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International Development and Gender-based Violence

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 26 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international development and gender-based violence.

Thank you for being here, Mr McCabe; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I do, however, take very little pleasure in debating today’s motion. Gender-based violence is a scourge upon the world that has devastating and lifelong implications for survivors. At its core, gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed towards an individual, based on their gender. It occurs because of gender inequality, abuse of power, and harmful and outdated norms. While it is predominantly directed towards women and girls, it also impacts men and boys. Across the world, millions suffer from these appalling crimes, all too often in silence. It is estimated that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime—a statistic that is considerably worsened during conflicts, displacements, and at times of crisis.

Gender-based violence comes in many forms, and can include sexual, physical and mental abuse, as well as harassment, coercion and manipulation. It is domestic abuse, it is sexual violence in conflict, it is child marriage, it is female genital mutilation and it is honour crimes—the list goes on. Such acts take place both in private and in public. Its prevalence has only increased over the course of this year as a result of the pandemic.

At the start of this year, the United Nations estimated that 242 million women and girls were subjected to sexual or physical violence in the preceding 12 months—another statistic that will only have increased over the course of this year.

Such acts are used as an effective tool to ostracise individuals, to exert power over others, and to spread fear and subjugation into communities and individuals. As is outlined in Human Rights Watch’s latest report, “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways”, which documents crimes of sexual violence against men in Syria by both state and non-state actors, such actions are now commonplace in conflict zones and crises. Rape and sexual violence are effectively being used as weapons of war—a weapon that costs nothing to the perpetrator and everything to the survivor.

As was detailed by ActionAid in 2007, over 87,000 women and girls were intentionally killed. That equates to 137 a day. These are the numbers that we know of; millions more are likely to be suffering in silence, locked behind closed doors and subjected to horrors that are unimaginable to any of us.

As nation after nation entered lockdown and schools were closed, offices shut and places of public interaction and engagement sealed off, so too were places of safety. Millions of people were denied access to those areas where they might briefly find some degree of normality and peace from their perpetrators. The United Nations estimated that in the six months of lockdown, there would be 31 million cases of gender-based violence—just over 5 million a month.

With the closure of schools, millions more girls, no longer able to access an education, will be forced into child marriage. The full impact of covid-19 will not be known for quite some time, but what we know now is a small glimpse of how widespread and prevalent this issue has become. Gender-based violence is a pandemic within a pandemic.

Yesterday was notable for two reasons. First, it was the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Secondly, the United Kingdom announced its decision to cut our international development budget. In honour of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I launched an international statement that was supported by parliamentarians from this Parliament and nine others. The statement called for the protection of funding for programmes to tackle all forms of gender-based violence at home and abroad, working together to find new ways to support women and girls at risk of gender-based violence and ensuring that women leaders are at the heart of our response to gender-based violence. I would be grateful to the Minister if he would let the House know whether he supports that statement, as I think nearly every other Member here has signed it.

On this, the second day of 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women, we are holding this debate and hoping to ensure that the UK does not shirk its international responsibilities to help some of those in the most difficult situations across the globe. I find it difficult to understand how the UK can take such a short-term approach to our international obligations, reputation and moral duty by cutting the development budget from 0.7% to 0.5%. It may well have been billed as a temporary measure to deal with an unprecedented financial situation, but so too was income tax. I will, therefore, not be holding my breath.

I hope I am not considered to be overly idealistic in believing that the UK is internationally recognised for the work that we do through our development budget. It is aid that is given for no other intention than to support the most vulnerable and those who are suffering. So much of what has been said in the past 24 hours focuses on the financial cost, rather than the enormous benefit of the support and humanitarian assistance that we send across the globe, from the 6 million girls provided with decent education to the almost 52 million people who have been given access to clean water or the 76 million children who have been vaccinated. That is all in the past five years. Our aid budget has made a difference to vulnerable women and girls across developing economies.

I will do all I can to see the return to 0.7%. For the purpose of this debate, however, I wish to point out that in previous spending rounds of our development budget, spending on GBV has ranked at the lowest level. Of the £14 billion spent on international aid, just 0.3% is spent on ending violence against women and girls. That must be rectified. I ask that the Government consider ringfencing 1% of the 0.7%—apologies, I mean 0.5%—to ensure long-term funding and commitment to tackling gender-based violence and supporting those who are so often overlooked, left behind and ignored.

None of us will look back on 2020 fondly, but it has been an important year for several reasons. It is the 20th anniversary of the UK’s signing UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and the first year of the decade of action on the sustainable development goals, focusing on action on gender and women’s empowerment. It is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration and the platform for action. While we might reflect on how far we have come since signing those commitments to tackle these issues, we might also reflect on how far we have yet to go to end gender-based violence and to reach gender equality.

Fortunately, I am an optimist—I have to be an optimist—and I believe that the UK can still achieve its commitments and maintain some semblance of its international reputation. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, I have consistently asked the Government to introduce an international body, to be based here in the United Kingdom, to collect and document information on sexual violence in conflict, support survivors and lead international prosecutions against those who commit atrocious crimes such as sexual violence in conflict.

We can shatter the culture of impunity, and with President-elect Biden soon to take office, we have a unique opportunity to implement an organisation that would support so much of the work that he accomplished on women’s rights as a Senator. Some might question why I have decided to take up this issue, but for me it is obvious. If men are 99% of the problem, we have to be 50% of the solution, and as the Voluntary Service Overseas points out, change will only work when men change their attitudes to violence towards women and girls.

A new era of activism and education is needed, and it can be led by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and supported by the development budget. I hope the Minister will work with me and others in this Chamber to develop that programme and to ensure that this issue is firmly on the agenda at each and every international event.

With that in mind, next year the UK is set to host the G7, and the Prime Minister will undoubtedly include his women’s education initiative on that agenda. I urge the Minister—and the Prime Minister, if he is watching—to also include on the agenda gender-based violence and preventing sexual violence in conflict. If we are to succeed in supporting more women into education, we need to address gender-based violence. They are interlocked pieces of the same jigsaw, and success cannot be had in one without the other.

The Government have launched some truly brilliant programmes, such as What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale, and put more than £67.5 billion of funding into it, but they can and must go further. They must build on the funding, build on access to services, and build on access to police action, justice and, above all, prevention. We have routinely committed to holding a second PSVI conference in this country, only to see it kicked further down the road, so I hope that next year—in 2021, a year of conferences—we might again commit to holding an international conference where we can address the issue of gender-based violence.

I am proud that the Union Jack is recognised across the world as a symbol of aid and assistance and that they arrive without caveats. The UK has real power, soft and otherwise. In supporting people in the most difficult parts of the world, it can continue to commit to those people. We should never forget that, and I hope today’s debate, which sadly is all too short, will demonstrate the strength of feeling about this issue, about international development and about what we can do in the world to make it a better place for those who suffer so badly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for all his work as chair of the APPG on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and I thank him and the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for co-sponsoring this very important debate with me. I am pleased that, despite our party differences, we are firmly united on this issue, particularly on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, which is what I will focus on in my speech.

The year 2020 was set to be a watershed moment for women’s rights. It has been 25 years since the Beijing declaration and platform for action, and we were hoping to spend this year reaffirming commitments to gender equality that would accelerate progress towards dismantling the barriers that women and girls continue to face. However, in all corners of the world, violence against women remains rife and has increased in many contexts.

Whenever and wherever a crisis hits, violence against women and girls increases. Today is a dark day for two reasons. First, in Ethiopia and Tigray there have been three weeks of fighting: 40,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan and thousands are displaced in Tigray. I hope the Minister will tell us what action he is taking on prevention of sexual violence in that conflict. It is a very live issue.

The second issue is the cutting of the 0.7% aid commitment. The Conservative party manifesto gave that commitment and it was promised for many years, with support from people across the country. I was part of the huge demonstrations of support at previous G7 summits. This is the year before we host a G7 summit, and the prospect of having to walk into that room having cut our own aid budget is very depressing. It is harmful to the cause of taking action against gender-based violence.

Women and girls living in war zones and crisis areas are especially at risk of gender-based violence. In his report on conflict-related sexual violence, released back in June, the UN Secretary-General lists a series of truly harrowing verified case studies of sexual violence in current war zones. I will read some of them:

“In the Central African Republic, a mother of six was subjected to sexual violence by ex-Séléka elements who seized control of her village. During a reprisal attack by anti-balaka forces, she was abducted and repeatedly raped…In northern Mali, two sisters of adolescent age were abducted and gang raped by members of the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad. Upon their release, the girls received medical treatment, but no complaint was filed with the police, despite the identity of the perpetrators being known to the family, owing to the fear of reprisals.”

That is all too common a story. In Colombia, the National Victims’ Unit recorded 365 victims of conflict-related sexual violence during the armed conflict, saying:

“Women and girls made up 89 per cent of the victims”.

I have sat in a room of a similar size to this one with a group of women from Somalia, who told harrowing stories about their experiences during the continuing war in Somalia. I have seen them crying and they are with me in this important debate. The impact of using rape as a weapon of war lasts a lifetime, and it lasts through generations.

As the Secretary-General saliently points out in his report, we need to bear in mind that for every documented case of sexual violence,

“there are countless other stories that will never be heard.”

We do not know the enormous extent of this issue.

The recent establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office marks a crossroads for UK foreign policy. It will come as no surprise to Members that I fear that it is a mistake. It does, however, offer an opportunity to reset the up-to-now lacklustre support for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative, which was announced with huge fanfare in 2012, and in 2014 we saw the magic of stardust and celebrity, with Angelina Jolie and a former Conservative Foreign Minister. It was proclaimed by the Conservative Government to be top of the leader board of international priorities, but I fear it is now languishing in the lower divisions. I hope the Minister can tell me how that will be changed.

This year’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact report on PSVI gave it the equivalent of an Ofsted rating of red or amber. I sincerely hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government are working differently to bring that back to green. Otherwise, what is the point of the two Departments merging and saying they are going to work better? The merger creates a high risk to the leadership of what was the Department for International Development in uplifting the rights of women and girls around the world.

The International Rescue Committee has written an important report on the need for survivor-centred approaches to tackling PSVI, highlighting the unintended consequences of mandatory reporting, which aimed to bring justice but too often resulted in stigma for survivors. We need to learn from that report. Its important recommendations include the need to listen to survivors, provide safe spaces and give them power and resources to organise themselves and make their own decisions. Those recommendations need to be added to the way in which we work on prevention of sexual violence in conflict.

I support the hon. Member for Totnes and the APPG in calling on the UK to push for a new, expert international body to collect and preserve evidence of conflict-related sexual violence. Evidence is essential to ending this. We need to bring more perpetrators to justice. The armed forces need to change how they act; otherwise, there will be no change at all. But this will be done only through the rigorous collecting of forensic, physical and digital evidence.

Secondly, the Government should ring-fence 1% of the UK’s official development assistance—up from 0.3%—to tackle gender-based violence, including sexual-based violence in conflict. Thirdly, responsibility for that should be restored to the Foreign Secretary. The ICAI report found that shifting responsibility to the level of a junior Minister

“resulted in ministerial attention and funding being redirected elsewhere”

and in our dropping down the league table.

Fourthly, the Government should use their new Magnitsky-style global human rights sanctions regime to target those who commit or encourage conflict-related sexual violence. That would send out strong signals that it is not acceptable. Fifthly, PSVI needs a longer-term approach, with a long-term strategy and funding cycle, not just a one-year funding cycle. This is an endemic problem of human rights and justice. It will take many years to solve it, and it needs many years of action.

I will add my own recommendations. The first is to end the stigma, which for many women is worse than the action itself. When they return, they are rejected by their husbands and communities, and many children are also rejected. We need global leadership to tackle the stigma so that it does not continue. I raised that in questions to the Church Commissioners this morning, and I will continue to raise it wherever and whenever I can. I hope the Minister will do so as well.

Secondly, when will the delayed global summit take place? Let us bring back Angelina Jolie and see who else we can get. We need to get back that global attention. In 2014, we were promised it would take place five years later, which, if my maths serves me correctly, was 2019. It did not happen then—although I can understand why—and it has not happened this year either. It really needs to happen next year. I like the fact that the hon. Member for Totnes has called 2021 the year of conferences—why not add one more? Thirdly, I want our work to focus on measures to document evidence and bring perpetrators to justice, and for us to think creatively about how to do that in this digital age.

In conclusion, as parliamentarians we must never lose sight of the profound and unspeakable suffering experienced by women and men as a result of sexual violence. It is not just women who are affected—men are definitely affected, too—but our focus today has been women. Our British values, of which I am very proud and which unite Members on both sides of the House, compel us to take up the issue, do what we can around the world, fight their corner and ensure that justice is done.

I will not congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate, but certainly I commiserate with him on the need to discuss this tragic subject. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister has found my hon. Friend’s case as powerful and persuasive as I have.

Sadly, I have on too many occasions sat, in distant, dangerous places ravaged by war or suffering a poverty of effective state structures, with women whose painful stories have left my cheeks wet. Over the course of the covid-19 pandemic, it has become glaringly apparent that cases of violence against women and girls have increased dramatically. Globally, 35% of women have experienced either physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner or non-partner in their lifetime. That statistic, however, does not take into account sexual harassment.

According to a report by ActionAid, 87,000 women around the world were intentionally killed in 2017. Of those, 50,000 were killed by a family member or a significant partner. That is an outrage. Globally, 650 million girls and young women alive today are married before their 18th birthday, with Niger, Central African Republic and Chad having some of the highest figures.

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

The covid-19 pandemic has only served to intensify some of these issues throughout the world. Domestic abuse cases have increased exponentially throughout the lockdown period. In April, the charity Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day.

The recent merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development presents an opportunity for the United Kingdom to formulate a new strategy in tackling violence and discrimination against women across the globe. We do, of course, have a track record to be proud of in the United Kingdom. Aid and development spending has had a significant impact on reducing violence against women. Through aid programmes, more than 14 million children—6 million of them girls—have gained a decent education. Since 2015, nutrition-relevant programmes by the Department for International Development have reached 60.3 million women, children under five and adolescent girls. One UK aid project reduced rates of domestic violence from 69% to 29% across 15 remote villages in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a place I know—over a two-year period.

I object to the cut in the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of UK GDP. The potential repercussions for our ability to tackle violence against women and girls are such that it is likely to have significant and long-term negative consequences. However, I do accept that aid is only one tool at our disposal that can be used to tackle violence against women. Applying significant pressure to Governments with poor track records on women’s rights and domestic abuse is an alternative. If we are to redetermine and reposition our place in the world following our departure from the European Union, Her Majesty’s Government should ensure that we do not shy away from our obligations to those most in need, most vulnerable and most impoverished. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to utilise their membership of the high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment and our leadership role in the UN action coalition on gender-based violence, to demonstrate our, the United Kingdom’s, commitment to tackling this very serious issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his thoughtful speech introducing this debate, and indeed the other speakers before me. I want to talk primarily about violence against women and girls that does not take place during conflict situations. I hope that will provide a contrast to the very thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson).

In this debate, marking yesterday as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I want to highlight simply two issues: the forcible abduction and subsequent violation of girls from minority groups in Pakistan and Nigeria, which is happening at scale; and the suffering of women in the Uyghur camps in China, which is also happening at scale.

I thank Aid to the Church in Need, whose latest report, “Set Your Captives Free”, was released yesterday and also marked Red Wednesday, for drawing attention to the thousands of young Hindu, Shi’a, Sikh and Christian girls in Pakistan who are kidnapped and forcibly married to much older men every year. That happens generally with impunity, because of the vulnerable economic and social status of those girls. Women from those communities have become much more vulnerable since the outbreak of covid-19, and that increased vulnerability puts them at much greater risk. As a result, many young girls from minority communities, such as 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz and 13-year-old Arzoo Raja, have been kidnapped and forcibly married in Pakistan this year.

Many of the girls are subject to rape, forced prostitution and domestic abuse. In some cases, their families succeed in freeing the girls through the courts, but in other cases—remarkably and adding to the injustice of their abduction, forced marriage and alleged conversion—when they get to court, judges frequently order the return of the girl to their abductor. That attaches more credibility and importance to the statement of the girl’s alleged conversion to Islam than to the girl’s account of her abduction. It gives more credibility to the abductor than to the enforcement of the law that forbids marriage to a minor.

The real tragedy is that Pakistan’s very constitution and laws, particularly the blasphemy laws, are often the basis for such discrimination and violation, as in these court hearings. In any country, the constitution and legal system should be the cornerstone of the protection of fundamental human rights. Will the Minister confirm that whenever the opportunity arises, he and his colleagues will raise with his counterparts their concerns about the abduction of hundreds—indeed, thousands—of girls in Pakistan?

I make no apology for raising once again the plight of Leah Sharibu, whose mother Rebecca I met earlier this year. The sadness in Rebecca’s eyes lives with me today, and my heart goes out to her. Leah was just 14 when she was among the 110 school girls abducted by Boko Haram from their school. She is the only one still in captivity, because she has refused to renounce her Christian faith. She is now 17. I ask the Minister once again, as I have done before, to ensure that Leah’s plight, together with requests for her release, is raised with the Nigerian Government at every possible opportunity. I commend CSW for its continued campaign on Leah’s behalf.

I want to turn now to the Uyghurs. It is appalling to hear how women from the Uyghur community have been violated as part of the Chinese Government’s brutal campaign to curb its Muslim population. They are violated through forced birth control, pregnancy checks, the mandatory insertion of painful intrauterine devices, forced sterilisation and abortions. We hear that that is happening at scale, to hundreds of thousands of women. These population control measures are backed by mass detention as a punishment for failure to comply. The threat of being sent to prison—to the camps that we hear so much about—hangs over these women. Police raid homes, terrify parents and search for hidden children. Mothers of three or more children can be torn away, unless they can pay huge fines. Simply having too many children is a major reason why people are sent to detention camps. Many receive sentences of years, and in some cases decades, in prison just for having several children.

We even hear of female detainees being taken to prison camps and forced to abort their own unborn children. The result of this birth control campaign is a climate of terror. Birth rates in the mostly Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar have plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018—the latest year available in Government statistics. In the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet; they fell nearly 24% last year alone, compared with just 4.2% nationwide. Will the Minister, whenever possible, call on the Chinese Communist Party to end these horrific practices, which are part of a state-orchestrated assault on Uyghur women and the wider Uyghur community with the aim of purging them of their identity?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this very important debate. He talks very passionately about the issues for women, in particular, in regions of unrest and war.

On that note, I would like to talk about violence against women in occupied Kashmir by the Indian armed forces. We know that the rape of women becomes the weapon of choice in areas of conflict. I consider myself a daughter of Kashmir, because I spent my teenage years in Azad Kashmir in a village in Pakistan, where I had the luxury of being able to go to school without opening the front door and finding the military there with guns. I had the benefit and the freedom of going to school and going about my business without worrying about being cornered or subjected to rape, and without worrying about the women in the village being subjected to rape by the armed forces. That was a privilege that I enjoyed—that was in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In occupied Kashmir, however, there are some instances where women still have not received justice, and I will highlight some of them. The first UN human rights report in 2008 called for an inquiry, and I hope the Minister will support that call. Calls for inquiries have often been dismissed as propaganda by the opposite side—whichever side that is. That is not acceptable, and it should not be acceptable to us that those inquiries have not happened.

Human Rights Watch has identified two main scenarios where women are being raped by Indian forces: first, during searches and cordon ops and, secondly, during reprisal attacks by Indian forces after military ambushes.

Nowadays, 23 February is commemorated as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day because on that date in 1991, up to 150 women and girls were raped en masse—the biggest mass rape that has ever happened anywhere in this world. Indian soldiers were told to go on a mass raping spree in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora, and that is what happened. The women are still waiting for justice; not one perpetrator was held to account.

Recently, with the revocation of Article 370, Nivedita Menon, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said:

“These are proclamations of conquest and plunder, and reveal the real intention behind the abrogation of 370”.

On 10 August 2019, Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister of Haryana, was quoted as saying:

“Some people are now saying that as Kashmir is open, brides will be brought from there. But jokes apart, if [the gender] ratio is improved, then there will be a right balance in society”.

Earlier, the Bharatiya Janata party’s Vikram Saini, a member of a legislative assembly, said:

“Muslim party workers should rejoice in the new provisions. They can now marry the white-skinned women of Kashmir”.

I went to Pakistan, to Azad Kashmir, and met lots of Kashmiri women. Many Kashmiri women have come here to make representations to this House, to members of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group and to others, and they have told us of the horrors that they have faced.

I wanted to talk about this today because I have lived in Kashmir; I have seen what it is like to have freedom, even in somewhere like Pakistan and even after having been subjected to a forced marriage myself. I absolutely understand what the hon. Member for Totnes was talking about, but I still had the freedom of not having someone putting a gun barrel against my back, taking me into a corner and raping me. I still had those privileges in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and I am looking forward to taking my daughter there to introduce her to those areas.

What of those women in Kashmir, who cannot leave? We struggle, as people here, with the curfews—

The story that the hon. Member tells about her own forced marriage is tragic. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has mentioned in relation to the case of 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz, it is slightly hollow for Pakistan—whether in Azad Kashmir or the main part—to protest about freedoms and human rights when its own laws allow for the abuse of its citizens.

In Maira’s case, it is not just that a 14-year-old girl was gang raped and then kidnapped out of her home; she was then forcibly converted to Islam, so if she now renounces that religion, she will be sentenced to death for apostasy under Pakistani law. That really makes the points that the hon. Member made, which are all right, hollow in the case of Pakistan.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I recognise what he is saying, and he makes a powerful point. However, I do not recognise the idea that this is hollow. That is whataboutery, and we are not here for whataboutery. We are here because every life matters, as we have heard from every single Member who has spoken in this debate. For every 14-year-old that was raped in Pakistan, I can talk about the eight-year-old child that was raped in occupied Kashmir. This is not a competition about which girl deserves more of our concern, or in which area in the world that girl should be protected. That is not what this is about.

Let us get this right: our laws in this country do not give us equal pay, and we are the biggest democracy in the world. I will not take lessons on hollowness from the hon. Member when his Government have not implemented equal pay for women, and when they are even worse when it comes to black and minority ethnic women. Let us not belittle this debate and bring it down to whataboutery. This debate is about women.

The hon. Member for Totnes was spot on. As he highlighted, this debate is about looking at the 16 days of activism to stop violence across the world. Whether that is in Pakistan, India or Uganda, and whether it involves Boko Haram or any other terrorist organisation, women are being used as a weapon of war. They are being raped, and they are being violated. That is what the House needs to understand. We must work together, regardless of whether that is happening in Pakistan or India. I wanted to focus on the issue of women in occupied Kashmir being gang-raped by Indian forces, and I will not have that diminished. That is what must be highlighted, and that is the note on which I will end my contribution to this debate.

It is a pleasure, in some senses, to take part in this debate. I thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for opening this debate, and the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing it. It is important that this issue is raised now, although it is a great pity that it is not taking centre stage in the main Chamber, as some of us in this Chamber perhaps feel it should.

Gender-based violence has been described by the United Nations as “a global pandemic”, with at least 15 million more cases predicted around the world as a result of covid-19 restrictions. Surely, a problem of that scale should not be sidelined. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a volunteer trustee on the board of the White Ribbon Scotland campaign. I am also the father of a young girl, and I do not want her to grow up in a world that tolerates sexism, abusive behaviour or violence against women or girls.

Today, we are discussing international development, and I will come to that in a moment. In some cases, although we must look globally, we also need to reflect locally. To demonstrate leadership internationally, the Government need to get their own house in order. Eight years ago, the Government signed the Istanbul convention: the gold standard, comprehensive approach to addressing violence against women and girls. It was an opportunity to bring unprecedented positive change, including improvements for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK who have been victims of gender-based violence.

In 2016, I was part of the IC Change campaign to hurry the Government along from their good intentions to solid action. I backed a Bill that was brought forward by my former party colleague, Eilidh Whiteford, to ensure the treaty was fully integrated into UK law. That received widespread cross-party support, yet here we are, four years on, and the Istanbul convention has still not been ratified. That suggests that the UK Government are not taking it seriously enough. Could the Minister reassure me that these crucial protections for women and girls will be put higher up the agenda, and that the Government will finally offer a timetable for ratifying the treaty?

Every year, we hear the appalling statistics about gender-based violence, which affects one in three women in their lifetime. Some of the national studies show figures as high as 70%. The United Nations reports that 137 women are killed by a family member every day. Although progress has been generally slow, this year it is moving at an exponential pace, but in the wrong direction. Pandemic restrictions have meant that women are being forced to lock down with abusers, at the same time as services to support survivors are disrupted. Calls to domestic abuse lines have increased fivefold in many countries. There is a silent pandemic of abuse, and it is not getting the attention it requires.

The merging of the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office sent the wrong signal about how much the Government prioritise humanitarian programmes that tackle gender-based violence in the poorest nations, but I would be delighted to be proven wrong on that. Certainly, at a time of global crisis, the budget should be ring-fenced, not cut. It was therefore particularly disappointing that yesterday the Chancellor announced a cut in the foreign aid budget. Although I understand that girls’ education will be protected in the remaining funds, that is only one element in the battle against violence against women and girls. I have grave concerns about the impact on women’s empowerment programmes, aid worker system changes, the women, peace and security agenda, and anti-female genital mutilation programmes, to mention just a few things.

Before the pandemic, violence against women and girls programmes were already persistently underfunded, as we have heard from other Members. They were given far too low a priority in aid budgets. The International Rescue Committee estimates that 14 million displaced or refugee women were subject to sexual violence in 2019, while less than 0.2% of all global humanitarian funding was allocated to addressing gender-based violence. That is shamefully inadequate, and I urge the FCDO to show leadership and dedicate a fixed or minimum percentage of its budget to fighting that crucial issue for global health, wellbeing, justice and economic development.

The UK has an opportunity to set a global long-term standard that other international donors could follow. As highlighted in this month’s African Child Policy Forum report, we are witnessing a global roll-back of women’s rights. The UK’s leadership on programmes to do with women, peace and security and sexual violence in conflict is more important than ever. That leadership extends to creating better strategies to ensure that those who are sent from the UK to provide support in crises do not include the perpetrators of abuse against some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Like most, I was absolutely appalled to read reports of aid providers’ sexual abuse and exploitation of sufferers of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That came after the previous scandals involving senior male staff from a range of organisations, including Oxfam and Save the Children. The momentum for change has clearly not been maintained, and the International Development Committee has had to launch its third piece of work on sexual exploitation and abuse in only two years. I urge the Government to step up efforts for meaningful reform.

Safeguarding measures are crucial, but with such imbalanced power dynamics, we also need better mechanisms within communities to ensure that the victims can come forward. The Government could use the full capability of their overseas network to help embed that cultural change, provide support services to survivors and victims, and help to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The roll-back of progress is not just a global issue; it is happening here, too, under the cover of covid-19. In my constituency, Women’s Aid reports a 60% rise in referrals, including a rise in demand for its services for high-risk victims, where there is a risk to life. Its refuges have been full throughout the crisis and it is urgently seeking more housing. The Scottish Government, in partnership with Scottish local government, are playing their part to assist. They have removed bureaucracy and set up dedicated funding for services to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Their world-leading Equally Safe strategy is part of their vision to eradicate and prevent violence against women and girls, and they published their three-year update just yesterday. They are also progressing key policy changes, such as the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. A taskforce on human rights leadership has been set up, and it will consider incorporating into Scots law the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

We are fighting against a rising tide of abuse, and a lot more needs to be done nationally and internationally to raise awareness, provide resources and ensure that we protect all women and girls against gender-based violence. We know that it is rooted in a culture of gender inequality, which needs to be tackled at its roots. At the moment, not a single country is on track to meet the sustainable development goal of achieving gender equality by 2030. Just 0.1% of the total aid from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is committed to women’s organisations.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the UN penholder on women and peace and security, the UK is in a rare position to be able to do more. The international community should treat gender-based violence with the same urgency and gravity as natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes. The UK has a unique opportunity to lead the way on that. I support the calls of the hon. Members for Totnes and for Putney for a summit to be held at the earliest opportunity so that these issues can be looked at in far more detail. I urge the Minister and the Government to grasp with both hands the opportunity that is in front of them to make a genuinely transformational change that improves the lives of so many women and girls around the globe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate on the UK’s development contribution to tackling gender-based violence across the world. As colleagues have pointed out, yesterday marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 days of activism, amplifying the call for global action on eliminating gender-based violence by 2030, which is a campaign that we firmly support.

There have been many passionate and important contributions to the debate, but I want first to praise my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who has been working hard on this issue throughout the coronavirus crisis but could not be present today. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney made a powerful contribution by sharing her experiences of visiting victims of violence in Somalia, and it is important that those women’s voices are heard in these types of debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) made a really passionate speech on the impact of gender-based violence on women and girls in occupied Kashmir—that violence is used as an act of war.

Gender-based violence is a moral emergency with devastating impacts. One in three women and girls are affected, and will continue to be affected, throughout their lifetime. Violence and abuse shape and define lives, livelihoods and relationships. It strips a person of their freedoms, and not only in that moment, but in the decisions that they go on to make throughout the rest of their life.

Only this morning I was in a meeting with women from the Syrian British Council. They told me of their horrific experiences and explained how rape and sexual violence is used as a form of torture in Syria. From domestic abuse to sexual assault, female genital mutilation, early motherhood and forced marriages, violence against women and girls includes psychological, emotional and physical abuse. Women experience violence at home, in the street, at school and in the workplace, and during times of both peace and conflict or crisis. It happens online and offline.

The subordination of women by men is a means of control and power, and it is often executed through acts of violence. It is an attack on human rights and dignity, and a threat to our rights in one household, wherever in the world it may be, is a threat to our rights everywhere. Violence against women and girls is also a silent killer. Domestic violence is one of the most common causes of gender-related deaths of women around the world, which should both alarm us and press us into sustaining and furthering action and our commitment to rooting it out.

The UN reports that 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year alone, although less than 40% of those who have experienced violence actually report it. That should shame us all. It is a major obstacle to building the fair, just, equitable and sustainable future that we all want to achieve and pass on to the next generation—our daughters and granddaughters. Despite the UK being renowned in recent years for our leadership on tackling gender-based violence in the developing world and promoting girls’ education and women’s equality, we are far from reaching the finishing line.

When scrutinising the use of UK aid, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact reported that DFID had made a significant contribution to the elimination of violence against women and girls prior to its merger with the Foreign Office. We should rightly be proud of that, but we learned yesterday that the Government have cut the aid budget. It is a short-sighted and reckless cut that not only undermines the UK’s efforts, but risks leaving exposed women and girls in the developing world who depend on our assistance.

Diluting funding will cut away vital safe spaces, education and support for survivors of sexual violence, as well as our ability to tackle its many drivers, such as extreme poverty, food scarcity and the climate emergency, which aggravate the violence to which many women and girls are subjected. We know that the climate emergency disproportionately impacts women and their health. In fact, 68% of women face much higher health risks from the impact of climate change than men.

Not only does the cut break the Minister’s own manifesto pledge, to which he publicly committed in a recent written answer, but the 0.7 % commitment is enshrined in law. Baroness Sugg, the former Minister for the Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development, and the first special envoy for girls’ education, who was responsible for driving most this work, as the Minister will no doubt recall, resigned yesterday following the cut to the aid budget, which she said will

“diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right”.

I agree.

We must not forget that the cut represents a third of the budget. No other Department has seen such stringent reductions in spending power. Does that mean that we will write off a third of the girls in the developing world who rely on our educational programming? The International Rescue Committee reported 14 million refugee women and girl survivors of rape and sexual violence in 2019. Will the Minister tell us whether a third of them no longer need our help? At this time of maximum vulnerability, when the scale of need has never been so great, we must not turn our backs on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and retreat from the global stage.

Even before covid, gender-based violence had reached pandemic proportions. The introduction of national lockdowns at home and across the developing world, combined with additional economic and emotional stresses, saw violence and abuse rise fourfold. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that for every month of lockdown, there are 15 million extra cases of domestic violence across the world. School closures and economic constraints leave women and girls poorer, out of school and jobs, and more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, forced marriage and harassment. Worse still, that abuse is locked firmly behind closed doors. UN reports show that domestic violence has increased as survivors have found it more difficult to access support. This is a shadow pandemic. The covid crisis must not be used as a reason to abandon our promise to be a strong and dependable partner through the tough times as well as through the good.

In many cases, our aid is the first and last hope of improving women and girls’ lives. It matters to people such as Alia and her daughter Amira that we keep our promise. They both fled Alia’s abusive husband, who wanted to perform genital mutilation on Amira, his 11-year-old daughter. He terrorised and threatened them with their lives, but they showed bravery and courage to escape Sudan, enduring hardships and insecurity on the road, and found sanctuary—or so they thought—in Libya. There, however, they became even more vulnerable to violence. Alia describes the harrowing tale of a Libyan man trying to kidnap her daughter from a camp that they had temporarily called home, so that he could force her into marriage. The harassment and exploitation did not stop following them, all because they were female and dared to stand up for their rights to flee an abuser who they had thought they could trust, love and depend on.

It is thanks to a UK-funded project that they have both received what they needed: refuge, support and counselling. That programme will last until 2023, apparently. I asked the Government in September whether they would protect the funding from cuts. The Minister promised that it would be maintained. Can he keep that promise, following yesterday’s announcement?

Have the Government undertaken an assessment of exactly what the cut to the 0.7% commitment will mean? If not, why not? Why are we still waiting for the Government’s analysis of the £3 billion cuts from August? Can the Government provide clarity and be honest about what they are going to cut, allowing civil society and the wider sector to plan what interventions they can make, rather than making a chaotic withdrawal of funding? Will the Minister also confirm that when he brings back the legislation it will include a sunset clause, to determine when the 0.7% commitment will return?

I endorse the requests from the hon. Member for Totnes and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney about the global summit on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, which was meant to happen last year, and will not happen next year. Will the Government commit to bringing it forward and hosting it? Those are critical issues, but also this is a moment for self-reflection at home. Gender-based violence happens across the world and it can impact those closest to us. Let us show leadership and demonstrate that we can prioritise that essential issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who is not here, and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall. I thank the other Members who have spoken for their contributions. I pay tribute to the work that Members present in the Chamber have contributed in various ways on this most important of issues, whether through the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, as a member of the International Development Committee, or as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic abuse.

As Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, I also lead on the women, peace and security portfolio. One thing that has come up during the debate is how the various strands of Government work—on supporting education for women and girls, on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and on ensuring that women peace builders have a meaningful voice in conflict resolution—are not separate; they are all interwoven. It is important that in Government we address the full spectrum of policies. Work to end all forms of gender-based violence, to tackle gender equality, and to ensure that women are empowered and are part of the decision-making process internationally is, and will remain, a priority for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I will try to address as many of the points that were raised in the debate as I can. I know that there will be frustrations about this, but hon. Members will understand that I will not be in a position to give as much clarity or assurance as they might wish, but I assure them that all the points raised and ideas put forward, and all the requests made of the Government, will be recorded and considered.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made clear, gender-based violence is not just about violence directed at women and girls, but the sad truth is that they do bear the brunt of it. If he will forgive me, I will focus most of my comments today on the impact on women and girls, because violence affects women and girls everywhere. As has been mentioned, one in three women worldwide will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, making violence against women and girls one of the most systemic and widespread human rights violations of our time.

This year, the 16 days of activism to end violence against women are more important than ever. As a number of hon. Members have said in the debate, covid-19 has intensified the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence, and lockdown measures around the world have reminded us that homes, rather than being a place of safety and refuge, for many women and girls are in fact a place of danger and abuse—sadly, including here in the UK.

In east and west Africa, increased rates of female genital mutilation have been reported. In some countries, there have been reports of sexual exploitation by those Government officials tasked with enforcing lockdown requirements. A bigger global response is more urgent now than ever, but we should remember that gender-based violence was endemic before covid-19 and that it will not go away when, hopefully, we are able to get control of this disease. Therefore we need additional action to address it; it will continue beyond covid-19 unless we take that action.

However, there is hope. The UK-funded What Works to Prevent Violence programme has proved that violence against women and girls is preventable, and more than half our rigorously evaluated pilots showed significant reductions in violence of around 50% in less than three years. For example, in the DRC—a place that was mentioned during the debate—the project with faith leaders and community action groups halved women’s experience of intimate partner violence. We need to use and adapt that evidence to build back better after covid and learn from those successes. The Member for Putney raised the distressing situation in Tigray and asked what engagement my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had. I am pleased to say that he met Ethiopian Foreign Minister Mekonnen yesterday and specifically raised the protection of civilians from violence during their bilateral discussion.

We need to do more, to reach more people and to distribute the learnings of what works to prevent sexual violence. That is why we continue to invest in the successor programme, What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale. That is a programme to scale up our programming and research to prevent sexual violence against women and girls globally. We are delighted to have been selected to co-lead the new Generation Equality action coalition on gender-based violence. The Generation Equality action coalition is a global multi-stakeholder partnership intended to spur collective action to deliver concrete, game-changing results on gender-based violence over the next five years.

We are using this opportunity to increase international action to tackle gender-based violence in the context of covid-19. We are calling on donors to channel funding to women’s rights organisations and movements that are on the frontline of delivering change. The UK recently announced an additional £1 million of funding to the United Nations trust fund to end violence against women, increasing our total contribution to £22 million. The additional funds will support women’s rights organisations tackling the surge of gender-based violence due to covid-19.

Is the money that the Minister is talking about affected by the recent announcement on development funding being cut?

That money has already been allocated. As I said, I cannot give clarity as to what future funding streams will be like, but this agenda remains a priority for the Government.

We will continue to take a leading role to tackle gender-based violence in conflict and crisis, including through the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. Last week, my noble friend Lord Ahmad launched the declaration of humanity. Crucially, that declaration commits leaders of faith and belief groups to do all in their power to prevent sexual violence in conflict, to support victims and to dismantle harmful cultural norms and misinterpretations of faith. I hope that will go some way to addressing the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), because sadly, that is too often used to justify and condone acts of sexual violence.

Through the call to action on protection from gender-based violence in emergencies, the UK works with our partners to drive system change to better protect women and girls in a humanitarian context. We are pushing for increased funding and greater accountability on gender-based violence as part of humanitarian responses. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield made an important point, however, that although ODA is important, it is not the only means to drive change in this agenda.

Several hon. Members have criticised the merger of the FCO and DFID to form the new FCDO, and I recognise the points about yesterday’s announcement and the statement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary today. Using the UK’s economic power, however, we will still be one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, and we can also use our diplomatic power as a force multiplier.

We will put women and girls at the top of the UK’s agenda for our term as president of the G7. We will use our position as co-leaders on the GBV action coalition to tackle the root causes of violence. As COP26 president, we will promote clean and inclusive resilience from covid and natural disasters, because, of course, we know well that those economic and environmental pressures are drivers of conflict, and that conflict is often a driver for sexual violence against women and girls. We will continue to push the agenda through our diplomatic network.

I reiterate that violence against women and girls is not only completely and wholly unacceptable, but preventable. The key message for today is that we should not, and must not, accept it as a reality. I return to the praise that I gave to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have done so much work to drive this issue and to ensure that the appropriate attention is paid to it globally.

We must challenge the idea that there is inevitability or inertia, or indeed that change takes decades or generations. It does not. It should not. That is why we have prioritised this important work. We are working to stop any reversal of our hard-won progress on gender equality, perhaps driven by the covid-19 pandemic, and we are using the spotlight the pandemic has shone on the violence women and girls have to endure to tackle the root causes and accelerate progress to meet the sustainable development goals on this issue.

What a privilege to have 15 minutes to wind up, Ms Rees. You are very generous to give me such time.

I will be brief. I thank everyone for turning up to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke passionately about her experience working with Somali women and with WaterAid in the UK. It is incredible working with her on the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and I thank her for her support for my support for an international panel and body. I look forward to working with her on many other such issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) was kind enough to inform us about his experiences around the world and the moving impact he has had working with different communities. The House is better for having his experience, and the all-party parliamentary group on foreign affairs is lucky to have him as its chair.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke passionately, if I may say so. She shifted the focus, rightly, out of conflict zones to an area that also needs redress and resolve. To speak of the justice system as she did was a stark reminder of the lack of justice seen by so many people across the world. The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) also spoke about the need for justice, not only in specific geographical areas, but across the world. She raised the important matter of women in Kashmir. I greatly valued her contribution.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has always been suspiciously kind to me on a whole host of issues. I am particularly grateful for his support since the day that I gave my maiden speech on this issue. He was right to talk about issues such as the Istanbul convention and to say that leadership is more important than ever. He has a global and local vision. This is not an issue on which the UK can sit on a high horse. Domestic abuse happens within our shores. We have seen how prevalent it has been during the lockdown.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) has also been kind and direct about what needs to be done. More often than not, UK Aid is seen as the first and last hope. That is incredibly powerful. We are all conscious of the fact that UK Aid, stamped on to humanitarian packages and the backpacks of the people we send across the world to help, is greeted with relief and the understanding that the international community is engaged. Anything that damages that is particularly worrying.

I thank the Minister for his comments. Change does not take decades, but by my count it is taking eight years. We launched the PSVI eight years ago and I think the UK can go further. I want to say a few words about what I have done on this. When I was elected, I wrote to the ambassador of every country that signed the UK’s resolution in the UN on the PSVI. I have had 90 responses to 146 letters. Nearly every one says that they are still waiting for the UK to show leadership on this issue. That is, 90 countries have bothered to respond on this issue, good and bad, and they are asking the UK to continue its leadership. If we do not, we must be prepared to help others lead. That will either be Germany or the United States. I hope that we can find the resolve and determination to do it here and now, with the opportunity presented by the G7 presidency next year. Germany and the US are working very hard on this. If they lead on this, I will be happy to support them with others.

I passionately believe that the UK has a role to play on the international stage not only in defence, but, more importantly, in international development. This issue is a core tenet of international development. I hope that when he goes back to the Foreign Office, the Minister will tell the Foreign Secretary and others that there is a strong group of Members of Parliament who wish to see action on this issue, and that we will continue to raise it at any opportunity we are given.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered international development and gender-based violence.

Sitting adjourned.