Motion to Take Note
To move that this House takes note of the effect of conflict in fragile states on the rate of human rights abuses and the number of widows.
My Lords, I begin this debate by saying that I will focus on just a few of the many countries that are suffering from conflict at present, on the effect that this is having on rising numbers of human rights abuses that are being experienced worldwide, and on the impact on widows. I declare an interest as founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation —a charity that helps widows worldwide.
We have spoken today in this House about Syria and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that is proving impossible to resolve. It is a crisis of immense proportions that has brought with it human rights abuses and much suffering. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, there are many thousands of refugees who are trapped and cannot return home. The destruction of war can be seen in the footage of Aleppo, shown on the news this week while the ceasefire has been in operation.
What can be seen are the bombed-out ruins of buildings in what was once a thriving city. What cannot be seen is the human pain and distress that is sometimes so terrible that it cannot be put into words, including the horrific suffering of young children that was mentioned in the House today. While we have seen that some conflicts have beginnings that appear to be with all good intentions, the outcome cannot be predicted and the need to consider future strategies for minimising the suffering of innocent citizens who have become caught in the middle is paramount. I welcome the Government’s efforts to restore peace and stability, and ultimately democracy, to the area.
Only last week in this House, we also spoke about the Yemen. A Statement was made on the escalating crisis with regard to alleged breaches of international humanitarian laws. Save the Children has noted that there is,
“significant credible evidence that violations of international law have been committed by all parties to the conflict”,
and has described the country as having,
“the highest number of people in humanitarian need in the world right now”—
an estimated figure of 21.2 million.
Syria, the Yemen and Sudan are on very high alert with regard to fragility, and it is recognised that the situation is worsening and critical. What is also recognised is that this factor increases the risk of human rights abuses. It is the reality that in any such conflict women and girls often suffer, especially with regard to human rights abuses, as has been shown by the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, spearheaded by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, and Angelina Jolie, which raised awareness and aimed to end the practice of using rape as a weapon of war.
In relation to widows, the Loomba Foundation has recently published a global report on the issues affecting women and girls who are widows. The World Widows report highlights how the numbers of widows are increasing in many areas globally, particularly in areas where there is a conflict. The report has been presented to the UN Secretary-General, the UN Deputy Secretary-General and the Prime Minister of India, as well as to both Libraries in Parliament. It is the only comprehensive study of its kind.
The World Bank, recognising the increase in fragility, conflicts and violence, emphasised:
“The challenge is widespread and not confined to low-income countries. The last few years have seen a spike in conflicts with an increase in casualties, and almost 60 million people are displaced globally—the highest level since the end of World War II”.
This increase in the number of displaced people has happened on an unprecedented scale in the last few years. Those who are increasingly marginalised often have more complex needs and struggle alone, often bringing up young children without the support of vital networks of friends and families to call on. This increase in recent times, coupled with the difficulty of collecting data in fragile and conflict states, underlines the importance of not underestimating the numbers of widows who are suffering. The Loomba Foundation report estimates that there are 258 million widows globally, and the figure increased by approximately 9% between 2010 and 2015.
Afghanistan is another conflict zone, and the report estimates that just over one-fifth of the female population of marital age there is widowed. Taking just this one country as an example of the number of widows in conflict states shows just how many women are suffering not only from conflict but from bereavement and the additional problems that come with the responsibilities of childbearing and putting a roof over their family’s heads in the most difficult circumstances. As the report points out, remarriage is often unlikely, making social deprivation and poverty long-term.
Given that many of the countries where there is conflict are also countries that do not value a woman once she becomes a widow, their problems become even more acute, with the loss of property rights, sexual abuse and banishment from their community, which can lead to poverty and destitution. As male deaths may often be related to fighting and conflict situations, many widows are young—and may even be children themselves if they have been forced into marriage at an early age. This leads to a life that is unfulfilled, as they start out from an even more disadvantaged position than other women and girls in their communities. At the other end of the age demographic, it is recognised that many older women suffer terribly on being widowed. Age International has also noted that older women are often ignored in data compilation, and figures that show the true numbers of older women suffering from conflict are not readily available.
Many fragile states have multiple issues that need resolving, and a more targeted approach to the human side of the suffering may speed up the process, especially if it focuses on women, girls and widows. The UK Government have recognised that fragility and conflict impact on aid redelivery. This at the very least affects costs, and at worst stops help getting to those who need it most.
All these ongoing issues will also have an impact on delivering the sustainable development goals. Syria is one place where implementing any of the sustainable development goals is a far-off ideal. Basic bread and water, medicine and a roof over their head are fundamental needs for many citizens right now. But delivering aid within such a framework, and with a longer-term view than just immediate relief, will perhaps give an impetus to change, if it empowers the people who are suffering to begin to take charge of what is happening there. We hope that this would lead to less violence and fewer human rights abuses in the long term.
Finally, I ask the Minister what steps the Government are taking to eliminate or at least reduce the effect of human rights abuses and to help widows in fragile states.
My Lords, I hope that the whole House will feel indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for keeping what I hope he will not mind my calling an unfashionable issue before the attention of the House and British Parliament. It is essential for us, as well as the grand themes that we adumbrate and pursue in this place, to keep an eye on the questions and the subject that he has so wonderfully and with such assiduity pursued for so many years. We are grateful for that. I hope that he will not mind my appearing to subvert his debate by picking on one place in the list of fragile states to illustrate the very points that he has made. I have never had such a generous amount of time in which to speak, and I promise not to try to turn it into a Methodist sermon; I am getting into my comfort zone at 15 minutes. There are some important points to make.
From the lovely briefing note from the Library we can see that the Fund for Peace has a fragile states index, and so does the OECD 2015 States of Fragility report list a number of countries. All the countries on both lists are actually from the African continent or the Middle East, except for one, which appears on both lists—that country to which I will refer in the rest of my remarks, Haiti. It is an extraordinary country in the middle of the Caribbean, 90 minutes’ flying time from Miami in Florida. It is in an entirely different geographical context, so one wonders how that little country has been dragged into this list of extremely fragile countries, whose fragility is often related one to the other because of their proximity to each other and the fact that they have the same demographic, economic and military situations.
The OECD 2015 report says that the five things that put these countries on to the list are, first, the levels of violence present in the country; access to justice; the effectiveness and accountability of institutions; the degree of economic inclusion and stability; and the ability of the country to withstand potential,
“social, economic and environmental shocks”.
I confess to having a special interest in Haiti, having lived there for 10 years, and I shall lay before the House one or two statistics—if we can be patient with that at the fag-end of a parliamentary day such as this. At the five-year mark for the violence and military action in Syria, 250,000 were reported to be victims of the strife. I want to compare that with the 250,000 who died in Haiti in 2010 in five minutes, after the earthquake that destroyed so much of the capital city and surrounding areas in that year. Compare that with 300 recently in Italy and 85 in Christchurch—although I recognise that these comparisons are odious. Some 1.5 million people ended up in tents scattered around the city in every conceivable piece of land. If you take that as a proportion of the population of Haiti and translate it to the United Kingdom, it would mean that the entire population of London would be living in tents. So it was an extraordinary shock; half the government institutions were destroyed, as well as the records contained in those institutions—mostly paper records at that time. The presidential palace went, the cathedrals went, the main streets went—the destruction was extraordinary. That is the first thing that puts Haiti in a very vulnerable position as far as anybody wanting to perpetrate deeds that deny human rights or exploit human weakness is concerned.
On the second point—I hope noble Lords can be patient with me—we have just celebrated the way that the Ebola outbreak in west Africa has been brought to a conclusion. We note the resource that was directed towards that problem and the commitment of people such as the nurse who has just been cleared of potentially misleading the National Health Service. We recognise that this was a good news story. Ten thousand people died, but the matter has been dealt with because of the rallying of states and countries around the world.
In Haiti, 12,000 victims of cholera have died in the last five or six years and more are still dying. Perhaps that fact would not be noteworthy except for one salient phenomenon: cholera was introduced to Haiti by soldiers from Nepal serving in a peacekeeping force. There had been no cholera in Haiti before their arrival; the country will now not be without it for a considerable time. The United Nations has only in the last month been prepared to admit publicly its liability in this respect. Those 12,000 victims have attracted very little interest, I have to say, with huge amounts of denial from the United Nations and others around the world. It is an ongoing problem and it seems not unfair to me to mention it in the same breath as the 10,000 people who died of Ebola in west Africa.
Thirdly, there has been a peacekeeping force in Haiti for 12 years, although there has been no war to protect people against. There was an insurrection in 2004, which displaced a democratically elected Government. The usurpers—the coup effecters—were led by a man who was a convicted murderer yet got the support of the western world, displacing the appointed, elected President and Administration in the country at that time. The British Government—I have been speaking to both DfID and the Foreign Office—pumps money into the maintenance of the peacekeeping force; indeed, that is the prime way in which the United Kingdom offers its aid to Haiti. But the force’s mandate is manifestly inadequate for the task: it keeps peace where there is not any war. I was in Haiti at one time when the two countries providing the peacekeeping force were India and Pakistan—by the way, it was called a beach-keeping force rather than a peacekeeping force—and was invited to dinner with officials of Islamic Relief. My friends knew the Pakistani overlords and I was invited to the headquarters of the Pakistani force and, lo and behold, we were joined by the top brass of the Indian force. There was more amity between India and Pakistan on the occasion of that dinner than on the ground in the subcontinent itself, from what I have perceived from the newspapers. I thought it was worth pointing that out, just for the sake of it. They have a great deal of fun.
The United Nations pumps money into countries to help them to support the charges laid against maintaining a standing army. They are hugely subsidised by these peacekeeping exercises. I have been in Haiti so many times. I travel on foot, I know everybody, I speak both languages and I feel at home. But when I went there a couple of years ago with a party from here, I had to go in a convoy of vehicles from the peacekeeping force. I could not divert from my path by 20 yards without previous approval from the necessary authorities, because nobody would otherwise accept responsibility for my safety—a crazy business. If the relevant people would build a few bridges, or a hospital or two, or help to build capacity in the realm of public administration, that mandate would have fruits and a legacy. As it is, they are hated and people cannot wait for them to go.
As regards the constitutional crisis, Haiti’s constitutional Government came to an end in February this year. The President at the time, a former pop singer, “Sweet Micky”, was approved by Washington—he was the man it wanted. There is evidence that the election that got him the presidency was rigged. However, the Haitians lived with that for five years. When last year’s elections seemed to be producing a similar result, the Haitians objected that time. They annulled elections that the international community had said were good. That meant that from February, instead of a new Government, there was nothing. Therefore, there is no constitutional arrangement in Haiti at the moment at all. The Haitians are hoping that the elections scheduled for next month will hold good, and that soon there will be a constitutional Government.
This uncertainty is bound to lead to all kinds of mystifying things happening on the ground. There is a known drug-running business running through Haiti and people in high positions make their money out of it. Capacity building is of the first order. I tried to arrange to bring people to this country and go there with a group from this House and the other House to interest Haiti in building a parliamentary capacity. It has never had an effective parliamentary Government since dictatorship is the model it is accustomed to. I wonder whether the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations, which after the Second World War was very useful in providing shelter and cover for countries in transition, but which has done no real work for a long time, might not be a useful vehicle for helping countries such as Haiti to get some stability, build capacity and become equipped to run their own affairs.
Corruption is talked about. Where did all the money go? However, when I spoke to the President of Haiti, he said to me, “Well, we may not be administering the money that we get very well, but, let me tell you, that of all those millions you read about in the paper, five cents in a dollar is what I administer, 95 cents in the dollar is what the international community administers. If there is corruption, ask the question somewhere else”. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti and the former’s constitutional court has ruled that Haitians who have lived in the DR for years—generations, in fact—but have no papers can be repatriated. This is retrospective legislation but deportations are taking place right now of people who have lived there for a very long time and whose children have been born there. In all these ways, we are looking at a country that is not only fragile but vulnerable to forces within its own borders and to any predator that comes its way. When I lived there, I had the good fortune to travel the length and breadth of the country. In fact, I think I probably know it more than most Haitians do.
Eighty per cent of the population of Haiti live outside the normal economy. The levels of education are very low but the Haitian people, who seized their independence from the French in 1804—it was the first black republic in the world—are proud and resilient. To my knowledge, nobody who goes there comes away anything other than charmed by the experience. Fragility is on the cards and one worries about an uncertain future. The breaking of human rights, the potential for human slavery and the fact that children have very little opportunity to live educated and flourishing lives all preoccupy me. How does one bring a country like Haiti into the public mind, when the public mind is filled with the words “voodoo” and “backwardness”, neither of which typify the country in my experience and knowledge?
I once again offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and hope that he will not feel that I have subverted his cause, but merely added a case history to the points that he made.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Loomba, not only for securing the time for this debate on this incredibly important subject but for the way he introduced it.
There has been rather a dreadful irony this week in Westminster. The Foreign Affairs Committee published its indictment of Cameron’s actions which led to Libya joining the failed states list, while at the same time the new Secretary of State for DfID, Priti Patel, has been busy telling us how she will reform the aid budget according to a very different set of criteria. I have no problem with her wish to target corruption and seek transparency but surely the aid budget should be linked firmly to a criterion of need and not to criteria of what will benefit the UK most in trade terms, which is what she seemed to be saying.
The Government must realise that of all the refugees in the world, 50% are children, yet globally they receive about 4% of the funds set aside for refugees. Every day, some 17,000 children are forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict. Those sorts of people should be at the top of the priority list for our aid budget.
The charity War Child, from where those figures come, is at the sharp end of the result of failed or failing states. Yesterday I met a War Child member of staff who had just come back from the Zaatari camp in Jordan, the second-biggest refugee camp in the world. The group she was working with in the camp were girls—we would call them girls, given their age, but war and refugee life is turning them prematurely into young women. In her work with them, one of the most traumatic issues for them, and indeed for the boys in the camp, that they have had to deal with—even given all their experiences—is the way their education has just come to a halt with no prospect of it being renewed unless one of the NGOs can afford to put in place temporary schools.
Yet, time and again, we are reinforced in our knowledge that the importance of education in improving life chances is massive. Therefore, just at a point where these children’s life chances have taken a massive dip, their educational chances have been taken away. I was struck by a powerful piece written by Gordon Brown in today’s Guardian about the betrayal of half the current generation who live in the world as regards their chances of getting a decent education. I feel his anger at that. Therefore, if Priti Patel wants to make a difference, she should focus on aid to the next generation and on ensuring the educational chances of thousands of young refugees. That would have multiple benefits, not just to them but to the eventual rebuilding of the failed states and the migrant situation.
One small organisation that is starting to make a dramatic difference to children from failed states and their education is called PositiveNegatives. I will take a little time to explain its work and the effect it has. It produces what your Lordships would recognise as comic books; noble Lords may have seen a couple of examples in the Guardian this year. These books are about humanitarian and social issues in fragile states such as Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and Guinea-Bissau. They work in the following way. People in such countries or refugees from them tell their stories to PositiveNegatives, which then puts them into book form, using the accounts of the people affected, and an artist converts the story into illustrations and speech bubbles. It is at once an immediate, powerful and gripping way to address the issues.
Next week, Obama’s forthcoming leaders’ summit on refugees and migrants at the UN General Assembly will feature one of the most recent projects, of particular relevance to this debate. That project, with Care International, is about a Syrian mother whose husband was kidnapped, presumed killed by ISIS. She subsequently fled with her two young children. She is stuck in a refugee camp in Serbia, which is where the PositiveNegatives researchers interviewed her. The comic explores the vulnerabilities and dangers that war widows and women in general face while making these horrendous journeys with young children.
I accept that, in this instance, the word “comic” is not suitable, but that is what we in this country call illustrated books of this nature. These comics have a very powerful impact because they are real stories from real people. No matter what their ethnicity, age, gender or literacy levels, people can understand and empathise with such human stories.
Given the hostility, ignorance or lack of understanding that refugees often face, these books form a great resource for schools. Let me give your Lordships one example, from Fleeing into the Unknown, a comic adapted from the Overseas Development Institute’s report from Journeys to Europe: The Role of Policy in Migrant Decision-making. This comic tells the story of Merha, an Eritrean woman who escaped forced conscription to the Eritrean army and fled to Europe. The comic follows her across Sudan, Libya and the Mediterranean to the UK. On her journey, she faces extortion and sexual and physical abuse, and her experiences in north Africa are very difficult. That is before she makes the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
This book became a resource in a secondary school in south London. I should emphasise that the books are not just available in printed form; they are available electronically for tablets and computers and are highly interactive. If you want to know, for example, more about Eritrea, you can click on the “history of Eritrea” bar on the left and learn more. It is, at once, a real-life human story but you can also get to the facts behind that story. An Eritrean student at the secondary school read the comic and so did her classmates. This is what she said: “The comic has allowed people in my class to understand what my mother and I experienced on our journey. People just know about crossing the sea, but there were many experiences before that”. She felt that, after reading the comic, her classmates were far more willing and able to be friends with her because they understood something about her background.
This resource should be more widely available in our schools. It is about geography, history and, ultimately, many of our neighbours. I hope that the Department for Education, and the Minister this afternoon, will take back those thoughts. Given the rise in hate crime after Brexit, given the need for this sort of resource, and given the need for children to have something in front of them that is not just a dry text, this is exactly the sort of material that we have a great need for. For as long as there are failing states and a volume of refugees fleeing them, the need for this material will become ever-more crucial.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for securing this debate and, indeed, for securing enough time for us actually to say what we want to say, for a change—that is a great luxury. I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. We recently produced a paper entitled Population Dynamics and the Sustainable Development Goals, which demonstrates the connection between population, economic growth and climate change and famine, which leads to fragile states and conflict. Read it, my Lords.
Noble Lords may have wondered this afternoon why I have been flitting around the Benches. It is because on this very warm day I have been trying to find a warm place in this Chamber. I am frozen. It made me think that the energy being used to make my teeth chatter here this afternoon is contributing to that global warming, which will cause climate change, which will cause famine and drought and will lead to fragile states, which is what we are talking about. Think on it.
I will concentrate on conflict and how it affects the lives of women, and in particular the lives of women of reproductive age. One quarter of the 125 million people in humanitarian need are women in this age group. One in five is likely to be pregnant, leading to the horrible statistic that over 500 women in these situations die every day from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The maternal mortality rate is 60% higher in these situations than the global ratio of 210 per 100,000. Seven out of 10 women are exposed to sexual violence in these situations and they desperately need help from us in the form of sexual and reproductive health services. Many are at risk of trafficking, as we have heard, and many of these women are already widows. At this point, I again pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Loomba, who has done so much work for these women.
I have had some experience of the plight of these women in many parts of the world over the past 20 years or so. For instance, in Tirana, raped and sexually mutilated women were coming into the hospital, fleeing from the Serbian soldiers as they swept through Bosnia when we and the Americans were bombing Serbia. These women were terrified to admit—many women are in this situation—what had happened to them for fear of certain rejection by husbands and family. In South Sudan, the conflict continues after 50 years, with women fleeing in every direction to escape the Dinka and Nuer tribes of rival soldiers, responsible as ever for the children whom these women are trying to keep alive. Sometimes, their only hope for their families is for the boys to join one of the marauding armies, where at least they will be fed and clothed, after a fashion.
As referred to by my noble friend Lady Miller, I also spent time in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. It is a good UNHCR camp. When I was there, there were 180,000 people there and the majority—I do not know the proportion—were women. In many ways, they were safe and had adequate food at last and they had good sexual and reproductive health services there, with family planning on offer and obstetric care being provided at that time by the Moroccans in a very good field hospital. But the stories I heard were disturbing even in that well-run environment. They were scared to go to the toilet tents because of the risk of rape. Young girls in particular were most at risk. As a consequence, the mothers told me that they tried to get their daughters married off as quickly as possible to any male who was willing.
Child marriage, with all its horrors, was rife in that camp. The only thing that really concerned the mothers in their predicament was not their daughters’ immaturity, but that at home they said they would usually know the man chosen for their daughter, but in the camp it had to be anybody, just to keep them safe. That is something I have never forgotten.
Another sad fact was that, although sexual and reproductive health and family planning services were available, they were little used because I was told they wanted to replace the babies they had lost in the conflict. However, refugees from Syria and other countries in less formal camps and enclaves are not so fortunate as these women, even though they, too, are not in a good situation.
I want to concentrate for a few minutes on my next concern, which is the availability of abortion for women in conflict situations. It is a difficult subject. Under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, abortion should be available because the denial of abortion to a woman who has been raped in conflict threatens her life or could cause unbearable suffering. It is unthinkable, and I speak as a woman myself, that having been brutally raped by one or many more men, a woman has to face months of pregnancy, rejection by her partner if he is still around, and giving birth to a child as a result. In their response published in June this year to the House of Lords Select Committee report, Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime, the Government reaffirmed their 2014 policy recognising abortion under the Geneva Conventions. I thank them for that and for the work they have done.
However, there is a problem. The USA aid packages for sexual and reproductive health specifically exclude abortion, but because funding for sexual and reproductive health from many different countries can be pooled to provide facilities in a conflict situation, there is still concern that the most humanitarian of services cannot be provided because of the USA ban. I understand that,
“DFID is in regular dialogue with USAID, State Department and … NGOs with regard to improving access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, which includes reducing recourse to unsafe abortion”—
which, as noble Lords will know, kills many women in their desperation not to be pregnant—
“and improving access to safe abortion services”.
But it is still unclear whether abortion services have become available in these situations and in what numbers. Can the Minister clarify this issue in her response, or write to noble Lords on this issue? Since the DfID announcement of its policy in 2014, no progress report has been made on its implementation. I know that this field is difficult and contentious because I have worked in it. The work often goes on quietly and under the radar, but it must be possible to give us some reassurance that progress is being made.
I assume that this topic, together with emergency contraception which is also vital, must have been raised in one forum or another at the World Humanitarian Summit held this year in Istanbul. I was there for the fringe meetings, but I have not had access to reports or any feedback on this issue from the main summit conference. I apologise for labouring this subject—and indeed I apologise for the pun—but I have been working in this area all my life and I know about the suffering involved.
In fragile states and conflict situations, women suffer disproportionately in comparison with men and somehow have to protect their children. Finally, I would ask the Minister to clarify the new policy of directing more money to fragile and conflict-affected states. What exactly is the policy? Will it affect the money that has already been pledged for the Family Planning 2020 initiative by David Cameron’s Government back in 2014? Can we also be assured that, within that funding, there is an element for the provision of sexual and reproductive health services for women who are caught up in these horrific situations?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for securing this important debate. Human rights abuses do not just take place in conflicts in fragile states. They take place in many countries known as famous democracies. One of them happens to be India, particularly in Indian-administered Kashmir. As many noble Lords know, I was born in Azad Kashmir and I have family and friends on both sides of the line of control that divides the state between India and Pakistan.
The Indian Army has been in Kashmir since 1947, but it was given special powers in 1990 under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives it complete immunity. Although I am aware that the Indian armed forces have enjoyed this immunity at different times in different parts of India, it has always been for a short time, whereas the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been applied in Kashmir without a break since 1990. Since then, more than 100,000 civilians have been killed. Many more have been injured, detained and tortured.
Lately, the forces have started using pellet guns, which has resulted in hundreds of people, mainly the young, being blinded in one eye or both. Many international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have highlighted these violations time and again. As lately as two days ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council made a formal request to India and Pakistan for free access to their respective areas of the former princely state. Pakistan has agreed to give free access providing India does the same, but sadly, India has refused completely.
Let me draw noble Lords’ attention to some surveys done some time ago on the plight of widows and orphans in Kashmir. The first is a report on a survey on the impact of the conflict situation on women and children in Kashmir, conducted by the department of sociology at the University of Kashmir and sponsored by the UK-based NGO Save the Children Fund in 2003. Here are some extracts:
“Srinagar—Shama Bano at 30 continues to struggle for survival along with her two minors, including a mentally retarded son, in militancy-hit Kashmir where living conditions of thousands of widows and orphans deteriorate day by day.
Bano’s life was shattered when she found her husband Manzoor Ahmed Bhat’s bullet-riddled body outside the residence on December 15, 1992, and still finds it hard to believe it with seven-year-old mentally retarded son Amir groaning and grumbling about the fate of his father.
After the death of her husband, Bano moved into her brother’s house in the Lalbazar area here as her in-laws ill-treated and left her and children in the lurch and dependent on income hardly sufficient to feed the family.
The plight and misery of Bano and other widows and orphans came to light”,
during the study, which was,
“carried out by nine researchers under the guidance of Dr Bashir Ahmed Dabla, Head of the Department, with 600 respondents (300 widows and 300 orphans) taken in six districts of Kashmir. In all, 100 respondents (50 widows and 50 orphans) were taken in each of the districts of Baramula, Srinagar, Kupwara, Pulwama, Anantnag and Budgam and an attempt was made to understand the prevailing conditions of the widows and orphans which emerged immediately after the death of their husbands and fathers, Dr Dabla, the director of the project said here.
According to the survey, significant groups of women and children have become widows and orphans as a result of death of their husbands/fathers who were the sole bread earners in their families with the result the living conditions of these have become worse as there is no organised, systematic and continuous financial support to them.
Dr Dabla admits that limitation of the study was its small sample as reliable estimates put the number of widows and orphans in Kashmir at 16,000-20,000 at present”.
This was in 2003. It goes on:
“A majority of the widows are illiterate and fall in the age group of 19-30 years and belong to lower middle class families with a monthly income of Rs 2000-4000. The survey gives the break up of incidents of death of husbands of all women respondents—cross-firing (21 per cent), killed by army/security forces (26 per cent), custodial killing (15 per cent), militants (9 per cent), surrendered militants (17 per cent), killed by bomb/mine blasts (7 per cent) and at the line of control (5 per cent) … though after the death of her husband, a Muslim woman is allowed by the Shariah to marry again, the survey found 91.33 per cent respondents whose husbands had died didn’t marry because they wanted to look after the children of their deceased husband, while only 8.66 per cent had remarried”.
The survey said that,
“most of the women face problems within and outside their homes like financial difficulties, psychological downfall, emotional stress, denial of inheritance/due rights, sexual harassment, physical insecurity, losing control over children, dead husband’s liabilities, harassment by in-laws, social security and apathy … The crucial problems faced by children, after the death of their fathers, are economic hardship, psychological setback, lack of love and affection and apathy on the part of relatives”.
The report said that the survey went on to say that:
“The devastating effect in the post-death period is that children could not pursue their education, while orphans had to drop out of schools, others had to face a tough time for continuing their formal education … The survey found that the number of dropouts from schools in rural and urban areas has significantly increased during the past decade as death of fathers led them to work outside to earn for their families. ‘These children, who work in automobile workshops, home service, handicrafts, face undesirable conditions as they are exploited which leads to child labour’”.
Let me give another quotation, this from the Hindustan Times of 14 March 2010. It reports:
“There are over 32,000 widows and 97,000 orphaned children in violence-battered Jammu and Kashmir, a new study has found, suggesting that the unending conflict in the border state has only made things worse for the vulnerable sections of society … ‘There were 32,400 widows and 97,200 orphans in 2008 in Kashmir and the number is growing. With the continuity and intensification of armed conflict, their life conditions have deteriorated to miserable sub-human levels,’ says the study … The study says that widows and orphans in the state, which has been battling a separatist war since 1989, have not received adequate help from the government … ‘Neither the state nor NGOs have been able to help them in an organised and systematic manner. The tragic aspect of the situation is that the state has not adopted any specific social policy and programme in this regard. Their problems accumulate and intensify day by day’”.
Let me share another article from 2013 and mentioned in many newspapers in India: “The Shocking Tale of Half Widows and Half Orphans”—a term noble Lords might not have heard elsewhere in the world. It talks about Kashmir and was written by Ana Kandwal. It says:
“While I was in Kashmir, I was hoping to witness the beauty of … paradise but what I witnessed instead were the gloomy stories hiding behind a beautiful veil. Seldom does any tourist, who visits Kashmir to feel the beauty around Dal lake, houseboats, Gulamarg and Sonmarg get to feel the touch of reality. I am quite sure that people have observed the disturbance which one can sense now and then, which comes with the endless Indian military convoys that pass by or the sight of jawans or Jammu Kashmir police supervising at every nook and corner, and of course those graffiti that one can see sprayed up on the walls, especially near Lal Chowk, that talks about the stories of rebellion and revolutions that are enough to give jerks and prick in your rose tinted glass. We sensed the same fear, disturbance, confusion and were incapable to understand the setting. But as they say, ignorance is bliss. We preferred to move ahead by making assumptions about the natives of Kashmir to calm down our conscience. I think we have become habitual of making assumptions. Isn’t it the easiest way to run from the reality or from our duty? … Since childhood, we were taught that Kashmir is a part of India, that it’s a paradise on earth. What we were never taught was that Kashmir is a disturbed area where people still believe in”,
not living under colonial rule.
He went on to ask,
“why some people want self determination? What is it and why some people want to repeal”,
the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. He said:
“We were taught only beautiful things that made us patriotic and anyone or anything that talks against these beautiful teachings or tried to cross check the reality are labelled as anti-national. And here I was, at the place which gave me many reasons to be bothered. I was ripped off my own so called identity and beliefs. The Kashmir that I always believed to be mine was not so mine. Till Jammu, everything was just like India but when we reached Srinagar, I started sensing that I am in a different country. There was nothing like India except that the Indian military could be seen at each and every place. Our whole lives we read something, accepted somethings and the reality seemed to be starkly different. Something that shocked me was the graffiti on the walls stating ‘Go India Go’, ‘Free Kashmir’, ‘1947: Indian independence or occupation?’, ‘Revolution is loading’, ‘AFSPA license of offence’ etc. I was aware of the disturbance in Kashmir valley through all those media news which we get to hear of but was completely ignorant about this different angle of the whole issue”.
I will shortcut my speech, because it may just run over, but I would draw your Lordships’ attention to this: between 1989 and 2009, the actions of India’s army and paramilitary forces in Kashmir have resulted in 8,000 enforced and involuntary disappearances and 70,000-plus deaths, including through extrajudicial or fake encounter executions, custodial brutality and other means. Lawyers have reportedly filed 15,000 petitions since 1990 inquiring, largely unsuccessfully, into the location and health of detainees and the charges against them.
Seven thousand unmarked graves exist in Indian-administered Kashmir. According to a recent finding, when 53 graves were found in a particular district of Kashmir, after the exhumation of the bodies 49 were found to be of the local villagers who had disappeared from nearby villages, while three were unidentified and one was that of a militant. The finding is so chilling that it shows the extent of the violation of human rights, and the degree of the ignorance within the institutions. It urges the Indian Government to cease such activities and calls for justice.
Finally, will the Minster ask her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to use his good offices to persuade India to lift the curfew order imposed on most cities and towns of Kashmir for the past 68 consecutive days, to allow free access to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to investigate the human right cases in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, to withdraw from Kashmir its military and its draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, and to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir a referendum to decide their future as we gave to the people of Scotland?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for obtaining this debate. By now all noble Lords probably know that my main interest is women, all kinds of women, but especially those who are deprived and mistreated. There are an awful lot of them in an awful lot of countries, whether they are fragile or in a good state. Women are not where they should be. It is frightening because I wonder whether they ever will be. We keep saying that it will be all right when they get educated, but how are we going to get them educated? It is not an easy task to educate grown women—it is easier to educate girls. Let us make sure that we at least start on the road to educating girls because even now in many countries the boys get to school and the girls do not.
Let us remind ourselves that the rape, torture and degradation of women is used as a weapon of war. It does not just happen; it is made to happen. Degrading, torturing and raping women helps invaders or groups of people who are trying to put down other groups of people. How is it possible that in this day and age we do not focus on it enough? We do focus on it, but clearly not enough. We have forgotten that this has been going on for ever, throughout the history of humanity. We have reached the 21st century, when we are supposed to be civilised and caring and to think about other people, and it is going on even more.
We talk about fragile states. Their number increases almost every week—this country is not doing well, that country is not doing well. So many countries are not doing well and are not controlled by those who rule them. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, said that democracy does not mean the protection of everyone. He is quite right. There are all kinds of so-called democracies where there is no protection for anybody, whether they are men, women or children.
The plight of widows is particularly severe because they are treated so very badly. In India, even widows with families are thrown out and sent to places where people gather to pray. They sit there as beggars. They have children and brothers and sisters but nobody takes care of them.
In Africa, they take everything a widow has, and quite often they throw her out of her home. I have a very close friend—actually I have adopted her unofficially and treat her as my daughter. She is from Nigeria. Her father died suddenly when she was six years old. He had no siblings, but he had cousins. They came and took everything saleable in the household, every single thing. There was not that much, but there were a few things. He had a motorbike, for example, and that was the first thing to go.
Her father had three wives, and they took the two younger wives as well. They did not take my friend’s mother, because she was older. They left my friend’s mother with 13 children—the children of all the women. This is not made up; this is my closest friend. Her mother had 13 children and nothing to feed them with: no work, and no money anywhere. I asked her what her mother did, and she said she gave a child to whoever would have one. They went to neighbours, friends or relatives; my friend went to her uncle. She then got a job cleaning toilets in a hospital and took all the children back. Women are so amazing—I am going to cry in a minute—and suffer so much, but still come out of it shining. I do not know why that is. Then there is religion. Women do more religious praying than the men do, and yet no religion has ever supported women. Sometimes religions do verbally, but not in practice. No religion has supported women, which I do not understand, as they are supposed to be there for everyone.
We all know that widows are like pariahs. If an old man dies, that is one thing, but in India, if a younger man dies, they are sure his wife has killed him. She is a very bad omen for the family and they want to see the back of her as soon as possible. These things are not of today; they are of the day before yesterday. We all have to fight them in whatever way we can. If a widow has female children, it is worse. If she has a son, sometimes the family will let her stay, because they want the boy. Once again, they do not want the girls; they want the boys. Then we have something new happening today—Daesh. What is it doing to girls? Can we believe what it is doing to them? I am sure your Lordships have all read or seen something about those two girls who managed to escape from Daesh. What treatment; what a life. I do not think I would live like that. I would try every way to kill myself.
Talking about killing oneself, I want to just remind noble Lords about Bangladesh. When Bangladesh, which was then part of Pakistan, rebelled, and wanted Sheikh Mujibur to become Prime Minister, western Pakistan attacked what became Bangladesh. When the war ended, 2,000 women who had been kept as what they now call comfort women were freed. They did not have any clothes, because if they had given them clothes, they knew they would have hanged themselves. These 2,000 women had no clothes, and were locked up for the use of the soldiers. When they got clothes, a lot of them did hang themselves. We should also remember that they had nowhere to go, as their families would not have accepted them. The families would not have said, “You poor thing, you have suffered so much, we’ll see what we can do for you”. Not a bit of it. They would have said, “Oh my god, what are we going to do with this? Go away”. They could have begged or they could have killed themselves—and a lot of them did.
This is not like today, yesterday or tomorrow; this is all the time. This is one of the most awful stories, and the other interesting thing is that no Pakistanis know about it, because it was never mentioned in Pakistan—I am sorry, I am not attacking the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, personally. Indeed, I am not in disagreement with a lot of what he has said about Kashmir. However, what I am saying is how it happened, and it is horrible to think that it did.
In sub-Saharan Africa the worst conditions are faced by women, who are evicted and not allowed to have any kind of life. Widows are regularly accused of killing their husbands. There is no limit. A widow probably suffers more than a married woman, but married women suffer too. They are regularly beaten. Look at Mumbai, a big city. A lot of the women there work in the informal sector; they learn some skills and do cleaning, cooking and small-duty processes like doing massage and nails, so they get money. What happens to it? The husband takes that money and drinks it. The woman still does not get to keep that money, and if she cannot keep it then it cannot improve her life. If she keeps her money, what does she do with it? She does not drink, fight or gamble; she uses it for her family. Yet we treat these women as if they are worth nothing and not worthy of being cared for.
As I get older, I see that the situation in the world is getting worse, not better, and that begins to hurt very badly. For the last 10 years, all that I have cared about is how to change women’s lives. I wish I had the power to do so but I do not, although I do what I can to get people to take an interest. I have set up a charity to see if we can get women into work in India and Africa, and to get British companies to employ poor women. Culturally, companies do not employ women. They will employ an educated woman, but they do not employ women in industry. Factories just do not give employment to women. I am sure that a lot of that goes for Pakistan too, although there they also have other constraints. In India, however, we have no constraints, nor are there any in Africa, except in what we completely incorrectly call “culture”. It is not culture but social practice, and usually bad practice at that. We should stop using the term because people hide behind it: “Oh, it is their culture”. Does it make it all right that you beat your wife every weekend because it is your culture? No. We have to start thinking about the person, not about so-called culture. Culture is usually something good, not something as appalling as what happens to women.
DfID has always said that it supports women and girls, never that it supports widows, women and girls. In a way that is right because widows are women, but in another way they have more to bear than other women. Perhaps one day DfID will be able to separate out groups of women. There are so many groups: for example, there are the girls who are taken to temples in southern India. They are there for the use of the people who come to pray and the priests. What kind of world is it for that to happen in a place of worship? It is not possible to take these things in. The girls are called devdases, the acolytes of the gods—well, some gods.
We need to be thinking all the time about women. At conferences they talk and talk but sometimes they never even mention the “w” word; they do not say anything about women. It is an uncomfortable subject and they just talk around it. I am so pleased that today there are so many men speaking. Quite often in a debate like this, you have one or two men and all the other speakers are women. So thank you, gentlemen, noble Lords, for speaking in this debate, and again I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for tabling it.
I start by declaring what is not a formal interest but, until March this year, I was a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is largely funded by the FCO and DfID, and some of my remarks bear on its funding and work.
I welcome this debate and the opportunity to participate in it. I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for it, and go further and thank him sincerely for the work he has invested in the Loomba Foundation over the years, first in India and then throughout the world. It is largely down to him that International Widows’ Day was declared by the UN General Assembly in 2010; the work of his foundation led to that. He called for today’s debate, and we have heard some passionate, heartfelt and well-informed contributions. Even those of us who have had concern for development for many years have perhaps missed the significant and often terrifying hardships faced by widows throughout the world, particularly in conflict zones but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, reminded us, also in places where custom and bad social practice—I had intended to use the word “culture”, but she has taught me something already—horrifically magnify the impact of widowhood on the individual, as well as on their children and the society in which they live. My renewed thanks to my noble friend and his foundation, which published its report to coincide with International Widows’ Day, which did not work too well in the United Kingdom this year, because it was 23 June, when other events were taking place.
We have already heard some of the appalling statistics, with the important qualification in the House of Lords briefing that all the figures in the report are almost certainly serious underestimates of the actual problem. Shocking as those figures are, and wake-up call as they undoubtedly give us, they are letting us off a little lightly: the real situation is even worse than the Loomba Foundation’s report sets out.
I first worked on a refugee resettlement programme more than 50 years ago, in 1959. It was World Refugee Year, something lost in the midst of history, but at the time in western Europe there were 1 million refugees still living in camps following the end of the Second World War, mostly huts and ex-barracks in Germany. They largely consisted of German diaspora who had been expelled from countries in eastern Europe as the Soviet army advanced, where people had no intention whatever of provoking a future German Government to rescue them. World Refugee Year was a start to tackle that backlog of refugees in western Europe. It took more than five years to finish the task of rehousing and resettlement, and people’s circumstances could be complex.
I worked with a small team to help a widow in Austria to build her new house a couple of years later in 1961—16 years after the war. For 16 years, she had lived in a hut in Austria, waiting for something to happen, and it was our task to help her to build her house. She had been born before World War I in Hungary, in a German-speaking community. In 1919, her village was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but she did not get Yugoslavian citizenship because she was a German-speaker. In 1945 she was expelled from Yugoslavia and finished up in Austria. So, was she Hungarian, Yugoslav, German or Austrian? It is a reminder that, then and now, we cannot fit refugees into neat bureaucratic boxes. What they need is not the correctly shaped bureaucratic box, but safety, security and a home.
A UNHCR representative in Austria said in 1960 that,
“nothing is easier than considering the refugees after a while as a pest or as troublesome aliens. In reality they are neither heroes nor inferior individuals. They are quite ordinary people like everybody else, but they are living in extraordinary conditions”.
Catastrophically, 50 years on, the flow of refugees continues: from the Middle East, from Sub-Saharan Africa, and even in Europe from Ukraine, and certainly into Europe from all of the above, and others as well. In as much as those tragic exiles get noticed, it is now almost universally in the United Kingdom in a hostile, suspicious and demeaning tone—too often, I have to say, led on by journalists and newspapers that certainly ought to know better. The Daily Mail, having fought against the admission of Jewish refugees in the 1930s on the grounds of their religion, their doubtful loyalty and their alien lifestyle, has learned nothing. Now, it opposes the admission of Muslim refugees on exactly the same spurious grounds of doubtful loyalty, religion and alien lifestyle.
Just occasionally, a particularly horrific and photogenic tragedy opens a brief window of understanding and charity. The dreadful sight of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, drowned in the surf, did at least at last produce a reluctant, miserly agreement to admit 3,000 unaccompanied children. What grudging, slow progress has since been made on meeting that commitment. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, starkly reminded us today that it is not just the photogenic children who merit and desperately need our help and who will die without it, but the girls and women—and in particular, the widows, who are always left at the bottom of the pile and ignored.
It would not be right in a debate such as this to overlook the United Kingdom’s leading role in international development. I, for one, was pleased to hear the new Secretary of State for International Development coming to terms in her remarks earlier this week with the utility and effectiveness of the work her department does. I hope that in due course we shall see her showing all the enthusiasm of a new convert to the way her department projects the United Kingdom’s soft power around the world: its contribution to poverty reduction, to children’s education, to disease elimination and, most relevant to this debate, to promoting gender equality and tackling HIV/AIDS around the developing world. In the meantime, I notice that, in a nod to the Daily Mail, she has expressed the view that too much development aid is “stolen or wasted”.
At the other end of the building I spent two years on the House of Commons Select Committee for International Development under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie. I mention briefly a visit that we made to Zimbabwe in 2010. It is a well-kept secret that the British Government are the largest donor of international aid within Zimbabwe. I do not think that our Government particularly want to let people know that, and the Zimbabwean Government certainly do not want people to know that. None of that money is spent via funding of government institutions or through government services in Zimbabwe. It is all channelled through NGOs.
I wanted to mention one particular visit that we made while in Zimbabwe. As ever with Select Committee visits, it was designed to see whether the projects were value for money and were being properly run and administered, whether the objects for which they had been set up were being fulfilled, and to give a report to the House of Commons with recommendations. We visited a particular project—an allotment in a field belonging to a widow. It had a fence with a vegetable garden, and the paths between the vegetable beds were surprisingly wide. That turned out to be so that she could get round her allotment in her wheelchair. She is a disabled widow, and we were brought in to see this project. United Kingdom taxpayers had paid for the wheelchair, which seemed like a pretty good investment to me. She was going round her vegetable garden with her wheelchair and looking after her ducks. The British taxpayer paid for six ducks. The ducks lay eggs, the eggs are sold at market and she has a cash flow. Occasionally, no doubt, duck appears on the table as well.
On the point about stealing and wastage, we did bring back some criticism. In Whitehall, they know how many wheelchairs and ducks they have supplied to Zimbabwe. Not a wheelchair is rolled, not a duck clucks, without them knowing in Whitehall. Our comment was that the degree of monitoring, auditing and evaluation was grossly over the top. It is a wheelchair and six ducks, for goodness sake! I hope that the Secretary of State will understand that good results and outcomes can be achieved with very modest inputs, and that to fret too much about a lost duck or a punctured wheelchair is not good value for money in itself.
I invite the Minister, in responding to the debate, to cast some light on the plans the Secretary of State set out earlier this week, and to give us some assurance that the reinvestment of overseas development aid from EU programmes which she prefigured will not only be directed to conflict prevention and poverty reduction projects, but will also pay particular attention to the needs of women and widows and their families, highlighted so starkly by the Loomba Foundation report and by the many well-informed and passionate contributions to this debate. I also remind her that her own department has already shown her how it can do that.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the valuable work done by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on campaigning to raise awareness of widowhood in the developing world. It is thanks to him that we observe International Widows Day every 23 June in honour of his mother. I thank him for tabling this important and timely debate on human rights abuses and the number of widows in fragile states.
We have been treated to a wide variety of speeches on diverse subjects. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port for reminding us of Haiti, as he did with great passion in his maiden speech when we both joined the House in 2004. There are pockets of problems that society so readily forgets about, and it is important that we are reminded. The overall theme today, however, has tended to be the plight of women, particularly widows. I congratulate Lord Loomba on the work of the foundation and its concentration on widows. My wife is involved with a charity in Bangladesh which started off as an orphanage, until it discovered that the children were foundlings and that much the better solution was to keep the widows and children together and upskill the widows. They discovered, as I think the Loomba Foundation has, that by investing in the widows themselves and upskilling them, they got a much better outcome for the children.
I turn more directly to the subject. Research conducted by the World Bank indicates that there has been an increase in conflict-related deaths in many fragile states. In Yemen, in 2010, there were 175 battle-related deaths. This rose to 2,330 deaths in 2012, a thirteenfold increase. The Syrian conflict claimed almost 120,000 lives between 2011 and 2014. Conflicts worldwide have created instability that has displaced large numbers of people. The World Bank estimates that 60 million people are displaced around the world, the highest number since the Second World War.
It is sensible that we use the term “fragile state” rather than “failed state”. The former president of the British Academy, Professor Sir Adam Roberts, has highlighted that the term “failed state” carries a terminal sense and gives the impression that the situation cannot be rectified. The 2015 OECD report on fragile states looks at what constitutes a fragile state. According to this definition, fragility is determined based on five aspects of society: resilience, violence, justice, institutions and economic foundations. Countries that show significant weaknesses in all five areas are the most fragile. This includes countries such as Yemen and Sudan. It is important to note, however, that this creates a sliding scale where many lower-middle-income countries can also have elements of fragility to them. This method of assessment helps us to direct the right type of overseas aid to the right countries.
There is a strong link between the fragility of a state and the rate of human rights violations. When measuring state fragility, the Fund for Peace looks at the status of human rights as one of the criteria. It breaks human rights violations down to torture and executions as well as protections, such as press freedom, civil liberties and political freedom. The Fund for Peace ranks Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Yemen, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as fragile states with the worst human rights records. It should be remembered that a history of human rights violations does not always correlate with an otherwise fragile state, as is evident in countries such as Iran, North Korea and Egypt.
The Loomba Foundation has conducted valuable research on widows in the developing world and the foundation’s report from last year, World Widows Report: A Critical Issue for the Sustainable Development Goals, draws the important connection between improving the situation of widows and achieving SDGs. Specifically, the standing of widows can be linked to the achievement of gender equality, the empowerment of women and children, and the reduction of poverty, as well as improving people’s life prospects. Among other pertinent points, the report mentions that marginalising widows by, for example, depriving them of their property, can lead to children leaving education to care for their parents. This can have a detrimental effect on the levels of education in a country. Widows being deprived of their property is an issue in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other countries. Widows cannot own the land on which they farm, potentially leading to poverty.
I take this opportunity to highlight the important work done by the House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Its report was published in April this year and emphasised that sexual violence in conflict is a war crime. It undermines societies’ ability to build sustainable peace; it breaks communities, destroys families and ruins lives. The report highlights that widows are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in conflict situations. It noted that, according to the Gender and Development Network, widows in Nepal faced high rates of sexual violence.
When looking at statistics on the number of widows published by the Loomba Foundation, it is striking that many fragile states that have experienced conflict have a higher proportion of widows as a proportion of the female marital age population when compared to the regional average. The percentage of widows in the Central African Republic is 7.6%, almost a percentage point higher than the regional average. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo the figure is 8.5%, almost two percentage points higher. The Loomba Foundation has indicated that the country with the highest proportion of widows is Afghanistan, with 21.3%. The foundation notes that it is difficult to obtain reliable data, but that figure gives a strong indication of the effects of decades of armed conflict. We can reliably assert that armed conflict results in an increased number of widows.
The Government’s strategy of deploying development aid has the aim of stabilising,
“fragile and conflict-affected states”.
I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, tell the House in July that the UK’s role in promoting stability overseas will be considered as part of both the strategic defence and security review as well as the national security strategy. The Department for International Development has published a number of case studies on helping widows in fragile states, but it would be useful if the department made firmer commitments to improving the standing of widows in the developing world. As the research I have cited earlier in my speech shows, the rights and standing of widows are directly linked to the stability of countries. Improving the rights of widows is also directly linked to improving the human rights situation as well as public health in fragile states.
Finally, I take this opportunity to highlight the problem of the UK selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which are then used in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. I understand that Ministers have raised this issue with Saudi Arabia, but highlighting it does not solve the problem of British-made weapons being used in another country to wage a war where international humanitarian law is being violated. I understand that a draft report on this—seen by “Newsnight”—produced by the Committees on Arms Export Controls indicated that it was highly likely that weapons had been used to violate international humanitarian and human rights laws. The United Nations has estimated that at least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Yemen. Clearly, it is now time for the UK Government to suspend arms sales to allow for a proper investigation into what appear to be serious breaches of international humanitarian law. Yemen is very much a fragile state and the ongoing conflict harms the situation of widows and leads to increasing human rights violations. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for introducing this debate and agree with him that we must focus on widows, because they give particular value where we improve their chances and up their life skills.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing a debate on this important issue, and I am aware that he has a distinguished record in relation to these very important matters. I welcome the contributions from noble Lords from all sides of the House because, as others have said, this has been a well-informed debate.
It is clear that conflict has a devastating effect on the lives of the most vulnerable. Violations and abuse disproportionately affect these groups, including widows. As the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, said, there is an invisible strain and stress—as I think he described it—which we must always be cognisant of. The United Kingdom Government are leading efforts to address these issues and to ensure that girls’ and women’s needs are reflected in international responses to conflict. This means ensuring that the differing needs and situations of women and girls are addressed, which also of course includes widows and female-headed households.
We are maintaining a focus on protection, while tackling the root causes of violence and inequality. We will ensure greater emphasis on empowerment, and increased voice, choice and control for women and girls. Recognising and supporting women and girls is vital throughout the conflict cycle. This means seeing them not only as survivors and beneficiaries, but as enablers and promoters of stability.
The meaningful inclusion of women in peace processes and decision-making in conflict settings is important for securing peace resolutions quickly and promoting stability. Through the women, peace and security agenda, the UK Government’s ambition is to put women and girls at the centre of all our efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, promote peace and stability and prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.
As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen have suffered particularly over 2016 as a result of conflict. They are all on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights priority countries list and, as such, we monitor developments closely.
In Syria, we are working closely with NGOs and United Nations agencies to provide specialist assistance to those affected by sexual and gender-based violence. This includes clinical care, case management and counselling, reproductive healthcare and cash assistance to particularly vulnerable households. We are working to ensure that all humanitarian programmes follow good practice and are sensitive to sexual and gender-based violence, child protection and the importance of women’s participation.
In Iraq, through the Department for International Development, we have committed £129.5 million to the humanitarian effort to help those affected by Daesh. This support is reaching hundreds of thousands of people across the country, including the most vulnerable groups such as women and children. The United Kingdom also remains a key partner in supporting the implementation of the Iraqi national action plan on women, peace and security, and we are providing over £700,000 in funding.
In Afghanistan, UK efforts are focused on tackling violence against women, supporting women in terms of security and the police, and improving education and women’s economic and political participation. For example, we are working to provide access to justice for over 30,000 girls and women survivors of violence, and providing response services.
In Sudan, the urgent need to tackle sexual and gender-based violence is a central part of our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Government of Sudan. UK-funded projects have provided legal, medical and psychosocial support for over 150 survivors of rape in Darfur, and contributed to the successful prosecution of members of the police and armed forces.
In Yemen, it is clear that the conflict has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. The incidence of gender-based violence has risen by 70% since the start of the conflict. Our humanitarian partners are working to ensure they meet the differing needs of women, men, boys and girls. We are also providing nutrition support to pregnant and lactating women, and cash assistance for vulnerable displaced women and female-headed households to access protection services. Politically, the UK is actively advocating for the inclusion of women in peace talks.
The UK Government are also committed to reaching all people, including widows, who are held back by poverty and exclusion. This promise to “Leave no one behind” was agreed as part of the new global goals framework at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. I am proud that the UK played a key role in securing international agreement to the stand-alone gender goal.
All widows should be protected by the rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other international human rights treaties. However, as some contributors have indicated, in reality, interpretations of customary codes, as well as traditional mourning and burial rites, often deny widows many of their universally recognised rights. We are not only committed to promoting and protecting the rights of women, and those of particularly vulnerable groups such as widows and children, through our multilateral work with organisations such as the United Nations, but also bilaterally through diplomatic lobbying and development assistance.
We recognise that widows are not a homogenous group and face different challenges and forms of discrimination. We are therefore supporting them through a mix of interventions. For example, in Uganda, we have provided targeted support to older widows through the senior citizens grant. In Bangladesh, through the chars livelihoods and economic empowerment of the poorest programmes, we have helped 96,303 extremely poor households headed by widows. These projects provide productive assets, cash grants for business enterprise, skills training, nutritional supplies and nutritional awareness. Some 85% of all of the households supported have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
The Government also have a large number of programmes that support marginalised and vulnerable children to access education. Notably, our support to the Girls’ Education Challenge fund—£355 million between 2012 and 2016—is helping up to a million of the world’s poorest girls improve their lives through education. DfID will continue this support and will provide education to a further 175,000 of the poorest, most marginalised girls in the world through a further £100 million three-year commitment in 2016-19.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for recognising the important contribution made by the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to ending sexual violence in conflict. My noble friend Lady Anelay continues to drive this important work, which remains a top UK priority. Over 17,000 military and police personnel have been trained on sexual violence issues, our team of experts has been deployed over 80 times and the United Kingdom has committed over £30 million in funding. In 2016, our primary focus is on tackling the stigma associated with sexual violence. Often, survivors are ostracised from their communities, shunned by their families, denied justice and cut off from support networks, all of which the Loomba Foundation’s 2015 report on widows recognised. We want to challenge negative attitudes and misunderstandings that cause further suffering to survivors as well as the attitudes and prejudices towards children born as a result of rape.
Having given this insight into our approach, I will address some of the specific issues raised by contributors to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, raised the important issue of the general fragility of states and the conflict with human rights. He set the tone for the debate and I thank him for doing that in a constructive way.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, was understandably concerned about Haiti—we sympathise—and in particular the consequence of the earthquake. The UK Government provided over £20 million of support in response to the earthquake and we hope that that provided some meaningful help there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raised two important issues. She spoke of the removal of educational opportunities for children and asked in particular about refugee children. She also raised an interesting illustration of how we provide education in our own schools. I was much struck by the example she gave, and I am sure that that has been noted with interest. On child refugees and education, DfID has a £10 million Refugee Children Fund to protect children most vulnerable to exploitation, and between 2011 and 2015, the UK supported 11 million children in primary and lower secondary school and 7.5 million in countries considered fragile. On Syrian refugees, we have provided £240 million for education in Jordan and Lebanon over the next few years, on top of £115 million already provided to give every child in the region access to education. UK Aid provided 920,000 children in Syria with psychosocial support and we have also provided 350,000 children in Lebanon with textbooks and have contributed £30 million to Education Cannot Wait, a new fund for education in emergencies. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness that action is taking place.
I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, had removed to what I thought was a warmer climatic zone in the far reaches of the Chamber. Earlier on, introducing one of our colleagues and clad in my robes, I thought I would expire with heatstroke, so I was relieved to find myself standing over an air conditioning vent somewhere in the vicinity of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. However, I understand her reservations about the matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised a number of important issues, not least complications in childbirth and the maternal mortality rate. I have already provided some general comment about that. She mentioned Sudan, and I hope that what I have been able to tell her about Sudan may address some of her concerns. She raised the very important and sensitive issue about availability of abortion. It is important that we respect that women and adolescent girls must have a right to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Where access to safe abortion is highly restricted and maternal mortality and morbidity are high, we can help to make the consequences of unsafe abortion more widely understood and consider supporting processes of legal and policy reform. I realise that that may be a somewhat general response to the noble Baroness’s comment, but she has raised an important issue and I am sure that it will be looked at with interest.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, referred in detail to the plight of vulnerable widows and orphans in Kashmir. He was anxious to know whether we had any contribution to make on some of the wider issues surrounding Kashmir. I have to clarify that the long-standing position of the United Kingdom is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. We do not consider that it is for the United Kingdom to prescribe a solution or to act as a mediator. We encourage both sides to maintain a positive dialogue but the pace and scope of that is for India and Pakistan to determine.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, made what I thought initially was going to be an encouraging contribution. I felt uplifted and slightly inspired when she talked very eloquently about the resilience and courage of women, but then, understandably, she gave us a fairly stark reminder of the continuing challenges. Her speech covered a wide canvas of issues and I hope that in my remarks I have been able to address some of the points that she raised.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for acknowledging the UK’s leading role in international development. He made a very interesting observation about the Zimbabwean allotment. That was a very uplifting example of what is possible when money is provided. In that case, it was the UK providing money to fund both the wheelchair for the widow who owned the allotment and her stock-in-trade, which was ducks. It was a very interesting illustration of how, positively directed, such funding can have very important consequences. I thank him for raising that.
The noble Lord also specifically asked about the Secretary of State’s plans on the general front of funding in relation to women and girls. Women and girls, including widows, will remain at the heart of our development aid. We will ensure that spending is focused on economic prosperity, security and stability, helping countries in the developing world leave their dependency behind. Aid spending is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. Britain’s role as a global leader means that we must use our influence to drive much-needed reform to the global aid system. However, as the noble Lord has seen and was good enough to acknowledge, the United Kingdom has a fairly proud record on these matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, raised some very interesting examples, particularly with reference to the Central African Republic and the percentages of widows in relation to areas of conflict. Again, that was a very stark reminder of what the issues are, how serious they are and how we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and his foundation for keeping these constantly before us in such a cogent manner.
The noble Lord also raised the issue of UK arms to Saudi Arabia. The UK Government take their arms export responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application. The key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in the commission of a serious violation of law. Having regard to all the information available to us, we assess that that test has not been met.
I conclude by thanking noble Lords for their informed—
Before the Minister makes her concluding remarks, may I ask whether she will write to me at some stage about the availability of abortion for women who want it who have been raped in conflict situations? It is a very particular situation. Under the Geneva Convention, they should be entitled to it. I did not expect the Minister to answer this afternoon, but if she could write I would be very grateful.
I am happy to undertake to do that for the noble Baroness. I cannot provide her with the specific answer, but I can undertake to make the inquiry and see what information is forthcoming.
I asked two particular questions that I did not get answers to. First, will the British Government ask the Indian Government to give access to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which two days ago asked for free access to investigate human rights violations and India refused? Will the Minister ask the Foreign Secretary to raise that with India to allow that access? My final question was with regard to the continued curfew orders in place for the last 68 days. All the schools, hospitals and colleges are shut and life is at a standstill. Can we ask that those curfew orders be lifted?
I have a lot of sympathy with the noble Lord’s concern. I can certainly make inquiries, but at the end of the day certain of these matters are outwith the control of the United Kingdom Government. I can certainly undertake to make inquiries on his behalf.
I conclude by thanking noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions. Widows are a particularly vulnerable group—alongside children, disabled people, women in general, people who are LGB or transsexual, and others—in conflict-affected and fragile states, and the international community has a responsibility to pay special attention to their needs. Far too many widows are still shut out of inheritance, land tenure, livelihood, a social safety net, health care or education. Far too many widows and their children must cope with not only grief at the loss of their husband or father but their own sudden loss of status and benefits in society. In places where a woman’s status is linked to her husband, she may find herself suddenly shunned and isolated, and that quite simply is wrong.
At the same time, it is important to recognise the contribution of the world’s widows, who raise families, run companies, sit in Parliament and play a full and active role in public life. We must continue work to promote and protect the rights and well-being of widows, and to help maximise the positive role they play in our societies and in our economies by removing discriminatory laws, policies and practices that impede widows from enjoying the dignity and equality they deserve.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for his tireless work on behalf of widows through his foundation. All vulnerable groups should have a champion such as him.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her positive and very encouraging response. Many noble Lords have read the World Widows Report 2015 and talked about it. I just want to say one thing about why I started this work. I actually grew up as a widow’s son. I was only 10 years old when my father passed away and I saw the suffering and discrimination that my mother faced. She sacrificed all her comforts to educate her seven children, and I was educated in America. When she passed away, I set up this charity in her memory because I wanted to uplift the image of widows. They should not be treated in the way they have been treated.
Once again, I thank all noble Lords for participating in this debate, especially as it has been held quite late on the last day before the House rises. I look forward to working with the Government on these issues in the future.
House adjourned at 5.55 pm.