HC Deb 08 January 2002 vol 377 cc403-5
4. Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

What representations he has made to encourage equality of treatment for women in Afghanistan. [22996]

7. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)

What representations he has made to the Government of Afghanistan to encourage equality of treatment for women. [22999]

10. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

What steps he is taking to assist the participation of women in the future Government of Afghanistan. [23002]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

We are strongly committed to the equal treatment of women in Afghanistan. We are extremely pleased that the chairman of the Interim Authority, Dr. Karzai, pledged to uphold the rights of women at the authority's inauguration on 22 December, and that two senior members of that authority are highly distinguished Afghan women.

Mr. Olner

I thank the Minister for his encouraging reply. Does he agree that although the events of 11 September were an evil act of terrorism that we all abhor, the repression of women in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime is an equally evil act against human rights, especially against women? Will he ensure that the good work that we are doing with non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam will continue and will receive our full support long after the glare of publicity has gone? It is easy to do things now, but in several years' time there will still be a need to support the human rights of women in Afghanistan and surrounding areas. Will he assure me that we will do that?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He may be interested to know that the Prime Minister met a group of Afghan women during his visit to the region yesterday. We continually stress that this is a long-term project, and we cannot repeat the mistakes that the international community made with Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when we simply walked away from the problems. There have been encouraging signs such as women returning to education and work. As my hon. Friend rightly said, women suffered terribly under the Taliban, and we will of course ensure that we keep up the good work that we have been doing in that respect.

Mrs. Humble

I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging reply. I urge him to draw to the attention of the Afghan Government the recent Brussels proclamation by more than 30 Afghan women's organisations and NGOs, which not only urges Afghan women to be part of the peace process but calls for them to be allowed to work and to use their undoubted skills, experience and expertise to rebuild their economy and their country.

Mr. Bradshaw

We fully support the declaration. Women in Afghanistan are now going back to work and are being given access, which was denied them under the Taliban, to education and health care, which are perhaps two of the most important factors. As I said earlier, two women are leading members of the Interim Authority; indeed, one is a vice chair. We hope that when the transitional authority is established in June women will participate and that when free and fair elections are held in Afghanistan in two years—which will be a remarkable achievement—women will play their full part in that process too.

Jane Griffiths

My hon. Friend will be aware that literacy levels among women in Afghanistan are worrying low, possible as low as 4 per cent., as a result of the policies not only of the Taliban but of the Rabbani regime. What steps can be taken to promote literacy and education for women so that future generations of women will be able to play a full part in the life of the Afghan nation?

Mr. Bradshaw

We are playing a leading role in that, both through our new diplomatic representation in Kabul and through the good work, which has already been alluded to, being carried out by British and British-supported NGOs. My hon. Friend is right: the denial of education to women in Afghanistan will leave a terrible legacy for some time to come. We need to get girls back to school and to offer adult education to women so that they can play a full role in society that will be good for Afghanistan and for the international community.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I suspect that there is little difference between hon. Members on either side of the House about what the Minister has said, and I applaud the Government's position on the matter. However, when democratic elections take place in Afghanistan, as we all hope and trust they will, will the Government play their part, through the United Nations, in ensuring that women who are illiterate, who are in purdah or who wear the burqa have the opportunity to express their opinion freely?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes. The nature of any Government in Afghanistan in two years' time is a matter for the Afghan people, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that in 1964 women in Afghanistan had the vote, and certainly to deprive them of it now would be an extremely retrograde step.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

When did the Minister last meet his counterpart in the Department for International Development to discuss the empowerment of women in Afghanistan? Will he assure the House that he will work closely with the Department—that has not always happened in the past—to make sure that we are drawing on the wisdom and knowledge of NGOs, charities and DFID and are doing the right thing to empower women in Afghanistan, and not just what the Foreign Office thinks is the right thing?

Mr. Bradshaw

Foreign Office Ministers have been working extremely closely with Ministers from DFID. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has told me that he will have another such meeting with the Secretary of State for International Development tomorrow to discuss the very issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Better education, health and employment opportunities for women in Afghanistan will be largely dependent on the international community committing substantial sums to the country's reconstruction. Is the Minister convinced that the international community, including the United States, has the determination to commit the sums necessary over the time necessary to ensure that there is decent reconstruction in Afghanistan?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I am confident of that. All the statements made by our Prime Minister, President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have made it clear that the international community will not walk away from Afghanistan. There is huge job of work of reconstruction to be done. The evidence so far is good: when the UN has called for an international response in terms of donations from various countries, those donations have been forthcoming extremely quickly.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which says that gender is central to our understanding of complex emergencies and the effectiveness of humanitarian action"? Does he know that the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, which covers the major donor agencies, has found that two thirds of the evaluation reports on humanitarian action make no reference to gender? Will he ensure that as the international reconstruction money going to Afghanistan is spent, there is proper monitoring of gender?

Mr. Bradshaw

I assure my hon. Friend that the British Government are keen to ensure that the whole reconstruction effort in Afghanistan involves the sort of monitoring she suggests. The UN is also committed to that. I was sorry to hear the disappointing figure she quotes; if she will allow me, I shall look into it and write to her about it in more detail.

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