[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 31 January and 21 February 2023, on Situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, HC 1087, and written evidence to the International Development Committee, on Situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, reported to the House on 21 March 2023, HC 1087.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for Afghan women and girls.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Latham.
“We are deeply concerned about the apparent perpetration in Afghanistan of gender persecution—a systematic and grave human rights violation and a crime against humanity.”
Those are the words of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, and the chair of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls at the end of a visit to Afghanistan last month. Because of the gravity and extent of the issues that we are debating today, I hope Members will allow me to spend a short time outlining the events of the last 22 months in Afghanistan.
In August 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban; within two weeks the UK had withdrawn from the country, ending a 20-year presence. There was a promise that women would not suffer under the Taliban’s regime. That was viewed with suspicion, which has proven to be correct. In March 2022, girls in Afghanistan were barred from attending secondary school—they have not returned. Shortly thereafter women were barred from travelling more than 48 miles without a male guardian, and that requirement in May 2022 was extended to any time a woman leaves her home. Despite that rule, men and women could not mix and were banned from dining out together or attending public spaces such as parks at the same time. That de facto ban is now formalised in all public recreation spaces.
In December last year there were a series of assaults on the ability of Afghan women to work. They may not attend university, teach or work with non-governmental organisations. They may not undertake any public office. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been disbanded and replaced by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Women are required to wear a full body veil. Women and the men who are suspected of opposing the Taliban are harassed, kept in arbitrary detention, tortured and killed. I am sure that we have all received correspondence in our role as MPs that confirms those facts. Such a crime against humanity is so big and so appalling that it is tempting to look away. Those of us here today know that we cannot and that the Government must not.
On a basic level, millions of people are in dire need in Afghanistan. According to the World Food Programme, nearly 25 million Afghans are living in poverty, and the UN estimates that two thirds of the Afghan population will need humanitarian assistance this year. To put it another way, in evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls, which I co-chair, a representative from Save the Children told us that only 3% of families can currently meet all their basic needs, including food and shelter.
It is true that Afghanistan was facing difficulties prior to the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban. Economic conditions were deteriorating and droughts were increasing poverty and food insecurity. There are serious questions over the approach taken in relation to UK aid, but I know that the International Development Committee is doing excellent work examining that, so I will not consider it in detail today. What is irrefutable is that the economy and the provision of the most basic services have declined significantly in the past two years.
Expelling half of working-age adults from the workplace inevitably damages an economy, with businesses closed because of lack of staff, lack of customers, or both. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, and an expensive one. The World Economic Forum has found that the bans on women working will cause a loss of $600 million to GDP in the short term, while restrictions could lead to a further $1.5 billion loss of output by the end of next year. Meanwhile, a lack of aid, limited by many countries in the wake of the Taliban’s violent seizure of power and the exclusion of women from public life restricts access to public services, including, critically, healthcare. That is simply a perfect storm for many women. Following decades of fighting, many households are headed by women, who make up the majority of NGO workers. Those families are hit hardest by the Taliban’s edicts. The evidence from networks of Afghan women heard by the APPG is that women and children are commonly seen in groups begging. They face extreme poverty. Children are being sold, and child marriage is rising. This is in no way abstract.
When the APPG has heard from organisations that have been able to resume some kind of service, usually in nutrition or health, that resumption has taken place only region by region when exemptions from the edict banning women from working with NGOs have been agreed. The exemptions are obviously not secure, and are at constant risk of being revoked by the Taliban.
I accept that none of that is straightforward, particularly when the outcome is a decision not to provide fundamental assistance, but evidence from NGOs on the ground is clear: the women who need the most assistance are less likely to be reached by all-male teams. In any case, accepting the restriction would set a precedent and suggest that the Taliban’s rules were being accepted.
I am sure the Minister is concerned about the operation of NGOs on the ground in Afghanistan and about the need to try to prevent the humanitarian disaster we see unfolding. I hope he will use his time in the Chamber today to update Members on conversations the Government are having with NGOs and the approach the Government will take to the provision of aid to regional actors.
Will the Minister update Members on the breadth of NGOs with which the Government are engaging? This is a constant theme for the APPG and one to which I shall return, but it appears that only limited interests are being listened to by the Government. We need to ensure that we hear a wider range of voices, and that those voices are amplified and listened to. For example, a lesser-known organisation that has given evidence to the APPG is the Aseel phone app, which provides a digital platform that gives humanitarian aid directly through connected citizens, rather than incurring the bureaucracy and overheads of larger organisations. How can we here support such innovation by those who are in the country?
The point the hon. Lady has made about the potential of technologies as ways to send money directly to citizens who are suffering under the tyranny of organisations such as the Taliban is significant for the UK Government. Obviously, we need to ensure that the security is tight, but technology offers a non-traditional way to get support directly to people who would otherwise suffer.
I thank the right hon. Member, who is my APPG co-chair, for that intervention, and yes, I agree entirely. The Aseel app is innovative in that it allows people out of or within the country to send money to buy food and other essential goods and services that are provided by people in-country. That money is not just aid or a handout; it is providing work in the Afghan economy.
On the subject of NGOs and aid spending, I urge the Minister to use this opportunity to pledge a reversal of the spending cuts in Afghanistan. This is simply the worst time to withdraw funds. Not only is every pound desperately needed, but for each pound spent two more are now required to achieve the same impact, owing to the expense involved in operating safely in Afghanistan.
If the Minister is unable to make such a pledge today, I hope that he will return to his colleagues with the message not only that more funding, not less, is needed, but that spending must at least return to three-year cycles to allow for forward planning. Reducing funding allocations to a limited annual basis might have been understandable as a temporary measure at the height of the pandemic, but those days have passed. Meanwhile, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is clear that there will be both operational and reputational impacts for the UK aid programme if the one-year cycle is maintained.
A specific way in which Afghan women and girls need support is through education. Secondary school girls have been kept at home and away from learning for more than a year, with no hope of a return in sight. Those girls might have reached their adolescence, but they are children, and their future is being stolen from them. Research by Save the Children has found that 25% of care givers believe that the teenage girls in their care are chronically depressed. No matter what political situation unfolds in Afghanistan in five, 10 or 15 years, there are millions of girls who arguably will always struggle to support and advocate for themselves, and to know their worth, as a result of the trauma and the restrictions under which they currently exist.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this really important debate. On her point about depression and mental health, she might have seen a powerful report on the BBC last night from Yogita Limaye, who reported on the epidemic of mental health and suicide among women and girls. Indeed, the son of one woman stuck in Afghanistan—the son happens to be my constituent—said to me that his mother said to him, “Please pray for me to die in peace before the Taliban do anything to me.” That is amplified everywhere. Does my hon. Friend agree that one important step the UK Government could take, particularly for women and girls, is to provide some sort of bespoke, safe and legal route for them to come to this country?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the report last night. I recently attended Glasgow Afghan United in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and I spoke to a woman there who is currently pregnant, but her toddler is back in Afghanistan. I do not know how someone deals with that, to be honest, from a mental health perspective, so yes. I know that the Minister responding today is not from the Home Office, but given that the Government have made some commitments under their Illegal Migration Bill to look at safe and legal routes, I am certainly sure that all of us speaking here believe that safe and legal routes for Afghan women and girls are a priority, and certainly should be.
A return to formal education is the long-term goal. If the Government can provide any update on their strategy in that regard, it would be most welcome. In the meantime, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—hopefully that was okay—said, we know that the internet is a fantastic resource for education and technology, for reading, learning languages, maths and science.
I thank the hon. Member for raising this really important topic. I apologise, as I cannot stay long. On the subject of education, a point made to me by a number of Afghan women when I was at the UN Commission on the Status of Women conference is that it is utterly shocking that girls are banned from leaving their homes and going to school in Afghanistan, but, in the meantime, senior members of the Taliban take their own daughters and send them out of the country to schools in other countries. Does she agree that one of the things the international community could do is try to tighten up the sanctions against those family members to prevent that?
I thank the right hon. Member for that powerful intervention. Yes—is it not always interesting how repressive regimes, particularly when they are repressive in relation to women and girls, take a different approach when it comes to their own children and families? We need to call out that hypocrisy, and I am grateful to her for doing so.
I will turn again to the technology aspect of education. The APPG learned in evidence from women in Afghanistan that electricity and internet blackouts are making access to education more and more difficult. The suggested solution is the distribution of wi-fi dongles that connect to third-country satellites but, as someone recently pointed out to me, the UK, USA and NATO cannot have spent the best part of two decades carrying out an operation in a country without putting infrastructure for communications in place. I am keen to explore how we can utilise what is already there. We need to find a way to spread that access to those who need it. An alternative is the design and funding of education spread through radio or offline applications. Again, I hope that the Government are engaging with all such initiatives. While women and girls are prevented from accessing education, we need to do everything we can to help them to do so in a safe way.
For older girls and, indeed, for women, access to international universities is vital to continue their education and ensure that they are best placed to help in the eventual rebuilding of their home country. There are Members—I see some here—who attended the recent showing of the Alex Crawford Sky News documentary, which highlighted the fact that Afghanistan is a society; women provide healthcare to women, and men to men. If women are prevented from attending university in order to train to become doctors, we can absolutely see what the outcomes will be for women from a healthcare perspective.
Some universities in the UK are already offering scholarships to Afghan women, and I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on any support that the Government might be able to provide to universities in that regard. I know that visas, even for education, have been incredibly problematic. Indeed, I wrote to the Home Office about that recently, asking for the ban on accompanying family members to be waived, given the status of many Afghan women as sole caregivers for their children and the restrictions I outlined earlier. I appreciate those problems are not technically part of the Minister’s portfolio, but we need to strive to make the current system workable. It clearly is not, with so few successful applicants. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) highlighted, we also need to expand visa routes for all vulnerable women who need to escape to safety.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. On visas and the criteria, given the challenges that women face in accessing education, patently the requirement to learn English needs to be waived, as does that of travelling to Pakistan to get biometrics. My hon. Friend is well aware of a case I have raised on the Floor of the House four times of five British children who are stuck in Kabul and whom I have been trying to get out for 18 months. They have British passports and four of them are girls, so they cannot go to school. The Minister for Immigration is willing to look at the case. Their Afghan mother cannot get a visa to come here and the latest is that she has been told she has to go to Pakistan to get biometric tests. She cannot travel to Pakistan without a chaperone, so I am being asked how she can get to the UK without a chaperone. That is the latest hurdle. I implore the Minister to take this message back to the Home Office: we need a sensible approach to visas for women and girls.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s impassioned plea for that family. What does it say that we cannot support British children to leave Afghanistan and what does that mean for those in the country more widely? It is clear that we need to take a sensible approach. We cannot use the Taliban’s restrictions as an excuse for not doing what we should for our citizens and those who are vulnerable.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for securing this important debate. I have a similar issue. My constituent, who was a former office manager for the British Council in Afghanistan, is eligible for the resettlement scheme, alongside three other members of his family. However, his 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter are not because they are over 18. Considering the Taliban’s restrictions on women and the danger a young lone woman in Afghanistan would be in, does the hon. Member agree that the Foreign Office must ensure that young women are not abandoned to fend for themselves in a country where they have no rights or freedoms?
I thank the hon. Member for bringing that case to light. There is no doubt: right from the outset of the fall of Kabul, our failure properly to support our British Council colleagues working in country was quite shameful. We need to do more. They are people who should come under existing routes. We talk about needing new routes, but the existing ones are woefully inadequate and are not doing what they were designed to do—indeed, what we were all assured they would do when we were told about them on the Floor of the House.
In relation to visas, I want to focus the Minister’s attention on one issue and I hope he can update us on this today: the ability of women, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, to reach third-party countries—I am concerned that could be used as an excuse not to do what we should be doing—and their support and safety in those countries before visas are approved. I had an email from a former female judge who is now stuck in Pakistan. Women have very specific limited mobility. They cannot just leave their homes and head to the border. Pakistan is not necessarily a safe country for vulnerable women to be spending time without family and resources. We have to acknowledge that. I am no expert on what the solution might be, but there are many at the Government’s disposal in the region and in security. The UK must be a safe haven for Afghan women and any visa route must be designed with those women and their specific needs in mind.
I have touched on the very real issues where the UK Government can and should provide support: aid, education, healthcare, infrastructure and safe passage. As I conclude, I want to turn to the Government’s strategic priorities in Afghanistan. This year has seen the publication of the UK women, peace and security national action plan and the international women and girls strategy. It is not clear how they apply to the Government’s actions in Afghanistan. The Minister will know that strategic objectives for his Department under the action plan are to increase women’s participation, leadership and representation in decision making; to prevent gender-based violence; to support the needs of women and girls in crises, and ensure that they can participate and lead in responses; to increase the accountability of security and justice actors to women and girls; and to ensure they respond to the need of women and girls as part of their approach to transnational threats.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. One thing completely within the Government’s power is the steps they take with the integration of Afghan refugees to the United Kingdom. My office has been working with a young woman called Mah through Urdd Gobaith Cymru, which is much engaged with the integration of Afghan refugees at its centre in Cardiff, which has been recognised as an exemplar.
Surely we should look to prepare women and girls for the possibility of going back to Afghanistan, and ensure that they have every opportunity through education and skills gaining. We should also recognise the way that dynamics work in Afghan families in the UK. I hope to work with Mah to set up a toolkit to support women and girls as they arrive in the UK from Afghanistan, but I sincerely believe that this is something the Government should be leading on, showing what they can do within their powers in the United Kingdom.
We have to remember these people come to the UK fleeing conflict in Afghanistan. Many of them, if the situation changes in Afghanistan, want to go back to help and support. I think about the judges that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) works to support, and about those who are former MPs or have worked for NGOs. These are women who care passionately about their country and want to return to make it better, when and if they can, and we should look to do anything we can do to help them maintain that while they are here in the UK.
The women and girls strategy sets out the principles by which the Minister’s Department will be governed: standing up and speaking out for women’s and girls’ rights and freedoms; emboldening and amplifying the work of diverse grassroots women’s organisations and movements; targeting investment towards the key life stages for women and girls; acting for and with women and girls impacted by crises and shocks; and strengthening the political, economic and social systems that protect and empower women.
Those are all excellent ideals and I am sure that everyone here, regardless of party, can get behind them, but I want to ask the Minister what they actually mean for women and girls in Afghanistan. What can I tell the networks of Afghan women who give evidence to our APPG about what the Government’s concrete plans are? I will be quite honest, Minister: they are not feeling very positive about the UK and its role in relation to Afghanistan. How are the Government standing up and speaking for their rights and freedoms? How are the Government working with the whole spectrum of women’s organisations? How are the Government supporting Afghan women’s leadership? How are the Government investing in women and girls? How are the Government preventing gender-based violence, which is institutionalised across Afghanistan?
I will give the Minister a simple starting point, as I conclude. Will he today join the UN in naming the atrocities in Afghanistan for what they are—a gender apartheid? Every point here is vital; everything needs addressing by the Government. Frankly, it should not need me and this debate for the Government to hear the voices of Afghan women. The APPG has heard from women with a wide variety of perspectives and experience, yet the Government have so far declined actively to engage. Let me state that more clearly. These women are here—the secretariat of the APPG is here today—and they are experts who want to share their expertise, but the Government seem to block them from the rooms where the decisions about them are being made. Engaging with a small number of stakeholders is not good enough, and it is not representative.
It is not often that politicians want to make themselves obsolete, but in this case I really do. I urge the Government to make my role as an intermediary obsolete, and to engage directly with all the Afghan women and regional experts who are at their disposal. They may be silenced in their home country; that cannot persist here.
Order. I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called. We have limited time; I intend to begin calling the Front-Bench spokesmen at approximately 10.28 am, so we have just over half an hour. When Members are called, would they temper their speeches to a short time?
I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate.
Women and girls in Afghanistan are being forcibly disappeared from public life by the Taliban. That much is absolutely clear. It is deliberate and it is tragic. I want to reflect briefly on the commitments that the UK Government made to women and girls in Afghanistan. They built women and girls up, they gave them access to education, and then they brutally took that away when Afghanistan fell and have left them in that situation.
I remember very clearly the phone calls that I got from many constituents who had family in Afghanistan in August 2021. My office was inundated by calls from desperate families who were terrified for their relatives. I am fairly sure that most of them are still stuck in Afghanistan, or perhaps in Pakistan or somewhere else; they have not got to the UK. There were, I believe, over 80 cases, but I am aware of only a couple who managed to get family to safety in the UK.
A lot of that has to do with the petty and small bureaucracy of the Home Office, because disproportionately it was husbands who were here and had wives or families in Afghanistan that they could not get over because of earnings thresholds. They had made applications or they were waiting to earn enough to bring their family over, but they could not bring them over, because that paperwork was not in place.
The very nature of the immigration system makes people unsafe. Many of my constituents who were in touch had applications that were in process but could not be completed after the UK pulled out, because the families could not get to Islamabad to complete the paperwork. I had a constituent who waited a further six months, with the Taliban knocking on his wife’s door, for UK Visas and Immigration to get round to processing her appeal and issuing documents, despite chasing by my office. I had a constituent whose elderly mother was on her own in Kabul and being asked to complete a tuberculosis test to come over.
Others had English language tests as a barrier. I had a case of a husband and father whose children and wife in Afghanistan were refused access to the Baron hotel because he could not be there to vouch for them. As far as I know, they are there. There are now many families stuck in Pakistan. The Independent reported in April that about 1,000 families, including 500 children, are stuck in limbo in Pakistan. They could be here with their families, but because of that petty bureaucracy, they are not.
I ask the Minister for further clarification on what has happened to expressions of interest in the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, because I know of one made back in August 2022. In the letter that I got from Lord Murray in April, the Home Office said that it was unable to provide a timescale but would notify the constituent of the outcome as soon as possible. I am not aware of any progress on that. How many people’s cases are still pending in that scheme, and when will they be able to get to safety in the UK and come to their family? Ideally, we would want the Taliban gone. Ideally, we would want women to have a safe and prosperous life with their children in Afghanistan, and a future. That future has been stolen from them. In the meantime, we need safe and legal routes so that they can come to safety here.
Order. I wish to apologise. I seem to have caused consternation. We were told that Patrick Grady was the SNP spokesman—it was checked by the Clerks, and that is what they were told—so we will swap round and Patrick Grady will wind up for the SNP.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) not just for securing today’s debate, but for her excellent speech? Few of us could forget the heart-wrenching scenes almost two years ago. I was a newly elected MP at the time, and my office, like most others, was inundated with pleas from desperate constituents seeking to get loved ones and former colleagues out. What was particularly striking was how many made specific mention of their fears for female relatives. They were terrified of what the return of the Taliban would mean for women and girls.
History, as we know, does not move in a straight line. Over the past two years, women and girls in Afghanistan have seen their rights rolled back and hard-won freedoms lost. We also know that women and girls in Afghanistan are fighting back. With acts ranging from peaceful protest to posting on social media, Afghan women have resisted. It is important that we take this opportunity to acknowledge their extraordinary courage and bravery in risking not only their physical safety but, in many cases, their lives. It is also important to show that we have not forgotten their plight and to shine a spotlight on their current circumstances.
Shortly after the last British soldiers departed Afghanistan, the Prime Minister at the time pledged to set up a bespoke resettlement scheme focused on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. Despite the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme having three referral pathways, there is no specific route to apply to, making it virtually impossible for most Afghan women and children to get on to the scheme. I hope the Minister will address that today. How do women and girls access the referral pathways? Surely, establishing safe and legal routes is the answer.
First of all, I welcome you to your new position, Mrs Latham. Usually you are contributing to Westminster Hall debates, but today you are making sure that we are contributing in the right way. I wish you well in your new role.
I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing the debate. I am happy to add my comments in support of what she said. She does much in this Parliament to protect and promote the needs of Afghan women and girls. I declare an interest as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief.
I am sure that every Member shares the horror we have all felt since the fall of Kabul nearly two years ago. In that time, the rights of women in Afghanistan have been drastically reduced. As hon. Members have mentioned, women have been barred from governmental jobs, there have been travel restrictions and bans on education, a strict dress code has been introduced, and women have been prevented from working for NGOs. How discriminatory that is! It means that women cannot even earn money or use their skills to contribute to society. It is really quite annoying.
The repressive and barbaric policies have resulted in 80% of schoolgirls being out of education, a 25% reduction in the number of women working and a loss of $1 billion to Afghanistan’s GDP. However, I will focus on the double vulnerability of women and girls from religious minority groups in Afghanistan, and address some of the UK policies that—I say this with great respect—are failing to protect women from such communities.
The last two years have seen many of Afghanistan’s religious minorities decimated, with large exoduses from Christian, Hindu and Sikh communities. The remnants of those communities have been forced to live in hiding across Afghanistan, either remaining completely hidden or hiding any religious practices or symbols that are core to their faith. The introduction of an extreme interpretation of sharia law has had a significant effect on women from many religious minorities. The compulsory use of the burqa robs those women of their identity, leaving many of them choosing to remain indoors rather than adopt the new dress code. A change in law has also nullified Christian marriages, opening up women to allegations of adultery, which now carries a punishment of death by stoning. Their marriages are not recognised, so they have a double vulnerability.
Out of all Afghanistan’s religious minorities, the Hazara community has been at the forefront of attacks and restrictions on women and girls. Not only has the group been affected by Taliban oppression, but it has been targeted by Islamic State’s Khorasan province, with no protection whatsoever from the security forces. Many of us will be aware of the suicide bombing of the Kaaj educational centre in Kabul on 30 September, which killed 54 girls as they sat exams. That is only one of nearly a dozen attacks on Hazara schools in the last two years. Since the Taliban gained control, there has been an increase in sexual violence targeted at women across Afghanistan. For those from a Hazara background, that has been particularly acute.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about freedom of expression in Afghanistan. Does he agree that when politicians in western countries express empathy or demand support for communities that suffer under oppressive regimes, they are often accused of wanting to westernise nations? It is important to say that we are expressing support for the Afghan people to decide their future, and for women and girls within their community to decide the best way forward for them.
My hon. Friend always makes wise interventions. He is right: we are not trying to westernise Afghanistan. It is about people being able to choose their religious belief. I would protect anyone in this world who has a different religious belief.
The Hazara inquiry found evidence that sexual violence and forced marriage had been used as a tool to deny those communities a future by targeting women. The honour system is prevalent and victims’ lives are at risk. Ninety-seven per cent of Afghans live in poverty, two thirds of the population need humanitarian assistance, and 20 million people face acute hunger. At a meeting of the UN Security Council in December, concerns were expressed that groups were being excluded from humanitarian aid because they were Christians, Sikhs or different religions. Aid must reach all Afghans, including women, minorities and other vulnerable groups. Against that backdrop, the UN reported in March that it was forced to cut food rations in Afghanistan due to a shortage of funding from the international community.
I conclude with three questions for the Minister. First, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget for Afghanistan is due to be cut by 53%. What assessment has the FCDO made of the impact of those cuts, specifically on women and religious minorities receiving aid on the ground? In particular, I would like to hear about the impact on Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other small groups.
My second question concerns the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Other hon. Members have referred to the scheme, and I have a case that I wish to take up with the Minister, if he has time. They ACRS has three pathways. The third is for those who have been identified as belonging to a particularly vulnerable group, including women and members of religious minority groups. The scheme launched with the aim of resettling 20,000 people in five years. An expression of interest could only be made seven months after the scheme formally opened. In the short time that the scheme was open, some 11,400 expressions of interest were submitted under pathway 3. The vast majority of those who expressed an interest are still awaiting news or updates, even as their lives are in danger.
Up to now, the pathway has been open only to British Council and GardaWorld contractors, and Chevening alumni. I have the utmost respect for the Minister and he knows that, but I and many other Members are frustrated by the lack of clarity and urgency on this scheme. I say that with great respect and honesty. There is not one of us here who does not have a case that we need sorting out, not because we think we are better than anyone else but because those people are on the frontline.
When I was in Pakistan in February-time, I met a man with a wife and four children who had fled Afghanistan and was living in Islamabad. He is in the scheme. I gave the documents to the Immigration Minister. He worked for the British Army—if ever there was a case!—but we cannot get him out. Why is that happening? Will the Minister tell me how many have been resettled under pathway 3, and let us know when the scheme will start providing protection for the women and religious minorities it was created for? That is our purpose for being here. Let us get answers.
I welcome you to your place, Mrs Latham, and congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate.
Women are particularly at risk in Afghanistan, as a consequence of their sex and the overwhelmingly misogynistic and brutal society that the Taliban are imposing on the people of Afghanistan. Hon. Members may be aware that I have been working with the former judge Marzia Babakarkhail, who came to the United Kingdom in 2008 after two attempts on her life by the Taliban. Marzia has organised the campaign for the United Kingdom to assist female judges and prosecutors in danger from the Taliban. She has daily contact with these women and has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Day in, day out, she gets messages and calls from women who fear that they will be murdered by the Taliban. At least one already has been. Marzia has taken on a huge burden and the emotion laid on to her daily would be too much to bear for most of us. She has been a tower of strength, but she, too, is deeply affected. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to her.
The United Kingdom encouraged women in Afghanistan to take up the roles of judges and prosecutors as part of our project to support the creation of a democracy governed by the rule of law. We encouraged these women to be part of a nation-building project that has now put them in the most severe danger. I am ashamed that the United Kingdom has abandoned them.
Early on, with the assistance of philanthropists, including JK Rowling, Baroness Helena Kennedy managed to get some of those women out. They are starting new lives in the west, but dozens have been left behind. Reuters journalists Emma Batha and Orooj Hakimi recently chronicled their plight in detail in an article published on 3 May. If the United Kingdom were prepared to offer more humanitarian visas, we could offer hope to those women. I have been campaigning for that for a long time, and have raised the issue repeatedly in Parliament. Last summer, I met Foreign Office officials, who felt that a case could be made for those women, but I fear that the Home Office is standing in the way of progress.
Last month, I presented a petition requesting that the House of Commons urge the Government to immediately help evacuate and settle female judges, prosecutors and their families from Afghanistan by providing emergency visas. It mirrored an online petition signed by more than 56,000 people. It was signed by the dean of the Faculty of Advocates—effectively the chair of the Scottish Bar—my friend Roddy Dunlop KC, reflecting the solidarity of people in the legal profession across the United Kingdom in respect of the plight of our colleagues in Afghanistan. The petition asked for urgent action, and the following day I met the Prime Minister to urge him to take action to save those women. He seemed favourably disposed to my arguments for a special humanitarian visa, and so did the Minister for Immigration when I raised the matter in the Chamber two weeks ago, but we now need a sense of urgency.
At least one of those women has already been murdered. Although some have managed to escape and slowly rebuild their lives abroad, many are still trapped in Afghanistan, and the criminals and terrorists they prosecuted and sentenced have been freed from prison and are actively hunting them down. Taliban fighters have raided their former homes looking for them, and many are in hiding, living in constant fear. Those women, whom the west encouraged to enter professions such as the law and lead a new civic Afghanistan, are at risk due to their former position in civic life and doubly so because of their sex. As the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) said, they cannot travel unaccompanied, which makes it more difficult for them to hide and flee.
The UK should have acted long ago to help those women, and it is a disgrace that we have not. What we have done so far is not nearly enough; urgent action is needed. I realise that the Minister is not a Home Office Minister, but nevertheless my question for him is this: when will the United Kingdom Government introduce a humanitarian visa scheme for the women of whom I speak? Please will he ask his Home Office colleagues to put a timescale on it? I understand that there are logistical difficulties in getting those women out of the country, but Germany has a scheme that I urge the British Government to look at. Something must be done without further delay; otherwise, the blood of those women and their children will be on our hands.
That is extremely kind of you, Mrs Latham.
I wish to make a single point, which I urge the Minister to take away. After the invasion of Ukraine, the Home Office set up a special unit on the parliamentary estate in Portcullis House staffed by knowledgeable and sympathetic Home Office civil servants, and it was possible for MPs to engage directly with them in support of particular cases of outstanding humanitarian worth. Why should we not reinstate that hub, which would make it easy for those of us who know of cases exactly like those just described by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) to feed them into the system, and would mean that there is no chance of them being delayed or ignored, and that there could be no prevarication? When we engage with the relevant officials directly, as we did over Ukraine, we get results. Why should we not help those people in Afghanistan, to whom we have a particular obligation, given that we were prepared to do that for those from Ukraine, towards whom we had fewer obligations but understandable sympathy?
I congratulate you on your new position, Mrs Latham, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise for being late; I had not intended to speak, but I think my intervention would have tried your patience by being a little lengthy. I will also be very brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who does a fantastic job as chair of the APPG for Afghan women and girls. It is a pleasure to be a member of that group. To follow on from the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), Marzia Babakarkhail is one of my caseworkers. As was explained, she fled Afghanistan as a former judge after the Taliban tried to assassinate her twice. She knows and has experience of what the Taliban are capable of, and how they do target women and girls, particularly in positions of authority. She knows the consequences of that.
As the hon. and learned Member explained, Marzia Babakarkhail is in daily contact with people who fear for her lives. The seriousness of the situation cannot be underestimated. It is not some dystopian novel, like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”; it is real life for women and girls in Afghanistan now. As we sit here, this is what they are going through day in, day out.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) secured an excellent debate in January, where we looked at the different Afghan resettlement schemes that are available. As he eloquently described, just a handful of Afghan refugees have been admitted into this country under pathway 3. After all the promises that were made back in August 2021, the Government’s response is absolutely shameful. I have a letter from the Minister who responded on that day, which basically dismisses the Afghan women judges. It says:
“The Government cannot...offer a home to all Afghan judges, all female Afghan judges or all Afghan judges.”
The tone of that letter was absolutely incredible. The lives of 66 Afghan female judges are under threat as we speak. The Government are not prepared to do anything about it. I am afraid that it is up to us to come to our own conclusion as to why that is.
I must apologise to the Chamber; the confusion is entirely mine. You had the correct information, Mrs Latham, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I had not correctly read our Whips bulletin, which is something I am not proud of given some of the roles I have had in this House in the past. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we might have expected to see you contributing to this debate, so it is great that you are able to chair it.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate, and on her very collegiate approach to the issue. It was a huge privilege to attend the screening that she and the all-party parliamentary group organised of “Women at War: Afghanistan”, where we heard directly from women who have come here seeking refuge and safety. In the documentary we witnessed the testimony of those who remain in Afghanistan.
I join in the tributes to Alex Crawford for her commitment and dedication to bringing those women’s stories to a global audience. The stories were powerful and moving, and they demand a response. The speed and the scale of the regression and oppression of women’s rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power almost beggars belief. Almost overnight women were excluded from the public sphere, and as months and now years have gone by, those exclusions have become harsher and even more restrictive. UNESCO estimates that around 80% of school-age Afghan girls—nearly 2.5 million—are now out of school. As we heard at the film screening, the true number may be even higher.
However, as we also heard at the film screening and as the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) mentioned in her intervention, it is not uncommon for daughters of Taliban figures, particularly those in senior and leadership positions, to be sent beyond Afghanistan’s borders so that they can be educated. What that demonstrates is not just astonishing hypocrisy but also just how thin the alleged ideology and religious conviction of the Taliban is, because the Taliban’s actions are not about enforcing particular religious convictions but about enforcing an ideology of power and subservience that has no real grounding in the teachings of Islam or any other major world religion.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making a very powerful speech. Does he agree that the point he has just made shows that this issue is not about religion but about structural misogyny and discrimination against women on the grounds of their sex?
Yes. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; indeed, I think that point has been made by all the speakers here in Westminster Hall this morning.
However, in the documentary and in the testimonies to the APPG, we also heard about the inspirational women, and men, who are risking everything to continue to provide education, skills and training to others, out of sight of the Taliban. It is often said that educating girls is one of the key interventions that can unlock sustainable and long-term routes out of poverty. But as we have already heard, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that nearly 85% of Afghans are living in poverty, and the Taliban’s actions to exclude women from many sectors of employment has caused, as Members said earlier, a significant reduction in Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.
If we want to see the value of education, we only need to look at Hillhead High School in Glasgow North. The school’s Feminism Club, facilitated by modern studies teacher Miss Thomson, wrote to me recently to express their solidarity with the women of Afghanistan and their outrage at the oppression that those women face and the denial of their basic human rights. In their letter to me, the club said:
“The Taliban’s regime is hurting everyone in the country, but disproportionately it is women who are suffering…to ban them from work is to force women to be at the mercy of men…to ban girls and women from education is to deny them their dreams of a life of their own…a lack of access to healthcare will see women suffer immensely.”
Of course those sentiments echo the conclusions that have been reached by many international bodies and observers, many of which have already been quoted in today’s debate. My constituents went on to say:
“The United Kingdom is an influential voice in the world forum. We would like to ask you what the UK Government are doing to advocate for the rights of Afghan women and ask you to raise this as an issue at Prime Minister’s questions.”
As Members know, the chance to raise issues at PMQs is never guaranteed, although both the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) have been able to raise the cases that they spoke about today at Prime Minister’s questions. I pay particular tribute to my hon. and learned Friend for the work that she has done to highlight the situation of female judges and prosecutors in Afghanistan. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for her work on this issue. I also join both my hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central in paying tribute to Marzia Babakarkhail for the incredible work that she has done, which involves placing herself at risk in order to support others.
However, what I can do and indeed will do in Westminster Hall today is ask the Minister present, who speaks for the whole of the UK Government, what his Government are doing to advocate for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. I hope that when he next meets the Prime Minister, he will let him know that the Feminism Club at Hillhead High School demands action.
Of course, it is difficult to act when the resources available to the Government have been depleted because of the decision to reduce the aid budget drastically, so the Minister urgently needs to clarify whether the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is correct in its understanding that UK humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in 2023-24 will be £100 million, which is less than half of what was provided in the previous financial year. The hon. Member for North East Fife was quite right about the need for long-term budgeting and stability. Even if the aid budget is being reduced, which many of us oppose, there should at least be a planning horizon that people can work with. Of course there are very practical issues about disbursing funding. Nevertheless, the United Nations has appealed for $4.6 billion to meet humanitarian need in Afghanistan, but it has only received pledges of around 9% of that sum.
However, even where the UK could effectively channel resources, it seems incapable of doing so. Many women in Afghanistan are desperate to access safe and legal routes that would allow them to seek safety and refuge here in the UK, but the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, or ACRS, has been an abject failure, with pitifully low numbers of people coming through it. We only have to listen again to the speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis)—indeed, the speeches of practically everybody who has spoken today—to know that. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, almost all of us have probably had a constituency case or have a constituent who has a relative stuck in Afghanistan who wants to come here.
However, the UK Government’s position is that Afghans who arrive here through irregular routes should be criminalised and deported to Rwanda. That is the Government’s position: Afghan women and girls, no matter their background or struggles, if they arrive here in a small boat or on the back of a lorry, are not welcome and should be deported. I wonder whether the Minister has the guts to get up and say that out loud.
The Government’s position is to criminalise women and girls from Afghanistan who come here using irregular routes, and that they are not welcome. That is the language the Home Secretary uses, but whenever I hear UK Ministers denigrate and belittle refugees and asylum seekers, I think of my friends and constituents, Abdul and Khalida Bostani, and their seven children. Abdul arrived in the UK on the back of a lorry, fleeing the Taliban, 20 years ago. Today’s Tory Government would criminalise and deport him for that, denying his family the life they have made, his role as a councillor on Glasgow City Council, and the work of Glasgow Afghan United, which the hon. Member for North East Fife spoke about. That organisation works to build tolerance and understanding among different communities in the city, and runs the inspiring women’s empowerment programme, which the hon. Lady also spoke about and had the privilege of visiting. Glasgow is a city that welcomes refugees, and as the pupils of Hillhead High School have shown, it is a city that stands in solidarity with the women and girls of Afghanistan.
There is no quick and easy solution to the crisis in Afghanistan, but that does not mean that there is no possible solution or response. The UK Government should be using their influence at the United Nations and elsewhere to hold the Taliban regime to account and to call out their egregious breaches of human rights and women’s rights. The UK Government should contribute to multilateral funds that are providing humanitarian relief and assistance to where it is most needed, and they need properly to invest in safe and legal routes that would allow people fleeing Afghanistan to seek safety in the UK, particularly if they have family or community connections, or have previously served UK Government or business outposts in Afghanistan.
As today’s debate has shown, there is a cross-party consensus that action is needed, and that the Government can do better. We speak with the voices of our constituents and on behalf of those who have given testimony that we have heard directly from Afghanistan at events such as those organised by the APPG. We need more than words from the Minister. We need action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham, and I congratulate you on chairing your first debate in Westminster Hall. This is an important debate on UK support for Afghan women and girls, and I thank Members from across the House for their contributions. In particular, I thank the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), for securing the debate.
It is almost a year to the day since I visited Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban the previous summer. At that time, Labour urged the Government to set out a comprehensive strategy for their engagement with Afghanistan to alleviate the assault on human rights and the humanitarian crisis that has left tens of millions of people relying on aid to survive. As we have heard from colleagues in all parts of the House, UK policy since 2021 has remained piecemeal, unco-ordinated and inadequate to lift the Afghan people out of protracted crisis, nor has it had influence with respect to the wilful destruction of the basic rights and freedoms of Afghan women, which we all hold dear.
When I visited Kabul, I was deeply privileged to witness the incredible aid work that Britain funds, and to meet a number of women who were at the sharp end of the crisis. I will never forget the time I spent on the wards of a hospital in Kabul. Every bed was occupied, with rows of children suffering from malnutrition. I watched health workers, funded by our country, helping safely to deliver babies into the arms of their mothers.
It was painfully clear how important women are to Afghans’ prospects of surviving the humanitarian crisis and to rebuilding a decent future—not just as future doctors and teachers educated in Afghanistan’s universities, but as aid workers who help others to access everything from food parcels to maternity care. However, since then, the Taliban’s edicts effectively to banish women from public life have risked killing that future—a future we have a common interest in realising because 20 years of progress for women and girls is being erased. There are severe restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, their right to education and the right to work. As well as the ban on female university students, which is being enforced by armed guards, secondary schools for girls remain closed in so many provinces.
Women have been prevented from entering parks and gyms, among other public places, and women hold no Cabinet posts in the de facto Administration. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was quickly abolished. Decades of progress on gender equality and women’s rights have been wiped out in mere months. Women civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders have faced harassment and detention. Non-governmental organisations and now even the United Nations have been subjected to the same draconian restrictions. A decent future is impossible for Afghanistan while half of its population remains locked up at home. It is little wonder that many aid agencies have been forced to halt humanitarian activities. Around 25 million Afghans are living in poverty, with households spending over 90% of their income on food. To restrict humanitarian aid and women’s right to work at this time is absolutely devastating.
A January 2023 poll found that women could no longer access services from one in five of the 87 Afghan NGOs surveyed. Nearly 60% of organisations reported that their operations had been partially suspended in February. The stark reality is that until those decisions are reversed, many thousands of lives will be lost as a direct result of the Taliban’s edicts. What recent conversations has the Minister had with international partners about engagement with Taliban officials to reverse those edicts? Can he update us on why countries such as Japan have been able to re-establish some operations in their embassies? Has the Minister advocated for the UN to use its negotiating position with the Taliban to stand up for organisations that employ Afghan women? Later this month the UN Security Council will debate concerns about women and girls. What representations will the Government make to that debate?
The women I met in Afghanistan last year had a very simple message for the United Kingdom: do not forget us. That plea has to ring louder today than it did then. Those women have been out on the streets courageously fighting for their basic rights. We have all seen the footage of women with placards fiercely staring down men armed with AK47s. Those women are formidable and Britain and its allies should stand with them, yet I echo concerns raised by Members today who fear that the Government are turning their back.
The announcement of a 53% reduction in aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan this financial year is of grave concern. We now have the figure for Afghanistan itself from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and it looks to be a 65% cut—£186 million down this financial year. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct? Meanwhile, this weekend we have seen reports that the Government’s plan for asylum could hit £6 billion over the next two years, with much of that funded out of the development budget. That is almost half of Afghanistan’s entire GDP. Let us allow that to sink in. The Government’s basic failure to process asylum claims, including those of thousands of Afghans, means that they are now cutting support from the single greatest humanitarian crisis, which people are fleeing.
The Prime Minister had the cheek to claim yesterday that his plan is working. The reality is that 20 months after Afghan families were airlifted to the United Kingdom, 8,000 are still in temporary hotels and the total backlog has risen to 137,000. The failure to process cases has meant that asylum accommodation costs have ballooned. Britain is spending four times per head what it did when Labour came to office, yet Ministers continue to write a blank cheque to the Home Secretary, who seems capable only of making things worse. As the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) put it in December, official development assistance spending has been “out of control”. He is right.
Last year our Government managed to spend twice as much on refugee hosting as Poland, where 8 million Ukrainians fled last year and where 1.5 million are still living. The Minister knows that in March, the World Food Programme in Afghanistan was forced to reduce the ration provided to malnourished households to 50% of people’s basic nutritional needs, down from the 75% ration that it was providing before that. Households are already spending 90% of their incomes on food. In the absence of a longer-term strategy and knowing how the humanitarian crisis is disproportionately impacting women, can he tell us what the UK support to the World Food Programme will be this year? The Minister of State is not in his place, but I wrote to him about the pressure put on the ODA budget by the asylum system in March. It is now June and I have still not received a response. Will the Minister who is in his place assure me that a response will be expedited urgently?
Last year the Government promised that they would directly support women’s rights as part of the civil society component of the United Kingdom’s Afghanistan conflict, stability and security fund programme. Since then the CSSF has been scrapped in the integrated review refresh to be replaced by a new, smaller fund about which we have received very little information. As ICAI revealed just a fortnight ago, the FCDO no longer has any direct programming with women’s organisations in the country. For what reasons have the Government decided to completely withdraw direct funding from women’s programmes in Afghanistan? Has the Afghanistan CSSF programme been completely or partially scrapped? Will it or its replacement retain a civil society component through which Afghan women’s rights are supported, or has that gone, too?
We recognise the policy challenges that the Government now face with regard to Afghanistan. The security situation remains a significant concern, and the restrictions on women’s basic freedoms are an obstruction to the country’s very future. Progress from here will be slow; however, the ongoing failure of the international community to engage with the de facto authorities and find a way through the current impasse cannot continue. We must recognise that humanitarian aid, while essential, is a sticking plaster, and no substitute for basic public services and a functioning economy. The Government must lead efforts to co-ordinate a global strategy that supports Afghan civil society, respects human rights and sets a road map to allow basic structures and public services to function. The alternative is a permanent crisis, a people perpetually reliant on aid, rising extremism, women subjugated, more instability and refugees spilling across borders.
Something simply has to change, so what discussions is the Minister having with partners about setting a unified international strategy of diplomatic engagement with the de facto authorities? What is the UK doing in the meantime to help, in country, the 1.3 million Afghans who have fled across the border to Pakistan? What consideration has he given to scaling up support to multilateral initiatives, such as the window for host communities and refugees programme and the global concessional financing facility, to support developing countries that are hosting a high number of refugees? Does he accept that the lack of international diplomatic representation in Afghanistan is increasingly problematic?
Where Britain was once a leader, we are currently bystanders, yet I believe that a path through the crisis is possible. Across the country, brave Afghans are making clear their widespread opposition to the Taliban’s edicts. Women are standing up to the Taliban in the streets. In solidarity, male students and professors have walked out of universities. Even within the Taliban leadership, reports suggest that many officials oppose the ban. In government, Labour would do things differently. The United Kingdom was the only country in the G7 to destroy its world-leading development Department in the middle of the pandemic, cut lifesaving aid programmes with days’ notice and tarnish its international reputation as a trusted development partner. It is investment in long-term development that turns the tide on the challenges that we face, so our approach to international development will actively centre women and girls to fight for their futures and a fairer world.
We will fix the Home Office meltdown with our comprehensive plan to tackle channel crossings, reform resettlement routes, break up the criminal people-smuggling gangs and address the root causes of humanitarian crises and poverty. In partnership with allies, a Labour Government would develop a strategy of pragmatic diplomatic and development engagement with the de facto authorities to help to restore Afghanistan’s economy, uphold women’s rights and save lives. We understand that the recognition and protection of gender equality is both a human rights obligation and essential to achieve peace, justice and sustainable development in Afghanistan.
Tomorrow, I will meet a group of 20 Afghan women, many of whom have escaped the Taliban and are now living in the United Kingdom. Brought together by Zehra Zaidi, they are calling for a global summit for Afghan women and girls. They include former Ministers, judges, journalists, diplomats, women’s rights defenders, chief executive officers, scientists and scholars—incredible women whom any nation should be proud to have produced and to see fulfil their full potential. As the shadow Minister for International Development, I want to be able to look those women in the eye and say, hand on heart, that Britain did not give up on them and those like them in their hour of need. That work begins by standing up for women’s place in society and playing our full part to forge a way out of despair.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. It is good to see you there—congratulations—and I will follow your instructions to the letter. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to her commitment to Afghan women and girls, including as the co-chair, I understand, of the all-party group. I am also grateful for the many thoughtful contributions from hon. Members present. As Members know, the Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would normally reply to such a debate, but he is in Cabinet now, and it is my honour to reply in his place.
I will try to address many of the points that have been made, but I will start by saying that between 2001 and 2021, secondary school enrolment in Afghanistan rose from 12% to almost 55% across all parts of the education system. An additional 8 million children, including 3.6 million girls, were receiving an education as a result of progress made over those two decades. By 2021, basic health services had reached 85% of the population, and the number of people with access to clean water and sanitation had doubled. Life expectancy had risen by eight years. Maternal mortality had nearly halved, and infant mortality had decreased faster than in any low-income country. Those are significant achievements.
In short, the UK and our allies, working with the Afghan Government, have given millions of Afghan women and girls access to health and education, and a path to a brighter future. Successive UK Governments invested heavily in Afghanistan and targeted that support towards women and girls, because we all wanted Afghanistan to succeed and prosper, and because, as we note in our international women and girls strategy, we know that gender equality embeds greater freedom, prosperity and security for all. Others have made that point very clearly, but I think the Development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, said it all when he said:
“If we want to change the world, we can do so by educating girls. That is the first and foremost way of achieving it, and the Government are absolutely behind that agenda.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 677.]
In February, the UN special rapporteur, Richard Bennett, reported that further Taliban restrictions deepened existing, flagrant violations of women’s human rights, and, in his words, “may amount to gender persecution”. We continue to support that work, and we look to organisations such as the International Criminal Court to judge whether the actions of the Taliban amount to gender apartheid, a point made by the hon. Member for North East Fife. Taliban decrees limiting women’s rights to education, work and freedom of movement have taken a terrible toll on the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of Afghans. The UN estimates that excluding Afghan women from work costs the country up to $1 billion a year, or roughly 5% of GDP. That seriously undermines Afghanistan’s capacity to recover and its future prospects.
In the face of these attacks, Afghan women and girls continue to demonstrate incredible perseverance, courage and bravery, which has been highlighted by all contributors today. Many continue to take to the streets to call peacefully for their rights and the right to education for their daughters. The actions of the Taliban have been rightly condemned by the entire international community, and senior Islamic scholars from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have dismissed the Taliban’s claims to be acting in line with Islam.
One of the things we all referred to was the NGOs and the fantastic humanitarian work they do. For many ladies and girls, that is where they find their employment. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the NGOs on not taking away the jobs, but taking away the humanitarian aid that filters across the whole of Afghanistan? There is a bigger picture here, to which the Taliban unfortunately have a blindness. Has the Minister been able to use his influence or the Government’s influence to ensure that what they do can be looked upon differently?
I thank the hon. Member for his important points. He also made important points about freedom of religion or belief, which he and I support very strongly. I was grateful for those.
In terms of engaging with NGOs, there are pathways to bring food and engage women and girls in that process with a limited number of NGOs, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent. We are doing everything we can to work within those pathways to do that, but this is far from ideal. We are not happy with the situation, and we want to find other ways, but at least there are some limited pathways.
While we are talking about the humanitarian situation, it is worth emphasising that more than 28 million Afghans—over half the population—are estimated to be in humanitarian need, with around 17.2 million suffering acute food insecurity. We are working very hard to find ways to get food to those individuals and support them. The UK remains one of the most generous donors to Afghanistan; since April 2021, we have spent over £530 million. Points have been made about the official development assistance budget. It is well known that our aim—the Government’s aim—is to return to 0.7% when the fiscal conditions allow.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the Taliban’s bans on women working for the UN and for NGOs. The UN described the ban on its staff as “unlawful” and it has been unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. Those bans prevent humanitarian development aid from reaching Afghans, particularly women and girls, and threaten lives in communities dependent on that support, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The UK Government continue to provide support despite the bans, and we are working with allies and countries in the region to put pressure on the Taliban to reverse them. The goal for the aid we provide is to ensure that 50% of those reached are women and girls. We achieved that in 2021-22 and are on track to do so again in the last financial year, despite the bans that we have all called out.
Afghanistan is the only country in the world to ban women from secondary and higher education. It is a genuinely extraordinary step. As a parent of four children—two young men and two young women—it is clear to me, along with millions of others in this country, that that is unfair, economically and socially ignorant and completely self-defeating. We know from our consultations with Afghan women, including those in Afghanistan, that educating their sons and daughters is their No. 1 priority. It is key to lifting families out of entrenched poverty and insecure, low-skilled labour.
We support education provision in Afghanistan through our financial contributions to NGOs, UN partners and the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership for Education. We will continue to use every diplomatic and development lever at our disposal to restore girls’ rights to education. We are working with close allies, regional powers and through the UN to press the Taliban to allow girls back into classrooms. In December, we used the Bali international conference on Afghan women’s education to urge regional partners to speak on behalf of Afghan women and girls.
Important points were made by the hon. Member for North East Fife about the breadth of engagement with NGOs. We have had a range of consultations with Afghan women over the past year, both those in Afghanistan and here in the UK. We engage with NGOs in regular meetings with the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group and we organise consultations with local organisations as well on specific thematic issues, such as education, health and livelihoods. We will continue to take forward that engagement. We also allocated £17 million to support regional countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan, in 2021-22. That aid supports those countries to be better prepared for an increase in population movement from Afghanistan and to deliver services to refugees and asylum seekers.
Important points were made about what we can do to help encourage girls to study at home. We support access to education for girls at primary level through community-based education, which reaches adolescent girls close to their homes. Some of the partners that provide community-based education are testing innovative approaches to reach girls through technology, as mentioned by several hon. Members today. However, we have some concerns around access to electricity and the internet, which make it difficult to scale technology-based solutions.
There was a call to impose sanctions on members of the Taliban who send their daughters to schools overseas. I understand those concerns. We believe it is important to continue to engage with the more moderate members of the Taliban to persuade them to call on the Emir to reverse the edict banning girls’ education. That is the primary focus in that work.
Points have been made on how we can support particular cases. I am with the FCDO, not the Home Office, and it would not be appropriate for us to comment on individual cases. However, we are working hard to encourage and support people to come into the United Kingdom. To date, 24,500 people have been brought to safety, and since April 2021 more than 9,000 people have been granted settled status under pathway 1 of ACRS. Since 2022, the first people have arrived in the UK through pathway 2 of ACRS, and, in the first stage of pathway 3, the Government are considering eligible or at-risk British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni for resettlement.
I am very grateful to the Minister, who is a very decent man and I am sure very sympathetic to the plight of the Afghan women. Will he please take the message back to the Home Office that if it wants to claim credit, rightfully, for those schemes, it needs to create the machinery to enable right hon. and hon. Members to engage with its officials in the way that we did when we successfully engaged over Ukraine? We need that hub back. Please will he raise that point with his Home Office counterparts?
I noted the point that my right hon. Friend made in his short but important contribution, which he has just reiterated. I will take that away and follow it up with the Home Office.
I want to highlight the important work that we should carry on doing to get the Taliban to change course.
I realise that the Minister is not a Home Office Minister, but I feel like I am banging my head against a brick wall in relation to the humanitarian visa. Will he undertake to at least speak to his Home Office counterparts about that? As I said, I met the Prime Minister, who seemed amenable to the idea, but time is of the essence.
Understood. I apologise for not responding to that point earlier. I will follow up on that. There are already pathways set out. I understand that there are frustrations with the pace of the response in some of them, but we are moving forward with them.
I will conclude in order to give the hon. Member for North East Fife enough time to make her concluding remarks. The Taliban need to end their discrimination against and repression of women and girls. They must allow them back into schools and universities, and lift the restrictions on employment for women. Educated and empowered women in Afghanistan will contribute to economic development, peace and stability across the country. It is clear that without that the country will never achieve longer-term stability or prosperity.
I am very grateful to you for your chairship, Mrs Latham.
Sixteen MPs have been in this Chamber either contributing to the debate or chairing it, and if the Taliban had their way more than half of us would not have been here, nor would the two female civil servants and two female members of House staff. We need to think in stark terms about what has happened to women and girls in Afghanistan. That is why it is important that we resist the Taliban narrative, and even more important that we listen to women and girls.
I am hugely grateful to everybody who contributed to the debate. We speak passionately because we care, and we care because this is a matter of life and death for many of the people we have engaged with, and we feel a degree of responsibility to them.
There are clearly key things that we want the Government to consider, and I am grateful to the Minister for committing to several of them. I hope he will take away the APPG’s request that the Minister of State, who is the International Development Minister, meet our group—not just the MPs but, importantly, the experts we engage with. That is a very important message for him to take back.
It is clear that the existing schemes are not doing what we want them to do. I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis): we should do something similar to what we did for Ukraine. Politics is all about making difficult decisions. There is never a right or a wrong answer; there is usually just a less wrong answer, and sometimes not making a decision sends a message. I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) that choosing not to do for Afghanistan what we did for Ukraine sends a message. I have had people ask me directly to my face: “What does this say? Why are we different?” I suspect we know why the Government are not doing that.
The Government are focused on small boats, and it is clear that there is no political consensus about that in this Chamber. They have talked about the reduction in the number of Albanians, but we know that, from the start of this year, the highest proportion of people coming in small boats are from Afghanistan. We know exactly why that is: the existing schemes do not work, and promises were made to people in Afghanistan who supported us and delivered the 20 years of progress that the Minister spoke about. We must do more; we cannot forget women and girls in Afghanistan.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for Afghan women and girls.