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Afghanistan: Women and Girls

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the (1) freedoms, and (2) rights, of women and girls in Afghanistan.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned by reports of serious human rights violations and abuses, as well as a reduction in rights and access to services and public spaces for Afghan women and girls. On 18 August, the Prime Minister announced a bespoke resettlement scheme focusing on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. The United Kingdom will continue to work with international partners to press any future Afghan Government to adhere to international obligations, including safeguarding human rights.

My Lords, we share the same concern. I pay tribute to the brave women of Afghanistan, including those who have protested for the right to work and an education and have been met by violence. Before the Taliban took over, 3.6 million girls were going to school, in many of whom and their futures we invested. The Taliban spokesmen say that girls can go to school, but in many areas they allow them to do so only up to grade 6 and in other areas not at all. The chasm between the statements and what is happening on the ground is wide, so how will we ensure the safe passage to the UK for women who have worked on rights and education and who are still in hiding, including former Chevening scholars? Many women were identified as being at risk, but how and when will they get out, including members of the young women’s orchestra?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, and I am sure I speak for all noble Lords in paying tribute to those brave women. We have managed to ensure that many women have been part of our evacuation programme, but many remain, including the girls’ orchestra, which I know well, and I will continue to work with all noble Lords on facilitating the safe passage of those particularly courageous women in Afghanistan.

My Lords, can we hear some more specific detail on how we are going to provide support to the women human rights defenders who are at such high risk? Are we helping, for example, with targeted documentation, advice on safe routes, specific support at the border and extraction to the UK?

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we are working on all the particulars that she mentioned. I have travelled to the region with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to look at the issue of borders. The other matters that she mentioned are getting our full attention.

My Lords, a number of Arab countries already encourage the participation of women in the economy as a whole, and in business. Is the FCDO doing enough in preparing for its future relations with the Taliban to work closely with those countries?

My Lords, I assure the noble Earl that we are doing just that. Sir Simon Gass and Martin Longden are in Qatar, in our temporary embassy to Afghanistan. From an operational standpoint, we are working with the Taliban to ensure safe passage—but also, importantly, to make sure that they uphold the guarantees they have given.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the voluntary sector plays a huge part in promoting women’s rights across the world, including in Afghanistan? Does he also agree that reproductive health rights are important to promoting women’s freedom? What proportion of the Government’s new and welcome increase in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan will go to support those brave organisations and women who are defending and promoting human rights and, especially, women’s reproductive rights?

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Baroness says on the specifics of the additional funding, which has been worked out to ensure that we provide funding directly to those most in need, including to the very groups that she mentioned.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his readiness at any time of day or night to receive details of those who have been made very vulnerable in this situation and to do what he could to help them. However, all the cases that I have referred to him, including the woman MP, are still in hiding, even those with permission to settle here. Since the bomb went off at the gates of the airport, the Government went silent in relation to them, and with them. What will be done to help them and how will they be reassured in this terribly dangerous circumstance?

My Lords, in thanking her for her work on this issue as well, I assure the noble Baroness that for those who received a letter under the ARAP scheme, or those called forward under the leave outside the rules, that letter will continue to act as a prioritisation. All those under the ARAP scheme will be guaranteed access. The issue remains in-country, and with safe passage, and I assure the noble Baroness that we are working on channels to ensure that we can guarantee safe passage through the country as well.

On that question of safe passage, yesterday the Foreign Secretary acknowledged the vulnerability of the LGBT community in Afghanistan. Of course, he said that he was talking to the Home Secretary about how the resettlement scheme will address that issue but, as the Minister is aware, safe passage to countries that are also a hostile environment for the LGBT community is extremely difficult. How is the department addressing this issue and ensuring that the LGBT community can get safe passage to safe countries?

My Lords, I totally understand the point that the noble Lord raises. He and I have discussed this matter, and I shall continue to work directly with him and other colleagues, because it is important that we encompass all expertise to ensure safe passage for all vulnerable minorities, including the LGBT community.

My Lords, as the Taliban consolidate their power, we see them making promises to western media and western Governments. Considering that the civic space in Afghanistan has been shut down, that journalists, reporters and NGOs have dispersed, and that 36 million live in Afghanistan, many of whom are women, does the Minister agree with me that an international UN-mandated mechanism must be established so that the Taliban know that someone is watching and documenting this, and that promises made are promises kept?

My Lords, my noble friend rightly points out a particular issue. What the Taliban desire the most is international recognition; that is why it was right that we worked with France to ensure the UN Security Council resolution, so they are basically held to account for the promises they have made. I assure her that we are working directly with UN agencies on that very issue.

My Lords, many valid concerns have been raised, but does the Minister agree with me that a note of caution is also necessary? The Government’s pressure on the Taliban to allow all those who wish to do so to leave the country could lead to a massive outflow. Indeed, the numbers could run into millions, as they have in the past. Meanwhile, the EU and Turkey are effectively closing their borders. Will the Government focus on those for whom we have a direct responsibility as employers, and will they stick to the limit that they have announced for 20,000 over five years for any other applicants?

I assure the noble Lord that we are focused very much on the priority of those who work directly with us. Of course, there are people within Afghanistan who are British nationals or are their dependants and those special cases—and that is where the Government’s priority is.

My Lords, on specific actions, on 17 August, Gender Action for Peace and Security wrote to Boris Johnson and to senior members of the Cabinet about the imminent danger and serious risk of violence that Afghan women are facing, especially those who, at our urging, engaged in peace processes or in journalism or delivered programmes to meet women’s needs. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that letter—in fact, I know that he is—and he almost certainly agrees with the actions that it urges on the Government. Which of those actions have been advanced in the three weeks since it was received?

I assure the noble Lord that we are working on the specifics of what was proposed, and from other groups as well. I know the organisation very well, and in coming weeks I shall certainly look to meet colleagues in the organisation directly to discuss actions further.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what support and advice is being given to vulnerable women who could be eligible to come to the UK under the ARAP scheme but have not yet been called forward and do not have a male guardian? They are, perhaps, among the most vulnerable, and advice would be most welcome.

If we were to identify such individuals, with all sensitivities considered, we would see what support could be offered. The noble Baroness points to a very vulnerable category; I agree with her, and we continue to work with all channels, including international partners, to reach that particular group.

To what extent are the Government potentially willing to use the provision of overseas aid to Afghanistan as a lever to put pressure on the Afghan Government to grant the freedoms and rights of women?

My Lords, overseas aid is an important part of our package, but the Taliban must live up to their promises, and no aid will be directed through those channels. We need to work with agencies on the ground to ensure that those who most need the aid receive it.