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Violence Against Women and Girls

Volume 834: debated on Monday 4 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they propose to prioritise reducing violence against women and girls both domestically and internationally.

My Lords, we are absolutely committed to tackling violence against women and girls at home and abroad. We passed our landmark Domestic Abuse Act and are delivering the Tackling Violence against Women & Girls strategy and the Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan to help keep women and girls safe. Internationally, we are making progress through our flagship “What works to prevent violence” programme and pioneering work to end child marriage and female genital mutilation.

I am grateful to the Minister. He will recognise that this Question was tabled in recognition of White Ribbon Day, which was just over a week ago. What additional resources have the Government deployed since last year’s White Ribbon Day to give greater support to victims of sexualised violence in our domestic criminal justice and asylum systems? What support have they given to international mechanisms charged with investigating and prosecuting sexualised violence as a weapon of war?

On noble Baroness’s second question, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative is a key focus for the UK. We are a global leader on this. We have committed £60 million since the launch of this programme in 2012. In November 2022, the UK hosted an international PSVI conference with over 1,000 attendees. A political declaration came out of that, which was endorsed by 53 countries. It sends a clear message that these types of crimes must end and sets out steps on how to achieve that. We have also launched the PSVI strategy, which sets out how the UK will work to drive global action to prevent and respond to CRSV—conflict-related sexual violence—and that includes sanctions. I refer noble Lords to my noble friend Lord Ahmad’s comments on that in June. Regarding the domestic picture, significant amounts of money and resource have been committed. I am sure I will be answering more questions on that shortly.

My Lords, does the Minister share the widespread outrage at the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence by Hamas in Israel on 7 October? Does he also share the widespread outrage that so many individuals and groups who do such excellent work in combating sexual violence have remained silent until now—almost two months since those outrages? Can he think of any reason why in this respect Jewish women do not matter?

My Lords, this is a very sensitive subject. I found Christina Lamb’s article in the Sunday Times very distressing and upsetting, but very powerful. Why did it take the UN so long to condemn those actions? The words of Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who was quoted in the article, deserve mentioning:

“It’s mindblowing. We were there for our sisters when terrible things happened across the ocean, when they took away abortion rights in US, the killing of women in Iran, the abduction of Yazidis … but with us they looked away and I can’t think of a reasonable answer”.

Unfortunately, I can think of an unreasonable answer, and it disgusts me. From a personal point of view, I hope the perpetrators get what is coming to them—and believe me, I do not mean sanctions.

My Lords, I say to the Minister and all noble Lords who have raised concerns that I can never look away from rape as a weapon of war, whoever commits that violence. It is really important that we stand together with those who were victims of rape on 7 October, just as I do with all those still being raped all over the world in the name of war and conflicts. I am deeply unhappy about what is happening to women seeking services in this country. Also, we cannot look away from such detrimental violence perpetrated on the children, girls and women of Palestine, from which they may never recover.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen the reports of unaccompanied migrant children being placed in hotels. Many of them have disappeared and the fear is that they are being sexually exploited. Why does the Children Act 1989 not apply to these children once they are in this country?

My Lords, this is an entirely separate subject, as noble Lords know. I accept the premise of the question, but I am going to come back to the noble Lord. There is another Question on this tomorrow where we can go into much more detail.

I want to say how powerful I thought the Minister’s reply a couple of questions ago was and commend the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, on pointing out the role that men can play in raising the issue of domestic violence against women and girls by calling it out. We know that the root cause of violence against women and girls all over the world is inequality, which is getting worse, with previous strides forward being reversed while our budget—particularly for overseas aid—is diminished. What thinking outside the box have the Government done to reduce inequalities and do more with less?

My Lords, it is about how you do things. I have already referred to a few of the things the Government have done, and a significant amount of money is being invested into this area to improve outcomes for victims. Since 2010, we have criminalised forced marriage; criminalised revenge porn; criminalised failing to protect a girl from FGM; introduced Clare’s law, which is a domestic violence disclosure scheme; introduced two new stalking offences; introduced the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour; introduced legislation that recognises as victims children who see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse and are related to the perpetrator or victim; and criminalised virginity testing and hymenoplasty. There is so much more that the Government have done; it is not all about money.

The Minister mounted a stout defence about the issues of 7 October, which he was right to do. I was proud to be at the conference organised by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, on sexual violence in conflict. It was an important moment for the UK. I am proud of our leadership in tackling violence against women and girls across the world. How will the Minister and his colleagues ensure that the perpetrators are held to account by putting pressure on the United Nations? How could the UK support the victims of these appalling crimes?

The noble Baroness raises two interesting points. I hope that we will support the victims by providing forensic expertise and other skills, as we have in other conflicts around the world. Obviously, the perpetrators have to be caught, and I believe that extensive efforts are under way to catch them. On the longer-term approach, I do not know, but if she would like to chat about it I will happily take her suggestions back to the department.

What are His Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that girls are not taken out of the country to undergo FGM? Is preventing FGM still a priority in our international development policy?

My Lords, I am happy to tell my noble friend that, yes, it is. Child abuse is a crime, and we will not tolerate this practice, which causes extreme and lifelong physical and psychological suffering to women and girls. Our focus remains on preventing these crimes from happening, supporting and protecting survivors and those at risk, and bringing perpetrators to justice. As my noble friend will be aware, in 2015 we strengthened the law on FGM, which is now an offence. We also extended the reach of extraterritorial offences, introduced lifelong anonymity for victims, introduced civil FGM protection orders and introduced a mandatory reporting duty for known cases. I am pleased to say that there have been two prosecutions for this, one as recently as October, and I believe that sentencing is still awaited—a lot is being done.

My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lord Pannick on his question, and I commend the Minister’s answer. I will bring us back to the domestic: Christmas is a time when many of us look forward to being with our families, but unfortunately that is not the case for those who suffer from domestic abuse and violence. Given that, will the Minister acknowledge the operation, and the work behind it, by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Translink and Retail NI, coming up to Christmas, so that they recognise violence against women and girls in a proactive way?

My Lords, I am happy to do that and to announce that the pilot sites for domestic abuse protection notices and prevention orders have been chosen. This will extend the police’s operations across the country when they commence in the spring of 2024. There is a lot more to anticipate on this subject—I hope that we will see things progress in the right direction.