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Afghanistan: Girls and Women

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Taliban concerning its commitments to allow Afghan girls to go to school and Afghan women to work.

My Lords, the latest announcements banning Afghan women from universities and aid work represent a further violation of the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls, and they have no religious or moral basis. We are working with the United Nations, NGOs and other donors to understand the impact of the bans and to ensure that lifesaving humanitarian assistance continues wherever possible. Alongside international partners, we will also continue to press the Taliban directly to lift those draconian decrees.

I thank the Minister for his response. While we are waiting for the Taliban to shift their stance on women’s rights, what is plan B? Women are being erased from public life and are starving. My understanding is that there are some in the Taliban leadership willing to talk about women’s rights. Are there plans for the Government to make an official visit to Afghanistan, to talk directly with the Taliban on women’s rights? Also, are there plans to talk to the countries that have a good relationship with the Taliban, for example by convening a meeting with the various stakeholders? Ambassadors in London, particularly from Muslim-majority countries, could be brought together for a meeting. Are there plans to convene such a meeting?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we are doing all the above. Indeed, from the time of the Taliban’s takeover, we have engaged directly with neighbouring countries. We are working directly with the United Nations. In fact, earlier this morning, I met with Sima Bahous and Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, who had just returned from visits to Afghanistan and the near neighbourhood. I am dealing with various Muslim countries directly, including the OIC, on engagement. We are also engaging directly with the Taliban; a number of visits have been made by our chargé from Doha, and those will continue.

I recognise that the Minister addressed this issue in the Statement last Thursday, in which he mentioned the visit of the Deputy Secretary-General. Could he tell us a little more about her reaction to her meetings in Afghanistan and what possibility there is to pursue dialogue? He also mentioned the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which is critical to reaching out to other Islamic countries. Can he tell us whether he has met that organisation directly on this issue?

On the noble Lord’s second point, I have met Tariq Bakheet directly in Jeddah—“Tariq” is a good name to have on these things—and we continue to engage directly with the OIC. The Deputy Secretary-General and the director of UN Women were both there, together with the SRSG. They went to Herat, Kabul and Kandahar and met a range of Taliban Ministers. About 40% of 50% of those involved with the NGO sector, for example, are women, so they made the case very powerfully for the need for that to continue. There has been some progress; for example, we have seen women doctors and nurses returning to the health sector. However, the situation is quite dire and they left Afghanistan very clear about the picture there. As we have said before, much of the power centres on the Emir in Kandahar, and his edict seems to be final.

My Lords, widows and women who head households are now confined to their homes because they are unable to go out without a male escort. How can we ensure that aid will reach them, because people are starving there at the moment in this very cold winter?

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s contribution in the field of working with Afghan women. I know that she recently met a series of Afghan women leaders, as did I. We are working with the United Nations and other agencies. There has been a pause on non-essential, non-humanitarian support, but we are also looking at workarounds. For example, in certain provinces—about 26 of the 36—there has been some movement where health workers have been allowed back. Martin Griffiths, the head of OCHA, is currently in Kabul and we will also be meeting him to establish what channels are open to us.

My Lords, I commend the Minister for being personally very committed and active on this issue, but can I probe him a bit further on the ban by the Taliban on women being seen by male doctors? Of course, women are being banned from education as well. The impact of that will literally be a death sentence for many women and their children, as well as elderly dependants. What is happening about women who need medical assistance and help? How is medical help reaching those women and families if they are being denied treatment by male doctors?

My Lords, first let me tell the noble Baroness what we are doing with certain NGOs which are still operational. The concept of mahram is where a woman has to be accompanied by a male relative or near-relative. Even some of the NGOs have been working through that as a workaround while there have been restrictions, to ensure that women are seen and provided with the support that they need. The Deputy Secretary-General made another point that is particularly pertinent; I do not think we will see the Taliban retracting on the decrees, but they certainly seem open to workarounds, where I think there is some progress to be made. That said, the situation remains very dire.

My Lords, the Minister said in his earlier reply that the cruel and arbitrary treatment of women and girls had no religious justification. In view of that, and knowing what the Taliban are doing with their misunderstanding of Islam, could the Minister and the Government prevail on Muslim leaders around the world to condemn this sort of behaviour in forthright terms? The silence is deafening.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are doing exactly that. What better example could there be, perhaps, than seeing the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations—the second most senior person in international, multilateral organisations, herself a hijab-wearing Muslim—together with Sima Bahous, the leader of UN Women, also a Muslim, being part of the UN high-level delegation that attended? What that demonstrated to the Taliban directly was not just that they must engage women but that women must be pivotal to any society progressing. In every progressive society, irrespective of what the religion is, that is essential to ensure that society is progressive and that people prosper.

My Lords, the Taliban are still hunting down women who held public positions. Recently, the ex-MP Mursal Nabizada was killed. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me whether there is anything we can do to help these women—these human rights defenders—who are in such danger in the country?

My Lords, I join my noble friend, and I am sure all of us, in expressing abhorrence at these actions, which, literally, as my noble friend said, identify individuals. First and foremost, we must protect their identity. That is why, with some of the NGOs we are supporting on the ground, particularly some of the women’s charities, we are we working directly with them, but, in the detail we sometimes provide, at their behest and for their protection, we do not share those details. We are also working directly with women leaders. My noble friend Lady Hodgson and I met separately with some of the women leaders who were directly involved with the Government. I think that also provides a very important conduit to the kinds of priorities that are needed for woman representatives, be they human rights defenders or, indeed, ex-politicians within Afghanistan.

My Lords, the UK is one of the biggest funders of the World Bank’s Afghan trust fund, which is the means by which the Taliban govern and are delivering services. What reassurance can the Minister provide that British funds are not being used directly by the Taliban for their discriminatory policies?

My Lords, we have to be stringent in that. I agree with the noble Lord that we need to ensure that there is due diligence on the ground to ensure that that happens. I cannot guarantee that every single pound and dollar from that trust fund has not been utilised in some shape or form by the Taliban, but that funding is getting through. We are working with international partners on the ground. We can further enhance this by ensuring that the partners we are working with also have their verification processes. This is a strange conundrum: providing humanitarian support, health support and educational support is vital. Why should the people—the woman and girls of Afghanistan—suffer? We need to work through the barriers that the Taliban are putting in front of us.

I thank the noble Lord. First, is the Taliban group that undertook negotiations in Doha still intact, does it still have any power, and are the Government in touch with it? Secondly, would the Minister say whether the FCDO is prepared to increase the number and amount of cash transfers to those most in need, given through the various NGOs, local and otherwise?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, I also reflect on the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. We must ensure that any money or support we provide, particularly when it comes to cash transfers, gets through to the people who need it. The systems and structures in Afghanistan at the moment are extremely fragile. We must look at innovative ways to ensure that we can get over some of these barriers. Technology provides an example, and perhaps that pre-empts the question of my noble friend Lord Johnson, who was going to come in. We need to look at innovative way of delivering both cash transfers and education as well. I think that may well be the way forward.