HC Deb 22 January 2004 vol 416 cc1466-7
20. Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

If she will make a statement on steps she is taking to help Iraqi women's non-governmental organisations play a full part in the reconstruction of Iraq. [149751]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I am working very closely with Iraqi women's groups so that they can play a full part in the reconstruction of their country. In particular, I am supporting the establishment of the Iraqi women's higher council, which will be an umbrella organisation for women's non-governmental organisations that is intended to act as an advisory body to the new Iraqi Government.

Mrs. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend remember that there was a time when Iraqi women, unlike those in surrounding countries, were well represented in all the professions? What steps is her Department taking to help those women to regain prominent positions, including in the leadership of the country?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Decades ago, Iraq had a leading position in terms of the prominence of women and their participation in the professions and in public life, and Iraqi women want to get back to that. We have already worked hard to try to get more women into leadership positions, and they now include three members of the governing council, a Minister and four deputy Ministers, and the many women who are, I am glad to say, taking up positions on local councils. I am delighted that the Iraqi authorities have appointed their first woman ambassador to the United States. The position is improving, and there is no doubt that Iraqi women are hugely grateful for the British Government's support. However, there is a long way to go if they are really to fulfil their potential and to rebuild their country as they want to.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I hope that the Minister agrees that we can learn from the lessons of the past. She will be aware of the recent article in Amnesty arguing that the international security assistance force failed to protect women, which hindered their participation in the post-conflict rebuilding process. What is she doing to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes in Iraq?

Ms Hewitt

I have discussed that with Iraqi women and with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. There are security problems, particularly in Baghdad and the immediate area, that affect both men and women. Until now, it has not been possible for the security services or the emerging Iraqi police force to give the additional attention that is needed to protect women from sexual assault and rape, which many of them fear and some, unfortunately, have experienced. We have built that into the training that we are carrying out for the new Iraqi police force, and as the general security situation improves, as it will, Iraqi women will be free and able to take on more of a role in their country, as they wish to.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

As my right hon. Friend knows, Iraqi women have long enjoyed some of the most modern legal protections in the Muslim world. Can she assure people in this country and in Iraq that the recent decision by the governing council to introduce sharia law was a minority decision, and that there is no intention by Ambassador Bremer or anybody else to sign it into law?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend has played an outstanding role in supporting the Iraqi people in their struggle against tyranny, and the House and I pay tribute to her. I agree with her about the consternation that the decision has aroused in Iraq and more broadly. We share her anxiety and are working to ensure that sharia law does not become the basis for the new constitution of Iraq.