Skip to main content

Yemen: Women and Girls

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the case for urgent humanitarian assistance for women and girls in Yemen was discussed during the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to that country.

My Lords, last weekend, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Yemen to push for progress, becoming the first western Foreign Minister to visit since the conflict began. The conflict has exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by women and girls. Gender-based violence has increased and gender inequality has become further entrenched. Since 2017, the United Kingdom has provided support to more than 1,700 victims of gender-based violence. However, it is only by securing peace—an opinion shared by all in this House—that the position of women and girls can be substantively improved.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response and his recognition of the situation of women in Yemen. I draw the House’s attention to my interests as set out in the register. Even before the war, Yemen was rated as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Since then, in the desperate humanitarian crisis that has occurred, women and girls, and of course their children, have suffered disproportionately, with the latest report from the International Rescue Committee showing a 63% increase in the past four years in the number of incidents of rape, gender-based violence, and forced and early marriage. Does the Minister accept that humanitarian efforts must prioritise the needs of women and girls and their children to look to protect them, and that women need to be involved as equal partners in discussions on peace?

The short answer to both questions is yes. Through some of our programmes in Yemen, particularly those led by DfID, £39 million has been allocated to address issues such as forced marriage, on which Yemen is a priority country; 6,000 girls directly impacted by forced marriage have been assisted with counselling and health provision. A further £65,000 has been allocated for outreach work as far as is possible to ensure that early marriage is also addressed. I absolutely accept the noble Baroness’s point on peacekeeping. That is why the Government have committed internationally, more recently in the context of the Commonwealth, to women’s peacemaking networks. As we approach International Women’s Day, it is important that, at the UN, here and elsewhere in the world, emphasis is placed on the importance of women in conflict resolution.

My Lords, the IRC report gave some horrific examples and made a series of recommendations. One was humanitarian access, particularly to health centres and hospitals that provide support to women and girls who have been subject to gender-based violence. Access to them has been restricted; they have been bombed and damaged. What exactly are the Government doing on all sides to ensure that there is proper humanitarian access?

I thank the noble Lord. He and I have spent a fair bit of time on this issue and will continue to work together; I think we are very much at one on it. My right honourable friend’s recent visit again highlighted the importance of peace and of supporting the efforts being made through the UN, including the UN resolution that has been passed. There are three elements to that, one of which is about ensuring humanitarian relief. Current figures show that while the ports of Hodeidah and Salif remain open, distributing that aid further remains a big issue. A second element relates to fuel supplies—some 86% of the requirements of Yemen were met last month. However, again, it is about getting those fuel supplies out. Those are the fundamentals. On girls and women and the protection of health centres, that was a priority raised by the Foreign Secretary with both sides, including representatives of the Houthi community, to ensure that as we address the fundamentals of food and humanitarian aid, protection for girls, particularly from child marriage and forced marriage, is also high up the agenda.

My Lords, wearing his hat as the Human Rights Minister, is the Minister aware of the report by the University Network for Human Rights showing that US and British arms were used in 200 unlawful bombings recently and that most of the casualties were women and children? Will he consider more prohibitions on the use of the arms that we are selling to Saudi Arabia in its pursuit of this ghastly war in Yemen?

The noble Baroness will be aware that the United Kingdom adopts the very stringent system of rules that exists across the EU, as well as a national code, on any military assistance. We remind any country that we sell arms to or give support to of those rules, and I assure her that we review this regularly in the context of the conflict in Yemen. She is right to raise these issues, but our military assistance—for example, the support we provide to Saudi Arabia—is specifically about training, particularly on the important issue of international humanitarian law. We take every opportunity to remind all our allies of those important priorities.

My Lords, that training does not seem to be working. We have people in Saudi Arabia advising how to use the weapons we have sold it, and we have just released statistics showing how amazingly careful the Royal Air Force has been to not kill civilians when using its weapons, yet that is not happening in Yemen. Why are we not teaching people how to use these things without causing mass civilian casualties?

The noble Lord will know from his own experience that teaching does not happen in one day; it is a consistent effort over a period of time. It is important to know that, in any intervention around the world where the United Kingdom gives support through military assistance and training in international humanitarian law, anyone who engages requires that training over a period of time. I take on board the challenge he has presented, but also the tragic nature of the Yemen conflict. That is why the Foreign Secretary has again pushed for a political settlement; that is the only way to prevent the civilian casualties we have seen over a period of time and their impact on communities and on women and girls. That is why he was in the region pushing for that, not just with Yemen but with the likes of the Emirates and the Saudi Government as well.

My Lords, will my noble friend tell us whether we are managing to get support to women’s organisations and women’s human rights defenders in Yemen?

As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, while humanitarian assistance is getting through, a real challenge remains around the safety and security of getting those supplies further around the country. We are looking not only to identify agencies but to ensure their safety. In this regard, our main focus has been to ensure the protection of UN agencies on the ground, so that they can distribute aid and provide the support that my noble friend talks of.