I beg to move,
That this House has considered gender specific religious persecution.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall, and I am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. We often seem to be in these two roles in such debates; you as the chairperson and me as a participant. I am also very pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), in her place. I am not sure whether this is the first time that we have been in this type of debate together. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in his place, because he understands these issues. We are always assured that he will positively and helpfully deliver the response that we seek.
I am always mindful that Thursday afternoon is sometimes what we refer to as the graveyard shift. The fact is that from Tuesday there has not been the same level of whipping, which indicates that many people are away. It does not lessen the importance of the issue. We had sought to have the debate earlier to tie in with International Women’s Day, but the opportunity did not arise.
I am very pleased to see my two colleagues and dear friends, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who is the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. We know the great work that she does. We say that because it is true, not for any other reason. She works energetically on these issues and we are very pleased that she is in that post. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and I requested the debate jointly, so we are particularly pleased to be able to speak in it. I thank her for her continued advocacy for vulnerable women and girls around the world.
The debate is incredibly timely. Earlier this month was International Women’s Day, which offers time to take stock of how far we have advanced the rights of women; all of us in the House are committed to that goal. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the advances that need to be made—where we have got to and where we need to be. Sadly, the strides that we need to take to ensure freedom of religion or belief for women and girls are significant. There is a lot more to do, as others will illustrate when they have an opportunity to express themselves. It is a time to look back at what has been achieved and to look forward to what we want to achieve.
Although violations of freedom of religion or belief can affect any member of a minority religious community, religious persecution is not gender blind. Women and girls from communities suffering from persecution based on religion or belief face a double vulnerability: not only are they at greater risk of freedom of religion or belief abuses, but those abuses often have a greater impact on the lives of women and girls than on men. Everyone present will be aware of the Christian advocacy organisation Open Doors, which describes how gender specific religious persecution is hidden, violent and complex. Unfortunately, it is too often ignored by policy makers, non-governmental organisations and local authorities.
I will give a couple of examples; unfortunately, they are sometimes hard to listen to because of the graphic detail, even without getting into all the things that have happened, but these are the experiences of young girls. The first case is that of Meera Bhat, a 14-year-old Hindu girl from Mirpur Khas, Pakistan, who just a few days ago was abducted and forced to marry her abductor and to convert from Hinduism. Just this week, we had a chance to meet some Hindu representatives and to discuss some of the things that are happening to them. We in the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief intend to take those matters forward. There will be further engagement between us and them, and we will collectively try to act on what is happening to some Hindus in Bangladesh, in particular—that young girl, Meera, however, is from Pakistan.
Meera was abducted, forcibly married and forced to change her religion. When any child is abducted, there should be outrage, but in this case, there did not seem to be. To say that she was forcibly married is to put it politely; in reality, this 14-year-old girl was brutally raped. Do we hear about such abuse of power, abuse of religion and abuse of human dignity in the news? No, we do not. That is why this debate is so important and why the three Members present—the hon. Members for Congleton and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, and I—as well as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton North, and the Minister, have a duty to respond to, highlight and deal with these issues.
All too often, these cases are flagrantly ignored by the international media, just as they are by the local authorities where the crimes take place. A culture of impunity seems to prevail. The recent report from Aid to the Church in Need, “Hear Her Cries”, found that up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls are abducted in Pakistan each year, many of whom are forcibly converted and “married”. I say “married”, with inverted commas, because it is certainly not a marriage that is agreed to and certainly not when that person is an underage girl. To make matters worse, that number is likely to be a conservative estimate, so it could be even more than 1,000, which greatly worries us.
Very few of these girls’ names ever make it out of Pakistan, although we might hear of it through the APPG, as will the special envoy, the hon. Member for Congleton. For us, it is incredibly difficult to hear of the grief, pain and agony of vulnerable young girls and parents unable to respond. Early reports in Meera Bhat’s case state that when her parents approached a judge, he sided with Meera’s abductor, because he had recorded a video of her renouncing her faith. That was under duress, but if the courts are sympathetic to the case, they seem to turn a blind eye to some of the things that happen.
Much of Meera’s case is uncertain and we do not know what the future holds for her. However, her parents are worried for her, as we in this House are, and I am putting the case forward for wee Meera Bhat. All too often, confessions such as Meera’s are manipulated, coerced or forced; those involved are abused, sometimes violently. At the end of the day, she is a 14-year-old girl, taken from her home and family, and violently and repeatedly abused.
To highlight the importance of responding to such cases, I will also draw the attention of the Minister and all Members present to the abduction of Farah Shaheen, a 14-year-old Christian girl whose abduction shares many similarities with Meera’s. Farah was kidnapped from Faisalabad on 25 June 2020 at the age of 12. That is hard to take in, particularly for me, as a grandfather—my oldest grandchild is a wee girl of 12—when I look at the innocence of Katie and think of the 12-year-old girl in Pakistan who was abducted, kidnapped, and abused. How would I feel, as a grandfather, a parent, or as one of the family members? Farah was forcibly married—which basically means that she was raped—and forced to convert to Islam.
During months of sexual enslavement, she was shackled and forced to work long hours cleaning animal dung in the yard of her abductor, a man named Khizar Ahmad Ali. Farah stated:
“I was chained most of the time...It was terrible. They put chains on my ankles”—
on a wee 12-year-old—
“and tied me with a rope.”
She tried to cut the rope and escape. She tried to get the chains off, but could not manage it. She prayed every night, as a Christian girl would do, asking God to help her—a desperate plea, a plea for help, when there is a society that seems to think that Hindus and Christian girls do not have rights, but they do.
Her father, Asif Masih, highlighted the impact that this time had on his daughter, saying:
“Farah has told me she was treated as a slave…She was forced to work all day, cleaning filth in a cattle yard. They repeatedly raped my daughter.”
Her father must have been beside himself with anxiety and concern. He continued:
“She was in trauma after being subjected to physical and medical torture.”
Eventually—thank goodness—on 16 February 2021, after a lengthy court process, Faisalabad district and sessions court ruled that her marriage was unlawful on the grounds that she had not been registered properly. She was allowed to go home, at long last, but the abuse, kidnapping and physical torture had all taken place.
This case illustrates how authorities often turn a blind eye to gender specific persecution. After Farah’s abduction, it took the police three months to even file a first information report, which starts off any police investigation in Pakistan. It was three months before they even got off their chairs to do something, while Farah’s parents and family were desperate to know what was going on. The investigation was dropped, with no action taken against the three men who were involved in Farah’s kidnapping and abduction. Even the eventual court ruling was a civil matter rather than a legal one. Where is the legal support in Pakistan for young Hindu and Christian girls? It does not appear to be available.
Despite the horrors that Farah endured, her abductors were let off with absolute impunity, which I find incredibly difficult to take. If I feel like that not as a family member but as a concerned person and Member of Parliament who wishes to raise these issues, how much more did her parents feel that? Not only was Farah denied justice for the atrocities committed against her but the groundwork was laid for further abductions, because others will say, “They got off. We can do the same, because ultimately we can get away with it,” and the evil men who consider such cruelty know they will not face repercussions.
I should have declared an interest at the beginning of the debate, Ms Rees, and I apologise for not doing so. I am very pleased and privileged to chair the all-party groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on the Pakistani minorities; indeed, it is humbling to do so.
I remind the House that these are not isolated issues, but two cases of 1,000 girls such as Farah and Meera who endured this abuse in Pakistan last year. As I said, I think that is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, such tragedies are not unique to Pakistan. Open Doors reports that of the top 50 countries featured in the world watch list for 2022—it was just released in January; the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) sponsors it every year—88% cited the forced marriage of women and girls as a form of religious persecution. Tellingly, no country reported its use against men, because, more often than not, it is men who abuse young women and young girls.
In Afghanistan, the rights of women are severely limited because of the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of sharia law. However, some women experience further challenges, especially those belonging to religious or belief minorities. Men may suffer from verbal and physical abuse in public places due to their external identity—perhaps because of a turban or a beard—but women also fear abuse, and women and girls from minority religions remove themselves from the male gaze or keep themselves under the radar, either by remaining indoors or covering themselves entirely in a burqa when they are in public. It is also no secret that women suffer sexual violence. As we see so often with sexual violence in today’s world, men seem to think they can do what they want. We need to have strict, hard laws to make sure that they know they cannot.
The nature of religious dress for women of some religions leads to them facing greater difficulty in exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. At least 11 states in Europe, Africa and south Asia impose public restrictions or bans on Muslim head coverings, despite the fact that some women regard them as an integral part of their faith or identity. It is about protection and what their religion tells them to do. Women may also feel under great pressure to conceal or perhaps underplay their religious identity to make themselves less identifiable as belonging to a religious group or being more moderate in their outlook.
Religious dress may seem a trivial form of infringement on freedom of religion or belief, but wherever violations of that nature take place, grave examples of forced marriage and sexual exploitation are not far behind. Forced marriage, and the sexual exploitation of women and girls, is a tactic to stem the growth of religious minority communities and is under-reported and under-recognised, despite its enormous scale. In 2020, at the peak of the covid-19 outbreak around the world, Open Doors reported that the No. 1 pressure point for women was forced marriage. When people say, “I do,” it is a commitment by both parties, but in the cases that we are discussing here, there is no choice for the young girl at all, regardless of whether she is a Hindu or Christian. It seems that the law of the land in Pakistan and other countries is biased towards the male part of the marriage.
Forced marriages, and the weaponisation of sexual violence, is a tactic that devastates religious minority communities. Children born of forced marriages and forced conversions are often made to take on the religious identity of their perpetrator, and they are left with a legal religious identity that is difficult or even impossible to change. Sadly, in many cases around the world, survivors of rape and sexual violence face ostracisation from their community, often leaving such women either unable to marry and have children or forced to leave the community and be cut off from support networks. Heartbreakingly, in some cases that has resulted in survivors returning to their abusers, as there is no safe place for them to go. How sad it is that they have to go back to an abusive relationship because no one else will take them—none of their family members will reach out, and no one in society will say, “Can we help this young girl and make life better for her?”
The tactic is seen in many countries, but perhaps the starkest recent example—it is still fresh in my mind and those of hon. Members—is the 2014 atrocities committed by Daesh against religious minorities, including Yazidis and Christians. When I think about the brutality that we witnessed, I have an ache in my heart for the Yazidi women and young girls who were abducted and have never been seen again. Daesh specifically targeted religious minority women and girls through the use of abduction, exploitation, rape, sexual violence and forced marriage in an attempt to annihilate religious diversity and establish its caliphate. Many of the women and girls abducted by Daesh in northern Iraq in 2014 are still missing, and one of my requests to the Minister is to find out what has happened to those 2,763 Yazidi women and children. Unfortunately, no real effort has been made to locate them or to ensure that they have been rescued and reunited with their families, despite the collapse of the Daesh caliphate in 2019.
According to survivors, girls abducted by Daesh fighters were trafficked to Syria and then to Iran by Iranian soldiers. What can we do to help? How can we make inquiries or carry out investigations to see whether we can return the Yazidi women and girls to their families and reunite them with those who love and miss them? If it is true that Yazidi girls were trafficked abroad, they could now be in a range of possible countries—perhaps a dozen countries or more. I am grateful to Lord Alton of Liverpool for calling on the UK Government to investigate the situation and engage in a dialogue with the Iranian Government to clarify the issue and to ensure the safe return of the Yazidi girls, if they have indeed been trafficked to Iran.
I welcome the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others. I put on record my thanks to the Minister, the Secretary of State and all the civil servants who worked industriously hard behind the scenes. Sometimes things do not happen at the speed we would wish, but we are greatly encouraged by the release of Nazanin. We saw on TV this morning her reunion with her husband and daughter, with all the family. We must put on record our thanks to her husband for his perseverance in highlighting this issue through hunger strike. We also thank the Government for working in the background. I saw the Minister speaking about it on TV this morning. The deal is a confidential deal, and we understand that, but we have got her home, and there has been great rejoice.
We are still waiting for answers on the Yazidi girls in Iran. Other states must follow suit and engage the Iranian Government in seeking the truth about the whereabouts of the Yazidi women and girls. The Yazidi girls and others like them need to be reunited with their families. I remember meeting some of them here in the House back in 2015, I think, and their stories were hard to comprehend—the violence, cruelty and complete disregard for their rights. They were abused physically and emotionally.
States must do much more to ensure the safe return of trafficked women and girls. International organisations need to support and guide states through this process or, indeed, accommodate it. It is imperative that women and girls who have endured horrific abuse are found, rescued, and allowed to go home. There will be rejoicing when the 2,763 Yazidi women and girls are returned home, reunited with their family and able to have the joy of the life they once had, if possible.
The vast majority of Daesh fighters are only prosecuted for terrorism-related offences. They need to be charged with more. It is important that we seek justice for these women. Daesh fighters must be prosecuted for their other crimes, which include murder, kidnapping, forced marriage, trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. That was one of the recommendations of the 2019 Truro review, which our Government have pledged to enact in full. Unfortunately, we have not seen much of that yet. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication of where we are with that. It is important that the review’s recommendations are delivered.
In many parts of the world, the acts constituting human trafficking, and the subsequent enslavement and abuse, are not investigated and prosecuted. In cases where domestic courts are not equipped to prosecute, the international community needs to come together to ensure that courts can fulfil their legal duties, even if that means resorting to the establishment of international tribunals. I believe that if something is necessary, we should do it. We all share in the duty to deliver justice for these women.
Last year the UN found that ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis, including through the abduction, forced marriage and conversion of Yazidi women and girls. In November 2021 a German court found that Taha al-Jumailly was guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide, citing the abduction and killing of a five-year-old girl. I have five grandchildren: three girls and two boys. How could anybody do that to a young girl? The court also cited the forced trafficking of her mother. They killed her child and then sold her into slavery. These crimes do not bear thinking about, but we must highlight the issue. Sadly, we too often do not. Today we have the opportunity.
Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking this is a matter for countries to deal with internally. The UK has an obligation under the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide to prevent such crimes from escalating. The Truro review recommends that Her Majesty’s Government seeks to prosecute Daesh members not only as terrorists but as perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women. This has not been done. I encourage the Minister and my Government to address this before the report’s third-year review this summer, which is only a few months away.
I welcome the commitments that Her Majesty’s Government have made to promote gender equality and address discrimination around the world, including the Foreign Secretary’s announcement of the creation of a summit focusing on preventing sexual violence against women. We welcome that really significant step, as well as the proposal to build a new consensus on viewing sexual violence in conflict as a red line. The more we become aware of it, the more we want to stop it. I cannot stop it myself—none of us can individually —but our Minister and our Government can take steps to make it happen.
More needs to be done. Victims of gender specific religious persecution are so often overlooked, and I am sorry to say that the compounding elements of religion and gender are too often ignored by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to make defending women and girls in religious minorities a core value that should encompass all areas of foreign affairs, including our trade policy. We should ensure that all new trade agreements—indeed, all existing trade agreements—include human rights provisions that consider any religious or belief-based persecution and its gender components.
We need to ensure that UK overseas aid and development programmes include safeguards to recognise the signs of gender specific religious or belief-based persecution. They should be aware in particular of the risk of abduction, forced marriage and the conversion of girls from religious minority communities. I gave two examples earlier, one of a Christian girl and one of a Hindu girl. Wherever that is happening, we need to do something. That is particularly important for Pakistan, where abuses are rife, yet it is the largest recipient of UK overseas development spending. I believe it is time to make that aid conditional; it is time to add protections that make sure that religious minorities—be they Hindu, Christian or any other ethnic group—have protection. Aid spending can be a method to do that.
More needs to be done to help find and rescue the 2,763 Yazidi women and children who are still missing. There is an ache in my heart when I think of them, and I know there is an ache in other Members’ hearts as well. We have a duty to help them, to find out where they are and to try to bring them home to the place where they once lived in safety. Survivors need to receive adequate assistance, including medical and psychological help, financial support to set up their homes again, and access to justice. Those who abused them must face justice. That is needed to help rebuild their lives. Impunity for those crimes must be tackled; there has to be accountability in that process. I believe we owe it to those religious communities around the world. I believe we owe it to women and girls for what they have endured. It is time to bring it to an end.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. I hope the Minister will forgive me for repeating several of his points. However, given that millions of women around the world are suffering those abuses, those points bear repetition.
Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, extending to everyone, everywhere, without distinction of any kind, be it race, ethnicity, gender, political or other opinion, or economic or social status. The three main components of FORB are the right to have a religion or belief; the right to change it; and the right to practice it. Unfortunately, millions of people around the world are not able to do those things freely.
While religious persecution against men tends to be focused and often public, such as killings during conflict, religious persecution against women is more likely to be complex and hidden. However, it too can be very violent. Global FORB violations against women, as women, can be characterised in three words: complex, violent and hidden.
Despite the often distinctive nature of FORB abuses of women, which are often sexual, until recently much of the research and data on FORB has been gender blind, possibly because the majority of official representatives of religion and belief communities across the world are men, and because their experiences have been used as a default reference. Yet, in many societies, men and women live very different lives. Women all too often do not have the same access to resources. They are assigned different roles. Many women do not exercise the same autonomy as men, even in relation to religion or belief practices in their local communities, let alone in other ways.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the factors that result in religious persecution against women are many and complex, and we all, including those of us who work on FORB much of the time, need to better understand those factors. Some work has been done by the FCDO in response to recommendation 5 of the Truro review, but not enough. I put that on the record, as the three-year deadline for reviewing the independent Truro review will be upon us at the beginning of July. But not enough work has been done.
That is why I am grateful to Aid to the Church in Need and Open Doors for their recent reports, “Hear Her Cries” and “The Persecution of Christian Women and Girls”. They are moving and critical. When I read “Hear Her Cries”, as a woman, I cried. I brought a copy for the Minister and I implore him to read it. It is heartrending.
Recommendation 5 of the review, which was accepted by the FCDO, states—I read it into the record, as we, fortunately, have the liberty of time in this debate:
“Bolster research into the critical intersection of FoRB and minority rights with both broader human rights issues (such as people trafficking, gender equality, gender based violence especially kidnapping, forced conversion and forced marriage) and other critical concerns for FCO such as security, economic activity, etc. recognising the potential for religious identity to be a key marker of vulnerability.”
The particularly important part is its final sentence:
“Use such research to articulate FoRB-focussed policies to address these issues.”
That sentence poses a critical question, one I hope will be considered by the independent reviewers of the Truro review. How has any such research done by the FCDO been used to augment, amend or develop Government policies over the last two and a half years, so that the UK can better help tackle the tragic global phenomenon of widespread FORB violations against women and girls? What changes have been made to FCDO policies?
Some good Government-funded work has been done by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development. It states four reasons why women from religious minorities may be especially vulnerable to FORB abuses. I will summarise them briefly. First, when women are poor, and they belong to religious minorities in societies where people from a different faith are often viewed as “other”—someone different or alien—they can be particularly powerless. They can expect very little support from society as a whole. I will give an example later of a migrant woman from Qatar.
Secondly, CREID says that in some societies the bodies of women who belong to religious minorities are being used as battlegrounds in wider political and geostrategic struggles. That can lead to them being targeted for ideological reasons. Their vulnerable position in society makes them even more vulnerable. An example, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford, are the Yazidis in and around 2014. We also know of the Uyghurs in China; we have heard terrible stories about them being sexually abused and undergoing forced abortions.
Thirdly, some forms of sexual grooming of girls and women can be motivated by ideology. This was demonstrated in the example given by the hon. Gentleman, which I will refer to later, of forced marriage and forced conversion being justified by ideology from other faiths.
Finally—although not finally in terms of my speech, Ms Rees—women can face stigma and discrimination in their own communities. Tragically, women who have been subjected to sexual violence are often seen as bringing shame on their community and they can be targeted for honour-based violence from their own families and community. That is why it is critical to work with whole communities, including religious leaders, to challenge the acceptability of religiously motivated violence against women and bring about social change.
We have to make more explicit the links between gender, religion, marginality and poverty. Women in many countries appear to be victims of not just double but triple forms of persecution: they are women; they are of a particular religious or belief group; and they have low socioeconomic status and live in the margins. Those different layers reinforce each other, making women particularly vulnerable.
It is insufficient for us to say that we must raise awareness of the intersection of those vulnerabilities—we must be moved to action. Otherwise, religiously marginalised, economically excluded women will continue to fall through the cracks, experiencing appalling inequality, discrimination, persecution and violence, which will continue to be overlooked, ignored or minimised. I hope that the conference the UK is hosting on 5 and 6 July 2022 on freedom of religion or belief will promote some practical steps as to how we can address that issue and, working together with the international community concerned about FORB, encourage both Governments and civil society to do so.
I will unpack those thoughts a little. I am grateful to Stefanus Alliance International for providing an example of the complexity of the causes of FORB abuses against women by way of a migrant woman in Qatar. There is already a lack of legal protection for Qatari women in general. Christians are a minority group in Qatar; they do not enjoy the same level of rights and freedoms as the majority Muslim population. A foreign Christian woman working as a maid in Qatar can often have her immigration papers confiscated by her employer; she therefore has little or no hope of legal protection should he abuse her. That is just one example of the multi-layered intersectionality of human rights violations for women, and why women can be particularly vulnerable to FORB abuses.
Another example of the differences between men and women in terms of FORB violations is that when they occur against women, they are often hidden. Tragically, the abuses are often perpetrated within a woman’s own home, which is, of course, where women spend much of their time—in the private sphere. Sadly, such abuses may even be perpetrated by her own family or community. Practices such as female genital mutilation, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, forced marriage, child marriage, sexual violence, marital rape, honour killings and the denial of access to work can all fall into the category of religiously motivated FORB abuses.
If a woman converts to another religion, she may well face additional challenges from her own family, such as physical or emotional torture to persuade her to deny her new faith. She may be excluded from family social networks, which can have severe consequences for a woman when they are her main—and sometimes only—social contacts. Leaving the family will not be an option. When a woman’s educational opportunities, and therefore her job opportunities, may also have been limited, she is financially dependent on her family. Sadly, any chance of recourse to justice can also be severely limited for her. Too often, we hear of the police taking no action, or of local courts taking no action at all when a young woman who has been forcibly married, for example, applies for justice.
Sadly, perpetrators of sexual violence often receive no evident public repercussions. In too many places, the impunity related to such crimes makes the continued targeting of women by others for their religious beliefs a low-risk activity. The sexual violence experienced by many women often remains unreported because of stigma and shame. Sadly, it is one of the most common forms of FORB violations against women and many underage girls. The female body becomes a battlefield used by perpetrators to control a woman’s personal faith or faith communities at large.
I am aware of one young woman who has been in hiding for well over a year as she is in fear of her abductor, who forcibly married her—by which we mean rape, and often continual rape. She is too frightened to come out of hiding for fear of the whole community. Rape is widely used as a weapon of armed conflict, as we heard and saw in 2014, as the Syrian conflict affected the Yazidis. Thousands of Yazidi women were abducted and held as sex slaves by ISIS soldiers. I heard of a young woman called Ekhlas, who was captured by ISIS soldiers. When she asked them, “Are you going to murder me?”, they said, “Oh, no. We’re going to make you suffer much more than that.” They took her as a sex slave.
Those women have faced challenges if they have tried to flee captivity or reintegrate themselves into their communities, which have practices and regulations on pre-marital intercourse or interreligious marriages. As we now know, some 2,700 such women, many of whom have children, remain missing to this day. I would appreciate it if the Minister could update me—perhaps not today, but in due course—on what practical support and resources have been applied to help those women since the answer I received on 26 October last year, when I last raised this issue.
Rape can even be used outside conflict in disputes between religious groups. As the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development says, sexual grooming of girls and women can be motivated by ideology. Shockingly, it can sometimes even be used with the appearance of respectability. Each year, hundreds of Christian, Hindu and Sikh girls are reportedly abducted and forcibly married, and it is justified by ideology.
“Hear Her Cries”, a report by Aid to the Church in Need, relays brave women’s accounts of their kidnapping, forced conversion, sexual victimisation and unimaginable suffering. I, too, was going to read out the account of little Farah, aged 12, who was abducted from her grandfather’s home in that way, but the hon. Gentleman has already done so. That report should do more than just move us to tears; it should move us to action.
Tragically, although men are more likely to be killed as a result of religious persecution, they are also more likely than women to be celebrated as martyrs, whereas women, who are more likely to be subject to sexual abuse, are not rewarded the same honour. Their complex trauma is often additionally burdened with re-traumatisation in the form of isolation and rejection from their own faith communities. The blame falls on the victim, suffering continues long after the event, and counselling is unavailable.
What can we do to address all that? I will ask the Minister to consider a few things. We must ensure much wider humanitarian assistance for such women, and more extensive training in specialised trauma counselling. There need to be targeted programmes of aid for women and girls who face vulnerabilities as women of faith or belief, with those factors clearly recognised as criteria of vulnerability by UK aid. Women need to be involved in designing and implementing aid and other support programmes. There needs to be strengthened dialogue and co-operation between women’s rights activists and FORB activists to help to overcome a perception that achieving FORB for all women is incompatible with women’s rights.
We need to call out authorities in countries, including Governments, at the highest level. I implore the Minister to do so whenever the opportunity occurs. We need to call out abuses when authorities turn a blind eye or, tragically, even at times condone action, such as where local policing or the country’s legal system fails to protect women subject to FORB abuses. We must ensure that steps are taken against perpetrators to hold them to account and end cultures of impunity. We must learn to better identify early warning signs to avert atrocities and work with others in the international community to do so. We must challenge those Governments who have put FORB in their constitutions or signed up to international treaties, such as article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, but do not apply them.
We must gather data to better understand the double or triple jeopardy of women who are members of religious minorities—often also among the poorest and most vulnerable in their societies. More dialogue must be promoted within and across religious communities, including women at all times, to reflect on traditional practices, such as patriarchal ones, that have a negative impact on FORB. We must help women in local communities to voice their concerns. We need to look at how we can use the declaration of humanity, which was launched by Lord Ahmad, our Human Rights Minister, during the pandemic. It has not, perhaps, had the profile and subsequent impact that it could have. There is more to do. Will the Minister say how the UK Government, which commissioned it, could help to take that forward? The three-year deadline for implementing the Truro review, which was a manifesto commitment, will shortly be upon us, but that is no reason not to continue working on recommendation 5 and all the others. We must not stop just because the three-year period of the Truro review ends this July. Much more needs to be done.
From my experience of working on FORB in depth and detail over the past year and three months or so, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I do not believe that championing FORB and calling out its abuses across the world is sufficiently embedded in the culture of the FCDO. Experience has shown me that the FCDO, both at desks here and at posts in countries, needs to be bolder and more public in calling out specific cases of FORB abuses—not least those relating to some of the women we have heard about today. Inadequate advocacy is being provided for individual cases of concern. I am not being appropriately encouraged to undertake it. Tailored responses are not being provided to me when I raise individual cases of concern. Generic remarks in response to my raising such cases, such as, “FORB is a key human rights priority for the UK,” are simply not good enough.
Nor is the argument that it is better to raise such cases in private good enough. I have been concerned about one such case for almost a year and a half, and officials are aware of it. Still the poor girl continues to suffer. Arguments that raising a case by name could put an individual woman in danger, when she is already effectively being imprisoned under risk of mob violence, are unacceptable, particularly when so-called “in private” advocacy appears to yield little result. In one such case, I was asked not to name a young girl who had been abducted because it might put her at risk. She had been abducted by Boko Haram. She was at risk. Her family wanted her case to be raised. It is very interesting that today we are celebrating the freedom of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose plight has not been out of the public domain for six years.
I will close with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights. She said:
“Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who shows such dedication to freedom of religion or belief in his work throughout Parliament. He has made a magnificent impact in his role as chair of the APPG, not just across the UK but internationally, and is greatly respected and esteemed by colleagues of different parties in that regard.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is doing tremendous work. We are so privileged to have her as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, which is at the heart of the work she does and something that she champions in Parliament, across the UK and internationally. My constituents are delighted that she will be visiting us in a couple of months to speak about this work in East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, because they feel it is so important.
When we celebrate International Women’s Day, we talk about the progress that we have made in the United Kingdom, which is fantastic. I have certainly had more opportunities than my mother did, and my mother had more opportunities than my grandmother did. We have made significant progress, and we all hope that our children will have better opportunities. I have two girls of my own, and I want them to succeed at whatever makes them happy in life, but we cannot forget those across the world who live under the fear of persecution, whose opportunities are dashed and whose ability to contribute is curtailed purely because they are believed to have the wrong religion or belief in the country they were born in.
It is an honour to be speaking here today. The subject matter is very grave and disquieting. The debate was inspired by The Forgotten Women, a recent event held by Aid to the Church in Need and Open Doors, two charities that support persecuted minorities. It was held on International Women’s Day and raised awareness of the many women from religious minorities who suffer grievous persecution because they are deemed to be of the wrong faith. I have worked with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need for many years, and I have been very humbled to read its “Hear Her Cries” report, which is about the kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls. The report presents disturbing findings that have to be acknowledged and acted on in the higher echelons of Government, both nationally and internationally.
According to the Christian Association of Nigeria, 95% of women abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria are Christian. In Pakistan, research by the all-party parliamentary group suggests that 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls are abducted each year to be forcibly converted and married. Other research says that 1,000 girls are abducted every year from the Sindh province alone, so we think this might be only the tip of the iceberg.
When I was on the International Development Committee, I had the privilege of meeting the Bring Back Our Girls campaign and the abducted Nigerian girls’ mothers, who were devastated that they had sent their children to be educated at school in good faith. They wanted the best for their children, as we do for ours. Those girls did not return. Some girls have been returned, but more have been taken.
What are the Government doing? It is one of the countries we donate the largest amount of aid to. My constituents want our aid money to go to Governments who want to tackle inequality and ensure that the most vulnerable are protected, and that, where that is not happening, the Government seriously question their commitment to working with those Governments. Raising those issues repeatedly and ensuring that action is taken is the very least we can do.
I would like to present a case study that demonstrates the brutality and injustice that women have to contend with. Rania Abd el-Messiah’s case was featured in Aid to the Church in Need’s “Hear Her Cries” report. She vanished from the village of Mina in Monufia Governorate on 23 April 2020. A few days later, a video was released on social media. Rania, a devout Christian, who was active in her local Coptic Orthodox Church, appeared wearing a Muslim al-amira headscarf, saying she had converted to Islam nine years previously. She said she had left her home of her own free will, taking her jewellery with her. She then recited the Shahada, the Islamic profession of faith.
Rania’s family were very suspicious, particularly as, contrary to what she said in the video, none of her jewellery was missing. Her brother Remon said:
“She was definitely kidnapped and forced to make that video.”
He added that she had been “threatened and coerced”. Her family also claimed that the police knew where she was being held. No progress was made, though, until the local diocese, led by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Binjiman of Menoufia, took up her case. After protests and a threat to leave a Government-backed interfaith initiative by the Menoufia Assembly of Priests, Rania was eventually released.
Rania declared that she had not converted to Islam, which was backed up by Al-Azhar, the Islamic authority that registers conversions to Islam, which argued that in Islam, there can be “no compulsion in religion”. Bishop Binjiman later confirmed that Rania had indeed been kidnapped, having been forced into a car by two women. He said the police had told the family not to talk publicly about the case, adding that he was aware of 15 similar cases of kidnapping. During the almost three months that she was held, she was both sexually and psychologically abused by her captors.
It is clear that Christian women like Rania and those of other religious minorities are being persecuted because of their faith, but how often do we hear their stories in the press? What are the UK Government doing to help women like them, and what are the United Nations doing? If MPs from all parties do not raise our voices, then women from religious minorities will continue to be the forgotten women in the fight against gender-related violence.
In a case study from Mozambique, Aana—not her real name, but the one in the report from Aid to the Church in Need—gave an insight into the fate faced by Christian girls in Mozambique when kidnapped by Islamic extremists, who are currently waging an insurgency in the country. After her release, she said that Christian girls were given a choice: convert to Islam and marry a fighter or become a slave. She said that
“those who were Christians and who didn’t want to convert…would be chosen by the soldiers to be slaves.”
This was confirmed by Father Fonseca of Pemba Diocese, Mozambique, who said that Christian girls face a real threat of abduction, rape and forced conversion and marriage, because the fighters
“are able to do anything. They can do what they want.”
“Christian women are being kidnapped, not all alone but with other women. It is a phenomenon taking place where the terrorists are, where the fighting is taking place.”
The hon. Member for Strangford described the case of Farah Shaheen, a Christian girl living in Pakistan who was kidnapped. I was going to raise her case, but he has covered it in great detail. It highlights the need to review the work that is being done in conjunction with the Government of Pakistan to ensure that the most vulnerable have assistance and receive our support and UK aid. As I said, people in my constituency and, I am quite sure, people across the United Kingdom want to make sure that the most vulnerable receive the aid, and that cases of persecution and injustice are dealt with by the Governments that we are assisting.
I note that in response to the APPG’s 2021 report on the situation in Pakistan, Lord Ahmad, the Foreign Office Minister, expressed the UK Government’s disappointment that draft legislation criminalising forced conversions had stalled in Pakistan’s Parliament in 2021. The UK Government say that they have regularly raised the issue with the Government of Pakistan, but what action are they taking and what further work can be done in this regard?
Before I finish, I will briefly ask the Minister, will he build on the recommendations made by my colleagues today? Perhaps—I hope that, as treasurer of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, I am not speaking out of turn—we could meet Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials to ask them about the programmes that are under way to address freedom of religion or belief. I say that because it is clearly an important cross-party issue and it is something that we believe we could lend not just support but some weight to. We are very keen to meet those officials involved in that work, to ensure that action is being taken and that there are regular reviews of progress.
When we think about the freedoms that we have today, we can see that we have come a long way. However, collectively—working together—we can help not just those women in the UK who are affected by the issues that we are discussing today, and who are very important in all our constituencies, but internationally, those women and girls who experience persecution due to a lack of acceptance of their religion or belief, doing all that we can to support their needs at this crucial time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees.
May I start by wishing all those who are celebrating them a happy Purim, happy Holi festival—for tomorrow—and a happy St Patrick’s day for today?
It has been an absolute privilege to hear the powerful speeches here in Westminster Hall today; each case that was cited was as heartbreaking and shocking as the others. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for their leadership in this area. Along with other Members of this House, they have fought for the rights of persecuted religious minorities with dedication and heart. The all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief is an invaluable resource in pushing these rights forward. We have our own desperate problems with violence against women and girls in the UK, which we must attend to, but we cannot take our eye off the rest of the world. With Members such as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady in the House, I know that we will not do so.
I also thank and pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Open Doors, which was mentioned. However, nobody else’s courage can ever match up to that displayed by the very people who are being persecuted. Today we have heard stories of women and girls who have stood tall in the face of death and danger, while continuing to worship in such dangerous environments. It is clear to us that the perpetrators of such crimes against women are not motivated by genuine religious faith. These atrocities are driven not by a pursuit of God but by a pursuit of power, an often masculine determination to enforce patriarchy to the extreme.
Female genital mutilation continues to be used as a weapon against young women and girls. It has absolutely no place in any culture in 2022, regardless of religious belief or practice. It is misogynistic torture, which causes physical injuries and lifelong psychological damage. Along with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, I should be grateful to hear from the Minister what action Britain is taking to end this grotesque practice worldwide.
As we heard, families across Nigeria remain heartbroken for the daughters and sisters who were stolen from them. Boko Haram is pursuing war against women’s rights to freedom of religion, education, employment and marriage. What hope are we offering to those families and to the girls themselves?
I asked a business question of the Leader of the House yesterday in order to highlight the killings of 50 men, women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was hoping that the Minister who is here today would perhaps be able, in responding to that, to give us some indication of any help that we might be able to give the authorities in the DRC, to try to find the perpetrators of those killings and to offer the authorities there some support.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I hope the Minister has taken notes of all the questions that have been asked today.
The past year has reminded us what horrors the Taliban could inflict upon women and girls in Afghanistan, starting with banning girls from schools, with such devastating impact. When the overseas aid budget was slashed, warnings were raised that it would be to the detriment of girls’ education worldwide. Can the Minister assure us that providing safety and education to girls, including those suffering from religious oppression, is still an objective of this Government? Christians are also at intensified risk in Afghanistan under the new regime, and Christian women face being forced into marriages and conversion. Will the Minister please tell us whether there are still asylum routes open to Christians and to women and girls fleeing persecution in Afghanistan?
In China, the Chinese Communist party regime flattens anyone and anything that challenges the prescribed ideology. Christians are forced underground and risk detainment just for owning a Bible, and in Xinjiang, as we have heard, Uyghur Muslims are victims of genocide due to their religion and ethnicity. While thousands of Uyghurs are known to be slaving away in cotton fields, particular brutalities are saved for women: they have been sexually assaulted, tortured, had their children stolen from them, and been forcibly sterilised. The Chinese Communist party is motivated by the same principles as the Taliban, Boko Haram, Islamic State and others—the ruthless pursuit of domination. Faith is not a factor in this religious persecution, only power. Although the Government conceded last year that what is under way in Xinjiang is genocide, there has been very little change in our national response. Every day the Uyghur Muslims face ethnic cleansing, and other religious minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being found out by their oppressive Government. Will the Minister advise us on what steps are being taken to address the dangers faced by those minorities in China?
Human Rights Watch has highlighted Government policy in India as reflecting bias against Muslims. Since October 2018, Indian authorities have deported over a dozen Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, including women and children, despite the risk to their lives and their security. In May 2019, the Government revoked the constitutional autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. They deployed additional troops, detained thousands of people and cut off phone and internet connections, with women and girls reporting rapes, attacks, and living in a constant state of fear.
The world risks looking more divided than ever at a time when there is no Department for International Development. Although we were promised that the cuts to international aid were temporary, that budget has not been restored. What hope does that give women and girls around the world who need our help? What future is there for our own humanitarian interventions, and what damage has this done to Britain’s standing on the world stage, especially when this is all compounded by a Prime Minister who has chosen to visit Saudi Arabia following the execution of 81 people?
As I mentioned, faith is by and large a force for good in the world, and a very powerful one—just look at the way that people of faith are stepping forward to lead the welcome for Ukrainian refugees, just as they did for Syrians, Afghans and Hongkongers. Throughout the pandemic, churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues served their communities with compassion and hospitality. We are lucky: we live in a country where community cohesion may not be perfect, but everyone has the right to express their beliefs in freedom and safety. That should not be a privilege; it should be a basic human right. Female believers here are largely protected from forced marriage, FGM and other abuses and have access and rights to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare.
However, there have been shocking increases in Islamophobia and antisemitism, and again, women and children in schools have borne the brunt of them. Muslim women have increasingly been subjected to horrific Islamophobic abuse in the streets and online, and even death threats. There have also been approximately 2 million antisemitic tweets in the UK; that is on one platform alone, so it would be good to hear what the Minister has to say about tackling the rising religious persecution that we are seeing in our own country.
This summer, we are due to host a global summit on freedom of religion or belief in London. It is very welcome that the Foreign Secretary has marked the issue as a priority in her brief. However, as hosts of the conference, we must be able to lead with integrity. That means using the full range of the financial and political resources that we have to intervene in religious persecution of all kinds.
I have posed many questions to the Minister today, as have other speakers. I will give him the opportunity to respond. I know there will be consensus that we have a moral duty to intervene in these areas of gross violence, suppression and misogyny. That is clear in every debate that we have on religious persecution. My hope is that we no longer need to keep having these debates to encourage our Government to make the interventions needed.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this debate. He speaks on the topic with great passion, compassion and knowledge, particularly as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) fulfils a dual role. I have no doubt that if she were not acting as party spokesperson in this debate, she would speak with similar passion and conviction. I thank her for the custodianship of the FCDO office in Scotland.
I think that this is the first time I have responded to a debate with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), in attendance, so I welcome her to her post. It would be remiss of me not to commend also the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I will mention her later in my remarks. I congratulate her on her role as the Prime Minister’s envoy in this important area.
Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right but, as has been highlighted by all speakers today, it is denied to millions of people around the world. Attacks on this freedom go hand in hand with other human rights violations and abuses. Religious persecution is of course not limited to women, but the simple truth is that, as in so many other areas, the plight of women is often worse. As we have heard, it is not just religious persecution but the use of sexual violence that makes the situation even more horrific, painful and pernicious. A number of speakers have highlighted specific examples of where women have been recipients of the most appalling sexual violence and abuse. As the hon. Member for Luton North says, it is done in the name of religion, but it has nothing to do with religion. We have to recognise that.
The recent report from Aid to the Church in Need shone a light on how women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being targeted with sexual violence, using religious belief as an excuse. Some have been forced to convert, often under pain of death. In the face of such grave attacks on human rights, it is up to the world’s democracies, including the United Kingdom, to champion freedom for all. That is why we continue to work in close co-ordination with our international partners on a range of measures, from our work through the UN to call out violations of human rights and support those affected, to aid projects working at the grassroots with communities and religious leaders to protect the rights of minorities. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is leading those efforts as the Minister for Human Rights and the Prime Minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict.
In November 2020, Lord Ahmad launched the declaration of humanity, which united leaders from many faiths and beliefs in a common front, and called for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict and denounced the stigma faced by survivors—a point that the hon. Member for Strangford made. In some cases, the stigma prevents women and girls seeking refuge in the families they grew up in. The declaration attracted strong support, and more than 50 leaders from countries including Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka have thus far signed it. I know that Lord Ahmad works closely with the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, on that issue—I am going to embarrass her now, so I hope she is prepared for this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is a powerful advocate, and I admire her hugely for that. She is strongly engaged with advocacy groups, including Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need, which recently hosted an International Women’s Day event. As she said at that event, we must continue to call out countries that fail to take action, while continuing to work at the grassroots level to effect change. We know that communities are stronger when everyone is included, so I will highlight some projects that are already making a difference around the world.
The hon. Member for Strangford and others mentioned Pakistan, where we are funding programmes to protect women and girls, including in religious or belief minority communities, from forced marriage and gender-based violence. We are working with community leaders at village level to try to change social behaviours. On changing the position of the Government, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned the stalling of legislation. We will continue to encourage Pakistan to pursue the right legislation, but legislation and governmental action alone are not enough, which is why we seek to influence at grassroots level as well as through the official development assistance funding that we provide for Pakistan. We have supported the Government of Pakistan to set up eight courts to provide child-sensitive justice to victims of child abuse, child trafficking and child marriage.
The plight of Afghanistan was raised. We backed the UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish the mandate for a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation. That includes the challenges faced by women and girls from religious, or indeed non-religious, communities. We are directly supporting the United Nations population fund activities to prevent gender-based violence, and we launched, with the International Rescue Committee, programming specifically designed for the protection of women and girls. The hon. Member for Luton North asked about the resettlement scheme. We are providing 20,000 women and girls and others at risk with a safe route to resettlement in the UK, and we are on track to resettle an estimated 5,000 this year.
The situation in Syria remains grave, but we are working to support women and girls affected by human rights violations and abuses, including the right of freedom of religion or belief, through our national action plan on women, peace and security. We have allocated £22 million to the United Nations Population Fund in Syria to support this work.
The awful situation in Iraq was raised by several hon. Members, particularly the persecution perpetrated by Daesh. We have seen horrific crimes perpetrated by that group. Many women are still living in difficult conditions because they have children born of sexual violence and they face significant barriers to rejoining their communities due to that stigma. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton took a leading role in pushing for the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance statement calling for minority communities displaced by Daesh to be allowed to return home in a safe, voluntary and sustainable way.
The situation in China was raised with great passion by the hon. Member for Luton North. We must keep the situation in Xinjiang in the public eye. The evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated against the Uyghur Muslims is far-reaching and paints a truly harrowing picture. As the hon. Member said, there have been reports of forced sterilisation and testimonies of rape, torture and the forced separation of families. Such terrible violations of human rights must be called out and highlighted on the international stage. That is why the Foreign Secretary challenged those violations in an address to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month.
The hon. Member for Strangford and others asked about the situation in north-east Nigeria. There are ongoing attacks by terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, which cause immense suffering to Muslim and Christian communities, as the terrorist groups seek to undermine community cohesion and split communities apart. It is something that the UK Government take a close interest in, and we continue to work with the Nigerian Government on the matter.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow spoke about those girls who were taken by Boko Haram, many of whom have still not been returned and their whereabouts is still unknown. We condemn unreservedly the abduction of those girls. We continue to call for and work towards their release, and we will continue to work with the Nigerian Government on those cases, as well as on other well-known cases.
Looking ahead, the United Kingdom will host a freedom of religion or belief conference in July, as has been mentioned. It will be a critical moment for us to drive collective action and promote respect between different religious, and indeed non-religious, communities around the world. Planning is under way, and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will play a key role in helping deliver that. We know that she pushes us hard in the Department. She works with great passion and alacrity, and I am sure that my officials and ministerial colleagues will not thank me for saying this, but she plays an incredibly important role in ensuring that we work with the same speed and passion as she does, and she holds our feet to the fire. My hon. Friend is perhaps not exactly what the Prime Minister envisaged for the envoy role. Nevertheless, she plays an important part, as does the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Luton North, and members of all-party parliamentary groups. This has to remain a collective endeavour.
I shot a quick look across to my officials, who will have heard that request. To be completely honest, at the moment the situation in Ukraine means that we are still in response mode, so the normal generosity of spirit demonstrated by my Department is being stretched somewhat. However, we recognise that this is an important issue, and we will seek to find a time to liaise as soon as possible.
This is a shocking and painful issue, especially when we hear specific cases such as those brought up in the Chamber today—they are harrowing beyond belief. People who already have the least power and the most suppressed voices in their communities and societies once again find themselves the target of misogynistic persecution, attack and sexual violence in the name of religion, although it is not honestly driven by that religion.
We will continue to champion freedom and democracy around the world. Freedom of religion or belief and gender rights will remain at the forefront of our international efforts as a Government.
Thank you very much Ms Rees. First, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I thought it certainly showed the power of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that, when she said she would be happy to facilitate that meeting, the Minister instantaneously agreed. I thank the Minister for being so accommodating. The hon. Lady referred to forced marriages and gender-based violence and the fact that when someone is poor, they are even more vulnerable and chastised more for their religious belief. She also referred to women being financially dependent on their husbands and said that the female body has become a battlefield.
As always, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made a good speech. She gave us many examples, referring to the kidnappings in Egypt and Mozambique. The most vulnerable have our support and assistance, but very often they do not have it when they need it. The hon. Lady is absolutely right.
I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) in her place, with her energy and commitment. What she said was so important. She referred to girls’ education and safety, and she referred to cases in Nigeria, Afghanistan and China of Christians and Uyghurs. She said that ethnic groups’ right to worship must be protected.
I thank the Minister for his positive response to the issues that we wish to see in place. He shared plenty of good thoughts that we wish to take on board. He referred to many countries as well, with the special rapporteur in Afghanistan and the case in Pakistan, where protection for women and girls needs to change. He referred to women and girls in Syria and money that was set aside to help there, and to ISIS and Daesh in Iraq. He also referred to China.
I always like to conclude with a Scripture text—I think it is important to do so, because that is what drives us in this Chamber. I will quote 1 Peter, chapter 2, verse 16:
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
I think that we have done that today. I am aware that we are not here for our own purposes—we are here for the purposes of the man above. For me, that is what it is all about.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered gender specific religious persecution.