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Afghanistan: Protection and Women’s Safety

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 6 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to recent events in Afghanistan, including changes to Afghan law, and their impact on the protection and safety of women.

My Lords, we have raised the issue with the Afghan Government at the highest level. We were pleased that President Karzai issued a decree amending the criminal procedure code. This has been returned to Parliament for approval and we, along with our international partners, will continue to closely monitor the situation. We regularly raise respect for women’s rights and the protection of women’s security with the Afghan Government and will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that until we know how the Afghan Government will amend the Bill, it remains a threat to already fragile women’s rights and security in Afghanistan, so hard fought for by Afghan women and by our forces? Does she share my concern about the evidence that there has been a backlash against women’s rights and that the UN has reported that violent crimes against women increased by 28% in 2013 and prosecutions by only 2%? In view of the grim realities facing Afghan women, is it not regrettable that the situation in Afghanistan was described by our Prime Minister as “mission accomplished”?

For the sake of noble Lords who do not understand what the noble Baroness and I are talking about, this is in relation to a particular piece of legislation that effectively meant that members of a family could not give evidence against other members of that family. The drafting of that legislation was unfortunately supported by the UN, specifically in relation to drugs crimes, where it was felt that family members would potentially support the accused in court by giving false evidence. Unfortunately, it was a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, and the international community’s concern is that this legislation will be used against women who want to give evidence, for example in the case of domestic violence or abuse. The President has issued a decree to ensure that this does not happen. We are confident at this stage that the parliamentary majority required to overturn that decree does not exist and the timetable within which it has to be overturned is too short. We are therefore confident in hoping that the decree will stand.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness seen yesterday’s report by Carolyn Wyatt for the BBC, which said that half of all children under five in Afghanistan are suffering from the effects of malnutrition? Given the reported comments by Médecins sans Frontières during that broadcast, saying that the principal reason for this is the confinement of women to their homes, leaving them without access to clinics, knowledge or available food or medicine, can we look at the MSF initiative of reaching out directly to mothers and targeting support to them?

The situation in Afghanistan still has some way to go, as the noble Lord says. I was aware of that report but perhaps we may focus slightly on the positive. The noble Lord may be aware, certainly if you go back to 2001 and consider the number of women who are now receiving postnatal and prenatal care, that around 50% of women now have access to those maternity services—some three times more than about a decade ago.

My Lords, is not the best way of dealing with some of these difficult legal situations emerging in Afghanistan to get more women into legislative roles? Is my noble friend aware that there is some concern about an emerging threat to the established women’s quotas in Afghanistan, particularly at provincial level? Before the international community departs, will she do everything in her power to enshrine and secure a legislative role for women in Afghanistan at all levels and across all districts?

This matter is incredibly close to my heart. Indeed, my maiden speech in this House was on the plight of women in Afghanistan. There has, of course, been some progress there: 27% of all parliamentarians are now female; 25% of civil servants are female; and, indeed, one deputy presidential candidate, Habiba Sarabi—the ex-governor of Bamiyan—is standing on one of the presidential tickets. However, of course so much more needs to be done, and one of the messages that I and my colleagues—Justine Greening, for example—send out very clearly when we are in Afghanistan is that the fragile gains that have been made on women’s rights in that country must not be allowed to slide.

My Lords, what pressure can HMG bring to bear on the Government of Afghanistan to let more girls go to school?

Again, huge progress has been made here compared with only a decade ago. Of more than 6 million children in school in Afghanistan today, 2 million are girls, and many more are now attending higher education institutions. However, in a year when we are approaching the drawdown, at the end of 2014, it is important that the gains that have been made are not allowed to slip. That is why our DfID programme will continue at the level it is now.

My Lords, it is the women human rights defenders in Afghanistan who are at particular risk. Can the Minister assure us that their safety will not be forgotten when we are discussing security in Afghanistan?

They are incredibly brave women, and I also pay tribute to the incredibly brave work that my noble friend does in relation to the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan. As a Government, we support, for example, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. It has a phenomenal chairman, Sima Samar, who puts her life at risk in raising very challenging issues. I assure my noble friend that we will continue to do all we can to make sure that this issue does not fall off the agenda as we draw down our troops.

My Lords, will women’s rights and security for women be included as critical indicators of UK progress towards withdrawal and the UK’s post-2014 involvement in Afghanistan?

The noble Lord will be aware of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. Part of that covers human rights as well as the very specific issue of women’s rights. The law on the elimination of violence against women is specifically used as a measure of how Afghanistan is doing against the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. It is the way in which we measure progress on women’s rights, as well as progress on stopping violence against women. The noble Lord will be aware that, within three to six months following the presidential election, we will be jointly chairing the meeting that will assess Afghanistan’s progress against the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. That is the main framework that we will carry on using to make sure that progress continues in this area.