HC Deb 09 March 2004 vol 418 cc355-75WH

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

9.30 am
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

It gives me great pleasure to have secured the debate for international women's week. I attended last night's international women's day celebration in Congress house—the TUC headquarters. Of the messages that we received from other trade unions throughout the world, the one from Georgia really hit home: "I hope that your day will be as bright as a spring morning."

It struck me that there are two ways of looking at the world. History has been written through the eyes of men, and is about wars, power struggles and politics. However, there has always been the other story on which history concentrates less—the story of families, mothers and children, and sad stories of violence and the struggle against male prejudice and wife beating. The Amnesty International report, published last week, reminded us that 70 per cent. of female murder victims are killed by their partners. There is also female genital mutilation. The other week, I saw the play "The Crucible" at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield, and remembered how it used to be the wise and undeferential women who were dubbed witches.

There are also stories of community, showing how we survive if we work together and share, and how people in communities often understand that they have a common interest in preventing conflict. There is also the story of work—usually unpaid—growing crops in the fields for survival and to sell at the local market, and caring for the young, the sick and the old. It is the story of the world told through women's eyes and women's experience. One of the greatest stories of the last century may be the start of the awareness of the economic and political liberation of women who have done most of the world's work for generations. They will no longer do so without financial reward, and they will take their proper place in society.

The purpose of the debate is to focus on the international aspect of gender policy. The poignancy of the message lies with the developing world, and I am delighted that it is an International Development Minister who will respond to the debate today. However, I remind hon. Members that I originally asked for a cross-cutting debate in Westminster Hall, because this issue demands awareness across Departments, including that of the Minister for Women, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office with its refugees policy, the Treasury with its influence in the World Bank, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

There is always a connection between how we work to change the culture in the United Kingdom, our commitment to girls' education and women's policies, and how effectively we deliver our development policies overseas. I hope that through the Minister and his Department we can encourage the entire Government to take a more concerted approach. Education is the starting point. The United Nations led this debate when they held the Beijing conference in 1995. It was interesting to see that the delegates were unanimous in putting the education of girls and women at the forefront of the work to make a difference to development throughout the world. The millennium development goals have followed up that important UN leadership. That is important. The third millennium goal is to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005—preferably—nd at all levels by 2015. Even if we do not meet those targets, many countries in the developing world will be well on the way to meeting them, and certainly to an awareness that free education is necessary to achieve them.

It is still true that two thirds of the world's illiterate are women. We cannot ignore the interrelationship between education and other development goals. When there is little food available, the women in a family often eat last and least. If that happens during pregnancy, it can have disastrous consequences such as maternal mortality and low birth weight. The Global Campaign for Education, which has done some superb work, showed that in Bangladesh, for example, women who have even a fifth grade of education are more likely to eat more. I know that that sounds ridiculous, but simply having that education makes them realise that they must eat. That puts them in a better position to take decisions in their families and communities, and has a knock-on effect on their health, on the health of the community, and on how they take their places in society. The contribution that education can make is as clear as that.

When I visited Malawi, I saw that there is a huge uptake when primary education is free. However, there are insufficient buildings and teachers to accommodate that, so a key strategy that we in the developed world must adopt to achieve the millennium development goal is to help provide those resources in developing countries that accept the need for free education to make that equality happen. I pay tribute to the work of our Departments and bodies such as the Open university, which is trying to make its input into teacher training a priority, as it has crucial access to radio across the world.

We must recognise the link between education and health, and focus on women there. The differential levels of mortality in the world should be a source of shame. Here, where we have a life expectancy of 80 years, we express policy worries that life expectancy may rise, and ask what we will do with all those old people who remain healthy for longer. In Zambia and so many other countries, the life expectancy is half that in this country: the differential is huge. That is not just because of HIV/ AIDS, but other causes including malaria, child diseases such as measles, water-borne diseases and maternal mortality—all of which are easily preventable. However, for the purposes of the debate, I will focus on HIV/AIDS and how women are the key to fighting that threat. More than 60 per cent. of those infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. The problem is not just that statistic, but the stigma that goes along with it. In many countries, women risk violence if they press their partner to use a condom. They cannot do anything about it, even with education, because of the pressures of violence in their communities.

I was impressed by the conference that was held by the Association of West European Parliamentarians for Southern Africa, AWEPA. in Botswana last year, where we enabled African parliamentarians, men and women, to address the issue of HIV/AIDS. I was also impressed by the intensity with which that debate is starting to happen among those parliamentarians.

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and his all-party Africa group, which is undertaking its own study on AIDS in Africa. At the hearing last week, we heard from Asunta Wagura of the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS. That network began with just three or four women trying to pool resources to help one another, but it now has members in their thousands and is making a difference. This health issue is one example of how we can make progress if we work through women.

As HIV/AIDS is addressed by the developed world through increased resources for treatment, we have to be clear that the treatment goes not only to the wealthy men and those people with a bit of power who can take it up, but to the women in their communities, where it will not only make a difference to them but have an impact on stigma and on the whole community.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, not least because she knows that I cannot stay for the whole debate. I want to bring to her attention the position of women in Afghanistan. The maternal mortality rate is 1,600 women for every 100,000 live births—a shocking statistic. Women are particularly prone to malaria and they represent 70 per cent. of tuberculosis cases in that country. We now know those statistics for the first time. It is important to note that steps have been taken by the transitional authority, and particularly by the United Nations and others, with the safe motherhood initiative, seeking to resolve the problems for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has stated.

Helen Jackson

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was going to go on to pay tribute to her work with women in Afghanistan. She has shown how focusing on the need for women to be at the forefront of rebuilding their community is not merely an option but is absolutely crucial to bringing that country out of the horrors of the wars of the past decades into a more secure future.

It is often said that, although education and health matter, economic development and financial necessity will drive forward success in development work. It is worth recognising that even in that field women play a crucial part.

We often hear that there is a major problem with governance and the culture of corruption. On a visit to Sierra Leone last year by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which I was a member, we were fascinated to see how the country's Administration had decided in their programme of micro-finance and micro-credit initiatives to give 97 per cent. of all those resources to projects led or run by women. They were perfectly open about their reasons. We know that those are the projects where the money will be used for the stated purpose. They will have a better awareness that the money is a loan; they will develop a business plan to pay it back and it will therefore be recycled. That is a small way to address the culture of corruption, but I believe that working in such a way, through small-scale initiatives and letting women lead, is the only way of building a change in that culture in those countries that are emerging from great poverty and, in Sierra Leone's case, a nasty civil war.

I am also reminded of South African women's day last year, when we heard from Nomsa Nhlebeya, a wonderful woman farmer. She was a sugar cane farmer who started by being given a few fields in Mpumalanga when her former husband died. She now employs 35 workers, including her current husband, and owns one of the leading small businesses in the sugar industry. She spoke with authority about what needed to be done on fair trade.

My views on all those issues were sharpened in the five years in which I worked in Northern Ireland, where I was given a role that involved listening and talking to women. I am now moving on from economic development to mention the impact that war and conflict have on the work of the Department for International Development and the tragedy that they cause in so many countries that are poor already.

It was clear to me over those years that it was partly the vision of Mo Mowlam, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that started to make a difference. According to her vision, we must listen to the voices of women in Northern Ireland to get the wholehearted agreement that there should be a peaceful way forward. I pay tribute to the contribution made by Senator Hillary Clinton, then First Lady of the United States, who promoted a "vital voices" campaign across a range of countries, where she raised the issue of putting women at the forefront of small business development and education, to raise their self-awareness and self-expectation, and to make it clear that they had a role to play in public life and politics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has been working in respect of Afghanistan, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), for example, is working in Iraq to build the need for women into the post-conflict reconstruction. I am delighted that the new constitution established a 25 per cent. quota, and I was interested to read last week that Senator Hillary Clinton also raised the issue in a speech to the Senate in Washington. In such a way, international networks are brought together and, because of the pressure that they bring to bear, are effective as time goes on.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that confidence building is key, whether we are discussing women in this country, the middle east, Afghanistan or wherever, because women have felt undervalued for many years? I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister will say. I have personal experience of the issue. I remember fighting an election when my second child was due within three weeks. Some of the electorate—sadly, some of them women—thought. "How dare she stand for the council in that state," not thinking that my condition was temporary, the baby would be born one day and I would be active again. The miners' strike was a prime example of women feeling that they were needed, and they had the confidence to get involved in active politics. Does my lion. Friend agree that confidence building is terribly important wherever we live?

Helen Jackson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I acknowledge that point. Most women who have struggled to get into public life and move into politics will recognise it from their own experience, in a way that only they can express. I shall come on to how to pull that into the central area of politics, decision making and public life.

In Africa, I heard some of the experiences and struggles of female African parliamentarians. When I mentioned the subject of family, a typical response was, "Yes, well I have 10 children and I have the constituency to look after. It is difficult to get the family fed and to get the money together." There are difficulties and pressures on such women, and they naturally wonder whether it is their role to make a difference in public life and policy making, or whether they should stay with their families.

We are making the transition to recognising the crucial contribution that women's experiences in life make to their opinions and wider decision making in public life. The most important overall lesson is to share what we have learned across the world, and to learn from others, about how to bring more women into politics and public life, because that goes hand in hand with improving democracy.

We are not perfect: we are still only 50th in the table of the percentage of women in Parliament, and many developing countries are ahead of us. In that context, we must pay tribute to the ANC. Its struggles in South Africa led it to decide to use a quota system when the democratic process started. That has been a beacon for many other developing countries, because it had the courage to do it at a provincial as well as a national level, and we must not forget that.

I want to pay tribute to the British Council. Through its programme of interaction it makes a huge difference. I know that other colleagues in the Chamber have been part of its programme of twinning female parliamentarians in this country with those in central and eastern Africa. It decided to undertake the programme following research, entitled "Just big cars and leaking roofs?", which showed that public perception of politicians in those African countries was low, but that the public perception of female politicians was higher. There was a feeling among the electorate that female politicians would pay less attention to big cars, and more attention to the leaking roofs and rotten roads in their constituencies. There was growing recognition that a vote for a woman would make more difference. The British Council picked up on that research and worked out ways to promote it. Part of its work in Africa, which I totally support, is to emphasise the link between women in positions in civil society and those in politics.

I was twinned with the hon. Martha Nasho, the Member of Parliament for Ntcheu, South in Malawi. During my week in Malawi, I attended two seminars that were held by the Young Women Leaders network and sponsored by the British Council. They brought together bright, up and coming young women who were making their way in the media, business, the legal profession, teaching and non-governmental organisations with women parliamentarians, who were often older and who make up only 9 per cent. of Members of Parliament. It was impressive to see those women parliamentarians starting to recognise that they could make a bigger impact in their struggle, which we discussed a moment ago, by using those bright young women to put together business plans for their constituency projects, to help with legal issues and to help raise their media profiles. At the same time, the civil society people started to recognise that not all politicians were a waste of time or corrupt and that it was worth working with them. The work done at those seminars was very important, and we came across something similar, but less developed, on last year's CPA visit to Sierra Leone. I pay tribute to those involved, and I know that the Government value their work highly.

I also pay tribute to AWEPA, which I mentioned. The organisation brings European parliamentarians together with African parliamentarians. Sometimes, we as parliamentarians underrate our relevance to such issues. I know that we are not Ministers, but the links between parliamentarians are often those that matter when it comes to developing a concept of democracy and the international context.

I have given a flavour of the issues involved. They include education, health, economic development, conflict resolution and a bigger part for women in public life, and they stretch across Government. To conclude, however, I want to suggest how we might strengthen our approach to such issues.

Much is going on, and achieving our goals will make a tremendous difference to societies around the world. With more co-ordination, we can be more effective. That is true not only of this Government's activities but of activities across Governments. There is a wealth of good will in the Government, NGOs, Europe, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international bodies. Will the Minister and other colleagues therefore consider setting up an interdepartmental committee to bring together know-how and policy across all the relevant Departments? It would have the time-limited task of pulling together a report setting out Government guidelines on international gender policy and taking the issue into every area of discussion.

When I read the Prime Minister's very welcome announcement that he was going to set up a Commission for Africa, I felt that we had an opportunity to do something. When I read the names of the commission's 10 members, however, I found that there was only one woman and that there was nothing about gender in the terms of reference. We have a job to do to ensure that such guidelines become part of every initiative. We could also do more to inject a gender dimension into the NEPAD—New Partnership for Africa's Development—initiative.

The joint committee should have careful, limited terms of reference, particular tasks and a time within which to work. It should focus strongly on education; it should garner examples of good practice from within Government, outside organisations and the developing world; and it should, I suggest, involve parliamentarians as well as officials. The Minister may wonder whether we need another all-party parliamentary group, but the argument is undeniable: we should press Government to undertake such projects, and to strengthen the focus as we move into the presidency of the G8 and the European Community.

There is urgency to this matter, because the public and the Government want delivery. The debate is not simply a matter of international women's week at the beginning of March; it is taking place because tackling development through the empowerment of women is what works.

10.1 am

Valerie Davey (Bristol. West) (Lab)

I am delighted to follow the significant contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and endorse the excellent idea that she put to the Minister.

In Bristol yesterday we began our celebration of international women's day by unveiling a plaque on the house where Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was born in 1867. She was one of the leading suffragettes and was particularly known for co-editing "Votes for Women". That influential publication was published initially on behalf of the Women's Social and Political Union and later independently of that group. She was a remarkable woman, and not just in her leading role as a suffragette. Before that time, she had spoken out against the Boer war and organised a women's co-operative dressmaking group in London and children's holidays in Littlehampton. In later life she worked actively for peace.

As I left the ceremony and walked down the road to where women were gathering for a discussion, I wondered why more people were not aware of her individual contribution, the work of the suffragette movement generally, and the international links that so many of the women involved in it had. I immediately found myself involved in a discussion with Bristol women whose project for the coming year is the publication of a manifesto for women's health. Instinctively and immediately, as they had begun to talk about improving the health of women in Bristol, they talked about international matters—their concern about HIV/AIDS and female genital mutilation. They wondered what contribution they could make in those contexts.

I left that meeting reflecting on the courage, determination and sheer hard work that women have demonstrated over the decades in this country. I reflected, too, on the international link between women, which they instinctively express and work for while calling for urgent action in this country. It was salutary to be reminded that it is only 75 years since all women in this country have had the vote, and of the importance of that in underpinning everything that women want to do.

As has been mentioned, the interim governing group in Iraq yesterday announced that there will be 25 per cent. women's representation in the new constitution. That is welcome news. Obviously we want things to develop further, but when we reflect on the situation in this country, we realise what an enormous step forward it is. We trust—indeed, we know—that it will be hugely beneficial for the people of Iraq.

Another area that concerns me, and for which I have been holding my breath, is the island of Cyprus, which is not too far from Iraq. I hope that eventually that divided island will be brought together on entry to the EU. I have been thinking about what led to the new situation there and of the bi-communal vision held by so many for so long, in particular by those who have crossed the divide, either by e-mail, as it developed as a useful connection for people north and south, or by meeting out of the country. The women have taken the lead in that bi-communal vision. Of course there have been business people, ecologists and trade unionists as well, but right from the start the women have been a strong group.

Those women have, I think, called themselves "women across the divide", but I have not been able to confirm that. That is appropriate because those women in the Turkish and the Greek Cypriot groups have kept up their links, have worked with the women of Northern Ireland and the women of Palestine and Israel, and have sought a way forward to heal divides. It is rather invidious to name people, but I shall mention Katie Clerides, for her bold steps as an elected Member to break the conformity, which women have so often done, and reach out a hand of friendship across that divide to her Turkish Cypriot sisters. We hope and trust that the foundation that those women have laid and the work that they have implanted to bring about understanding will come to fruition in the near future.

I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to a Ugandan woman, Angelina Acheng Atyam. I met her for the first time only last month, when she came with a delegation from northern Uganda. I find it hard to believe that a conflict has been taking place in northern Uganda over the past 17 to 18 years which is essentially a war against children. It is a conflict in which the Lord's Resistance Army has abducted and used children as either child fighters or sex slaves. In that time, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 22,000 children have been abducted and used in that way. It is estimated that at least 75 per cent. of the Lord's Resistance Army are 11 to 15-year-olds. Until recently, when I looked into the matter more clearly in preparation for another Adjournment debate in this Chamber, I had not realised that children who are abducted from a community in that way and used on the front line of battles are fighting their own people, while those attacking them back, when the battle ensues, are killing their own children. That is the most horrific war situation that I have come across.

Angelina was part of a delegation of community leaders and church leaders. She came because she was a co-founder of the Concerned Parents Association, of which she is now chairperson. There are 5,000 parents in that organisation, working to secure and release their sons and daughters. Angelina lost her daughter, who was abducted in 1996 and remains in captivity. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and horror that those parents suffer. However, Angelina presented herself here with the great dignity, patience and forbearing of that delegation. I looked into her eyes and I saw a woman of great courage, bravery and determination. Those are exactly the qualities of the suffragette movement that I have talked about. Those qualities are to be found in all the references that my hon. Friend made to women struggling for justice for women, children and families. Those families in northern Uganda have been torn apart. The children are often made to kill their own family members before being taken away.

The healing that is needed in that community will depend on people such as Angelina. She deserves our utmost support. She is asking for a peaceful resolution and says that additional conflict and war will never bring that about. She is asking for our help, the Government's help and the United Nations' help to initiate further discussions among her Government, our Government, the United Nations and even those people—although she says it reluctantly—who are responsible for the horror in her community. I ask for support for Angelina and the Concerned Parents Association. That is my special plea today.

I cannot finish, however, without also referring to the British Council and the work that it does to bring more women in central and east Africa into roles of responsibility and effective leadership in local and national communities, and to my political twin in Tanzania, Ruth Msafiri of Muleba North. She is working in that same tradition by prioritising education, in particular by trying to gain more secondary schools in her constituency, and by setting up a credit union for women's groups. I honour her for the energy that she puts into her role as a Member of Parliament in Tanzania.

This week, we pay tribute to and celebrate what women have done, but we also ponder how best we can promote those qualities of concern, commitment and hard work. In particular, I urge the Commission for Africa to take on more women members and to take more seriously the role that women play, and should be encouraged to play, in Africa.

10.11 am
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on securing the debate. I am always pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the many roles that women play in our national and international communities.

Some women, such as my mother, define themselves as very ordinary, but are actually extraordinary. I always thought that it was near miraculous that my mother, with great fortitude and energy, managed to organise our family and keep us going on almost no money, so that we all achieved a place at university and did things that she did not have the chance to do.

However, we celebrate not just the many ordinary women such as my mother—who are not ordinary at all—but the women who, against all odds, achieve the opportunity to represent their communities in Parliament. For example, I should like to talk about the Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, who is an extraordinary woman with amazing grace and a delightful, quiet personality, but a sheer tenacity that would make her capable of organising the Welsh rugby team—who perhaps need a bit of help in that quarter. However, I also wish to talk about the many women who, from small beginnings in Gujarat, set up the Self Employed Women's Association and have given women, families and the community a belief that they have a positive future.

Recently, I had the privilege of leading a group of 10 elected Labour women parliamentarians on a visit to India. That was a pleasure, but also a privilege, because of the way in which we were greeted, spoken with and involved in the communities that we visited. We met Sonia Gandhi, the Leader of the Opposition; Dr. Purnima Advani, the president of the National Commission for Women; Ms Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the People's Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir; and Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi. It was a serious pleasure to meet those women, many of whom had startling levels of responsibility, but who had an enormous focus on what they wanted to achieve for their communities.

While in Calcutta, we visited a DFID project—what a serious pleasure that was, too. I am not talking about the enthusiasm that many people, including my community in Stockton, feel when a Minister or someone from outside visits them. The sheer enthusiasm of the people we visited went further than that. The children did not want us to go. They wanted to shake all our hands and tell us what had gone on in their community. We could not speak their language and they could not understand ours, but a big smile and a shake of the hand do not half cross the barriers effortlessly.

That project spent £3 million. That is not big money in anyone else's budget, but to those people it meant a transformation of their slum dwellings. We sank drains—actually, we provided the money and they sank drains. They created concrete pathways between the houses, so that when the rains came they would not be sliding around on mud. It is a considerable settlement of 3,000 people. They decided where the taps and lavatories should go and how all the other workings should be, and we provided the money. The strength that one could see in that community because it was given that opportunity was profoundly valuable.

Again, I have to say that, on the whole, it was men in DFID who held the purse strings. They were there dealing with the money, but it was the women who spoke to the people, pulled them all together and got them to map out their community, so that they knew where the community centres, taps and so on should be. It was the women who said that if the people of the community took possession of the project, they would feel that it was what they wanted, secure the results permanently and respect it. I was so pleased.

There is so much to say about that small community. It was very important to see the difference that paths and sunk drains meant for one small home. The woman in that home now has a sewing machine. She now reads, as do her children—they have to learn to read so that they can use the equipment to its fullest extent. What a pleasure it was to see that. It was even more of a pleasure for me because, as is the case for many women, one of my jobs in life is to keep my family going and to cook, and the women in India seem to be the only cooks— except, of course, in the fancy hotels, where, somewhere along the line, women are not quite seen as competent enough to be chefs. I totally deprecate that.

One young woman was thrilled to show me her home in that small settlement outside Calcutta. There she was on her haunches before an open fire, cooking. She wanted me to see that a chimney had been put in, which was taking away the smoke from the fire. She told me in her own way that her children's chests had improved, their breathing was infinitely better, the house did not smell of smoke, and they felt that that was such an achievement. When I went away from there, I was so thrilled that she was thrilled, but I was so depressed that, in the 21st century, we are still seeing people celebrate the fact that a chimney has been put into their home to take out the smoke.

I say with great warmth to my hon. Friend the Minister that we need many more practical women to define and operationalise the way in which DFID should deliver its projects. In the 21st century, we should not be organising where taps and chimneys should go. Most of us would have thought that that happened without the need for much consideration. For the moment, however, let us go on, because the visit was positive and Calcutta was positive.

Speaking with the National Commission for Women was, again, an important moment for all the women in the delegation, because there was a commonality of hope and of problems. As people spoke around the table, we heard about how we can deliver within homes the opportunity to maximise a family's income and the achievements that flow from that. Once again, however, it left a feeling of disappointment, although we knew that it was going to happen.

Every time I speak with women in different groups, I have the same conversations again and again, including one about women confidently challenging domestic violence. The marker was that it was not just men who were abusing women and their families, but that mothers-in-law were supporting it because they were supporting their sons. There is a nasty sense of lack of control. I believe that with twinning and support from British women, and women of other nationalities, Indian women will become as confident as ours are about challenging it. Inevitably, we had a discussion about the glass ceiling, with so many women of quality and serious talent finding it impossibly difficult to move up the greasy pole.

In Jammu and Kashmir, discussion centred more on migrant groups. The war between Pakistan and India has cost ordinary folks very dearly, as war always does throughout the world. We spoke to a community of 300,000 displaced people, who had moved out of the valley of Kashmir. away from their farms and homes, who were too frightened to return. It is sometimes difficult in debates to get the balance right, but my balance now has to be to say it as it is. Within that community, everyone who spoke formally to our delegation was a man; everyone who was delivering, whether in education or looking after the elderly, was a woman. We must recognise that wherever we are, women find it so much more difficult to achieve positions that they deserve. Their skills in schooling and supporting the rest of the community were very evident.

The depression, the sense of absolute concern, the feeling of anger and the desire not to be displaced were so evident, to put it mildly. They want, as anyone would, to go home and to believe that the peace between Indian and Pakistan is now set on course. I ask the Minister to ensure that our contribution to the discussion on India and Pakistan refers to that community's need to maintain the peace.

I should like to make, quickly but importantly, a brief comment about the Chief Minister of Delhi. As I said earlier, Sheila Dikshit was quiet and gently spoken; one could have believed that she was a woman who would have been pushed around, but one would have been totally wrong. She was a very focused and tough female. We spoke about water, space and people living on the streets. She carefully told us, "I am organising the water companies, because they do not manage water. I am speaking to the state Government to ensure that the management of what we have can actually ensure sufficient water for this community There isn't a problem about amount. There is a problem about the way that it is used.'" She cited the management of a number of areas. We spoke about people on the streets: it is quite the most unpalatable sight to see communities living under a tarpaulin, or less, on the streets. She told me that she was speaking with the Governments of surrounding states because the migrant population coming into Delhi is enormous, with more than a million people moving in every year. It is impossible to handle in terms of housing. She said that employment opportunities in rural communities must be built up, so that people do not feel that they have to move to Delhi. They can live where they were born, as most of them want. Over her six years, to great acclaim, she has seen the amount of green space in Delhi available for public access increase significantly, such that everybody wanted to claim it.

I want to end not on Sheila Dikshit, who is a robust woman with a total command of the situation and total determination to achieve, but on Gujarat. I did not visit Gujarat this time; I went there on my previous visit to India. When I was there, I saw many different Government offices, but the one group that stood out was the Self Employed Women's Association. SEWA is a group of women who have put practical projects together and used the skills of their community to maximum effect. They have ensured that the needlework or soft-furnishing competence of an Indian community translates to a retail business, and the community is benefiting enormously.

The group has ensured that., because people want to eat, the women have become farmers. They manage the land with great care, and they have a retail outlet so that they can sell what they grow. They set themselves up with a small grant from the Government, which they have paid back, because—this is the dignity of SEWA—they set up a credit union bank. The group is exclusively for women, and ordinary women who may have only 10 rupees can save them secure in the knowledge that the money will be used only for their benefit and that of their families and community. The group's work is astounding. It is creative and practical, and it has changed the sense of what future can be available for the ordinary people of Gujarat.

My final point is something that all my sisters—hon. Members of this Parliament—have spoken about. Indian political parties made a commitment to ensuring that 33 per cent. of their Parliament will be made up of women, but that policy has been shamefully shelved. We spoke to all the chief Ministers, from Sonia Gandhi to anyone else we could, to find out the details of the policy. All the political parties agreed it, but not one Government have been prepared to put it into practice. We must persuade them that capturing the quality of mind, tenacity and energy of women in the political world ensures unquantifiable benefits.

The Confederation of Indian industry, the high commission in London and many other generous bodies from the Indian community sponsored the visit that the 10 Labour parliamentarians took to India. I thank them publicly. As has been said, the more we speak, network and twin with each other, the more we benefit. Women's lives are creative and a focus in all our communities; they should always be a focus in our political community.

10.29 am
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on securing the debate. I do not want to be too churlish, but it is a shame that in the debates last Friday and today, only women have taken part. My party is as guilty in that as any.[Interruption.] I apologise, as the Minister is clearly not a woman. However, he has to he here—he is not here from choice.

Last week's debate focused on the post-conflict work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I will not rehearse it today. However, I was pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough raised that vital subject. At some stage in the future, I would like us to debate what women are doing in that regard. I have submitted many requests for a debate on United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, and other hon. Members would be welcome to join me. As women, we should be particularly interested in the issue. Today, however, I shall focus on two issues: HIV/AIDS and the Amnesty International report "It's in our hands", which is part of a campaign to stop violence against women.

I make no apology for talking about a subject as specific as HIV/AIDS. It is one of the biggest problems facing women today, although it is not recognised as a women's issue. Some people take an interest in that aspect of HIV/AIDS, but much of the general public still regard it as something that affects only gay men. That is clearly not the case. Since HIV/AIDS was first discovered 20 years ago, more people have died from it than died of the black death in the middle ages. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 12.2 million women and 10.1 million men carry the virus, so its prevalence seems to be greater in the female population.

In South Africa, one in 10 people are HIV-positive. The country has been described as the rape capital of the world, and violence is fuelling the epidemic. In such an atmosphere, people feel that no one is safe and that no one can be trusted. Speaking to the New Internationalist in 2002–1 suspect that the same comments could still be made today—a 30-year old Johannesburg activist described how she was infected: I was walking home from work when he drove up to me. He was dressed as a priest, soft-spoken and sweet. There was even a bible on the seat of his car. I said: 'Father, how can I help you? He asked directions to a church. It was close to my place. I thought to myself, why shouldn't I help this priest, only to find later, he was going to be my rapist.

Everyone has mentioned women they have met who have had an impact on them. I met Princess Zulu—she is not a real princess—who came to talk to DFID about securing more money for children, who are, so to speak, the second-hand victims of HIV/AIDS. She was very healthy and very attractive, and she had developed the rather bizarre practice of waving down lorry drivers, jumping into their cabs, pretending to offer sex and then saying, "Well, actually, I am HIV-positive." They are all shocked because she looks so healthy and normal. That is one of the issues with AIDS. In the past, there were lots of pictures of people who had clearly been ravaged by some sort of disease. Increasingly, however, those with access to anti-retroviral therapy do not look ill.

Someone said that marriage was the answer, but it is not, because many women contract the virus from their husbands, who may have multiple partners. It is difficult for a woman to insist that her husband should wear a condom, because he will assume that she is sleeping around, and the issue of violence is also intertwined with that. He will think that she does not trust him. We have all heard of such cases.

When a woman contracts AIDS or dies from it, the consequences for her children can be stark. In many cases, they may no longer be able to access education. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough spoke movingly about the need for education and about some of its unforeseen benefits. If young women have no education or skills, however, they may be forced to go to the cities or elsewhere and become sex workers, and so the cycle continues. We must find a way of breaking that cycle.

Much work is being done to develop vaccines and microbicides. For those who do not know what microbicides are, they are an exciting development. A woman can protect herself from HIV by using one, and the man does not have to know that she has used it. She can protect herself without risking his anger. Much work has also been done to promote awareness programmes, the most common of which is the ABC programme—"Abstain, be faithful, use a condom".They are not, however, the complete answer. A similar campaign that was introduced in Cambodia managed to reduce quite significantly the number of HIV-positive women who attended the local hospital to have their babies. It sometimes seems as if all these efforts are a drop in the ocean, but it is well worth making them.

Sadly, a large part of the problem is still gender equality. The good news, however, is that there is a growing number of programmes that focus on the empowerment of women—I hate the word "empowerment", but I cannot think of another one—human rights education and raising self-esteem. Poverty does not cause HIV/AIDS, but it is the ideal incubator. Gender and poverty are inextricably linked. Some 70 per cent. of the world's poor are women, and poor women are the most susceptible to HIV/AIDS. I could talk about that all day. I pay tribute to the latest Amnesty International campaign. What is great about it is that Amnesty International is not a feminist organisation, which is almost a first. I hope that the campaign will be supported equally by men and by women.

Amnesty International has some horrifying statistics on violence. One out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, usually by someone known to her. The Council of Europe stated that domestic violence is the major cause of death and disability among women aged 16 to 44, and accounts for more death and ill health than cancer or traffic accidents. Why on earth are we not doing more about it? By asking that question, I am not dismissing what the Government are doing to tackle the problem by introducing the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill.

It is also estimated that more than 60 million women are missing from the world as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. The Amnesty International campaign deals with many of the key areas that, sadly, I do not have time to discuss. I was particularly struck by a small section of the campaign literature on the Dalit community of untouchables—the lowest caste—in India. Dalit women are treated worse than animals, and are made to do menial jobs such as removing night soil. Their poverty, although caste-based, is forced on them. It struck me that this is not a women's issue, because women from the higher castes do not do anything to help them. We must try to get the message across that it is not right to discriminate against people in this way. The talk of sisterhood in Westminster last Thursday does not work everywhere; it is more of a dream than a reality.

I end by paying tribute to the British Council. I have been taking part in this year's scheme and hope to visit my counterpart. Ultimately, however, we must get men more involved if these issues are to be taken more seriously.

10.39 am
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on securing the debate. We had a debate on women in Government time in the House, and I chose to focus on domestic issues and the pay gap suffered by women in this country, because we already knew that the hon. Lady had secured today's debate. This allows us two bites of the cherry.

There have been many events relating to international women's day yesterday, and it is right to record the women's world day of prayer last Friday. We have an opportunity to discuss domestic and international issues. What saddens me is that, in both those contexts, the focus has returned to violence against women. Hon. Members may know that 25 November is the international day against violence against women. However, it is hard to get away from the fact that when considering the issues facing women around the world and in this country, violence remains one of the main problems. I support Amnesty International's campaign against violence against women. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) made the valid point that Amnesty International is not specifically a women's organisation, so it is good that it has taken up the cause on domestic violence.

I recently saw shocking figures—official Russian Government figures—that claim that 14,000 women a year are killed by their partners or relatives in Russia.

However, the Russian Government acknowledge that no legislation is in place to prevent such appalling acts. The sheer numbers are horrifying. In this country, two women and two children die each week as a result of domestic violence. No one could argue that the problem is not serious. Together with the oppression and denial of equal rights in scores of countries around the globe, it is clear that the international role of women is in desperate need of affirmative action.

I want to focus on two countries in particular, about which I denied myself the opportunity to speak last Thursday. I shall talk about women in Afghanistan, as have other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), and women in Iraq. Both countries present a test case for the future of women's rights. As a nation, we are part of an occupying force in one of those countries and a multinational peacekeeping force in the other, so we have a role to play.

Despite the relatively enlightened historical position of women in Iraq compared with those in neighbouring countries, I am concerned about whether women's representation and their position in Iraqi society will advance or regress. There is no room for complacency. I am delighted that the Governing Council has set a quota that a quarter of National Assembly members should be female, but culturally that has encountered stiff resistance. Despite the coalition's moves to bring democracy to the country, the influence of hard-line leaders presents a serious obstacle to securing equal treatment in the institutions of the newly liberated Iraq. It would be wrong to skate over that reality. The importance of setting a precedent in such a formative period in the country is history is paramount if the long-term future of women in Iraq is to be secured.

In Afghanistan, where the electoral process is more advanced, similar difficulties are being encountered in the registration of women for the June elections. Aside from the general problems of preparing for the poll, registration of women is standing at about 2 per cent. of the eligible electorate, which is well below even the 10 per cent. figure of the total eligible population. When I was in Afghanistan in August 2003, I met the UN representative responsible for enfranchising those women and making it possible for them to vote, and I realised how practical the problems of achieving that are. For a start, the country is still insecure. A military cordon is provided by, among others, our soldiers to keep the peace, but even within the cordon the situation cannot be described as entirely secure. Beyond it, the country is highly insecure. That makes seeking out the women whom the UN representatives want to register to vote a particularly difficult task. There is also the problem of identification in a country where female modesty is taken to lengths that are quite hard for us to imagine. There is a practical problem, which is that it is difficult for a woman under the burqa to be positively identified. The cultural issues attached to that are again not to be underestimated.

Given our role in the country, it is important that hon. Members should not miss the irony that Afghanistan is a deeply traditional country. In enfranchising the women, there is a considerable chance that some of those deeply conservative attitudes will become further entrenched. The women are not used to exercising their views free from their husbands. Enfranchising them may lead to a more conservative election result than otherwise. I had not spotted that irony until I went there and talked to the women and the UN representatives who are enfranchising them. It is important to bear that in mind. There is work to be clone not only in enfranchising women but in educating them about empowerment and their freedom to think and do as they please. We seem to take those freedoms entirely for granted in our countries; indeed, some even choose not to vote.

There is one another thing about which I should like to speak, again because there is an opportunity to do something about it in the legislation that is completing its course in another place and will shortly come to our House. The topic is also not unrelated to international development. The position on the legal status of women asylum seekers who are subject to domestic violence has been opaque, and at worst discriminatory. Many women who come to this country to join their partners or spouses or who are resident here are subjected to violence before they are granted citizenship or leave to remain. At present they face the choice of either staying in that violent relationship or pulling out and risking being forced to return to the country from which they came. The latter is not an easy option, with the loss of face involved in retreating from a relationship that the family back home might have thought to be a way up for the individual concerned.

The Government's concession on domestic violence in 1999 went some way to addressing that concern. A probationary period was to be granted to allow victims to apply for indefinite leave to stay in the UK if clear evidence of violence could be shown. However, that still left significant gaps, leading to the perpetrators of violence going unpunished and failing to provide the victims with the necessary support that they rightfully deserve. I invite hon. Members to think about the difficulty for a woman in that position who may not speak English, may be frightened and will perhaps be behind closed doors when the violence is inflicted. It is difficult for us to conceive how hard it must be to surmount that obstacle, to leave the home where the violence is occurring, to know where to turn and to find someone who understands the problem. Those who work with women in that position advise me that it remains a significant problem.

To many of us, domestic violence is one of the unseen tragedies of this country. A quarter of the female population experience it at some time in their lives. We welcome the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill and shall support the Government by seeking to refine it and make it the best possible piece of legislation to tackle the problem. However, I am anxious that we should not overlook the plight of female asylum seekers who experience domestic violence With the backing of Southall Black Sisters, an organisation working to highlight the problems of violence against female immigrants and minorities, Baroness Anelay, Baroness Walmsley and Lord Dubs moved an amendment in the Lords to extend the provisions of the 1999 legislation to include all victims of domestic violence and, most importantly, to allow them access to public funds to help them with their problems. The persistence of such problems indicates that even within the supposedly civilised western world the unequal treatment of women is real and current. It is an issue for every Government, not least our own.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on securing the debate. We have had an excellent debate with strong contributions from Opposition Members and from my Back-Bench colleagues as well.

Almost three decades have passed since 1975, when the UN General Assembly confirmed international women's year. During that period, considerable progress has been made in understanding the nature of gender inequality. It is recognised now that not only do women and girls bear the brunt of poverty, but that the empowerment of women is an essential precondition for eliminating poverty more generally and for upholding human rights.

In Africa, we know that for a whole series of cultural, social, economic and political reasons women do not enjoy anything like equal access to opportunity in terms of ownership of assets or access to education, health care and financial services. Indeed, in many African countries they are still considered legally to be minors. Against such a backdrop, the under-representation of women in Government structures locally, regionally and nationally is hardly surprising.

Similar problems are faced in Asia, too. In south and south-east Asia, women account for some 60 per cent. of young people infected with HIV/AIDS and the sexual exploitation of women, as a number of contributions emphasised, is widespread. My hon. Friend made a point about education. In Asia, we know that the highest number of girls are out of school.

My hon. Friend touched on issues of governance and was supported in that by a number of other speakers. There has been positive progress in many parts of Africa. The Southern African Development Community has sought to ensure a minimum of 30 per cent. representation in member states' national Parliaments by 2005. That has been achieved in South Africa and Mozambique. To be blunt, we know that it is not likely to be achieved across the rest of the SADC member states, but it has sparked off a debate across the region, which has been productive.

Helen Jackson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the SADC region has made more progress in a decade in establishing that aspect of democracy than we have managed in several hundred years?

Mr. Thomas

Yes, the statistics can only bring out the accuracy of my hon. Friend's comment. One other example that will give encouragement in terms of the progress that has been made in the institutions that serve the needs of Africa is that the African Union has ensured that half its Commissioners are women. That is a first for what is a new, Africa-wide organisation and it can only help to tackle some issues that hon. Members have referred to.

We heard yesterday that the Bangladeshi Government have committed to appoint a series of new women MPs to the Parliament. In Afghanistan and Iraq—the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough alluded to this—the progress that has been made on the constitutional position of women is clearly extremely welcome.

The hon. Member for Meriden was absolutely right to warn us that we cannot sit back and assume that simply because quotas have been set and progress has been made on the constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq the education and empowerment issues beneath the question of constitutional parlance have been resolved. I hope that she and others will welcome the fact that my Department has contributed some £500.000 to support UNIFEM's work in Iraq—supporting the development of women's groups at Government level and working with the governing council more generally to take proper account of the needs of women. I accept absolutely that more needs to be done in that area.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough and for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) made their representations about the Commission for Africa at an opportune moment. One woman commissioner has been confirmed, as they acknowledged. Full membership in general has not yet been confirmed and we are still seeking other possible women commissioners.

Similarly, with respect to the terms of reference, we hope to ensure that gender will continue to be a major focus in the work of the Commission for Africa. There will be an opportunity for women Members of Parliament to contribute. Indeed, we want to ensure that parliamentarians can contribute to the work of the commission generally. I look forward to the day when my hon. Friends are perhaps among those who lead on such contributions, and other women Members of the House might do so as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned NEPAD, and she will know that several eminent African women parliamentarians, such as Graca Machel, will be involved in the peer review mechanism, for example, as part of that work. I shall reflect further on my hon. Friend's comments on the Commission for Africa and the need for more work in this area.

Another matter rightly highlighted by my hon. Friend is the importance of education and the work of the Global Campaign for Education to highlight the fact that two thirds of the world's illiterate are women. That issue is considerably important to the work of my Department. We are, internationally, planning to increase our investment in education by up to £1 billion over the next five years. An example of that investment is the £2.2 million being given to UNICEF in support of its accelerated girls' education strategy, which is aimed at ending gender disparities in 25 of the countries that have the poorest access to education for girls.

Mrs. Williams

Will my hon. Friend join us in paying tribute to Soroptimist International and Business and Professional Women, which have worked tirelessly on the issues that he is raising?

Gareth Thomas

I of course join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those organisations. Indeed, I pay tribute to her for continuing to support and advocate their work.

We have just announced an extra £100 million over seven years for a programme of improvement in education in Bangladesh. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned Bangladesh, where the overall literacy rate is just 43 per cent., whereas for women it is 26 per cent. That shows the scale of the challenge that remains.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) flagged up the importance of progress on HIV/AIDS. I am sure that they will welcome the fact that UNAIDS has initiated a global coalition on women and AIDS. It seeks, first, to prevent new HIV infections among women and girls and, secondly, to ensure equal access to HIV care and treatment. That is particularly important in the context of the World Health Organisation's three-by-five initiative. We are committed, along with the WHO, to ensuring that that leads to equal access to treatment for women as well as for men, and we have just announced a contribution of £3 million to its work.

The coalition aims, thirdly, to accelerate research into microbicides. Yesterday, I was delighted to attend St. Mary's hospital to see some clinical trials, which we are funding, involving microbicides. Fourthly, the protection of women's inheritance and property rights is a relevant issue.

Violence against women has also been highlighted as an issue of particular importance. A day has been earmarked for debating that issue, and that will offer a welcome opportunity to return to it. I add my praise to that which has been given to Amnesty. It does important work in challenging us to go further as parliamentarians and as Ministers in our work in this area. Internationally, our work on it is done with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, the WHO and the International Labour Organisation. We also fund work bilaterally.

I recognise that I have probably not been able to do justice to the quality of the contributions from all Members, but I will reflect further on them and write to those Members whose points I have not replied to.

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