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Afghanistan: Women’s Rights and the Education of Girls

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will propose at the forthcoming Tokyo conference on support for Afghanistan that at least 25% of aid should be directed to the support of women’s rights and the education of girls.

My Lords, at the Tokyo conference in July we will be working to ensure that Afghanistan and its international partners reaffirm their commitments to the rights of Afghan women and children, as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. We wish to see long-term financial commitments from the international community in Tokyo matched by promises from the Afghan Government to deliver key services and policy reforms, including in the areas of human rights and equal status and opportunity for women. The Tokyo conference is not, however, the forum for detailed spending priorities.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The Tokyo conference is the last occasion, and the best occasion, to try to change the attitude of the Afghan Government towards their handling of what is called the transformational period, the period that follows the removal of ISAF from Afghanistan next year. In the past few weeks we have had very troubling evidence of backsliding on women’s rights, including the poisoning of 120 schoolgirls for daring to attend school. All 120 of them are now in hospital.

Given all that, I ask the Government for two promises. First, will they insist that some part of the aid provided by this country—the $110 million we have committed to Afghanistan—should be devoted to the education, training and advancement of women as a condition of our aid being supplied? Secondly, there should be a transparent account of how that money is spent so that the Afghan Government cannot again escape their responsibilities in the way that, frankly, they have done all too often over the past couple of years.

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that the position of women in Afghanistan is not at all as we would wish it to be. They have made a lot of progress, and we must make sure that we secure that progress and continue to make progress. As far as the UK Government are concerned, the way that DfID approaches its support for Afghanistan is underpinned by human rights, and women’s rights are part of human rights. That will continue to be the case into the future. As we look at the transformational decade that my noble friend referred to, that approach will continue as far as international donors are concerned. The protection of women’s rights is written into the Afghan constitution, and that is what is going to be expected of the Afghan Government.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that 10 years ago it was, in fact, the plight of women in Afghanistan that captured our attention and our support? Is she aware that religious leaders, with tacit agreement from President Karzai, are now justifying certain types of domestic violence? They are proposing limits on women’s education and employment and calling for the compulsory wearing of the hijab. Against this background, will the United Kingdom Government undertake to ensure that any peace settlement contains specific and unconditional provision for protecting and promoting the rights and freedoms of women and girls in Afghanistan?

This Parliament, like many others, has done a huge amount to highlight the position of women in Afghanistan, and the noble Baroness is quite right that over the past decade or so that has been a focus here. That will continue to be the case. As the noble Baroness knows, Afghanistan is an extremely poor country— it is one of the poorest in the world—and it will continue to rely on donor support. That donor support insists on the adherence to the principles of Bonn, Chicago and Tokyo in commitment to human rights, and women’s rights are part of that.

Would it be possible to ask the Afghan Government to act according to their Islamic teaching, which demands, as a matter of duty, the provision of education for women, so that they cannot get away with that under the pretence of it being Islamic?

I point out to the noble Baroness that 39% of the children attending school at the moment are girls, and that figure is up from virtually none in 2001. The donor commitment to Afghanistan will continue, and it is contingent upon recognition and respect for human rights and the rights of women.

The Minister spoke about the underpinning of the British Government’s commitment to the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan but the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked a much more specific question about aid. It is not a matter of detail, as the noble Baroness implied in her first Answer. Will the Government undertake to ensure that 25% of our aid is earmarked for the rights of women and the education of girls? I thought that the point raised by the noble Baroness was not really answered by the Minister, and I hope she will now address that very specific point.

As I said before, the Tokyo conference is about the principles of taking this forward. The principles include respect for human rights, which includes education and the rights of women and girls. DfID mainstreams that through what it does. It therefore follows that the aid that DfID gives has that element built in. The specific request from my noble friend Lady Williams about ring-fencing a particular part is not necessary when you consider the principles and the fact that they are underpinned by a commitment to human rights, education and so on. I think that answers the noble Baroness’s question. The details of how that is done will be addressed down the line once the principles are established. The principles are key in the first instance.