Thursday 26 November 2020
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Covid-19: Freedom of Religion or Belief
I remind hon. Members that they should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of the materials as they leave the Chamber. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. They should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on freedom of religion or belief.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Yesterday, 25 November, the world marked Red Wednesday, whose purpose is to draw attention to the plight of those who are persecuted for their religion and beliefs, and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark them, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief tabled early day motion 1179. I thank colleagues who have already signed it, and I ask others please to do so. In that EDM, we urge the Government and the international community to act to mitigate the impact that covid-19 has had on vulnerable minority communities globally and on women and girls from them, who are doubly discriminated against because of their gender and their beliefs.
The chair of our all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) led the call along with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) to secure this debate. We thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time. The hon. Member for Strangford is unable to be with us today, and his compassionate voice will be much missed during this debate. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, I am sure I speak on behalf of many of us when I express the most sincere thanks to him for his dedicated work for the persecuted.
I aim to highlight with examples from around the world how, tragically, both Government and non-state actors have exploited this global health crisis to violate human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief. I will show how living conditions have worsened for those who are detained, whether in prison or as refugees, on account of their conscience. I aim to illustrate that the distribution of aid and humanitarian relief is often biased or withheld from those with minority beliefs, and I will speak of the spread of misinformation targeting minority religious or belief communities. There is clear evidence of an increase in violence, both domestic and more widely, affecting those with particular beliefs. I will demonstrate how, in other ways, the right to worship and manifest faith or belief has been curtailed.
All that illustrates how important it is for our Government to be vigilant in pressing others to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms during this pandemic, including in particular the freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in particular is doing so.
In countries around the world, many marginalised religious and belief communities have faced intensified discrimination since the outbreak of covid-19. According to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief,
“Antisemitic hate speech has risen alarmingly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis”.
Many faith communities have even been blamed for the virus. The BBC reported that in Somalia, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab is warning Muslims that Christians are transmitters of the disease. Such messaging is terrifying for the handful of Christians there who are already forced to practise their faith in secrecy for fear of their lives.
In India, Muslims faced accusations that they were deliberately spreading the virus and a campaign of Islamophobia, in which Muslims were labelled bio-terrorists and corona-jihadists ensued, leading to many instances of violence and discrimination against Muslims. For Christians in India, too, life has become more difficult during the pandemic, on top of a serious increase in anti-Christian violence over the last few years—I see the hon. Member for Glasgow East nodding—particularly but not exclusively in Uttar Pradesh.
We hear of problems in India of mob vigilantism, violence and surveillance of home churches by non-state actors. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which has already approved a separate debate on the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. I hope that parliamentary time will be found for that much-needed debate very soon.
The scapegoating of minorities during this pandemic is a truly global problem. According to the Institute of Development Studies:
“In a significant amount of the nations which have encountered outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, politicians and opinion leaders have openly condemned religious minority populations under the guise of epidemiological containment, through hateful messages on social media, public speeches and official policies.”
That scapegoating has contributed to the many reports of individuals from these communities around the world being attacked, denied aid or otherwise prevented from accessing life-saving humanitarian interventions.
Accounts of discrimination in food distribution and the biased distribution of humanitarian relief materials are widespread. Alliance Defending Freedom International reports from the Gulf region that people have become so desperate that they are forced to trade their religion for food—they are forced to convert to Islam for just one sack of flour.
In Iraq, there are reports of Christian communities being the last to get necessary food and medical supplies. In Pakistan, there have been reports of non-governmental organisations denying food and aid to Hindus and Christians, or serving only them after Muslims have been served. Some members of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group in Pakistan have claimed that they need to disguise themselves if they hope to receive medical treatment or testing.
One of the problems is that where national Government aid is being distributed by local groups or where foreign organisations use local staff at the frontline of aid distribution, discrimination against minorities can occur at that point, regardless of the foreign organisation’s central anti-discrimination policies. It is important that our Government do what they can to call for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that religious minorities at the frontline of aid distribution, particularly UK aid distribution, do not face additional discrimination because of their faith.
Certain states have also utilised the covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to intensify persecution of marginalised communities, and not only through church closures. In Uganda, there are reports that the Government’s response to covid-19 has systematically excluded religious minority groups, by allowing only certain major religions to attend consultative meetings on the coronavirus response.
China has increased its interference and surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists, under the pretence of attempting to tackle the coronavirus, even using contact tracing apps to monitor every movement of Tibetan citizens. Also in China, where the clampdown on freedom of worship over recent years has been alarming, the pandemic has sadly given an opportunity for state surveillance of religious worship by minorities to increase. Some church members who tried to meet for online worship were detained and had police stationed at their homes to prevent them from joining online services.
I turn to the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons. Many already live in overcrowded conditions, rendering them particularly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of covid-19. Many are from religious communities who have experienced rights violations that occasioned their displacement and internment in the first place, such as the ethnic minorities who fled Burma’s decades-long years of conflict.
Covid-19 has reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, leading aid organisations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster. First-hand observations by CSW—Christian Solidarity Worldwide—in the Rohingya refugee camps confirm that social distancing, self-isolation and even regular handwashing are an impossibility.
Elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted failings in legal systems and criminal proceedings, and has underlined the degree to which religious discrimination can be institutionalised in some legal systems. In Sudan, for example, the legal system all but ground to a halt on account of the virus. Cases involving church leaders and church property, which were already proceeding slowly, faced further delays. Overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic has posed an additional threat to the welfare of inmates. A large number of prisoners are in Evin prison in Tehran, where conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary, and where prisoners have contracted the virus.
Eritrea is of particular concern; there, a stringent covid-19-related lockdown, enforced with violence by the armed forces, has provided the Government with an additional means of curtailing freedom of movement, which was already restricted. Tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience there, including long-standing Jehovah’s Witness detainees, are held in unsanitary, ill-equipped and life-threatening conditions, where insufficient access to water, food or medical facilities makes their plight desperate. An appeal by the UN special rapporteur for Eritrea for low-risk offenders and vulnerable prisoners to be released was rebuffed.
Although information from North Korea is difficult to obtain—I have the privilege of having been co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea for some years now—last week there were disturbing reports about North Koreans with covid-19 being left to die in so-called quarantine camps. The full impact of covid in North Korea remains unknown, but we should not underestimate it, given that country’s virtually complete lack of respect for human rights, its limited health system and its concentration camps housing thousands of prisoners of conscience—all of which coincides with North Korea’s having suffered substantial food shortages this year.
The all-party group is currently conducting an inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea as a follow-up to the UN commission of inquiry of 2014. There is an opportunity to contribute to it through our website, appgnorthkoreainquiry.com, and submissions would be most welcome, particularly in the light of the limited information on the impact of the pandemic in North Korea.
Elsewhere across the world, it is clear that the pandemic has led to discrimination in employment. Open Doors reports having been told of Christian nurses being deliberately assigned coronavirus cases. When India went into lockdown to combat the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs overnight. Many usually work as daily labourers and earn each day what they need to survive; without the day’s income they have no money to buy food.
Many work as sanitation workers. They are often from the Dalit community, which is the most neglected and marginalised in India—indeed, I would say, virtually in the world; it is heart-rending to hear how some of them can only come out at night. Their work involves great health risks, collecting waste, emptying sewage and cleaning the streets. We hear via Open Doors from Hyderabad how these people face a serious predicament and are putting their lives at risk, with even women sanitation workers performing these sanitation tasks without gloves, protective masks or even shoes, and often working by hand.
There is no financial safety net or furloughing scheme in India. Official aid is nowhere near enough for the people who need it and, sadly, Christians are often last in line for essential covid aid and food because of their faith. However difficult the pandemic has been in this country, these reports—I thank in particular CSW and Open Doors for their reliable and often first-hand accounts—show that the difficulties in other countries are further exacerbated for the vulnerable, minorities and women.
There is a second debate this afternoon on international development and gender-based violence, so I will not take any further time from other colleagues in this debate by focusing on it now. Suffice it to say that reports in The Lancet indicate that domestic violence against women and girls has increased by as much as 30% in some countries during the pandemic. This huge increase in domestic violence has led to several reports of women from minority communities, such as Yazidis, taking their lives.
Tragically, that increase in violence is by no means restricted to domestic situations during the lockdown. In Nigeria, villagers in Kaduna state and Plateau state were obeying state directives to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Sadly, that made them even more vulnerable targets for attack than they were before the pandemic, because they effectively became sitting targets. Fulani militants have carried out multiple raids on villages, and there are reports that Christians have been killed. Christians believe that the militants are taking advantage of the pandemic to uproot them from the area, and although they have made efforts to alert security agents to the attacks, nothing has been done to prevent them. Once again, I call on the Government actively to address the concerns and recommendations of our all-party group’s report “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide”, which was published earlier this year.
I look forward to colleagues’ contributions. Before I conclude, in the light of this debate, I ask the Minister to reflect on recommendation 21 of the Bishop of Truro’s report, about which I have spoken in a number of debates over recent years. The report highlights the importance of recognising the negative consequences of what he refers to as a “need not creed” mantra; of rejecting that mantra; and of the negative consequences of our aid being “religion-blind”.
Will the Minister consider the importance of challenging international partners to ensure that disinformation is combated; that there is access to justice; that where religious communities are attacked, there is accountability; that any emergency powers are proportionate; and—during this unprecedented crisis, now more than ever—that the needs of, and pressures on, religious minorities are taken into account, not ignored?
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who opened the debate and set the picture rather eloquently. I commend my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who secured the debate at the Backbench Business Committee. Those of us who are Westminster Hall season ticket owners will know that the hon. Gentleman is not normally one to miss a debate, especially one on freedom of religion or belief. I know that I speak for us all when I say that we look forward to his return to the House to lead on this issue, about which he has spoken with so much passion and authority.
I also thank our friends at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need for their excellent briefings and their wider work on freedom of religious belief, not just during the pandemic, but before it. It has so often fallen to non-governmental organisations and charities to step into the breach and support religious minorities who face intolerable levels of persecution, and that has been compounded by the covid-19 pandemic.
One example of such practical support on the ground is the Open Doors covid-19 relief package, which is making a real difference in countries such as Nigeria and India. Every £56 donated equips a rapid response team to bring emergency food aid to a family of persecuted believers who are affected by the pandemic. That is vital because research shows that covid restrictions mean that many persecuted Christians have been ignored when aid is distributed.
To understand the challenges faced not just by Christians, but by other religious minorities, we can look at CSW’s excellent advocacy work and country profiles. On the situation for prisoners of conscience in Iran, overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic has posed an additional threat to the welfare of inmates and increases the likelihood of the virus spreading in those locations. A large number of prisoners of conscience are imprisoned in Tehran, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. By August this year, at least 25 people in the prison had contracted the virus, and on 10 August, several political prisoners staged a sit-in to protest their unsatisfactory conditions, inadequate protection measures and lack of medical care in prison. When the Minister sums up the debate, can he specifically say what representations the Government have made to the Iranian authorities about prisoners of conscience?
The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses and biases in legal systems and criminal proceedings. It has also underlined the degree to which religious discrimination is institutionalised—very much—in several legal systems. I will not repeat the point already made by the hon. Member for Congleton about the situation in Sudan, but we know that that is a particular concern there, so I ask the Minister whether the FCDO has raised it with the Sudanese authorities.
There have been notable occasions when authorities have misinformed or concealed information from the public in a bid to portray a more positive national image or, indeed, to create conspiracy theories that have adversely affected certain religious communities. There are examples in China, Laos and Vietnam, where people have been arrested for circulating information or rumours about the virus online and, in some cases, for simply questioning official figures or wondering why their respective Governments have not done more to contain the outbreak.
When Governments fail to provide adequate social services, humanitarian relief and healthcare, civil society—obviously and most notably, religious organisations—and individuals invariably attempt to fill the void. However, that can cause suspicion, and that leads to discrimination and even violence. There have been several incidents in Pakistan in which Christian and Hindu communities have been denied food by organisations, which stated that the relief supplies were only for members of the majority faith. Such discriminatory distribution of relief supplies has been reported in the Sindh and Punjab provinces; there have also been posters on mosques and madrassahs stating that food distribution is only for Muslims, which is of huge concern.
In my remaining time, I want to consider refugees and internally displaced people. Refugees and IDPs generally live in overcrowded conditions, which renders them particularly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of covid-19. In some cases, those providing assistance, some of whom are religious actors, have been rendered vulnerable.
In May, it was confirmed that covid-19 had reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Burma-Bangladesh border. The confirmation of at least two cases in the world’s largest refugee camp led aid organisations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster. CSW has reported visiting the Rohingya refugee camps twice, and it is clear from its first-hand observations that social distancing, self-isolation and hand washing are an impossibility in camps in which families live cheek by jowl and with a limited supply of clean water, and poor sanitation and rudimentary healthcare. The same is true of the absolutely abominable concentration camps in which Uyghur Muslims are also being held. I therefore ask the Minister to comment specifically on camps, which are an enormous concern to us all on the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
Concerns about the impact on freedom of religion or belief during the pandemic are legion. I remain extremely concerned that the Government have yet to appoint a new special envoy for FORB at the Foreign Office. Ministers—indeed, the Minister in the Chamber today and, of course, the Prime Minister—have said repeatedly that an appointment will be made in due course, but that has not yet happened, which is a source of great concern to those of us who are following this in the FORB community.
Given the wide-ranging list of countries, referred to by me and by the hon. Member for Congleton, that are clearly violating freedom of religion or belief, this must be a priority for Her Majesty’s Government. I therefore look forward to the Minister summing up the debate and confirming when the appointment of a special envoy will be made and who will take forward this vital policy agenda.
It is a pleasure to speak in these debates, but it is pretty grim that we have to keep having them. The bad news is that the situation continues to get worse and not better, which is why it is so important that we, who have the immense privilege of being able to speak out in the freedom that we enjoy in this country, do speak up for others around the world who do not enjoy the freedoms that we do.
I speak as a Christian myself, but I am here this afternoon to stick up for the Uyghurs in China and all people of the Muslim faith who are suffering persecution. In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the persecution suffered by Dalits, which is absolutely unacceptable. We have heard of Hindus not being treated well in Pakistan, in terms of distribution of aid and so on.
This debate is about freedom of religion or belief, which of course includes the right not to believe in God. A very good Christian friend of mine, Ben Rogers, went to visit an atheist in prison in Indonesia a few years ago—a Christian going to the support of an atheist whose rights not to believe in God were being taken away. I seem to remember they had a very interesting conversation about Mark’s gospel—I do not know whether the atheist ever came to faith, as I never caught up with the end of the story. That just makes the point that, regardless of whether someone is of faith or no faith, this debate is for them. The right to freedom of religion or belief is universal and should be applicable all the way around the world.
Having said that, I note that—as the former envoy on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), said in the main Chamber only this morning—Christians are the most persecuted group in the world. That is something that we just need to say, because we should speak as the facts dictate. In the more privileged west, we sometimes do not realise that most Christians in the world are quite poor and disadvantaged; they are not wealthy, privileged people. They are often at the margins and not in the mainstream, and it is easier to take advantage of them. Although I think, noting our manifesto, that yesterday’s decision on aid was unfortunately a regrettable one, I am grateful that combating persecution against people on the grounds of religion or belief remains a Foreign Office priority, which is very important indeed.
It is necessary to understand the context of the debate, because we will all mention some countries, which is absolutely right. I will read out the top 20 countries on the Open Doors 2020 world watch list, because they need to be named so that people are aware. No. 1 is no surprise, because it has been there for a long time: North Korea. Following that is Afghanistan, a country where there has been significant UK involvement for many years, then Somalia, Libya, Pakistan—a major recipient of UK aid spending and a Commonwealth country to boot—Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and Iran. India, a proud member of the British Commonwealth and a great friend to this country, is at No. 10. I am a huge friend of India, but sometimes friends have the conversations that they need to have but do not always want to have. That is certainly the case with India, as a fellow Commonwealth member. No. 11 on the list is Syria. Then there is Nigeria, which is another Commonwealth country, followed by Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Myanmar and Laos. They are the top 20, which gives an idea of the geographical spread of this issue.
As I say, things are getting worse. Some 260 million Christians live in the world watch list’s top 50 countries—that figure has increased from 2019, when it was 245 million. In countries such as Sri Lanka, where there used to be a degree of stability, an increase in destabilising violence has led to much greater difficulties for Christians. In Burkina Faso, we saw a relentless rise in violence throughout 2019, and Islamic militancy has taken a hold within the country.
The situation continues to get worse in China, which has risen hugely in the world watch list, to No. 23. More than 5,500 churches have been destroyed, closed down or confiscated during the reporting period. In 2018, China was ranked at 43, so that is a huge increase. Many people were upset not to be able to get into our own churches earlier this year and in the last month or so, but what we have had to “suffer” is simply of a different order from 5,500 churches being destroyed, closed down or confiscated.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and highlighting that churches have been closed. Even where they are open, however, Government laws restrict who can attend them. For example, it is now illegal to take a child under 18 into a church and people in certain occupations, such as the military, cannot attend. In just the last few years, the restrictions in China have been incredible. I thank him for highlighting that again in this place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that extra information, which she has usefully put on the record. I note that many leading campaigners in Hong Kong and many hon. Members on both sides of the House are inspired by their Christian faith to speak out against what is happening in Hong Kong.
In India, in 2019, there were 1,445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians. In Nigeria, in the 2020 reporting period, it was estimated that 1,350 Christians were killed for their faith, and abductions continue, often of children and young people. I was privileged to have Leah Sharibu’s mother in my office a few months ago. The pain in her eyes that her daughter has still not been returned to her encourages me to keep on speaking out on the issue.
I hope that this debate gets some publicity. I am generally a great fan of the BBC, but I cannot help noticing that debates on this issue do not always feature as prominently as they should on BBC outlets. I hope that will change and that this important debate will get some coverage.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate. The covid-19 pandemic has drastically altered how we work, interact with one another and enjoy our lives. The manner in which we congregate in prayer has also drastically changed, causing some who have contacted me to question the state of freedom of religion in the United Kingdom. As I had hoped, this debate has provided the much-needed perspective to answer them by starkly contrasting the situation here with that suffered by untold millions around the world.
Under the terms of the present lockdown, which will last until 2 December, it is illegal for churches, mosques and any other places of worship to open for congregational prayer. All significant assemblies of people, however pious, whether that be at entertainment venues, sports halls or other arenas, have been severely restricted under the current measures.
Together with all God-fearing folk who are respectful of the law, I am relieved that it will not be a criminal offence to gather for worship in the new three-tier system in England following the current lockdown. Regardless, I do not believe that the measures undertaken by Her Majesty’s Government can in any way be construed as representing an attack on the freedom of religion or belief. Rather, they represent restricted access to gathered worship in the interests of public health. Although that is certainly not normal, the essence of religion remains free.
All people of faith should be united in the common belief that the only true way to worship and serve the Creator is to love and protect his creation. I would argue that the very act of following the Government’s guidelines, if the intention is to protect one’s fellow citizen, is in itself a meritorious act of worship.
During the height of the pandemic and the lockdowns, religious leaders transferred their sermons, prayers, studies and meetings to Zoom calls and other online video-conferencing platforms. Rather than access to religious services being limited, they have arguably become all the more accessible, and it is the same with a wide array of social interactions. Irrefutably, it has been neither the purpose nor desire of Her Majesty’s Government to exclusively target worship and religious houses in the fight against coronavirus. However, I appreciate that virtual congregation should never, and indeed could never, replace physical congregation or the feelings and experiences that mass gatherings bring to both an individual and the wider community.
Freedom of religion and the right to believe is actively under assault across the globe. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are systematically persecuted by the state. Ahmadis can be imprisoned or even sentenced to death for simply describing themselves as a Muslim or describing their mosque as a mosque. In China, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, up to 1 million Uyghur Muslims, Christians and adherents of Falun Gong have been rounded up and placed in re-education camps, where they are subject to political indoctrination, forced sterilisation and violent torture. My hon. Friend has provided vivid and deeply distressing examples—a litany—of the crimes faced by those who wish to believe, and she described how such actions have been amplified by the perpetrators of such crimes owing to the covid pandemic.
The situation that we in the United Kingdom currently endure in our fight against covid bears absolutely no resemblance to the atrocities inflicted on religious minorities around the world. Freedom of religion here is enshrined and protected and has not been infringed by the state. Rather, temporary measures on access to places of worship have been regrettably implemented to control the spread of covid-19. Religious leaders, churches, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, mosques and other places of worship have already proven their ability to provide a vital spiritual service to their congregation during the first lockdown through the use of technology.
I pray for the day when all the restrictions are lifted and worship can return to normal in the UK, and that all people, wherever they live in the world, are soon able, like us, to take as a given their right to live, work and worship as they choose without threat or fear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I apologise to you and to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for arriving after the start of her speech. I congratulate her and thank her for securing this important and timely debate.
I will not speak at length about persecuted minorities around the world, not having great experience on the topic, but I do have a powerful memory of visiting the Anglican church in Baghdad in 2003, just after the invasion of that country, with Canon Andrew White, who was the vicar of Baghdad and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the middle east. I tagged along with him on his first visit back to Baghdad after the invasion, and he reopened the church, which had been closed during the war, or during the invasion.
I remember the most joyful service. There were children running around and people from all walks of life, including American and British soldiers. I remember clearly the caretaker, who had looked after the church and kept it going through the invasion and the war. Within a couple of months of that visit, that man and his whole family were dead, and the whole church had been dispersed. That was the beginning of the persecution of Christians in Iraq, which led to pretty much the eradication of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. That terrible scenario has been repeated across the world in all sorts of terrible ways, and not just affecting Christians, as we have been hearing.
The debate is about the pandemic and the role of faith groups, and I want to make two points in the light of that. The first is about how important faith groups are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said, in reaching the poorest and working through their networks to ensure that support, whether with healthcare or with economic assistance during the crisis, reaches them. Obviously I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about standing against discrimination on the basis of faith in the developing world.
I also want to observe how important faith groups will be, in the developing world and at home, in countering misinformation about the vaccination programme that is beginning soon. I suggest that we need some religious literacy in working with faith groups and ensuring that misinformation is properly countered. Too often in our debates—frankly, in those about development as well as those about vaccination and misinformation—mainstream opinion seems to be that religion is part of the problem, and that if only people could be disabused of their fanciful superstitions it would be possible to convince them of what the science tells us. That is not going to help.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked about forced conversion. It makes me think about what we are asking people of faith to do. We are asking people who are suspicious of secular Governments, big companies and non-governmental organisations to abandon, effectively, what their faith says about those things and to undergo a vaccination that they do not believe in. We have to be much more respectful of them. I would put this, Mr Rosindell—I hope you will forgive me—in spiritual terms. The devil is in the structures of the world. There is injustice. There are bad people doing bad things, and people are victims of injustice through no fault of their own; but I do not believe that the Government—this is the argument we need to make—and big pharma or the NGOs are more particularly evil than the rest of us.
I will quote from Ephesians: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this dark age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Our battle is not against people or organisations, but against spiritual forces, and that is the reality that people of faith hold, recognise and believe in. We have to help them to understand where the real enemy is. I suggest that the devil gets into the resistance to secular globalised organisations as well as into those organisations themselves, sowing distrust and spreading deceit. That can be seen in some of the malign forces that are operating in the way that disinformation is spread through social media. It is a spiritual battle and we need to respect people who think that way and not just tell them they are stupid.
My second point—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—is about religious freedom at home. We closed churches through the lockdown, and I regret that. We effectively abolished the freedom of assembly throughout the country, and in all institutions. Okay, fair enough. We only overturned freedoms that were won 400 years ago, in that instance—but in closing churches we overturned the foundation of our constitution itself, which was laid 800 years ago. The first line of Magna Carta, as you will know, Mr Rosindell, is that the church in England shall be free. I suggest that it was unconstitutional for the Government to pass a law ordering the closure of churches for collective worship.
I note in passing that in answer to a written question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) earlier this month, the Government said that shutting churches was justified under article 2 of the European convention on human rights—that the right to life, interpreted as the right to health, justified the closure of churches. I am sorry that the ECHR has been held to trump Magna Carta.
I interpret what has happened differently. I think that churches shut voluntarily and were under no compulsion to do so. I respect the decision that they made to shut voluntarily, for the sake of closing down the pandemic. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister has said that churches can open for services after 2 December. Sadly, there will be no mixing outside people’s bubbles, which means no sign of the peace—a bit of a relief for some of us who do not like that bit of the service. But it is a shame that we cannot mix in churches. However, the principle that churches can remain open is vital—and I obviously extend that to all faith groups, and all communities of faith in this country.
I am subject to similar regulations in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has already quoted scripture from Ephesians, but it should be put on record as well that we are reminded that when two or more are gathered, he shall be present. The four walls of a church are just a building. When we come together in fellowship, whether that is by Zoom or on the telephone, we can still worship God.
I recognise that. The Holy Scripture was written for the age of Zoom. There is a sense that the church is the body of Christ, which is the people. However, it is established doctrine that the body consists of people gathering together. I appreciate that “two or three” gathered together is sufficient, according to the Bible, but I feel that the principle of collective worship being physical and the body of Christ being allowed to gather, in physical form, is part of our constitutional foundations.
I appreciate the opportunity we have had to discuss this subject and I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Rosindell. I thank everybody who has made a contribution to the debate today. There have been some strong and powerful contributions.
I particularly commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate, alongside others. Although he is sadly absent today, he has always been a steadfast defender in this House of the right to religious freedoms. I also thank the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) for leading the debate today and for their contributions. I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and I commend the Bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians that was referenced in the recent debate.
As a Christian myself, I was drawn last night to the words of the Gospel of Matthew about our responsibilities to the poor and the persecuted, particularly at this time:
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
This is a most pertinent debate to have today, as we begin to understand the impacts of the Chancellor’s regretful breaking of the Conservative party’s manifesto promise and the commitment shared across this House, including by Members present, to 0.7% for international aid. The decision will have an impact on our work on crucial international issues, such as our work to protect freedom of religion or belief, and, more broadly, to support faith-based organisations and other non-religious but deeply ethically principled organisations in their work responding to the covid-19 pandemic and standing up for development, human rights and justice more broadly.
The hon. Member for Congleton particularly mentioned the situation for girls and for those persecuted around the world. We should reflect on the words of Malala Yousafzai, who was herself a victim of extremists in the Pakistan Taliban, who said this morning that she is deeply disappointed at the abandonment of the 0.7% target when a generation of girls are leaning on that support.
I spent yesterday speaking with a number of faith-based organisations and faith leaders working in South Sudan and Ethiopia. Their warnings were stark about the threats to peace, human rights and development in those two countries, with which we have had strong partnerships. They warned of famine, atrocities and disaster, on top of the impacts that covid-19 was already having on their communities.
I am sorry to say that it has been a deeply disappointing few months from the Government on these issues. Abolishing the Department for International Development already risked undermining UK leadership on freedom of religion and belief. As we know from a similar debate a few weeks back, the Prime Minister’s own special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), resigned over the Government’s planned intention to break international law. Members do not have to take my word or the hon. Gentleman’s word for this. Earlier this year, the now former Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Baroness Sugg, responded to a debate in the other place on freedom of religion and belief. She rightly and proudly listed the work of the Department for International Development with the John Bunyan fund, which had funded an Institute of Development Studies-led programme on building religious freedoms. She said DFID had a director-level champion on those issues and was working in Rohingya refugee camps, and in many more instances besides, and that
“prioritising freedom of religion or belief can save lives and prevent humanitarian disasters before they emerge.”
She also said that
“withdrawal of our overseas aid will obviously affect the persecuted minorities and the very poor, whom we are aiming to help.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2020; Vol. 801, c. 1878.]
Ministers from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have spent the last month refusing to be drawn into discussing any specific spending commitments. Now we have had the Chancellor’s announcement, can the Minister tell us today which of the programmes supporting human rights, specifically on freedom of religion and belief, will be funded in the years ahead, and which will be cut? Beyond that, what role does the Minister see for faith-based organisations and other organisations of no religious principle but with deep ethical principles in our global development and human rights efforts?
Faith and religious communities have on the whole responded with responsibility, care and compassion to the pandemic at home and abroad. Responding to the Bishop of Winchester on 11 November, Baroness Sugg said faith groups
“have been incredible in their response to Covid-19. They are among the first to respond and can play an effective role in bringing about the behaviour change essential to slowing the spread of Covid and reducing infection and illness.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 November 2020; Vol. 807, c. 1025.]
Across the Anglican communion—I declare an interest as a member of the Church in Wales—the impact of covid-19 on church life, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), has been of the same order in the UK, with impacts on church buildings, the suspension of public worship, impacts on rites of passage, gatherings and so on. There has also been an impact on clergy. I know that will be felt by the leaders in many other faiths around the world. There is increased burn-out and stress as they seek to respond to the needs of their communities.
I have had some difficult conversations in my constituency with churches and other faith organisations, but—the hon. Member for Wakefield made some sensible points on this—there is a stark difference between what we see in this country and what we see abroad, from the wider threat of violence to the use of blasphemy laws. In many other countries, covid-19 restrictions have regrettably been manipulated to oppress religious minorities. Just a few weeks ago, in this place, we heard powerful examples of the persecution of Christians. That concern has been expressed by groups such as Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. We have also seen antisemitism at the heart of many of the conspiracy theories about covid-19 in this country and abroad
In China, as we have heard, there is an ongoing attack on religious minorities by the Communist regime, including against Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and other religious and non-religious minorities. Catholic bishops have disappeared. Temples, statues, mosques and churches have been destroyed under the Government’s direction. The Uyghur Muslim population is facing a monstrous Government-co-ordinated programme of police surveillance, enforced re-education, disappearances, internment and mass detention. We have even heard reports of forced sterilisation. Of course, 1 million Uyghur Muslims may have been living in camps since April 2017. The risks of that in relation to covid-19 are obvious.
The situation in India was mentioned, where Muslims are demonised by wild conspiracy theories that blame them for the spread of covid-19. Members of some Islamic movements were quarantined despite not having been at risk or having symptoms. In Pakistan, as was mentioned by the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Wakefield, Christian and Hindu communities were denied food aid by organisations that stated that relief materials were only for members of a majority faith. We have seen attacks and discrimination against the Hazara minority and baseless allegations against them for being involved in the spread of coronavirus. The longstanding persecution of the Ahmadi population has continued in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Where prejudice existed before the pandemic, it has also had a significant impact on testing and tracing. In South Korea, where an outbreak occurred among members of one particular church, other members refrained from testing to avoid discrimination because they are seen as heretical by other Protestant South Korean churches. The Sufi religious community is persecuted in Iran. In Sri Lanka, the Muslim community’s rights on burial practices have been suppressed. The pandemic has affected rights and freedoms of the non-religious, too. Humanists International made some powerful points about the impact on the humanist movement, and the impact of lockdown on those being forced into religious practices when they hold no such religion and the impact that has had on them and their communities.
Labour stands firmly by our international human rights obligations, including on freedom of religion or belief. Everyone has the right to freedom of through, conscience and religion. The necessary restrictions in the UK because of the coronavirus pandemic have meant difficult times around Easter, Ramadan, the Jewish high holidays and Diwali. People are now thinking about how they might celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah in limited circumstances. We all face challenges, but in far too many places globally, necessary limitations have been superseded by discriminatory and oppressive measures, using public health to cover up persecution and the whipping up of hatred.
Like many others in this debate, I am a person of faith. My Christian beliefs very much underpin why I went into the humanitarian development sector before I came into this place. I want to return briefly to the point about the 0.7% commitment. I could not agree more with the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who described the move yesterday as “shameful and wrong.” I am reassured by the many Conservative and other Members who had the courage to speak out yesterday and today. This is an issue that transcends party politics. It is about right and wrong, and it is about Britain’s national interests.
It matters to this debate, too, because when we talk about a global Britain standing up for freedom of religion and belief and getting behind the incredible efforts of organisations of religious faith and non-religious principle—whether that is directly combating persecution, supporting persecuted communities or supporting communities with the material needs of those affected by conflict, gross poverty, inequality and now covid-19—it cannot just be about words.
Christians often turn to the story of the good Samaritan, but I am reminded of the words of Christ himself in the gospel of Mark, recounting the parable of the widow’s mite. He says:
“He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
That is the example set by many faith and non-religious organisations worldwide. As a country, we cannot just be a fairweather friend to the persecuted and the poor when we have plenty. Britain is better than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate, and I commend them for their long-term commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I agree with my hon. Friend that these debates are not quite the same without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—nor is any Adjournment debate, for that matter. As my hon. Friend said, his passionate voice has been sadly missed from today’s debate, but I am sure, via the miracle of the internet, he will be tuning in to the debate. We wish him well in his isolation.
I also thank hon. Members for their ongoing work with the all-party parliamentary group, which continues to raise the profile and awareness of human rights to parliamentarians and the public alike. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I very much hope that today’s debate gets picked up and gets some publicity. It is an issue that is debated regularly in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber, because it is important to so many colleagues.
The pandemic continues to have a huge impact on countries and communities around the world. In this time of stress and uncertainty, religious and belief actors have a role to play in providing social and humanitarian services. Meanwhile, Governments must work with those actors to increase community cohesion and resilience, as well as to communicate important public health messages. Let me take this opportunity to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to championing freedom of religion or belief for all and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Freedom of religion or belief is a long-standing priority for this Government. Lord Ahmad, my ministerial colleague, continues to champion the cause as Minister for human rights at the FCDO. Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other human rights are also threatened.
The FCDO is using all its diplomatic tools to ensure that nobody suffers because of their conscience. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination not only damages societies, it holds back economies. Countries cannot fully develop while minorities are oppressed and communities are invariably stronger when they include everyone.
Development and diplomacy work hand in hand, and the FCDO is working on two particular freedom of religion or belief programmes: one is an Institute of Development Studies project, working with minority groups in Africa and Asia; and the other, with the University of Oxford and parliamentarians in nine countries, is working to reduce the use of language that intimidates minority religious groups during elections. That work is vital to advancing freedom of religion or belief.
The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out the best in many religious and belief communities around the world. We have seen remarkable acts of kindness, not least in the UK, including enhanced efforts to care for the vulnerable and actively sharing credible advice on health and safety precautions. Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly positive example set by many communities, we remain deeply concerned by the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, as has been raised by hon. Members today, including a worrying increase in hate speech and the rising conspiracy theories that certain faiths or beliefs are to blame for the pandemic. We have heard examples of that today. Such incidents are completely unacceptable. The United Kingdom will continue to refute those divisive and harmful claims. No one should suffer in the pandemic because of their faith.
To ensure that the issue is not forgotten in these most challenging of times, we have stepped up our engagement at the United Nations and in other multilateral forums to ensure that freedom of religion or belief remains a top priority for all countries. In June, Lord Ahmad urged states to take steps to mitigate the impact of covid on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, including religious and belief minorities, during the UK’s closing statement at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Just over a fortnight ago, we demonstrated our concern about the rise of antisemitism, which has been mentioned today, and other forms of discrimination in the wake of covid, in our statement to the UN General Assembly.
We will continue to use our influential voice to raise freedom of religion or belief at the UN, including urging the international community to work together to face the challenges presented by the pandemic. We have also issued a joint statement with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, calling on states to ensure that any restrictions to the right to freedom of religion or belief are necessary, proportionate and time-limited to protect public health. Last week, Lord Ahmad attended the alliance’s Ministers forum, where he urged renewed efforts to prevent acts of violence that target individuals on the basis of their religion or belief.
It is particularly important at this time to ensure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society are actively included in response and recovery efforts. As we have heard today from all hon. Members in this Chamber, members of minority communities are suffering terrible discrimination and abuse throughout the world, so our work in the multilateral forum must be informed by what is happening on the ground. In Pakistan, for example, hate speech and attacks have been aimed at Shia Muslims and Hindus, and Christians are being denied food, support and healthcare. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to ensure that all citizens enjoy the full range of human rights, as laid down in Pakistan’s own constitution, enshrined in international law and demanded, frankly, by human decency.
We are also concerned by the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and the decision by the Sri Lankan Government to mandate cremations for all those deceased due to covid—Lord Ahmad has raised that issue with the high commissioner. Ministers and officials at the high commission in Colombo continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure the protection of Christians, Muslims and other minorities in that country. In Iraq, covid has had a significant effect in the regions of the country formerly controlled by Daesh, including on religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis. Many still remain in camps, where covid is leading to reduced services, and those outside the camps are struggling with livelihoods and access to essential services.
I will now address some of the more specific issues raised by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was absolutely right to raise Red Wednesday. I can confirm that the FCDO was lit up in red lights to demonstrate our solidarity with persecuted Christians across the globe. We will continue to work across Government to ensure that these international days are respected in the appropriate manner. She rightly raised cases of oppression of those of faith and other minorities across the globe. She cited evidence of some states allegedly, or actually, using the pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on minorities. She raised, as did other hon. Members, the plight of the Rohingya in refugee camps. I am proud of the work that we are doing to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. We are the second-largest donor of relief and support to those people, both in Bangladesh and in the camps.
My hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for South West Bedfordshire spoke of North Korea. It is very difficult to assess the situation there, as they can imagine. Due to the pandemic, we have had to take the difficult decision to close our embassy in North Korea temporarily, basically to give our dedicated staff there some relief from the situation—they literally could not go out of the perimeter of the compound they were staying in. We took that difficult decision, but we hope to be able to return to that country at the earliest opportunity.
When the Foreign Secretary made his very welcome statement about Magnitsky sanctions, North Korea was one of the countries raised. He mentioned organisations, because it was not possible at that time to identify the individuals who led them. Has there been any progress in identifying the individuals concerned, to whom those Magnitsky sanctions will apply in North Korea?
My hon. Friend is right to mention sanctions. These Magnitsky-style sanctions can have great effect in holding people to account, especially those with assets outside particular countries. He will appreciate that it would not be correct to speculate on individual names—to do so would likely lessen the effect of any potential sanctions—but what I can tell him is that we are constantly monitoring potential individuals for our sanctions regime.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned the Bishop of Truro’s report. We have made great progress in adopting those recommendations. On recommendation 21, which focuses on sharing lessons from the implementation of the review’s recommendations, we continue to consider the best way to do that. We will implement them over the next 18 months, as we have committed to doing. We are very grateful to the bishop for his review. My hon. Friend also mentioned India. We are very concerned about reports of discrimination against minorities there, which is linked to covid. We condemn any form of discrimination based on religion or belief. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity. We call on and trust India’s Government to address the concerns of peoples of all religions.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East rightly raised Sudan. Our embassy in Khartoum constantly monitors the human rights situation there, including on freedom of religion or belief, through engagement with civil society and their politicians, and we raise our concerns with authorities. Most recently, on 28 January, Lord Ahmad raised the importance of freedom of religion or belief with the Sudanese ambassador, including concern at the appalling burning of three churches in Blue Nile state. Lord Ahmad stressed the need for the Sudanese authorities to investigate that incident. We are undertaking project work to strengthen the effectiveness of the Sudanese National Assembly. This includes ensuring Sudanese policies and legislation better serve minorities and religious groups, in line with international standards on freedom of religion or belief.
Lord Ahmad also raised the issue of discrimination towards and the targeting of the Baha’i community in Iran. We regularly raise specific concerns about laws that might end up discriminating on the basis of religion or belief, and we do so publicly and privately—we make a judgment on which we believe will have the most positive effect. He also mentioned a replacement for the special envoy. I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for his work in that role. The Prime Minister will be appointing a special envoy replacement in due course.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I am getting slightly fed up with hearing the words, “in due course”, which I know are a favourite of the civil service. Can he at least commit to saying that the appointment will be made before Christmas? Given how often we are in this Chamber raising these issues, it is rather frustrating to be told that they will be raised “in due course” when this does not actually happen.
I understand where the hon. Member is coming from. This is a bigger point. This is not something that needs to be rushed. There will be a replacement, but by no means are we stepping back from our commitment to this role. We know how crucial it is for liaison with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. However, the hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I cannot give a commitment on whether the appointment will be made this side of Christmas, however welcome that would be.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire is a long-time champion for freedom of religion or belief. He rightly highlighted a wide range of countries where there are serious concerns about the ability to worship freely. We will always condemn any form of discrimination. We will always raise our concerns directly with the countries. He focused on China and the Uyghur population. We are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. We all know about the so-called re-education camps. Our diplomats have visited Xinjiang periodically to observe that situation, because first-hand access is not easy.
We have repeatedly taken an international role in holding China to account on the issue, including statements at the UN Human Rights Council in June and in the UN Third Committee last October. At the time, the UK was the only country to have led a joint statement at the UN. On 6 October, the UK and 38 other countries made a statement at the UN Third Committee in New York, expressing our deep concern about the situation in Xinjiang, including the mass detention of Uyghurs. This reflects our diplomatic leadership internationally, including the personal involvement of the Foreign Secretary, in raising the issue with a wide range of partners.
On 25 September, we devoted our item 4 national statement to human rights issues in China at the UN Human Rights Council. That was only the second time the UK has dedicated its national statement to a single country—the first time was in 2018, on Russia, following the Salisbury poisonings. In July, the Foreign Secretary raised Xinjiang directly with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi. I raised my concerns directly with the Chinese ambassador in March.
As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) spoke eloquently on a subject that is very close to his heart. His experience of the discrimination that he has suffered as an Ahmadi Muslim makes him uniquely placed to comment on these injustices. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) said, we all look forward to being able to worship to some degree in the UK after 2 December, in all places of worship. Collective worship is clearly preferable to services via Zoom, but that is a step in the right direction at least.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes also talked about his personal experience in Iraq. The suffering of Christians and many other groups in Iraq is a matter of serious concern. We are firmly committed to protecting members of religious minorities in Iraq and providing assistance on the basis of need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. We have committed £261 million in humanitarian support to Iraq since 2014, which will provide a vital lifeline of food, shelter, medical care and clean water for the most vulnerable, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities. We have also contributed £23.15 million to the UN development programme funding facility for stabilisation, which works to restore vital services across liberated areas of Iraq, and is heavily committed to areas that are home to minority communities—principally, and historically, those are Christian areas.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) brings great experience in this area to his role as Opposition spokesman, and it is always good to see him across the Chamber in these debates. He rightly raised the issue of the reduction of the development assistance budget from 0.7% to 0.5%, but the pandemic has had a huge and severe impact on our economy, which has fallen to the worst levels in 300 years. That has forced us to take an incredibly tough decision to spend 0.5% of our national income on global poverty reduction next year, rather than the usual 0.7%. That was a very difficult decision to make, but it is a temporary one. We must protect the economy during the pandemic, but we intend to return to 0.7% as soon as possible.
Of course, we remain one of the most generous G7 donors: proportionately, we will spend more than the United States, Japan, Canada or Italy. In real terms, that means more than £10 billion to fight poverty, improve global health and achieve our UN sustainable development goals.
I take the Minister’s sincerity, but those are political choices that the Government have made in breach of their own commitments. A lot of organisations, particularly those working on the crucial issues that we have debated, want some of the granular detail on which programmes will be cut, suspended, changed or altered. The Foreign Secretary just mentioned in the main Chamber that there will be another review over the next couple of months. When can we expect detail and confirmation of funding for the critical programmes that we have discussed?
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask. All aid will be focused on seven global challenges where we can make the most difference: covid and global health security; girls’ education; science, research and technology; conflict resolution; humanitarian preparedness and response; trade and economic development; and, of course, climate change and biodiversity. The Foreign Secretary will decide the allocation of aid to other Departments in line with those objectives. All the projects will be assessed through a new management process, led by the Foreign Secretary with input from Ministers about their geographic and departmental responsibilities. That will be laid out, although I hate to use this term, in due course. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Foreign Secretary’s commitment on that.
The Minister is being extremely generous. I hope that he will reflect on David Cameron’s tweet yesterday about it being a regrettable move, given that we share the world with some of the poorest people. It was a deeply retrograde step. Global Britain is not a project that I and the SNP endorse, although I wish it well, but as Britain emerges from Brexit and goes on to the world stage, it strikes me that moving from 0.7% to 0.5% is not good for global Britain’s soft power. Even at this late stage, the Government should reconsider, because it looks so bad for project global Britain.
The important thing is that whatever aid we give, it has the greatest possible impact overseas. I heard what former Prime Ministers had to say yesterday. Nobody wanted to have to make that decision, but these are extraordinary times. There has been a severe impact on our economy. We will still be the second largest donor in the world in that area.
I would also say that we have managed to achieve 0.7% in previous years. We will be cutting it back to 0.5% temporarily, but I politely say to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth that in 13 years in government, the Labour party never once achieved 0.7%. Not only that, it did not achieve 0.6% either. In two years, it achieved only 0.5%. We are, temporarily, going back to where we were at 0.5%.
The Minister has made that point, and the Foreign Secretary tried to do the same earlier. When they resort to such personal points, it reflects a Government in wider difficulties. The reality is that in 1997, ODA was at something like 0.21%, and by the end of the Labour Government it had come close to 0.6%. There was a steady increase throughout the period after the Thatcher Government, the Pergau dam scandal and many other things.
Rightly—and I have credited them for it—David Cameron, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others stuck with the commitments and the increases, because there was cross-party consensus. It is a great regret that the Government, and the Chancellor in particular, have chosen to break that consensus. It is deeply regretted by many on the Minister’s side of the House, as he knows.
The Minister mentioned a commendable list of seven areas that will now be the FCDO’s core areas of funding, but I noticed the absence of a vital one. Although he mentioned conflict resolution, there was no mention—unless it is a sub-category of that—of upstream conflict prevention. That is certainly the most cost-efficient and best way to stop conflicts occurring, and it is an area in which the United Kingdom has an incredibly valuable asset.
I used to be an active member of the Oxford Research Group with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Gabrielle Rifkind and Tim Livesey, who used to be the chief of staff of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—it is multi-party. It has a great arsenal of talent and people that it can employ for the sake of security elsewhere. If upstream conflict prevention is not included, are we selling Britain short?
I do not believe so at all. It is important to be mindful of all areas. Prevention of anything is better than cure in many ways and less expensive. My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. We need to strengthen democratic institutions to ensure that these things are headed off. We need to ensure effective governance and free media as part of protecting human rights. All those things are positive contributors.
The effects of the pandemic have been overwhelming and far-reaching, and will continue to have an impact on our lives for some time to come. As a longstanding champion of human rights and freedoms, the UK has a duty to defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect at home and abroad. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions and for the debate that we have had on the issue of the day. I assure the House that the Government will do just that: whatever obstacles lay in our path, we will continue to raise awareness of those who are persecuted for what they believe, stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.
I thank the Minister for his detailed response and for confirming the Government’s increasing engagement on the issue of freedom of religion or belief. I have seen that over the past 10 years, and it is genuine—particularly on the part of the FCO. I think there is a bit of catch-up on the part of the Department for International Development, but I am hopeful that now the two are working together, we will see that increasingly.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned the envoy appointment, and I think that, after two months, he is right. The Minister talked about Lord Ahmad making representations—for example, at the UN—but the role of the envoy was separated from the Foreign Office Minister’s role more than a year ago because it was felt that we needed to send a signal to the international community and have an individual dedicated to making representations on behalf of our country. I concur with the hon. Gentleman’s comments: that appointment needs to be made soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of the wide range of countries where there are restrictions of freedom of religion or belief. Concerningly, some of the worst are Commonwealth countries: Pakistan, India and Nigeria.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) reminded us that although collective worship has been restricted in this country, freedom of religion has not been. In fact, the use of online technology has perhaps extended the opportunity for people to engage over recent months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) made a characteristically intelligent speech. I wish I had more time to engage with the comments he made. He talked about the importance of faith communities and the contribution they can make. He is absolutely right. DFID began to recognise that during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, where deaths could have been prevented if there had been greater engagement with faith communities. He spoke of the importance of religious literacy. Yes, there is now a toolkit for the FCO, but are DFID staff being asked to look at that? That is really important.
Finally, my hon. Friend talked about the subtle issue of DFID having over the years claimed to be religion-blind. Actually, in seeking not to discriminate and in seeking to be fair, it has denied the fact that, as I hope we have demonstrated, religion is often an exacerbating factor in aid need, and needs to be taken into account rather than ignored when aid is distributed.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) commended the response of faith groups to covid-19. The APPG on faith and society published a report in the past few days on how, here in this country, local authorities are working much better with faith groups. It is a very encouraging report, and I hope it can be looked at by DFID, in terms of our international aid work. There is a lesson that could be learned there. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the John Bunyan Fund for Freedom of Religion and Belief, but I am a little concerned that there has not been much information about what it applies to.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
International Development and Gender-based Violence
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”.
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.
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.
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.
That this House has considered international development and gender-based violence.