real way to prevent it is by changing these societies. I am incredibly lucky to have three grandsons and I hope for a granddaughter one day, but if I were living in Afghanistan I would not be hoping for a granddaughter.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) on introducing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss this matter. As the House knows, for two years I had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for Afghanistan in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I pay tribute to all those I worked with at the time who were involved with Afghanistan. The House rightly pays tribute regularly to our armed forces for the extraordinary work they do, but it is also important to remember the contribution made by civilians from this country who go out to Afghanistan to engage locally in some of the many complex issues that have been mentioned and to work with different international organisations. I also want to pay tribute to experienced parliamentarians. Once again this debate is enlightened by colleagues who have been to Afghanistan and met those engaged in some of the difficulties we are talking about.
When I become the Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, I was clear from the beginning that the development of women in society and the importance of maintaining the progress that had been made was central to many organisations that are campaigning for, and worried about, the position of women. I pay tribute to Amnesty and other organisations that have done so much work in that respect, but they were always pushing at an open door. I want to make it clear to the House how central the role of women in Afghanistan was to the development of policy, within both the FCO and DFID, right through the period when I was involved and beyond.
When the Foreign Secretary published the United Kingdom’s national action plan in response to UN Security Council resolution 1325 in relation to the development of societies post conflict, he said:
“No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met—not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices are heard.”
I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, who has been quite remarkable—I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) for what she said about this—in his dedication to the rights of women and his concern about the use of conflict to damage women. He has been quite exceptional in that regard. I know from personal experience how much he was concerned about Afghanistan and how much support he gave me and others in our work.
That there has been progress in Afghanistan since 2001 is clear—it has been documented by other Members, so I will not detain the House long on this—with regard to health, education, justice and participation. Women have seen their circumstances improve. Some 3 million girls are now in education and there are now women teachers, whereas there were not before. To some extent, that helps to contradict the sense, which some portray, that it is a society that it is impossible to change. If it were impossible for it to change, those brave women would not have come forward, which is another reason why they deserve support.
We understand very well that there are different cultures in different societies, but we have a culture too. Our culture and our tradition in this country is to stand up for what we think is right and to say very clearly, even though value judgments are involved, when we think something is wrong. The subjugation and terrorisation of women is wrong. We know, however, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) said, that that cannot be done from the Chamber of a Parliament thousands of miles away. It needs to be done by working with those on the ground. Again, the extraordinary work that has been done in capacity building and support over recent years has, I believe, made a significant difference and will continue to do so.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that we should also pay tribute to voluntary organisations such as Afghan Connection, which is on the ground in areas such as north-east Afghanistan and putting in place education and training for teachers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I could name a number of different organisations—I will mention one in a moment. Men and women are going out from this country to do extraordinary work with people in Afghanistan and to support the bravery of women and others there who are working for change.
I remember on my first visit to Afghanistan meeting a group of women civil society activists and being told straightforwardly, “If you ask women in our society whether life has changed for the better since 2001, between 60% and 70% will say yes. But if you ask how many are afraid for the future, 99% will say yes.” The constant refrain, particularly as we got closer to naming a date when the United Kingdom’s armed forces would withdraw—2014—was, “Are you all going? Are the lights going out?” I remember being very committed to saying, on behalf of the Government, “Absolutely not. People are staying and the commitment to Afghanistan will remain.”
It is very important to recognise that that is done in conjunction and co-operation with brave individuals who are there. I could name many, but let me refer to just two or three in the short time available. Habiba Sarabi, who was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, is a remarkable woman who made her name working on women’s literacy, before joining the Government in 2004 after the Taliban had gone. She is now the governor of Bamiyan province. Sometimes the media can present the image that it is all about Helmand, but it is not. There are places where things are happening and women are engaged in society and want to remain engaged. She is a remarkable woman.
Fawzia Koofi, a member of Parliament whom I have met on more than one occasion, is an outstandingly brave woman. When she was a baby, her mother left her outside to die in the Afghan sun because she did not want another daughter in the house. She was rescued after a few hours, burnt almost to a cinder. From that experience she developed an extraordinary attitude to life and a determination to fight for the rights of women. She was recently interviewed and said a few things—this follows what other Members have said—about the current difficulties. She said:
“It’s becoming harder to work on women’s issues. Conservative colleagues are more confident to open their mouths… But there is more awareness among women to stand by themselves and defend their rights… You cannot talk about women’s education, women’s economic empowerment and social empowerment without their political participation. So for any young woman I would encourage them to have the courage to put herself forward.”
With examples like Fawzia to follow, young women can do just that.
I want to mention two individuals from the United Kingdom. The first is Linda Norgrove. I was involved in the hostage crisis when Linda was kidnapped. She subsequently died in an attempt to free her in October 2010. I attended her funeral and remember what a remarkable occasion it was, as people remembered what she had done. She worked with widows, in particular, in eastern Afghanistan. Her parents have set up a foundation in her memory, another one of those organisations that work to remember a remarkable person from this country who lost their life because of their commitment to the women of Afghanistan. She managed a team of some 500 staff who moved from district to district in eastern Afghanistan, working with communities to implement projects in conjunction with local people. That reinforces the point that it is not a question of imposing values from outside; it is about working with others there who want to make a success of things. The second individual I will mention from the United Kingdom is my noble Friend Baroness Hodgson, who has given a lot of time and effort in Afghanistan, and at great personal cost and risk to herself.
Finally, I want to mention Hillary Clinton. I remember my early meetings with Mrs Clinton when she was Secretary of State. It was clear that her commitment to the advancement of women was no political gesture, but firm and determined. We were constantly being asked how we would put into practice what we believed about the future of women in Afghanistan, so she made sure that it was in the Bonn declaration in Tokyo. Her commitment has been remarkable.
As has been said, we know that there are limits to what we can do. Ultimately, it will have to be Afghanistan that enforces what we believe. But our constant engagement, our determination not to leave people alone, the fact that we will continue to talk about it here and the fact that men and women from the United Kingdom will continue to go to Afghanistan to support the people there will be the clearest demonstration we can give that, although things are written in treaties, we will follow them ourselves. We will do all we can to support the brave women who are already working in that country. There is much to achieve, but we have achieved a lot. I am deeply grateful to colleagues for the way in which they have worked on this over a number of years. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan, and to all those from the United Kingdom who have lost their lives there, to work with others for a better future, which they deserve and have been richly working towards.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was a hugely impressive Minister during his time in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He set out clearly the Government’s policy on and support for freedom and justice internationally. It is a genuine pleasure to follow his important comments.
This is an important debate, not only as a precursor to international women’s day, but because it is happening on world book day, given the importance we place on access to information and education in transforming society and improving conditions for women abroad.
I do not want to repeat too much of what has been said but, as we are aware, the Afghan constitution affords equal protection to men and women. However, there has been growing controversy recently about the role of Afghan women in society. At 28% of members, the representation of women in the Afghan Parliament exceeds the level in this House. Although Afghanistan has quotas and we do not, we take proactive action to encourage young women to get involved in Parliament, and young women from our constituencies are visiting Parliament today and we hope that that will encourage them to take this Parliament seriously.
Many women who have stepped forward into politics in Afghanistan find themselves at the forefront of abuse and attacks, and although there has been progress, it is important to maintain it. According to the Afghan independent human rights commission, attacks on women and human rights defenders are increasing and include attacks on parliamentarians, the murder of female police officers, the targeting of critics of the Taliban, and the targeting of their families. Their male relatives—their sons, their fathers and their brothers—are often targeted as a way of silencing women who want to stand up and have a voice.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) was correct when he said that if we want to transform society in Afghanistan the issue is not just about speaking to women there. Unless women have the support and encouragement of the men around them and wider society, it will be incredibly difficult for them to continue the change that is happening.
Honour killings and punishments for breaking traditional Taliban rules of society are still widespread. According to the United Nations, 87.2% of Afghan women and girls have experienced some form of violence or abuse. The UN described that as a pandemic and it is increasingly disturbing when we consider that many women will be totally opposed to reporting abuse, even if it puts their life in danger, because of fear of the consequences of speaking out about their situation.
There has been progress, and hon. Members have referred to the passage of the law on the elimination of violence against women in 2009, which, for the first time, made rape a crime, and outlawed forced marriage, as well as physical and verbal abuse. However, that must be set against the recent row-back to which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) referred. Only a few weeks ago, President Karzai had to make last-minute blocks to legislation that would have stopped relatives testifying against one another and would have prevented almost all prosecutions for domestic violence and rape. In the last year alone, Parliament has blocked a law to curb violence against women, and cut the quota for women on provincial councils. The justice Ministry has floated a proposal to bring back stoning as a punishment for adultery.
There has been progress, but it would be wrong for us to be complacent about the amount of work that still needs to be done to change attitudes and to secure women’s position. That comes against the backdrop of the political situation, which is extremely vulnerable. The elections to choose the successor to President Hamid Karzai and the fear that many candidates have links to the Taliban or at least share their ultra-conservative views on societal norms in Afghanistan is a threat to women’s progress.
The right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire paid tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Department for International Development for their work. I add my support and thanks for their work when I have corresponded with them on these issues over the years. They have recognised the importance of women in post-conflict peace building. Societies in which women are safe, empowered to exercise their rights and can move their communities forward are more prosperous and stable as a result. Sustainable security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan or elsewhere unless we ensure the full participation of women at all levels of society, including in building that peace.
A country where women cannot realise their full rights and experience violence and attacks, both domestically and in the public sphere, almost with impunity, is not a peaceful or secure country; nor can the careful and delicate work that will be required to deal with the legacy of conflict be successful unless women are actively involved. The UK Government have a responsibility under UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security to ensure that women’s participation in all peace and security-related processes is not only assured but is seen as vital to the success of those processes.
I am always reluctant to cite Northern Ireland experience, particularly in a context such as this where the differences are immense and clearly seen. Although our situation is not comparable, some lessons can be learned. We are aware as a society of the important role played by women during the conflict and the post-conflict period. It is important to learn those lessons. Only this week, the deputy director of Relatives For Justice in Northern Ireland, Andrée Murphy, in a blog on a site called Vixens with Convictions, talked about the need for a gendered approach to peace building in Northern Ireland.
The experience of women in conflict is often distinctly different from that of their male counterparts. Many women find that their views have not been mainstreamed within the peace process and face challenges in post-conflict society when politics moves on and often leaves them behind. Many are affected by the lack of access to justice and many are dealing with the financial consequences of having lost the main breadwinner in their families. Lessons can be learned about how to go forward because without women’s participation in the Afghanistan process, we will face significant challenges in creating stability.
When western troops withdraw, taking with them money and attention, we must think of the public back home. It is hugely important that we as a Parliament do not lose our attention and focus, so I am encouraged that DFID has continued to see this as an important part of its work among some of the poorest people in the world.
Human Rights Watch’s 2013 annual report said:
“With international interest in Afghanistan rapidly waning, opponents of women’s rights seized the opportunity to begin rolling back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule.”
We cannot allow that important progress to be eroded or diminished. Too much has been lost for that to be the case. The UK Government have been hugely supportive of the democratic process in Afghanistan and have given financial support to initiatives aimed at increasing female participation in politics there. We must work with the international community to ensure that there is a specific country plan to allow that work to be taken forward and to allow those brave women who step forward in Afghanistan to be assured of our full support.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the Backbench Business Committee on granting this timely debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development for her ongoing commitment to the rights of women and girls. As chair of the all-party group on women, peace and security, I have had the opportunity over the years to meet many female Afghan parliamentarians and civil society campaigners to discuss their hopes, but mainly fears, for the future of Afghanistan.
My first point is that those women whom I have met have not just been victims. They have not even primarily been victims. They have been the most inspiring agents for change. One woman, whom I will not name for her own protection, started up a television show, “Niqab”, which sought to combat the traditional taboo on talking openly about domestic abuse by allowing women victims of domestic abuse to sit in a television show, properly covered, and openly talk about it. That led to increased reporting and openness about domestic abuse in Afghan society. Those are practical steps by Afghan women to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan, but they do so in the face of the most extraordinary challenge.
As has been said, 87% of women have experienced violence against them. Reported cases of violence against women increased by 28% between 2012 and 2013 and, as was said in the opening speech, there have been nine high-profile victims of assassination in the last six months, but we know that many more victims have not reached the headlines, especially victims in education and health care.
We must acknowledge that there have been gains since 2001. The constitution now grants equal rights to women, and more girls are in school in Afghanistan than ever before in its history. More than a quarter of Afghanistan’s parliamentarians are female, and of course the elimination of violence against women Act criminalised rape in 2009. However, these gains are fragile, and they are set against a rock-bottom base and a backdrop of poverty, injustice, early enforced marriage, and appalling violence that includes some of the most terrible sexual violence that can be imagined. In practice, for the majority of Afghan women, equality must still seem a lifetime away.
The statistics can seem overwhelming—like a mountain to climb which, with the drawdown approaching ever faster, is out of reach for us. I am reminded of the man who drowned in two inches of water. Statistics can be misleading, because there are practical steps that we can take. If the extraordinary men and women I have met, who are willing to pursue women’s rights in the face of the most appalling abuses, are not willing to give up, then we should not be willing to give up either.
After 2014 ends, one of the crucial ways in which we can help Afghan society is by people such as members of the International Development Committee—as well as, of course, the Secretary of State and diplomats—repeatedly going in-country and engaging with the politicians in saying, “This is what we want.” In going out there, parliamentarians are probably being about as effective as we can be.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The recent reports by the IDC have been exceptionally valuable in highlighting not only areas of weakness in Government response but areas of strength that could be expanded and extended, and I do not doubt that the Committee will continue that very good work.
May I press the Secretary of State on some practical steps that the Government can continue to take? In particular, will they ensure that they take all steps possible that will lead to full representation of women in the peace process? Evidence shows extremely clearly that there is a direct correlation between inclusive peace negotiations and a more sustainable peace. So far, we have not seen a very successful effort in this area, and I would like to know exactly what she would like to do to ensure that it can be progressed. Will she update the House on what progress she has made with her commitment to a strategic priority on violence against women and girls in the Afghan operational plan? Will she also update the House on what effect the implementation of the preventing sexual violence initiative could have in Afghanistan after the drawdown? What progress has been made with the gender marker for spending to enable us to track spending by gender throughout future spending in Afghanistan as we move away from Ministry of Defence spending and on to a DFID lead?
Will the Secretary of State once more consider the benefits of having a UK strategy for protecting women human rights defenders? I know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office believes that co-operation within the EU process is the right way forward, but I believe that our skill and expertise in the field of gender security makes it natural for the UK to lead on women’s human rights defence and protection measures. I hope that the Government will reconsider their position on that.
The Afghan men and women I have met who campaign for women’s rights in Parliament and in civil society face some of the gravest threats imaginable, including slander, sexual violence and assassination. In this House, we simply cannot imagine having to face such consequences for our decision to stand for public life. They are incredibly brave and incredibly effective agents for change, and they are our most effective resource for achieving our goals for peace and development in Afghanistan. They deserve to know that the United Kingdom will stand by them as they strive for women’s social and economic empowerment in Afghanistan.
I want to start by joining the tributes to the soldier from 32 Engineer Regiment who died in Helmand yesterday and extending our condolences to his family.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving the House the opportunity to debate this very important topic. I congratulate Amnesty International, which has done so much to ensure that women’s rights in Afghanistan are on the public’s and Parliament’s agendas.
It is worth briefly recapping the history of women’s rights in Afghanistan and how the situation deteriorated from a country in which, from 1919, women could vote, had relative freedom in what they wore, and had equal political participation, to a country under the Taliban where girls were prevented from going to school and women were not allowed to work or to leave the home without a male chaperone, were barred from showing any skin in public, and could not get involved in politics or speak publicly. The discrimination against women extended to prohibiting access to health care delivered by men, which provided no viable option given that women could not work as doctors or nurses. The punishments for defying such discrimination were severe and brutal; women suffered floggings for some perceived transgressions, and were stoned to death if found guilty of adultery. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said in her powerful account of life under the Taliban, some women, despite those restrictions, continued very bravely to try to continue their education in secret schools where women worked as teachers.
Since those years, there has of course been crucial progress. The Afghan constitution gives equal status to women, and in 2009 the Afghan Government introduced the law on the elimination of violence against women. There has been a remarkable expansion in access to education, with the number of girls enrolled in schools increasing from 5,000 in the Taliban’s day to 2.4 million today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this change, not only on women’s lives but on attitudes within Afghanistan. It is particularly worth noting how parents at a school supported by the UN special envoy, Angelina Jolie, have pledged to delay their daughters’ marriages so that they may first finish school. That provides an indication not only of how far Afghanistan has come but of the scope for further progress on women’s rights and freedoms.
As we have heard, there is real concern not only that progress will stall but that the gains could be reversed once the international troops withdraw. Constitutional equality is still not reflected in the reality of life for many women in Afghanistan, and the law on ending violence against women, while a landmark achievement, is still, in many cases, not effectively implemented. The Chair of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), gave the example of the woman who, despite being very articulate and well educated, almost seemed to accept that she would be subjected to violence in her marriage and would have to tolerate it, saying that she was used to doing that. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) mentioned similar points.
Between March and October 2012, the Afghan independent human rights commission documented 4,000 cases of violence against women—a 28% increase on the year before. Some of those cases were cited by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). Amnesty International reports that in the past six months alone, nine high-profile women have been attacked in Afghanistan, including senior police officers who have been murdered, a parliamentarian who survived an attack that killed her eight-year old daughter, the author who wrote about her life under the Taliban and who was dragged from her home and shot, and the senior Government official who was murdered. Most of these attacks have been made with complete impunity. Those tragic cases have received considerable attention due to the women’s prominence, but there have been many other equally shocking attacks on less high-profile women. Amnesty gives the example of the gynaecologist helping the victims of abuse who was targeted because of her work. Her brother was killed and her 11-year-old son was wounded in a grenade attack. A head teacher was targeted because she runs a girls’ school. Her son was abducted and killed, while she continues to receive serious threats.
Clearly, the progress that has been made on girls’ access to education in Afghanistan is no insignificant achievement, but it risks being undermined. In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham spoke about the Taliban conducting a reign of terror against schools. We have heard about several girls’ schools being victims of poisoning and gas attacks last year, and female teachers coming under threat. The 2014 report by Human Rights Watch warned that the perceived “rapidly waning” international interest in Afghanistan is providing opponents of women’s rights with opportunities to roll back advancements. The Afghan independent human rights commission has argued for repeal of the law on ending violence against women. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) mentioned that, as did the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who also spoke of women suffering continued human rights abuses. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian highlighted the plight of young women and girls in jail for so-called moral crimes—a horrible example of how much progress is still to be made.
Only this year, the Afghan Parliament passed a draft criminal procedure code that would prohibit relatives from giving evidence as witnesses and therefore risked obstructing justice for the victims of domestic violence and forced marriage. That was a subject of international concern and it received a welcome veto from President Karzai. It is critical that the UK plays a leading role in maintaining international attention on and support for Afghanistan, including, specifically and explicitly, advocacy of women’s rights, peace and security.
The Government have rightly said—I welcome this—that stability and security is their priority for Afghanistan, but the security situation of women cannot be seen as secondary to that. It is very much part of it—it is an integral part of security in Afghanistan. Indeed, UN Security Council resolution 1325 and the motion under discussion make clear that women’s participation and security are intrinsic to sustainable peace and security.
The UK Government have in the past emphasised the need for a multilateral approach, particularly with regard to working with our European Union partners, which was picked up by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that, despite the need to work at an EU level, the UK also needs to show particular leadership through our bilateral strategy, in the hope that other countries will follow suit if we take a lead on the issue.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly been commended for his efforts to secure global action on sexual violence, as has been said by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), whom I congratulate on his work as a Foreign Office Minister for two years. The Government definitely have our support for the preventing sexual violence initiative. Although Afghanistan is not a priority country for the initiative, it nevertheless seems that the PSVI’s principles could make a valuable contribution in Afghanistan, not least the emphasis it places on working with human rights defenders and helping survivors. I hope the Secretary of State agrees with that.
Amnesty International is also calling on the Government to develop a country-specific plan for the protection of human rights defenders in Afghanistan, as recommended by the EU guidelines on human rights defenders and, indeed, the FCO’s best practice guidance. My understanding, though, is that the Government have so far been reluctant to develop a country-specific plan and have claimed it would add little additional value. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell us what discussions she has had with EU counterparts about developing country-specific plans, how the UK is pushing for full implementation of the UK guidelines, and why the Government do not think that a UK country- specific plan could help activists in Afghanistan and send a strong message to our international partners.
It would also be helpful if the Secretary of State could provide more details on the work that DFID, the FCO and the MOD are currently doing with women human rights defenders. In particular, what steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that Afghan human rights defenders are aware of the EU guidelines and the options they have should they be in need of protection? In what way are the Government consulting the human rights defenders themselves, who are best placed to advise on the assistance they need?
Foreign Governments who work with human rights defenders can raise their profile in Afghanistan, and in many cases women are prepared to take such a risk, but we must be mindful that the most visible women are often the most vulnerable, particularly if the security situation deteriorates further. I would, therefore, like to hear more from the Secretary of State about what measures the FCO has in place to protect those women.
Members have mentioned political participation and the need for women to be engaged in the future elections, and I hope the Government have taken that on board. Given the international troop withdrawal later this year, I am also keen to hear from the Minister about what training and advice has been provided to the Afghan national security forces and their capacity to protect the status of women and women human rights defenders.
In conclusion, I congratulate everyone who has taken part in what has been a brief, truncated, but very important debate.
It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the debate. I would also like to start by paying tribute to the soldier from the 32 Engineer Regiment who lost his life recently. It is a reminder of the huge sacrifice that our armed forces make not only towards keeping our country safe, but, in this case, in helping another country—Afghanistan—develop. I also want to say, on behalf of not only Foreign Office staff, but in particular my own DFID staff who work in Afghanistan, a big thank you to all Members present for their kind words about the work that our civil servants do in Afghanistan. In many respects, it is often forgotten in comparison with the amazing work that our armed forces do, but I meet many of these people and have telecoms with them on a day-to-day basis. They put a huge part of their lives into the service they give to both Departments and I thank them on behalf of the Government.
May I reiterate exactly what my right hon. Friend has just said? Soldiers operate in a much more protected area and they can protect themselves with their weapons. Some of the bravest of the brave are the people who work in places such as Kabul and go to villages on their own to look after the people of that country. I am thinking specifically of young men and women from my right hon. Friend’s Department and non-governmental organisations. They are incredibly brave.
I could not agree more. I very much appreciate those comments and I know they will be appreciated by DFID and Foreign Office staff.
We have heard many insightful speeches today. Having this debate sends out a message to people, leaders and would-be leaders in Afghanistan about the priority that this Government and this Parliament place on the issue of women’s rights overall, particularly the way in which that relates to Afghanistan. That is absolutely right.
As many Members have said, Afghanistan has made significant progress over the past decade, but it continues to face considerable challenges. There are huge levels of poverty and after three decades of conflict, girls and women in Afghanistan are among the most marginalised and poorest in the world: just 17% of women are literate; they often have very restricted mobility, as we have heard; they are subject to violence on a routine basis; and in many respects they have very little decision-making power over their own lives. Afghanistan remains one of the hardest and worst countries in the world in which to be a woman.
As we have heard, no country can develop if it leaves half its population behind. I assure Members that this Government and I are committed to making sure that these girls and women have the chance to build a better future for themselves and for their country.
As the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) has eloquently pointed out, the situation that many of them face on a day-to-day basis is terrible. She referred to the issue of early enforced marriage, which I raised in a speech earlier this week, in which I set out the UK Government’s determination to play a leading role in combating it.
I have met many of the human rights defenders whom Members have mentioned. They make one feel humble through the work and dangers that they face every single day of their lives and that their families face as a result of their work. They put their lives on the line for their communities and their country. They know that the process of improving human and women’s rights in particular in Afghanistan will take a very long time, yet they are willing to be part of it. We owe it to them to stick with them for the long term, which is precisely what this Government plan to do. I assure the House that our Government will be committed to Afghanistan in the long term. We are going to provide about £180 million in development assistance annually until at least 2017.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) talked about how his Committee has identified this issue as a priority. I could not agree more. It is one of the reasons why, when I came into this role, I made tackling violence against women a strategic priority for our country programme in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) referred to the need for the UK to show leadership on this topic, and I agree, which is why the work that DFID carries out in Afghanistan has been elevated to a real priority.
Let me briefly tell the House the things we are doing. They focus on making sure that Afghan women can not only have choice in employment, but have a voice. Many Members have spoken about the need for and importance of women being part of the political process in Afghanistan, and that is incredibly important. We are supporting the Afghan electoral commission, particularly in its work to ensure that women are signed up for elections, and we are undertaking additional work to help female candidates be part of the electoral process in Afghanistan.
I assure the House that we will continue to play our role in lobbying the Afghan Government, where necessary, when worrying issues, such as stoning, suddenly come back on to the agenda. I was in Afghanistan when that issue arose again, and I raised it with President Karzai, who quickly assured me that he had no intention of seeing stoning return to Afghanistan.
The hon. Member for North West Durham quite rightly raised her concerns, which I share, about the recent Afghan criminal procedure code, which seemed to suggest that it would be almost impossible for women to give evidence in court or to bring charges in relation to violence against women. We are very pleased that President Karzai has issued a decree to amend the criminal procedure code, and that it has been returned to Parliament for approval. We, along with our international partners, will closely monitor the situation, because we certainly do not want such provisions. I am pleased that President Karzai is taking action, but such an approach needs to continue in practice.
I know that you are keen to ensure that we move on to the next debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want briefly to speak about some of the progress that is being made. We are focusing not just on making sure that women in Afghanistan can be part of the political process, but on the grass-roots Tawanmandi programme, which is all about working with the many human rights defenders on the ground, particularly the community groups focused on violence against women in the domestic situation. I had a chance to meet some of those amazing women during my last visit to Afghanistan at the end of last year, and I talked to them about their personal lives, as well as about the work that they are trying to carry out. They had some inspiring stories, but most of all, they were determined to keep going and to keep working in this area, and we will continue to support them in doing so.
I want briefly to pay tribute to the work done by the Afghan national army. As many Members will know, we have helped it to set up an academy. I can tell the House that, with our help, female trainers are now in place in the academy, and that the first female trainees will join it by June. We will therefore start to see women taking up a role in the security agenda in Afghanistan.
On the Afghan national police, I met the Minister of the Interior when I was in Afghanistan at the end of last year. We are providing his Department with technical assistance to help it make sure that women can not only join the Afghan national police safely, but have a career in that organisation and steadily move through the ranks. I know that the Interior Ministry recognises that that is a real issue to work on, and I very much welcome the chance for DFID to continue working with it over the coming months and years. At the moment, only 1% of the 157,000 Afghan national police officers are female. If the police force is to be able to police the whole of Afghanistan, its make-up clearly needs to represent Afghanistan more effectively.
Education has not been mentioned as much as it might have been—this has been a short debate—but it really is an Afghan success story. As we have heard, at the time of the Taliban, virtually no girls were in school in Afghanistan. Well over 2 million girls now go to school, which is up from virtually zero, and the UK Government are playing a major role in making sure that there are the necessary schools, teachers and tools to allow them to stay in school over the coming years.
We will play our role in making sure that the Afghan Government are held to account for the pledges that they have made to ensure the protection of women’s rights, such as in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. As has been said, the UK will co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the commitments made in Tokyo.
We all know that there is a huge amount more to do. Even in the UK, our suffragette movement started in the 1870s, but it took until 1918 for women to get the vote for the first time, which is nearly 50 years. We recognise that the challenges in Afghanistan are absolutely huge, but that does not mean we as a country should not try to meet them or should not be prepared to participate in efforts to improve women’s rights over the long term.
We will do so by supporting women in having their say at the ballot box; by supporting girls in getting into school; by supporting the work on eliminating violence against girls and women and making sure that that law is implemented on the ground; and, crucially, by supporting Afghanistan’s defenders of human rights and civil society. We can help girls and women in Afghanistan to build a better future for themselves and their country, and we can best ensure that the important gains made in recent years are not lost, but are further built on as Afghanistan moves into its future.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. They have all, in their different ways, sent the message to the women of Afghanistan that we care, we understand and we want to see action to support them. The work of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is translating those words into action. We must keep our focus on this matter and return to it, because we cannot turn our back on what has been achieved to date and leave such a fragile country to fall back.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises, ahead of critical presidential elections in April 2014, the essential contribution of Afghan human rights defenders to building peace and security in their country; further recognises the extreme challenges, including violent attacks and killings, that they face as a result of their peaceful work; believes that sustainable peace and security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan without women’s full participation; and encourages the UK Government to improve its support and protection for women human rights defenders in Afghanistan.