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Iraq: Treatment of Women

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to help prevent the oppression, abuse and murder of women in Iraq by religious factions.

My Lords, we are helping the Iraqi police and security forces to develop the capacity and ability to protect all members of Iraqi society. We are also raising the awareness of the role of women in society in Iraq through dialogue with the Iraqi Government and the promotion of Iraqi civil society groups. We welcome the recent Iraqi constitution, which includes protection of women’s rights. The constitution must lead to appropriate legislation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. It seems that women are suffering disproportionately from violence in Iraq: they fear to go to the market without male protection, there is strong pressure for women—even Christian women—to wear veils and domestic violence appears to remain unaddressed. It would appear that prisons are the only place for women to go, but recent reports of repeated abuse and rape by guards from the Al Kazima prison in Baghdad, where 200 women are incarcerated, does not give cause for comfort. Furthermore, the recent appointment of women MPs by the Government in Iraq is not necessarily representative of the minorities in that country. Does the Minister agree that it would be of great humanitarian value to set up women’s refuges? Can he also say whether any of the considerable amount of money allocated for reconstruction in Iraq has been spent on political training for women MPs so that they can be more effective in their campaigns against violence?

My Lords, first, because there is no statistical track through the Saddam period, it is very hard to disentangle whether things are very much worse, although I am inclined to the view that that is probably the case. We think that the idea of refuges is a strong one and I know that a delegation on this recently went to Wales to look at experience there. Secondly, we are working very hard, including with women MPs, to develop institutionally the rights of women. We want to make sure that there is capacity building in the human rights areas affecting women and the development of civil society, which is often a great bastion of protection and development for women, and also capacity building within civil society organisations. A good deal of the investment and effort is going into the three prongs of that approach.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it was a Minister of the present Government who closed the women’s refuge centre in Iraq? That has caused great distress and many problems for Iraqi women. Furthermore, is he aware that Iraqi women are concerned about certain sections of the community which, while they purport to treat men and women equally, will leave women in a more disadvantaged position?

My Lords, I hope that I have addressed the point about the desirability of refuges. However, the bulk of our work involves trying, in an environment that is deeply hostile and in many respects very violent for all members of society, to ensure that the human rights ministry on the basis of the new constitution does the development and training. That would include provision for women in government; ensuring that women have access to lawyers and the professions; inviting them from all sections of society to engage in training in the work of civil society; promoting the role of women in many other respects; and, of course, training police forces to deal with some of those abuses, which are unquestionably taking place.

My Lords, has the Minister noted the case currently in the US courts of an American soldier accused of raping and killing an Iraqi girl and then of killing members of her family? Her uncle said that the incident had been kept secret lest it reflected badly on the family. Surely women’s rights ought to be universally respected whether by US soldiers or by the Iraqis. What are the Government doing, while they are still in Iraq, to encourage the Iraqi Government to bring forward legislation that will protect women, particularly from honour killings?

My Lords, we have always made it clear that the constitution, from the point at which it was adopted, has to be translated into real and practical legislation with which people can work. We certainly are doing what we can in training different elements of society to achieve that result. On the point about criminal abuses, I believe that the United States has expressed the view—as I do on behalf of this Government—that if there are criminal abuses, those who commit them should be brought to justice.

My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to add my salutations to the Lord Speaker who is in her place. This is a great step in the advancement of women in our country.

Does my noble friend accept that we need to praise the women of Iraq, who have sustained their voices throughout a very difficult time? Through the steps we have taken in Iraq, does he think that we have caused the advancement of Iraqi women to slip backwards? Does he accept that they need all the assistance we can give them and that perhaps we have not been able to do as much as we should?

My Lords, the idea that people have gone backwards from the regime under Saddam Hussein, which took no account of the rights of women at all, is not one I subscribe to. Of course we must work hard to make sure that there is development and progress. Personally, I think that the fact that a quarter of the members of the new governing council of Iraq are women—a higher proportion than we have in our own Parliament—is itself a good sign, and I do not necessarily accept the view that those people have been somehow placed there rather than that they are genuinely representative of sections of Iraqi society.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the brutal oppression of women in Iraq reached its zenith under Saddam Hussein, although it is true that it has continued in some horrific ways? There are targeted assassinations and even reports of beheadings and other horrors, as well as the terrible victimisation of women for not wearing headscarves and so forth. While one understands that there is a limit to what outside governments, including HMG, can do and that these matters must be gripped in Baghdad by the Government there, can we at least ensure that under the new constitution, which we advised on and supported, women really are protected and their rights really are enhanced so that we avoid the danger of institutionalising any kind of brutality or discrimination against women, as could be the case if we are not careful?

My Lords, I emphasise that there is absolutely no complacency about the position of women in Iraq, although judged by the record of Saddam Hussein—the suppression of the Marsh Arabs, for example, wiped out vast numbers of people, both men and women—it is a problem that has been in that country for some time. We must take concrete steps. We have 170 police trainers in Iraq providing professional skills and training for the police, including training in the areas of greatest concern covered by the Question. The training modules include a programme of training specifically about women. We are involved in a training facility within the Ministry of Human Rights, training trainers and providing training curricula, particularly on the importance of women’s issues. In the final analysis, of course we have to rely on the Government and the people of Iraq to determine these outcomes in their society. However, we are doing what we can to help the process of construction at the beginning. In the end, they will decide whether it is successful.

My Lords, I hope I misheard, but did the Minister say that in tackling the problems of violence against women in Iraq they have gone to Wales? Could he elaborate on that?

My Lords, my only elaboration is to encourage everyone to go to Wales. I can think of few things more enjoyable or educative. But there is a good deal of experience in dealing with violence against women and the provision of hostels and legal protection. It is that that a number of women from the Iraqi Parliament have studied.

My Lords, is there more that we could be doing here with groups such as the International Arab Women’s Federation and its president, Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani, because they may well have effective links in Iraq?

My Lords, the representatives of a number of NGOs, especially those looking after the interests of women, have been visiting London. They have repeatedly met my right honourable friend Ann Clwyd—I think they did so earlier this week—and we will continue to encourage all such tangible links.