HL Deb 04 December 2001 vol 629 cc702-5

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration they have given to ensuring that women have full civil rights in a future Afghan state.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, one of the most appalling features of the Taliban regime has been its treatment of women, including restrictions on women's access to healthcare and education. Afghan women have participated in the talks held in Bonn, which today have led to agreement on the framework for the establishment of an interim administration in Afghanistan. We welcome the agreement and expect any future government to respect internationally acknowledged norms of behaviour towards their own citizens including, of course, women.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can she give any further information as regards the progress being made in relation to the main claims that I believe the women of Afghanistan want to make; namely, the right to receive an education, the right to work and the right to participate in public life in their own country, as they enjoyed before the time of the mujaheddin? Can the noble Baroness further tell the House when those claims will be considered and in what context?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, a United Nations-sponsored conference is to be held in Brussels tomorrow under the auspices of UNIFAM. It is extremely important that we consult the women of Afghanistan themselves about their priorities. We have heard a little about those views, but they have tended to come from Afghan women in the diaspora or those living overseas from Afghanistan at the moment. The conference, which is being held on 4th and 5th December, will include some 50 women's groups from Afghanistan, the refugee camps and neighbouring camps, and further will provide an important opportunity to gather together what exactly are those women's real priorities. I suspect that not only will issues surrounding education, the right to work and public participation in the life of Afghanistan be raised, but also matters such as the supply of clean water, food for children—one in four of whom die before the age of five—and basic healthcare, which most of us would think of as basic human rights.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 1977, 15 per cent of all the legislators in Afghanistan were women? On 2nd November, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, stated that: It is the responsibility of the entire international community to ensure that the women of Afghanistan are fully involved".—[Official Report, 2/11/01; col. WA 186.] Can the noble Baroness tell the House what are Her Majesty's Government's plans if the new broad-based government of Afghanistan do not respect the basic human rights of women?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have reasonable grounds to believe that a new broad-based government will respect the basic human rights of women. I think that it is important to remember that three out of the 28 participants in the talks held in Bonn have been women. I cannot tell the noble Baroness whether any members of the interim government are likely to be women, but that too is possible. When I left the Foreign Office today. the names of the representatives for the new interim government had not been announced. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend Clare Short, along with other women development Ministers from Europe, have made it clear that we expect and hope that women will become involved in the public life of Afghanistan.

One of the basic building blocks to put in place is to ensure that the education of girls goes ahead. We should not forget that since 1996, as a matter of public policy rather than through poverty, girls have been excluded from the Afghan education system, such as it is. Those fundamental building blocks have to be put into place. However, of course I agree very much with the purport of the noble Baroness's comments.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the noble Baroness do her best to ensure that Afghan women are no longer obliged to hide their lovely faces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, wearing the burqa or, indeed, wearing any other clothing that is deemed appropriate in some Islamic countries is a matter for those Islamic countries and a matter for the women living in them. Surely, the question here is that real choice should be available to women. I certainly agree with the noble Lord. Lord Renton, that it is unacceptable for young women to be beaten for inadvertently revealing a small part of their face or an ankle. It is to be regretted that all too often we have seen such events depicted on our television screens. In countries where such apparel is deemed to be a question of respect, we must look at those cultural norms and hope that it is a matter of choice for the future.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on this issue. As she has pointed out, we do not know yet whether any women will be included in the interim administration for Afghanistan. Can the noble Baroness give an assurance that when the entirely male Council of Chiefs—I am not good at pronouncing the Afghan language, so I shall not attempt to say the Afghan word—meets to confirm that interim administration, which I understand it will do, some consideration will be given to the position of women in any future government? Furthermore, will Mr Robert Cooper, who, we understand, is to look after this matter for Her Majesty's Government, press the Afghan administration to bear in mind the interests of women when the council's views are taken into consideration?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can only reiterate to the noble Baroness that we pressed for women to form a part of the Afghan delegation to Bonn. I hope that that gives the noble Baroness some assurance of the seriousness with which Her Majesty's

Government take the issue. The framework establishes that the interim authority will be set up for six months. Furthermore, there will be a supreme court and a 21-member special independent commission set up to elect a transitional government, along with a multinational force to secure Kabul.

I cannot answer specifically the question put by the noble Baroness as regards whether, as a matter of course, those arrangements will include women. I am bound to say that I think that that would be an unusual specification. When looking at other areas of the world, I am also bound to say that certain other governments might look to the inclusion of at least a few more women in their administrations. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that we have pressed for women's voices to be heard. Lastly. I hope that the noble Baroness will take some assurance from the fact that a conference will be held tomorrow in Brussels. That conference will report back to a round table made up of international representatives at the end of the week.