HC Deb 30 March 2000 vol 347 cc117-56WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on what I regard as one of the most important subjects, not just for international development but for human society as a whole. Women constitute half the human population, and are of huge importance. I want this debate to initiate an understanding of the problems faced by women among not only women but men and the whole community. That is important in terms of achieving the international target of reducing poverty by half by 2015, which is closely related to the issue of women and development and their status in the world.

The Minister will know that the White Paper stated that the Government's prime objective was to achieve that international target. Women comprise 70 per cent. of the world's abjectly poor, so it is inevitable that if the objective is to be addressed seriously, the nature of, and remedies for, women's poverty must be understood and acted on. Of the 1.3 billion poorest people in the world, more than a third, or 450 million, live in India, 14.8 million live in Pakistan and 30 million live in Bangladesh. That is a total of 494.8 million women in abject poverty. The International Development Committee visited those three countries to learn at first hand why so many poor women lived in the subcontinent, and what could be done to help them out of poverty. Unless help is provided, the objective of reducing world poverty by half by 2015 cannot be achieved.

The first statistic that smacks an inquirer in the face is the one that shows that the gender balance is reversed in the three countries that I mentioned. In most human societies, the population is 52 per cent. female and 48 per cent. male—106 females to 100 males. In the early years, the male is much more vulnerable to illness and death than the female. Despite that, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh manage to achieve a population in which there are more males than females. In those countries, there are 94 females to 100 males, and the ratio is declining still further—it has declined during the past 50 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty is also rampant, the figures are better, but they are still alarming—102 females to 100 males. We concluded in paragraph 19 of our report "Women and Development": The declining sex ratio in India provides a stark and shocking indication of the true extent and impact of women's low status in society, their lack of access to basic health and education services, and the discrimination and violence which continues to threaten their chances of survival. Faced with such statistics, we must ask why that situation is so apparent in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We know that it is not the inevitable result of the culture and approach to life because, in our contacts with those countries, many of us have met sophisticated and powerful women, including the Prime Ministers of India and of Bangladesh.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)

And the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Wells

Yes, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh are both women. There seems to be a curious contrast, which is difficult to explain.

The Committee visited many areas where women were suffering, including, much to the amusement of many of my colleagues, two brothels, one in west Calcutta and one in Bogra in Bangladesh. I shall explain later why we felt it necessary to visit them, but I shall begin at the beginning of life and explain what happens to female children in infancy and childhood.

Modern methods allow the sex of a foetus to be ascertained and amniocentesis is being used ruthlessly in middle-class India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. When it is established that a foetus is female, the foetus is often aborted. There are more traditional ways of disposing of female foetuses and children, including direct infanticide. First, a female child may be fed on the breast for a shorter time and, therefore, will be less able to withstand attack by the variety of viruses and infections that confront young children. Secondly, if there is not enough food for the whole household, a boy child will be fed, but the girl child will not. If they have not succumbed to death in the first five years, many female children will be brain damaged due to a lack of food and unable to take advantage of education, if it were offered. There is a hugh preponderance of illiterate women and girls in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the whole of Africa and many parts of Asia. The appalling statistics are not confined to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Education and the way in which children grow up can provide an exit from the appalling statistics. If a female child is educated, she will want to educate her children, whether they are male or female, when she becomes a mother. That is the solution to the problem of education for women, but due to the abject poverty in many areas of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, female children are not educated because malnourishment has caused brain damage during childhood. Some female children are not offered any education.

If, by chance, female children have been able to achieve basic literacy by the time they reach adolescence, they are often taken out of school at the age of 10, 11 or 12 and are married and already having children by the age of 12, 13 or 14. Then the cycle of illiteracy, malnourishment and infanticide goes on. This is the cycle that somehow the world must break, if we are not only to achieve just rights for women but to confront the issue of abject poverty in the world.

In adolescence, the female may also be subjected to domestic violence, which takes a number of unpleasant forms. There are the dowry deaths in India; if the female is sold into marriage with a dowry, but the dowry is considered inadequate, she may be abused physically and mentally in the husband's family, whom she had probably never met before she married. There are also sati deaths. As you may know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the wife of a dead husband is expected to throw herself on his funeral pyre and die with him.

In Bangladesh in particular, there is now the most appalling growing abuse of throwing acid at the wife if she has not performed in accordance with male needs. The most disgraceful episodes of that have recently come to the attention of the western press.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

My hon. Friend will know that the part of the Select Committee with which I was travelling went to Pakistan, where, I submit, the cases may be even worse. In Lahore, the practice of stove burning, which we would call murder and mutilation, is prevalent. The report states that at any one time in Lahore alone between 60 and 70 women are dying of burns, many of which are presumed, and likely, to have been caused by deliberate stove burning by their husbands or in-laws. That is yet another awful indicator of what happens in parts of the sub-continent.

Mr. Wells

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend will remember the evidence given to us by Dr. Kate Young of Womankind, in which she talked about that kind of death for many women and referred to acid burning, particularly in Bangladesh. The World bank calculates that rape and domestic violence account for about 5 per cent. of the total disease burden among women aged between 15 and 44. Stove deaths are another manifestation of the same disregard lack of respect and care for women.

The figures for maternal mortality in the whole of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are shocking and the deaths are almost entirely unnecessary and preventable. Dr. Kate Young also gave the Committee evidence on this subject. She said: Maternal mortality—lack of family planning resources, high demands on women's fertility, and lack of birth spacing, combining with existing poor health conditions (ie anaemia and malnutrition) strains women's health. That can result in their death, during or after giving birth.

Only by trying to improve the lot of women who suffer such abuses can we begin to find a solution. It is a matter not simply of looking after sexual and reproductive health but of taking care of the female child when she is confronted with normal childhood diseases such as measles or, on the sub-continent, malaria and tuberculosis. Often the female child is simply not taken to any kind of medical care and consequently dies.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

My hon. Friend mentioned malaria. Does he agree that the implications of a future malarial insurgence in Mozambique and the part of Africa that suffered severe flooding are very worrying? Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what aid had been lined up for that area to help it to cope with the malarial infection that is expected to follow the flooding? Such an outbreak would disproportionately affect the population in that area, compared with the rest of Africa.

Mr. Wells

Any area hit by a major humanitarian disaster of the kind that has afflicted Mozambique must confront exaggerated and exacerbated health problems, including malaria, TB and, possibly, cholera. I have heard reports that although cholera has not yet broken out, it is an ever-present danger, especially in areas of flooding in which the population is vulnerable to waterborne diseases. In such cases, women are likely to be more vulnerable because they are probably less well fed than their male counterparts, whether adults or children.

The problems are not confined to health care and education. Women are often employed in difficult working conditions. Let us take the most common example, that of cooking for the household. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and India we saw very rudimentary housing with no windows, in which women were expected to spend almost all their lives. They were not expected to go out in public. The stoves in those houses filled the rooms with fumes and smoke throughout the day and night, because the women were expected to provide the food for the family and for her husband on his return. Dark, smoke-filled kitchens are a serious danger to women's health and to their lives. Women also perform all the menial and sanitary tasks around the house—I shall not go into details. Such work endangers their health and many women die as a result. Not only do women not own any property but they are the property either of their husband or of other male family members. They do not even own their children or the products of their labour. Those belong to the men.

What are the solutions to these problems? Before we get too depressed, we must recognise that there are solutions; the problems can be addressed and the conditions can be altered. The status of women in this country has altered dramatically. Even in my lifetime, women have achieved the vote. Actually, it was a little earlier than that. My mother achieved the vote in 1930, and I was born in 1935. While all men and women over 30 achieved the vote in 1918, women under 30 were not entitled to vote until 1928, so we must not congratulate ourselves too much on our treatment of women.

This is an international problem, but it can be solved. We have evidence of that, in the presence in this Chamber of some excellent women Members of Parliament, who are at least the equal of their male counterparts—and possibly superior, as former Prime Minister Thatcher certainly proved.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

On behalf of the women present, I cannot resist saying that I heard at lunchtime that both Uganda and South Africa have a much higher proportion of women in their legislatures than Britain does. Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on that?

Mr. Wells

I would, because we should remember that one of India's achievements in the recent past is that a third of local government institutions are required by legislation to have at least a third of their constituencies represented by women. Although I have said many bad things about India today, I recognise that it is trying to deal with the issue. Many cultivated women, who are sensitive to their fellow females' plight, have managed to introduce such reforms.

We must consider how the statistics can be changed. They can change, and have changed, and will change further if we are determined to try to develop the political will for change in those countries. There is not a total absence of will in that respect.

Mrs. Gillan

Is my hon. Friend as pleased as I am to see many women in Westminster Hall in this debate on women and development? Does he agree that it is, however, a shame that there are not more women here, and a crying shame that there are not more men? It is equally important for men to be engaged in this debate as it is for women.

Mr. Wells

I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. As I intended to say later on, unless men can be brought to understand the problems with which they confront women, and to join with women in improving their status and the way in which they are treated, none of the reforms that we are trying to introduce will happen. I should like to ensure that when one is involved in a debate on women, a nasty little titter does not run round the society or informal meeting that one happens to be in. The issue is as important for men as it is for women, and we need to join together to get it right. Men need to be understanding; those who love their women—as many do—must try to make the changes that are necessary to ensure that they achieve equal status. That is what I mean when I refer to political will, which must be generated by us all. The Committee saw examples of men who had agreed to do that, and their womenfolk and children had benefited from it.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

The problem is not merely that the abominations that are perpetrated against women in some parts of the world are ignored by Members of Parliament, whether male or female. The lack of interest among many of our male colleagues has already been noted. Economic interests are also at work. Many people are not willing to embark on a strong argument with powerful countries with which they do business. It is all very well to talk about giving more aid to appropriate non-governmental organisations and helping women's groups, but unless we tackle the root cause of the problem and tell such countries that we will not trade with them, or help them in any way, unless they stop their abmoninations against women, they will continue.

Mr. Wells

I agree with the sentiment of the hon. Lady's comments. However, I am not certain that the big stick achieves the results that she and I would like to see. We have to persuade men that it is in their interests—and those of their children, families and countries—to change the way in which they treat women. We can back that up with a bit of stick—for example, by trading fairly in terms of what we buy. I should like to say more about that, if I have time. We visited the Gap factory in Dhaka in Bangladesh, where fairer trade was being insisted on, and further measures could be taken. However, I know that other hon. Members have valuable contributions to make. I promised the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr.Worthington), who has just come into the Chamber, that I would not speak for too long this afternoon.

I shall rehearse the six actions that the report recommended. We should understand the nature of women's poverty. I have given an outline of what that is. As I have said, we must increase girls' and women's access to effective basic education. That principle should extend to secondary and tertiary education. We must provide gender-sensitive services and resources for women's health. In discussing access to effective basic education, we must recognise that many girls do not have the confidence to say to their male partners, "I do not wish to have sex tonight." Nor do they think that they have the right to do so. We must provide that self-confidence. Education will enable girls to read and learn how others conduct relationships. Only when they are to some extent literate and educated will they acquire the self-respect and self-regard that will enable them to talk to their male partners on equal terms.

Of course, the provision of gender-sensitive services and resources for women's health is related to treatment in childbirth and women's understanding of their reproductive health. On our recent visit to Malawi, we were told that women there believe that a daily injection of sperm is necessary to remain healthy. We should consider what such an attitude to sex means in terms of the prevention of AIDS.

We must also improve women's access to credit and businesses. The small credit movement is a major example on which we must build. The Grameen bank, which began in Bangladesh, is now a huge concern. Minuscule amounts of money are lent for three-monthly periods at, I fear to say, high rates of interest, so that a cow, a chicken, or other goods to sell at market may be purchased. Those women have no property, and therefore no security to offer to a normal banking system. Women acting in groups have proved themselves able to help each other to repay loans. If a cow against which a woman has borrowed money dies, women join together to repay the loan and buy a new cow. Much more needs to be done, but that is a major step towards women earning a living to help themselves and their children.

We should also understand and address the root cause of women's disproportionate poverty. Why are women poorer than men? Why is there gender-based discrimination and violence? We must, above all, demonstrate political will by allocating resources, implementing relevant instruments of international agreements and national legislation, and mainstreaming gender concerns throughout all development programmes, as well as those aimed directly at women and girls.

That last point, to which I have already made reference, is one of the most important. Although today's debate is not as well attended as we would have liked, it has enabled discussion and understanding of these issues. I hope that the annual conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which will be attended by women in London and Edinburgh, will also enable such discussion and understanding. We must encourage men to take part in such discussions.

We on the Select Committee welcomed the commitment to poverty eradication and women's empowerment as a key element of the White Paper. We also welcomed the 1997 paper entitled "Breaking the Barriers", and the consultation paper entitled "Poverty Eradication and the Empowerment of Women", which was published in February. My only complaint about that paper, copies of which are sitting on my and the Minister's desks, is that it makes no reference to the Select Committee report "Women and Development" that we are debating today. The Department for International Development should recognise that it operates in partnership with Select Committees—a partnership that should be built on and rejoiced in. Our function is to criticise, but also to support and empower poor people and help them to understand the issues.

Mr. Foulkes

I shall deal with the question of rejoicing in partnership later. In case hon. Members do not have the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, additional copies can be found behind the officials.

Mr. Wells

I return to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) about the private sector's role. The International Development Committee went to a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which produces clothes for the Gap Clothing Company. It employs many female employees, many of whom are working for the first time. The Department for International Development supported Marie Stopes International in the provision of a clinic in the factory, which taught those women how to control their fertility and practise safe sex. That would prevent their infection with HIV-AIDS and help them to control the number of children that they had, which would mean that they could continue to work. Conditions in the factory were far from perfect.

Committee members wondered why the Department for International Development was supporting such clinics with funds from taxpayers in this country. Why should not the Gap Clothing Company fund the clinic? Should we not talk to Gap and to similar companies, including B&Q, which buy from Indian sources? We could say to them, "You have got to ensure that labour conditions—the conditions in which people produce goods for you—are hygienic and are consistent with the social direction that the Government and the people of this country support."

I want to conclude by discussing HIV-AIDS, but I shall do so briefly—it is a big subject. HIV-AIDS will destroy many of our efforts in this context unless it is properly managed. That was why Committee members visited the brothel in Bogra. The fact that that brothel is 600-strong tells us something about the relations between males and females in that Muslim country. Those females—sex workers, as we must call them—were being taught English. They could be taught how to have safe sex only if they were taught how to read. They could read the instructions on a condom packet only if they were litertate. If we are to prevent HIV-AIDS from spreading, we have to start right at the beginning—it spreads fastest from brothels.

I asked to meet the owners of the brothel, and I interviewed the men concerned. I asked whether the clinic was doing their business any good, and they said that it was attracting more custom and they were doing better business. I asked whether they were getting larger profits. They said yes, and that the clinic was a very good idea. I asked, "So why don't you provide the clinic yourself?" "Oh, that would be far too expensive," they explained.

We must ensure that employers and the public and private sectors adopt the same targets in relation to education and health. Those targets must be adopted by the owners of brothels such as those in Bogra and west Calcutta, and throughout the country. That approach will give women self-confidence and help them to own property and to decide their future on equal terms.

Mrs. Fyfe

The hon. Gentleman's comments on the private sector remind me of a BBC2 programme that was broadcast last Saturday, which was about a woman who made a very modest effort to enter the private sector herself—she sold a few goods in the marketplace. Her son killed her because, according to the interpretation of Islam that is followed where she lives, what she was doing was immoral and wrong. The state did not prosecute him for her murder because his action was held to be acceptable. The problem goes even deeper than that outlined by the hon. Gentleman. The woman was making a modest effort to earn her own living, yet she was killed for her pains. To solve that problem, we need to go well beyond the attitudes and education in that village—we need to go to the top of Pakistan society and make it clear that such behaviour is not acceptable in international society.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I remind hon. Members that interventions should be brief.

Mr. Wells

I know of several examples of the behaviour to which the hon. Lady refers. The Select Committee also met several imams in Bangladesh who had been tackled first by the Department for International Development, which explained to them what it was trying to do for women. It tried to make them understand in terms of the Koran why such action was necessary. That is why I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that such education must involve men and women and that it had to start at the top of any society. Imams are most powerful people in many villages and they must be retaught that it is not in an ordinary person's reading of the Koran that women should be so treated. However, that is how the Koran is interpreted locally and regionally and men have power over women and throughout society. We must stop such bigotry and ignorance.

Mr. Robathan

I refer to the intervention of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) and to what is an unusual cross-party consensus. Last year, we had a meeting with the Attorney-General of the Sharif Government in Pakistan—it was before the military coup. When the subject of a report on human rights was raised, especially the status and ill-treatment of women, he stormed out of the meeting and refused to discuss the matter with us. I hope that a change has come about under the new Government.

Mr. Wells

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have a huge amount of work to do. It must be carried out constantly and enthusiastically by Parliament and the entire country, and we must start now. I want to see the reversal of such terrible statistics. I want women to stand up self-confidently in their own right and be responsible for their own future. I want them to have equal responsibility with their male partners for their children. They must have equal ownership of anything that they produce or that they labour to produce. I want them to be able to own property, discuss matters sensibly, know their legal rights and stand up as people of this world.

3.7 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I congratulate the International Development Committee on targeting its inquiries on women and their rights in the developing world. I have read the report and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), but I am somewhat amazed at what was clearly a sense of bemusement on his part when he discovered the reality of life for women in such countries. I do not wish to be rude or dismissive of the Committee's findings. The facts that it outlined make shocking reading. In 1994, the United Nations published a report on the state of children in the world. It drew attention to the fact that three quarters of women in the world live in abject poverty, which means that three quarters of the world's children are in a similar state. The issues that he delineated for us were described in no small detail in that report.

The evidence that the International Development Committee presented to the House has been available to the world for the whole of my natural life.

Mr. Wells

It is a matter not of bemusement, but of shock. The situation continues to shock me. I know about the reports to which the hon. Lady referred, and I was shocked when I heard of them. When one sees it on the ground, it is even more shocking.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind hon. Members to address the Chair. I am not touchy about this matter, but if hon. Members addressed the Chair, would allow the Hansard transcribers to hear the words clearly, rather than in a jumble. That would be helpful.

Ms Jackson

It is an example of the humanity of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford that he is capable of being shocked. The gross mistreatment and undervaluing of women, who are half the world's population, continue to shock even those of us who have been aware of it our whole lives.

I repeat that I strongly agree with the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe). If the world wants to make the changes that basic humanity and the belief in human rights would suggest, the developed countries must change first, and change their treatment of the developing world.

My hon. Friend touched on the deep-seated problem of the treatment deemed to be the norm in the countries to which the report refers. That may be seen on all the continents, and in a more minor way within our own borders. Today, women in this country experience all the behaviour to which the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford referred, and they may not have emigrated from countries in which it is part and parcel of tradition to deem women to be merely objects for abuse by whoever has the power in the relationship, whether it be one of the family, community or state.

I am grateful for the major changes in international development secured by the Government, and for their attempts to bring together all Departments that have any dealings with other countries, using joined-up thinking. They have prioritised making the case for altering dramatically for the better the circumstances of the majority of women around the world.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill said, the problem is deep-seated. I pay tribute again to what the Government are doing, although one always wishes that they could do more. What we, as well as the Government, should do, is find ways to make use of British businesses, for example, that invest or work in other parts of the world and apply for export credits guarantees. When those businesses invest in industries, businesses or services in other countries, it should be taken for granted that they will take the chief responsibility for ensuring that women who are employed by them will be given the respect and the basic rights of workers that we expect in this country.

I took to heart the point made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford. If such issues are raised in the House, it is almost inevitable that they will be dubbed women's issues, because we remain a minority here. That has been our experience throughout our working lives. There will be either shuffling or a half-hearted titter, and sometimes outright abuse, which I am sure that we can all remember from exchanges across the Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of giving women the self-confidence to carry their responsibilities. The problem is not that women lack self-confidence or that they are unaware of their responsibilities; it is that they are deemed to be responsible for everything within their ambit, their community and even their state. Women are inevitably and consistently punished for their failures, even though there is no support to allow them to deliver fully on what is deemed to be their responsibility.

It is all very well for us to make categorical statements about sex education or what people in Malawi, as the hon. Gentleman said, perceive as the way for a woman to maintain her health—an injection of sperm every day—if she, her family, her community and her state deem that her prime purpose for being is to ensure the continuation of the male line. Prelates in this country have made that a requirement for families here, too, although in a rather angular way—they have not couched it in precisely the same terms.

That is why I return to my earlier point: if we are to energise the push to relieve women's and children's abject poverty, we must examine our actions. Instead of making a half-hearted response, which is still the norm in this country, we have to state categorically in all areas of our national life that equal opportunities, equal rights and equal pay for women are right and proper. It is only when we begin to examine ourselves that we will be able to implement essential changes in the world over a much wider range than is being attempted at present. That has to do with equality, opportunity, rights, education and health for women.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned the incidence of violence against women, and we know that it happens in our own country. There is still a presumption that a woman who is beaten up by her partner has done something to deserve that. I always find it especially bemusing when women, who may have experienced violence themselves, presume that. I regret to say that I have direct experience of this. Women have come to me who have experienced domestic violence, and they regard it as proof of love. We are in very murky waters. Such presumptions about the reasons for women's experience stretch a long way back.

Mrs. Gillan

Although I do not disagree with the hon. Lady's argument, does she agree that we, as women, owe a duty to men not to be totally self-indulgent and not to focus entirely on one half of the human race? We need to admit that men often suffer domestic violence, and that they suffer from cancer. The emphasis has been on breast cancer, but prostate cancer has not been highlighted as it should have been. Equally, in war, men and boys can be raped and exposed to the privations that we have discussed. We must not fall into the trap of concentrating purely on women; we must remember the other 50 per cent. of the population.

Ms Jackson

I strongly disagree that we should prioritise the overwhelming arguments for greater equality for women by always presenting a balanced view. In my experience, the view that the hon. Lady described is remarkably unbalanced. She said that insufficient attention is paid to prostate cancer, with all the attention being devoted to breast cancer. I was one of the Members who entered the House for the first time in 1992 who organised an all-party group to deal with breast cancer. Previously, there had been no all-party group, or prioritisation of that issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said from a sedentary position, one reason why so little attention is paid to prostate cancer is that men take so little responsibility for their own health and well-being. It has certainly been my experience that women are always regarded as being in the driving seat when it comes to ensuring—the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is looking at me in a bemused way. I speak directly from my experience. It may not be hers, but it is no less valid when I say that people still believe that the woman has prime responsibility for ensuring the health of a family. I have no doubt that all hon. Members know of women who have made themselves ill by carrying the burden of that responsibility. I do not condone violence in any form, but we are debating the overriding emergency of the violence and lack of facilities, concern and consideration that women suffer—mainly at the hands of men. If we argue that we can move forward only when there is absolute equality, we will be standing here 20, 30 or 50 years from now, putting the same evidence.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Although it is true that some men also experience terrible domestic violence—I have recently had such a case in my constituency—in 90 per cent. of murder cases involving women the perpetrator is the partner or ex-partner, but the same is not true of men who are murdered. We must therefore give women precedence in that matter.

Ms Jackson

That certainly happens. When the case of a woman who has murdered her partner is taken to court, the legal arguments that may be put in the case of a man are not used.

Interesting though the exchange has been, I do not wish to be deflected from the core of my argument. I conclude with what was for me the most telling and crucial sentence in the Select Committee report, which appeared in the section on female genital mutilation; I am sure that we are all concerned about that appalling action on young women and girls. The Select Committee, in agreeing with Joan French, said at paragraph 147: Culture can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction on securing women's rights. That is fundamental and absolute. However, the Government response that The Government agrees with the Committee that culture can not be used as an excuse for the violation of human rights concerned me because it makes a subtle alteration to the original. I want the Government to act on the statement that culture cannot be used as an excuse for inaction on securing women's rights. We should make that part of Government policy in every Department. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will allay my concerns.

I have outlined the changes that I would like in regard to companies that invest abroad. I could give other examples of desirable changes in every Department. We all know what the problem is and what is experienced, day in and day out. No country can bring about on its own the changes that we desire. That can happen only if countries work with their partners as well as individually—and not just in their area of the world. A wider international consensus can bring about the changes that must occur. We have to accelerate the process of change, but we will not do that until we acknowledge the serious flaws in the equality of women in every country of the world, not simply those of the developing third world.

3.24 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) for her useful reminder that we must not look at the mote in our brother's eye when we cannot see the beam in our own. I also thank the chairman of the Select Committee for spearheading the report; I was proud to be part of the Committee that considered it.

Seventy per cent. of the world's poor are women; yet, wherever one looks in the world, countries with good health care and education for women are also successful economically. The link stares us in the face, and I can never understand why men all over the world do not see it. Healthy women have healthy babies, male as well as female. Educated women are more likely to be healthy and have healthy children. Women who are malnourished and have poor health care will not have the energy to take up educational opportunities, and their children are less likely to be educated.

Rather than try to cover all the issues in the report, which I would dearly love to do, I shall concentrate on women's health issues because I feel most passionately about them. They were my specialty before I became a Member of Parliament, and are crucial to development.

In paragraph 161 of the report, Marie Stopes International points out that current levels of global expenditure on sexual and reproductive health—around ․3.7 billion—amount to less than the amount spent each year on confectionery in the UK. That is a wonderful statistic. The paragraph states that the money in real terms development assistance spent on sexual and reproductive health projects— the subject that I care about so much— has not increased for the past 20 years. That says a lot about the aid we are giving.

Woman in the west take reproductive health for granted. I used to have trouble convincing my patients to come for their screening tests and exhorting them to be healthy. They are fed up with being pestered and told what to do. In developing countries, the situation is different. I must warn those who are squeamish that the next 10 minutes will be uncomfortable.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) dealt well with women's general health, which is crucial to their sexual and reproductive health. The picture in the report of an Asian woman feeding her boy baby was a wonderful example. It had grown fat and healthy while the girl baby died quickly from malnutrition, as the mother had enough milk for only one baby. In the short term, boy babies seem more important to poor families in developing countries, as it is felt that boys are the economic future of families and farms.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned women in huts in Bangladesh inhaling smoke all the time. When we were there, I asked myself whether that was a factor in giving Bangladesh the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Bangladesh shares many qualities with other developing countries, such as poverty, poor hygiene, lack of obstetric care and lack of infrastructure. There are plenty of Muslim countries in the word. However, the women of Bangladesh do not only inhale smoke all day. The fuel that they use is dried cow dung, so I wonder what they inhale. Someone, somewhere, must be able to tell us whether that is significant. If anyone at the Department for International Development were interested, I would love there to be a little project on the subject. The problem would be relatively easy to deal with.

Obstetric care for women in developing countries is often non-existent. Another lovely statistic from the report is that maternal death rates in the developing world are equivalent to a jumbo jet full of women crashing every six hours, every day of the year. That is the number of women who die in childbirth. I have had three babies, and I shall not, as women love to do, describe the details of my labour. Being in obstructed labour for not hours, but days and days of agonising pain unrelieved by anything, would lead to death by exhaustion. There may be terrible haemorrhage, but no one can do anything about it—the women simply die of blood loss. That is relatively quick compared with dying in agony of an infection which leads to septicaemia after being contracted during the birth of a baby.

In the western world, we have no idea of what our fellow women physically suffer to perpetuate the human race. Those who feel that they cannot have any more babies try to secure abortions, which are equally dangerous and place them at equal risk of infection and haemorrhage. We heard about a hospital in Nigeria where 77 per cent. of admissions related to complications from abortion.

I have professional experience of female genital mutilation, a subject raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. I do not think that any of us had any idea until recently of how extensive the practice was. It is forced on 85 million to 115 million women and girls each year, despite contravening the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and a United Nations General Assembly resolution passed in 1997. It goes on in this country, albeit under anaesthetic and in hygiene and aseptic conditions which do not prevail in the developing world. It is carried out forcibly and against girls' will.

I have seen the effects of the practice and discussed them with my colleagues. I cannot say how appalling it is. Besides making sexual intercourse extremely painful and difficult, it doubles the risk of maternal death. It makes the death of a baby three or four times more likely. Without an episiotomy—surgical cutting to allow the baby to come out—there is splitting, tearing, haemorrhaging and infections. Horrible fistulae form, causing a woman to be incontinent of urine and faeces for the rest of her life. The death of the mother is almost preferable to that. If she is incontinent and unable to have sexual intercourse any more, she will not be accepted in the family or the villiage because, frankly, she smells. She will not be nice to have around, so she will be outcast as a result of the practice.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady renders the horrors perpetrated on women dramatically. I strongly feel that all hon. Members abhor the practice. Does she agree that it is even more horrifying because, in many cases, especially in our country, women procure the female circumcision of other women? The cultural side of the problem needs to be attacked, as well as the medical side which she is graphically outlining.

Dr. Tonge

What the hon. Lady says about the cultural side is right. Many women want to have the practice carried out on their daughters in developing countries because it makes them more marriageable and desirable. It is the custom and the culture. For that reason, the problem needs an extremely sensitive approach. It is no good western women muscling in over there and saying that the practice must stop because it is against human rights. We must also point in those countries the danger, complication, death and destruction that the practice causes. Economically, it will be a drag on the country and will affect the men's prosperity.

I want to take the opportunity on behalf of the International Development Committee to reply to a savage attack on it by Germaine Greer. In a book she has written, and in an article in The Daily Telegraph some months ago, she equated body piercing by consenting young women in the west with female genital mutilation. I must remind this Chamber that female genital mutilation is the forcible removal of the clitoris or the entire female genitalia, and the suturing up afterwards, with antiseptic, antibiotics or anaesthetic, leaving a tiny hole to allow blood and urine to escape. That is what we are talking about; we are not talking about a silver ring in an umbilicus.

Female genital mutilation is thought to have originated because men wanted to make sexual intercourse undesirable for the women, thereby making them faithful. Germaine Greer argues that we should not interfere with cultural practices. However, as Joan French remarked to the International Development Committee, if we did not want to interfere with cultural practices, we would still be burning witches in Europe. Germaine Greer has also accused members of the International Development Committee as knowing, in her words, "bugger all" about the subject. I object to that strongly. The Select Committee members were an interested and knowledgeable group, including a qualified nurse who had worked in Africa for a considerable period. As a doctor, I worked in reproductive and sexual health for 25 years. I therefore take exception to Ms Germaine Greer accusing the Committee of ignorance. I have got that off my chest. Female genital mutilation has been made illegal in most countries where it is practised, and we should encourage, as sensitively as possible, its abolition. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree with that.

On targeting young women, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that the Select Committee was not mentioned in the "Poverty Eradication and the Empowerment of Women" report, which the Department has just published. I endorse his remarks on that subject. I also felt that that strategy paper did not put enough emphasis on young women. In the developing world, women become sexually active and have babies at a very young age. That should be recognised and emphasised. Often, women in developing countries are married because their fathers see them as a liability and want to get them off their hands and into someone else's house. The younger they are, the more likely it is that they will suffer ill health or death from pregnancy.

It is essential to increase the emphasis on information and services to prevent pregnancy and infection, including HIV—AIDS, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Around the world, 7,000 people are infected with HIV every day, and 7.6 million people were newly infected last year. That is a terrible statistic, which is causing great damage to the developing world. Until a vaccine is available, about which the Minister knows I feel strongly, our only weapon is to provide sexual health clinics, condoms and education. That must start at a very young age.

Young women are more vulnerable to infections, because of bleeding and injury from sexual intercourse. That is, of course, more likely after genital mutilation. A catalogue of minor genital infections—thrush, trichomoniasis, gonorrhoea, tropical sores, chlamydia and so on—make it more like that a young girl will be infected with HIV-AIDS. That is why more women than men in the developing world have the disease. Any breakdown of the tissues, which causes bleeding or soreness, makes women more prone to infection. Family planning services and reproductive health services are therefore crucial. Indeed, we saw many excellent projects, among them the Gap factory, which has been mentioned, whoever was paying for it.

In the west Calcutta brothel and in Bogra we saw some good work being done. Marie Stopes International is doing brilliant work. I just wish that Marie Stopes were still alive and could see how, following her lifetime of persecution by male gynaecologists, her work has spread round the world and is so appreciated.

Ms Oona King

Going around that clinic, and particularly after we had met one woman, did the hon. Lady share my feeling that we had finally understood the need to change our language and should, from that moment forth, call prostitutes commercial sex workers? We must remain aware of the importance of language.

Dr. Tonge

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It is important to remember that, wherever we are in the world, those people are sex workers. Did I use the word "prostitute"? I hope that I did not.

Mr. Wells

No, the hon. Lady did not.

Dr. Tonge

I was slightly worried that the hon. Lady intervened because I had. If I did not, that means that I am learning. We all learn.

I welcome the statement by the Department for International Development that it will continue to subsidise these projects, but there must be many more of them. More effort should be put into making multinational companies take on responsibility for the workers in whatever country they operate. Migrant labour is a particular problem in Africa: men are away from their wives and families for months and months, and are not given any help, education or advice, which is crucial in preventing the spread of disease.

I have covered a few aspects of women's health. I do not want to continue, because other hon. Members wish to speak. I simply remind hon. Members that educated women are healthier, have larger, healthier babies, are less likely to succumb to dangerous cultural traditions and practices and will see that their children are educated. Therefore, although health care and other factors are crucial, the education of women is a fundamental right and the single most effective way of tackling poverty.

When the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and I visited the Calcutta brothel, we met a young girl called Bobby, who was working there as a sex worker. She spoke perfect English because her mother and her grandmother had been sex workers in the same brothel. Her mother had worked extremely hard, because she had decided that, whatever happened, her daughter would have an education and a life, and she had worked hard to educate Bobby. Unfortunately, before Bobby was 14 or 15, her mother became very ill, lost her looks and did not get any more clients. What happened? Her precious daughter had to go into the brothel and work as a sex worker, the third generation of her family to do so. That affected us deeply, and we were all upset about the girl. Indeed, people have been trying to do something about the workers in that brothel since we came back to England.

I hope that the report and the Government's response will try to ensure that future Bobbies stay out of brothels and have a different sort of life.

3.43 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) for not hearing his speech. As he probably knows, I attended a meeting in another part of the building that was closely connected to the theme of this debate, at which President Museveni of Uganda and the Secretary of State for International Development were talking about education for all and particularly about education for girls.

The key issue is empowerment. It sounds like jargon, but it is a useful word, because it spans many dimensions. I want to talk about some of those dimensions.

The first dimension is education. My reason for attending the meeting this afternoon was that the World Education Forum will meet in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of April. We must redouble our efforts to get the donor community and the developing countries to achieve the UN targets relating to ending the disparity between male and female enrolment in schools by 2005. That is a huge task.

We must also embrace the challenge of achieving universal primary education by 2015. At present, about 90 million girls in the world receive no primary education. If that is the official figure, the real figure must be much higher. In my early days as a lecturer, I learned that there are all sorts of lies: there are lies, damned lies, statistics, and teachers' registers. The fact that a student enrols at school in the morning does not mean that they are still there at lunchtime. The drop-out rate in schools is considerable.

During our visit to the subcontinent, I and other members of the Committee came across one of the most appalling expressions that I have ever heard. It has stuck with me ever since; I think that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) knows what I am going to say. It is the old attitude that educating a girl is like watering another man's garden. That is a staggering statement. Its implication is that it is not worth using any of one's resources on a visitor to the family who will be leaving shortly to go and work in another one.

Ms Oona King

My honourable Friend is right. That was a truly appalling expression. Another one that we heard on the trip springs to mind: a lucky man is one whose wife dies; an unlucky man is one whose ox dies.

Mr. Worthington

We should get away from these horrific statements. Such attitudes are shattering. The truth is that educating a girl is like watering a country's garden. Statistics tell us that educating women leads to better health and higher incomes in families, and to higher levels of education among the children of those families. The countries involved then go into an upward spiral rather than a downward spiral.

Those appalling attitudes towards girls' education are linked to the fact that up to 100 million girls are missing from the world today. The report refers to that fact. Those girls ought to be alive, but are missing due to sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect. That is about undervaluing girls—those girls would live if they were valued. The education of girls is a way of challenging this appalling story. South Asia has the lowest rates of female literacy in the world and it is also where the majority of the world's poor live.

I hope that the World Education Forum in Dakar will re—focus attention on these problems. However, we must not only increase the resources to education, but address the proper use of those resources. As members of the Select Committee know, the standards of governance in some education departments are appalling. Resources go into education but do not come out. In Bangladesh, we saw the difficulties for donors in relation to investment in the NGO schools. There is an enormous organisation there—the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee—which can educate a person and achieve literacy for the price of a night's stay at the Safeway motel in Bogra. It is tremendous value to become literate for that price, and I would recommend that establishment to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. He has enjoyed most experiences in life, but I do not believe that he has had that one yet.

It must be difficult for the Department for International Development to decide how much of its resources it provides to Governments with education departments that are not working well because teachers do not turn up to teach and thousands of schools exist only on paper. There is inequality between towns and the country. How can teachers be persuaded to stay in the country when the towns are like magnets? Empowerment is necessary for education.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) referred to reproductive health. It is impossible to achieve development unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own fertility. There has been enormous progress and we saw that in Bangladesh. It is the most overcrowded country in the world and there is almost no opposition to family planning there and in other countries. Opposition has gone and the issue now is resources. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are still doubling in size every 25 years, not through choice, but because of lack of access to cheap, basic reproductive health services.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford was with me when we visited Malawi. It is a desperately poor country, which has run out of land and has virtually no industrial base. The land cannot support families because, under the inheritance system, it is divided into smaller and smaller parcels.

Mr. Wells

Among the men.

Mr. Worthington

Yes, the land is divided among the men.

I visited Sierra Leone nine years ago when it had an embryonic reproductive health service, but it was destroyed by the war there. The hon. Member for Richmond Park used one of the favourite statistics in her support earlier and it is worth lingering on. More than 500,000 women a year die in childbirth, which is equivalent to a fully laden jumbo jet falling out of the sky every six hours, every day of the year. Those deaths are avoidable. I am pro-life, but I am also pro-women living and not being killed by lack of access to basic services. We must give people the right to choose and they can have the right only if resources are made available. There is no right to choose if there is nothing to choose from.

It is offensive that, when first-world countries such as Italy and Spain have static or falling populations, third-world countries are denied the right to choose. Imagine the uproar in our constituencies if we tried to deny our constituents the right to decide the size and spacing of their families. That would not be an election winner. Not one hon. Member, whatever his or her religion, would dare to campaign for withdrawal of family planning services, but that is effectively what happens in third-world countries.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I have spent only one week in Pakistan, but my constituency is a microcosm of that country and, to some extent, Bangladesh. My hon. Friend said that there is no ban on contraception, but there is a ban for women who persist in having female babies. We must get the matter straight. It is not only husbands who force their wives to produce babies. Dragon-like mothers-in-law in Keighley force their daughters-in-law to go on and on producing babies until that wonderful son is produced.

Mr. Worthington

I appreciate that point. As has been said, we must tackle head—on cultures that deny basic human rights. We in mainland Britain have invented the concept of the innocence of children, denying them information on sex education and social matters. It is absurd to advocate education, education, education, while taking the view that, in terms of sex, ignorance is best. That is an extraordinary cultural hang—up.

The enormous impact of the plague of AIDS became apparent during our visit to southern Africa. The impossible has happened: as a result of AIDS, which is hitting women hardest, life expectancy in countries such as Botswana. Zambia and Malawi is plummeting. In Britain, the number of AIDS cases related to heterosexual activity has for the first time become the majority, but such cases have always formed the majority in Africa and Asia. Women are the principal victims. Some become HIV-positive as a result of their husbands' activities; others witness their infant children dying of AIDS.

I find it unacceptable that women are denied access to condoms on moral grounds. That women should be denied access to the only known protection against AIDS is an appalling cruelty. We must remember that most women and men have no idea that they are HIV-positive until AIDS develops, and may not know even then, because other explanations of ill health may be sought. If women and men continue to have unprotected sex in Africa, AIDS will continue to surge through that continent. There are fears that the same will happen in Asia. As the report shows, the number of AIDS sufferers in Asia is huge: there are 3 million in India. However, incidence is low. Only 1 per cent. of people in the subcontinent are thought to he HIV-positive, compared with 20 or 30 per cent. in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. If the Asian rate moves towards the African rate, deaths will run to tens of millions.

The third and final source of empowerment about which I want to speak is economic and political. As has been said, during our visits to India, and particularly to Bangladesh, we were impressed by the difference that micro-credit schemes made to women's sense of independence and self-esteem. We should remember the marginal status of widows in India and Bangladesh. Unless one can be found, widows in those countries have no economic role.

We were enormously impressed by the resilience of Bangladeshis in making the maximum use of scarce land that constantly floods. I have never seen anything like it. When we were told that we would see a rice paddy that had been turned into a fish farm, I thought that it was April fool's day. I love gardening, but I have never seen such ingenuity in making the maximum possible use of banks in the fields. Any part that could be cultivated was cultivated. To witness the use to which women, in particular, put micro-credit schemes was amazing. We could see their independence growing. Wherever we went, we saw the consequences of women's lack of empowerment. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, people might respond, "We have had women presidents." Phooey. That is simply tokenism. Empires—baronies—of families have simply thrown a woman to the top.

Everywhere we went there were no women in positions of power or influence. When I was in Sierra Leone last week, someone confessed to me that, although women had been elected from list systems, not one woman had been elected by the men in a constituency to be a Member of Parliament.

Empowerment can involve education, reproductive health or economic independence, and all forms of empowerment should take place in the context of comprehensive community development. There appears to be a tendency to say, "We shall support a reproductive health scheme, a micro-credit scheme or an education scheme." However, the right approach involves allowing a reproductive health scheme to grow into a micro-credit scheme or vice versa—that would get comprehensive community development under way.

The Department and I think that this is a first-rate report, although I am biased—I helped to produce it. It will help to develop women's empowerment. If we can put more resources and ideas behind it, it will have an impact.

4.1 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

It is truly a great pleasure to participate in this debate. I have heard some exceptional speeches, not least from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, and from three of my hon. Friends, whose contributions I shall discuss presently.

I want to concentrate on the links that the report finds between women and their lack of access to various services and rights. As has been emphasised time and again this afternoon, the majority of the world's abjectly poor—70 per cent.—are women. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) rightly said that we should look to our own house and keep that in order. In Britain, 60 per cent. of those who rely on income support to top up their income to subsistence level are women.

Women's limited access revolves around a series of issues, including health, income, education and credit and finance. Interestingly, in this country we have concentrated on institutional discrimination of various kinds, but there is greater institutional discrimination than that which is based on gender.

Gender genocide—the declining ratio of men to women in some of the world's poorest countries—has been mentioned. Anyone who has not read at least the first page of the Select Committee's report, which contains the executive summary, should do so. It lists several astonishing facts, and states that up to 100 million girls are thought to be missing as a result of sex-selective abortion, infanticide or neglect. When we went to Rwanda, we saw the dreadful carnage that led to the murder of betwen 500,000 and 1 million people. I was so horrified and moved that I felt that I had no option but to set up an all—party group on Rwanda and the prevention of genocide. In view of the fact that 100 million young girls, women or foetuses are not on this planet because of targeted aggression as a result of their sex, it is strange that Parliament does not have an all-party group that deals in general terms with women.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing, and what is needed is an all party group on humanity. As we have heard, the issue is equally important to men, and changing their attitudes is as important as changing women's attitudes. Where men hold the balance of power—which is virtually everywhere—it is even more important to change their attitudes, Oxfam gave an example of that in the report. It said of Pakistan: Family planning programmes have been targeting women for years, neglecting the fact that it is men who usually make decisions regarding fertility. That fact was brought home to me when I was in Uganda. I went to a chemist that was distributing free condoms and contraceptive pills. It was all very progressive—men were allowing their women to make use of contraceptives. However, as the women were not allowed out of their home to carry out such errands, the men went to the chemist to collect the contraceptives and, because 70 per cent. of illiterate people in the world are women, many could not read the instructions when they were taken home to them.

That put in stark focus the fact that we must think in clear terms about the nitty-gritty of what happens once great policy issues have been resolved. For example, we get a Government to make contraception available, but do not take into account the factors that prevent women from taking up that access. Until we do that, women will remain in the dire situations that hon. Members have described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to the fact that all the problems that we have heard about in other countries apply—albeit usually to a lesser extent—in this country. I am reminded of a comment by the United Kingdom Men's Movement, which describes feminism as the greatest social evil of our time. In some respects, we are in the middle ages of gender equality. In America, Pat Robertson has warned his fellow Americans that feminism—I must quote this, as it always brings a smile to my face— encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. I am glad that in this country, in theory, we do not have to argue the merits of feminism. I hope that anyone who reads the report will not fail to recognise the need for it. However, there has been a huge backlash against the word "feminism" and what is termed as feminism. The report hinges on people accepting that women should have equality with men. We take that as a given, but, even in this country, it is not.

I labour the point because feminism does more than simply posit the moral case for equality—at its root is an attempt to address the skewed division of labour that disadvantages women from the cradle to the grave. The report reveals the degree to which discrimination and disadvantage afflict women not only in developing countries but in this country. That skewed division of labour, in simplistic terms, gives women total responsibility for caring and domestic duties. Three important elements are involved in that: first, it is unpaid; secondly, it keeps women at home, and therefore marginalized; and, thirdly, it does not require education and militates against women being thought of as humans who deserve the right to education.

From all that stem further problems that hinge around a lack of access and a lack of independence. We have heard from many colleagues about the ways in which women are denied access to various things, so I shall not repeat that argument. We have not heard much, however, about women's lack of access to the legal system. When preparing for the conference at which I was to speak on domestic violence, I read some appalling British case law. I shall, however, cite an example of what happened in Bangladesh when a 14year-old girl was gang raped in a fairly remote village. The village elders decided to hold a traditional trial. It was established that a gang rape had taken place—I believe that 12 young men were involved—and the elders decided that the 14-year-old girl would receive 200 lashes for what had happened. She died. Nothing happened to the boys. That is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the lack of access that is prevalent throughout the world.

Women, many of whom are widows, have also drawn the short straw when it comes to justice following conflicts, when their entire position in society is undermined. I will never forget visiting a group of widows in Rwanda at a genocide site. I asked one of them whether she felt that justice would be done. The United Nations had attempted to solve the problem in Rwanda, but one woman looked at me and laughed. She said: "Justice? The people who murdered my entire family are now living in my house and sending me letters telling me that if I speak to people like you they will hack me to death." There was nothing that we could do.

The Department for International Development has spent an inordinate amount of time considering how to speed up justice and make it worthy of its name to 52 per cent. of the population. The Rwandan Government have received help for capacity building in their civil service. We must ensure that such measures are more mainstream than they have been to date. Although many conferences are held on protecting women's rights, they are simply words on paper and do not mean anything to a woman such as the one to whom I spoke in Rwanda.

We visited a private factory in Bangladesh, which is a success story in many respects. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that positive steps can be taken and I echo those comments. It is not a case of our having to hang our heads and give up, even though the sheer scale of the oppression is so overwhelming. The factory in Bangladesh is an excellent example of the way in which women are being helped. I have mentioned three issues—women in unpaid employment, women being kept at home and women being marginalised. All those issues were being addressed in that factory and those women were in paid work, out of the home and had access to services that they had not had before.

Much of the debate about the World Trade Organisation has hinged on whether it helps the poorest of the poor. There are many huge problems with the negotiations at Seattle, but we must recognise the fact that trade in textiles has increased from approximately £3 million to £3 billion in Bangledesh, and that 90 per cent. of those workers are women who are now paid but who were previously excluded. That generates much social change, so there are swings and roundabouts and pros and cons, but, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, why should British taxpayers subsidise an American multinational corporation?

I agree with the Department for International Development that it is more important for those women to have access to health services than it is for us to argue about who pays for them, but I ask Gap's chief executives in Britain, Europe and America, who will receive copies of the report of this debate and of our report, to make a personal commitment to review such matters and to report to the House on whether they believe that our taxpayers should subsidise an excellent project in their factory that, none the less, enhances their profits? I do not believe that they would be so short-sighted as to refuse.

A consensus has emerged in international development over the past two or three decades but especially in the past decade. The consensus, which has been reached by organisations as diverse as the International Monetary Fund and Oxfam, is that discrimination against women is the single most important factor that inhibits the development of society, global society and the poorest countries. As we heard, if a woman is educated, her family is educated. That is no less true in Britain, where 90 per cent. of lone parents are women and 2 million children live in poverty as a result. As we enter the new millennium, it is worth taking stock. Women today make up half the world's population, yet do two thirds of its work, receive only one tenth of its income and own less than 1 per cent. of world property. To say that women have achieved equality, even on paper, is to dabble in fiction.

I commend the report and the work of the Department for International Development. I hope that, in future, we shall be joined by a larger number of Members who recognise the central importance of this issue to a sustainable and equal future.

4.18 pm
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I should like to add my small mite to this debate from the point of view of someone whose job before being elected to the House was teaching people to read. The human right to read is more acknowledged in the breach than the observance. Many of the speeches that we have heard today and the work of the Select Committee make it obvious that an absolute priority in enabling women to be part of the development and civilisation of their communities is giving them the right to read. That is at the heart of this debate.

It is interesting that education in Britain is still dependent on gender in many ways. I am the first woman in my family to have completed a university degree. When I left school, my mum assumed that I would go to a finishing school and learn to type. That was what people like me did, and that is what my sisters did. At the school that I attended, many girls—one of whom will shortly contribute to the debate—did not face those expectations in their families. My school expected women to succeed, but the view in my family was that the guys, not the girls, should be educated. That remains the case in many societies throughout the world.

However, we now have the opportunity to change that view. The world has long recognised the importance of primary education and the right to read. In Thailand 10 years ago, the countries of the world met and said, "We need universal primary education and we'll get it by the millennium." We did not achieve that. Next month, those countries will meet again, in Dakar, Senegal. There, they will set a more generous target of 2015. We cannot afford the same slippage in the next 15 years as we have had in the past 10 years. The world cannot afford that, and neither can women. It is a recipe for poverty and underdevelopment.

Two thirds of those who are out of primary education are girls, and in some countries, the situation is worsening. In the past 10 years, the number of girls in primary education in Pakistan has declined by 10 per cent. Nevertheless, I met the new Education Minister for Pakistan recently. The first thing that she said was, "I'm not related to anybody," which was not reassuring, because it said a lot about the history of politics in Pakistan; but next she said that she had gone to see the schools that her Government were funding, but that she could not find them all. It was clear that education money in Pakistan had ended up in the pockets of the wrong people, and had not helped to teach one person to read one book or to add up. I hope that Pakistan's new Government will challenge that situation and that they will quickly obtain a mandate from the people.

The problem is not a phenomenon of Islam. In many Islamic countries, the number of girls in education has increased significantly. We have heard about the achievements of Bangladesh, for which it should be praised. Education is a key. It allows women to look after their own health by reading the instructions on tablets or on baby formula, if they must resort to that, and it is the key to taking control of their own lives. We must ensure that we take the opportunity offered by the summit in Dakar next month to change the current situation.

In Zambia last year, more teachers died of AIDS than entered teaching. We must invest in the educational infrastructure of developing countries. Some very poor countries have clear educational strategies that allow them to outperform their level of income. For example, Vietnam and Cuba have made wonderful achievements through their education systems. If we educated 1,000 girls in Pakistan, we would save 60 babies. The sums are simple and straightforward.

I hope that when the Secretary of State for International Development goes to Dakar, she will pledge the United Kingdom to the campaign for universal primary education, and offer practical strategies in our aid programme, with special emphasis on achieving universal primary education. We must make reading a human right in the poorest countries. I was pleased to learn, from the Secretary of State's response to a question that I asked yesterday, that the Prime Minister has already launched a teacher education programme, using a British information technology company that gives packages to developing countries.

The Prime Minister has made education his passion. I ask him to focus that passion globally. He could galvanise international attention on the issue. The Secretary of State is great at achieving focus and passion among her colleagues, but, because of the way the world works, it is still the big boys who shift things. We have talked about the emancipation of women and about how we might begin to achieve that. If Bill Clinton and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister focus their attention on that, it is more likely to make a difference.

Britain should find ways of taking the lead internationally on the universal right to primary education. The resources for that exist: it would take something like a quarter of the money that Africa currently spends on debt servicing to deal with the deficit in its education spending. The ideas exist: there are models in many countries that we could follow. However, that right is not yet being delivered, partly because of a lack of international leadership and partly because of a lack of resources. I detect the willingness in regard to resources and I see the beginnings of Britain offering to take a lead internationally. We should go further down both those roads because this country can help to make a difference.

I would like to thank Oxfam for making the issue of universal primary education a campaigning priority. One of the achievements of that campaign is having ensured that the debate takes place not just behind closed doors at global summits that get reported in the pages of newspapers that many of us do not bother to read, but in staff rooms, church congregations, and even pubs. If we made sure that women up and down Britain, over cups of tea, learned some of the stories and facts in the report and which have been raised today, they too would feel the passion that we have heard expressed to ensure that there is investment in women. One gets a good return from investing in women. Women all over the world should have the human right to read.

4.28 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

We have had an uncharacteristically unanimous debate, even for Westminster Hall. I shall not strike a note of discord; there has been something in the contribution of every speaker with which I could wholeheartedly agree. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) for initiating the debate and for presenting what is, by any standards, an exceptionally good report.

Nothing can more graphically have brought home to people the plight of women and children than the recent story of the woman in the Mozambique floods who gave birth in a tree. The pictures that we saw in the United Kingdom were moving, but also brought home the deprivation and agony faced by women and mothers. I am sure that we all wish that mother and child well.

Empowering women is doubtless the key to dealing with poverty, sickness and all the other issues tackled by the Department for International Development. That has been reflected in our debate.

Having been lucky enough to come from what I consider to be a privileged background, I did not fully realise the meaning of poverty or the privations that we hear about in the media until I had the privilege of travelling to Beijing in the last year of the previous Government, where we signed the women's platform for action. I met women whose very presence in Beijing put their lives at risk. They had to walk for two or three hours a day carrying water, not only for themselves but for their family. Until one meets such people face to face, one cannot begin to understand the stress and the strain that is put on the female part of the human race. It was an eye-opener and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I was also pleased that our inadequacies in the United Kingdom have been touched on in the debate. Fortunately, in the main, they are not the ones of starvation or of having to walk for three hours to collect water, but the inequalities must be addressed. I want no special treatment for women, but I want equality of opportunity—hopes that I am sure are shared by everyone in the Chamber. I was pleased that we did not debate such matters from a smug and self-satisfied perspective but are willing to recognise their own failings.

Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford announced at the weekend that he will be standing down as a Member of Parliament. He will be much missed because his contribution has been phenomenal, not least in his work as Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, which is responsible for the report. His graphic introduction to the debate was an example of the effort and the humanity that he puts into his role as a parliamentarian. He has also served the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in sterling fashion as its treasurer. He agrees with me that, although we have developed a women's organisation within the CPA, it is essential that we do not split from the men and that men and women discuss women's issues, because it is not only the women who need convincing. Indeed, in many instances, men need to be carried along to achieve success. In all instances, it is easy for women to talk to women, but it is much harder to engage men in the political process for which my hon. Friend has pushed hard in the CPA.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) made a powerful speech but, unless we misunderstood one another, I disagree with what she said. I hope that she was not being dismissive of prostate cancer. I do not want to diminish the work done on breast cancer, which is so important in terms of health awareness, but an even-handed approach has not been taken with regard to prostate cancer. For example, as women parliamentarians we all contributed to a picture book in aid of breast cancer awareness. I wish that there were a book in support of doing something for men and prostate cancer. In our desperation to ensure that women's voices are heard, we must not forget men's.

Ms Glenda Jackson

I should be happy to participate in such a book, either verbally or visually, urging how important it is for men to examine themselves to discover whether they are suffering from prostate cancer as we, as women, are encouraged to examine ourselves to ensure that we are not suffering from breast cancer. I shall not, however, be deflected from my inability to see that the rights of women can be advanced only if the rights of men are advanced, too. I would not wish any man to suffer from prostate cancer. Indeed, more money should be put into the work on that illness. However, if a woman dies from breast cancer, the whole family suffers that that is not exactly the same in the case of a young man. If we have to prioritise, we must acknowledge what is most important for the whole family and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order, I have already warned hon. Members about the length of interventions.

Mrs. Gillan

I do not mind the length of the intervention, but I am still not enlightened—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is I who mind the length of interventions.

Fiona Mactaggart

Perhaps the hon. Lady is not aware that the chairman of the all-party group on breast cancer is a woman, as is the chairman of the all-party group on male cancers.

Mrs. Gillan

I am grateful to the hon. Lady—my old school friend—for that intervention. I was aware of that, but I still do not agree with the hon. Member for Hamstead and Highgate. We should not focus solely on women's issues and forget or fail to emphasise those that concern men, especially violence against men, which is a taboo subject. We are much readier to discuss domestic violence against women than against men. Much domestic violence against men is swept under the carpet, and it should be brought into the open and dealt with.

I have great respect for the medical background of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge). Her description of what we all abhor—female circumcision—made one squirm. We should not underestimate the courage that it takes for a woman in her own country and village to say no, whether on her own behalf or on that of her female child. It is exceedingly difficult to stamp out a practice that is heavily rooted in culture and religion, but I agree with her that the practice must be stamped out. I hope that her graphic description of the horrors of female circumcision will strike a chord, and be spread further than this Chamber, so that others can read about what a barbaric practice it is. Any comment from the Minister on what progress is being made to eradicate female circumcision will be welcomed.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) spoke, from great experience, about education, AIDS and the denial of condoms. Again, 1 found myself in agreement—I do not want to attract a bad reputation for agreeing with members of other parties. His descriptions of micro—credit schemes are a great encouragement to that form of financing, which should spread further. Such empowerment of women is proving extremely successful. I join him in his call for more resources. The Minister may be able to say more about what the Department for International Development can do in that regard.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) spoke with her usual eloquence, especially about gender genocide and sex-selective abortions. I would go further and conjure up a horror that is not yet with us, but that I can see coming. In the previous Parliament, I did some early work on the human genome project. When science advances so that prospective parents can find out whether their child will have fair hair and blue eyes, or whether it will be intelligent or suffer from various diseases, there may be even more selective abortions because of lack of perfection in children. I am especially worried about that. It could affect not only unborn children but mothers who may be forced to make a decision because of the attitude of those around them. I agree with her that if one educates a woman, one educates a family; there is no doubt about that.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—she and I have known one another for many years—taught people to read and believes that people have a right to read. I do not disagree with that, but it will be hard to explain the right to read to people who still do not have access to fresh water and food. Although reading is important, there are still people who do not have access to the basics necessary to sustain existence, let alone the ability to take that jump forward. I hope that she will not forget that, when we are considering women and development, there is a stage before reading; but I join her in hoping that that will be the next stage.

When I worked for Ernst and Young, we used to hold a cocktail party once a year and raise money from the partners, the managers and the staff, who were all accountants. The money was sent to a school in Kathmandu, courtesy of one of our great partners, John Brown. That cocktail party would pay the teachers in the school for a year and provide books for the children. It gave us a great deal of pleasure to be able to do something directly for a school that Ernst and Young's indirect taxation department had adopted. I hope that that practice continues. The money was well received and very necessary. Both boys and girls were educated in that school: they were of equal importance in that community.

Mr. Wells

In the debate on the right to education and the right to read, is it not fundamental that a great programme should be launched by the Department for International Development and international organisations to make good-quality teacher training a reality?

Mrs. Gillan

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we will hear the Minister's views on that issue.

Education has been the common theme of almost every contribution to the debate and is undoubtedly the key to improving the lot of women worldwide. However, getting more girls into school is not a straightforward process, as has been illustrated in this debate. To educate more girls, developing countries must overcome social and religious barriers to the increased role of women in society, and the work must be done with sensitivity. Western countries must be careful, when they promote the schooling and education of both sexes in the developing world, in line with our established traditions, to do so in a sensitive way that takes the whole community along with them. I share some of the views expressed in the debate about that. We must ensure that we encourage only sustainable development, not unsustainable development, so that we carry with us the whole culture, the whole area, the whole village and the whole town.

One of this country's great assets is the British Council and the role that it plays in education throughout the world. As I have done in other debates, I want to draw the Minister's attention to its remarkable work on women and development. Around the developing world, the major barrier for women is lack of education, as has been said time and again. The British Council works with education ministries and local communities to help to meet that need. In addition, it works to empower women in developing countries by promoting their access to political involvement. Through its seminars and conferences and on-the ground training, women are encouraged to play their part in politics and equipped with the necessary skills. Without that work, many developing countries would be deprived of the good sense that women can bring to politics.

Like all other aspects of the British Council's work, its involvement in educating women is threatened and limited by the Government's serious underfunding. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs found that the funding would be lower than in any year of the previous Government. Therefore, I hope that, in a debate in which we have highlighted education, the Minister will give me a constructive answer and tell me if and when he proposes to increase funding to the British Council, in view of its important role in development.

I want to give the Minister the chance to reply at length to this debate, because the report is highly significant. However, I should like to mention a couple of matters arising from the Government's response to the report, in the hope that he will deal with them in his reply. In response to paragraphs 2 and 3, the Government said: Further details of how we intend to implement … commitments— to a rights-based development policy agenda— are to be set out in a series of strategy papers to be published during the course of the coming year. The series of strategy papers will include specific papers addressing women's equality, and human rights for poor people. I know that the Minister has kindly made available a report, which he has left with his officials. What further strategy papers can we expect, and when will they be delivered?

Following their visit to Pakistan, Committee members rightly expressed great concern in paragraph 8 about the situation in that country. The Government's response states: We take every opportunity to ensure that the Pakistani authorities are aware of our concerns. I am sure that those concerns have been expressed to the Pakistani authorities, but I hope that the Minister will say where, how and on what occasions they were expressed, and outline his plans for monitoring the situation. The Pakistani authorities should be actively reminded that the UK Government are paying attention to events in that region.

Paragraph 16 says: DFID India will be actively considering support to a second volume of the Atlas— the "Atlas of Women and Men in India"— following the completion of the 2001 census in India. Has a decision been taken on that? When can we expect a definite yes or no?

In paragraph 22 of the report, the Committee recommends that DFID conduct an assessment of the impact of radio gender training projects such as those run by Trish Williams, and provide an analysis of the value of the radio as a mechanism for distributing information to women and men about, for example, education and health. I think that the hon. Member for Slough will admit that, for those who cannot read, the radio is a valuable medium for transmitting advice. Indeed, the BBC World Service, whose educational activities are targeted to providing learning opportunities and enabling informed choices, has first-class radio programmes. If the Minister is unaware of programmes such as "Everywoman" and "New Parents", he should familiarise himself with them immediately.

What is happening in the DFID's social development department? Apparently, it has recently strengthened its professional capacity in relation to media and development, and will shortly begin work on developing approved approaches to assessing the impact of radio programmes, including the benefits to women as well as men. I am pleased to hear that, but I wonder what progress has been made since the publication of the response.

Female genital mutilation has been mentioned by several hon. Members in this debate. Paragraph 46, in which Ms Greer, the well-known feminist, is condemned, meets with a singularly brief response: The Government agrees with the Committee that culture can not be used as an excuse for the violation of human rights. I hope that the Minister will tell us exactly what additional action he proposes to take to eradicate this barbaric practice as soon as possible.

I would not want to deny that progress has been made on the plight of women, thanks to the tireless efforts of campaigners and contributors around the world, both male and female, who have helped to raise the status of women. However, we must face the fact that when it comes to poverty and oppression, women undoubtedly remain at the bottom of the heap in many of the world's poorest countries. They not only deserve better but are so obviously the key to raising living standards and conditions for all that we must ensure an increasing focus on women in all our development programmes.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said that if any part of the report should be read, it was the first page. I disagree with her. I believe that if any part of the report should be looked at and read, it is page 170. The caption below the photograph reads: Having been told she had only enough milk for one child, and in keeping with cultural biases in favour of the male, this Pakistani mother opted to breast feed her son and bottle feed her daughter. Receiving a fraction of the essential nutrients as her twin brother, the daughter died the next day. It is a shocking picture, and a vivid example of what is happening to women and men in many parts of the world. No life is worth more or less than another. A woman is not of less value than a man. Our policies must reflect that, and I hope that the Minister will give us that assurance today.

4.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)

I am replying to this debate partly in my capacity as the Department for International Development Minister responsible for gender issues. Perhaps it will please the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that, although a man has that responsibility, it was given by a woman—our Secretary of State. Perhaps the hon. Lady will also be pleased that, bearing in mind the presence of Baroness Amos—our spokesperson in the House of Lords—our ministerial team contains two very powerful and effective women. The addition of the Parliamentary Private Secretary provides the perfect balance in the Department. As far as the DFID is concerned, we take account of the importance of women.

Mrs. Gillan

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary is pointing out how good his Department is. However, women are making a good contribution in all areas. When one looks at the educational results in this country, one finds that girls are out-performing boys at GCSE and A—level right across the board. Furthermore, I am glad that his Department has been wise enough to appoint such a large number of women.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for paying such a generous tribute to the Government's education policies. I am impressed by her generosity. Madam Speaker once referred to Westminster Hall as a parallel Chamber, although not quite a parallel universe. However, if there were a parallel universe in which the gender roles were reversed, imagine the anger that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and I would feel—you, as well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my old friend. If we imagine ourselves in that position, we might not fully understand, but we might begin to understand how our female colleagues feel.

I say, without condescension, that we have had a really excellent debate. It is one of the best, most informed and most interesting debates that I have participated in for a long time. It was initiated in excellent fashion by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford. I am not going to enter into valedictories because the hon. Gentleman has a long time to go before he leaves us thankfully. We entered the House at the same time, but I hasten to add—in case anyone suggests that I should follow his example—that he is a little older than me—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the Minister should revisit his earlier sentence. He put the word "thankfully" in the wrong place.

Mr. Foulkes

I always accept your corrections, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I have done so for a long time.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford has my support. We are colleagues and good friends. I also know his wife very well, and I understand the basis of his knowledge on this subject.

We have had an excellent debate. I shall mention particular speeches as I proceed. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I pick out that of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), whose graphic and moving speech made me think. Other hon. Members elaborated on matters about which we have heard previously, but her speech gave me a new perspective.

A phrase that was used by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, and by others, suggests that we could retitle our debate. It should be not "Women and Development" but "The empowerment of women".

I shall do my best to reply to all of the points that have been raised, but if I miss out anything, I shall try to follow it up in correspondence. When the International Development Committee said that it would carry out a study of women and development, my Department and 1, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), were overjoyed. We were more encouraged when that Committee decided to inform its study with an extensive field visit to programmes in south Asia. It also took account of its earlier visit to east Africa. If anyone criticises the expenditure of Select Committees on travel, they should read the Select Committee's report and the Official Report of this debate. We have had a better, and better informed, debate as a result of the experiences of hon. Members on those visits.

A central plank of the programme of the Department of International Development is, as several hon. Members said, to work for greater equality for women. Our work cannot be fully understood if that is not taken into account. It is only when we see the work on the ground that we truly begin to understand the complexities of the issues surrounding women's equality. I hope that the sincerity of our aims is appreciated. When the Committee published its report last November, we were pleased that it presented a positive view of our efforts, but we accept its statement that much remains to be done.

Before I pick out some of the report's findings and some of the points that were raised in the debate, I want to reiterate our policy and the thinking that lies behind it. Our position is clear: world poverty will not be eliminated without the empowerment of women. That simple and clear statement is supported by compelling evidence. As several hon. Members said, women make up the majority of the world's poor and—this is the crucial point—they hold the key to their escape from poverty.

Several hon. Members have reported that the United Nations has said that poverty has a woman's face, and the facts suggest that that is right. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and other hon. Members reminded us that 70 per cent. of the world's poor are female. The simple statement hides a complex reality. Poverty involves a lack of income, a lack of access to public services, the denial of the opportunity for human development, the lack of a voice in political life and decision making—to which many hon. Members referred—social exclusion and subordination. All poor people suffer those deficits but, almost without exception, women suffer them more than men.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) explained that she had another engagement and that she would read the response to her comments in Hansard. She said that most women's work was unpaid and taken for granted, although it was vital to economic and social development.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that in many countries women had little or no control over land and other vital assets. They also receive a lesser share of household income, but consistently give priority to other family members, especially their children, when using the limited resources over which they have control.

Two out of every three children in the world who do not go to school are girls—I shall return to the matter of education in Dakar later. Every year, 500,000 women die as a result of pregnancy. Women in Africa have a one in 12 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth compared with one in 4,000 in western Europe. Millions of women every year are subjected to violence and abuse in the home, as well as in the ever-increasing conflicts.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about women who held a parliamentary seat. For every such women in the world, there are almost nine men who hold a seat. The problem is widespread and there is a long way to go. South Africa is a good example, with almost 30 per cent. of seats being held by women, which is almost twice the proportion here, despite the great efforts of the Labour party to increase female representation in the House. We do not have all the answers and we can learn from experience elsewhere. I could go on, but it would be wrong to paint an unmitigated picture of gloom. When women are given a proper chance, the whole world benefits. Women should be seen not as victims but as active agents of change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and many other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), said that education was the key. Getting more girls through school brings a huge development dividend. Research shows that women with even a few years of basic education are economically more productive. They have, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, smaller, healthier familes and are more likely to send their own children to school.

The facts and figures speak for themselves. Let us not forget that we are talking about basic human rights, as well as the common good, when we argue for women's equality. Our policy is not merely an instrument to achieve a higher goal; it is a fundamental goal in its own right.

Let me now turn to the report. I shall not go through the findings one by one, but I shall deal with those that have been raised today. The Government's response to the Committee's 68 findings and recommendations has been published, and I shall draw attention to a few themes.

First, the continued spread of HIV is one of the most alarming threats to world development. It has already estabished a firm grip in Africa, where it is one of the biggest direct obstacles to be overcome in the struggle for sustained poverty reduction. As the Committee noted, the impact of the pandemic has not yet been felt to the same extent in Asia, although the absolute number is higher. We must quickly learn the lessons from Africa and prevent the further spread of the deadly virus.

The Department for International Development recognises the concern expressed by the Committee and I assure the Chamber that we share that concern. We are working closely with Governments, civil society and other donors through the United Nations AIDS consortium to increase the impact of our efforts to slow the spread of HIV in Asia, as well as making a major contribution to international funding to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa.

I attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at which the Prime Minister announced £100 million to tackle AIDS worldwide. That is a huge amount from our budget. I visited Umlazi township, which is just outside Durban, and spoke to youngsters about the problem of AIDS. I also visited a clinic and spoke to a doctor who told me that he had visited a school on the previous day, and had explained to a teacher that 25 per cent. of his class would die of AIDS. That is a frightening prospect.

We are also putting much effort and resources into the search for an AIDS vaccine, although such a vaccine is unlikely to become available for some years. As the Select Committee knows, openness about the challenge of HIV and AIDS is an essential first step. That is a clear lesson of the African experience, as the true extent of the spread of the virus was hidden for too long, especially in certain countries. HIV affects all layers of society, but the poor are hit especially hard. The rate of infection among women is starting to overtake that among men. Women are more susceptible to the virus than men, and appear to develop full-blown AIDS more quickly. HIV-AIDS is more than a health problem; it is strongly related to the way in which sexual and other relationships are negotiated between men and women.

I want to deal with one or two of the points made by Select Committee members. The hon. Member for Richmond Park raised reproductive health. Better sexual health is a priority for the Department. Women are especially vulnerable to infection, which often goes unnoticed until serious damage has been done. We are giving great support to programmes that improve access to quality basic services and community-based campaigns to promote safer sex and help empower women and girls to reject unwanted sexual attention. Our strategy is to support initiatives to improve young people's access to information about sex and sexuality, and to help develop social skills and gender awareness, especially among young men. We want to improve access to gender-sensitive and user-friendly services, including making condoms more readily available to young people when they commence sexual relations, which is at a much earlier age than when we were young, and is much earlier in certain countries than in the United Kingdom. We also want to provide information to young people in a language and style that they understand. On reproductive health, we are taking account of what is being said.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow spoke about the Gap clinic. Paragraph 29 of our response to the Select Committee states: The Government remains convinced that short to medium term subsidies for reproductive health care services for women in garment factories in Bangladesh are justified…DFID agrees that in many circumstances employers could— and should— do more to protect and improve the health of their workers. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, I hope that if Gap reads the report it, along with other employers, will take note. Hon. Members—especially Select Committee members—would be concerned if advice and help were not available to Gap workers because we had pulled out of the project. We have made short-term provision, but I hope that we have put pressure on multinational companies to make provision in the longer term.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked what the Government were doing to help combat malaria, especially in Mozambique. We are providing huge financial assistance to the World Health Organisation's roll back malaria campaign. We are aware of the potential for a sharp increase in disease in Mozambique, and we are channelling resources to the United Nations and the Red Cross to cope with any increase in malaria and cholera.

While I am talking about health issues, I want to deal with maternal mortality, which was raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park. She described it graphically, as well as other issues affecting women in childbirth. A reduction in maternal mortality is one of the key international development targets. That shows the importance that the United Nations and the Government attach to it. We aim to play our part in dramatically reducing the present unacceptably high rate. It is a big challenge and may be the hardest of all the targets that we have agreed to achieve. However, we do not shrink from it. I give hon. Members the assurance that our work will not be complete until that target is achieved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate apologised for the fact that she would have to leave the Chamber before the end. However, she and other hon. Members raised questions of violence against women. The Select Committee expressed deep concern about violence against women in all its forms and about the limits placed on women's freedom by appeals to the sanctity of culture and tradition. We share those concerns. We have considerably broadened our support of initiatives aimed at stopping gender-based violence in all its forms—in the home, during times of conflict and in the chaos and confusion caused by human disasters and emergencies, particularly in relation to culture and tradition.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie rightly said, the Committee expressed its alarm at the problem of missing women that it noted during its visit to south Asia. Demographic data show that there are far fewer women in the population there than one would expect. In some places, being conceived or born as female can literally be a sentence of death. Governments are taking steps to stamp that out, but we share the Committee's view that greater urgency is required.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate asked for an assurance in relation to paragraph 147 of the Select Committee's report. We strongly reject arguments that seek to legitimise women's oppression on the grounds of culture or tradition. People have the right to their own culture, but not at the expense of fundamental human rights. Human rights are universal and take precedence over all other considerations. We will continue to support women who challenge oppressive traditions and to play our part in promoting public dialogue in the developing world, aimed at changing attitudes in favour of women's equality. I hope that that reassures hon. Members who raised the issue.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford raised the issue of infanticide and the neglect of girls. It is hard to explain the neglect and abuse of children, but no doubt poverty is both a cause and a consequence. Governments must work to meet that challenge, and we shall support them in our work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow asked about access to justice, which we accept is a key concern. We are developing a new approach to security and accessible justice that seeks to match the best parts of traditional systems—there are some good parts; they are not all bad—with better access to modern systems. Women's access and the upholding of women's rights are central in our thinking.

Before I go on to some of the lessons that we have learned from the Select Committee's report and our own work, I want to deal with some of the other points raised. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the British Council's role in education and claimed that it was seriously underfunded. That is wrong. The British Council's core funding is increasing. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has responsibility for that. She is alluding to the contracts for which it bids, and for which DFID is responsible. It now bids along with many other bodies, but does not always gain the contracts that it might have gained in the past, because we are trying to get the best value for money.

The hon. Lady asked about radios. I assure her that we have a specialist in post who is developing a programme of work, which includes the question of gender impact.

Several hon. Members referred to the importance of micro—credit, and we agree with that. I shall not repeat what has been said, but I will say that we are increasing our activities and resources in that respect. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham will be especially pleased to hear that.

Mrs. Gillan

I am delighted that the Minister is increasing the resources. Can he tell us when, and by how much?

Mr. Foulkes

Not immediately off the top of my head. I shall write to the hon. Lady giving chapter and verse.

The international community is continually learning more about the pursuit of women's equality, both from successes and failures. The Committee's inquiry has helped us to focus on lessons from its experience and our own.

Three key lessons stand out. First, good policy is not enough—it must be followed through in practice. That requires good planning, technical experience, good follow up, high levels of management support and, above all, adequate resources. Many countries, including those visited by the Committee, claim to guarantee women's equality in their constitutions. However, one does not have to look hard to see that it is yet to be delivered in practice.

Secondly, good statistics and other data, broken down by sex, are necessary to inform policy making and to monitor progress. The lack of good data has been a major obstacle to good development work for far too long.

Thirdly, a major lesson is that little can be achieved in the long term by focusing on small-scale initiatives alone. While those bring direct benefits to many people, they rarely bring about lasting, strategic change. Their greatest value is a knowledge-generating, learning experiences, and as ways of hearing the voices of women. Lasting change is best brought about through interventions that focus on major policy reforms, changes to laws and regulations, the reallocation of financial and other resources, and the promotion of changes in attitude through public debate.

That brings me to DFID's new strategy. Those three lessons are reflected in a new global strategy paper—"Poverty Elimination and the Empowerment of Women"—which the Department has recently published for consultation. It has been sent to members of the Committee, and we would welcome their views—and, indeed, those of all hon. Members. The paper is one of a series that explains in detail what is required to deliver the international development targets to which we are committed.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked what other strategy papers we have issued and how they are available. Papers have been published on: income, poverty and economic well being; health; education; women; human rights; the environment; water supply; better government; and urban development. They are all available on our website or from our information department, and I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to comment on them. We are producing reports, seeking views on them and evaluating how far we are progressing, year by year, in achieving the targets. That indicates how seriously we take those targets.

Mr. Wells

I hope that the Minister will agree that the Committee's report should form a base resource document to be discussed at the panel session of the meeting of the annual conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is to be held in London and Edinburgh.

Mr. Foulkes

That is a good suggestion, which I shall take on board. An indication of how much the hon. Gentleman and I have in common is the fact that we are both wearing the tie of the UK Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He and I are both trustees of the CPA's international fund, but perhaps I ought not to say too much about that. We would like views on our report to be expressed by the end of April, so that is an Easter task for hon. Members.

The international community has pledged to remove gender disparities in access to primary and secondary schooling in the next five years. That is a major priority. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough rightly said, education provides an excellent starting point, but it is the beginning, not the end. Our strategy recognises that greater gender equality is required in all development areas. The goal of gender equality must be pursued in respect of all the internationally agreed development targets to which I have referred, and in the wider process of governance and the pursuit of human rights. Our strategy paper sets out the steps that our Department proposes to take in contributing to achieve those goals.

We see many opportunities for accelerated progress. A solid global policy framework is in place that is based on numerous international agreements. The knowledge and evidence base that links greater women's equality with material gains in economic and social development is well established and, thankfully, is growing fast. There is also much greater understanding of remaining obstacles to the achievement of international gender equality goals.

As the Secretary of State and I have said on a number of occasions, targets have been agreed at successive UN conferences. Immediate opportunities to reaffirm and further strengthen the international policy framework and consolidate lessons learned are presenting themselves as, at the turn of the millennium, the UN takes stock of progress made in implementing agreemets reached at the major UN conferences of the 1990s.

Progress towards women's equality will be reviewed in June at the highest international level—a special session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York. That is a clear sign of the growing importance of this issue on the world stage. Of course, we will play our part in ensuring that the event is a signpost to further progress for women. However, we shall also work hard to protect gains made for women in respect of education, at Jomtien, in 1990; the environment, at Rio, in 1992; human rights, at Vienna, in 1993; health, at Cairo, in 1994; and social development, at Copenhagen, in 1995.

Several hon. Members have raised the issue of education. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at the forefront of international work in this area. In April, she will travel to Dakar, Senegal, to attend the "Education for All" conference, and will enjoy the full authority and support of the Prime Minister. In debating the empowerment of women today, we should be pleased that the United Kingdom will be represented at that conference by a woman, with all the power, authority and strength that the office of Secretary of State possesses. I guarantee my hon. Friend the Member for Slough that the Secretary of State will join forces with others in the international community in arguing for universal primary education and equal opportunity for girls in the completion of schooling.

The remaining major constraints on women's equality relate to the underlying issue of political will and the need to develop a much greater capacity to translate good policy intentions into real actions on the ground. Although partnerships are strengthening around a greater sense of common purpose, much remains to be done to close gaps in understanding and increase co-operation between Governments, and between the state and civil society. The heart of the matter is social change, and we must recognise that a strong women's movement has been a key driving force in the United Kingdom and internationally.

The Department for International Development and the Government as a whole are strongly committed to supporting the world's women in setting the agenda on their own behalf. Donors, including the Department for International Development, have an important strategic role to play, but we must recognise our limitations and deficiencies, including problems relating to co-ordination and capacity, and the way in which we prioritise the use of our resources. The richer countries must also pay their part in addressing issues involving global regulation and equity. We must work actively with the private sector to improve labour and trading standards and strengthen social responsibility and business practice in ways that promote and support greater equality. The private sector needs to be targeted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate discussed labour standards. We are working with the International Labour Organisation to promote more widespread adoption of core labour standards and to guarantee better terms and conditions for workers, including, in particular, women, who make up a large proportion of the lowest-paid workers.

We have a huge agenda, to which we are firmly committed. Unless development is for all of us, it means nothing. If development is not working for women, it is not working at all.

This excellent report is a great contribution to our thinking on this subject. I hope that the Chairman of the International Development Committee and its members will not feel belittled if I say that the report is not the beginning of our consideration of the issue, and it is certainly not the end of it. The report and this debate have improved our thinking and informed us.

The next stage is our consultative document, to which I hope many hon. Members will contribute, including, in particular, members of the International Development Committee. Beyond that, the challenge is to translate our words into actions. We can talk in the House, in this Chamber and in Committee, but unless we go out into Africa, Asia and other parts of the developing world we shall not have taken up the challenge. I give an assurance that the Department for International Development and, more generally, the Government will take up that challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Five o'clock.

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