I beg to move,
That this House has considered violence against women and girls and the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on this fine crisp morning. I do not need to rehearse to many Members in the Chamber the importance of the sustainable development goals. Many Members and the Minister and his Department have worked hard on refining and developing the goals. Goal 5 is to
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
That is the most important goal in our efforts to combat violence against women and girls. A number of targets flow from it, directly addressing the issue. In particular, the second target under goal 5 is to
“Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation”.
The third target is to
“Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”.
May I suggest that we add breast ironing to that list of harmful practices? People do not know much about it, but it tries to damage the young breast to stop it developing because of a misconception that the child will then not go through puberty and develop. It is incredibly destructive. People do not know about it, in the same way that we did not know about FGM.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. So much work has been done under the sustainable development goals. We have a target that gives examples, and we now have awareness of other things that might well have been included as examples, such as breast ironing. Her point proves that the sustainable development goals should not be seen as frozen in cold print on the page. They are meant to be an ongoing, changing, ever-improving and ever-strengthening commitment on all our parts. Remember, they are universal goals. That is one reason why we need to demarcate the sustainable development goals from the millennium development goals in terms of their universality. We want to see the infrastructure of commitment, investment and intervention underpinning the sustainable development goals.
The Minister will face many questions and hear many suggestions in this debate on assurances that he can give on behalf of the Department for International Development and the Government more widely. He is responding on behalf of DFID, but the universal goals are not just about what happens in other countries. We should be supporting and helping to foster those goals, but the goals also involve commitments and standards in our countries and jurisdictions. That is not just the responsibility of Ministers and all of us who serve in this House, but people at other levels, including devolved levels.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that this is not just a DFID issue. These things happen in this country every day. The pressure group End Violence Against Women has pointed out that 146,000 domestic violence incidents were recorded in London in 2015. There were 5,500 rapes, 300 cases of forced marriage and honour-based violence and thousands of prostitution cases. Specialist support services for all those things are being cut. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to be looking at the issue at home, too?
Absolutely. The issues do not just happen elsewhere; they happen here, and we need to fully understand that. We also need to understand the range of interventions and support required not only to raise awareness and improve behavioural standards and expectations, but to respond better to violence against women and girls where it happens. We need to ensure that women and girls feel more empowered, more enabled, much better supported and truly vindicated and justified when they come forward to report and to tell. We have to give them that comfort and confidence.
There are huge issues that we need to address, and that is why the universality of the goals can be so important. It allows Governments and Parliaments in the developed world to make it clear to our colleagues in the developing world that this is not just about us saying that they have to catch up with us; we, too, are on a page of learning and a journey of understanding in our awareness of the issues. In that context, I acknowledge the range of briefings we have received from many different charities, non-governmental organisations and campaign groups.
I am sure many Members will have questions for the Minister, but we have to ask questions as parliamentarians about how we do our bit to ensure meaningful coherence around the range of sustainable development goals and their interpretation and application. We also need to ensure better adherence in their implementation and realisation. We therfore have to ask not only how Government will provide joined-up management and oversight of the issues, but how we as a Parliament can get better at providing joined-up scrutiny of and support for such initiatives and investments.
It will not be enough for us just to say, “The International Development Committee will be able to oversee all these things, and we are leaving domestic and sexual violence at home to the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee.” We need to think about something more bespoke and dedicated. We need to recognise that though some of the goals and targets will be amenable to particular scrutiny and oversight by respective Select Committees, others will fall in the shadows between Select Committees and perhaps need a more dedicated audit mechanism to pick them up.
My helpful advice to the hon. Gentleman is that leaving anything to the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will leave enormous gaps, because domestic violence and sexual violence commissioning are almost exclusively done by local government and devolved authorities. I suggest we call on the Minister to look for something that will tie everything together and not just leave domestic violence in its silos.
I am sure that the Minister will have heard that call and will ensure that others hear that call, but there are questions for us at a parliamentary level on what we do to ensure real parliamentary tracking and backing of what is happening with the goals, particularly with the vexed, serious and sometimes invisible issue of violence against women and girls.
I called this debate in response to a long lobbying campaign by ActionAid. I am just one of many MPs who responded to that fearless campaign by applying for this debate. I acknowledge the work of ActionAid and all its supporters in campaigning and the quality of the briefing it provided to us. I hope I can leave it to other Members to pick up on that in their contributions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he join me in condemning the state-sanctioned violence against women and girls in North Korea? Technically, that country joined in support of the SDGs last autumn, but it operates violence against women and girls as a tool of oppression. Even the UN has described it in a report as having human rights violations that
“reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
Those violations include sexual violence; exploitation; rape; forced abortion; human trafficking; institutional, economic and psychological violence; slavery; and torture, even until death. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK must use what limited engagement it has with North Korea—it is mainly via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to press for change? Also, will he join with me and other parliamentarians in putting on the record that the abused women of North Korea are not forgotten here?
Yes to all those points and questions. That is not to belittle or trivialise the seriousness of them, but as the chair of the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan I want to address other countries’ specific issues.
I mentioned that we have received a strong briefing from ActionAid, and it has been working with Womankind Worldwide. The Minister will know everything that ActionAid is arguing for in respect of how we take forward the goal and the targets, including its work with Womankind Worldwide in advocating for a voice, choice and control fund. He knows the main argument: such a fund would take an integrated approach that would address the structural causes of gender inequality, giving women’s rights organisations the support that they need to lead the transformation of societies and economies towards an enabling environment, so that women can realise their full potential and enjoy their whole spectrum of rights.
A second objective would be to increase the quality of funding available to organisations and movements, including those led by adolescent girls, women with disabilities and LGBTI groups.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that, from the developmental point of view, putting more of our effort and money into helping girls and women strengthens the whole community?
Yes, it is one of the best ways of fulfilling the “leave no one behind” principle. Investments and interventions to support women and girls would be one of the best multiplier contributions that could be made towards fulfilling not only those targets and objectives, but others as well. The enablement and empowerment that comes with advancing the position of women and girls, allowing them to counter the ravages of sexual and other violence, would be one of the most transformative things. So if we want a real change multiplier in any society, we must address the position of women and girls. Our own history and social experience demonstrate that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle on securing this important debate. Women and girls are rightly at the forefront and at the heart of DFID’s activities. I commend the Secretary of State at DFID for fighting so hard in the face of real opposition to achieve stand-alone goal 5, which is a gender equality and empowerment goal that is very important indeed. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the goals are to be achieved, including goal 5, we have to turn billions into trillions in development finance? For that to happen, we have to do much more work with the private sector.
I fully accept what the hon. Lady has said. Again, that raises the question of our long-term commitment. It is great that we are able to celebrate the sustainable development goals, but we have to plan for what will be achieved by them. Making commitments is important, but making the commitments work well and developing them and growing them is even more important, and that is what we need to do.
I want to acknowledge the briefings that we have received; I hope that other hon. Members will be able to do more justice to them than I can in the time that I want to take—and the time I do not want to take—in this opening speech. We have received an important contribution from UNICEF, which has done so much in terms of the sustainable development goals and on the whole question of violence in all its forms as it affects children, particularly girls. I say that as a parliamentary champion of UNICEF.
We have also had important briefings from Christian Aid and Amnesty International. I hope other hon. Members will be able to take up some of the asks suggested in those briefings to ask the Minister about how DFID will pursue these goals alongside the others. Similarly, we have a useful contribution from the Bond SDG group, which raises the question of the parliamentary commitment to oversight of the goals, rather than simply the governmental commitment.
I told the hon. Member for Congleton that I had a country-specific issue of my own to raise as the chair of the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to Sudan, may I take him across the world to Afghanistan? British troops made an enormous sacrifice in terms of lives lost in Afghanistan, but they also made a tremendous contribution to rebuilding schools for girls and women teachers to avoid the violence that had been meted out to them by the Taliban and others. Is the hon. Gentleman able to update us on the status of women and girls in terms of education in Afghanistan post the withdrawal of British troops?
I am not in a position to speak authoritatively on that, but I am sure the Minister will be able to answer those points. The hon. Member for North Down has drawn attention to the issue of education and schools, an issue that the all-party group on protecting children in armed conflict, which existed in the previous Parliament, addressed. In the context of conflict and humanitarian crises, education was not always to the forefront in the immediate interventions that were planned, and DFID acknowledged that it was not so much a lower order but a later order consideration in its response to crisis and emergencies.
The points in the report, which were well supported by the charity War Child when the APPG was chaired by Fiona O’Donnell, are being taken forward now in the APPG on global education for all, working with the Global Campaign for Education. The urgency of delivering children’s right to education during crisis is highlighted in the report, “Education cannot wait”. One of the points emphasised is that education investment in schools in conflict and post-conflict situations is good because it helps to save boys from falling prey to being recruited as child soldiers and then being corrupted into engagement in violence against women and girls. It also gives girls the opportunity of education and the transformative empowerment that that gives them.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to ensure that girls can be taught safely in Afghanistan, security is absolutely key? Will he urge the Minister to look at the situation in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan, the buffer zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Pakistani army is keeping the peace, but no one is sure for how long? Can we urge DFID to look into that?
I am happy to be a conduit to the Minister on that point. I know he understands that when any of us make points in such debates, we do so on the basis of urging rather than begrudging the very good efforts that have already been made by Government. We are urging the Government because they have earned the position of leading positively on various issues internationally.
As chair of the APPG on Sudan and South Sudan, I am conscious of the report by the charity Waging Peace last November: “Rape in Darfur—A History of Predation”. It had nine key recommendations and some telling observations. If I may advertise, hon. Members can sign early-day motion 903, which takes points from the report, before the end of this Session.
Waging Peace stated:
“Our testimonies indicate that in Darfur the measure that works best at preventing sexual violence is the physical protection offered by the region’s...United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission, UNAMID...However, it is in the immediate vicinity of the UNAMID-controlled compounds that our testimonies indicate that the worst abuses occur. Almost two-thirds of the victims report being raped upon leaving the relative safety of UNAMID-controlled zones: either to collect firewood, perform agricultural work while living in temporary accommodation near farms, or to collect personal belongings immediately following a displacement. The similarity in the accounts provided in the testimonies suggests that such attacks...have become routine.”
In the context of UNAMID, it goes on to suggest community liaison assistants on a model similar to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The criticism of what is happening near UNAMID’s location is supported by a former spokesperson for the African Union-UN mission in Darfur, Aicha Elbasri, who has effectively turned whistleblower. She says,
“Victims of rape, systematic rape and mass rape in Darfur suffer in silence, as the use of these horrible crimes as weapons of war no longer commands international attention. But brutal attacks on the bodies and souls of women and girls continue unabated, and may have worsened in the absence of public scrutiny.”
Reports by Waging Peace go some way to redressing the balance.
I want to draw particular attention to the law in Sudan and the issue of zina, which really affects victims there. Waging Peace says:
“While we recognise that international pressure contributed to the Sudanese government amending controversial laws around rape in early 2015, the changes did not go far enough. Formerly, under Article 149 of the Sudanese Criminal Code of 1991, rape was defined as ‘zina’, meaning intercourse outside marriage, without consent. If women or girls reported a rape but could not produce the necessary evidence, including witness statements from four males confirming that the act was ‘without consent’, they would instead be charged with ‘zina’ (adultery), and face being jailed, flogged or stoned to death. The law was changed in 2015 to reflect the fact that rape involves physical or psychological coercion, but Article 62 of the country’s 1994 Evidence Act remains unchanged, meaning four male witnesses are still required in cases of this kind. This places a prohibitive burden of proof on victims of sexual violence.”
It also means that victims still fear that they, not their attackers, will be punished if they reveal what has happened to them. In the context of the renewal of dialogue between the UK and Sudan and with Governments being invited to be involved in the wider Khartoum process, as it is known, there are issues that must be addressed.
If you will allow me, Mr Owen, I want to put in a further plug. One of the key reporters of the mass rape of girls in Darfur is Eric Reeves, who will meet the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan on 7 June, I think—certainly that week. He has called the continuing mass rape of girls in Darfur the “most heinous crime” that “generates no international outrage”. I hope that we can reflect some of that outrage.
The problem does not exist only in Sudan. A recent report by the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust—HART—addresses the issues in South Sudan. It says:
“Some 185,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought refuge in UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites, while around 90 per cent of IDPs are on the run or sheltering outside PoC sites…Nearly one in every three schools in South Sudan has been destroyed, damaged, occupied or closed, impacting on the education of more than 900,000 children, including some 350,000 who have been forced out of school by the conflict.”
Elsewhere in the report is the observation:
“An adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. Does he agree that it is really important that we obtain disaggregated data on young women and girls with disability? They are doubly at risk because of their vulnerability to violence and sexual violence and because they could be left behind.
I fully concur with the hon. Lady. Her point echoes one made in a previous Westminster Hall debate. The issue is not only girls with disabilities, but indigenous people and others who might be marginalised in their society.
I want to read out one more quote from the HART report:
“The overall death toll is unknown. In Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties of Unity State alone, an estimated 1,000 civilians were killed, 1,300 women and girls were raped and 1,600 women and children were abducted from April to September 2015.”
That was not so long ago. The report is aptly titled “They are killing us loudly, but no one is listening”. This debate is an opportunity for us to show that we are listening, and hopefully we will be able to show how we will follow through on the commitments and targets in goal 5.
We must show that we are not just listening but working effectively in support of those women and girls who are confronted by violence and those who are trying to be advocates for them. Let us remember that in many areas women who are active human rights and women’s rights defenders are particularly targeted. Violence and sexual violence are used against them in so many countries. I am sure that other Members will address some of those points in their contributions.
Order. Before I call David T. C. Davies, I should say that a large number of Members have requested to speak in this debate. I do not want to enforce a time limit, but if Members limit their remarks to five minutes, everyone who has requested to speak will be able to do so.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Owen. I will try to comply with your request.
I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for raising this very important issue. I became interested in the subject almost 10 years ago, when I sat on the Home Affairs Committee, which conducted an inquiry into honour killings, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on being one of the people who helped to bring this subject to the forefront.
Over the past 10 years, a lot of moves have been made to raise these very difficult issues, but I am still concerned that not enough action is being taken. We now have strong legislation against female genital mutilation, but I think we have had only one arrest and no convictions whatever. Around six years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to get information out of the Metropolitan police about how many investigations they had carried out. I eventually had to go to the Information Commissioner to find out that, in fact, they had done very little.
We all know that these are difficult issues to raise. There is a reluctance to raise them because of a perception that to do so is in some way racist. I do not accept that at all. I recently met some women of Islamic heritage, if I can put it like that, including Maryam Namazie, who said that one of the problems is that it is racist not to raise these issues. I have particular concerns about attitudes towards women within the Muslim community—not in general, of course, but certainly not enough is being done.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to achieve our goals and to stop the type of abuse he is describing, we need an absolutely massive leap in women’s economic empowerment? Although we have made good progress, there are still far too many glass ceilings that need to be shattered.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I shall mess up my speech a bit now by saying something I was going to say at the end. One of the more respected organisations in the Muslim community in the UK is the Muslim Council of Britain, yet looking at some of the organisations affiliated to it gives rise to a lot of concerns. For example, one affiliated group is the Blackburn Muslim Association—another organisation that is in receipt of public funds. My hon. Friend mentioned women in the workplace; the Blackburn Muslim Association says:
“It is not permissible for a woman to travel a distance exceeding 48 miles without a Husband or a Mahram (those men who can never marry the woman)”—
in other words, a close male relative. It goes on to quote from chapter 74 of the Book of Hajj, and then ends by saying—this is all in English, by the way—that
“it will not be permissible for a woman to travel individually or with a group of women except with a Mahram or her husband, and this ruling applies to any form of travel including the journey for Hajj”.
This is an organisation that is publicly funded and affiliated to allegedly one of the most moderate Muslim groups in Britain saying that a woman should not be able to travel more than 48 miles because, presumably, that is how far a woman would have been able to travel in three days in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. How on earth will we be able to integrate women in the workplace and encourage equality when there are publicly funded organisations putting out such nonsense?
I completely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. All of us elected officials in this Chamber must be wary of community leaders who command airspace and the ear of officialdom and purport to speak—I say this as, I think, the only elected Muslim woman in the room—for the faith of Islam, which is a worldwide religion. We should not give these people who speak in the name of an entire world faith the credence that they have.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Muslim women in London recently pointed out to me that whenever we see these organisations, we always seem to be talking to the men. We are not doing nearly enough to talk to Muslim women. Presumably, there are Muslim women’s organisations, but why are they not at the forefront, and why are women not at the forefront of these other organisations? The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that we need to address that.
Very quickly—I cannot see how long I have been speaking on this clock—[Hon. Members: “Four and a half minutes.”] In that case, very, very quickly, I am extremely concerned about sharia courts, which are spreading across the UK, because sharia law in some ways advocates violence against women and allows beating. I do not suggest that that is going on in the sharia courts that we have at the moment, but unless the people running them are willing to reject that notion absolutely, I have grave concerns about allowing sharia courts to make any judgments in the UK. I am particularly concerned to learn that one High Court judge sits on those courts.
I am also concerned about the rise of the wearing of the veil and the fact that it is going on in schools. I think the veil is a symbol of violence against women. It sends out a message to women that they are property and should not be looked at, and it gives men an excuse. It almost sends out a message that a man has a right to sexually attack an uncovered woman. I know that that happens on only a minority of occasions, although there was a dreadful instance of it in Cologne. The message has to go out to all men in all communities that they have absolutely no right to attack women under any circumstances whatever. The veil gets in the way of that.
There is much more that I could say. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle again. If we cannot get things right in our own country—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
At the Chair’s discretion, yes.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that women have freedom of choice in exercising the right to wear a veil if they want to? The connection that he makes between attacks on women and the wearing of veils is worrying. I feel that he should retract some of those words.
It is a right, and I would not want to take it away, but it needs to be challenged. We certainly need to challenge the reasons behind it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, it would not be fair to other people. I hope the hon. Lady gets a chance to speak later.
It is vital that we take up the issues that the hon. Member for Foyle spoke about in countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Sudan. If we cannot get things right in our country, and if we are not willing to challenge people in our country about their belief systems, we cannot expect other countries to take notice of us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for making such a coherent and detailed case.
Without doubt, women’s empowerment is crucial to achieving sustainable growth and development across the world, so we need to address that issue. According to the UN, more than one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner. As my party’s equalities spokesman, I am very happy to contribute to this debate. The hon. Gentleman referred to goal 5, on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. That is exactly what I am going to speak about, and I will give a few examples.
The Home Office has published its refreshed strategy for ending violence against women and girls, and it has said that in 2017 a service transformation fund will be launched to encourage new approaches. It is most welcome that the Government are taking this issue seriously and are taking action but, as the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, we cannot take our eyes off the ball. As I have said previously, it is all too easy to forget those who are thousands of miles away. Sadly, nations such as ours, which have the influence to make a difference, too often turn a blind eye.
Let me give a couple of examples of where equality for women does not exist. I could give dozens if I had the time, but I do not. This is the story of a 12-year-old girl—Kakenya Ntaiya, a member of Kenya’s Maasai tribe:
“When I was 12 years old, my family organized a ceremony to transition my sisters and myself to become women…I was first because I was the oldest. I was told to open my knees, so I opened them. A woman grabbed my clitoris and cut it off. I bled. I fainted. But I am so lucky I am alive, because so many girls die from this.”
She had no idea that the ceremony would include female genital mutilation until after the woman made the cut.
The second story is of a young girl from India. While still a teenager, Monica Singh had the courage to stand up for her rights and to say no to a marriage proposal from an older man. However, she paid a very high price for claiming control of her future. After the rejection, the man tried to intimidate her into marrying him by repeatedly stalking and harassing her on her way home from school. She was just a teenager. One day, the man blocked her path completely. She said:
“Before I knew it, a bucket of acid was thrown on me…All I could feel was searing pain. Ninety per cent of my body had no skin left, and 65 per cent was permanently disfigured. I had to undergo 46 surgeries and be fed through a straw for more than a year of my life.”
When we hear such horror stories from across the world—not film stories, but stories from real life—we cannot fail to be annoyed.
When it comes to sex, no still does not mean no in some parts of the world. In Singapore and India, non-consensual sex within marriage is not a criminal offence and does not constitute rape as long as the wife is above a certain age—15 in India and 13 in Singapore. In Yemen, where child marriage is rife, there is no lower age limit for defining rape in marriage. Laws affecting people’s national identity continue to discriminate against women. In Jordan and Lebanon, a child needs a Jordanian or Lebanese father to automatically gain citizenship; their mother’s nationality is not passed on. Again, that is clear discrimination against women.
There are 46 countries that do not provide legal protection against domestic violence. In Nigeria, it is within a husband’s legal rights to beat his wife for the purpose of correcting her, as long as it does not cause grievous bodily harm. What is grievous bodily harm, if not beating one’s wife? Whether it is done gently—if there is such a thing—or ferociously to the point of drawing blood or breaking bones, it is grievous bodily harm.
A fatwa imposed in 1990 makes Saudi Arabia the only country in the world in which women are forbidden to drive. Although a fatwa is not an official law, it is a religious declaration that carries the authority of law and imposes strict modes of behaviour. There are more female fighter jet pilots in neighbouring Jordan than women who can drive in Saudi Arabia—that is a fact. Saudi Arabia’s recent progress on women’s rights offers some hope. Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections, and 19 women gained seats in local authorities—a landmark moment in the country’s recent history. We have to be mindful of the need to respect sovereignty, but the international community has to come together to address this issue and put deserved pressure on Administrations, wherever they are in the world, to abandon such blatantly sexist legislation. Sadly, that is not even the tip of the iceberg. We have barely scratched the surface, although we will do so in this debate.
I will conclude on this point, because I want to keep to my five minutes. There needs to be pressure from a co-ordinated international effort to confine such blatantly sexist laws to the history books. We must condemn practices such as FGM and acid attacks. We have a lot to do, but this House can take a stand today. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing this debate, and I thank the men who have come to speak. It is very important that men speak up for women; it is great to see that.
I had the pleasure of representing this country at the United Nations negotiations at which the sustainable development goals were agreed. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Development, who has consistently pushed for a strong and explicit commitment to empowering girls and women and achieving gender equality. The SDGs are universal, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. We have to think about what that means for us here. There is no room for complacency. I pay tribute to ActionAid for its excellent Fearless campaign, which draws attention to the fact that this phenomenon affects countries worldwide, including the UK.
According to Home Office figures, up to 3 million women and girls in our country experience rape, domestic violence, stalking and other forms of violence every year. I set up a charity in my constituency to help the victims of domestic violence, so I can testify to the fact that it is very difficult to raise funds for that cause. We were able to provide a 24-hour counselling service with the help of volunteers. It was only then that I realised that domestic violence is no respecter of class or religion. It cuts across the whole community in every one of our constituencies. I also pay tribute to the fact that the popular media have done well in drawing attention to the fact that this happens everywhere, all around us and far too often.
I found it shocking that, when 18 to 25-year-olds were polled by MORI about their attitudes to violence in girl-boy relationships, one in five young men said they thought it is normal. Even more disturbingly, one in nine girls thought that violence is a normal part of girl-boy relationships. That set me on the course, with the charity, of trying to prevent that attitude from persisting in our society. We supported a charitable project called Keep Cool to teach youngsters at the top of primary school, before they move on to secondary school, that violence is not a normal part of relationships. Sadly, the funding for it no longer exists, so, through the good offices of the Minister present, I ask the Government to look at preventing the prevalence of acceptance of violence in our society.
Something that hon. Members might not know is where the phrase “rule of thumb” comes from. It has been said to come from a law of 1861 that allowed a man to beat a woman with a stick as long as it was no wider than a thumb. Luckily, it has been repealed, but it shows how accepted that was in our society, and how hard we need to continue to work to eradicate such acceptance.
The domestic violence statistics have remained stubbornly and depressingly high: sadly, two women and two children a week die as a result of domestic violence. I am using this opportunity for us to reflect on what the sustainable development goals mean for us, although of course I recognise that right around the world many women—many very poor women—are in a difficult position, in violent and abusive relationships.
On the brighter side, I commend the work of many British-registered charities in empowering women. Through Tearfund, I saw at first hand, in Bangladesh, how female garment workers are being empowered by mobile banking to return their wages to the homes and communities that they come from, without the middleman taking a cut, resulting in the transformation of those villages through solar power and sanitation, and in the opportunity for many of their siblings and families to secure an education.
As key decisions about the future funding of DFID’s key priorities approach, as part of the upcoming civil society partnership review, donor leaders such as the UK can prioritise and target resources effectively to help to end violence against women and girls. I strongly recommend that we do.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on bringing the debate to the House today. He said, rightly, that we should be listening, and raising our voice. I want to highlight in the UK Parliament the continuing plight of the Nigerian female students abducted by Boko Haram. I want to talk briefly about the specificity of the crime, which is worth narrating, and, more broadly, about violence against girls, in particular in education.
Simon Schama, the historian, wrote well when he stated:
“Education, the idea of teaching our children something other than the parroting of sacred texts, has become a target.”
That is not only aimed at girls, but they are a particular focus for radical Islamists.
On the night of 14 to 15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the government secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno state, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist and terrorist organisation based in north-eastern Nigeria. Over the next few months, 57 of the schoolgirls managed to escape, but the 219 remaining girls are still missing and have now been away from their families for 744 days, subjected to God knows what at the hands of the terrorists. On 14 April this year, a video was obtained showing 15 of the hostages in black robes. It was the first time they had been seen since May 2014. It is widely believed that the girls, who have forcefully been denied their education, are being held as a negotiating tool.
The wonderfully brave and inspirational Malala Yousafzai, who fled the Taliban in Pakistan, which wanted to deny her an education, came to learn in the great city of Birmingham. She wrote an open letter to the parents of the missing Nigerian girls on the second anniversary of their kidnapping:
“I write this letter with a heavy heart, knowing you have endured another year separated from your daughters…As I did last year, I call on President Buhari of Nigeria—and everyone who can help rescue the Chibok girls—to act now...Parents, thank you for having the courage to send your daughters to school. My dream is that one day they will come home, finish their education and choose their futures for themselves.”
I congratulate the Minister on his joint statement with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), on the two-year anniversary of the kidnapping of the girls. I urge him to ensure that, when we are, rightly, involved in bilateral aid for Nigeria, we impress on the Nigerians the need to use their military and intelligence to rescue the girls. Concerns have been expressed, in particular by United States officials, that the President is more focused on fighting political opponents than on fighting Boko Haram.
Will the Minister tell us what our Government are doing to ensure that the Nigerian Government focus on securing the release of the Chibok girls? Will he call on the Government of Nigeria to release the report of the investigation panel into the abduction of the Chibok girls? Will he also ensure that the British Government step up support for the Safe Schools initiative in Nigeria, set up in the wake of the Chibok kidnappings by a coalition of inspired Nigerian business leaders working with the UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, the Global Business Coalition for Education and A World at School?
The issue does not affect girls only. We have seen assaults on education by radical Islamist forces with a fear of enlightenment, autonomy and learning—a rancid assault on education and reading—which began with the Beslan school siege, when hundreds of young boys and girls were slaughtered by radical Islamists; we saw it in the assault on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the butchering of young boys who wanted to learn; and we have seen it with the Chibok girls.
My message is that the UK Parliament has not forgotten the 219 missing girls. As parliamentarians, we want to give our full support to UK Ministers pressing the Nigerian Government to do everything that they can to secure the girls’ release, so that they may fulfil their rights under the United Nations to an education and to autonomy.
I give credit to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing the debate. I, too, state my support for the ActionAid campaign to tackle violence against women and girls around the world.
We all in this Chamber long to nurture an environment in which everyone is empowered to live full and active lives, but more than one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly inflicted by an intimate partner, according to the UN. That is a scourge of society and I welcome every effort to achieve positive social change that will help all women of all ages.
Empowering women is crucial to achieving sustainable growth and development throughout the world. So much effort, as we know, is put into achieving that. Women have a right to be heard, but as we have heard already, so many girls and women in the world are silenced by violence and intimidation. We have no time to lose, and we must give greater support to organisations and to the networks established to ensure that the voices of women are heard.
Of the 17 sustainable development goals, I want to focus on SDG 5, which states:
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
The goals are a wonderful set of agreements, but it will be a huge challenge to achieve all of them. SDG 5, in particular, would be a wonderful thing for the global population to achieve—gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Within the goal are nine targets, including:
“End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere”,
“Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”
Following the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015, we must continue to break the supply chains that lead to the abuse of trafficked victims. We must ensure that the victims of trafficking are properly identified when they come into contact with public authorities and agencies. We must ensure that those authorities and agencies have the resources and training to enable such women to rebuild their lives and to support them as they re-enter society, giving them confidence.
I welcome the Government’s recently published strategy for the period from 2016 to 2020 to end violence against women and girls. However, a strategy is of worth only if there are robust tools in place to check progress regularly and hold to account all those responsible for delivering the goals that have been set. If we are to stamp out the violence we are concerned about, we need national and international bodies to pay continual close attention to the strategy to protect and empower women and girls. The Secretary of State for International Development spoke on 11 March about the urgency of the fight. We must systematically challenge the terrible harm being done to women and girls.
A key starting point must be to take a stronger lead about making any violence, discrimination and emotional abuse of women and girls socially unacceptable, in the UK and around the world. We must not tolerate any behaviour that is aimed at crushing and devaluing women. There is much to be done, and some may feel that the task is too great. I do not accept that, and I am encouraged that through the efforts of ActionAid we are discussing the challenge today. I recognise that there is a massive task ahead. It is a huge challenge to provide safety and opportunity for women and girls around the world, but I join those in this Chamber, and the UK Government, in making a commitment to do all I can to achieve that target.
Having done so several times before, I know what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate and on a thoughtful and perhaps shocking speech. The issue of violence against women is a question of fundamental human rights, and the prominence given to women’s empowerment in the UN sustainable development goals is absolutely correct. The focus of the fifth goal for development around the globe—after poverty, food, health and education —is women. The UN recognises and acknowledges the positive effect that women’s rights, safety, gender equality and empowerment will have on all its other goals. Yet I believe that the Government have not given adequate support to women in crisis.
I want today to raise the issue facing a particular group of women, who are being let down even more than the average victim of violence in the home. Last week the investigative journalism platform “The Ferret” published a report subsequently covered in the national press, with three linked pieces focusing on Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Each contained strong case studies demonstrating how badly the system has let down women with insecure immigration status who experience domestic abuse. I want to add my voice to those of lawyers, psychologists, campaigners, journalists and leading human rights experts, including the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They are all calling on the Government to take action to stop the lives of refugee women who are fleeing domestic violence being put at risk. As the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said, if we cannot get things right in our own country, where can we get them right?
The primary issue is that women who experience domestic violence and who have insecure immigration status are being discriminated against in access to protection and safety. By insecure immigration status, I mean women who are asylum seekers or women who have the legal right to remain but no recourse to public funds, such as women who have joined refugee husbands through family reunion. They do not have access to refuges because they cannot get housing benefit, on account of their immigration status. In some cases, lawyers are advising them to stay in violent relationships. They give that advice because Home Office guidelines state that women must be able to prove that they are experiencing violence for that to be taken into account. The Glasgow-based Legal Services Agency has a women’s project, which has supported 45 such women in the last year. Sarah Crawford, one of its lawyers, questions how women can provide proof. She says that
“the amount of evidence required is overwhelming particularly for a vulnerable woman who has been abused”.
The women have a choice. They can stay and be beaten, and often raped, or they can face life literally on the streets. Are those really the only choices we can offer them? Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid and the UK’s expert on the European Women’s Lobby Observatory on Violence against Women, calls the situation a “bureaucratic form of torture,” which
“re-victimises women and puts them in great danger.”
Nina Murray, of the Scottish Refugee Council, goes further:
“Sooner or later someone else is going to be seriously harmed, or even killed, because we have failed to ensure that there is adequate protection there.”
To keep within the time limits on speeches, I will not speak as I planned to do about any particular women. We have all heard the stories. Some of us have worked with women in situations of the kind I have mentioned, and some may have personal experience; we know who we are talking about. The Home Office does have a policy on responding to reports of domestic abuse from women it accommodates, but campaigners have been seeking a review of that for more than two years, because it is inadequate and applies only to certain women. The Home Office has accepted the inadequacy of the policy: in February 2015 it completed a consultation with refugee organisations as well as those working on combating violence against women. The consensus among all of them was that asylum-seeking women who report domestic violence should have access to mainstream domestic abuse services—refuges and all the support that they entail. The Home Office indicated acceptance of that, but today, 14 months later, it is still considering its response.
I have some questions to ask. I realise that the Minister who is responding to the debate cannot answer them all. However, perhaps he can help us to get answers. The shocking case studies in the media report that I referred to illustrate an unacceptable safety gap for particular groups of women. How can the Government possibly justify that? How is what I have spoken about today compatible with the Home Secretary’s violence against women and girls action plan and the Government’s stated intention to ratify the Istanbul convention? Will the Minister ask the Home Secretary to lead a rapid review of the Government’s arrangements for protecting those women survivors of domestic abuse and report her conclusions swiftly to Parliament, so that what we have heard about today will not be repeated?
No woman, man or child should have to live with violence in their home. There are question marks over funding for refuges for victims of domestic violence in some parts of the UK, but there is no question about entitlement. All victims, we all agree, should be and are entitled to support and protection and the right to be protected from violence—all, that is, apart from the women I have been speaking about today. I congratulate the journalists who carried out the investigations on behalf of “The Ferret”, and in particular Karin Goodwin. They have done their profession proud. Now it is our turn in this place to do our profession proud. As soon as possible we must do something to put an end to the discrimination and to women having to live in terror in their homes.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for finishing. The Front-Bench speakers have agreed to curtail the time they will take, and there are three other Members who want to speak. One made a request in writing and I will call him first. If Members take about three and a half minutes each, we will be able to hear them and the Front Benchers, and protect the Minister’s time.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate. I also congratulate ActionAid on its excellent Fearless campaign, and on asking so many of us to apply for the debate and attend it. The only problem, as you have outlined, Mr Owen, is that clearly the time given to the debate is completely inadequate. It should have had at least three hours and possibly, given the importance of the issue and the number of hon. Members present, a six-hour debate in the main Chamber. That is something we may consider.
To all the ActionAid campaigners I want to say that campaigning works. I say that as a former campaigner, and it is nice to see it happening, and to see the number of people here. The turnout shows how passionately Members across the House care about the issue. There is no denying that the sustainable development goals have the power to change the world as we believe it should be changed, but that requires politicians from around the world to adopt them, take them seriously and be accountable for their progress. We in Parliament accept that, and we must work with parliamentarians and Governments around the world to achieve that change.
In the limited time I have I will briefly remind the House of the types of violence that scar humanity and the world. Violence by an intimate partner remains the most common. Global surveys suggest that half of women who die in acts of homicide are killed by their current or former husband or partner. That is a shocking statistic and I am proud to wear the white ribbon, the badge of a worldwide campaign of men standing up against violence against women. In terms of the horror of sexual violence in conflict, the fact that rape is still frequently used as a tactic of war is shocking. I pay tribute to the previous Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague of Richmond, for the work he did in making that issue a focus of the Department. We were showing global leadership on that, and we have to keep pressing it.
Female genital mutilation has been mentioned. While we have been strong on that, rightly, in this country, the reality is that between 130 million and 140 million women and girls today are believed to have undergone that horrific form of sexual abuse. Three million girls—including, shockingly, 137,000 girls here in the UK—are still at risk of it every year.
So-called honour killings remain a problem, including, I am sorry to say, in this country. That must be stamped out. I pay tribute to the amazing Karma Nirvana charity, based in Headingley, which does wonderful work. I know there was a ministerial visit to that charity recently. There are also appalling risks for women who are victims of modern slavery and trafficking. I pay tribute to the Palm Cove Society, also based in Headingley, for the work it does.
I have only managed to touch on a few things, but I hope we can debate this further, because it is clear how seriously we take this issue here.
There are two Members left who wish to speak. They may take two minutes each, and we will then call the Front-Bench spokesmen.
Thank you, Mr Owen; I will try to be as quick as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on leading this debate. I have spoken with him a number of times in different debates on this issue, and it is always a privilege to speak after him. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that the issue requires a longer debate on the Floor of the House; I am happy to join him in that call.
In a debate on the implementation of the sustainable development goals a couple of weeks ago, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), responded—very eloquently, as ever—and was quite clear that we should hold back and wait for the response. The Government are doing great things in introducing the 0.7% international aid target, and a report will be produced later in the year.
Since then, as the Minister who is present is aware, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), has given evidence to the Select Committee on International Development. As a member of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, my interest in this debate focuses on sustainable development goal 5. Our Committee’s visit to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago was one of the most eye-opening things I have done in my life.
At the International Development Committee, my right hon. Friend was quite clear that there is cross-party support on sustainable consumption, and he therefore believes progress can be made. He said that there are already a number of programmes, such as the troubled families programme, and others through which Britain is leading the way on sustainable development.
I was pleased to hear that a report is due to be published later in the year that will outline the Government’s position on co-operation between Departments in implementing the SDGs and on specific SDGs that Departments seek to address. However, further details of departmental co-operation will not be released in that report, and there will be no new body, committee or group of MPs to monitor progress. It would be good to find out the view of those in the Department for International Development on that point.
I must ask the Minister how he feels the Department will fit into the new structure outlined by my right hon. Friend at the Select Committee. It was intimated that the Prime Minister is responsible for international implementation and the Cabinet Office for domestic implementation. We are thus now not necessarily aware of where the Department for International Development sits in the wider scheme of things. I hope the Minister will use this opportunity to answer that question. As he knows, our responsibility as parliamentarians in the Women and Equalities Committee is to hold the Government’s feet to the fire in relation to goal 5 and ensure that we implement a strong strategy at international and domestic levels. Given that response, what can we do in our Committee to ensure we hold the Government to account on that specific point? I will end my speech there, due to the time.
I am pleased to participate in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for bringing this matter to our attention.
The level of physical and sexual violence perpetrated by men against women and girls across the world is simply staggering. Such violence does not respect national boundaries. That is not to say the extent of violence is the same in every country or that the mechanisms to tackle it are the same; that is clearly not the case. However, it is clear and unambiguous that such violence is endemic in many parts of the world. It is a daily act—it is routine in the most sickening way. For some women and girls it is virtually a way of life. It is administered by both individuals and patriarchal institutions. In some cultures, it is not simply tolerated but positively encouraged and endorsed.
The nature and extent of the violence are shocking. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study of global homicide revealed that 119 women are killed every day by an intimate partner or family member, and that is likely to be a significant underestimate. Between 100 million and 140 million girls and women have been subjected to female genital mutilation. As many as 70 million girls worldwide have been married before the age of 18, many of them against their will, and 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year at or on their way to school.
Whenever and wherever violence is perpetrated by men against women and girls, in whatever fashion or form, it must be stopped. It should not and cannot be tolerated, nor should religious belief, cultural norms or expectations be used as an excuse or reason for its continuance. There must be no room for doubt or manoeuvre, no shilly-shallying and no ifs or buts. Quite simply, it must be eradicated.
We support campaigns to eradicate polio, malaria, hepatitis and many other diseases, so why not violence? Paradoxically, those in a position to help stop this violence are women themselves, but they must be empowered, encouraged and helped to do that with resources that, for example, assist women’s support organisations. That is not my prescription; I am not imaginative enough to think of that, but ActionAid is. It has indicated that:
“Women’s rights organisations have long been at the forefront of the fight to end violence—from providing life-saving services, raising women’s voices, to holding governments to account for their policies and practices.”
ActionAid, which I must thank for its briefing, highlighted a study across 70 countries over four decades that found the mobilisation of independent women’s rights organisations to be the single most effective way to tackle violence.
I will finish on this. As the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), suggested, the Government should grasp the opportunity presented by the civil society partnership review and the bilateral and multilateral reviews to put much more much-needed resource into this policy area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing this debate? This is an important issue for all of us, as evidenced by the fantastic turnout. Indeed, a number of my constituents have taken the time to write to me personally to make their feelings on this matter clear. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party.
As we have heard, one in three women and girls across the world will be victims of physical and sexual violence at some point their lives. Such atrocities know no borders; they are committed within our communities, throughout our country and across continents each and every day. It is right therefore that the international community comes together and works in a common endeavour to eradicate violence and discrimination in all its forms and to secure equality for women and girls in every corner of the globe. The UN sustainable development goals are an opportunity for countries the world over to come together and change the course of the 21st century.
I apologise for my late arrival and early departure. Will my hon. Friend welcome the commitment made by the Scottish Government, and particularly the First Minister, to women’s equality and early adoption of the sustainable development goals and the leadership that that shows?
I do, wholeheartedly. I was going to mention that, but I have cut my speech down due to time, so I welcome that intervention.
We have an opportunity to tackle the entrenched problems that afflict our world, such as poverty, inequality and gender-based violence, and we must seize that opportunity with both hands. In addition to the one in three women who will be victims of physical and sexual violence, 150 million girls across the world will be sexually assaulted at or on their way to school each year. Each and every day, some 159 women die at the hands of a partner or family member in so-called honour killings—killed by the very people that we would expect to care for them the most. It is simply beyond comprehension.
To date, only two thirds of all countries have outlawed domestic violence and only 52 countries have explicitly criminalised rape within marriage. We live in a world where human trafficking, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation and forced and child marriages still prevail. Throughout the world, 133 million women have been victim to the abhorrent practice of FGM and, sadly, millions of women and girls will be forced into marriages with men against their will.
There is absolutely no defence for these demeaning acts or disgraceful attitudes. The fact that violence against women is more prevalent in some other countries underlines the importance of the UK fulfilling its vital part on the world stage in this matter. At every opportunity, we must tell these countries, whether friend or foe, that violence against women and girls should never be committed and must never be condoned.
Needless to say, it is clear that the problem before us represents a significant challenge—but it is a problem that we cannot shy away from and a challenge that we must undertake to eliminate together, because behind the depressing statistics are many devastating stories, some of which we have heard today. Although the sustainable development goals cut across a diverse range of areas—from equality and education to the economy and the environment—we simply cannot succeed in a number of those areas without confronting the violence that is sadly perpetrated against women and girls throughout the world.
I am sure that Members from across the House will be pleased to hear that earlier this month, the Bulgarian Government decided that Bulgaria would be the latest state to sign the Istanbul convention. The Istanbul convention places an obligation on Governments to put appropriate measures in place to prevent violence against women in all its forms, protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators.
The UK Government signed the Istanbul convention in 2012; however, it has failed to ratify it to date. In January 2014, the Prime Minister stated that the treaty would be ratified in the “next few months”, yet here we are, almost two and a half years later, and the Government have yet to fulfil their promise. Ratifying the convention will send a strong message to the international community about the world that we seek to build and the improvements that we wish to make. The UK can—and should—lead by example on the issue of violence against women. We have been told for two years that the delay is due to an issue with extraterritoriality. In summing up, will the Minister tell us the latest on ratification and about any discussion between Home Office and Justice Ministers and their devolved counterparts?
As I stated, women and girls have an important role to play in all the sustainable development goals, because many of the 17 goals have female equality and empowerment at their heart. Therefore, ending gender-based violence and discrimination are preconditions for meeting many of the goals. Just as women have an important role to play in achieving the sustainable development goals, so too do men. White Ribbon is a global campaign that encourages men to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. The work of White Ribbon and other similar groups is invaluable and shows that men are able and willing to rise to the challenge of eradicating violence and discrimination against women and girls. That being said, Mr Owen, you, the mover of the motion and three Members summing up this debate are all men, so perhaps we are a tad over-represented today.
Finally, I commend the hon. Member for Foyle again on securing this debate and all the hon. Members who have attended it and spoken. Politics in Westminster is known to sometimes produce more heat than light. I believe, however, that a rare consensus has emerged today as we debate this important issue.
Beyond this Chamber, there is now growing consensus and support among international organisations, that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, investment in the work of women’s rights organisations is central to the implementation of this ambitious agenda. Such organisations are vital in attempting to tackle violence against women and girls. However, they are poorly resourced, receiving just under 1% of total UK aid for gender equality. The Scottish National party supports ActionAid in its calls for DFID to support and increase funding to grassroots women’s rights organisations working on the front line to promote gender equality and tackle violence. Will the Minister give a commitment to do that today?
We have a duty to never shirk nor shun an opportunity to end such violence and discrimination, and to secure equality and empower women and girls wherever they live throughout the world. Be in no doubt that, although that will not be simple or straightforward, the prize for it is a world that is less hungry and more healthy, more equal and more educated, safer and more secure, and more free and fair—indeed, the best of all possible worlds for women and girls to grow up and live in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing this very important debate and add my thanks to ActionAid for its continuing fearless efforts in this very important area. Violence against women and girls is truly deplorable and I applaud the Government’s efforts thus far to address the issue. Hon. Members from across the House have made excellent contributions today. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to speak about them all, but I will come on to one or two during my contribution.
Let us be clear that we face a huge undertaking. Awareness of violence against women and girls has grown considerably in recent years. I welcome the Government’s efforts to increase that awareness. I also recognise that the UK has often been at the forefront of raising the issue, as a key player not only in the development of the SDG, but in the girl summit 2014 and the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. However, the UN General Assembly says, and it is absolutely right, that violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations. One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which is an alarming statistic. Alongside that, 150 million girls under 18 experience some form of sexual violence; 80% of trafficked people are women, with the vast majority being trafficked for sexual exploitation; and the most common victims of conflict around the world are women and girls.
The UN has identified a variety of factors that are responsible for the increasing occurrences of violence against women and girls: poor education, economic inequality, community gender biases and proximity to conflict are just a few. Conversely, better education, later marital ages, gender equality and economic autonomy for women help to reduce violence. It is therefore clear that the Government need to focus their attention on boosting protective factors while minimising risk factors. Tackling this violence needs much more than just financial assistance. Factors such as gender inequality, impunity for offenders and insufficient data create the environment in which violence can take place.
The challenge is huge, of course, and there is significant work to do for the SDGs to be achieved and for the UK to implement them. That is why I am concerned that the Government have yet to issue a single, unified action plan and strategy for how the SDGs, and within them, the goal of tackling violence against women and girls both at home and abroad, will be implemented by the Government. Without the publication of that strategy, there will be considerable difficulties with transparency, and not having sufficient guidelines could hinder the implementation of the measures that would have the greatest success. I note that the Select Committee on International Development is leading an inquiry into how the SDGs are being implemented and I look forward to the publication of that report, as, I am sure, does the Minister.
It is also important to mention the millennium development goals. Although they were not as extensive as the SDGs with regards to women and girls, I believe that the UK’s work on them holds considerable lessons that will be invaluable in going forward on the SDGs. We should learn those lessons and go into the SDGs a little wiser. I recognise that DFID has included analysis in its annual reports and accounts, but that is not substantial enough. I therefore press the Minister for an answer on whether the Government will issue a single authoritative report on the UK’s contribution to meeting the MDGs.
Ultimately, I have several concerns about how DFID will be able to achieve success in reducing violence against women and girls. This is a challenge on an extraordinary scale and, without measures to address inhibiting factors, we cannot make sufficient progress. I am also concerned that, without a single unified strategy on the SDGs’ implementation, DFID will not have the necessary guidelines for its work, causing the goals to suffer. The lack of strategy and unification across Government already appears to be causing difficulties, with a divergence existing between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and DFID in work to address sexual violence in conflict. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on how DFID is working with those other Departments to create a unified strategy in this area.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his time keeping. I call the Minister, who may give a minute at the end to the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate you on getting all hon. Members in. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on creating the opportunity for so many hon. Members of both sexes and from all parts of the kingdom to come here to put on the record and reassert the priority that this House attaches to tackling this incredibly important issue.
One of my most powerful experiences as a young Member of Parliament was listening to a young mother telling me how her life had disintegrated under the weight of systematic domestic violence. It has never left me, so I am delighted that this debate has rammed home the point that violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations worldwide.
The fact that, as we understand it, one in three women globally is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime is totally unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) was right in saying that we must never allow that to be considered normal. It is absolutely unacceptable wherever it takes place. We continue to have a very substantive problem in the UK and there may well be safety gaps that we need to be forensic about, whether it is sexual violence, intimate partner violence, so-called honour killings, female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war or child marriage.
As well as being a gross violation, violence again women and girls is fundamentally an issue of human rights and it would be enough to consider it simply in that context. It has not come through in this debate, but we should also recognise that it restricts opportunity by holding people back and limiting the potential of individuals, families, communities and economies in multiple ways. Girls who experience violence are less likely to complete their education and are at increased risk of dying when giving birth. Women and girls suffering from the health consequences of violence are less able to earn a living, which prevents families from escaping poverty.
No country can achieve sustained economic development if half its population is locked out of economic opportunities. World Bank data on the economic costs of intimate partner violence alone suggest that it accounts for a loss of 1% to 2% of GDP in many countries. So tackling violence is vital if we are to protect women’s rights and address poverty. It is also vital if we are to help to deliver the global goals and to play our part as a country in helping to shape a fairer, more prosperous world. That goes completely with the grain of British values, but is absolutely in our national interest. This agenda matters enormously, and the Chamber wants to know whether the UK is pulling its weight.
I am relatively new to this agenda. I do not lead on it in DFID. The Secretary of State does that superbly with Baroness Verma. When I assess the evidence I am proud of the role we have played so far, but there is zero room for complacency. There is a case for saying that Britain has been a global leader in tackling violence against women. That leadership can be seen in the priority we attach to it in our programming at DFID. Since 2012, we have doubled the number of programmes that address violence against women and girls. We currently have 127 programmes across 29 countries. In 23 programmes where the absolute priority is to focus entirely on this agenda, the funding commitment has been £184 million of taxpayers’ money since 2010. So there has been leadership in making this a priority within programming and in our commitment to advance our knowledge through research and development, as in our world-leading research and innovation fund, which is drawing together experts across the globe to test ideas and produce rigorous evidence on how to prevent violence. That will be a global public good, helping countries, Governments, donors and non-governmental organisations everywhere to address violence and to get the most from every penny spent on prevention.
We have a strong agenda about leaving no one behind, so our leadership also means reaching the most vulnerable, including women and girls living with disabilities, a point that was raised earlier. To give just one example, DFID is working with the United Nations and civil society groups to improve access to justice in Zimbabwe, specifically for girls and women with disabilities who have experienced violence. This process is hard enough for survivors to go through without the additional barriers that people with a disability face.
British leadership can also be seen in our absolute determination to improve access to justice. The UK is supporting Physicians for Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help women and girls who have experienced sexual violence to access justice. One physician said that
“this team work was not being done before...But they trained us together with police officers, magistrates, lawyers and now we understand that the collection of proofs regarding forensic data needed all of us to work together.”
In fact, over the last five years, UK aid has helped to improve access to justice for more than 10 million women and girls globally, which is a staggering achievement that I am very proud of.
Our leadership also means preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in humanitarian crises, not least in Sudan and South Sudan. Some people thought that policy area was too hard or not important enough to be a priority, but since 2012 we have invested around six times the previous amount in this area. For example, in the Syria response, UK support is providing specialist assistance to those affected by sexual and gender-based violence. That includes clinical care, case management and counselling. Our leadership has meant tackling issues where others were afraid to take them on, or felt they were too private a matter for a public forum—issues such as FGM, child marriage and domestic violence, both at home and overseas.
During the debate, hon. Members have pressed the Government to work more closely together. We are doing that on these issues more than ever before, including on the new Home Office-led ending violence against women and girls strategy, which brings together a set of actions in our efforts in the UK and internationally.
I am proud that we are the largest donor on female genital mutilation, investing £35 million across 17 countries over five years, alongside a £12 million programme in Sudan. Our programme to end child marriage, along with other donor support, will reach more than 2.5 million girls, giving them greater choice and control over their future. We can and should be incredibly proud of the UK’s contribution to these agendas. This is not just about spending or development programmes; it is about advocacy and using the full range of the UK’s assets to influence others to protect and to progress women’s and girls’ rights. I am delighted that cross-party this debate has recognised the work by many ministerial colleagues, not least Lord Hague and my Secretary of State, but Baroness Verma as our ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls and Baroness Anelay as our special representative on preventing sexual violence and conflict. Through them, we can drive action on the international stage and support it at national level.
There is British leadership not just in Government, but through our civil society networks.
Does the Minister agree that sustainable development goal 5 cannot be seen in isolation and that the contribution of goal 4 on education for all is crucial to reducing violence against women and girls? Will he commend the Global Campaign for Education and its Send my Friend to School and Send my Sister to School campaigns?
I agree with my hon. Friend and place on record my support for and congratulations on those campaigns, which are symptomatic of some of the powerful work by civil society to support and to challenge the Government in this respect. As a former Minister for Civil Society, I defer to no one in my admiration for that effort. We have invested in many new programmes working with grassroots women’s rights organisations in the past 18 months.
On the call for the creation of a new fund, we do not think that a new fund is the best value-for-money option. There is a strong case for supporting existing funds so they can draw on existing expertise and networks, and make the most of the economies of scale.
I want to give the last word to the sponsor of this debate. I will do my best to ensure that those who raised specific points receive substantive replies in writing. I close by placing on the record the absolute determination of the Department for International Development and the rest of the Government to sustain the leadership that Britain has shown on this agenda.
I thank everyone who has spoken. We have heard about the issue from so many different angles and with so many different accents. That is hugely important. As others have said, we need to take the matter further and to debate it for longer. Our task is to keep narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be until we close it and eradicate it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).