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Afghanistan: Women’s Shelters

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Afghanistan about recent proposals to take control of women’s shelters.

My Lords, working with the United Nations, international partners, the Ministries of Justice and Women's Affairs in Kabul and Afghan civil society, we have reviewed the Afghan Government’s draft regulation on these centres and submitted our comments and concerns to the Afghan Government. We continue to monitor this issue closely.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with me that the shocking case of 18 year-old Bibi Aisha, featured on the cover of Time magazine, who had her nose and ears cut off after fleeing abusive family members, shocked the world and underlined the importance of independent women’s shelters in Afghanistan? Is he aware that President Karzai presides over a country where 87 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate and one in three Afghan women experience physical or sexual violence? Given the high financial and human cost of the war in Afghanistan, how can we in the West believe that Afghanistan really is a democracy and that things are getting better for Afghan women?

My noble friend is absolutely right to highlight the appalling conditions, the tragedies and the atrocities which are inflicted on many women in Afghanistan. Her Question was about women’s shelters, which were set up some years ago and were, basically, a very good idea, but recently there has been controversy because it appeared that the Afghan Government were seeking to control them in rather draconian ways. Some very brave women raised their voices firmly in saying that this was not the right way forward. I can tell my noble friend that the Afghan Ministry for Justice, following representations from many NGOs and many Governments, including this one, are working on a redraft of the regulations and are planning not to take over the shelters but to improve them. That must be a small step forward in a potentially hideous situation.

My Lords, I am sure you are all aware of the awful conditions which prevailed for women during the previous period. Many of them killed themselves because they could not go out to find money to feed their children. What worries me is that I am not sure that things have improved a great deal. I hope that the Government are putting some other matters together to make sure that the situation of Afghan women is getting better, that they are able to earn money and that they are able to feed their children. I am referring not so much to the married women as to the single women, who are the ones who suffer most.

Yes, that is absolutely correct. I think there are some small signs that one or two things are getting better, but there is a long way to go, as my noble friend on this side has just observed. The conditions for many younger women are appalling. An estimated 70 per cent of all marriages are still forced and half of all young married girls are under 15, which opens the way for victimisation and violence on an appalling scale. It is slightly improving, as the Government are under constant pressure to observe human rights standards and have committed themselves to the United Nations undertakings. There are efforts and we are going slowly forward, but it is still a very ugly situation.

My Lords, will the Minister publish the paper giving the comments and concerns that he said in his initial Answer had been the Government’s response? It would help the whole House if he were able to do that. Can he tell us what resources are available to our embassy in Kabul to make contact with women and help to develop women’s role in civil society in Afghanistan?

Resources are available. Our officials in Kabul are involved in regular meetings and there is one going on now to see whether the women’s shelter idea can be taken forward. That is a valuable input and we will continue to do more than monitor the situation by pressing for the right solution for women’s shelters and for protection of women generally. As for the publication of detailed pressures and exchanges, I will look at that, but sometimes the full publication of these exchanges undermines the degree of trust and confidence one needs to make progress. It may not work, but I will certainly look at it.

My Lords, given the gravity of the situation and the fact that Afghan women’s rights are likely to be eroded with further conversations about the Taliban coming back into government, does my noble friend agree with the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, some months ago that the UK Government should appoint an individual, or at least get the EU to appoint an individual, to go and look at the status of women’s rights in Afghanistan and to come back and continue to keep a watching brief on that until the transition is complete?

Again, that may be an idea, but a lot is going on already, as I think my noble friend is well aware. A number of countries and non- governmental organisations and a number of extremely brave and prominent women in the cause of women—Women for Women in Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Movement and many others—are all conducting what my noble friend calls a watching brief. If, on top of that, the appointment of an individual would help, I would consider it, but I suspect that the problem is not so much personnel watching and monitoring as getting pressure on the Government, on officials and on the culture of the country to overcome the horrors left behind by the Taliban attitudes to women, which were appalling.