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Afghanistan: Women in Government

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 6 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they are making to the Government of Afghanistan to increase the number of women in senior civil service and ministerial posts.

My Lords, the Government’s expectations around strengthening the role of women in government institutions were included in the 2006 Afghanistan compact. We have worked with the Afghan Government to develop the Afghanistan national development strategy, due for publication later this month. This has helped to ensure that gender is integrated into the strategy by, for example, ministries and agencies implementing gender equality policies. We also fund various projects designed to empower women in Afghanistan at the national and local level.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure he will recognise, as many of us do, that the encouragement of women into senior positions in the Afghanistan Government is absolutely central to changing a warlord culture into a much more balanced society. Would the Minister agree that it is up to the central Government to give a lead in this respect? Can he tell me, specifically, what proportion of Ministers in the current Afghan Government is female?

My Lords, I understand that there are just two female Ministers at Cabinet level. On the other hand, 27 per cent of MPs are female, which is rather better than in this country. Behind those two statistics lies a country still mired in underdevelopment and a deep-rooted gender inequality. The new development strategy, which I referred to and is about to be adopted, has three points, which I think that the noble Baroness would wish to know about. First, ministries and agencies will be expected to implement gender equality policies, and allocate moneys to that goal. Secondly, the strategy will look for measurable improvements in women’s status, including improved literacy and enrolment in schools. Thirdly, it aims for greater social acceptance of gender equality, the lack of which has been a major barrier in Afghanistan.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that women police officers are now being trained in Herat, Badakshan and, I think, two other provinces? Does this not help to restore the status of women in authority that existed before the Taliban?

My Lords, the noble Earl is personally familiar with those programmes. I understand that that is correct. It is exactly the kind of action the Government need to take to demonstrate equality in practice.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the case of a very brave and articulate parliamentarian, Malalai Joya? What steps have the British Government taken in discussing the protection of Malalai Joya because of her outspoken comments?

My Lords, I regret that I am not familiar with the case, but I will look into it and get back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the British Government and the EU are providing a substantial number of trainers for various aspects of the Afghan Government. I know that there is, for example, a substantial police training mission. Can the Minister indicate how many of the trainers we are providing are themselves female?

My Lords, again, I will have to get back to the noble Lord on that. As he is aware, we are the second largest donor in Afghanistan. Police training is a significant priority for us as it is for all our European Union partners. Nevertheless, the number of police trainers does not match the need and I am not sure what proportion of them are women.

My Lords, has the Minister noted the $100 million initiative being promoted by the bank Goldman Sachs to develop administrative skills, accountancy and marketing administration for women in developing countries, particularly Afghanistan and Zambia? I believe that it is called the 10000 Women initiative. Will the Government encourage other cash-rich institutions to use their money that way rather than handing it out in telephone-number bonuses? Will he also bear in mind, as I am sure he has, that in Afghanistan the Taliban perpetuates the most vicious, revolting, anti-women regime of almost any organisation in the world? Those who ask why we are fighting in Afghanistan might remember that that is one very good reason: to root out that kind of evil.

My Lords, I am glad to join the noble Lord in bipartisan praise for Goldman Sachs. It is a magnificent initiative and I agree that many others should do something similar. The nature of the Taliban regime and the blight on civilised life that it presented—not only in its housing of terrorism but in its policies towards women, civilians and ordinary people generally—were utterly unacceptable.

I should take this opportunity to say that when I said that there were two women Cabinet Ministers, I should have said one woman Cabinet Minister at central level and one provincial governor.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, the number of girls who have enrolled in school has increased dramatically. There are now 5.4 million children in school compared with 1 million in 2001 and over a third of them are girls, who were denied access to education under the Taliban.

My Lords, will the Government extend proper security to women working for British NGOs in Afghanistan? I declare an interest as patron of the mother and child clinic in the Panjshir Valley.

My Lords, there is a security system in Afghanistan in which NGOs participate, which is managed by the United Nations, but real difficulties have been posed for security for NGOs—men and women—working in the south of the country. I am afraid to say that there have even been incidents in Kabul. We will certainly keep that under advisement. NGOs are critical to the goals of development and gender improvement in Afghanistan. If they were unable to work there it would be a huge blow to our collective efforts.