Skip to main content

Afghanistan: Aid for Women

Volume 832: debated on Monday 11 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to aid and support the women of Afghanistan since the departure of United Kingdom armed forces.

My Lords, we prioritise support for women and girls in response to the Taliban’s repression. We have repeatedly urged the Taliban to reverse harmful policies. I assure the noble Lord that we raise these issues internationally. I regularly meet Afghan women and leaders to hear their concerns directly. Since April 2021, the Government have disbursed more than £532 million to Afghanistan, giving 2.3 million women access to food, healthcare and other essential assistance. At least 50% of beneficiaries of UK aid are women and girls.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the Taliban have targeted women and girls by using decrees which place severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression and association, prohibitions on virtually all forms of employment and bans on secondary and higher education, as well as permitting arbitrary arrests and violations of the rights of liberty. Taken together, that is arguably a crime against humanity based on gender, so what further actions can the Government take to support women human rights defenders who seek safe passage to the UK because their lives are under grave threat?

My Lords, I believe that I speak for most noble Lords but I believe on a point of principle that the humanitarian support that we have given to the people of Afghanistan, supported by Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other near neighbours, has been the right approach. We cannot discard over 36 million people. We have also sought to provide support for those who are most vulnerable, those who work directly with the United Kingdom, through the various schemes that we have run—the ACRS pathway 3 and the ARAP. Those schemes support their access to the United Kingdom, particularly Chevening scholars working within the security firm GardaWorld but also those who worked within the British Council. That still is work in progress on year 1.

There is a lot more that we can do but we directly address the Taliban and say that what they are doing is not just against our assessment of human rights but against the assessment of the very faith that they claim to follow. Rights of women are human rights and the Taliban need to uphold them.

My Lords, I thank the Government for the moral support that they have offered to the Afghan women so far, particularly my noble friend the Minister, who has consistently met them. However, can he please tell me how the UK Government will help those Afghan women to be part of any international talks and able to play a part in the future of their country?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her kind remarks. As I say, it is about doing your job, but I pay tribute to her and to all other noble Lords who have worked collectively on this important agenda. There is no easy solution, but I assure my noble friend that we are working directly with leaders from various representative groups of women in Afghanistan and more broadly too. We continue to engage with key personnel on the ground in Afghanistan who were previously involved within administration while it was still functioning, but equally we are working with key international partners, notably Indonesia and Qatar among others, to ensure that the issue of Afghanistan is kept on the front burner and that inclusivity—the restoration of women’s rights and all rights, including minority rights—is not forgotten.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the growth of cluster education, or cluster classes, whereby groups of secondary school girls gather in neighbourhood houses and qualified teachers visit them. The scheme with which I am involved is now educating upwards of 1,000 girls in three provinces in Afghanistan. In a very few cases, local Taliban commanders have asked whether their daughters can join those classes. Is this something that the UK Government would support, since it is often difficult for those international aid agencies operating in Afghanistan to do it as it runs right across the policy of the Taliban? Maybe the UK has got a channel for funding this kind of education.

My Lords, recognising the important work that the noble Baroness has done, of course we fully support such initiatives. As she will know all too well, we protect the agencies that we work with on the ground to allow them to continue their important work, particularly when it comes to girls’ education. In our general assessment, there are now six to eight regions within Afghanistan where, because of the fragmented structure of the Taliban, there are initiatives which allow health access but also allow women in certain respects to go to work and allow girls to be educated.

My Lords, I also pay tribute to the Minister, who has personally worked tirelessly to help Afghan refugees fleeing the brutality of the Taliban. His commitment is well documented.

Do the Government accept that the deteriorating situation for Afghan women, as we have heard, amounts to gender persecution, which is a crime against humanity? This has happened in plain sight of the world over the last two years. What global support is taking place, such as we had in 2001 when the world rallied behind the cause of Afghan women? If Afghan women’s rights were important in 2001, surely they are just as important in 2023? What support is taking place globally to bring this gender apartheid, or gender persecution, to an end?

My Lords, recognising the important work the noble Baroness has done in this respect, I think I speak for everyone in saying that what is happening in respect of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan is abhorrent. It is against the very traditions of the faith that the Taliban claim to follow; it is not right, it is simply wrong. That is why we are working with key partners within the Islamic world—for them to seize back the narrative on empowerment of women and girls’ rights and education. On our specific support, we are working with key agencies. I have already alluded to the figures but—just to share with the noble Baroness—we are supporting 4.2 million people with food assistance, of whom 2 million are women and girls. The issue of nutrition is high on our agenda, as well as empowering them through education.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many Afghan interpreters who have been relocated to the UK have wives still awaiting security clearance in Afghanistan so that they can join their husbands here, as they are entitled to do? They are very likely to be living in vulnerable situations while they wait; even living in hiding. Perhaps the Minister could write to me if he does not have this figure to hand today.

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that I keep abreast of figures on a weekly basis, but I do not go into specific details at the Dispatch Box for the sole reason of protecting those vulnerable individuals. We have seen a large number of interpreters arrive in the UK and there is an issue about supporting family members. Where I can, I will share the specifics with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, perhaps by a slip of the tongue the expression “gender apartheid” was just used by a previous speaker. Increasingly, that terminology is used by Afghans who are here in exile, by the international community and by lawyers. A great deal of research has been done in support of it by South African lawyers, because apartheid means denial of participation in society—keeping apart. I wonder whether that is language that is accepted, and might be used by, the Foreign Office and whether the full force of the Foreign Office could be put behind amending the Rome statute so that it included gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.

My Lords, the noble Baroness with her legal background has far more insights into the technicalities and changes that she is proposing, but I can say to her that what is happening to women and girls in Afghanistan is nothing short of abhorrent and we need to do our utmost to ensure that we stand up for their rights and afford them the protections that we can. I assure the noble Baroness that we are working in a very focused manner on that objective.

My Lords, regrettably but perhaps understandably, there are still a large number of women in neighbouring countries, not least Pakistan, waiting to find somewhere to start their lives again. Many are former high-ranking officials, human rights defenders, policewomen or women connected to the police and politicians. Can my noble friend the Minister, who I know takes an enormous interest in these matters and I congratulate him on so doing, reassure this House that none of those women will be forcibly repatriated to Afghanistan against their will? If they are, many of them will meet a bleak future.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks and I assure him that we are working very closely with the neighbouring Governments to Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan. Notwithstanding the change of Administration in Pakistan, they have been very supportive of our efforts to sustain and retain the people who have sought refuge there while their immigration status is finalised. Vulnerable women and girls are at the forefront our work in that respect.